Pillow Talking’s Interview with NICK VARRICCHIO
Someday Productions LLC and Pillow Talking are pleased to present the following interview with actor, singer NICK VARRICCHIO
Nick Varricchio IS the Fonz in WBT’s Production of HAPPY DAYS.
So we are sitting here, pre-show, in the Rogers & Hammerstein private box at Westchester Broadway Theatre with actor Nick Varricchio who plays “The Fonz” in HAPPY DAYS. A terrific theatre, a very charming, affable, funny (and handsome!) young actor and interviewee. Nick, thank you for giving us your time and granting us this interview!
PT: So Nick, let’s start by having you tell us a little bit about your background.
NV: Okay! So I grew up in Mentor, Ohio, which is east of Cleveland. Every Sunday was pasta Sunday at my Grandma’s, so all the cousins would come over and we’d play three blind mice and then we’d go and have a big Italian pasta meal and then we’d more than likely listen to the Beatles on the way home.
PT: (Wayne) My Mom was one of nine from a big Italian family and we had “Pasta Sundays,” too. Did you also have “Leftover Pasta Thursdays”?
NV: (Laughs) No, it was just Pasta Sundays. I have two brothers, one older, one younger, Dom and Vin. It was great growing up with them. We had a little neighborhood gang and we’d always be playing kick ball, hide-and-go seek, tag or something. It was really fantastic.
PT: At what point did you decide to pursue this crazy business?
NV: I always would be making pretend movies in the backyard and I would grab anything and use it as a prop because my mom would always have Turner Classic Movies on TV. So I was always being introduced to the greats like Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor. Seeing all these fantastic performances as a kid, I would go and reenact them in the backyard. It wasn’t until one summer when my mom took us to do a summer theatre camp – Wildwood summer camp – and we did superheroes and I was Spider Man. And I was like, I can do this! But then it wasn’t until junior year of high school I think – no, sophomore year – we took a trip to New York City and we saw Jersey Boys.
PT: Great show!
NV: I was like, Mamma, I want to do that. They never questioned it. They were always supportive.
PT: Other than watching Turner Movies, was your family into theatre and film?
NV: Yeah, a little. They had an appreciation for it. They weren’t super theatre-goers and film-goers. But they let us choose what interested us and would always put us in something and let us try something else. We were very musical. My brothers did percussion and the congas and I played clarinet.
PT: (Stephanie) I played clarinet, too (laughs).
NV: Ooooh. All right! Woodwind!
PT: So it was high school when you kind of got the bug. Did you do high school plays?
NV: Yeah. In my sophomore year my friend dared me to try out for the play. And this sounds so typical, but she dared me, and then I did it and I got the lead. So I was “Max” in Lend Me a Tenor. So it was really, really cool and I enjoyed it so much. Our director was Janet Schenk. She was the one who taught me that theatre was a privilege. It’s not guaranteed for anybody – it’s a privilege, so know that when you’re taking your bow. I also got a lot of comedic timing from her. That was the first play that I did and then gradually I did more and more. And then I somehow found out you could go to school for it. So I auditioned at NYU and Fordham, but didn’t get in. I went to this one place, Baldwin Wallace [University] on the west side of Cleveland and they did a master class. They would bring in New York agents and casting directors. The kids were so phenomenal and I was just like, I guess I’ve got to go here. But the problem was I did my audition at nine o’clock in the morning and I kind of blew it off. I was schmoozing with the theatre director and I was singing “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top” to them and trying to charm them the best I could.
PT: (Laughs) That’s good!
NV: Well, it worked out in my favor. And then I went there for four years. The first two years were terribly difficult and the last two years were really productive.
PT: What was difficult about those first two years?
NV: I thought I needed to be something that I wasn’t. I thought I only needed to do theatre. I thought I needed to be a certain type of person to fit in. It wasn’t until I thought to myself, Maybe you should consider something else. And then I went away for a summer and I worked at a restaurant five days a week. My theatre friend who is a director said, Nick, come and do Light in the Piazza. You can be the dialogue coach and have a role. I realized then that it was okay to be multi-faceted – that you could love language, you could love theatre. You can do this and you can do that, you don’t have to be so one-dimensional about the whole thing. That’s when I started taking ownership in terms of where I wanted to go as an actor, an artist – it was the most liberating thing.
