Living the life of an ‘American Idiot’

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First Posted: 2/25/2014

Surprisingly, Casey O’Farrell wasn’t a diehard Green Day listener when he auditioned for the role of Will in the band’s Broadway musical “American Idiot,” but he was a fan without even knowing it.

His older brother used to play their breakout album “Dookie” in the car, and over the years he heard their singles on the radio without a name attached. After going through their catalog to prepare for the role, it was only then that he realized he knew much of their older material already.

“The first time I heard any of the album music was in the audition process when they gave me my character Will’s audition packet with his particular songs, and at that time, I was very much in business mode, so I didn’t listen to them from a point of view where I was like a normal listener. I was listening as an active person trying to book a job,” he admitted, though this is quite understandable, considering he had just 12 hours to learn five songs – on guitar as well.

Two years in, he now feels closer to the music as part of the touring cast of the show, which incorporates songs from Green Day’s “American Idiot” and “21st Century Breakdown” as well as some B-sides.

“We’re a little bit more connected to the band and the story and the meanings behind all of it, so there’s a little bit of ownership that you feel being part of the cast. … You kind of feel a connection with Green Day that I don’t think anyone else would understand unless they’re actually in the touring cast. I sing and perform these songs eight times a week for almost two years now, so I don’t know too many people who could say they’ve listened to the entire album eight times a week for two years,” he emphasized with a laugh.

He also, more of less, fell into acting without realizing it. As a kid, O’Farrell said he made “too many home videos” when his parents were out and was “thrown” into theater by accident because he needed to fill an extra elective credit.

“I didn’t really get serious into it until my junior/senior year of high school, and then when I started looking at colleges, that was an option that just seemed to be the right fit. Since graduating college, I’ve been working pretty consistently for the last 10 years,” he explained.

“Originally, I think I just enjoyed entertaining people. I think where I got my love for performing was back being a little kid and trying to make people laugh and make my family laugh and that kind of thing, so I think that’s pretty much where it started, and then you get to those awkward middle school ages and you find out where your group kind of is, and I kind of gravitated towards more of the theater/artsy community, and that’s kind of where I’ve been since.”

He wasn’t interested in singing until halfway through his junior year and eventually learned out of necessity, though it wasn’t an easy process.

“I don’t think I was good as a kid. I remember my first voice lesson and the guy was like, ‘All right, well let’s just sing the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ and see where you’re at,’” he recalled.

“Then I was really bad and he was like, ‘OK, well, have you seen Adam Sandler’s Opera Man on ‘SNL?’’ I was like, ‘Yep.’ He was like, ‘Give me your best impression of that,’ and then that’s kind of how I started singing, more classically. Figuring out how my voice worked through college brought me more into the pop rock opera world.”

He’s much surer of his abilities now, moving from Nashville to New York City at 19 to pursue his career, playing iconic roles like Ren in “Footloose” and Roger in “Rent.” The latter, he feels, put him in a comfortable place for the “American Idiot” audition process.

“Roger in ‘Rent’ is extremely similar, I think, to the Will role. They both have something that they’re suffering from and they both deal with it by isolating themselves and pushing other people away, so coming off of that show for a number of years into this show emotionally was kind of in a similar place. I think ‘Rent’ is a little stylized and it’s a little dated. It was kind of like the rock musical of the ‘90s, and Green Day is more the rock musical of the 21st century,” he said.

“Will is depressing. Will is one of the three boys that the story focuses on. They’re childhood best friends. They grow up in a small town; they call it Jingletown, U.S.A.

“It’s just that suburban small town. Nothing’s really going on, mundane, every-day-is-the-same kind of lifestyle. You grow up, you go to college where you’re from, you get done, you move down the street from where you grew up, and then you work a job until you die. It’s kind of that mentality. We decide to go to the big city and experience what we think real life is going to be, and at the last second, my character’s girlfriend finds out she’s pregnant and Will stays home to be the father and can’t really handle that.”

O’Farrell believes the song “Too Much Too Soon” sums up his character’s situation well, and in the show’s 90 minutes, he lives out the course of a year by remaining onstage almost the entire time.

“I think that’s a really good analogy of Will’s life over the course of the show. He’s just hit with too much real-life and he’s not ready to handle it, so he turns to a lot of vices and methods to deal with his depression and anger and that just pushes everyone in his life away, so he ends up really isolated and depressed and alone,” he acknowledged, though in the end, a reunion delivers “a semi-happy ending” to the relatable story.

“All the characters are definitely going to be someone you know. I don’t think anyone in the United States can say they don’t know someone in the military and they don’t know someone who’s had a substance abuse problem, and if they would, I’d say they’re lying.

“Every one of these characters you’re either going to see yourself in or you’re going to see people you know in. I think that’s why it’s so universally received.”

As the show makes its way to the F.M. Kirby Center in Wilkes-Barre for Wednesday, March 5, O’Farrell says reliving that kind of stagnant depression night after night can take its toll on an actor, but the realistic nature of the story and an open-minded creative team also allows him some emotional flexibility that not all shows offer.

“You have bad days. You have days where your brain’s kind of scattered. We travel on a bus 10 hours, and then you load into a show and you don’t even know what state you’re in and all of a sudden you’re asked to go into these really emotionally dark places, so that’s really challenging to stay kind of focused. It was really difficult for the first couple months, just maintaining that,” he noted, explaining that the show evolves throughout the tour.

“Two years in, it’s almost more fun now because I can totally be existing on stage for the 90 minutes that the show happens and pretty much everything I do is correct as far as direction is concerned. I just need to hit these key points of emotional responses to what’s going on. It’s turned more into a fun acting exercise of like, ‘How’s Will feel today?’ and that’s completely all right.”

When the 29-year-old does finally return home to Los Angeles, his own band, Side/Winders, will be waiting for him, a project he continues to work on while on the road, though he doesn’t think he’s ready for the kind of songwriting he’s come to appreciate from Green Day.

“I think I’ve always kind of been intrigued by the idea of maybe potentially making some sort of story out of music, but I don’t know if I’m ready for that kind of undertaking,” he said.

“Working on a Green Day project and seeing how brilliant Billie Joe Armstrong is with his lyrics, I think there’s just so much content that is so overlooked. You hear a lyric and it’s catchy because it’s catchy and then you don’t realize that he’s talking about something unbelievably serious, so I think just that aspect has shown me how good you need to be to make it in the music industry.

“My standards have definitely been raised working on this, for sure.”