Dallas — During his second show on Broadway, Bryce Ryness earned a Drama Desk nomination for his role as Woof, one of the hippie tribe protestors in the 2009 revival of Hair. These days, he's playing someone a little more structured: the gruff drill sergeant of a headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, in Matilda the Musical, which arrives in Dallas Sept. 23 at the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Winspear Opera House to kick off the 2015-16 Broadway Series.
Matilda is based on the 1988 children's book by Roald Dahl about Matilda Wormwood, a precocious girl who finds refuge in books. The musical was named Time magazine's show of the year in 2013. Ryness has additional Broadway credits, including Legally Blonde, Leap of Faith and First Date. He also played the role of Joey Storms in the New York staging of the musical Fly By Night, which was produced in 2013 by Dallas Theater Center on its way to New York. Ryness has been the stalwart Miss Trunchball on the Matilda national tour since April, and he took a few minutes during the show's stop in Denver to talk to TheaterJones about playing the deadly serious headmistress of a school that uses "Children are maggots" as a motto.
TheaterJones: In other interviews with you, it looks like it took some convincing for you to be considered as the villainous Miss Trunchbull. What drew you to the role?
Bryce Ryness: I just thought the character is so interesting. There is a huge theatrical concept that the villain defines the hero, so the hero has to rise to the challenge, which I think is something that in the Miss Trunchbull character is done so well. I like that the character doesn't need anything to be comedic at all. It's almost like Will Ferrell ... the more serious he is, the funnier he is to the audience. I had the same experience as Joey Storms [the playwright character] in Fly By Night. That character is possibly the one I am the most in love with. I know actors aren't supposed to choose a favorite role and love them each for who they are. The love I have for Joey is so simple. It reminds me of the emotional feeling and the love you have in grade school, so simple, like when you love someone in your reading class or at recess.
You have three children of your own. What's it like for you to perform and travel with all those kids in Matilda?
It's fine really. It feels a lot like art imitating life. Actually, it's wonderful. I couldn't have asked for a better touring experience. Having all those kids makes everyone be on their best behavior. There's no cattiness; everyone's nice. It's like Bring Your Daughter to Work Day every day. It's been a holistic experience. More often than not, tours go out, and there's road life and then home life. I love having kids on the tour because it helps keep my life fully incorporated.
What are your children's ages?
I have three children, 6, 4 and 18 months. Everyone traveled back home to go back to school. That's one of the reasons I'm really looking forward to Dallas because they're coming to visit during that second weekend, and our best friends from New York moved to Dallas/Fort Worth, so we'll reunite with them and reconnect with our urban tribe. My wife and I are from California, no one is in New York, so when we moved, we created a little urban tribe with another family who has kids the same age as ours.
Did you tap into any of your dad skills for the role?
I learned a little while ago that it's in everyone's best interest that I don't put too much of myself into the work that I do. For me, acting is more make-believe and less like method acting. There are pluses and minuses to both, but I learned that to stay well adjusted and to stay married and to stay tolerable at home, I needed to create a system of boundaries. If I have a really horrible day or I'm feeling something off at home, it's unfair to my cast mates if I let that drama change the way I tell the story that night—that's not what we rehearsed. It's also not fair to bring something bad that's happened on stage to my home life.
Bertie Carvel, who played Miss Trunchbull in London and on Broadway, created such an iconic character. What did you do to make the role your own?
Well, first, I did not see his work. I didn't see the Broadway play until two or three weeks into rehearsal because I wanted to bring an authenticity to the piece. It's well written, so you have to work really hard to screw it up. I do my best work when I'm not trying to copy anyone else's work. It's too easy for me to go to that place where I start to worry whether I'm good enough. The best thing I can do is bring myself to it. When I'm copying other people, it's not every good. When I did a production of Rent, it was a limitation because I can't do what Adam Pascal did, so there were audiences who didn't like what I did. With this show, being able to make the role my own is a huge bonus and benefit.
What's the most fun about playing Miss Trunchbull?
She is the character who does not think she is funny or ever attempt to be funny. She is as serious as a heart attack, so as an actor, what's really freeing is that I can be serious and intense, and the audience gets to delight in that.
What is Miss Trunchbull's deal? Why is she so mean?
That part of her was really handed to me, so I'll take the dramaturg's work on it, which is brilliant. The story is that she and her sister were performers. Her sister was a beautiful acrobat, and Miss Trunchbull was the opposite of her sister, manish and awkward, and as much love as her sister was given, she was given the opposite. She was harangued for being a physical oddity. After years of torment by her peers, she finds something that she is good at, which is the hammer. It's violent, but she's good at it. She emerges out of being the butt of every joke and being teased and maligned, so she becomes the only thing she can be, a physical education teacher—that's the job she is qualified to do.
Later, she becomes the school's headmistress, and her goal, which is manifested in the song, "The Smell of Rebellion," is to right the wrongs imposed on her as a young girl out of a sense of justice. She's taken the heart of that and gone completely off the deep end. I think she is fascinating, and from an audience perspective, secretly loved because we love an underdog. A character who can be so nasty but also have a heart, that's fun and fascinating to play. It's vamping on the line between being a terror and having feelings. Everyone is mushy about something. She's not a psychopath. It would be easier to write her off if she was, but she's a human at the end of the day.
What do your kids think of her?
I think that they think she's silly. Daddy dresses up and does silly things for a living. They're at an age where they realize daddy is in a costume. They know that the same person who sits on the bed and reads to them is the same guy who is on stage telling a story.
Was there a Miss Trunchbull in your childhood?
When I was growing up, it was our elementary school principal. He might have been the loveliest man in the world, but we were all terrified of him. I got called into his office once, and he was totally reasonable. He was about 6-foot one or two, but when you're that small, he looked enormous!
Were you a reader as a child?
Not really. I played a lot of sports. I read in school because we had to. I'm not a dumb jock or anything, but no, I was not a Matilda.
As a child, what is the most revolting thing you ever did?
In fourth grade, I wrote a bad word in permanent marker on the handball court wall at the encouragement of the class hooligan. I really hedged my bet with that one because I knew that the next day they were going to paint the wall green. But I wrote the bad word and had to pick up trash as punishment.