Chris Henry Coffey is making his Broadway debut in the new play, Bronx Bombers, about the New York Yankees that follows the great Yogi Berra and his wife, Carmen, through almost a hundred years of the teams high’s and lows. The show brings together some of its most legendary players like Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Lou Gehrig, Derek Jeter and Joe Dimaggio, played by Chris.
I love hearing stories of how people got the part that lands them on Broadway and Chris’ story is up there as one of my favorites.
Originally from Green Bay, he went to school at Yale and soon after moved to New York and as he told me, he’s been “pounding the pavement for a lot of years.” That’s not to mean that he hasn’t been working. He’s always been a busy working actor, doing a bunch of off-Broadway shows, commercials, TV and films (like Trust directed by David Schwimmer). If that’s not enough, he also teaches acting!
As you’ll find out in the interview, he’s a genuinely nice guy. He’s talented and I gotta say that I’m incredibly happy for him. In the interview, we talk about how he got the part, the first time he stepped on-stage for preview night and one of his worst auditions. I also recommend checking out the podcast where he talks about his research on DiMaggio, meeting Henry Miller and tons more. It’s well worth your time!
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So this is your Broadway debut.
Chris Henry Coffey: It is. It is. Yeah.
I was thinking the other day, I have friends who are having kids and when they tell me, “Oh, we’re pregnant,” I pretend to be excited for them but I really could honestly care less. But when somebody is telling me they’re making their Broadway debut, I’m ecstatic for them. You know? So congrats on that.
Chris Henry Coffey: Thanks so much, I really appreciate that. Yeah, it’s huge. I won’t deny it. I mean, I’ve been pounding the pavement for a lot of years and kind of crossing over into TV and film and commercials, voiceovers, teaching, but there’s always that pinnacle that you sort of are looking at and hoping to get invited to some day and it finally showed up.
You also played this role off Broadway too.
Chris Henry Coffey: Yeah, and, I tell you, this is such a classic actor story of all the auditions one goes on throughout one’s career. You never know where these jobs come from. It’s kinda cliché to say, “You just never know where it’s gonna come from,” and this was a classic case of I got a call to do a workshop in the mountains of Colorado over the summer in Steamboat Springs and there’s this wonderful little… it’s kind of a summer camp for art students and dancers and actors. And for one week out of the summer some major regional theatres around the country come in and do some development work for new plays. It’s called Perry Mansfield, I guess Perry Mansfield Festival. But in any case, they called me about this play, Bronx Bombers, which eventually less than a year later is on Broadway. So I didn’t even audition for the thing, which is amazing.
Chris Henry Coffey: It’s one of those things where you go through so many ups and downs in the auditioning world and you think, “Which one is gonna be the one that hits?” and then, of course, some little workshop in the middle of nowhere. It’s been a really interesting journey and we did a version of the play off Broadway… there’s been some recasting in between and the play was still being developed as well. I think it’s in really great shape right now.
I didn’t know you guys had changed the show around, but I was gonna ask you if you tweaked your performance from then to the move on Broadway.
Chris Henry Coffey: Yeah, yeah. It’s definitely evolved and grown and there’s also that thing of just kind of when you work on something and you’re really close to it and then you can step away from it for a while and then come back at it with fresh eyes. That also, I think, plays into it as well. It’s kind of cool to go back into it and be like, “Oh, right. Yeah. Ok. But maybe it’s this over here. I wanna try something different.” It’s just good to kinda step back and kind of, you know, breathe a little bit and go back in.
I would assume you’ve been looking forward to doing a show on Broadway. So, on the day of the opening preview, what are your thoughts? Are you equal parts nervous and excited?
Chris Henry Coffey: Yeah, well it’s interesting because my official Broadway debut, I guess, would be my first preview which was just on… was just a week ago today. So it’s still very fresh and we’re still getting used to audiences and, yeah. I have to say I was kind of definitely ready to perform it and ready to be in front of people and embrace the play.
But there was a little bit of an energy that night of stepping back and kind of acknowledging the fact that it was my Broadway debut and that it was one of those things that only happens once and then you sort of move forward. But, yeah, it was a little bit of an extra… it was some adrenaline I think and some nervousness, I guess, in some degree.
But mostly it was like a celebration. We went out afterwards and toasted to it and I think I’m the only one in the cast, yeah, I’m the only one in the cast who’s having his debut show. And that way too is nice to sort of be now in the club and just sort of getting through that being like, “Yeah, now we can just move forward and be like, ‘Ok. We’ll just keep working on the play.’”
But I will say too, the interesting side note is that I went to school when I first came to New York at Circle in the Square where it’s playing right now for a year. They have a theatre school there. So it’s truly one of those situations where I’m coming full circle. Yeah. The pun intended. But it’s always kind of interesting because there’s… I’m very aware of the sort of ghosts that are in the theatre as well from… when did I come to the city? In ‘95. So it’s been, you know, almost 18 years, which is crazy to think about. So, yeah, just kind of wandering around in those halls and being like, “Right.” I remember being a kid and being here and watching theatre on the main stage and wondering if it would ever happen and then this week kind of celebrating that.
