(The following is Mike Schulz's interview with Curtainbox Theatre Company co-founder Kyle Bornheimer, written for the area organization's Web site TheCurtainbox.com.)
At the end of my recent interview with Kyle Bornheimer - the Curtainbox Theatre Company co-founder who stars on the new ABC sitcom Romantically Challenged - I asked the actor if he was hoping, one day, to trek from California to the Midwest in order to see one of the organization's stage productions.
"Oh, definitely," he said. "I'm so impressed with what Kim [Furness] has done with the company. We would sit in her living room and all dream about taking this thing to the next level, and she's done that, so I definitely want to make it out there."
In the meantime, of course, Bornheimer has kept himself more than busy out there.
Much in-demand in television and feature films - especially after his leading role on the CBS series Worst Week jettisoned him to national fame - the funny, thoughtful, and supremely down-to-earth Bornheimer graciously took time out of his schedule for our phone conversation. He also chuckled frequently while discussing, among other subjects, his early years in L.A., his history with the Curtainbox, dancing with Sigourney Weaver, and talking dirty with Betty White.
The Periphery of All Peripheries
Hailing from South Bend, Indiana, the 34-year-old Bornheimer's interest in the performing arts began with a love of movies - a love that, at age 19, eventually led him to California. ("My parents were very supportive," he says. "They were probably scared, because they didn't know if I had a plan, and I indeed did not have any sort of plan.") It also led Bornheimer to a series of random jobs and the unwelcome - or perhaps welcome - hardship of car-lessness.
My favorite movie [as a child] was always Singin' in the Rain. My dad had a pretty extensive old-movie collection, as did my grandpa, so I was exposed to a lot of old movies. Then, as I got older, I watched The Godfather and Dr. Strangelove and Chinatown - all those great movies that came out of Hollywood in the '60s and '70s. And then I grew up in the '90s with the whole independent-film movement - Tarantino and Jane Campion and all those Miramax movies. We would watch all that stuff in high school, and that kind of added a whole 'nother generation to my movie love.
I moved to Los Angeles when I was 19. In terms of acting, I didn't do anything formally until my mid-20's, but I was kind of following all the video-store geeks in the post-Tarantino age - just going to L.A. because that's where they made movies, and I wanted to go where they made movies.
I sort of toiled on the periphery of all peripheries for years and years, working whatever jobs I could get. I mean, my car was stolen the third day I lived here - which was partly a blessing, because I don't think I would've ever been able to make payments on it - so I was kind of confined to the area around my apartment in Santa Monica for years, working at video stores. And I worked at Tower Records; that was my first job that I had for a long time.
And then I would just do whatever free production-assistant work I could get on short films and in production offices, and try to make whatever contacts in the industry I could. But I was still a little bit unfocused on what, exactly, I wanted to do. I had absolutely no connections, and didn't know how to make them.
Say "Yes" to Everything
At age 24, Bornheimer decided to take his first stab at performing, and enrolled in an acting class taught by noted coach and author Ivana Chubbuck. It was in her course that Bornheimer first met his future Curtainbox Theatre Company co-founders Kimberly (Kurtenbach) Furness - president of the organization now based in Davenport - and Dalia Vosylius. (Later, David Furness and Allison Francis would fill out the company's quintet of co-founders.)
Kim started toying around with the idea [for the Curtainbox] with Dalia, and they invited me to join. And I think, at the time, I had never even been on stage in a play at all. But, you know, you learn very quickly to say "yes" to everything when you're an up-and-coming anything in this town. You do whatever short-film or showcase opportunity you get. And I liked Kim a lot and trusted her, and knew she had a very strong background in theatre, so I don't think there was any question on my part. I said "yes" right away, and was very excited to work with her.
You know, I had no background in theatre, so I was kind of willing to take [the Curtainbox] wherever it took us. Kim had a much stronger vision for the company, and I really leaned on that. I mean, yeah, there's a thing that happens in Los Angeles where people often end up putting on stage productions in order to be seen by television- and movie-industry people, which is fine by me. But what was great about Curtainbox, and Kim's idea for it, was that it be a legitimate theatre company.
Of course, I was too green to even know what that meant. So I was just sort of along for the ride, and having fun doing it, and learning from them, and getting the chance to act. I mean, I got along with all of them, we acted really well together, and for me, it was as simple as that. You know, I wish I could say that I had some strong mission for the company at the time, but I was just excited to be able to work with them.
