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T.R. Knight: Anatomy of a career decision

An abrupt move to leave 'Grey's Anatomy' after five seasons took the actor out of his comfort zone, and that's just how he likes it. Now he's starring in the complex musical 'Parade.'

October 04, 2009|Karen Wada

T.R. Knight sure knows how to make an exit. The actor met his demise twice on the same night -- once in prime time and once center stage -- his characters' departures marking the close of one chapter of his career and the beginning of another.

On the Sept. 24 season opener of "Grey's Anatomy," Dr. George O'Malley succumbed to injuries suffered when he was hit by a bus, ending Knight's five-year run on the ABC series. Meanwhile, at the Mark Taper Forum in downtown L.A., Knight debuted as Leo Frank, the complex hero of the complex musical "Parade," based on the true story of a Jewish factory manager who is lynched after being accused of the 1913 rape and murder of an Atlanta girl.

"The whole evening was surreal," says Knight, clad in his typical T-shirt and jeans, as he relaxes backstage the morning after his big night. "I learned a lot from that first show. It was difficult and fun -- although it's hard to use a word like 'fun' because this is not an easy story to tell, even though it is an important story and a beautiful one."

In the frenzy to get through the performance, Knight says, he didn't have time to ponder the quirk of scheduling that paired "Parade's" initial preview with George's farewell. In any case, he declares his "Grey's" period is behind him.

"Now my focus is here," says Knight, referring to the Taper production, which officially opens today. The 36-year-old actor has devoted the last two months to preparing for the play, driven by the thoughtful intensity with which he seems to approach much of life and what he insists is pure survival instinct: "The fact is I'm a fish out of water, and I'm trying to literally dance as fast as I can to keep up."

Knight often speaks in such dire terms when talking about himself. He is, by all accounts, his toughest critic. "Some people call it beating yourself up," he says with a grin. "I think it's being honest. I expect a lot."

Which is why he deems playing Frank to be "the hardest thing I've done in the acting world," then adds "and I love it. It's pushing every boundary and all the comfort levels."

Knight has often pushed himself to take the less comfortable course, especially if -- as he puts it -- "I can learn something or stay true to myself." One prime example is his most famous exit of all -- his parting from "Grey's Anatomy" in June after what he describes as a communication breakdown with series creator Shonda Rhimes and concerns about his character's development and diminishing screen presence. "The change was quite obvious," he says. "It was time to move on."

He decided to leave because, he explains, "it was clear it was going to be for the best and that regardless of everything I had to hang onto that.

"I don't mean to sound disingenuous," he adds. "You realize very clearly the difficulties -- those thoughts like 'I might never work again' do get some air time on darker days. The future is so unknown, and was, and still is."

Others in his situation might seek a soft landing. Not Knight. When he was approached about "Parade," he said yes despite the obvious risks.

Doing theater was no problem. Knight has spent much of his life onstage, having made his debut at 5 with the Guthrie Theater in his native Minneapolis. Musical theater, however, was another matter. Knight hadn't sung in a show since college ("I was Squire Dap in 'Camelot.' ").

And when it comes to musicals, "Parade" is no piece of cake. Its subject matter is sober, its characters take a while to warm up to, and Alfred Uhry's book and Jason Robert Brown's score -- both Tony winners -- are demanding. The original production, co-conceived and directed by Harold Prince, opened in New York in 1998. Mixed reviews and a producer's financial problems contributed to a run of only 85 performances.

Knight is appearing in a tauter, more intimate version created by Brown and Uhry that was staged in 2007 at the Donmar Warehouse in London by Rob Ashford, who is directing the show in L.A. The revisions pleased the critics. "Daring and ambitious musical vindicated," declared one headline.

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Shades of gray

Ashford, who served as assistant choreographer in New York, says the original was "more black and white" in its depiction of Frank's plight and the Southerners who surround him as well as the anti-Semitism, corruption and other evils that tainted his trial. "We're interested in shades of gray," he explains. "Questions -- including whether Frank might actually be guilty -- appeal to us because this is life."

That's one reason the director is happy Knight is his leading man. "You need an actor like T.R. to play Frank because of all the different colors inside him." Knight's inexperience as a singer doesn't bother him. "You realize that as long as you can sing, it doesn't have to be your forte. Singing is similar to acting. It's about portraying the character." In any case, Ashford says, "we're lucky because T.R. turns out to have a good musical ear and strength in the pipes."

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