Anthony Rapp stars in the film adaptation of one of Broadway's biggest hits, "Rent"

December 15th, 2005

Anthony Rapp Interview – Rent on Film, Open House and Adventures in Babysitting

Anthony Rapp has been with Rent since the beginning. Working with Jonathan Larson at the New York Theater Workshop, Rapp played Mark on the stage show and now commits the role to film in Chris Columbus's Rent. Still a New York native, Rapp spoke by phone about this culmination of the Rent experience.

What was it like to see the sets with four walls?
It was very inspiring to walk in, especially to the loft. The loft had been so imagined. I'd been in Jonathan's apartment which was kind of loft like. It was a railroad flat but it had kind of high ceilings and it was very ramshackle. And then I've been in apartments, a loft apartment that friends of mine who are in a theater company, there was this ramshackle loft down in Crosby Street in New York. So it really reminded me of those kinds of apartments. Now loft living is very chic, but back in the earlier days, there were these old, dilapidated, unfinished, raw spaces that people just lucked into often. Our production designer, Howard Cummings, brought incredible detail to every set and I think that his work is so invisible in the film in a way that people won't really understand or realize the level of artistry involved.

What about having extras around? Well, it's not just the extras. Any time, like walking down the middle of Seventh street between Avenues A and B which was three blocks from where I lived when I did the show and was just a few blocks from where we performed the show at the New York Theater Workshop, which is the neighborhood where Mark and Roger live. It was incredibly surreal and incredibly vivid and really helpful to be in the physical space.

How disorienting was it to do choreography in segments for editing coverage?
We actually got to play things through pretty fully. If you notice in the beginning of the Tango, when Tracie and I first start dancing with each other, just the two of us before it goes into the fantasy part, that whole thing is one shot. So we got to really just do all the way through. Then once we got into the fantasy the next night, we would do a couple times where we'd do the whole thing all the way through, like a master shot, and then we would break it down a little more. Sometimes it's helpful to break it down just because physically, the demands of doing the choreography physically over and over and over again, sometimes it's helpful to not have to do all of it because it can be pretty tiring. And you can also hurt yourself because the more tired you get, the less sharp you are. That's when you can twist an ankle.

How do you adjust your acting for close-up performances?
It's mostly just very subtle technical things. The difference with acting on stage and film is yeah, you have to project to the back row but that doesn't necessarily mean that on stage you have to be gesticulating wildly or screwing your face up into weird expressions just to be read to the back of the house. It just means your energy has to be projected out. And on film, your energy's a little more focused. Instead of a big, wide open beam of energy, it's more like a finely tuned laser beam on film. So yeah, there were moments when we just had to be aware if it's a close-up. Just have to be sometimes a little more still. But the intensity of the emotion is the same inside. It's just how it gets manifested. It might be just slightly more focused, slightly reduced but at the same time, film can support high energy, high expression if it's rooted. If it feels appropriate to the situation. Like Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon is screaming his head off. It's not too much for film in that case because it's appropriate to the situation.

Did you have to do any research going into the film?
No, it's so in my and I think all of our bloodstream. The experience of making this play happen in the first place is so vivid and all the events surrounding it including Jonathan's death and the way we all became friends with each other and went through that together, it just fused it to our very beings, our souls so all there was to do was just sort of fall back into it. I think there were new colors that we found and new textures but basically it's like a straight line from us to it. This connection.

