The actor’s life of roles and reversals |

The actor’s life of roles and reversals

Stewart Oksenhorn
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Tony Freeman’s schedule for the next few months looks like this: For the next four weeks, he will be stationed in Aspen, where he appears in Theatre Aspen’s production of the comedy, “Moonlight and Magnolias.” On Aug. 14, however, he flies to New York City to audition for a new Broadway show, a farce called “Is He Dead?” That side trip is a one-day episode; Freeman will go straight from LaGuardia Airport to the audition. The next day, he has a 6 a.m. flight back to Aspen so he can make the curtain for that night’s performance in the Theatre Aspen tent.The run of “Moonlight and Magnolias” ends Aug. 25. On Aug. 26, Freeman flies to New York – “to unpack and change my clothes,” he said – then goes back to the airport the next day, headed for Memphis, where that night he begins a seven-week stretch in a touring production of “The Lion King.” His commitment to “The Lion King” ends Oct. 21, just in time for him to make it back to New York where the next day, assuming he passes this month’s audition, rehearsals for “Is He Dead?” begin.Freeman, a 48-year-old with a wife and an 8-year-old daughter, doesn’t find any of this too extraordinary. A veteran actor who has been on Broadway, regional theater and television, Freeman has experienced just about everything: he was hired for “Moonlight and Magnolias” through only his résumé and a recommendation; in his first appearance in “The Lion King,” he had his first rehearsal one day, and appeared on Broadway that night. Freeman’s home-schooled daughter, who often travels with him, has lived in hotel rooms in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, Philadelphia, Sarasota, Hilton Head, New York and Aspen during the last three years.

What is out of the ordinary for Freeman is the prospect of four nights off in a row – which happens this week, when “Moonlight and Magnolias” takes a break for previews and the opening of “The Last Five Years,” Theatre Aspen’s final production of the season. Overwhelmed by the options, the Freeman family is contemplating a trip to the Grand Canyon, or Mesa Verde, or Santa Fe – or enjoying the sites in Aspen.”It’s a crazy life – but I love it,” said Freeman, who has been earning raves for “Moonlight and Magnolias,” in which he plays movie producer David O. Selznick in the farcical – and largely true – backstory of the making of “Gone With the Wind.” “I never think badly of my friends who say they have to get out, they need more stability.”Freeman says the biggest key to enjoying this existence is learning to embrace the often uncertain time between gigs. It’s not easy to downshift from the typical eight performances a week to wondering when and where the next job will be.”I have confidence I’ll get that next gig,” he said. “A lot of people can’t enjoy the downtime because they’re so worried about the next job. I’ve only collected unemployment for a few weeks in a row – at most.”The son of a minister, Freeman became accustomed to moving around as his father took positions all over the country. The family settled in Ohio for his high school years, and Freeman, valedictorian of his class and a participant in school theater, envisioned a career as a lawyer. “I thought, in my naiveté, that I could use both my brain and my performance skills,” he said.

A scholarship for Miami of Ohio, however, required him to take acting classes, and Freeman was pulled in that direction. The pull became stronger when he was offered a scholarship to the University of North Carolina’s graduate acting program. At Chapel Hill, he took lead roles in student productions and smaller parts in the professional company affiliated with the university, which earned him credits toward his Actors Equity card.For some years, Freeman did only straight shows. It wasn’t entirely by choice: “Everybody always said, you have such a great personality for musicals – only you can’t sing,” he said. “So for years I took voice lessons and finally I got good enough not to lose parts because of my voice.”Though he now gets dramatic roles and parts in musicals – a variety he considers a blessing – Freeman says most of his onstage jobs are intended for laughs. One stretch of a few years had him in seven Neil Simon plays. In “The Lion King,” which has occupied roughly half his time since 2000, he plays the red-billed hornbill Zazu, whose straight-arrow demeanor adds comic relief to the musical.That comedy experience was enough to earn Freeman a job at Theatre Aspen, without the customary necessity of an audition. The role of Selznick was originally to be filled by Michael Thomas Holmes, who appeared last summer in Theatre Aspen’s production of “Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time.” Holmes, however, got an audition to play the starring role of John Adams in a production of the historical musical “1776” at the Guthrie Theater, a prominent venue in Minneapolis. Holmes asked a friend who had played the role of Adams to coach him – the friend being Freeman. Holmes earned the role, and had to pull out of “Moonlight and Magnolias.” Fortunately, when he informed David McClendon – the director of the play, as well as artistic director of Theatre Aspen – that he was pulling out, he had a replacement in mind. Again, it was Freeman.”I e-mailed him my résumé and my head shot. And he hired me sight unseen,” said Freeman. “That’s very uncommon. You’re going to be stuck in a room with this person eight hours a day. He took a risk. But it’s working well. David and I are already talking about having me back here next year.”

That’s only part of the role-jumping in Theatre Aspen’s season. For “The Last Five Years,” a musical romantic drama that opens Thursday, Aug. 9, director David Ledingham (who is also a co-star in “Moonlight and Magnolias,” playing director Victor Fleming) is on his third male lead. The original actor pulled out a few weeks before rehearsals were scheduled to begin; his replacement waited till four days before rehearsals to quit. The female lead, Paige Price, recommended an acquaintance, Hadley Fraser. Ledingham saw a video of Fraser on You Tube, got over his fear of hiring a British actor to play a New York Jew, and extended the offer. (Ledingham was sympathetic: Last year, he pulled out of a Theatre Aspen commitment so that he could join the touring company of the Tony-winning musical, “The Light in the Piazza.”) Fraser arrived in Aspen five days after being contacted.Freeman may have been a replacement. But he signed on for “Moonlight and Magnolias” in midspring, giving him ample time to prepare.He’s made do with far less. The first time he joined “The Lion King,” he had exactly one rehearsal – with the cast in street clothes, and a solo pianist instead of an orchestra – before making his debut that night in front of 1,700 people. And three years ago, Freeman had a job as the understudy in a two-person off-Broadway play, “Barbra’s Wedding.” The regular actor, said Freeman, was “a rock,” who never took a night off. Freeman took off for three days to attend his father’s funeral in Houston, figuring he’d not be missed. Returning from Texas on two hours’ sleep, he checked his messages at 5 p.m. – and learned that “the rock” had food poisoning. Complicating the issue, Freeman had spent almost no time with his co-star. But two hours later he was onstage, pretending to be married to an actress he barely knew.

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is