Off Script: Will Chase Bids Farewell to 'Nashville', Returns to Broadway as William Shakespeare (Q&A)

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Will Chase

The actor, who played Luke Wheeler in the ABC country music drama, explains why he's satisfied with his character's storyline and what he'll miss most about shooting in Music City.

Will Chase is back on Broadway this summer in the satirical musical comedy Something Rotten!, reprising a role he helped develop in its earliest workshops: William Shakespeare, the Renaissance superstar who makes maidens swoon with punchline-filled numbers and fellow bards jealous with rock-set sonnets.

When the Casey Nicholaw show opened on Broadway last March, Christian Borle played the role, while the seasoned stage actor Chase went on to play Luke Wheeler on the ABC drama Nashville. He tackled homophobia, parenthood and a love triangle onscreen, and made his Grand Ole Opry debut offscreen. Though he isn’t returning for its fifth season on CMT, “I can't wait to watch it because it'll be great to let all of these characters breathe a bit and have some scenes that last more than 45 seconds.”

Chase, 45, goes Off Script to bid farewell to his Nashville character: explaining why he’s happy with the season-four finale, whether he’ll return as a guest-star and how comedy and tap-dancing are challenging him like country music once did.

How did you find out you wouldn't be returning to Nashville?

I've learned to take whatever comes. Doesn't mean I'm not bummed or sad, but it's part of the game. It's not personal. Every year I was there — end of seasons two, three and four — we were that bubble show, so we went through this every year. This year, even more so, I thought, I really don't see it happening, and then we got canceled. Fans went ballistic, and we had heard rumors they were trying to shop it around because it makes sense for Lionsgate to get those 22 episodes and get that syndication. I knew that if I had to pick, my character and possibly Aubrey's character weren't going along for this world.

The new guys [showrunners Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick] wanted to stretch these storylines, and my issue with this show was I really want to get to know these great characters, and we just had so many great characters and they were in every episode. While that's nice for fans to see every character in every episode, the storylines were tied up too neatly. I knew the new guys weren't gonna put everybody in every episode, and I was fine with that because my character's not so precious to me that I needed to have a certain storyline. I knew it was coming down the pike and it did.

Connie Britton and Will Chase as Rayna James and Luke Wheeler in Nashville. Photo credit: ABC

But I can't wait to watch it because it'll be great to let all of these characters breathe a bit and have some scenes that last more than 45 seconds. That's one of the things: When you watch the edit, you want to cheer for these guys, but then the scene is done. When Luke paid back that $40 million in one episode — that was always a funny one for us. He finds out at the beginning of the episode that he owes the government $40 million and by the end, he's paid it. It's like, OK, let's everybody take a breath. So I'm glad the new guys are there, and they're gonna allow the show to breathe. This year will be a great season for the show.

Are you open to returning to wrap up Luke Wheeler's storyline?

I'm still waiting to see. We haven't had those kinds of conversations too much, just with casting to see what my availability is. I don't envy writers on a network show because it's so hard to do one episode if you have a guest, and you're constantly changing what the outlined trajectory is for these characters.

Are you satisfied with the storyline's conclusion?

Yeah. Of course, I'd like to be back on the show, but I'm satisfied because it was tied up pretty neatly. You could justify if I never came back: He went to see his ex-wife. We allude to that; Colt says, “You were always the one for Mom,” and my last phone call with Sage, I say, “I want to come home for a while.” I'm assuming since I'm the head of the label, I've got Will and Juliette, I'm assuming they will say something about it and mention it; it's not like Luke disappeared off the face of the earth into the Bermuda Triangle or something. But I'm satisfied.

Luke was a periphery guy in the beginning and I love that he became this label guy. My favorite stuff to shoot was always the stuff with Colt because I have two teenagers and life is messy and relationships are messy. I loved how messy that relationship was, it was very real to me. And I loved that I didn't always have a love interest; everybody doesn't always necessarily have to have a love interest! It was nice to have a real grounded, "be a good father, be a good businessman" thing.

And the Will Lexington stuff, I loved doing that, so I thought it was a beautiful way to end: doing that concert, and having Luke give him the thumbs-up. He did a good 180-turn there from us not knowing how he feels about a gay country singer to really being a champion for Will. I loved that because that's who I am. I'm glad we went that route. I'm happy with how it all ended.