9 to 5 with a Pizza Man
Among the Curtainbox's first endeavors was a production of Lee Blessing's Two Rooms - a drama about terrorism and media spin - which found Bornheimer playing ethically-challenged reporter Walker Harris, and which the group produced not long after the events of September 11, 2001. Prior to that, however, Bornheimer played the victimized title character in the Curtainbox's debut outing, Danielle Craviotto's Pizza Man, which was a show in a much lighter vein than Two Rooms... depending, of course, on your definition of the term "lighter."
[Pizza Man] is about two single women who, through a variety of circumstances, become very upset not only with their lives, but with, as they see it, the men who've kept them down. And they order a pizza with the intent of kidnapping the pizza man an holding him hostage, and indeed, raping him. But it's a complete dark comedy - it's played almost exclusively for laughs - and it's very funny, very well-written... very of-its-time, in some ways. It's kind of like 9 to 5 with a pizza man. And rape. I don't think there's rape in 9 to 5.
We did a modicum of advertising for it - as much as we could afford at the time. And being new to that whole thing, I probably, regretfully, had little to offer in terms of how to mount and advertise for a show. But we did our best to get people there, and I remember our getting some industry people to see it, and I think we got reviewed a couple of times... . I forget how long we ran it for, but it was very fun for me. None of it was like work. I was just kind of learning on the job and having fun.
We did [Two Rooms] either the following year or maybe later that year, and that's still one of my favorite things I've ever done. I don't get many opportunities to play that kind of character now.
I think the key was that we didn't try to squeeze [9/11] in it. We just let the script be what it was, and it automatically resonated. It's written in such a sort of broad and generic manner - and I mean that in a good way - that it can, sadly, apply to the last 30, 40 years of conflict in the Middle East. You could watch that play in 1975, 1995, or 2005, and it would be honest, and depressing, no matter the time.
In some ways, it's my kind of play, and my kind of material - the stuff I gravitate towards when I watch things. Just something sober and somber and well-reasoned and even-handed. That's the kind of stuff I really like. I don't get the chance to see that enough.
A visit to Bornheimer's page on the Internet Movie Database reveals 2004 to be a turning-point year for the actor, who amassed no less than 14 television and film credits between 2004 and 2007, including appearances on such TV series as The Office, How I Met Your Mother, Weeds, and Medium. The actor, though, is quick to state that this burst of professional employment - each job, he says, one that "you don't want to leave at the end of the day" - didn't necessarily qualify Bornheimer as any kind of overnight success.
It was a slow build. I started getting some commercials, and those would lead to small things. I mean, at the beginning of my résumé, there's things like The O.C. and Monk and Will & Grace - a lot of small things in there, and then I started building those to bigger parts, and built those to bigger parts. But it was very slow. I mean, I moved here when I was 19, and then to not get paid to do any of this until you're 29 or 30... . It was a 10-year haul.
But it does build if you're diligent enough once you get into it, and if you deliver. You have to kind of work both at the craft and at the business end of it, and you learn as you go - you have to kind of learn how to work with the business. I mean, you can make a big splash right at the beginning, but then you have to maintain that. Which is sometimes even harder than breaking in, because you're then up against the cream of the crop at auditions and stuff. There are amazing actors out here, and it's a very competitive field, so you realize quickly - if you're attuned to it - that you have to maintain it.
And you have to maintain your confidence. You know, this business has a way of inflating your confidence and then deflating it, sometimes in the same exact moment. So you're constantly balancing that. I mean, yeah, once you start to realize, "People are hiring me," that's kinda cool. You figure, "I must be doing something right." But if you have any intelligence whatsoever, that inspires you to maintain it. You don't have much time to rest on that initial good feeling.
That feeling of not wanting to leave - all of them are like that. I mean, when you do that first [TV series], the world opens up. In some ways, it's as good as you thought it was gonna be, you know? Just the experience of it. And it's not like a glamor thing. It's not glamorous at all. I mean, you're put in a tiny little room with a hanger of wardrobe, and you're off in some remote location, and it's midnight, and it's cold, but it's awesome. You're loving that about it, you know? Because you're working with Tony Shalhoub, or you're on Will & Grace... . You want to maintain that very much.
Standing at the End
It was in 2008 that Bornheimer finally landed the biggest of big breaks, when he was cast as the hapless - and unfailingly accident-prone - leading character on the CBS sitcom Worst Week. Not that getting the job, or getting the show on the air, was a cakewalk.
I'd built a relationship with the casting directors over a period of years. They'd brought me in for very small things, and eventually brought me in for Monk, which was the first or second thing I ever did. It was this very small role of a cop, and I didn't have any lines, I don't think - I just kinda approached this criminal. But after that, they would call me in for other little things, and they got bigger and bigger, and I would get closer and closer to roles, so they would get more and more confident about bringing me back for bigger projects.
