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Drew Moerlein's physique and funny bone led to his Broadway debut in American Psycho
Welcome to Building Character, TDF Stages' ongoing series on actors and how they create their roles
Like many of the ridiculously ripped men in the new Broadway musical American Psycho, Drew Moerlein is shirtless in the opening number. Yet there was a time when he wasn't eager to show off his abs. But with a theatrical résumé that includes stints as seminude comical characters like Spike in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike and Mr. Grey in the musical satire Spank! The Fifty Shades Parody, plus burlesque listed as a special skill, he clearly no longer has any qualms about being unclothed. What changed?
"I was a varsity athlete in high school, and then I went to college and decided that keg stands and dining halls were the only way to live!" Moerlein says with a laugh. "So I gained a ton of weight. At my heaviest, I was about 260. Then I moved to New York City, a town that eats you alive, and realized that I wanted to focus on my career. So yeah, I changed my lifestyle. I quit drinking, I got fit. And I thought, you know what? I'm proud of it. And that shows. I have the confidence to take off my clothes, to sing, to dance, to strip. With the Spank! tour, I would be in theatres with 1,500 women screaming for me like I was Mick Jagger -- it does a lot for your confidence level."
Moerlein's self-assurance comes in handy for his role as Paul Owen, the arch nemesis of American Psycho (anti)hero Patrick Bateman (played by Benjamin Walker). Both characters are image-obsessed, '80s Wall Street yuppies with cutthroat styles. As viewed through the protagonist's eyes, Paul is a grade-A a-hole who's so self-involved, he keeps mistaking Patrick for someone named "Marcus." But Moerlein says he portrays Paul as if he's a good guy, and that makes sense. After all, it's Patrick, not Paul, who's killing off their colleagues.
"The easy trap to fall into with Paul is to play him the way that Patrick sees him, which is as this cocky, presumptuous douche bag," explains Moerlein. "But I think Paul is actually a genuinely nice guy, a golden boy who was raised right and is well-educated, has a great sense of humor, wears all the right clothes, has the best watch, the best briefcase. Yes, he's successful and the best accounts do fall into place for him, but he has earned that stature. He's just an affable guy and everybody loves him. He probably helps old ladies shovel their drive ways! I think that's the most effective way to attack the role because that's the most effective way to get to Patrick Bateman. Nothing pisses him off more than to see somebody praise Paul. The importance of Paul in Patrick's life is massive, meanwhile Paul doesn't even know who Patrick is. That's what's so interesting."
Patrick and Paul have a handful of memorable run-ins, but their first may be the funniest, as the frenemies compare their swanky new business cards as if sizing up each other's manhood in a locker room. Songwriter Duncan Sheik's quirky, synth-heavy number "Cards" is full of clever wordplay that highlights how obsessed these characters are with the superficial: "Oh baby, baby, this can’t be right/I love your surfaces. I love your type." It also showcases Lynne Page's acrobatic choreography with the men jumping on and off tables, a concept partially inspired by Moerlein's athletic ability.
"At the first rehearsal they pulled the tables out and said, 'What are we going to do to get you up there?' And I just jumped up on the table and they were like, 'Can you do that every show?' And I said, 'I believe so!' One thing that was excellent about this creative team was the liberty they gave to us. They would find out what our natural strengths were and then they would use them. All of the dance breaks between Patrick and Paul in "Cards" are improvised. Same with the Huey Lewis drunk scene between them at the end of Act I. We literally have never choreographed that. We look at each other and just dance like drunk, stoned idiots. And that's been one of the most freeing things."
Although Moerlein could certainly go for more traditional leading-man roles, he's enjoying carving out a niche for himself as a humorous hunk, which isn't such a common combination. "There are a lot of very handsome legit theatre actors and then there are the funny best friend supporting types," he says. "Then there's this space in between for what I hope people perceive me as: a leading man who has a funny bone. That's kind of what I've fallen into and what I hope to continue do."
Photos by Jeremy Daniel. Top image: Drew Moerlein in American Psycho.