American Theatre Guild’s current national tour of South Pacific brings Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most successful musical to Thousand Oaks, a show whose score boasts more hits than any other of R&H’s best-loved musicals, including “Some Enchanted Evening,” “Bali H’ai,” and “Younger Than Springtime,” to name but a few. Playing the part of the enterprising Seabee Luther Billis is Guy Noland, who is currently enjoying a second career as an actor. As a young man just starting out in theatre, Noland became a successful producer for the media department of the Salvation Army, but has since returned to his first love, acting and is having the time of his life doing so. We spoke with him prior to the opening of South Pacific, which opens at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza on Thursday, March 24.
VCOS: How long have you been on the tour now?
GUY: I’ve been away from home since December, which was when we started rehearsals. Then we were in tech week in January and then officially hit the road at the end of January.
VCOS: It must be nice to be out on the road and seeing people’s faces again.
GUY: Yeah, for sure! Especially since everything was closed down for so long.
VCOS: How long were you off the stage?
GUY: I was going into rehearsal for Billy Elliot and when it closed down, that was it. The first time I got back on stage was for that same show, as soon as theaters were allowed to open up again, and that was October of last year. So it was around a year-and-a-half without anything.
VCOS: Using terminology pertinent to your current show, how long did it take for you to get your sea legs back?
GUY: (laughs) I gotta say, it’s kind of a like riding a bike, or in South Pacific, rowing a dinghy (laughs). But it all came back pretty quick.
VCOS: In James Michener’s original book, Tales From the South Pacific, your character, Luther Billis, was based on someone that Michener knew who he described as a “big dealer” and “a liberally tattooed man who in civilian life was a car salesman but who looked like a pirate out of Treasure Island.” In the musical, he is kind of like Phil Silvers was as television’s Sgt. Bilko from the 1950s, a real operator. Is that how you view Luther?
GUY: You know, I never thought of him being like Sgt. Bilko, but I think that from now on, I’ll probably describe him just that way. That’s perfect. He’s a Bilko. That’s exactly who he is, except for how he looks. Bilko was a little more clean cut but as Michener describes him, a pirate is very much the character as I see him. And it helps that I actually have tattoos and look kind of like a pirate and that’s probably one of the reasons why Jeff [note: director Jeffrey B. Moss] wanted to cast me in it. As for the overall attitude of Luther Billis, I’d say the Bilko description is pretty spot on.
VCOS: Like Bilko, Billis is a complex character. He’s more than just the show’s comic relief. He has a heart.
GUY: Hundred per cent.
VCOS: And he has a special relationship with the show’s heroine, Ensign Nellie Forbush.
GUY: You know, Jeff and I actually had this conversation because there’s a point in the show where Luther takes flowers from Emile and gives them to Nellie but he doesn’t tell her right away that they’re not from him. So Jeff was kind of concerned about this and told me, “You know, you’re a real snake in the grass” and I took umbrage with that. And I told him, no, Luther’s not a snake in the grass. If anything, he’s a real straight shooter. It was killing him to not tell her about this misunderstanding. And Jeff said, “Well, why do you still have the card?” And I said, well, the card dropped off of the flowers and I picked it up and it was just a misunderstanding. One of the things actors go through is that we really have to like our characters, no matter who they are. We have to find redeeming values in our characters and Luther was really easy for me because he actually has a heart of gold. But he is also somebody who, in his own upbringing, was looked down upon by the people around him, so he has this need to prove that he is worthy. But along the way, he tries to do the right thing, even if it goes against his better Bilko judgment.
VCOS: Luther wants to be seen in a different light from his fellow sailors, right? He doesn’t want to show that he’s really a softie.
GUY: I think that he really doesn’t want to be seen as a bum. I think of it as the Rocky syndrome. That’s what he’s fighting. He wants to be important in everybody’s eyes, no matter who that is. There’s kind of a running gag with Captain Brackett, who can never remember his name. To Billis, that’s an afront. If you can’t remember my name, that means that I’m not important. And that’s kind of the way I play that relationship with him. I’m constantly trying to win Brackett’s approval because he’s the most important person on this island. So Luther is all about like me, love me, value me.
VCOS: Other than Bilko, are there any other actors who you’ve used to shape your characterization, such as Ray Walston’s portrayal in the movie version?
GUY: No. I had never seen the show until I got cast in it. When I was going through the casting process, I was initially asked to audition for Emile De Becque. And my friends told me that Emile was the romantic French guy, the love interest for Nellie in the show, and I went…”What? That’s not me.” And everybody I knew said, “You’re not him. You’re a Billis.” Well, I didn’t know what that meant so I thought I’d better go and watch the movie and get a better idea of what’s going on here. But in looking at the script, he came across to me as a “New Yawker,” he’s very much this guy from the streets who’s always wheelin’ and dealin’. “Hey, have I gotta deal fuh you…” That’s how he read to me on paper so I auditioned for him that way. And then when I watched Ray Walston’s version of him, I thought, no, that’s not how I saw him. I understand why they cast Walston because at the time, Walston was a big name. But personally, I didn’t really like his take on that part. Fortunately, I hadn’t seen the movie before I put in my audition but I really liked the character as I played him.
