Titanique's Nathan Lee Graham on How Working Actors Are the Backbone of Theatre | Playbill

How Did I Get Here Titanique's Nathan Lee Graham on How Working Actors Are the Backbone of Theatre

Plus, how the SAG-AFTRA strike led him to the Hadestown tour.

Graphic by Vi Dang

Actor and singer Nathan Lee Graham—perhaps best known for his work in the films Zoolander, Zoolander 2, Sweet Home Alabama, and Hitch—is back on the boards in the hit Off-Broadway musical Titanique: Une Parodie Musicale.

Graham, recently seen as Hermes in the North American tour of the Tony-winning Hadestown, is playing a limited engagement as Ruth in Titanique through February 18 at the Daryl Roth TheatreTitanique parodies the blockbuster Oscar-winning film Titanic using the songs of Celine Dion.

Part of the original Broadway casts of the Tony-nominated The Wild Party and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, the stage and screen star received a Lucille Lortel Award nomination for his work in the new musical The View UpStairs, the IRNE Award for his performance in The Colored Museum, and a Drama League nomination for playing Rey-Rey in Tarell Alvin McCraney's Wig Out. And, for his work in the Los Angeles premiere of The Wild Party, the Missouri native won the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Featured Performer in a Musical.

Graham is also a winner of the 2005 Best Classical Album Grammy Award for Songs of Innocence and of Experience (as a soloist). His small-screen credits include The Comeback, Scrubs, Absolutely Fabulous, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Broad City, LA to Vegas, Katy Keene, and Woke.

In the interview below for the Playbill series How Did I Get Here—spotlighting not only actors, but directors, designers, musicians, and others who work on and off the stage to create the magic that is live theatre—Graham shares how his dream wasn't to be famous and the delights of working with Eartha Kitt in The Wild Party.

Nathan Lee Graham in Titanique

Where did you train/study?
Nathan Lee Graham: I am a very proud alumnus of the Sargent Conservatory at Webster University in Webster Groves, Missouri (St. Louis). BFA in Musical Theatre.

Was there a teacher who was particularly impactful/helpful? What made this instructor stand out?
I’ve been very fortunate to have some key people guide me in my career. At Webster, there is no doubt that person would be Mr. Byron Grant! Head of the musical theatre department at that time. He was key in aiding my full knowledge of the history of the musical theatre, the way I approach any role I do to this day, and in my lifelong love of anything Sondheim! Byron actually gave a damn about how I carried or presented myself off stage as well…He said to me very early on, “You don’t just want to have gigs…You want to have a career…so show up on time, know your lines, and don’t be an asshole!” I’ve maintained this way of being for over 35 years!

Is the cast having as much fun at Titanique as the audience? Do you have a favorite moment in the show for your character?
I’ve done a lot of things…and Titanique is right up there with the wild and wonderful ride I’m on! The cast is absolutely wonderful in every way! So supportive, so talented, hell, so brave! And yes, we are having a ball doing it! Mind you, it’s hard work maintaining that level of broad, yet sincere comedy. But it certainly is enjoyable. And my “breakdown” as “Ruth” is hilariously exhausting! I’m cracking up inside the whole time!

Nathan Lee Graham and company of the North American Tour of Hadestown T Charles Erickson

You recently starred in the national tour of Hadestown. Can you share a favorite memory from backstage or on stage?
Ah yes, the national or “North” American tour of Hadestown! Well, as we all know, we had a SAG-AFTRA strike going on, what to do, what to do? I hadn’t been on tour since Family Matters went off the air in 1998! And, let me tell you, it was a fantastic time, but it was not easy! Playing Hermes was all-consuming for me, practically a new city every week, with five-show weekends! And I’m proud to say that over the course of a year and change, I only missed eight shows, which amounted to two weekends!

Some of the most memorable times on the road were when we could be in town at the same time as LGBTQ+ Pride celebrations! So amazing to share with everyone the joy of theatre and coming together, particularly through these polarizing times! One time, in particular, was in Fayetteville, Arkansas. I had never been and didn’t know what to expect. Well, Hadestown rolled into town when there was a lot of tension within the community, specifically centered around LGBTQ+ issues, and our show was certainly a ”balm in Gilead” if you will! I had the opportunity to express some powerful words from our company each night—some wonderful and brave people in that town.

Do you have a dream stage roles?
Not to be flip, but my dreams came true so long ago that I’m constantly making new ones! So I suppose on “stage" I’d like to take a crack at the following characters that already exist, I’ll give you four: Lady Bracknell from The Importance of Being Earnest, Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard, Sir Benjamin Backbite from The School for Scandal, Roger De Bris in The Producers.

Erik King and Nathan Lee Graham in Wig Out!

What made you decide to become an actor? Was there a particular production or performance that influenced your decision?
There was never a time when I wasn’t performing. It was just something I enjoyed in school and at church, and my parents and my grandparents supported and encouraged me to do. My mother reminds me all the time that I came to her in high school and said these words, “I’d like to be a working actor.” I didn’t say “star” or I want to be famous… I said working actor. And I am super proud to be a working class actor. We are the backbone of this industry, the war horses! I love it!

What do you consider your big break?
I must tell you I’ve never had a “big break!” But what I have had is always working with the best people, in the best shows, and relishing each and every moment. If one does that enough, you look up, and all of a sudden, you have a career you can be proud of! I always say, “I don’t have to star in anything, I just have to steal it!”

How did you get your first job in the theatre? How did this current job come about?
My first job here in NYC was the first national tour of Jesus Christ Superstar with Ted Neeley, Carl Anderson, Irene Cara, Dennis DeYoung, and Laurent Giroux! Five callbacks, and the rest is history, baby! LOL! Then, the lovely producers and the wonderful director Ty Blue of Titanique invited me to be a part of their amazing production!

Is there a person or people you most respect in your field and why?
Eartha Kitt, the one and only, continues to be a sustaining entity in my life and career. She gave such wonderful gems of advice and ways of being for life and work. What an absolute gift to work with and to have known someone you idolized and looked up to. Always a "part of it" but simultaneously “singular.” I do know what that feels like…all the time.

Nathan Lee Graham in The Rocky Horror Skivvies Concert Steph Marie Oberle

What advice would you give your younger self or anyone starting out?
Here’s some advice. Stay healthy in every way. It is truly the only way to actualize your full performing potential. And, remember, show business is not set up for you to fail. It’s set up for you to quit! No one wants you to fail—if you’re winning baby, everybody’s winning! But one less person to have to do deal with…well, is one less person. So don’t quit. Unless “you” want to.

What do you wish you knew starting out that you know now?
One of the main things I wish I knew when I was starting out would have to be the fact that your “talent” was only a small part of you getting hired for a job. In fact, sometimes it’s the least. There are so many factors—good, bad, or indifferent—that you have no power over. So always have an appointment after your meeting to immediately move on, karmically, to the next thing. Go shopping, have a tea date, get your brows done. Who cares, just do something! If you prepared and did the damn thing in the room, leave it all there!

What is your proudest achievement as an actor?
My proudest achievements as a performing artist: consistency, sustainability, and to be reliable. Discipline. And like my beloved grandmother said to me on her deathbed—she squeezed my hand tight: “Outlast them!” And that’s just what I plan on doing!

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