Aaron Tveit Talks 'Grease: Live' and "Emotional Rollercoaster" From 'Graceland' to 'BrainDead'

The Broadway vet talks about making the move back to musicals and his new comic thriller coming this summer to CBS.
Kevin Estrada/FOX

It's been an eventful few months for Aaron Tveit to say the least.

After successfully making the leap from Broadway to TV, the musical vet known for his roles in Next to Normal and the stage version of Catch Me If You Can suffered a setback when his USA drama Graceland was canceled unexpectedly in October after three seasons. However, Tveit wasted no time finding work – landing a starring role on BrainDead, CBS' new comic political thriller from The Good Wife creators Robert and Michelle King, less than three weeks later.

But before Tveit makes the (fictional) trek to Capitol Hill to fight brain-eating aliens, he's been busy at Capitol Records, among other places, gearing up for the highly anticipated live telecast of Grease in which Tveit plays the lead role of Danny Zuko. In advance of Grease: Live's Sunday premiere on Fox, The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Tveit about the "rollercoaster" past few months, the would-have-been plans for Graceland's fourth season and channeling James Dean.

What are the big challenges of preparing for a production like this? How does it differ from prepping for an ordinary Broadway rehearsal?

I think with this – because we basically have three separate stages at Warner Bros, two full stages and then a whole outside set in the backlot – it's just logistically of being able to bounce form place to place. They built the stages according to how they needed to build them as opposed to the sequence of the show so there's a lot of running between commercials breaks so it's going to be difficult.

You've been gradually transitioning away from musicals and more towards television projects in the last few years. What made you say yes to this musical in particular?

I think early on in my career, there was a little bit more of trying to keep it separate so I could sort of establish myself in TV and film separate from my musical theater career, but I've been very fortunate that that's gone on. And with this, there's just so much musical content that's on television and film and specifically the last five years, that I'm just thrilled to be a part of it and I just hope it continues.

What have been your influences for getting into the character of Danny Zuko on set and in rehearsals?

I have watched the movie, I mean Travolta's amazing in it and the way that he does it. But also – because I'm a little more blond than he is – my Danny's more of a James Dean Danny than an Elvis Danny so I'm kind of thinking about that.

On social media you talked about recording the soundtrack at the famous Capitol Records. What was that part of the process like? Did you have a favorite song to record?

Julianne [Hough] and I were singing "Summer Nights" and there was a minute where we kind of looked at each other and I said, "We're recording 'Summer Nights' right now at Capitol Records'. Oh and by the way, we were singing into Frank Sinatra's microphone at Capitol Records, so it was just a complete pinch myself, bucket list moment.

Do you have any pre-show traditions or superstitions that you're going to do the day of the live show?

I just know on opening nights, I have so much adrenaline that that I cannot drink coffee that night. I usually have a coffee before a show but opening nights it just becomes too much.

You have a big year coming up with BrainDead, which you signed up for right after Graceland was canceled. What was that time like between gigs?

It was a bit of an emotional rollercoaster because I did The Good Wife years ago so they had called saying that they were interested in me and sent me the BrainDead script and I loved it. But at that time, we were fairly confident that Graceland was going to get picked up and we thought the pick-up was imminent so I said I was unavailable. They saw some people and then they came back about a month later and it just worked out. We literally thought Graceland was going to get picked up any day, but I told them, I'm going to come in anyway. They knew full and well that Graceland might get picked up, and then, the day that Graceland got canceled is when I was in the room with them so it was just one of those things that there just seemed to be something else looking out, and it just seemed meant to be in the way it all worked out.

What kind of conversations had you had with creator Jeff Eastin about season four? The season ended on several big cliffhangers.

They already had a plan. I think we were going to jump ahead six or eight months and basically pick up with all of us in different places already and I think we were going to go after Jakes. That was the big thing that they had set up and it was too bad that we didn’t get to do that.

I was particularly curious to see where Mike went after his battle with a drug addiction in season three.

Yeah, I kind of felt that I went from Mr. Squeaky Clean to way the other way and then was finally back somewhere in the middle, and I thought that Mike was in a place with helping Gusti, like I finally did some good. I don't know. I was looking forward to Mike and Briggs coming together and doing some good in season four.

You had already finished filming for the season so did you and the cast do anything to kind of say goodbye to one another?

No, I've seen some of them just because of where we live but we all exchanged texts, but it was really sad because when we finished filming, we thought we'd be coming back. To have that all end when we're not working, it's tough.

You're coming out of a first series regular role and heading right into your second. How do you think Graceland prepared you for BrainDead?

It was my first series and there's no better experience than the experience itself. To have been one of the two leads of the show for 36 episodes, all those hours on set, you can't become comfortable in front of the camera and become comfortable on set with the pace of television and learning lines and learning scripts – the only way you can do that is to do it. Also I feel really lucky that that was on cable. Even though a lot of people watched it, it wasn't under the microscope that a lot of networks shows are under so I feel like going into now this experience on a bigger network show that will have a broader viewership, I'm glad that I have that experience to lean on and give me confidence in what I'm doing.

You worked with the the Kings before on The Good Wife, but what was it specifically about this script?

They're billing it as The West Wing meets Invasion of the Body Snatchers and I'm a huge fan of [Aaron] Sorkin and The West Wing, and I love The Good Wife and their characters. The writing was really tremendous but at the same time, I think its exciting to be apart of CBS stepping into this genre thing a little bit. I knew Mary Elizabeth [Winstead] was attached and I've been such a fan of her's for so long. To have the thought of having so many of my scenes opposite her, I was just so intrigued by that. And then this character, he's not a kid. As great as Mike was, he was kind of a kid. This guy's a chief of staff to a Republican Senator and he's a really hard worker, but he's already in it. So I think it's a nice step for me to no longer be playing a kid. This is a young man who's already in his prime so I'm excited to do that.

How effects heavy is BrainDead going to be since it's sci-fi?

I'm not exactly sure. I think it's going to be more suggested. I mean there will be effects. I may not be the one to speak about this, but as much as I know, it's not going to be over-the-top effects. It's going to be very subtle-y done.

Grease: Live airs Sunday at 7 p.m. on Fox. BrainDead premieres this summer on CBS.

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