Part Two: Lip Syncing Vs. Singing Along, and the Team America Spoof

How was the experience of prerecording songs and lip syncing on the set?
Lip syncing is kind of a misnomer because when we were filming, yeah we had prerecorded which is really a wonderful experience because you get to get very specific about the choices you make ahead of time. You do five takes and you pick out the very best or the things that feel the most connected. You really get to craft your performance in a way. And then on the set, you sing along to it because if you were just lip syncing, it would look empty. You need to see and feel the energy of the music coming through your voice and your body in a way that if you're just moving your mouth, it wouldn't have any of it. So it was kind of cool because you're working backwards. You're committing to your performance ahead of time, but then you also, at the same time, have to commit on the day that you're shooting it, but some of the work has already been done for you in a way. It's an interesting way to go about it.
Was the choreography different than on Broadway? Yeah, it's different. The Tango is most different. There's not really anything that's exactly the same. There are echoes of things in “La Vie Boheme.” There are touches and flourishes that are from the original Broadway choreography. There are parts of “Today for You” that are from the original choreography. And there are little echoes and flavors. The original concept of the Broadway staging and choreography is definitely alluded to or it definitely gave rise to the new ideas that Chris had in opening it up. So I think there's a real sense of homage in the film.

Was it nice or frustrating to work on one song a day, for several days at a time?
It was actually very cool because it allowed us to get really specific and really hone in on it. And just make sure. We knew that this was going to be forever the document of these songs for many people who had never gotten a chance to see the play and who might not ever get the chance to see the play. And it would certainly be the document of our performances of it. So it was really cool to spend an entire day really zeroing in on it and knowing that this was going to be it for that. It was really going to be pretty much the final chapter for us and our experiences of singing this material. Although, we are going to be doing a 10th Anniversary concert, but that's sort of a different kind of thing in a way. This is the last time that we'll be doing it really in context, telling the story.

You're getting together just to perform the songs?
Yeah, we're going to get together and do a concert version. It hasn't all been worked out exactly the form that it's going to take, but it will be a fundraiser for three different organizations: The New York Theater Workshop, which is the original theater that produced Rent. Friends Indeed which is an organization that Jonathan went to with friends of his who were HIV positive that really inspired him and from which he drew material for the life support stuff that's in the story. And the third organization is the Jonathan Larson Performing Arts Foundation.

What did you think of the Team America spoof, “Lease”?
We thought it was hilarious. In fact, one day during rehearsal, I had already seen it but some of us hadn't and somebody had it on DVD. They brought it in, we all gathered around and watched it and laughed our butts off. It's so funny and as people say, one of the greatest forms of flattery is imitation. I think that parody is also. Although, sometimes when people are parodying George W. Bush, I don't think they're necessarily trying to flatter him.

Do you live a bohemian life?
Not as bohemian as it used to be. I'm a little more financially secure than I was then, but certainly by no means am I set for life by any stretch of the imagination. It's bohemian in the sense that I live with a man, I'm an artist, I live in downtown New York. My life is pretty much made up of people who are in some form of the arts. They're not necessarily all actors, but I have friends who are writers and book agents and work in fashion. My brother's a writer and we're very close. There are people of all different stripes and colors and sexual orientations. All of that make up the fabric of people in my life, so in that sense, I guess it's a bohemian life. It's just most of the people in my life, happily, our days of the harder struggles are behind us and we're living a little more comfortably and able to then concentrate more on the work itself.

Part Three: Open House and a Theater Career

How did you end up in another real estate musical, Open House?
That was just a matter of the director Dan Mirvish contacted my agent and presented me the opportunity. I've gotten a couple times where I've just been offered things without having to audition. And I listened to the music and the songs were certainly not the best songs I've ever heard but they were clever and interesting and fun. I certainly am all for doing grassroots stuff because you never know, not necessarily whether it's going to be a huge hit, but the people you meet and the experiences you can have doing anything can change your life in ways you don't imagine. Whether it's just you have a new friend or just get to have an artistic experience. So it was fun to get to do something really goofy and silly and work with people like Sally Kellerman. And Dan was really fun. It was a quick in and out kind of thing but we went whole hog and we just committed to it and did our best under very tight money circumstances.

How do you do a musical on a budget? Well, in that case we sang live because there was no money to prerecord and playback. They figured out a way, like the piano would be off in the other room playing quietly and then we would be mic'ed up close enough that it didn't matter if you could hear the piano, and then just sort of do it. It turned out, it hung in there.

