Show business is a constant hustle. If you want to survive it – and thrive within it – you have to be willing to take each day as it comes.
“That’s the gig and welcome to showbiz,” said actor and comedian Will Vought in an exclusive interview with TrunkSpace. “You are going to get new pages, on a television show, things are added, taken away, always changing, and never quite finished. Just roll with it.”
Vought appears in Season 3 of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, available now on Amazon.
We recently sat down with Vought to discuss traveling back to 1959, bra fittings, and the downside of dating as a professional actor.
TrunkSpace: As an actor, when you book a job on a series that already has a loyal following, does that make the work all the more sweeter, knowing that there will be eyeballs waiting to watch your performance when it eventually airs?
Vought: What makes the work sweeter is working with truly the best in the business, and that is Amy Sherman Palladino and Dan Palladino. The Palladinos are on the top of their game, besides the fact that I was surrounded by multiple Golden Globe and Emmy-winning actors. It’s always a plus if people are going to watch the work and I’ve been lucky. A lot of the series that I’ve worked on have had the eyeballs you talk about. It’s not something I really thought about while shooting, but I knew that the season premiere of the series was going to be a big deal… so yes, it was sweet.
TrunkSpace: You’re a comedian, and as we understand it, someone who is a student of the past, admiring the path that people like Lenny Bruce paved for future generations of performers like yourself. Did it feel like you were having the opportunity to work on a show that, in some ways, was tailor made for you, not only in a general interest level way, but also in the part itself?
Vought: I think all comedians are students of the past as it informs the understanding of the present. So, I am mindful of that and both a fan and student of all that’s come before.
To time travel back to 1959 and enter that world is absolutely surreal. You’ve seen the episode, and there was no detail left to chance in creating the USO show. Major Buck Brillstein is not a comic — he’s a major in the Army, which is where I started with the character. Buck wants to be a comic. It’s always been his dream, but life just had other plans. I believe he has a beautiful family and tortures them with his jokes, impressions, characters and antics. As the emcee of the show, Buck is literally living his dream.
I know the part was not written for me because I had to audition many times before snagging the role, but I get what you are asking. (Laughter) When I read the script, it did feel that it was an episode of television that moves the needle. Thematically, dressing up in drag and wearing heels may not have been a historic piece of sketch comedy, but it was absolutely thrilling to film in front of over 800 background actors. My request, which was honored, was to be brought in so that none of the background actors could see me. They didn’t know the script, so the first time they saw me was when we were filming, so their reaction is pure. We got the scene in two takes.
TrunkSpace: You were stepping on a set with an established tone. Is that a nerve-racking experience going into the first day of shooting, not knowing if you’ll fit into the vibe that already exists behind the scenes?
Vought: Absolutely, 100 percent yes – Day 1 is nerve-racking. I’m walking onto set as a guest with some of the most incredible actors working in television today – who have a routine and rhythm established over two seasons together. This is not lost on me. Honestly, we were all working pretty hard, so there was not a lot of downtime behind the scenes. The vibe was incredible. Everyone is thrilled to be at work, and we are all aware that we are making something special. Blocking out that first shot of the episode, which is continuous – spanning 8 scripted pages – was incredible. Knowing what’s been accomplished in past seasons, you know that you are part of something historic. We broke filming records that week for the number of background actors used in a production in New York state. So, the vibe was great. It’s long hours, a lot of work, and behind the scenes, everyone is focused. I was happy I “fit into” the uniform. Beyond that, I knew I was in good hands as Donna custom-tailored it.
TrunkSpace: Speaking of nerves, as you said, there were also a LOT of people involved in the scenes you shot. Did your career in stand-up sort of prepare you for that moment?
Vought: Yes. I’ve performed for large audiences as a comic, and I know that vibe and energy. So, I knew that on that front I’d feel comfortable. That said – this is not that.
These are not audience members that are attending a comedy show. They are actors and we are creating a world from the page. Very different. I’m not doing my material, so there’s a huge difference in terms of awareness. The energy that’s captured on film is only possible because Amy and Dan choose to hire that many background actors, and it made the production as real as possible. Eight hundred plus. Incredible. But yes, if you are a runner and asked to run, you feel more comfortable than if you had never run at all. I’m on stage a lot, so that, I’m sure, prepared and informed me to play this part.
TrunkSpace: For fans, the final product of a film or series is always the most memorable part, but for those involved in a project, we’d imagine it goes much deeper than that. For you, what is something about your time working on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel that you’ll carry with you through the course of your life/career?
Vought: I had an early appointment prior to filming with Emmy award-winning costume designer Donna Zakowska. After we fit the uniform for Buck, we had to play with selects for the sketch comedy scene where Major Buck would be dressed in drag. All of a sudden, I’m half-naked trying on different bras and wigs and heels and creating what you end up seeing in the episode, which is a classic 1950’s drag comedy sketch. I will never forget Donna asking me, “How does that bra work for you?” That was a first, and even at 7 in the morning, I busted out laughing. She painted a canvas and made me a woman. As I said earlier, walking onto stage, in drag, in front of almost one thousand extras… that’s a hard one to forget and what an opportunity, as an actor, to get to play that day.
