Mike Faist’s pre-show ritual is simple and relaxed. Before every performance of Dear Evan Hansen, the hit Broadway musical in which Faist plays Connor Murphy, the native Ohioan listens to music—he likes Chet Baker and the Smiths—or reads. There’s a line in the show where Evan (Ben Platt) mentions a list of Connor’s favorite books, and together with the show’s creators Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, Faist has cobbled together his own reading list that includes Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Wind, Sand and Stars.
Growing up, Faist, who moved to New York eight years ago, spent his summers doing construction work to help his parents with their real estate business. What really made him fall in love with theater, however, were the films of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. “Gene Kelly was definitely the guy, I think, that I wanted to emulate when I was a kid,” he tells us. “I forced my parents to get me into dance class; I started auditioning for community theater and children’s theater in Ohio. Those films were definitely the reason for my interest in getting into theater in general.”
In the theater world, Faist is famous for originating the role of Connor in Dear Evan Hansen and playing the bully on the streets, Morris Delancey, in the Broadway production of Newsies, but he is no stranger to the silver screen. Faist has starred in six films since 2012, and later this year, he will appear opposite Liv Tyler and Bel Powley in the horror film Wildling.
HOMETOWN: Gahanna, Ohio.
GROWING UP ON OLD FILMS: When I was a kid, I really fell in love with the old MGM films. My parents just happened to have a bunch of VHS tapes lying around; we had Singing in the Rain, we had American in Paris, we had Fred Astaire movies. It’s like TV-babysitting where they say, “Here, go watch something, kid. Stop buggin’ me.” [laughs] They would sit me in front of the TV and Gene Kelly would be on and I’d be like, “Holy crap, this guy’s a magician!” I was always very imaginative as a kid; I was always playing pretend. I was always the hero in the story, whatever story it was. It was me and all these imaginary characters that I invented, and I had to save the damsel in distress or something. Movies were a huge influence as far as my imagination. I was a huge Indiana Jones fan and Star Wars. Movies in general were a huge part of my upbringing.
THE FIRST JOB: I dropped out of the [American Musical and Dramatic Academy]. I was basically too nervous and scared to audition for anything afterwards, so a friend of mine at the time dragged me kicking and screaming to an audition for White Christmas in Springboro, Ohio at this dinner theater, and I ended up booking it. I was collecting food stamps and getting paid $150 a week. We lived in the back of a McDonald’s parking lot, but I was a professional, working actor. That was my first gig. I was 17, and that gave me enough confidence to finally go and say, “I can actually do this.”
AN ARTIST IN THE MIDWEST: It’s really funny, now that I’m here in New York, I find that there are so many people from Ohio that are in my industry. Every other person I meet goes, “Oh yeah, I’m from Ohio.” There is this cesspool of talent that just comes out of Ohio and they immediately come to New York, or they go to L.A., and they start following their dreams. There’s something in the water over there, I guess. There is this weird, niche community of people who are really into theater, really into art, really into just raising questions.
In Columbus specifically, there hasn’t been an Equity house in Ohio for over 20 years. They are now just laying the groundwork, trying to get up off the ground. The economy’s back and people are interested again. When I was growing up in Columbus, you didn’t go downtown. It was just not a safe place to go. Now I go back and it’s like the new Brooklyn, almost. [laughs] Very hipster. There’s a lot of trendy places; there’s a lot of art community interest. So it wasn’t such a huge reach. People think Ohio and they think nothing but cornfields, but not quite. It wasn’t so bad.
SECRET TALENT: I write short stories and I write things here and there. I think as an actor, it’s really important to at least attempt to write. Really, my job is to understand and portray a script, and I’ve found that the more I practice on my own writing, the more I can understand where a writer is coming from and hopefully be able to give the writer what they want, like how a line is delivered, what kind of tempo, technical aspects of it. I’ve found that it’s extremely helpful. The more you know, the better off you are. The more you’re able to understand where someone else is coming from, the better it is for collaboration.
One of the things that I’m working on is trying to create a playwright’s festival in Ohio where we bring New York actors, directors, and writers and we integrate them with local actors, directors, and writers, and it’s like a one-week playwright’s festival where we sit down, mix it up, and, at the end of the week, create a little reading series of these new plays and these new works.