PT: How old were you – twenty-ish?
NV: Twenty-one. Then the next two years were great.
PT: Do you think it was a maturity thing, too?
NV: Yeah. It felt like I matured those three months of summer.
PT: We know the Light in the Piazza and want to see it. In addition to having a part you were the dialogue coach. You speak fluent Italian?
NV: I mean, if I were over there [in Italy] I’d definitely be speaking fluent Italian. I know enough to really hold down a good conversation.
PT: You’ve done a great deal of theatre – all over the place.
NV: I’ve been very fortunate.
PT: Tell us about that.
NV: It’s great. Everybody needs an escape from New York City, I don’t care who you are. In my personal experience, it’s lovely to take a vacation. Most recently I was in Asia doing Saturday Night Fever.
NV: It not only felt like I was in the movie, but I also got to wear bell bottoms and big collared shirts. I love disco and I love the seventies. So it was a dream. At the same time I got to travel to Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines.
PT: That’s really wonderful!
NV: Yeah, looking back, I’ve been really fortunate to have been brought to these places and experienced different sights and met different people.
PT: So you’re living in New York now?
PT: We were just speaking to an actress who was discussing how tough theatre can be in New York and how regional theatre can be a bit more welcoming at times.
NV: It’s a great opportunity to practice and hone your craft. I went and saw an interview with Patti LuPone and she talked about what a great time she had before her big Broadway success. She was with an acting troupe and that’s when she said she really honed her skills and her craft and she was practicing – the stakes were low – and what a great time in her life it was. And I feel like this all a part of the process for me right now, too.
PT: A great part of our readership is made up of actors, writers, and artists and they are always interested in process. What is your process?
NV: I have a few standards and one of them is to remember why you are doing this. [As an actor playing a character] you’re speaking for an actual human spirit, a soul, a being. That person does exist somewhere in the world and somebody’s going to relate to that. I did a great play called Speech & Debate and I was terrible in it. And it was only because I judged the character so hard – I wasn’t really out yet at the time and it was just very uncomfortable. It was a lead and there were only three characters and I couldn’t hide behind anything. Looking back, I wish I was young enough to play the role again because I still want to do justice to the role. And I think that’s why I’m an actor – I want to do voices that are real in this world and do them justice and give them a voice.
PT: [We are so impressed by Nick’s depth of understanding about acting. Very profound for a young, rising star.]
NV: And then I like to do fun things, too. I like to take my scripts to my younger brother Vince – he’s not an actor, but a great creative story writer. He and I always go through a script and he’ll read my lines and I read the other characters’ lines (laughs). He has no stakes in it, he doesn’t care, so he’s going to have as much fun as he can.
PT: Right. That sounds like a great process!
NV: Yes. So I get to actually hear the role. It’s really refreshing to hear it that way.
PT: Does he do it really over the top?
NV: Sometimes. But sometimes he’ll do great things, and I’ll be like, I’m going to use that!
PT: Did he help you for Fonzie?
NV: No, he was back in Ohio. Sometimes I will call him up before a commercial audition or some audition and be like, Vince, quick, read this script and tell me how you would do it. And he’d do it, just unabashedly – (laughs) works every time.
PT: Let’s talk about The Fonz. One of the reasons we really wanted to interview you was that you are so great in the role of Fonzie in WBT’s Happy Days. It’s such an iconic character from an iconic American show. We’d like to know how you pulled it off.
NV: Well, I feel like I’m still trying to pull it off (laughs).
PT: Were you trepidatious when you heard that you were up for the role?
NV: A little. When I first got the breakdown and it said Happy Days (The Musical), I asked, Why are they making it a musical? But then I found out that my really good friend Jonathan Stahl was directing it and I thought this would be a really safe environment to step out of my comfort zone and take on this iconic role. And then finally I just threw caution to the wind and said, I’m going to try and find this character in me. I still get a little nervous, but I feel if Henry Winkler came I’d be doing him proud.
PT: We met Henry [Winkler] a few years ago at Comic Con and he was just the nicest person and we also know people who know him.
NV: You should give him a call and tell him to come to the show!
