There’s something refreshingly simple about Paul Alexander Nolan’s rise to success. The Canadian actor recognized his talent, fell in love with his craft, worked hard, and has achieved what he set out to do. On and Off-Broadway, Paul has played an impressive array of leading men. Now, he stars as Jimmy Ray Dobbs in Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s new musical Bright Star. In this interview, Paul shares some of his fundamentals for finding success.
MC: When did you catch the theater bug?
PAN: When I was 13 I had a complete “light switch on” moment. I saw Les Mis—a touring production that came by the small town I grew up in. It was then that I knew [theater] was what I wanted to do with my life. I had already been doing a little community theater and amateur stuff. I didn’t really connect the dots until I saw [Les Mis].
What was it about the show that struck you?
It was honestly just identifying the characters at raw. I was pretty small still—I grew late. I don’t think I hit a growth spurt until I was like 15 years old. So at 13 I was still little. I was as small as [the character Gavroche]. It was just seeing people that age were actually doing it and doing it professionally. Also, the musical itself. That’s what did it.
What training did you do to set up for success?
Obviously it wasn’t planned or anything like that. My parents recognized that I could sing when I was young, so I eventually took singing lessons. I would say just having a strong technical base when I was a young adult; it set me apart from a lot of my peers from ages 17-23. And then, I went to musical theater school when I was in Canada, age 17 or 18, for two years. I never really learned to dance before. It was there where I used my athletics and learned how to dance. I’m not the world’s best dancer but the tools definitely got me a lot of work because I could sing like I could, I could act like I could, and then I also had the other skill of dancing in shows…It was just the Renaissance Man skills that I had.
My most obvious talent when I was young was singing, which got me in a lot of doors, and then I figured out how to act along the way. To me, acting is the most important thing to be good at. If the acting isn’t there, it’s hard to care about the beautiful sounds or the beautiful shapes that are being made by the singer-dancers. You want the communication to be there and expressed through those techniques. I really feel like it’s a gradual process learning to act. It’s a very intuitive process. There are skills involved with it that I learned along the way—growth spurts, particularly when I worked at the Stratford Festival…
Now, though, it seems like being a triple-threat isn’t enough. You have to be a quadruple-threat and know an instrument—something you exemplified in Once.
It doesn’t hurt to be good at stuff. Guitar, I started late in my life. I don’t think I started playing guitar until I saw the movie Once. I never took lessons. I bought one and started teaching myself, slowly learning a thing here in there. I really wasn’t very good at it until I got Once and started working really hard at it. I worked really hard for the audition for Once—probably 50-100 hours playing those songs alone. Then they cast me and I was like, I have a lot of work to do. That, for me, was a ton of effort. Not effort in terms of doing something begrudgingly, I love playing guitar. I had a lot of ground to make up. Even after I opened with my first performance in Once in December 2013, I still kept practicing for hours a day. I got better, and better, and better…
You’ve only had leading roles on Broadway. Did you feel like you knew what to expect going into Bright Star?
Leading the company…changes from company to company; sometimes you’re in young companies and sometimes you’re in veteran companies. We have a fairly veteran company, so it doesn’t need a central piece. I think if you’re playing a leading role in a show, it’s important to be positive, work hard, take the work seriously, and care about your company. That’s good leadership. I’ve played a lot of lead roles in my career and that is an aspect I take seriously. It’s funny how the character permeates what you do backstage too…Not for everybody, some people are able to dissociate…I’ve been in companies where leads weren’t leading very well and it makes a difference. It’s an important role to take seriously.
What happens when it doesn’t work?
It changes the moral of the company. I’ll just make up a hypothetical: if a lead is not friendly or selfish, it’s really all about them and not the work, it causes other people to behave that way too. The best theater I’ve ever been apart of or seen, all the artists are there because they believe in the story they’re telling and they want to serve the piece. We are at service to the story and characters. That’s the most important thing…
What were the benefits from doing the out of town run at the Kennedy Center?
I think there were two major benefits. Firstly, developing as a company: our relationship off the [stage]. Also, you have that time to play in a less pressure-filled environment, make changes. We were still doing that [during previews]—playing around with lines and experimenting—Steve rewrote stuff, Edie rewrote stuff, Walter changed things…It was just more time with the piece. The longer you work on something the better and deeper the work gets. That’s why I think Washington was a great opportunity.
What’s your advice for aspiring Broadway performers?
Anyone who wants to do this seriously should aspire to be an artist…Of course, when I was young I wanted to be on Broadway. The idea of it is that it’s the ultimate place to work. But I would say, know yourself to be good at what you do. You have to work hard and be smart about what you put your energy into. Don’t get sucked into the bullshit. Be a good person and study acting. ♦