Gabriel Ebert on winning the Tony Award, becoming Harry Wormwood, and his special award for being a ‘hottie hot hots’

Gabriel Ebert

Gabriel Ebert

He entered the category of Best Featured Actor in a Musical as an underdog candidate but Gabriel Ebert took home the Tony for his understatedly powerful performance as Harry Wormwood in Matilda. In the first part of his interview with Stage Door Dish, Gabriel spoke about everything from how he approached to playing Broadway’s meanest dad, a role that is a far cry from his relaxed and approachable personality, and his off-stage attitude to approaching young fans to his previous to his roles in 4000 Miles, Brief Encounter and Red, and an award he received from his on-stage wife.

SDD: I want to talk about your Tonys speech, to start off. Just the look on the face, what was going through your mind at that moment?

Gabriel Ebert: I don’t know, some of it’s kind of a blur. It was a mixture of total exhilaration and terror and joy and an awareness that I only had a very brief amount of time to thank the people that mattered to me.

SDD: Had you ever thought about winning?

GE: When I was a kid and I started acting in school, it’s definitely something I thought about, that getting a Tony someday would be a dream. When I got Matilda, I had no idea that this would be the show that would do it for me especially because I got to see Bertie perform and be so magnificent, and the same with Lauren as well. I thought, ‘I can just be on the side and do my work while they grab accolades.’ The actual thought of being nominated shook my core. I feel very lucky and blessed. I didn’t get to see all of the plays but I did get to see Pippin and Terrence Mann is just genius and I was just happy to be in a category with these men.

SDD: Where is your Tony right now?

GE: I just have it in my apartment. It’s on my piano.

SDD: I talked to Lesli [Margherita, who plays Mrs. Wormwood] and I said, ‘Is there anything I should talk to Gabe about?’ I want to hear about your “other Tony.”

GE: She gave me a Ken doll, a Barbie Ken doll, in beach shorts that she repackaged for me in a Tony-esque way with green hair and everything. I’ve got that mounted up on my wall in the dressing room. She accompanied it with a great card entitled “To My Idiot Husband.”

SDD: I love that. Was that after you won?

GE: No, that was before. I think the award was actually for the “Best Hottie Hot Hots in Green Hair.”

SDD: That’s quite the accomplishment.

GE: That may be more of an honor. You never know.

SDD: What’s been the biggest life-changer since Matilda? You’ve been on stage before but you were never as recognizable as you are now. What’s been the biggest change for you?

GE: One thing that’s really wild is that I’ve never run a show this long. I have been in one other musical but I’ve never done a musical on this scale. To do eight shows a week of a musical is a hard gig to do. I think one of the biggest changes is finding a way to work that is healthy and comfortable because, in a way, I’m the kind of actor who goes hard at something and if we only have four weeks of shows, I’ll just wreck my body and that’s fine with me as long as I give a good performance. In this particular case, where longevity and consistency are important, there’s a different muscle you have to work out. In a lot of ways, I’m coming up against myself in the process and having to reevaluate the way I work and figure out how I can fit into a long run like this. I’ve never done something like that. Slightly more people maybe recognize me in the Theatre District but my life hasn’t changed in too huge of a way, actually. In a way, I look so different on stage as Mr. Wormwood. I seem like such a different dude. A lot of people don’t recognize me at all. That’s kind of nice.

SDD: I want to talk about stage door and fan experiences. What’s it like to now have a fan base that’s recognizing you and talking about you and following your career?

GE: I’m very honored because I feel like I’ve gotten to do some really cool projects in the last few years, stuff that I’m very proud of. I’ve gotten to play a lot of different kinds of roles especially my last two plays are vastly different. To know that there are some people out there who have seen both of those shows and have respect for me for doing that, it feels really good. I feel humbled to have been able to do it and have people recognize that I’m the same guy doing both of them. And then the stage door, which is something I’ve never really had to deal with, mostly because I’ve never done a musical, is a treat. Coming out every day, there’s maybe 50 or 100 people there, at first it was slightly overwhelming, but now it’s exciting and part of my day at the theatre. One of the coolest things for me is that a lot of the people at the stage door are kids with their parents. I remember when I was a kid and seeing plays that I looked up to these actors. To know that I am now able to fill that place in these kids’ lives, I feel a great deal of responsibility to be present and to be kind and give them a moment of my time because they came to see the show and it might have had an impact on them and maybe one day they’ll want to be actors or writers, whatever the case may be. Maybe this is just a positive experience in their lives. If I can help that out in any way by just being a good dude at the end of it, I feel like that’s a big part of my job.

SDD: You mentioned your previous roles like Brief Encounter and 4000 Miles and jumping to Matilda. Do you approach each of your roles differently? How do manage to play such a wide array of people?

