Richard Ouzounian Theatre Critic
NEW YORK Jake Epstein may be in American Idiot, but hes nobodys fool.
The 24-year-old Torontonian is in rehearsals to launch the North American tour of the Green Day musical on Dec. 28 in his home town, playing Will, one of the three leading roles. (Fellow Canuck Scott J. Campbell is Tunny and Broadway veteran Van Hughes as Johnny complete the trio.)
That would be enough to excite most performers his age, but for Epstein, its a case of been there, done that, got the touring t-shirt.
It was just a little over two years ago, he took over the lead of Melchior on tour in another hip Broadway rock show, Spring Awakening and before that, he was well known for his stint in several Ross Petty pantos, not to mention his real star-making turn: coke-snorting, girl-impregnating bad boy Craig Manning on Degrassi: The Next Generation.
But despite all this success and a supportive family that anyone would envy, life hasnt always been a series of Epsteins Greatest Hits.
Watching him in the rehearsal hall as he goes through the private hell of his character, Will, his eyes are hollow sockets as he sings the hurting lyrics of Give Me Novocaine: Take away the sensation inside, bittersweet migraine in my head I cant take this feeling anymore.
Its real and painful and you sense it goes deeper than the character. But just try to find it later.
After rehearsal, Epstein is his usual jokey self in a theatre district BBQ joint, tearing into a pile of ribs, drinking a pop and charming everyone in sight.
Hes got that rare gift of making every guy want to be his buddy and every gal long to be something more than that.
The good-time vibe comes honestly to him, from the world he grew up in.
I won the family lottery, he boasts. I come from the best family in the world. And having met his father, Ian, his mother, Kathy and his sister, Gabi, one is inclined to agree.
All cheerful, all supportive, but all of them also and heres the first clue always on stage. Uh, yeah, he concedes, I do come from a high achievement family.
Older sister Gabi was the one who always had her eye on the showbiz prize and Epstein remembers she was always singing, so as her kid brother, I just wanted to join in and one-up her.
Raise the curtain on playtime at the Epstein house.
I was obsessed with X-Men as a kid, Epstein blushes, and I would have to go and play every last one of them. My sister was obsessed with Barbies. So we would create these X Men-Barbie combos and perform weird musicals where they interacted with each other.
But despite all of this (and frequent family trips to Broadway to see musicals), Epstein didnt want to go into show business.
I wanted to be a soccer player. No surprise there. And then I wanted to be a rabbi.
That stops the conversation dead and not just because hes halfway through a rack of pork ribs at the time.
I was very spiritual as a kid. I think I felt and thought about things a lot more deeply than most of the other kids my age. I wanted to help people.
And its true. At the height of his Degrassi fame, he took time off to go to Kenya and build houses for the homeless there and to this day, if the conversation gets just a bit too shallow for too long, you can sense Epstein zoning out and going to another place.
When did I leave the rabbi track? I didnt. Im still on the rabbi track. It just keeps moving in different directions.
Epstein amassed a lot of impressive theatre credits as a kid without even trying, appearing in Soulpeppers original production of Our Town at the Royal Alex and playing The Artful Dodger in the Sam Mendes staged version of Oliver! that Cameron Mackintosh and the Mirvishes brought to the Princess of Wales Theatre in 1999, when he was only 12.
Then things took a drastic detour.
When I was in Grade 7, I went to my very first rock concert in my life. Green Day. It was at the Hershey Centre in Mississauga. I dont know how I convinced my mom to let me go. It was the first time I ever smelled marijuana. It was the first time I ever heard music that loud. It was awesome! I formed a band of my own shortly after that.
And for a while that was it for me. All funk. Tower of Power. James Brown. Rage Against the Machine. He grins ironically. Yeah, man!
Then he went to Claude Watson School for the Arts and it opened my eyes to show business as something you could do for life, something you could work hard at but still enjoy.
And it helped keep his head on straight during the Degrassi years, when co-star Drake, then known as Aubrey Drake Graham, became one of his best friends. Those were years full of media attention, screaming fans, Gemini Awards and, er, other benefits.
It allowed me to go out with girls I shouldnt have gone out with. Look, when youre an awkward teenager and suddenly girls way out of your league are going after you, sure, youre gonna take advantage of it. He pauses, remembering those days. Even if they wound up taking advantage of you instead.
It was kind of a shock to the system for Epstein to leave that world of TV adulation and plunge into the no-frills theatre studies of the National Theatre School, but he made that choice, leaving Degrassi to do it.
Man, I had to struggle that first year. It was like boot camp for theatre, breaking you down, making you start from scratch. Everything I had done up to that point, the musicals, the TV, they were all looked down upon.
You think about him sitting there alone during those cold Montreal nights, feeling battered and lost, having turned his back on certain stardom and you start to see where some of that emptiness he channels so well in American Idiot came from.
But you never keep an Epstein down for long.
They kept pushing me to be versatile and so I wrote a show called A Minor Celebrity about the whole Degrassi business. One of the best things Ive ever done.
That and a lot of contrasting acting roles at NTS made him leave in a positive frame of mind, but when he auditioned for the first job he ever really wanted, in the national tour of Spring Awakening, he was told he was too tall.
He laughs about it now, but back then, I got drunk, went home and wrote a song called Apparently Im Too Tall!
They changed their mind a few months later and he found himself out on the road, wallowing in teen angst and loving it. But then that ended, he came home to some smaller theatre jobs and finally decided to head off to Los Angeles to make it in the big time.
I was in a lot of trouble. The first time in my life that nothing worked for me. Theres a reality that hits you in L.A. about how little you really mean as a person. Youre just a commodity.
Thats not how I grew up. Thats not what my parents and my teachers taught me to think about myself and I just couldnt stand it. At all the auditions I went to, no one even looked up from their scripts. I wanted to shout out Look at me, Im here! but you dont do that down there.
Epstein is visibly upset, the ever-present charm vanished. It built up and I had a lot of rage with nowhere to put it. Then I started rehearsals for American Idiot and Michael (director Michael Mayer) said Theres a lot of rage in this piece, but I want you to celebrate it.
He looks up, the clouds passed, the smile returned.
And so I celebrate the rage. And I celebrate all the rest of my life as well.
FIVE FAVE MUSICAL INFLUENCES OF JAKE EPSTEIN
RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS They were the band we all worshipped as kids. They made rock music so fun.
HAWKSLEY WORKMAN My favourite Canadian singer-songwriter. The closest thing to melding rock music and theatre that I can think of.
GREEN DAY The first rock band I ever saw. You know what they say: you never forget your first.
PAUL MCCARTNEY Just because hes Paul McCartney. Whats not to love about him?
PAUL SIMON Because his work sparks peoples imaginations like no one else.