You grew up in Green Bay?
Chris Henry Coffey: Yeah.
How did you go from Green Bay to New York?
Chris Henry Coffey: Well, I… it was kind of a circuitous route. Growing up I guess I would say I always knew I was gonna be… I always felt like there was something larger out there for me. I didn’t know what it was, but I was never really somebody who was just sort of satisfied with what was there.
I grew up in a small town and it was a great… I had a great experience growing up, but I always wanted to get out.
I studied overseas in London at one point in undergrad and then from there I met a friend who lived in Boston and then I ended up, when I graduated from college, just visiting him and then ended up staying and getting involved with some acting there and after a couple of years I was like, “I think I actually am really interested in following through on this as a career,” but I had never really studied it in school. And so I thought, “Well, if I’m actually gonna pursue this I wanna learn a craft. I wanna learn what the hell acting is.”
So I ended up auditioning for Circle in the Square while I was living in Boston and so that brought me to New York. And then the irony was I was still auditioning for different schools and ended up going to the Yale Drama School after a year of being at Circle in the Square. So then I had to leave New York for 3 years and then I came back. So my official kind of New York debut was in 1999 when I graduated from Yale.
How was Yale?
Chris Henry Coffey: It was great. I mean, the thing about Yale, which is really cool, is that not only is the caliber at a certain level but you also are mingling with designers and playwrights and directors and managers and other actors as well. So you’re not kind of just in this acting program. You’re in a theatre program that really concentrates on building theatre from the ground up and then tearing it down and starting over again. So they’re not as, at least in my time, what I liked about it was it wasn’t so focused on classes as it was just doing. You know, just getting up, learning it, doing it again. I did… I think I did like 26 shows in 3 years.
Chris Henry Coffey: One of things where you’re just exhausted beyond anything you can imagine at the time and knowing that you had this window of time to do it in. And some were big shows and some were small shows. Some were little workshops, but you’re still getting up in front of people and learning how to stand on stage in the right place and feel out blocking and learning your lines and adjusting in the moment. So, yeah, all those things were really, really incredible. An incredible experience.
Do you recommend actors go to college or some kind of program like that?
Chris Henry Coffey: Well, yeah. So that’s an MSA program and, I mean, it’s really, for me because I’d never really studied it, it was important for me to kind of just understand what I was getting myself into and wanting a sense of… I don’t know if legitimacy is the right word, but I just wanted to sort of be under an umbrella first to just see whether or not it was something I was really wanting to pursue.
But some people, I think, are just like incredibly naturally talented and they don’t need school. What you need to do is just get out and work and that’s gonna be your school. And I know plenty of those people as well and so it’s really, I guess, individual. For me it was really a great thing to do and it gave me the confidence to go into the industry.
In getting ready for this interview, it seems like, and I could be wrong, like you’ve never really been out of work, especially the past couple of years. Am I right?
Chris Henry Coffey: Yeah. Yeah, I mean, it’s been a good few years for sure. And, like I was saying earlier, I’m also… there’s never too much work for an actor… well, for 99.9% of us. But I’ve diversified a lot too, which has been really good. I mean, for instance, one example would be that I’ve just started getting involved in the audio book narration world. Which is sort of like an interesting little niche but it’s also a great kind of day job for actors who are like me, just kind of pounding the pavement and in between jobs or if they’re doing theatre at night they can record during the day in the studio. And so there’s that. I teach once in a while, do coaching and that kind of thing, and voice overs and commercials and… yeah. All over the map. But if there’s anything I’ve learned, diversification is key in order to keep paying the bills on a week to week basis.
One of my questions that I usually ask is what’s your advice to actors, but since you also teach, what is the one thing you mostly notice when you see actors come to you? What are they doing wrong or what can they do better?
Chris Henry Coffey: I guess when I think of really young or inexperienced actors, a lot of times it’s like, “Oh, yeah. I really wanna be a movie star. I wanna be on Broadway,” and it’s like, you know, yeah, that’s a great vision for yourself. But at the same time, let’s just quiet done all those thoughts and just start from the very beginning and sort of just see how we do with listening and responding and those kind of basic things of acting and see if you’re interested in just the craft of it. The idea behind it. Is it the fame and the celebrityism that you want or is it actually kind of the life of an actor that you want? So that’s the kind of stuff that I sort of start with I think.
What’s the worst audition you’ve had?
Chris Henry Coffey: That’s easy. I had an audition not too long ago actually for… well, it was last year. But it was for an off-Broadway production in downtown New York. But the director was in London, so they Skyped the audition. And what that means is that I was on the stage with my scene and there was an intern walking around on the stage with me with a laptop and this woman from Britain sort of trying to communicate notes based on what she’s seeing through her computer. And of course there was this sound delay and it was just a complete train wreck. And she was apologetic, but still I just walked away not humiliated but just kind of chuckling like that is the most absurd audition of my career bar none.