They brought me in very early for Worst Week - I read for a couple different parts in that - and then the writer's strike hit, and the project kind of went away. And I think they'd already kind of let me go; I don't think they were thinking of me as an option at that time. But then it came back up in the spring, and by that time the creator of the show, Matt Tarses, had seen a commercial I did, and liked what he saw in the commercial, and brought me back.
After that, once I came back and auditioned, I think I gave a good-enough audition that I was the front-runner. I auditioned a few other times for him, but then, for network-TV stuff, you have to audition for all the executives at the studio that's producing it. And then you have to go and do it again for all the people at the network. And after the whole process, I was standing at the end.
So we shot the pilot, and then you're just in a holding pattern for a few weeks as they edit it and show it to the executives, and then show it to audiences, where they get these cards that are like, "Do you like this person? Do you not like this person?" You're just kind of removed from it, which is fine by me, and there's not a lot of lobbying you can do.
I remember the phone call, very much, when the show got picked up. I was just eating breakfast on a Monday morning, and I knew the news was gonna come in that day, and I remember being very calm about it. Because I was very proud of what we did. I knew we left it all out there and we worked our asses off. And so when I got the phone call, I was ecstatic. It was one of the best phone calls I'd ever gotten.
Classic Kind of Screwball
Called "the find of the fall season" by Entertainment Weekly, Bornheimer received glowing reviews for his work as Sam Briggs on Worst Week, and has nothing but superlatives for the filming experience. (Not to mention the experience directly before filming. "My wife and I had a baby the day we started production," he says, "so I was in seventh heaven, just in general. Just very happy. For a few months, I didn't have to return phone calls... I didn't have to do anything but do the show and be with my family, so that was great.") Yet after initially promising ratings within CBS' Monday-night comedy block, the numbers gradually declined, and the show - now a cult hit on DVD - was canceled after its debut season.
I loved the show. I was in love with the show, and with Matt Tarses, and with the cast - that's the sort of experience you don't often get. I mean, your first [series] is always gonna be special, but I was deeply, deeply in love with the show and with the character, and thought it lined up perfectly with what I thought I was capable of doing. I think if it was more of a struggle to find the voice of that character, it might've been more stressful. But I knew exactly what I wanted to do with him, and had a lot of fun with it, and Matt is just an incredibly calming presence. So it felt very special to have that much good fortune.
In a weird way, it was a classic kind of screwball show, but the kind that hadn't been done in a while. The conceit of the show was that every week this really nice guy was gonna screw things up - as people would often say, it was Curb Your Enthusiasm but with a nice guy. Or it was Meet the Parents every week. And I was fine with both those descriptions.
We did a lot of physical humor - and a lot of really unique kinds of physical humor - and whatever sentimental or sweet moments we could work in were icing, if we could get them in without being too cloying. And I thought Matt did a great job of finding a really nice tone, and [Worst Week] was relatively well-received. But I think a lot of people didn't know what to make of it sometimes. It was like, "Oh, I see! It's not that you're sarcastic, it's just a pure comedy."
I think we had very good will at the network; they really wanted us to succeed, and they liked us a lot. I think they probably had meetings every other week about whether we should stay or we should go, and they decided to give us a chance - they gave us 17 episodes, and we were grateful for that. We fought like hell to get more, and thought we deserved more just in terms of the quality of the show. But in terms of how it worked on their network, and what they needed in that time slot, and all those variables that you have no control over, they made a decision.
But I have a great relationship with [CBS], and always felt like they gave us a good shot, and they treated us well. Because especially for them, we were a bit of a chancy show. They had a brand for their network, and we were a bit off-brand, you know? And they took a chance on me, too. Except for Kurtwood Smith, there were no name actors on that show, and I was the face of the series and was not at all any sort of name; besides no one in the public knowing me, I hadn't done anything in the industry in terms of carrying a show. So I was just thrilled that they gave me the chance, and felt like we delivered for them. It just didn't fit on the network.
The Old and the New
The actor, however, is now back on prime time with ABC's new midseason series Romantically Challenged, which debuted on April 19. (Each of its first six episodes was directed by legendary sitcom helmer James Burrows, whom the actor calls "the Spielberg of TV... he's just amazing.") And Bornheimer can also currently be found at the cineplex, portraying the loutish brother of Jay Baruchel in the romantic comedy She's Out of My League.