VCOS: It’s not a bad idea going into an audition cold and just going on your initial feelings about a character. In your opinion, is he in love with Nellie or is he just trying to be her protector?
GUY: I think he’s in love with her. Again, he’s somebody who wants to be appreciated and Nellie shows him that appreciation. But I think his feelings for her go deeper than what you see on the surface. She clearly values him just like a lot of people do, who appreciate his ability to make things happen. In fact, most characters in the show speak very highly of him. They like him because he’s the guy who can get things done. But he really likes Nellie and realizes he doesn’t stand a chance against a guy like Emile. How is this pirate guy going to stand up against this tall, handsome Frenchman who sings with this beautiful opera voice? What are you gonna do? But on the other hand, I get to dance around in a cocoanut bra. (laughs)
VCOS: Some aspects of South Pacific are really starting to get dated, such as the sailors’ misogynistic objectification of women and the concept of interracial marriage. How do you feel about this today and especially about how musicals are now being updated to get rid of material that is now considered politically incorrect or offensive?
GUY: Well, we in the cast have had this discussion many times. How do you update this particular script? There is a lot of controversy about how dated it is. The problem is that it is set in World War II. It’s 1942. What do you do with that? When I first read the script, I said to myself, how are we supposed to get away with this on stage? I mean, in the script, the characters refer to the enemy as “Japs.” Today, that’s a little bit too “in your face,” so they kind of smoothed over those references, and they did some other things, but as you know, the overall theme of this whole story is about racism. Nellie and Cable are the two people involved in the show’s romantic relationships, both of which have to do with race and it’s a hard thing to broach in this day and age. But I think it still does a pretty good job. Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote it back in a different time, which makes things a little rough. You know when Nellie finds out that Emile has killed a man and tells him, “I guess you had a good reason” but when she finds out he had children who were bi-racial, she says, “What?!” He’s killed a man, which she excuses, but bi-racial children? Never!
VCOS: Her priorities are a little mixed up, aren’t they?
GUY: (laughs) But you know, that’s not any fault of the production or the direction, that’s just how it was written. So you try to do the best that you can with that and hope that people get that this was written in a different time and the characters had different belief systems and see through all that to find what the core message was, which is really a positive message. Racism is taught, it’s a learned behavior, and we are not born with it.
VCOS: What do you think happens to Luther after the war?
GUY: You know, that’s a really good question. I’ve never really given a lot of thought to that. Off the top of my head, I would say that he went back to doing the same thing he was doing before he joined the Navy. He was just a hustler who had a hundred different businesses going on and would just go back to doing it again after he got out. I could see him going back to the Bronx or Yonkers or wherever and hustling his next dime, and maybe, who knows, somewhere down the line, I can see him getting into politics.
VCOS: Does the war change him at all?
GUY: (thinks for a while) That’s a really good question, too. With his arc, he’s one of the steady characters who is who he is from beginning to end. The other characters see change. Nellie, obviously, changes and I would say Cable does, too as does Emile, but Billis and Bloody Mary are kind of the two constants. They know who they are and keep doing what they do. In the last scene that Billis has, he’s still trying to pull one over on the Marines. So to answer your question, no, I don’t think he changes much.
VCOS: Tell me about your work with the Salvation Army? How did that come to pass?
GUY: My parents were Salvation Army ministers, and during the 9/11 attack, my father was in charge of the Salvation Army in New York. As a filmmaker, they brought me out to make a documentary about the work they were doing down at Ground Zero in the aftermath of the attack. So the documentary I made won several awards and then a few years later, after my dad retired, I got a call from the Salvation Army who wanted me to create a media department and have me head that up for them. And I said sure, and went out there and worked on that for about five years, heading up the media department for the western United States. Their international headquarters didn’t have a media department so unofficially, I did that too. So that gave me the opportunity to fly all over the world and do films.
VCOS: How were you able to balance that with your performing life?
GUY: I actually wasn’t performing at the time. I came to L.A. as an actor when I was a young man and the game of acting is really tough. I was in my twenties, I had a full head of hair and I had the average boy-next-door look and there were a million other guys out there who looked just like me. So I wound up getting into production and did that for years and years and years. I bought my house because of producing and did a little acting on the side because I loved it so much. When the Salvation Army thing wrapped up and came to a close, I found myself at a career crossroads: do I start over as a producer or go try something else? This was about five years ago, and I had a conversation about this with my wife and she said, “Follow your dream.” So I went back to acting as my second career, and so far, so good.
VCOS: And by now you were older and the more you grow older, the more character roles you get.
GUY: Yeah, and you know, twenty years ago, when there were a million guys who looked like me, it was harder. Not so much anymore. I’ve changed a bit. There’s not a whole lot of guys who look like a pirate or a construction worker or a sailor who can sing. So that’s working in my favor (laughs).
VCOS: With that in mind, is there a role on top of your bucket list that you’d like to play?
GUY: Well, one that I just did was the part of Jackie, the did in Billy Elliot. But as for now, I’d have to say Hades in Hadestown. What a fantastic role. If I had to put a role on top of my wish list, it would probably be that one.
South Pacific opens Thursday, March 24 at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza’s Fred Kavli Theatre. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar. For tickets, visit www.ticketmaster.com