PT: We will try! And we’ll send him the interview and tweet him as well. (Wayne) Here’s the thing, when I was growing up with The Fonz, he was everywhere [in the media]. And you captured just the right tone. When you first walked out, I said, Is he going to pull this off? (Stephanie laughs) He said, I don’t know about him, but it didn’t take long before he said you pulled it off!
NV: I think that every day – that the audience must be thinking that.
PT: [No! They must love you!] Tell us, what did you do to prepare? Did you watch episodes of Happy Days?
NV: I watched American Graffiti first. It is a fantastic film. I told everybody about it. Happy Days was kind of a representation of that time and period. It’s a brilliant film. And then I watched The Best of the Fonz on YouTube. I checked out all the “best of” clips. And then I started slowly trying to watch the episodes. I also wanted to do a back entrance in terms of getting into character. So I watched the making of Grey Gardens with Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange and I would watch their interviews. And they would talk about getting the voice and mannerisms and being able to slip right into that character. And I thought that was clever. So I did that. And I also remember there was a made-for-television movie a long time ago that Lorna Luft produced – [Life with Judy Garland:] Me and My Shadows – based on her mom, Judy Garland. I remember one of the interviews when it was released on DVD. I was watching Tammy Blanchard being interviewed. And she was asked, How did you get the role? Weren’t you nervous? And she said, Yeah, I was really nervous. I even went to Judy Davis who signed on to be the older version of Judy Garland. And she said how are you feeling? And she [Tammy] said, I don’t know if I can do it. And Judy Davis said, It’s not so much a matter of whether you can do it or not, but are you up for the challenge? And then she’s like, Okay, I’m up for the challenge. I looked back on that and said that’s how I have to be. I have to be up for the challenge and find the essence of Henry Winkler as The Fonz.
PT: That’s a great analysis.
NV: One of the best things about Henry Winkler is that he always talked about how he approached The Fonz as this real person. He was not a caricature – he was an actor about the entire thing – he was very smart. So I looked up to that and kept that always in mind.
PT: (Wayne) As a director I’d be very concerned about a part like this. In most shows, you have to make the part your own. But here is a part based on a character in a TV show. So you have to capture the essence of the character and still bring something of your own to it otherwise you’d be a caricature.
NV: It’s funny. I took the script to Bryant Park in New York City.
PT: (Stephanie) Awesome place!
NV: I told my friend Jodie, Come on down I got the script and I have to memorize it in two or three days! So she comes down and we’re going through the script. And she’s quizzing me on my lines. And she said, Let’s talk about Fonz – because she grew up with it as did many people – and she got up and would act as Pinky Tuscadero would act and she’d say, The Fonz would do this and The Fonz would do that. She was really pivotal on helping me out – just giving me some clues and hints. There she was performing in Bryant Park introducing me to who The Fonz was and his signature things and nailing that.
PT: (Stephanie) So you had kind of double responsibility to learn your lines but then to bring to it these other elements.
NV: I know. It was very daunting.
PT: Was that more challenging than other roles you played?
NV: I think this is the most challenging role I’ve ever had to come up upon – just because of the expectation of who The Fonz is and also what you want to bring to the role – how do you want to do it justice but put your own personal flare on this iconic character. It was a challenge. And then I really felt like I was doing a good job of it and then one day in Pick a Bagel in midtown I just started crying because I was like, I don’t know if I can pull this off. And this was during tech and I called my mom. And these poor people next to me must have thought I was breaking up with someone or lost a relative – I didn’t want to wrap my bagel because I’d put ketchup down. Here I am going, I don’t know if I’m enough! And my mom is like, Get out of Pick a Bagel, go to the street and get air! (laughs)
PT: (Wayne) Imagine you telling them [at Pick a Bagel] it’s because I can’t play The Fonz! (laughs)
NV: Yeah. It was just the pressure. I put a lot of pressure on myself, but once I had that good cry and once I realized that this was certainly within reach, it all dissipated. Of course, Jonathan was so great about creating a fantastic safe space for all of us to work in. He was so open and wanted us, as actors and people to be open.
PT: Well, you nailed it. We feel you nailed it. The reviews are in. You’ve gotten great reviews. You’re in the middle of the run. How does it feel?
