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The Intense World of T.R. Knight

The Intense World of T.R. Knight

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Samuel D. Hunter's new play, Pocatello, about a gay man stuck in small-town America hits home.

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From left: T.R. Knight & Samuel D. Hunter | Photo: Walter McBride/Getty

For generations gay men and women have figured out ways to forge their own families separate from their biological ones. For Eddie, the young gay man at the center of Samuel D. Hunter's new play Pocatello -- which had its world premiere this fall at Playwrights Horizons (and continues through Jan. 4), all he wants is to do is stay in his small Idaho town. It's where his great-grandfather settled during an imagined idyllic time, and as Eddie desperately tries to keep the Italian-themed chain restaurant he manages from closing, he tries to fix his family -- both real and imagined.

Eddie's played by T.R. Knight, who brings an intensity to the role of a gay guy who just wants to cling to some sort of idea of family. As an openly gay actor himself, Knight says it's refreshing to play a character whose sexuality is not at the center of his personal problems.

"I think he needs to solve the family issue before he can continue and explore any relationship," Knight says. "Regardless of his sexuality, that would be the case. God, how nice is that? To see something, read something where that's not the fucking problem."

While Hunter says his earlier plays -- such as The Whale and The Few -- feel "like portraiture," Pocatello feels "like landscape." Although it was completed before he was named a MacArthur "Genius" Grant fellow, the work certainly appears to be Hunter's "Great American Play," including a surprisingly large cast of 10 excellent actors, about what it's like living in the heartland in the early 21st-century. Families are fractured. People are lonely. And everything is slowly sinking into the mud.

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Knight (center) and the cast of 'Pocatello' at Playwrights Horizons

According to Hunter, they had the idea to cast Knight -- who last appeared on Broadway opposite Patrick Stewart in David Mamet's A Life in the Theatre and Off-Broadway in Romeo & Juliet last year -- in the role very early on. "He has a raw, honest quality to him," Hunter says. "Since it's not a big, sexy, heroic story, it needs a guy at the center of it who can get inside it. What I love about T.R. and this play is that, there's not a single moment where he's phoning it in. He brings a beautiful catharsis to the end of it."

Knight, who grew up in Minneapolis before moving to New York City and beginning his acting career, may not have had similar struggles as Eddie, but he says he does understand the Midwest mentality, an inclination to "bury, bury, bury and not telegraph emotions because it's embarrassing." He says he relates to Eddie's brother Nick, who got out of town, which creates an added internal frustration. Plus, Knight says he worked two years at an Italian-themed restaurant, so he knows a bit of the the banality of that existence.

Knight lives with his husband outside of New York City and has had to figure out ways to cope with the demands of playing Eddie multiple times a week. "I watched Olive Kitteridge, and Richard Jenkins is my hero, as is Frances McDormand. But I'll watch the rest of it when this is closed," he admits, saying he needs lighter entertainment as a refuge. "Superhero movies? Check. Action hero movie? Perfect. Planet of the -- sign me up. I need that as a kind of an antidote to this right now. Otherwise, I'm not a pleasant person."

This return to Off-Broadway doesn't mean that he's not interested in doing more TV in the future. After his critically acclaimed time on Grey's Anatomy, he's happy that there are expanded opportunities for actors to explore difficult material. "I think it's great as an actor to dive into the darker," he says. In fact, he taped an Amazon pilot earlier this year (it wasn't picked up) and is looking for his next project. In the meantime, Eddie seems to have left its mark on the actor.

"[These characters] stick with you," Knight says. "There's been a number of times when, what I learned was the same thing as what the character I was playing needed to learn. I might not realize it until later, but it's fascinating how actor and character are brought together."

Pocatello continues through Jan. 4 at Playwrights Horizons in New York City.

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