'School of Rock' Star Alex Brightman Talks Tony Nom, Jack Black

"They took a risk and hired somebody who was right for the job, which is not always the case," actor says of nabbing Broadway role

Alex Brightman sat down with 'Rolling Stone' to discuss his Tony nominated role in 'School of Rock' and what it was like to meet Jack Black. Credit: Larry Busacca/Getty

Alex Brightman is ready for the marathon to the Tony Awards to be over. "It's nonstop," the School of Rock star and Best Actor nominee says in his dressing room an hour prior to a Friday evening performance. "I'm not campaigning [to win]. I got a nomination and that's more than I was expecting," the actor says, fully aware of the stiff competition from odds-to-win favorite Hamilton this year. "The win is arbitrary because I would do this show anyway."

Playing Dewey Finn in the musical adaptation of the famous Jack Black-starring 2003 film, Brightman has seen the biggest push in his long history of performing on stage, which follows a few Broadway fumbles. He technically made his debut in the 2008 musical Glory Days, which closed after opening night, meaning that the then-understudy never made it on to the stage. From there, he performed in the long-running Wicked as the Munchkin Boq, Big Fish and later Matilda before nabbing the lead in Andrew Lloyd Weber's take on the rock comedy.

"I'm excited about the Tony nomination, but it's like doing a second show every day," he adds. "That being said, all of this beats the hell out of sitting on my couch."

As he prepares for his performance, Brightman discusses the journey leading up to this moment and how both rock & roll and a passion for theater molded his style and prepared him for the very role that would make his career.

Will this be the first Tonys ceremony that you've ever attended?
I've never been to the Tony Awards. I've been in New York for 11 years and [never attended] for no particular reason. I'm glad this will be my first time and going with a nominated show.

Where were you when you learned about your nomination?
I was in my bed, and my brother called me. I didn't watch the live thing. I figured if I get a nomination, someone's gonna tell me, and right as I thought that my brother called me. He works a "muggle job," as we like to call them, in social media marketing. He called me and he was half-whimpering, half-applauding in his office. He's very proud of me. He's one of my biggest fans, and I'm mutually one of his.

I feel like this has been an especially strong year for theater...
The best. Someone called it today — I was just at a thing for the Drama Leagues — and someone very smartly called this the new Golden Age of theater. I think that's right. I've been hearing more and more of that. In my opinion, any art represents and reflects what's going on in the world and reflects the culture that sees it. Now more than ever, the landscape of theater reflects everyone that's going to see it. Everyone is represented and not just because they have to be. No show has made it to Broadway because they went "We need a black show." It's because people are doing good work and producers are getting much smarter and more creative. I applaud producers for putting on shows like Allegiance and Shuffle Along. I'm loving it, and to be a part of this show is great, too. Our ensemble could not be more diverse, which I love.

Adaptations have gotten stronger too. If the School of Rock musical came out five years ago, it may not have translated as well...
People have gotten bolder and a little riskier with their casting. I'm very good proof of that because I'm a nobody, essentially. I certainly was a nobody before this. I mean, this is my fifth Broadway show; I've been around. I'm "known" but I'm not a ticket-seller. My name doesn't hit any bells for the midwest. They took a risk, really, truly, and hired somebody who was right for the job which is not always the case. I think that more and more that's the thing, they're hiring the talent. This is a merit-based business, or it should be. I'm always of the belief that this business of all should be merit-based, not who you know, not whose daughter is who, not who sells the most tickets. Who can effectively tell the story the writer intended? I'm thankful I'm that guy.

Before we get into your School of Rock journey, can you tell me about how you got into theater?
I saw a show in this building. It was the first show I ever saw: Cats. I had a trip where I saw a couple of shows in a row and one of them was the Who's Tommy. That changed my life. The Who's Tommy started the path that I'm still on. I never waivered from it. I said, "Whatever that is, I wanna do that." Why it struck me aside from Cats, which is good in its own right, was that I knew that music. I knew rock music, and I love rock music. I said, "That's also a musical?" I think that also speaks to today, and I'll get there in a second.

I went back home to California and really wanted to do that, so my mom looked it up and I had to wait a grueling year to be eight or nine, whatever the bottom age was to do community theater. I played Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol. I'd like to think it was my best performance I've ever done, to this day. I did upwards of 50 shows when I was in California. I was in rehearsal halls much more than I was in school, and I enjoyed it much more than school. Once you get a little older, every actor hopefully has this moment where they think, Is this gonna be my thing? It's hard. Acting is not a billion-dollar business for the actors and almost never for the producers. It's rare that a show sells and wins. So I had that moment and was like, "Well let's see what else I'm good at." And I wasn't good at anything else. By process of elimination, I found that acting and storytelling — I write now as well — is in my blood. Why stop something that you can't stop? 

How did your love for rock music figure into your life as well?
My mom is a rock chick. My mom grew up in New York, and she worked for radio stations and record shops and followed bands around and dated bassists. So I grew up right away listening to Zeppelin and AC/DC and Aerosmith. My mom actually babysat for Liv Tyler, so she knew all those guys. I was infused before I even knew I was listening to it that I was a rock kid. I enjoyed singing it, big time. This is where Andrew Lloyd Weber and I share something, and it was one of those great moments in rehearsals where we both saw each other for what we were. We both sort of came up with a quote together because we were talking about rock and why it's important. But rock is one of the only art forms where it's less of a performance and more of an exorcism. That's what I was trying to get at in the rehearsal. My performance is less of a performance and more of getting out whatever's inside by the end of the show. I'm exhausted by the end of the show. I'm thrilled because that's what rock & roll is. 