GE: I guess there are very different processes. With 4000 Miles, I got to develop it from the beginning. I did the first readings of it and I got to do both productions. There was a lot of time developing and the script stayed the same because it was so good, we didn’t have to mess with it. There was a lot of playing that got to take place in the rehearsal room to figure out what world this play lived in. By the time I got to Matilda, they had already determined what world that play lived in and where my character fit into that world. In a way, I had a much different rehearsal process because I was coming into an already fully formed piece, although Matthew [Warchus] gave me a great deal of freedom in creating my role. Whereas the last couple of roles that I’ve played have been intellectual or emotional, this role didn’t offer those things because this guy is a stupid, stupid man. The way I found my way into this role is physically and engaging my body in it so that I can’t overthink myself because I have a tendency to overthink things and get in my own way. In this particular case, I thought that if I put the work into my body, then I’ll be able to stay out of my head.

Gabriel Ebert in "Matilda."

Gabriel Ebert in “Matilda.”

SDD: That’s a nice transition because I wanted to talk about the physicality of the humor. What was like to develop the movement because there are little things that Harry does that end up making a big laugh in the theatre?

GE: When I was rehearsing, maybe it was because I was coming off of 4000 Miles, I really tried to find the reasons for the things that he does and I tried to mire him down to his circumstances. Why does he behave this way? It’s because his life has been hard. I ended up getting in my own way a lot. I wasn’t very helpful to myself in rehearsal because I was trying to make it a naturalistic character. Matthew gave me a great note about the importance of the Wormwoods being more cartoonish so that Matilda could seem like this very real thing in this other world. Once I got that and once I got on stage and put on the costume and hair, that made a big difference in my rehearsal. I went back and I looked at all of the beautiful drawings that are in the Matilda book by Quentin Blake, who illustrates all of Roald Dahl’s books. He has these amazing, provocative drawings. Once I looked back at those pictures, I emulated the way that the drawings moved and the way that Mr. Wormwood behaves in those drawings, which are sort of crude but they spring to life. It was a combination of finding how my own body would work in that and trying to emulate the drawings a little bit. Once that happened, and once I put on the suit, a lot of the work began to flow more easily. In rehearsals, I was in my own clothes and I didn’t really have a way into it. Also I’m a lot younger than this character is and I was having a hard time relating to it. Once I got on the stage and found my place within this piece, I was able to free myself up and rehearse a lot more productively.

SDD: What’s it like to work with the four Matildas and all of these children? I know that the Wormwoods are in their own corner of the story, but you do have you interactions with the kids.

GE: It’s a treat for me because basically all of my scenes are with Matilda. I’ve gotten all mushy and paternal. These gals are so incredibly bright and so present and they have this incredible, infectious energy. Each night is sort of a different thing. Each track is very set. They’re performing the same actions but all four of the gals have different opinions about those actions and ways of going about it. As an actor, it’s exciting for me because it keeps it fresh in this long run that we’re doing. Also, just as a colleague working with these kids, it’s really exciting to see them growing up and see them making choices. I get to see the Matildas get a little more comfortable in their role and do things differently than they were doing it a couple of weeks ago. It’s really exciting to me. I was an actor when I was a kid. I’ve always been doing it since I was a wee child, so I think of myself at that age and what I was up to and then look at these gals. It’s really exciting to be present while they’re doing this because I think that what they’re doing is really special. All of the kids, but definitely the huge role that the Matildas are holding down every night on Broadway is no small feat.

SDD: “Telly” is just such a fun number but it involves the audience in a way that I don’t think people expected. Do you have any memorable moments from that performance or of a particular night?

GE: There have been some interesting people that I’ve called on. One gal that I called on refused to give me her name and she said, ‘I’m an attorney.’ I think she was hoping to get out of being implicated in the play by saying ‘I’m an attorney,’ but it was exciting for me. I used and said, ‘Are you threatening me?’ And she said, ‘Yes.’ I used it and called her ‘I’m an Attorney’ and ended up getting a big laugh. I ended up making her smile. It was exciting. There is a way in which Harry is such a buffoon that the feeling on my improvisations within that moment are pretty high. I’m able to have a lot of fun and a lot of freedom in that particular moment. Some days, when it’s a matinee maybe, and there are a lot of children in the audience, it’s hard to get everyone’s attention. The kids don’t want to get quiet because the house lights are still up and they don’t like me already because I’m a mean guy. It’s different every day and I thrive on that because doing something this long, it’s nice to have the spontaneity within it. Not that the show doesn’t feel fresh, but we’ve done quite a number of these now. I really relish opportunities for something different and unique to happen and I get that every night in “Telly.” It’s exciting.

SDD: What’s your favorite part of Harry’s costume?

GE: I guess it changes. At the beginning, they just gave me a wedding ring and I was thinking, ‘This guy’s got to wear a lot of rings.’ So they ended up finding these really gaudy rings with a nice fake blue emerald, which matches my cuff link. I really enjoyed that ring. They ended up getting a bunch of them. I also think my shoes are really incredible and the fact that I wear these Paul Smith socks that clash with the outfit and yet bring the whole thing together. I really love the socks. I don’t know, I guess it changes day to day.

About Samantha S.

"I found the theatre and I found my home.” ― Audra McDonald

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