Was it all in masters?
There was coverage too and they were just able to, I don't know exactly how they did the editing, because there was a click track. There was a click so it was always going to be the same tempo.

After acting in films, was theater a better opportunity for you?
No, I've always done both, or I've done both since I was a young age. I did my first play professionally when I was nine and my first film when I was 15. So I've been privileged enough to be able to go back and forth fairly easily.

Were you always a singer?
Yeah, my first show that I did when I was six years old was the cowardly lion in The Wizard of Oz. But I hadn't done a musical for years by the time I got Rent in 1994, the workshop of Rent. So I was happy to get in front of people singing because a lot of people, in New York especially, didn't know that I could sing.

Was it hard to sing while bike riding?It wasn't really hard to sing. I had to get used to having the camera on the bike because it changes the balance. It's a deceptively heavy camera so it just changed the kind of feel of steering and stuff.

You played a high schooler in the '80s, then a college student more than 10 years later. How do you keep your youthful appearance?
I don't know. I take good care of myself. I eat well and I do yoga. I don't drink very much. I'll have a cocktail at dinner sometimes. I try to treat my body well. I use moisturizer. All that stuff. I drink a lot of water, take vitamins.

Part Four: Danny Roane, Scaring the Fish and Adventures in Babysitting
You have two more movies coming up?

I have a nice supporting role in Andy Dick's movie which I've seen a rough cut of it and I'm so proud of him. I mean, I've known him since I was 10 years old so he's an old, old friend of mine and this is one of the first major projects we've gotten to do together.

You play yourself?
Yeah, I play myself. It's a mockumentary of him making his first film, of his character, Danny Roane, directing his first film. In the film, he casts me to play him. It's all very meta. It's lots of layers of reality going on. But I do play myself although it's a version of myself.

You don't have like a persona, so how do you make fun of yourself?
Yeah. One time he's talking about Rent and trying to go, “You've got to Rent it up. You've got to make it more Rent” kind of thing. It's more like making fun of the context of me, because like you say, I'm not like some big personality that a lot of people know. And I've just tried to be in the moment. I'm more like reacting off of his antics kind of thing than really spoofing myself in that way.

What's Scaring the Fish? Scaring the Fish is a major role because it's a three character movie. It's a cool little character piece about these three guys and going on a fishing trip and the complications that ensue. Again, it was a nice experience. We had like six days to shoot it and we did it by a lakeside in upstate New York and came together and had a really nice time. I've seen a rough cut and it certainly needed some work when I saw it but I think there's a lot of really interesting moments in it. Any piece of film that is exploring character, I'm all for because so many films now have some kind of central conceit and they don't seem as interested in exploring the lives of people.

What's harder to finance, an indie film or musical theater?
I think that putting a musical theater production is harder than even sometimes doing a film now because of the availability of digital video. You can make films really on a shoestring, literally. We made Open House for minimal five figures I think. Whereas musical theater, you have so many elements that have to come together to work. You're really walking a fine line when you're creating a musical because people are singing. So you always have to make sure that they're singing for a reason, that they've earned the right to sing and then all the other elements have to fall into place as well.

Do you still get Adventures in Babysitting fans?
I do. And when I first sat down with Chris again, I hadn't seen him in a while when we sat down to meet about the movie, and I told him I don't know if he's really aware, I don't know how much people talk to him about it, but people talk to me all the time about how much that film has meant to them in their lives and what staying power that film has had. I mean, people literally grow up with that movie. I went to a Q&A a couple years ago, I was in Pittsburgh doing Hedwig and they had a local revival moviehouse that did Adventures in Babysitting. I went there and I did a Q&A afterwards and I was asking the audience, “Can you explain to me why this film, more than other films from its time, still is around?” And all the people could say was like, “We love it, we love it.” But it's interesting to me because there are other movies that came out that year that people have completely forgotten about. Yet Adventures in Babysitting almost 20 years later still resonates for people.