BY CARY GINELL
The Addams Family has hit Ventura County with a vengeance. Recent productions by Actors’ Repertory Company of Simi and the Ojai Art Center are being followed in succession by performances at Santa Susana High School, the High Street Arts Center, and this week, Calabasas High School. Starring as Gomez Addams in the CHS production is senior Landen Starkman, an everyman kind of actor who not only has performed in as wide a range of characters as anyone can in high school, but who has turned in memorable performances in all of them. Landen is a youngster who takes his acting seriously, making his characters well-rounded and believable, from the taciturn patriarch Otto Frank in The Diary of Anne Frank to the sympathetic pachyderm Horton the Elephant in Seussical: The Musical. There doesn’t seem to be any role that Landen can’t play, and this week, we sat down with him to talk about his current production.
VCOS: We’ve seen you in so many shows now in such a wide variety of roles, it’s really hard to pin you down as excelling in one kind of character or another. Do you think of yourself as a potential lead actor or a character actor?
LANDEN: I’d say that throughout high school I’ve become more of a lead actor, but I’ve definitely played some character roles that have helped me become more of a lead actor.
VCOS: Which ones, for example?
LANDEN: Well, I was in The Music Man as Marcellus, which is more of a character role, as was Horton, but I was Eddie in Funny Girl, which was more of a leading role.
VCOS: Have you studied Broadway a lot while you’ve been in high school?
LANDEN: Yes. Oh my God, yes.
VCOS: Are there any actors who you might think of yourself as paralleling as far as types of roles?
LANDEN: I’ve always looked up to Neil Patrick Harris because he’s been on Broadway and TV, which would be like a dream for me, to be in both those worlds. Nowadays, there’s Derek Klena of Wicked, who is someone I look up to because he’s able to play a lead role and play a character part and get taken seriously in both, and that’s a big thing that I’d like to end up doing myself in my life.
VCOS: What do you consider your strength as a performer – in other words, the aspect of your ability that you have to work on the least? And I think you know where I’m going with the follow-up to this.
LANDEN: (laughs) Probably the comedic element. I’ve just had a natural feel for comedy and get the flow necessary for comedic acting, so when I get put into a comedic role, I focus more on other aspects of acting because I feel I’m more solid at comedy than at anything else.
VCOS: For a lot of people, comedy is the hardest part of acting. Do you have a sixth sense on how to deliver a line or how long to wait before delivering your next line?
LANDEN: Actually, yes, that’s a really good way of putting it. I never thought about it that way. With some lines, more thought goes into it than with other lines, but I know definitely the moment to say it, and I think that comes from how I talk normally and knowing when the time is right. So it is sort of like a sixth sense. A lot of people have trouble with that kind of timing and knowing when that right moment comes – it’s funny, but they don’t know how to say it or when to say it.
VCOS: Have you ever done stand-up?
LANDEN: I haven’t.
VCOS: Bob Hope used to talk about being able to gauge when an audience’s response has peaked and knowing just when their laughter starts to subside where to step in with his next line.
LANDEN: Yes, I try to read audiences, especially in this show, because the lines are so iconic and Gomez is so iconic that some of these lines have to be delivered properly or some people won’t get it.
VCOS: Now – the second part of this question – what is the aspect of your performance that you have to work on the hardest?
LANDEN: Probably the dramatic part – and when I say that, it’s kind of a broad term to mean my softer dramatic side. Like when I played Otto Frank. I didn’t know that I could cry on stage and I sort of figured out halfway through, exploring how to play it, because there is a difference between dramatic acting and playing someone who is historically a real person. So overall, dramatic acting is what I focus on.
VCOS: Even over dancing?
LANDEN: I’ve been into dancing for my whole life. My mom was a dancer and her family had a dance studio so that’s always been in my blood. I always work on my dancing and try to become better, but I think that among the three – acting, singing, and dancing – I’ve worked the most at acting.
VCOS: OK, so let’s talk about Gomez. There are four different Gomezes from which you could draw on for inspiration. You had the single-panel character in the original Charles Addams cartoons, who was kind of a ghoulish Peter Lorre type, there was the sitcom Dad played by John Astin in the TV show, there was the more Latin, dashing Gomez as played by Raul Julia in the original movie version, and then there was the more comical Gomez in the musical as played by Nathan Lane. So where do you place yourself in all this?