TrunkSpace: As far as your stand-up career is concerned, was comedy always in the cards? Were you a “funny” kid, even at an early age?
Vought: Nope. I was sad. Sitting in the corner wishing for a friend or to get picked for kickball. (Laughter)
I don’t know if I was funny… I don’t think I was. I didn’t have any brothers or sisters, so I was for sure in my head a lot, and I did like to laugh and loved to listen to funny things. Comedy was a discovery for me early on. Who are these people making people laugh? You can do that? That’s a thing?
As for the cards, I never paid much attention to what anyone thought I was supposed to do and every family has an opinion. My grandmother, God rest her soul, likely still believes that I could be in line at a soup kitchen at any moment. Dramatic yes, but my parents were on food stamps when I was a kid and I didn’t grow up super privileged, so going into show business isn’t something that anyone would consider to be a stable job. Any actor or comic that ends up meeting the person they are dating’s parents have that experience:
Parent: So, what do you do?
Will: I’m an actor and a comedian.
Parent: Right. But for money, what do you do to earn money?
Will: I’m an actor and a comedian?
Parent: I see. One second. Stay right there.
Parent: I’m sorry, Will, Emily is not feeling well, so you’ll have to see her another time.
(Parent to their daughter, Emily)
Parent: What the hell is wrong with you? I already have three kids living here in their 20s, and I’m not having this deadbeat have to move in six months from now because you’re in love and he’s broke.
…… you get the idea.
Seinfeld gave an interview that anyone can listen to on laugh.com. He was in his manager George Shapiro’s office and talked about the difference between wanting to be something and choosing to be something. You make the choice “to be” a comic when you walk into a club and get on stage for the first time. Prior to that, it’s all wanting and thinking. As a kid, I can say that I knew what was funny to me. As I got older, I then knew I had the ability to make people laugh. The cards may have wanted me to go to law school and even though I worked in the White House for Clinton, the humor of the circumstances was not lost on me, even then.
TrunkSpace: When did you decide to pursue stand-up comedy as a career and did you make a plan for how you would attack things?
Vought: I was on the radio in Buffalo doing mornings on WKSE Kiss 98.5 with local legend Janet Snyder (who I believe is still there and #1 in the market). I was young, my early 20s, and local clubs would put me on because of the radio show. I sucked. But I got stage time, which is the only way to get better. I moved back to New York City and hit the ground running, handing out tickets on Broadway for stage time, taking acting classes, doing Off-Broadway theatre. It was a non-stop hustle.
TrunkSpace: What is your most memorable stand-up performance experience (good or bad!) that will stick with you for the rest of your career and why?
Vought: I performed on Live at Gotham, televised nationally live from Gotham Comedy Club in New York City. There was something about performing on live television that was both exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. The celebrity host was supposed to do 10 minutes upfront. They did four minutes and threw it to commercial. The producers walked over and said, “Hey Will, how are you feeling? You look great? Listen…. would you mind doing an extra two minutes in your set?”
Now, this is a comic’s dream. Not only performing on TV but being given more TV time. The problem is, I prepared that eight-minute set. I knew it, I knew the pacing, the material, and now ADD two minutes????
What was I going to add? Would it work? I said, “Yes, no problem at all.” HUGE PROBLEM! In the end, you suck it up, I did the 10 minutes live, and it all went great. That’s the gig and welcome to showbiz. You are going to get new pages, on a television show, things are added, taken away, always changing, and never quite finished. Just roll with it.
TrunkSpace: What has been the highlight of your career as a whole thus far?
Vought: One of my highlights, thus far was as a writer, was when Wayne Brady brought me in to be the head writer during his time hosting the Late Late Show on CBS. It was during the transition period before James Corden took over, and they had a bunch of guest hosts for periods of weeks. It was absolutely incredible, and he is a phenomenal talent and one of my closest friends. Wayne gave me the reigns and went to bat for me, and I was basically the showrunner for the time that he hosted. Myself, Johnathan Mangum, and Wayne put together a new show every day, and it was an absolute dream.
A close second would be years ago. I had the good fortune to be cast by Sam Mendes in Revolutionary Road starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. Huge congrats and shout out to Sam, who just won the Golden Globe for Best Director. His film, 1917, is on my list to see.
My role on RR was very small, however, featured, and I worked on the film for a week in Connecticut. On one day of filming, I was near Leo and he offered me a cigarette. Why not? We had a short but fantastic conversation, and he was as kind and generous a man as he is an actor. There is an inside well-known story on that film, during the dinner scene, where Leo insisted on doing his coverage last on what was a 12-hour filming day. I will never forget Sam calling for background and camera and we were not finished smoking and Leo looked at me and said, “It will be fine, don’t rush.”
TrunkSpace: Time machine question. If you could jump ahead 10 years and get a glimpse of what your career looks like a decade from now, would you take that journey? If not, why?
Vought: I don’t think I would want to see into the future. It would likely freak me out. Don’t get me wrong, I have clear goals and things I want to accomplish, but seeing that specifically would take me out of the present. I think it’s so hard for everyone not to live in yesterday or tomorrow. Staying grounded in right now, this moment takes an enormous amount of stamina and clarity. The mere act of answering this question is exhausting.
Season 3 of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is available now on Amazon.