Michael Cyril Creighton on Giving Great Stage Kiss
By Jerry Portwood
'Stage Kiss' photos by Joan Marcus
You may recognize Michael Cyril Creighton from his numerous TV roles. Or maybe not. He was the mean gay shop clerk in Orange is the New Black. Or the sassy store employee in 30 Rock. Or a witty talking head in that VH1 show you saw that one time but don't remember when. Of course, he's much more than that. Currently he's stealing the show, getting big belly laughs every night, as the gay actor trying to romance co-star Jessica Hecht in Sarah Ruhl's hilarious and poignant play-within-a-play, Stage Kiss (it's already been extended through April 6 at Playwright's Horizons).
Much of the humor comes from his body size and awkwardness, but Creighton doesn't feel it's making fun of him personally. "I feel like I’m at this point in my life that I'm confident enough in who I am as Michael to take all the awkward stuff that’s always been in there and just magnify it." And it does take a level of self-assuredness to open your mouth to a stranger—or a trusted friend or actor—every night for a big sloppy kiss. As his character remarks in the show, "What a strange job to kiss strangers in front of people and make it look like you know each other. Or kiss someone you know in front of people and make it look like a stranger."
We caught up with Creighton to ask about his own stage kisses, why playing a gay guy in Stage Kiss is different from other roles, and we learned about his dachsund obsession. Oh and what about the three-name thing? He insists it isn't a snobby affectation: "People in school started calling me Jurassic Park, because of the writer Michael Crichton. And it's not even spelled the same!" Go figure.
Out: I’ve seen you on stage before, and I have seen on TV before, but with Stage Kiss, I wondered how this play differs from some of the Off- and Off-Off Broadway stuff that you’ve done? Being in a Sara Ruhl play, what does that mean to you?
Michael Cyril Creighton: Obviously, it’s crazy exciting. I don’t what you’ve seen that I’ve done, but probably in the last five years, I’ve been in theater that’s been pretty far off from who I am as a human being. Pretty much, you know, playing the Western cop or playing the Jewish husband. They were deeply character-based on what was inside me, but very different from who I am as a person. So this is totally different, because I relate to this character on such a fundamental level. And really able to use my qualities as human being to, like sort of, inform whom he is. I guess that would be the way to describe it.
I feel like I really understand who Kevin is in a way that is very helpful. I don’t think he’s a bad actor. I don’t judge his talents. I just think he’s super misguided and trying to the best he can, which is, you know, something I can relate to obviously. There’s nothing worse than being stuck in a bunch of roles that are just not right for you and you’re trying to make it work. It’s so uncomfortable. So there’s something really exciting about playing with that discomfort, but also trying, as Kevin, to do that best job that he can, even though he’s never going to be convincing as a celebrity. He’s never going to be convincing as this like, you know, hyper-masculine sort of...
Yeah, it’s just not his thing.
Is it also a bit unusual for you to be playing such a gay man? Have you done that many times before?
Not on stage. [Laughs]
[Laughs] Well, in life, of course. Sure.
[Laughs] On TV, yes, because I feel like sometimes I’m just so queeny in my webseries and stuff. Yes, I’ve played a gay man before, but in theater I haven’t. It’s exciting. I mean, there is this one line when he says: “Yeah. It’s not a problem. I just have this awful fantasy that I’ll kiss a woman on stage and everyone will be like: You know, yeah right, whatever.” That was so key to me when I read it. I was like, This is perfect, and I know that fear. It’s really exciting to not have that fear in a play for once. You know what I mean?
That’s interesting. I never thought of it that way.
I have no problems playing the straight man—and that’s something I enjoy doing— but it’s nice to play this character, who I feel like I understand on such a true level.
You get some of the biggest laughs in the play, and I wondered...
Do I? Just kidding.
You don’t think you do?
No, I’m kidding. I’m very lucky to have some very great moments.
Some of that is physical comedy, some of that is awkwardness. Were you ever uncomfortable with any of that, or have you been doing this long enough to say I’m going to do whatever I can to get these laughs?
Yeah, nobody pushed me. Sarah and our director, Rebecca Taichman, never told me like, ‘Push out your stomach,’ or, ‘Do this awkward thing with your body.’ It was just playing the truth of how terrified this guy is in all of the situations that he’s put in. I’m at a point where I’m pretty comfortable with who I am and what I look like and what my body looks like and what I can do with it. I don’t think I’m getting cheap laughs based off my stature and my size; I feel like I’m using what I have to sort of create a vulnerability as a person. I mean it’s what I have as a person, as Michael. I have a stocky body and some awkwardness. So I feel like the discomfort is only working because I’m so comfortable with it. Maybe.
The play’s titled Stage Kiss, and I trained as actor and done stage kisses as well, so I was remembering my first one. I was a freshman in college, and and it was me and this girl, who was also a freshman, and we had to keep practicing it. Now we’re best friends, but you know, it was a strange way to meet somebody. I was wondering if you’ve had those sort of moments over the years. Can you remember your first stage kiss?