LANDEN: I think there are moments where I’ve played all four. The majority of my Gomez is between the ghoulish and the romantic Raul Julia Gomez. Everyone knows that other than being funny, Gomez is very romantic with Morticia and you know because of their chemistry together. With him, every other line is cracking a joke, but overall, you have to bring him to life. He can’t just be a one-panel joke machine. People are expecting to see the family they grew up with so I try and play up both the ghoulish and the romantic.
VCOS: Gomez in the musical is certainly more of a three-dimensional character than the Gomez in the TV show, isn’t it?
LANDEN: Yes, he’s very different. I saw the movie and I’ve seen a little bit of the TV show just to watch for inspiration and to see how to play it. I’m super big on the accent. My accent is very thick because he is the one who has the thickest accent in the show so I wanted to bring that out. But he’s so bigger than life – the songs are and his movements are.
VCOS: Did you have a dialect expert help you at all?
LANDEN: I didn’t. It was sort of like we would try the accent and I would get feedback on it and would be stopped if it wasn’t right. It was a day-by-day thing of trial and error before I got really fluent at it.
VCOS: Does finding a part of a character that is like you help you in your portrayals?
LANDEN: Yes, but with this one, I really feel like I’m stepping out of my shoes and playing someone else. But absolutely, for other parts, I use things that I’ve done in real life to make the character “normal.” A lot of people go to the theater and they see characters who are larger than life the whole time but sometimes you want to see someone who is real and who has different sides to them.
VCOS: Which part of the show do you feel is very special to that aspect of your acting?
LANDEN: Definitely the scene between Gomez and Wednesday where he sings “Happy/Sad” because she’s growing up and he’s OK with that, but he’s sad at the same time. That’s the biggest moment where he’s not being funny and not being bigger than life, he’s just singing to his daughter about being OK with what she is doing. So for that scene, I want people to see a father and a daughter and not just two high school kids on stage.
VCOS: This is your last show at Calabasas, and I know you’ve been doing this the whole time you’ve been here. Is there anyone in the cast who has been through all of this with you?
LANDEN: I did West Side Story as a freshman; that was my first show here, and up until this point, it’s been me and the same three people. We’ve all been involved in the shows together from the very beginning: Jackson Manhan, Jade Foley, and Jered Manchel. In this show, Jackson plays Fester, Jered is playing Mal Meineke, and Jade is an Ancestor.
VCOS: So where are you headed after graduation?
LANDEN: I’m going to go to AMDA, the American Musical Dramatic Academy, starting here at the one in Hollywood, and then they allow you to move to New York if you want to pursue that and want to take your life there, which I do plan on doing at some point. I don’t know if I’m going to stay in college here for all four years and then go. If I fell I have the training here, then I can go.
VCOS: I’m sure you’re aware of the pitfalls of trying to make the theater a career and the odds against it happening. Are you prepared for this and do you have anything else as a “fallback”?
LANDEN: I’m definitely prepared for that. Everyone gets a “no” here and there but I know it’s a hard business to get into and not everyone makes it. So you have to have this drive to get to Broadway, if that’s what you want, but if I wasn’t doing theater, I would definitely want to do something in the entertainment world, maybe doing something in film or television acting, or producing, if I’m not acting. I would still want to be part of it all, even if it was behind the camera, just to still be in it.
VCOS: OK, now be totally honest with me. You go to an audition, you think you’ve knocked it out of the park and you’ve given your best performance, and you’re still told “no.” How do you take that?
LANDEN: Depending upon the audition, I mean it stings, obviously, because sometimes you feel that that was the best you could give, but on the other hand, right away, I would think that there was nothing I could have done better, and as everyone knows, there could be so many reasons why – you’re not the right height, you’re not the right weight, the right look, so I just feel like it will sting for a second and then you just kick it to the curb and move on to the next one. There will be a million no’s before you get that one yes. So I’m going to have to be ready for that.
The Addams Family plays at Calabasas High School through Saturday night, April 16.