"I wanted to become a journalist before I became an actor," says Jonny Orsini. "I think I approach roles the way a journalist approaches stories."
That means he does a serious amount of research for every part he plays. Take his work in Almost Home, a new drama by Walter Anderson that's now at Theatre Row in a production from The Directors Company. Orsini plays Johnny Barnett, a Marine going back to the Bronx after serving in Vietnam. The character not only confronts his own guilt at being called a hero, but also grapples with the expectations of his family and mentors, some of whom have shady ulterior motives.
For Orsini, who's too young to remember what Vietnam veterans faced when they came back to America, books and films have been essential to his preparation. Even more importantly, he's had long conversations with Anderson, who fought in Vietnam himself. "Walter didn't necessarily experience everything in the play, but a lot of it draws from his life," the actor says. "So to have him in the room was incredible. And he had the best suggestions about what to read and what to watch."
The research, though, is only part of Orsini's journalistic impulse. "I was always interested in learning about people and things that weren't necessarily widely known and then bringing the story to light," he says. "If you've gone through something and you feel alone, then seeing it in a respectfully told story can make you feel less isolated. Anything I can do to make people feel less alone is very much what I want to do with my life."
He notes, for instance, that Almost Home has exposed him to the personal demons and public hostility many Marines faced when they re-entered civilian life. "Now, people like Walter and other veterans have made sure that people from that time period are respected for what they went through," he says. "I feel like it's a gift to be able to tell stories like that."
Similarly, he's glad his performance in The Nance has been preserved for posterity. Douglas Carter Beane's play, which starred Nathan Lane as a closeted Vaudeville performer and Orsini as his clandestine boyfriend, ran on Broadway in 2013, and it was filmed by PBS. It will air on October 10 as part of Live at Lincoln Center.
"I'm grateful for that," Orsini says. "Kids who feel like they're not accepted or feel like they're the only gay person in their state can maybe see this relationship between two people who are deeply in love. That's another story I'm just grateful I got to be part of."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photo by Carol Rosegg