First you hear the voice — resonant as mahogany, smooth as late-night FM radio.
Kahlil Joseph is wrapped in his best winter clothes against the February chill, with scarf, coat and sunglasses almost obscuring the rest of him. And then you hear his voice, and then it makes sense: There’s a reason that this man who makes his living as an actor — who has done film and TV and voiceover work but is on his first national theatrical tour — has carved out a practice as a vocal and acting coach in L.A. (home to so many I-just-got-an-audition! actors). In fact, he has coached actors who have appeared in such productions as The L Word, Coyote Ugly and Clash of the Titans; he has even coached Sean Connery’s son, Jason.
Joseph — who plays the intimidating Professor Callahan of Harvard Law School in the current touring version of Legally Blonde (a show that I’ve expressed some doubts about) inspires confidence with his no-nonsense but engaging manner. He’s passionate about his craft, and he expects reporters to follow suit.
“I expect them to know as much about me as I know about them,” he says, adding that 85 percent of journalists do their homework before interviews. The rest, he says, get uninspired monosyllabic answers.
The first leg of the current tour (Sept. 21-Dec. 18) was mostly one-night stops in a blur of Southern and Midwestern towns, Joseph says: “Four weeks straight — four weeks!,” he says, “of the show getting out at 10:30 pm and being back on the bus at 6:00, 6:30, maybe 7:30 am. We perfected the art of sleeping on the bus. We pull in around 2:00, sound check’s over around 5:00, call is an hour before the show — it’s just a blur. It’s fun to see new cities, new states — but it’s challenging physically, emotionally, mentally. ---
“Most of the cast is eating out most of the time. Some eat fairly well, with their protein shakes and all, but I really try to be disciplined by making the time to buy my own groceries.”
Meanwhile, the Legally Blonde tour’s second stint goes on, Dec. 28-May 15 (though mercifully, with a much higher proportion of entire weeks, or at least split weeks, in particular cities).
“Interestingly,” Joseph says, “I have reset my body clock on this tour. Usually, I’m a guy who goes to bed at a normal hour. But if you think of a typical worker who works 9 to 6, gets home 6:30 — they’re going to sleep around 11 o’clock, with several hours to unwind ... well, if you did that on a tour ... and even as it is, I’m often up until 1:00 or 2:00 am.
“But now, I can sleep on command. I can’t do a power-nap, but if I only get four hours’ sleep, I can make up for it. Psychologically, it’s tough.
“But you know, when I went home [to L.A.] on our layoff, I’d get to sleep at a regular hour.”
On the morning of his first full day in Spokane, Joseph didn’t have to get on a bus — but he did have to do the usual round of early-morning radio and TV spots, including a chat with Verne Windham on KPBX in which he recalled how he got interested in song and dance and martial arts, all when he was just 5 to 7 years old; how he once sang in rock bands in New Delhi; and how he hopes that taking a year off from his work as an acting coach to do this tour will get him seen across the country, so that when viewers see him in film and TV, maybe they’ll remember him. (He has guested on TV series such as 24, Numb3rs, Leverage, Castle and Desperate Housewives; he did the requisite stint on a daytime soap, and he does a voiceover in Julia Roberts’s recent movie, Eat Pray Love.)
As for the movie-vs.-musical differences with Legally Blonde, Joseph admits that “film can be more subtle.” But with all the song and dance, he says, “a musical can be a more escapist and fun way of telling it.”
When Callahan comes on to Elle in the film, it’s just a hand placed on her thigh; in the musical, the harasser steals a kiss and then gets slapped — bigger gestures for bigger effects, or, as Joseph says, “the forcible kiss and the slap just pop so much better onstage.”
Actors on tour will tell you that they have a hard time uprooting their lives and staying for extended times away from their loved ones. Joseph swears by technology now. “I didn’t even have a laptop before this tour,” he says. “But I am so thankful for technology now. Skype is my mantra.”
Always having to be on, while touring, is also difficult. “When you do a TV show or shoot a movie,” Joseph says, “you can fly back home. But this is constant.
“I’ve sort of done my career in reverse,” he says, listing his roles as Jean Valjean in Les Miz (in India), and as Zach in A Chorus Line, etc.
“But the interesting thing about choosing this role in this, as you call it, ‘bubble-gum musical,’ is the chance to make something of him.”
Him is Professor Callahan, the intimidating bad guy of the piece — and Joseph is clearly on a campaign to make something of the prof other than a mere stereotype.
“When my agent told me about this role, my first question was: “They made a musical? Of Legally Blonde?’ But she said to look at the character breakdown, and it seemed to fit. At the same time, I wanted to bring my own spirit to the role.”
He talks about giving the character more charisma and intensity — but of even greater primacy is the fact that Joseph, 32 and of East Indian ancestry, is distinct from all the elderly white men you might picture when you think of “established Harvard professor.”
He’s also someone who spent 2007-08 teaching voice and acting in UCLA’s School of Theater — “So that to any naysayers [who think Joseph can’t plausibly play a professor], I can say, “Well, sir, I am a professor.”