I think there was one. I think I only had one, true stage kiss before. It was in high school in this play Witness to the Prosecution. I was in high school, so it’s, like, an obvious mess. It was just slopped with anxiety and all kinds of issues within this tiny kiss at the end of the play. But when I did Blood Play, which is the last play I was in, I tried to sneak kisses in with my friend Hannah, who played my wife. So we maybe got three kisses in there throughout the whole run of the play. This is definitely the first time I’ve been open mouth kissing on stage.
And what a kiss! That obviously must take a lot from both of you to do that big gaping kiss.
It’s a crazy. It’s crazy! Jessica’s the most generous person I’ve had as an acting partner. It was scary of course. You know, you want to make sure your breath is OK, and you don’t want to be too gross and don’t want to overstep any boundaries. But because she’s so generous and open as an actor, it’s just—it’s so fun. It’s safe. There’s nothing uncomfortable for either of us at this point, at least for me. I can’t speak for her. It’s something that could have been so awkward but it’s really turned into one of my favorite parts of the play to do, which is to get on top of that couch and try to dominate.
I assume that you must have some examples from real life of people trying to kiss that way? It feels like it comes from place of reality with the big open mouth. A bad date?
With the giant mouth open kiss? That was... my director actually showed me. Rebecca was like, “I think it’s more like this.” And she came at me with her mouth wide open, and I will never forget the visual of it. So I owe everything to her for doing that to me, because now I just open my mouth as wide as possible and scare the hell out of Jessica. It wouldn’t have been my first instinct—and I’m so glad I was guided in that direction.
So you’re a good kisser is what you are saying?
What? Oh, I’m amazing. I’ve never in my entire life given a bad kiss, ever. This is a real big challenge for me, this play.
But then you also get to kiss Patrick Kerr.
That was added pretty early in previews. Maybe a week into previews? There’s nothing specifically written in the script, but you know these two have a history. Because Patrick and I have really good chemistry as scene partners, and we were really enjoying exploring Kevin and the director’s relationship, they added that and we played with different ways to do that early on. And now I’m really glad that’s part of the story. You have this little sub-romance, which I think is kind of beautiful and really lovely and really fun. He’s hysterical.
Well, I think it is a little unfair that you get to kiss other people but not Dominic Fumusa. Obviously he’s eye candy. I promise I’m not a stalker, but our editorial offices are in South Brooklyn, and I have seen him picking up his kids from school. He seems like such a nice dad.
I’m so happy that he’s such a nice guy and, like, such a good dad and husband. I am such a giant fan of Nurse Jackie and have been for so long. But I would have been really disheartened if he was a jerk, which is very, very nice. He is very handsome and he’s such a dude. I love it. But, no, Dom and I will never be kissing.
How is your career evolving now? Are there any types of roles that you want to do? Do you feel like you are getting the kind of roles that you want or are there things that your dream about that you are like maybe one day?
I’d like to play a really creepy villain for sure. I like playing Kevin in this play because there is such a genuine sensitivity to him and a softness, and I find a lot of times in TV stuff I’ll play the nasty gay clerk or something like. I enjoy that. I think I can bring many dimensions to that sort of world, but the interesting thing about doing this play is I’m getting to use who I am as a person, which is I’m not a nasty person. I’m not sassafras. I’m not a mean store clerk.
I’m just interested in seeing what can come out of this. I would like to do some more serious roles and you know, comedy is obviously my first love and really, really fun to do, but I’d like to stretch myself a little bit to something dramatic and see what happens. I really don’t know what will happen, but I’m excited about it. I’m really excited we get to do this play for such a long time. It’s like the longest time I’ve been in a play.
The gay clerk: Are you talking about your most recent appearance on TV?
Well there was the character on 30 Rock. And there was one on Orange is the New Black. I’m going to be on an episode of Nurse Jackie. It will be out in April, and it’s just a small sort of fun scene. That was before I met Dom, so that was exciting. You know I just played the sensitive, schlubby banker on Person of Interest. So there’s definitely variety in what I’m playing on TV, but I do hope the default isn’t always nasty store clerk.
I prefer bearded. Basically, I only shave my beard for a role. Having a beard gives a wonderful jawline illusion. I remember the day that Sarah wrote my beard into the show. Jessica now says, “You have a crumb in your beard,” before that she just said, “You have a crumb on your mouth.” I was so excited. I’ve had a beard for almost 10 years now.
So I have a couple of silly, random questions I want to ask. First, what’s your spirit animal?
A dachshund. I think they’re so cute. I love them. I am looking around my apartment, and I’m surrounded by tiny little dachshunds. It sounds really grandma, but I promise it’s not. If I had an actual dachshund, I’d name him Marvin.
OK, now I want to play Fuck, Marry, Kill. Ready? Ian McKellen, Leslie Jordan, and Victor Garber. Go!
That’s hard! Well, I guess I’d kill Leslie Jordan; marry Victor Garber; and since he’s left, I’d fuck Ian McKellen. But on my web series, I did something similar and said I’d fuck Papa Smurf. I don’t know, but it was funny.
Photo of Michael with stuff dogs by Zack DeZon
Watch a trailer for the play Stage Kiss below: