Interview: John Ellison Conlee Talks ‘Boardwalk Empire’, Theater and Dabney Coleman

John Ellison Conlee

John Ellison Conlee is a huge Dabney Coleman fan – honestly though, who isn’t? So, when he found out that he got the part playing the younger version of Coleman’s character, the Commodore, on the final season of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, it was a “thrilling day,” he said.

The way Conlee channels Coleman’s Commodore is nothing short of amazing. He not only sounds like him, but his mannerisms are eerily Coleman-like. He’s definitely adding to this final season of the show.

Conlee, who is married to 3-time Tony nominee Celia Keenan-Bolger, is himself a Tony nominee for The Full Monty and has a list of theatre credits as long as your arm. He’s also recurring on NBC’s Parks and Recreation and has appeared on a slew of other TV shows.

I talked with him recently about his audition for the show and our shared love of Dabney Coleman, theater, nightmare auditions and more!

For more about Jon, check out John’s website and follow him on Twitter!

For the full interview, click the audio link above or download it from iTunes.

You’re playing the younger version of the Commodore, which Dabney Coleman, I mean, you can’t get any better than him.

John Ellison Conlee: Absolutely. Absolutely.

How did you get the part? Did you go back and re-watch any of the episodes just to sort of get a vibe down before the audition?

John Ellison Conlee: I did. I went in… I had auditioned for the show over the years, I guess maybe 2 other times. And I went in to audition for a different role this year, but I looked a little bit different than I had over the last couple of years. Because I’ve been doing a lot of theatre and I’ve had long hair and I’ve had sort of a grey beard and I’ve had all these sort of different things for different shows. And I came in and I had a pretty short haircut and I had kind of a little mustache and I came in for one part and Meredith Tucker, who I think does such a great job casting the show, looked at me and I did the audition but she was looking at me sort of strangely the whole time. And then when I finished she said, “I don’t even want you to worry about this one. That was great. I want you to come back tomorrow and I want you to read this part.”

And I looked down at it and in the sides… and they sometimes do things to protect their scripts where they disguise who you’re playing, they change names or whatever, but the name of this character was The Commodore and I was… I mean, I know that someone has already played the Commodore. Dabney Coleman played him in seasons 1 and 2 and she was like, “Yes. I can’t tell you a lot more but you would be playing that same character. But come back tomorrow with that.”

And so I went home and… I’m a huge Dabney Coleman fan. I loved him as… he was my favorite actor growing up. I even remember his TV series, Buffalo Bill.

Oh, I used to love that show. Yeah, man. That was great.

John Ellison Conlee: So good. And 9 to 5 and Tootsie and Cloak and Dagger and War Games. I mean, he was amazing even in movies that weren’t always amazing, as well as in some of my favorite movies that I’ve ever seen.

And so I was thrilled at the possibility and sort of tried to sort of sound a little bit like Dabney Coleman and did my audition and she’s like, “That’s great.” And then I got a callback for Tim Van Patten at Steiner Studios where they shoot much of Boardwalk, and then they took a few weeks before the season began and then let me know.

And that was a thrilling day to realize that I was gonna get to play not only an interesting character, but have to wrap some young Dabney Coleman into it. That was a fun thing to sort of wrap my head around.

How many pages of sides did you get for the first audition?

John Ellison Conlee: I had two scenes and… actually, I had three scenes. One of them was pretty short and just almost all a monologue. And then two different scenes. One of which was pretty long, which never actually was in the… we never actually did on the show. I think it was a sort of direction that things could’ve gone in the big writing before they sort of trimmed it all down.

Are you maddeningly going over them? Are you memorized when you get back to the audition?

John Ellison Conlee: Yeah. I mean, it’s that thing that I feel like usually you hold the pages in your hand. And this is one… so often in television you get an audition and they say, “Oh, the only time they can see you is tomorrow at 10:15. These 8 pages.”

And you know you’re not gonna have it memorized. And then you do your best to sort of paraphrase and know what happens next and you have the pages in your hand but you really don’t have to look at them. But sometimes you just do and try and understand that most people will be under the same thing.

But in this situation, the time between the audition for Meredith and then the callback was enough that I had plenty of time to burn it all into my brain pretty well.

And in fact then when I did shoot one of those scenes later, all I had to do was sort of glance at it one time and I was like, “Oh, yeah. I remember this from the auditions. I had it memorized. This will be very different, I’ll be wearing a giant top hat and 3 thousand dollars worth of clothes and do it a lot of times.”

Not unlike any other day in your life, I’m sure.

John Ellison Conlee: Right, right. Just out on the beach, Rockaway Beach.

Right, yeah. You were nominated for a Tony award for Full Monty.

John Ellison Conlee: I was.

Now, being a couple of years removed from that, is that still a huge calling card for you?

John Ellison Conlee: It’s interesting, for some people it is. I would say there are a lot of people that I currently work with that don’t know about it, and that’s ok too.

I mean, I’m doing a play right now and one of the people that was working on it was like, “I just looked up that you were a Tony nominee. I didn’t realize that.” And I was like, “Yeah.” I prefer the term Tony loser, but… yeah.

I mean, it has been a while, so I don’t expect people to know that. Also, musicals have certainly been a part of my career and I hope will continue, but I sort of hope will continue to be a small part of it. I’m an interloper in musical theatre.

What show are you working on now?