Chris Carmack and Will Chase as Will Lexington and Luke Wheeler in Nashville. Photo credit: ABC

What will you miss about Nashville?

Easily the best TV job I've ever had. What a great character. And getting to shoot in Nashville was f—ing great. Everybody thinks it’s just the Opry and country music, but it’s outstanding. The people are awesome, and everybody plays and records and writes there. I still have a house there that I'll go down to and visit.

I’ll miss the music. Frankie Pine and Buddy Miller would say, “We’ve got this new song by Rose Falcon,” and then you’re in the studio with these producers who work with Jason Aldean. Holy crap, who am I? Steve Buchanan, who is one of the producers and runs the Opry, called me two years ago and said, “I want you to make your Opry debut.” I’m not a country singer! He said, “Sing something from the show and sing something from musical theatre.” We did a beautiful country-ballad version of “If I Loved You” from Carousel. I was pinching myself.

Also, the schedule — I probably worked three or four days on average of an eight-day shoot, so I was on a plane home to Brooklyn a lot — and obviously, the money. And I loved the days we shot performances; you get to be a country star and wear a cowboy hat and people scream for you. Can we do one more take?

What’s refreshing about returning to Broadway?

Theater is a lot different from TV, where you don't see everybody all the time. For example, when I first started Nashville, I was working with Connie Britton a lot, and then when the Luke-Rayna storyline went haywire, I never saw her for a long time. Jonathan Jackson and I had to go out to dinner because we realized we had never done a scene together until this past season! In theater, you're with these people in the rehearsal room for weeks and then you're onstage, so you're really a family. It's been nice to be back with these people that I got to do the workshops and readings with, and take a bite out of a role I helped to create.

Will Chase as William Shakespeare in Something Rotten. Photo credit: Joan Marcus

What do you love about playing Shakespeare?

He’s a little Keith Richards, Austin Powers, Ricky Gervais and an uppity, snooty Brit. He’s not even like a lot of Shakespeare’s fools, because the fools in his plays are actually pretty smart. He’s more like the buffoon, a true fool, and he isn’t even shy about it.

The comedy is terrifying but awesome. With a drama, you don't have to elicit a response, whereas with comedy, that's the whole point. “Oh, god, I have to make these people laugh.” It's fun to see if you can do it, and satisfying when you do.

What about the role is new to you?

The entire Omelette musical! They had the idea, but the references to all the other musicals didn't exist in the last workshop I did; Casey would get up at that point and say, "And here's where the musical would go!" When I saw it the first time last March, I was floored because it’s so clever and ingenious.

The role requires comedy, singing, dancing, tap and speaking in two accents. What’s the toughest?

In the workshop, the drummer would play on the rims and Casey would a tapoff. I haven't really ever tapped in my life, so that was the thing I spent the most time working on.

The hard part is also going from A to Z every night — not scene by scene, three weeks apart. I've been doing shows for 20 years, but it's weird to get back on that bike.

Any pre-show rituals?

I don’t really come onstage for 45 minutes. Right around the number "A Musical," I start stretching because I'm 45 and I gotta stretch these old bones a little bit.

Will Chase as William Shakespeare in Something Rotten. Photo credit: Joan Marcus

What's something special in your dressing room?

An espresso machine. I'm a coffee addict, so I have to have that before a show. The audience is coming down after their meal and martini, so that's when we have to be all the way up. My dressing room is pretty tricked out — a couch, a chair, a bar of course, and pictures of my daughters.

How has your diet changed?

I've never really been that guy who can't do dairy or some other food. I'll sing through the phlegm if I have to. I eat a little during every show I've ever done, or else I'll pass out. I like my little post-show whiskey too.

What do you do on your days off?

Hitting some baseball games, just being with my kids and my girlfriend. We have a nice backyard in Brooklyn, so I spend time out there, watering things and taking care of plants and trees.

What are you working on next?

I’m on a limited run, but I’m looking forward to shooting The Deuce in New York alongside Something Rotten. I'm a big fan of The Wire, and I think it’s gonna be an important piece because David Simon and George Pelecanos do a good job of exposing the underbelly of what seemingly is a romanticized version of things. I’ve only shot with Maggie Gyllenhaal so far, but I’m psyched to just get on the train and go to work.