NV: It’s great. I feel like we found our footing. The show is very strong. And now I’m really, really having fun with it. And I’m not going overboard, but I’m having enough fun to know that this is – the world. What’s great about this show is that The Fonz isn’t in so many production numbers. He’s kind of in the back of the production numbers and then has his own solo songs. And I get to watch those big grand numbers, the singing and dancing. It’s really fun because it gets me in the mood, but I also get to appreciate and enjoy and laugh with whoever is on stage.
PT: (Stephanie) You just get to stand there and look cool. And straddle the motorcycle. Did you ever ride a motorcycle before?
NV: No, but don’t tell anyone (laughs).
PT: (Wayne) (Laughs) You just told about 400,000 readers [viewers]! But don’t worry, you’re still The Fonz!
But let’s change motorcycle gears (no pun intended) and talk about film. Our kids are fans of Fun Size and we know you appeared in that film. How is it working in film?
NV: Film is more laborious, more time consuming. You have to be very patient because there are different angles and you know – different things that are required of you. You don’t have to project, the camera is right there. That was a really cool experience. I had my own trailer and my mom was like, Invite everybody over to your trailer! (laughs) Chelsea Handler? Yeah, she is not going to want to come to my trailer!
PT: (Stephanie laughs) or Victoria Justice?
NV: (Laughs) I’ll never forget the first day on set we were in the circle, we’re in the parking lot, and the cool guy’s like, jamming out. For some reason he wouldn’t pay me any mind and I’m one of his groupies! I wanted in – but he wouldn’t pay me any mind. So I said, Okay, I’m going to dance and do my own thing. And then they’re like, Okay. So when the camera comes around, don’t look into the camera. Great. Action! Camera’s going, camera’s going boom – [me] right into the camera – deer in the headlights! (laughs)
PT: (Laughs) That’s great.
NV: And then they were doing my scene – I have a few lines. So they’re like, Okay we’re going to do a quick rehearsal, run through. So the director comes up – he’s like, You’re here Victoria [Justice], you’re here, and you’re here and you’re going to say this line. And I could not get the line out! I could not for the life of me get the line out! And the line is, “I heard you shot Mike Puglio with a musket, is that true?” And I was like, “I… heard…Mike…shot…musket…” (laughs).
PT: (Wayne and Stephanie rolling on the floor laughing) (Stephanie) Kind of like what you hear when your phone is breaking up!
NV: The director just kind of looked at me and said, Okay…now you are going to do this. He was very confused. Then they poured beer in cups and I manhandled this one other actor in the scene and spilled beer all over his costume. It was a mess, but it really was a cool experience (laughs). Can’t wait to be hired for a new film (laughs). Peter Bogdanovitch, if you’re listening I have your next project.
PT: (Laughs) (Stephanie) Do you think the passage of time has healed some of those wounds perhaps?
NV: Yes…but they’re great scars to have!
PT: What would you tell young people about wanting to go into the business? What advice would you give?
NV: I would tell them this – and it’s something I’ve been thinking about lately. And you don’t have to be an actor to do this, [I’d say], Just whatever you want to do, whatever you want to get really, really good at – just start today because it’s going to take you from now until the time you achieved your idea of personal success. It’s going to take you that long.
I just bought an accordion and I really, really one day want to be the guy with the beret in the subway playing Édith Piaf and crying (laughs) “La Foule” [and another song, but we at Pillow Talking were laughing so hard with him we didn’t understand or hear what he said!] But I know in order to get there, I’ve got to start playing “Merrily We Roll Along” and “Hot Cross Buns” (laughs), so start today and know that it’s going to take you that amount of time to get it done. But know that you’re closer than you think. You’re always closer to your dreams. I like what Oprah said, When we all are getting put in the ground one day our spirits are going to rise and whatever, and we’re going to think Oh, it was so easy why didn’t we just do it?
So whatever you do, start the day and make sure you have the guts for it. It’s a fight to the end a fight to the death.
PT: Awesome, Nick. And you’re so right. We really like that – start today. So, tell us about your future agenda.
NV: Well, I’ve got to go back and audition. I’m going to be unemployed in a month (laughs). But as for my future agenda, one day I want to have my own variety show just like Dean Martin.
PT: He had the coolest show.
NV: Yes, he did. So cool. And then I really want to tackle film. I really want to tackle Broadway. I just wrote a short story that turned into a long story that I’m very proud of. And I have these great plans for people like Cathy Moriarty and Peter Bogdanovich to direct and star in. And Cybill Shepherd can be in it, too!