John Ellison Conlee: I’m doing a new play called Spacebar by Michael Mitnick that is insane and wonderful. And Maggie Burroughs is directing it for the Wild Project. Great cast, Will Connelly is in it. And Michael Mitnik and Will Connelly were two of the people who created the show Fly By Night that was just in this last season at Playwright’s Horizon. So wonderful.

When does that start?

John Ellison Conlee: Previews start end of October. It’s a really short run. It’s at the Wild’s Project. Short thing. But end of October and then it ends first week of November.

Oh, wow.

John Ellison Conlee: Yeah. It’s like 12 performances or 16 performances or something like that.

How do you like doing short runs?

John Ellison Conlee: I like it.

Do you?

John Ellison Conlee: I do. I mean, it’s always frustrating in that sense that you really only get to the place that you’re like, “I’m beginning to have a mastery over the material. And we’re finished.”

But that’s… I guess a lot of people in the last couple of years have asked me, “Well, you were doing theatre all the time and then you sort of stopped for a while and you’ve been doing film and television stuff.” I will say that one of the reasons for that is I love the theatre, I always wanna do the theatre, but doing 8 shows a week of the same thing for a long time does begin to be less interesting. And I will always do it again, but the muscle of continuing to find new ways through the same material that are genuinely interesting to you personally that also tell the story that you want to tell the audience is a thing that I love for a while.

But then when you do it for a long enough time, it does begin to be harder work and the great thing about television is that you get to sort of learn about your character by doing different things all the time.

And it’s an interesting thing because it’s less complete from the start. You’re performing. You’re doing your job. It’s very little information at the beginning. Or just all made up information and then more information comes in and sometimes it contradicts stuff that you already thought and you’re like, “Oh, I thought that was true but seems like it’s this.”

But you have different assignments. You say different things, you interact in different ways, and that’s a really exciting challenge too.

I want all of them though. I want long runs in the theatre, I want television stuff. I think mixing up the opportunities is the most exciting thing for me.

Does that throw you for a loop? Like you just said, on TV, your character is one thing, and then you get the next script and then something completely contradicts what you thought.

John Ellison Conlee: It’s tricky because it really does, as an actor… the truth is, in terms of the way it ends up looking, I find that probably it would be better not to ever even worry about it.

Because I feel like often times I’ve gotten things where I’ve been like, “Well, I have to believe that he’s… I’m really telling the truth here and this is the thing and I’m innocent.” And then they’re like, “Next week you come in and it’s like, “Oh, yeah. Turns out I was totally guilty. I wish I’d known that.” Actually, as it plays, it’s fine that you didn’t know that because obviously you would be trying to convince the world that you were innocent before.

As long as you don’t panic too much about it, it’s probably gonna turn out fine if you’re in the hands of good storytellers, which I feel like I’ve been lucky to be. The TV things that I’ve done have mostly been people who really knew what they were doing.

You were also on Parks and Rec. Were you in LA for a while?

John Ellison Conlee: I was in LA for a while and the goal, sort of, was to go back and forth a lot at one point. But that was right before my wife got basically 3 straight years of 8 shows a week in different shows. And so I quickly came back and would go out there if I had to for a short time, but came back here because I was not interested in being separated from her for the whole time. But we both want to spend some more time in LA in the next few years, and we’ll see how that plays out. But, again, we’ll follow the work mostly.

You’re from Georgia. Did you know that growing up there that you wanted to be an actor?

John Ellison Conlee: No. I always loved doing it. When I was a kid I put on little shows in the basement and stuff like that. And then I always did my elementary school plays, I did my junior high and high school plays and I took drama classes, but never knew anyone who really did it. It didn’t ever seem like that could be the thing that I would actually end up doing.

And when I looked at colleges I definitely was interested in what their theatre programs were, because I still loved doing it. But always with a sort of assumption that I would find something else, the thing that I would actually do.

And while I was at Center College in Danville, Kentucky, which is a wonderful, tiny liberal arts college, a person that I did all these plays with and who was a drama major auditioned for Yale grad school and there was a big Rolling Stone article that year that actually featured Andre Braugher, who I think was getting out of Juilliard, and it was about grad programs for actors. And this person that I went to school with, Zoe Zimmerman, auditioned for Yale and got in and I read this whole thing about Juilliard and NYU and Yale and all these programs and I thought, “Maybe that’s something that I could do.” And I can see how that actually did lead to a career in a way. And this is what I love to do. I mean, I’ve been trying to find the thing that I would do and this is always what I do.

And so then I got out of college and I worked at a couple of theatres in Kentucky for a year just to have some work experience, but began to prepare to audition and I auditioned for NYU and I got in and then since then it’s sort of… I put myself on the track where that was the thing that I would end up doing, and I’m very thankful that it has worked out so far. And again, I suppose I’m still looking for the thing that I will do at the end, but, again, I’ve not even come close to finding it. So I’m sticking with it.

What was your worst audition?

John Ellison Conlee: I mean, there’s a strong competition for that title. My worst audition. Gosh, I don’t wanna name names but I’ll just say I did an audition once early in my career for something that was gonna be on camera. And I came in and the casting director said, “My assistant’s setting up the camera. Do you just wanna go through it one time while that’s happening?” I said, “Sure.” And we went through the scene. And I finished. And he said, “Thanks so much for coming in.” And the assistant was like, “Oh, no. I didn’t have the camera.” And the casting director was like, “That’s ok.”

That’s a good one.

John Ellison Conlee: Yeah. Feeling good leaving that room.

I bet you did. Yeah, skipping all the way home on that one.

John Ellison Conlee: Yeah. Floated back home on a sea of self loathing.

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