On the Phone With Barrett Foa

On the Phone With Barrett Foa

TV fans know Barrett Foa as Eric Beale on CBS’ hit series NCIS: Los Angeles; but to Broadway buffs, he’s the Mamma Mia! chorus boy who graduated to leads in Avenue Q and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Now he’s playing Alex Moore, the out-of-work actor hired to look after Barbra Streisand’s considerable collection of stuff in Jonathan Tolins’ Off-Broadway comedy smash, Buyer & Cellar, which ends its run July 27.

Is Foa as rapacious a collector as Miss Streisand? Hardly. “Holding on to things can be dangerous,” he says. “Shedding is good. A memory is a memory: Something in your hand is not going to bring it back.” Besides, he doesn’t own a Malibu compound, like Ms. Streisand's, in which to store a lot of things. Yet. Here, Foa reflects on his charmed career, why he's glad to be back in NYC (however temporarily) and why he wants to be just like David Hyde Pierce.

FL: You’re on hiatus from NCIS: Los Angeles, so why aren’t you taking it easy?

BF: That’s a good question. I ask myself it every day! NCIS is such a fantastic part of my life, and it’s changed my life in a million great ways. But doing theater is my original passion. So, getting back to something creative in a different way was really interesting to me, especially something as daunting and crazy as a one-man show in which I play six different characters in 100 minutes. So, what am I doing, why would I ever do this? Why don’t I just go to Europe? Why don’t I just sit on a beach somewhere? I think because it is scary and because it is crazy. I think that’s how you grow as an actor and as a person, putting challenges in front of yourself and meeting them. I love that. Some people may call me a masochist, but I call myself an “artiste.” [laugh]

FL: I’d call you a dedicated actor.

BF: There you go. I’ll take that: dedicated actor.

FL: How have you gone about learning the part of Alex Moore?

BF: Repetition and time. It is just about living it and getting it in your body, your muscles, your mouth and your lungs. Certainly, because one of the characters is Barbra Streisand, I was on YouTube watching interviews for hours. I’d watch an Oprah interview, then a Larry King interview, then a Mike Wallace. Also, renting her movies, checking in with her albums and singing. Doing that research is so fun. Sometimes, when I should have been looking at the script, I was like, “Let’s watch some more YouTube.”

FL: Was Barbra part of your life when you were growing up?

BF: Not really. My parents weren’t huge fans. They didn’t have her albums. Even though I went to school for musical theater, and even though she did some theater, she was never as much on my radar as one might think. I came to her late in life. There’s something about that that helps me because the Barbra in the show is older Barbra, at about 70. I watched What’s Up, Doc? the other night. What a funny, hilarious movie. She’s so young and spry and just a great comedienne. But that’s not the woman we see in Buyer & Cellar. We see the woman who lives in her Malibu compound that she has built from soup to nuts. She’s very proud of it, very protective and kind of isolated. She has some walls now. And that’s where I’ve met Barbra, which is a good place, especially for this piece.

FL: Imagine one day in LA; you’re walking down the street and who should be coming toward you but Barbra Streisand. What would you do?

BF: I might just drop to the floor and pass out. I would hope that I could … it’s a little strange because I’m sure people think they know her, people who are fans, have her albums and go to her concerts, but there’s something different for the small handful of us actors who have learned this show and have played this role. It’s so intimate. I could say to her, “I literally am you. I know you so well, even though it’s completely fictional. I poured over this Passion for Design coffee table book that you wrote and did all the photography, and I am you for 100 minutes eight times a week.” But not as a female impersonator. I’m not putting on a nose, wig and nails. I’m just telling a story through her. It’s lovely. I think that I would like to say that I would stop her on the street and say, “Hey, I was in New York and I was you.” [laugh]

FL: Perhaps a more realistic question would be: What of Alex Moore is there in you? Do you identify with him in any way?

BF: He’s an actor, an out-of-work actor living in LA, and I have been that. I was born and raised in New York City and did stage forever here and then moved out to LA about five, six years ago and happened to get a TV show that has lasted for five or six years. I’ve gotten to know LA. The kind of lifestyle that Alex leads and also that Barbra leads, it’s just a different mentality from New York. And it’s fun to tap into that out-of-work, LA actor mentality. He’s a theater guy. He, like me, was not that big a Barbra fan before this job. There’s a line in the script, “I was not that big a Barbra queen when I first got this job.” I was like that, too. So, I’ve learned to appreciate her. Her art and her talent are the top.

FL: Have you ever had to take a job that you didn’t want to take but needed to take in order to survive?

BF: I’ve been pretty lucky. I shouldn’t even say this.

FL: You really have gone from acting job to acting job.

BF: I’ve never waited tables. It’s one of my biggest pet peeves when someone says, “Oh, what do you do?” “I’m an actor.” “Oh, where do you wait tables?” That’s really insulting. I’ve actually made a living as an actor. I have gone from job to job. Maybe some of them aren’t incredibly glamorous, but they’ve been incredibly fulfilling. Or they are super glamorous, but they haven’t been fulfilling. You navigate a career and architect an actor’s life for yourself. It’s fun, and it becomes who you are.

FL: Organically?

BF: It has kind of happened. One thing always informs the next. I was the first nonpuppeteer to star in Avenue Q. I’m always up for a challenge. If there’s something challenging that comes across my desk, for better or worse, I say, “Yes.” I may fall or be super scared of it but that’s why you have to do those kinds of things. Early in my career I played a lead in Much Ado About Nothing, and I thought, “What am I doing here?” I was a chorus boy in Mamma Mia! but someone entrusted me with Shakespeare and I took it on. That kind of thing gives you confidence and makes you grow. I was in the original cast of Mamma Mia!, in the chorus, and I could have stayed there. I know some who have [been with the show] since 2001, and they probably have a great nest egg and a country house in upstate New York. But I said to myself, “I’ve got this credit on my list, check, and now I have to move on to play principal roles.” Maybe I’m making $500 a week and not a Broadway salary doing that, but, again, it’s about architecting a career and growth. It’s not like I’m doing Buyer & Cellar for fame and fortune. It really is about personal growth. I’m really excited about living in the city again, connecting with my friends, connecting with the Broadway and theater community, and connecting with my family. My first nephew was born and I immediately moved to LA. Now, they’re 6 and 3. I see them a few times every year. And now I get to spend two and a half months in the city, and hopefully I’ll get to see them more. It’s about connection. Again, community, New York, friends and family. Which is funny because Buyer & Cellar is a one-man show. [laugh] Just being here in the city makes me feel alive.

FL: You have what I would call an actor’s dream life: You're on TV for six months, and, for the rest of the year, you have the luxury, the ability and the opportunity to be onstage.

BF: My goal in life is basically to be David Hyde Pierce.

FL: A better goal you could not have.

BF: Right. He did his thing in Hollywood, made a name for himself and made his nest egg, and now he can star in Broadway shows and get Tonys. Yes, please, sign me up!

>> Buyer & Cellar, Barrow Street Theatre, 27 Barrow St., 212.868.4444, thru July 27

Photo of Barrett Foa ©Joan Marcus