NV: I would love for him to at least read it – get that to him somehow. And I have to keep practicing the accordion (laughs).
PT: (Laughs) Well, maybe we can ask Peter Bogdanovich for an interview and tell him about it!
NV: (Laughs) That’s a great idea! Yeah, tell him, I’ve got your next project!
PT: Excluding Happy Days, what is your favorite project you’ve worked on?
NV: I guess it was – Light in the Piazza was really special. Saturday Night Fever was so cool.
PT: I can imagine.
NV: [For Saturday Night Fever] the company was still learning how to do a tour. The cast only had four Americans in it; the rest of the cast was amazingly talented Philippinos. But they couldn’t send us back to America for like a week, interim, because our contracts wouldn’t do that – so they said, Well, go to Bali – so I went to Bali. So that has to be up there. I was singing Bee Gees and my hair was doing a Farah Fawcett flip, so that was really special, too.
PT: (Laughs) (Stephanie) Did you grow out your hair for that?
NV: Yeah (laughs). But I think Speech & Debate was very special. It taught me a facet of why I act or why I think it’s important and why it matters – or maybe why it doesn’t (laughs).
PT: (Stephanie) Have you worked with anyone really cool or spectacular?
NV: Yeah, definitely. But what I like to do is to observe everybody during the rehearsal process. See what they do and kind of keep quiet – just a little bit. I’d love to work with Lisa Kudrow one day. I think she’d be really fun.
PT: Our kids are big Friends fans.
NV: Cool – Phoebe was my favorite.
PT: (Wayne) So I don’t learn from my mistakes. During an interview I asked Terrence McNally – one of the most significant playwrights of our time – a fairly silly question. I’m going to ask you the same one. Do you have any funny stories from Happy Days?
NV: From this production…
NV: Hmmm…I don’t know. Things have gone pretty smoothly.
PT: (Wayne) I see I’m going to have to refine this question somehow. It’s an interview killer (laughs).
NV: Well, actually I do have one. So I’m eating a sandwich – a cheese sandwich – at one point in the show. And on this particular night my family and friends were there. So I’m eating the cheese sandwich and right before I say my line I usually take a bite, you know, for comedic effect – my mouth is full – and yeah, so I accidentally bit the paper. And I was like, ugghh. So I had this instantaneous moment where I spit it out and then I was like, What?, but then I put it back.
PT: (Rolling on the floor in hysterics)
NV: So I…eat the paper.
PT: (Laughs) Fonzie would have eaten the paper! Don’t worry about it, Fonzie could have eaten anything.
Who were some of your earliest influences, not only for acting, but for singing, too. We haven’t talked about your singing.
NV: Michael Bublé. I went to four of his concerts, I think. He’s a really cool performer.
PT: We love Michael Bublé.
NV: Cher was my first concert. That was cool.
NV: She was in Cleveland and her show in Cleveland was her farewell tour. She comes down in a chandelier – but the chandelier got stuck. So you see the chandelier come down and there’s Cher dangling with her feet and so they throw back the curtain. We’re like, What’s going on? And then she comes back out and goes, I was $@##ing myself. And then she started the show and it was great, fantastic. But her music was really influential.
PT: We recently saw and interviewed Matthew Morrison – he reminded me of Michael Bublé – very much in that genre. He did “Singin’ in the Rain” and it was great. I know you had mentioned Gene Kelly in your bio.
NV: Yeah, I love Gene Kelly.
PT: So you said your family been out to see the show.
NV: Yes, they came a week ago.
PT: So tell us, how did they like it?
NV: They were troopers. They saw it three times. I think my parents were in the front row for two of the shows and this was after they’d already seen it.
PT: Were they Happy Days fans?
NV: Oh, yeah. They only had one TV and would crowd around it for Happy Days.
PT: What did they say about you being The Fonz?
NV: They said I nailed it. And I said, Really?
PT: That’s great! What about your friends back home? What do they think of your career?
NV: They are all cheering me on. I’ve got a great high school gang that I go home and see all the time. Actually they’re coming. And my Italian teacher is coming.
PT: Nice! That’s awesome.
So, we like to play this game with some of our interviewees where if I say, Most creative actor you know or ever worked with, you need to respond off the top of your head. It’s called the “lightning round.” Okay?