What's the first time that you saw the movie School of Rock?
Right when it came out. I don't remember necessarily if I saw it in theaters, but I definitely remember seeing it when I came out because I knew Jack Black from a couple of things. I wasn't really a big Tenacious D fan at the time – didn't know who they were – but that's how I know Jack Black. My point of reference is that movie. I think of him as wearing the teacher outfit in that movie. He's great. He's one of those guys that built part of me, comedy-wise.

How did you approach tackling this career-making role of Jack Black's and make it your own?
With abandon. It started at my auditions because I was like, OK, I can't do an impression of Jack Black. I can do an idea of him, but I don't know if that's what they want? I always think the best SNL impressions are the ones that almost sound nothing like them. They're good homages. Will Ferrell's George Bush sounds nothing like George Bush, but he captures him. That was my goal: to capture the character and certainly give Jack Black tips of the cap along the way because he is responsible for the source material [along with Mike White]. A lot of the stuff, I have to imagine, was invented on set. So that's what I wanted to do – invent every day. They not only allowed me to do that in the rehearsal room and come up with my own shit, but they encouraged it. They said, "Let's do this scene again but let's go off the page." No one's ever told me that, ever. No director has ever given me permission to do that because it's insane. But we had a trust from my auditions to when I got the role. They saw that I'm worth trusting with that material, which is great on both ends. It's rewarded us both.

What was like when Jack saw the show?
I'm very good at soaking things in. I stay right in the moment. My family came because they knew he was coming and I knew he was coming. He is so Jack Black. It's not even money. He could not be more Jack Black, and not in a performative way. That's just who he is. He said, [Mimicking Jack Black's voice] "You see this right here?" [Points to cheek] I said, "What your cheek bone?" And he said, "Right here is where a man-tear once laid." And I said, "From my show?" And he said, "From your show." I said, "Thanks, my man." And he goes, "This is the show, my friend. You know what you did? You crushed it."

It was so Jack Black, it could not have been written any better. We took pictures, and we talked. He asked what I was doing with my life other than that, which I think is such a nice question because I'm sure he is also sick sometimes of people asking all about his show or whatever he's doing [at the moment]. So it is nice to get a question like, "How is your life?" We just chatted about my writing, and he's a mensch. Plus, he brought Paul Rudd, which was a bonus.

In a video we did with the kids from School of Rock, they all cited Stevie Nicks as their favorite guest. Who have been some of your favorite visitors to the show?
Stevie Nicks is the best. She may be the best guest, aside from Jack Black, for obvious reasons. But even then, we knew he was going to come at one point so he was an inevitable guest but it's the surprise ones that you're always like "What?" Stevie's been three times and performed once, and she's coming back! She loves the kids, and she wants to take them on tour. We just had Paul Stanley from Kiss come, and he was awesome. They're all nice! None of them are rock star douchebags. They're all nice family people. [Paul Stanley] brought his kids, and I'm like, "You're the guy with the star and the lead guitar. You're the guy who should be drinking drugs from a fire hose." But these rock stars are so down-to-earth. I think Alice Cooper is coming at one point, which is gonna be ridiculous. One of my favorite guests was Matt Lucas from Little Britain. I'm a big comedy fan, especially British comedy. He just arrived at my door, post-show. There was no introduction. That's happened a couple of times. Open the door and there's Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas, and I'm in my underwear. Neil Diamond came and was cool and was immediately gregarious and affable with the kids.

With your experience working so much as a kid, did you find yourself mentoring the band or did you step back?
I think it's dual because I've never dealt with kids. The only kids I deal with on a daily basis are in New York, and they suck because they're just entitled. The famous quote is: "Don't work with animals or kids on-stage because they'll always upstage you." The good news about this show is that that's the point. This version of School of Rock is about the kids. That's something we talked about before we met the kids: "We can have a cool thing here if we find out why they need my character." You don't find that out in the movie. You kind of accept it. And the movie is a lot more about Dewey. This becomes more like The Music Man. These kids need this. It unlocks them.

My goal from day one was to establish a deep connection with the kids to a point where it looks like we've known each other for a long time because, by the end, it has to be that. We've created a family. I've gone out of my way to meet their parents and really dive in and invest time and effort and love and affection to the kids and their families. Also, [the parents] are leaving their kids with someone who is 29 years old that they don't know. It was important for me to say, "Look, I'm a cool guy, and I'm gonna take care of these kids." Thankfully, they're awesome. It could've gone sour. I could've had this dream of mentoring them, and they could've been like, "Fuck you!" They could be shitty kids. I'm happy to report that they're not and part of that is because they know me. I've imparted a couple of great things that I wish I heard when I was younger about how this business is very important to people so that why you have to do the best show you can do every night because, without a doubt, someone is seeing their very first Broadway show, and that's what changed my life.

But also, they understand how silly this is. It's fun to watch them on stage because they don't mess around, but they play. One thing they've taught me is that you don't have to try that hard to make the show new every night because they're kids. They can invent way more than I can. They taught me that base things are funny. Falling down, a little bit of comic violence. We forget that as actors. We complicate it. Humor has to be subtle and it's gotta be subversive now because of Judd Apatow. But sometimes you go "JOKE," and the audience goes crazy.

Stevie Nicks surprised the audience at Broadway's 'School of Rock' by performing "Rhiannon." Watch here.