THE EVOLUTION OF CONNOR MURPHY: Connor, in the beginning stages, was bullying Evan for the sake of bullying him. When the show shifted from poking fun at this Instagram and Facebook generation that constantly needs to be seen to being an honest look into why that is, then that computer lab scene came into play where there is an attempt at an apology from Connor to Evan. During the run in D.C., they had the notion of bringing Connor back after he had passed away and becoming a part of Evan and his thought process. Connor became this guy who is more complicated, someone who’s on the spectrum of bipolar and anxiety, someone who’s closer to Evan than everyone might actually see and think at first glance. As [the writers] were able to get more specific, the more they knew, the more I was able to get more specific with what I was actually doing.
I did some research afterwards. I wanted to find suicide attempt survivors, so I was Googling and trying to look for survivors, and all I could find were family members and friends who had lost loved ones to suicide, except for this one website: livethroughthis.org. It’s this website by this woman named Dese’Rae who started this campaign where basically she photographs and interviews suicide survivors: people who have attempted to commit suicide, failed, survived, and are now recovering, and they want to talk about it. Through reading the series of interviews and getting in touch with Dese’Rae, I started to empathize and really understand where Connor was coming from and where these people are coming from. They really feel like society looks at them and says, “There’s something wrong with you.” And they’re not wrong.
I think the biggest thing between all of the younger characters, especially Evan and Connor, is that they don’t want people to see them because if we allow ourselves to be seen, actually seen, and allow [ourselves] to be vulnerable, then we lose the game. Teens don’t want to let people know how they are actually feeling. I think that’s where this generation is, and where everyone feels marginalized and displaced a little bit. That’s the biggest thing that I was able to learn, and then through that, Steven [Levenson, the book writer], Benj, Justin and I really were able to feed off one another and ask questions about what we were trying to accomplish within the three scenes that Connor is alive.
CONNOR’S REAPPEARANCE: We have real-life Connor, and no one gets to know him. That’s the way that life works. We move on. What’s brilliant about the show is that it manifested from this idea that, when a tragedy happens, we as a society need to take on that person’s tragedy and make it about ourselves. Take movie stars for example. When Robin Williams passed away, everybody really, in the depths of their soul, needed to say how much Robin Williams meant to them, and I was there with them. Robin Williams meant a lot to me—like I said, I grew up watching movies—but I didn’t know him. I think there is this need to be a part of a bigger thing; I don’t know if it’s just the human connection. Through that lie in the show that Evan tells, that this is who this person is, all these other people say, “Well, this is what this person meant to me.” Connor takes that on a little bit. He becomes very charming and friendly with Evan and also, in the same regard, becomes, in their last scene together, Evan’s own voice. He’s saying some truthful things, we’ll just say. [laughs] It’s Evan’s lie coming into a reality, in a way, where he created that friendship in his mind, and now he has to deal with the consequences.
LEARNING TO FLY: I’m adopted, and I met my birth mom right when I was about to move to New York. I was 17 when I met her and her side of the family. They are a family of pilots. She’s got two young boys who are not so young anymore; they’re both men in college now. I was trying to develop a relationship with them. The oldest son, Christopher, my half-brother, wants to be in the Air Force as a captain. After I left Newsies, I went to India, and when I got back from India, I visited them. Christopher took me up on a flight, and I was thinking, “Hey, I can do this! That’s how we can bond!” It was really crazy and really impulsive. I was unemployed, but I had some money saved up, so I was like, “Oh, sure, why not?” So I got my pilot’s license. [laughs] That’s really it. And now we bond as a family in a way, there.
WILDLING: It’s about this girl who had a very sheltered life, and when her father passes away, she steps into the real world for the first time, not only as a human stepping in from an extremely sheltered life, but also as a teenager and going through what it is to grow up. It’s a bit of a horror film. She is dealing with these inner changes that are indescribable. That girl is played by Bel Powley, and she feels like she is losing control of herself. I think it’s very, very fun. Brad Dourif is in it as well. It’s extremely well thought-out. The parallel mind-frames that they have going on there are extremely smart. I am very excited for people to see it.
DEAR EVAN HANSEN IS CURRENTLY RUNNING AT THE MUSIC BOX THEATRE. FOR MORE INFORMATION OR TO PURCHASE TICKETS, VISIT THE PLAY’S WEBSITE.