PT: So, most creative actor.
NV: I’d say Lisa Kudrow. I’m a huge fan of hers and The Comeback series. A lot of creative energy.
PT: Great. Your favorite director?
NV: I have a few. Roman Polanski and Peter Bogdanovich.
PT: We feel like you’re an old soul because you have such a love of the classics.
NV: (Laughs) I feel like I’m a film historian because I’m always preaching to people to go see this or watch this movie with Gena Rowlands and John Cassavetes.
PT: Most inspiring artist?
NV: Gosh. There are so many. I guess Montgomery Clift. I just remember watching A Place in the Sun and there would be an interview afterward with Elizabeth Taylor saying how he got to sweat on the stand. And I’d be like, How did he do that? I’m such a huge fan of his work.
PT: We always like to end our interview with our standard question of: If you were to sum up your life to date (realizing it’s still early in your career) in one word, what would it be?
NV: Sum up my life? Hmmm…I would use the words attraversiamo or allora – both Italian words. Attraversiamo means crossing over – I guess I’m on a journey. And allora – I think it’s one of the prettiest words. You go to Italy and they are all like, allora – [meaning] ah well, then – it’s a great word.
PT: That’s great! (Stephanie) someone we spoke to recently referred to young actors as “journeying.” And I think that’s just really a cool way to put it, because so many young actors are on this journey. You’re honing your craft, you’re trying to figure out where you want to go with your art, and obviously there’s a journey every step of the way because like you said, (laughs) there’s no job after this one – yet.
NV: (Laughs) So let me ask you two a question.
NV: And the question is: Wayne, Stephanie, is (blank)…
PT: (Stephanie) Ah, you want to put us on the spot. You want to know what we’d say about each other or ourselves?
PT: (Stephanie) You don’t want to know what I was just going to say! (Wayne) I know exactly what I’m going to say. It’s easy for me. Wayne is…complete. Now, I don’t want to influence Stephanie. (Stephanie laughs) I wasn’t going to say something so wonderful! I was going to say overwhelmed but that’s just because our lives are so crazy – but – I don’t know. It didn’t come so easy for me…
NV: (laughs) You’re avoiding the question.
PT: (Wayne) Yeah, you are. (Stephanie laughs) Okay, okay. I’d say, Stephanie is…on the way. Our way…her way…
NV: Ooh, la, la. That’s not my exercise, by the way, that’s Barbara Walters.
PT: (Wayne) You know why I said complete? Because I’ve had such a varied career. I was very lucky. I was on scholarship through college and law school. Practiced law, went into media, went to film festivals, distributed films, I produced and directed. But then I stopped for a while…and then I met Stephanie; she really resurrected all these feelings of creativity in me. I asked her then to produce a play with me. It initially started out as a business/creative relationship, long before it was a romantic one.
(To our five children who were with us at the interview) Do you guys have any questions for Nick before we wrap up?
Sarah: Was there ever a time when you messed up a line in the middle of something?
NV: Yes. My first line in maybe one of the first previews here. It was like, “Way to go, Cunningham. But be gone by six o’clock I’ve got a date.” But I said, “Way to go, Cunningham. B-b-b…” and it was like, Fudge! Are you kidding me? The first line out of The Fonz’s mouth and he’s screwing it up?
Sarah: What did you do?
NV: My mouth got very, very dry. And I was like, I don’t think I can do the rest of this show! (Laughs)
Brady: What’s the most dangerous thing you’ve done on set?
NV: What’s the most dangerous thing I’ve done? On any set?
Brady: Yes, any set!
NV: We had this runway that was elevated like fifteen feet. And there were no railings and so it was very Vertigo, like, you couldn’t go too far to the edge or you’d fall off. It was very scary. And then probably this motorcycle (in Happy Days). Some days, I’m like, What if I accidentally go straight into the audience with this?
Brady: You get to ride a motorcycle? Like a real motorcycle?
NV: It’s a real motorcycle. It’s so heavy!
PT: (After taking multiple photos, and some very silly ones with the brood, then getting a tour of backstage, we left Nick to grab his dinner before his evening performance!) Thank you SO much Nick for a really fun and fabulous interview!
Check out Pillow Talking’s Vlog Interview with Nick
Check out our Blooper Reel with Nick