Steven Pasquale made his Lincoln Center Theater debut in 2002, in the Ahrens/Flaherty musical A Man of No Importance. Other productions on- and off-Broadway in which he’s made a lasting impression have included The Bridges of Madison County, reasons to be pretty, The Robber Bridegroom, and Far From Heaven. Pasquale did several seasons as firefighter Sean Leslie Garrity on the hit TV show “Rescue Me,” and has appeared on several other first-rate series, including “The Good Wife,” “Six Feet Under,” and “Billions.” Millions and billions were part of our discussion of his current assignment, as high-yield-finance king Robert Merkin in Junk.
HAS YOUR CONCEPTION OF MERKIN CHANGED DURING THE RUN?
How I’ve played him hasn’t changed much. I really clicked into the characterization the second or third week of previews and it’s been very consistent. We’ve honored the conception of the role pretty much since then.
IS THAT A FUNCTION OF HOW WELL AYAD AKHTAR CRAFTED THE STORY?
Yes. With a play like this, you have to let the text tell the story. You can’t decorate it. You can’t have too much spin. You can’t put air in where it’s not necessary. We’ve always said there are four rules in this play: you’ve got to pick up your cues; speak through the line; don’t rush; and don’t break up the line. That’s how this play should be performed. The way Ayad writes is very much like music.
DID YOU KNOW MUCH ABOUT THE WORLD OF FINANCE BEFORE YOU DID THIS PLAY?
HAVE FINANCE AND LEGAL EXPERTS WHO’VE SEEN THE PLAY TALKED WITH YOU ABOUT THE STORY’S ACCURACY?
It’s incredibly accurate. That’s the view of Preet Bharara, the former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and of Tim Geithner, U. S. Treasury Secretary under Obama, and all the other people who are economically savvy. The majority of people in my life who’ve come to the play – people who are not necessarily finance people – really feel upset by the content. They walk away feeling conflicted and confused about raw American capitalism and whether we’re doing it right. Meanwhile, my friends who work in finance have come and they say: Oh, great, it’s a celebration of us.
JUNK DOESN’T BELABOR OBVIOUS CONNECTIONS BETWEEN ITS TIMEFRAME – THE MID-1980s – AND TODAY’S POLITICAL SITUATION. YET IT SHOWS HOW THE INFLUENCE OF BIG MONEY WAS GATHERING FORCE THEN.
We’re in an entirely transactional economy. We don’t make things; we make deals. Inequality is at staggering levels: I believe that the top one percent of the population owns more than the bottom 90 percent in the United States. American corporations sit on two trillion dollars in cash and yet they still make their deals with debt. You have to be careful when you’re criticizing raw American capitalism because it’s very easy to enjoy its benefits. The play is an examination of how American society has lost the sense of “we” and gained a puffed-up sense of the “I.” We worship people in this country because of the amount of money they’ve made. Zuckerberg, Oprah, Bill Gates. Academics and scholars and Buddhists and artists are worshipped so much less.
So to me the play is enormously political and timely. It looks at a specific window of time but it moves us forward by implication through the 2008 economic crisis to the present, when we’re looking at a runaway Dow. At some point there will be a cataclysmic crash where we can’t keep the lights on and people who are not aware of that – because they’re too busy watching “Wife Swap” – will have quite a jolt.
MERKIN IS IN SOME WAYS AN EMBODIMENT OF GREED AND YET EACH TIME I’VE WATCHED THE PLAY I’M STRUCK THAT I DON’T HATE THE CHARACTER.
He makes a really good argument for his system of beliefs. But at the end his character is about more than his breaking the law. As Judy Chen, the financial reporter, says: it’s about a fancy rationale for heroic levels of greed.
IS IT ENERGIZING TO PLAY MERKIN NIGHT AFTER NIGHT?
It’s thrilling. I made a promise to myself not too long ago to work on things I feel are important as often as I can. I’ve never worked on a piece of art that’s more important than what Ayad is saying with Junk. He’s holding a mirror up to raw American capitalism and how we got here. Whether the message will be received or not time will tell.
HOW HAVE YOU PERCEIVED THE AUDIENCE RESPONSE TO THE PLAY’S STORY AND MESSAGE?
It seems as if about three-quarters of the audience get what the play’s trying to do and are stricken in the heart. The other quarter dismiss it because it seems a little dense or because finance is a territory they don’t want to think about or talk about.
YOU YOURSELF ARE VERY ENGAGED, ESPECIALLY ON TWITTER, IN THE DISCUSSION OF POLITICAL AND SOCIAL ISSUES. IF MERKIN WERE ACTIVE ON TWITTER, WHAT WOULD HE BE TWEETING?
I’m not sure. The Merkin based loosely on real-life Michael Milken is proud of the notion of leveraged buyouts and a debt-driven economy and the wealth that it can create. He was a genius, which is why he was able to accomplish what he did. I can’t imagine that a person with a brain that big would be fully in support of the current White House. On the other hand, this is a President who said he loves debt so maybe they would have that in common.
AFTER GETTING OUT OF PRISON, MILKEN HAS TURNED OUT TO BE PHILANTHROPIC.
He had two billion dollars. Wouldn’t you be philanthropic if you had two billion dollars?
Ask me if I’d go to jail for two-and-a-half years for that kind of money. Sure. And I might even find Jesus like he did. These guys make billions of dollars and THEN they become philanthropists.
WHERE DOES YOUR INTEREST IN POLITICAL AND SOCIAL ISSUES COME FROM?
I think that since November 8, 2016 anybody who’s not living a highly political life is doing it wrong. The stakes are too high. We have a lunatic head of a crime family making decisions with his fingers ever so close to the nuclear codes. Every single day is a five-alarm fire in this country. The fact that we’ve normalized it has given me levels of anger that I will almost never be able to articulate. It’s not political, it’s not partisan. It’s just idiocracy, and we’ve allowed it to happen. By “we” I mean the GOP. I’m angry at them, and I’m angry at any conservative who supported Trump. My father’s a true American patriot and a conservative and he absolutely could not pull the level for Donald Trump. That’s what all conservative patriots should have done. And yet here we are.
IS THERE A SILVER LINING TO OUR PRESENT SITUATION?
Yes, maybe there is. Maybe if we don’t all end up as a pile of nuclear ash that we have woken up a generation of otherwise lazy citizens to participate more. And then maybe we’ll start to prioritize things like our air and our water and our children’s education. And to be concerned about things other than how quickly the economy can grow. Infinite growth is not a sustainable notion. Infinite growth means we’re all going to die because we’re over-leveraged and over-resourced. We’ve got to start thinking bigger about issues than how we are thinking currently. Junk is part of this large and essential discussion.
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com.