The song “Chip on My Shoulder,” sung to Elle by her newfound love interest, Emmett, is a testament to the need for motivation: To succeed, you need to get a little bit angry. Joseph thinks it also applies to his character: If Callahan is younger and darker-skinned than the Old White Men who supposedly make up the Harvard faculty, then he must have been “very fiery,” Joseph says. “It’s like I’m out to prove myself.”
In the Spokane Public Radio interview with Windham, Joseph emphasized that Callahan “also has a chip on his shoulder. I’m the youngest actor to have played this role so far, and I want to make him compelling and charismatic, like he’s got that young fire — in effect, saying, “Look at me: I run a billion-dollar law firm. And look at you — you’re just getting started.” At the law firm, Joseph explains, “I am God, and this is my show. And I don’t know who you are” ... although Callahan’s attitude toward Elle changes, “once he realizes that she isn’t as stupid as I thought.”
While he can’t think of any other stereotypes that this production breaks, at least his Callahan is younger, “full of fire, drive, energy and charisma. The audience is going to take him very seriously.”
Joseph realizes that he’s playing the bad guy in what amounts to (my term, not his) a bubble-gum musical. What’s interesting is how hard he’s working to create a rounded characterization within the show. “The irony is that I like to play bad guys,” he says. “My Callahan is unlike all the other characters in the show. He’s not so happy-go-lucky. He has a lot of power and energy, but he is calculated, calm, still and guarded.”
Asked about how audiences for this musical vary by region, Joseph laughs and says, “When it comes to ‘Gay or European,’ they were screaming with laughter, even in the South. But it oscillates: When those two guys kiss each other [Nikos and Carlos, in “There! Right There!”], then there’s a kind of forced, quiet applause.
After the kiss-and-slap when Callahan turns into a sexual harasser, Joseph says that most audiences begin to “utterly despise me. And the hatred that comes out when I get fired from the legal team — it’s vehement. People applaud. But if you’ve cheered when I get fired, no one is happier than me. If you boo me, it would make my day.”
He has studied film villains — De Niro, Pacino, Denzel Washington in Training Day — for clues on how best to portray the bad guy. But some of his best inspiration, he says, comes from an unusual source: pro wrestling. “When the crowd is shouting, ‘Kill him!,’ that’s when I imagine that I’m like what the wrestlers call ‘the heel.’ Some actors are terrified of their own negative emotions, but I do have a dark side — and I’m not scared of it, I just channel it into my work,” he says. “When I smile, that’s when I’m at my most dangerous.
“Bad guys think that what they’re doing is right — to the point of delusion. Look at Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds — guys like that are convinced that what they are doing is right, like in that opening speech of his when he compares Jews to rats.
“Callahan is like that. He has a God complex: ‘I am God.’ He’s very grounded, and he moves slowly. He can create a great amount of tension just by moving slowly.
“My first entrance comes in ‘Blood on the Water’ — I tell my students that they have to be like sharks: find their enemies and destroy them.”
Unlike most actors, Joseph likes to watch himself work. He can be self-critical, but he doesn’t like false modesty. He’s serious about his art, wants to see himself performing it, and doesn’t understand “fake humility. It’s very detrimental to an actor. You should appreciate yourself, so long as you know how to appreciate yourself to your advantage.” What he means is having the capacity to criticize yourself as well.
“Some actors pretend that it’s abhorrent to see themselves on film: ‘Oh, no, that’s too much.’” But not wanting to see yourself work, Joseph says, is “equally as bad as someone who’s fawning all over himself. We’re all so concerned with appearances. I don’t like actors who act as if they want other people’s pity.”
He’s not looking for any pity in “Blood on the Water.” In Callahan’s entrance song a half-hour into the show — in which he demands that young law students start thinking like predatory sharks — Joseph’s short stature, plus the fact that listening from the wings dissipates the forcefulness of his voice, make him appear less than completely domineering. But the controlled movement he talked about is certainly evident — compared to all the bouncy bubble-gum girls in this show, he’s silent, self-assured, deliberate in his movements.
This may be the 142nd performance of the Legally Blonde tour, but just before a second-act entrance, there’s Joseph, straight-backed in his suit, silently mouthing the words he’s about to speak onstage, even though he’s done this scene many times before. He waves a prop cell phone around, gesticulating, warming up. He’s older than the other cast members — the veteran, dignified, a stalwart among all the backstage silliness and play. When the orchestra strikes up the entr’acte, his head pops to attention: Soon it’ll be magic time.
And sure enough, soon he’s onstage, telling Elle and the other legal interns how to approach their next case. Caught up in what isn’t exactly the world’s most subtle musical, he’s still trying to mold a subtle characterization. In his professionalism and passion for his craft, Kahlil Joseph typifies many working actors today — easy to dismiss as just “that guy you saw that one time,” fleetingly, in a guest spot on TV, perhaps, but someone who has an interesting story to tell, loads of talent and intelligence, and an unsure but rising presence in this business we call show.
Image: Kahlil Joseph, backstage at Spokane’s INB Center on Feb. 11, 2011, during intermission for Legally Blonde: The Musical — he’s wearing a kind of smoking jacket to protect his Professor Callahan costume
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