SXSW: Aaron Tveit on Going From Stage to Screen, 'Les Mis' Groupies and New Gig 'Graceland' (Q&A)

Aaron Tveit SXSW Graceland Press - H 2013
Vivien Killilea/USA Network

Aaron Tveit SXSW Graceland Press - H 2013

THR talks to the dashing singer-actor and star of USA Network's cable drama about the perks of being the new guy.

South By Southwest might not be the first place you think of when it comes to a TV show premiere, but on a Monday night in downtown Austin, the line wrapped around the block for a preview of USA’s Graceland.

First things first, there’s no music or Elvis Presley bent to this cable drama about a group of undercover federal agents shacked up in a Southern California beach house -- 21 Jump Street-style -- but it’s likely that the vocal talents of one cast member lured the dozens of wide-eyed fans to a makeshift theater (complete with nifty video paint installation) at the Austin Museum of Art. His name: Aaron Tveit.

A stage veteran who’s starred in Hairspray, Catch Me If You Can and Next to Normal, you could say the 29-year-old New York native got his first major break just a few months ago with an appearance in the film Les Miserables, where he played resistance leader Enjolras and was best friends with Marius Pontmercy, the story’s romantic lead. Relatively speaking, it was a small part, but it clearly made an impact, judging by the post-screening Q&A where “this is a question for Aaron” was practically on repeat.

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Tveit’s Graceland costars, which include Daniel Sunjata, Manny Montana and Serinda Swan, seemed to be taking it all in stride. Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter at the afterparty, actress Vanessa Ferlito, herself no stranger to cop dramas, having appeared on CSI: Miami and CSI: NY along with 24 and Law & Order, said the dashingly handsome Tveit is the new guy -- like his Graceland character, he’s coming up and going places.

Indeed, Tveit tells THR that in addition to the series, which premiers in June, he has a one-man show in the works and fully plans to return to Broadway.

The Hollywood Reporter: This being your first major TV role, had you come out to Los Angeles for pilot season before?

Aaron Tveit: I hadn't because I was in development for so many years with Catch Me If You Can and Next to Normal in New York that it took me out of being able to audition for a serious role on television. So I'd spend a lot of time doing guest parts. This was the first time I was really available for pilot season, and I read the Graceland script very early on -- I got it in October of last year and tested for it in November, so I was very lucky that I got this without even doing the whole pilot season thing.

THR: Thinking about Matthew Morrison and Lea Michele, it seems the Glee model has really opened up television to the stage actors …

Tveit: Nowadays, but it wasn’t always the case. It used to be that you kind of got pigeonholed into one thing -- you're either a stage actor or a TV actor or a movie actor. Today, there's a lot of crossover with film actors doing television, which never happened before, so those lines are a little bit more blurred than they used to be. One thing that I wanted to try to do was try to keep my musical stage work separate from my on-screen work at first. I know I did the Les Mis film, but I had also done a lot of television and movie work that had nothing to do with singing. I wanted to try and do that first.

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THR: Won’t you miss singing?

Tveit: I do miss singing. Now that we're not shooting [Graceland], I'm going back to New York where I'm putting a concert together that’s like a one-man show.

THR: Tell us more …

Tveit: A couple of venues in New York really support going in with a band and a one-person show. I'm still working on the set list, but it'll be songs that I've sung on previous shows, songs that I love, standards from pop culture, a little bit of everything. I've been away for 14 months, but when I get back home, I'm going to start working on it. That will kind of satisfy my singing wishes and desires.

THR: The voice is an instrument, so practice is crucial, yes?

Tveit: I have to keep practicing. I still sing every day -- in the shower or on the set all day. I'm sure everyone will tell you that I never shut up. But it’s not in the capacity that I would like to.

THR: It was hard not to notice the nine-to-one female to male ratio at this screening, and it’s safe to assume they’re mainly here for you. How does it feel to be considered a heartthrob?

Tveit: It's great, but I do try to stay away from that as much as possible. I think you need to let stuff like that go in one ear and out the other. It’s like any positive praise you hear -- if you believe the positive, you have to believe all the negative. But it’s great, and I really appreciate all the support that people have been giving me on the show.

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THR: Going back to your role in Les Miserables, have you noticed that there are Enjolras groupies?

Tveit: Yeah, there are. [Laughs] It's a great part. I think we all knew that movie was going to be special. I still can’t comprehend that 40 years from now, I'm going to show that to my kids and say, “Oh yeah, that was the Les Mis movie that we all did and I'm in it. It's a big deal and an iconic role.

THR: At the same time, it’s a fairly small role with maybe 20 minutes of screen time?

Tveit: But it's an important and crucial part of that story, so it's something that does stand out, even though it’s not as big as the other roles.  

THR: In taking on Graceland, what was it, ultimately, that drew you to the character of Mike?

Tveit: The thing that really spoke to me is how he's just a winner. Mike is a smart guy and very complex. Like, he’s the new guy, but then there’s the juxtaposition of what they said about him being at the top of his class and really smart, so I thought maybe the new guy was something he was doing for effect. I found that intriguing -- that there's a lot more to this guy than he was letting on. And also the fact that he tries to be the best at everything he does. It’s like with me wanting to play parts that are the best. I had an acting teacher tell me once that if you’re playing a car salesman, you don't want to be an OK car salesman, you want to play the best car salesman. I felt that way immediately when I read the script.

Twitter: @shirleyhalperin

Pictured: Graceland's Daniel Sunjata (left) and Aaron Tveit