Mike Faist was a “blue collar theater actor”. Now he’s standing out in Spielberg’s first musical.


Mike Faist, center, plays the wayward and resentful leader of the Jets gang in “West Side Story.” (20th century workshops)

When screenwriter Tony Kushner reflects on his favorite memory of filming “West Side Story,” Steven Spielberg’s rousing reimagining of the beloved musical, he cites neither a glimpse of the distinguished director’s visual mastery, nor a tune. by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim songbook. Rather, it focuses on an unassuming moment of cleaning up on set.

It came after the filming of a first scene, in which Mike Faist’s Riff and his Upper West Side gang, the Jets, splash paint on a mural of the Puerto Rican flag to upset the Sharks, their territorial rivals. As Kushner lingered on set and the team members got down to work cleaning up the paint from the mural, he glanced up and saw an unexpected sight.

“One of the people who washed it was Mike,” Kushner said of the 29-year-old actor. “And it really wasn’t for display in any way. It was something he had to do because he felt awfully what his character had just done, and he had to do something to feel good. It shows how deeply I think he is committed to the world he helped create.

In New York’s theatrical community, Faist’s talent, dedication and inherent empathy is no secret: he was 20 when he made his Broadway debut in the original cast of “Newsies” and he earned a Tony nomination five years later for his supporting role in “Dear Evan Hansen.”

But “West Side Story”, now in theaters, marks Faist’s first major movie role. Based on the early reactions, he might be heading for new recognition, with critics hanging on to his magnetic performance as the Wayward Riff – a tragic figure imbued with more depth in Kushner’s updated script – as the one of the strong points of the film received with rapture from Spielberg. In her four-star review, Washington Post’s chief film critic Ann Hornaday calls Faist a “revelation… who is not only a talented singer and dancer, but plays the leader of the Jets Riff gang with just the right one.” mixture of prickly resentment, anger hair trigger and reckless grace.

“People kind of mentioned some of these things to me, and it’s adorable – really, it’s very nice,” Faist says. “But that’s not, in the end, why I do what I do. For me, it has to come from a place of passion and love.

From this point of view, it’s no mystery why this project does the trick. Growing up in the Columbus suburb of Gahanna, Ohio, Faist was obsessed with classic musicals as a child. Dance lessons, forays into community theater and dreams of the Great White Way followed for Faist, who remembers being struck long ago by Russ Tamblyn’s performance as Riff in the Oscar-winning version of “West Side.” Story ”in 1961 (itself an adaptation of“ Romeo and Juliet ”inspired by the Broadway show).

Mike Faist as Riff in

Mike Faist as Riff in “West Side Story”. (20th century workshops)

“I remember looking at him like a kid in my basement and wanting to be a Jet, and being mesmerized by these guys dancing and the story being told,” Faist says. “After watching those movies, it was one of those things – I don’t know, it was just like instant love. I just knew I had to do that.

After making headlines for his breakthrough in “Newsies,” Faist joined the original company of “Dear Evan Hansen” for a production in 2015 at the Arena Stage in Washington, DC. He would go on to play Connor Murphy, the tortured teenager whose suicide sets the musical storyline in motion, for nearly three years, accompanying “Dear Evan Hansen” on his subsequent run off Broadway and his acclaimed transfer to Broadway. .

“As soon as he was in the room and started working on Connor, it was really clear that he was a very unique and very special actor,” said Michael Greif, director of “Dear Evan Hansen”. . “He always took his responsibility to represent this kid in this kind of emotional hopelessness and this kind of crisis very seriously.”

Shortly after Faist left the show in the summer of 2018, he sent in his audition tape for another tormented character: the pithy but pitiful Riff. In November of that year, he was starring in Steven Levenson’s play “Days of Rage” off Broadway when he got the call for an audition. Still, he thought the competition to throw off as the violent thug would be a brutal melee in its own right. In his mind, reading for Spielberg was probably nothing more than a bucket list check trivia.

“I’m a blue collar stage actor and it’s a big, bustling Hollywood production,” Faist said. “And blue-collar theater actors don’t really have those chances.”

But her relationship that day with Ansel Elgort – who had previously been cast for the lead role in Tony – was electric. Surprising even himself, he walked out of the hearing confident he had the gig. After officially landing the role, he called Kushner to get a better understanding of this movie’s version of Riff, then dotted the Pulitzer Prize and Tony winner with questions over coffee.

As Faist learned about it, Kushner fleshed out Riff by running to Mercutio, the character’s “Romeo and Juliet” analogue, and incorporating traces of lyrical language and manic madness into the ill-suited leader of the Jets. . Kushner also spoke to Faist about the 1950s film’s approach to gentrification and tribalism, and how New York’s changing mid-century landscape left young men from broken homes struggling to create a sense of community.

“Mike really swallowed it all up,” Kushner says. “He’s really one of those actors who wants to know as much as possible about his character and really digs into the tough stuff. He really wants to think about economics, politics, psychology and psychotechnology. , and it feeds on a kind of sharpness and precision that I think is the hallmark of a great actor.

While a lifetime of musical theater craftsmanship has left Faist well equipped to perform the nimble dance moves and sharp vocals required for his numbers, “Jet Song,” “Cool,” and “Tonight (Quintet),” the role has always been transformational.

Referring to an image of a skinny gang member from photographer Bruce Davidson’s “Brooklyn Gang” collection, Faist lost around 20 pounds to give Riff a suitably malnourished physique. One of Riff’s tattoos was also inspired by this photo, at Faist’s suggestion, as was the rosary the character wears around his neck. When the cameras weren’t rolling, Faist gave the production more realism by taking on a sort of leadership role among the actors playing the Jets.

“I wanted to transform myself. I wanted to change. I wanted to create an environment, not only for myself but for others, where we didn’t have to act … “explains Faist, pausing before finishing his reflection:” Where we don’t have to act. We just did.

This take on the role helped Faist find one of the film’s most tense moments, in a scene set shortly before the Jets’ rumble with the Sharks. As Riff tries to buy a gun, another character grabs the gun and points it squarely at the boy’s head – at which point Riff rests his temple against the barrel. It was an improvised choice, Kushner said, and one that came from Faist’s innate understanding of Riff’s doomed youthful mentality.

“What Mike came up with at that point,” Kushner says, “is the whole character in that little gesture.”

In fact, Faist found the collaborative experience so rewarding that this year he raised questions about his future as an actor, saying “West Side Story” represented everything he set out to accomplish as that interprets. “I don’t just want to be a working actor anymore,” he told The New York Times, later adding, “I can’t say if I hate acting or I like it too much.”

When asked about these comments, he makes it clear that he is not going anywhere: “There is still so much more to say,” he says, “and there is still so much more to do. Yet when Faist talks about his plans to come from “a place of passion and love,” he doesn’t posture either.

“There was just something so pure and wonderful about the making of this thing, and it really came from this place – from this place where ‘I like to do what I do,’ Faist says. is something less than that, I don’t know if it’s worth it. I was really struggling with this idea of ​​”Do I like playing or do I hate this?” And the truth is, I think I like it too much. I really do. “


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