[Romantically Challenged] is really fun. It's with Alyssa Milano and Josh Lawson and Kelly Stables, and it's about four men and women in different states of singleness, trying to figure out their personal lives. Four friends who are relatively functional people, but when they get out of this friendship and they're out in the real world, they're sort of dysfunctional in their interpersonal relationships.
It was created by this guy named Ricky Blitt, who's been one of the main writers on Family Guy for years, and he's really well-known in certain circles. In this town, certainly, but he's also got a pretty big fan base because he's a pretty ornery writer, and a pretty irreverent writer, and very funny. He has a very new sort of irreverent wit to him, but also a real love of classic sitcoms.
And that's what the show is - it's kind of a mix of the old and the new, which, I'm finding, is a style that I really like, because I thought Worst Week was similar in that blend. And this one is even more so, because it's shot in front of a live audience, which is a great experience. You rehearse throughout the week, and then you put it on - it's very much like a play, and very fun in that way.
I think [She's Out of My League] is gonna surprise people. I think it's done relatively well in terms of the box office, but everyone that has seen it loves it, and I think it's gonna be kind of a sleeper hit. We had so much fun making it. I mean, Jay and T.J. Miller and Nate Torrence and Jessica St. Clair and Lindsay Sloane... it was a lot of young, really good comedic actors. We're all kind of the same age, and kind of at the same points in our careers, and we all had a really fun attitude about it. All those guys can hang with improv, and we would just crack each other up all the time.
But we had a really good director named Jim Field Smith, who was great about having all these ideas flowing, but not letting it get so out of hand that it just becomes a self-indulgent, comics-trying-to-crack-each-other-up thing. He made it about the story, and when I watched it, that really came through - he found a balance between focusing on story and letting these really great comics kind of come up with stuff. So we got really lucky.
Meet Your Heroes
Bornheimer also has three other feature films scheduled for release in 2010 - the 9/11 drama The Space Between and the comedies For Christ's Sake and You Again - which have found him cast alongside some of the most gifted and impressive names in the industry.
Travis Fine directed [The Space Between], and I just have a very small part in the beginning. I knew some people involved with it, and I really liked the project, and liked them, and so we found a small thing at the beginning for me to do. I haven't seen it yet; there's a screening coming up that I'm gonna try to go to. But Melissa Leo - nominated for an Oscar a couple years ago - is in it, and I got to do a little scene with her. She was excellent.
A friend of mine, Jackson Douglas, directed [For Christ's Sake], and an actor named Will Sasso, who a lot of people know from MADtv, was one of the forces behind it. And this really, really funny writer named Jeff Lewis, who's on a show called The Guild, wrote it. It's about a parish priest who, to raise money for his church - and through a whole series of events that go wrong - ends up in the porn industry. That one I have seen, and it's very funny. It's a comedy that kind of satirizes... well, anything it can get its hands on, basically, in the world of porn and the world of church.
[You Again] has Kristin Bell, Odette Yustman, Betty White, Jamie Lee Curtis, Victor Garber, Sigourney Weaver... . I got to dance with Sigourney Weaver for, like, a month, first in little dance classes and then for the movie. She is a star. A star and an amazing actress. It's a comedy, and it's the kind of light-on-your-feet, really bright comedy that she's done before, but I don't think quite as elegantly as this. I just sort of stared at her the whole time I was watching her work.
You know, they say, "Don't meet your heroes, because you'll end up being disappointed." But so far, when I've had the chance to work with some really big names, they've not only been great actors, but really interesting people. I mean, Jamie Lee Curtis is in A Fish Called Wanda. Sigourney Weaver is in Aliens. These are movies that I not only watched as a kid, but were instrumental in my growing up. And to see them coming to work, and as brilliant as you think they are, they don't just walk in and be brilliant - they're working at it, too.
And Betty White's just as funny, coming up with shit, as any of those young actors from She's Out of My League. Betty White could hang with that crowd. I mean, she's as sharp and as quick and as dirty as anybody.
Asked if, after his many years in Hollywood, he finally feels like a success in his field, Bornheimer laughs and says, "I feel like I want to stay busy." Given his talent, modesty, and work ethic, that likely won't be a problem.
I mean, sure, I have career ambitions that I'd like to satisfy, and at the same time, there are practical needs that need to be met in life; I have a family that I need to support, and a solid career is good to have for that. And having that kind of special desire to express yourself, and to be in interesting projects, it keeps you hungry. Hopefully, that fire doesn't burn out, and you stay hungry for those things.
But it's a very uncertain and erratic business, so it's hard - especially at this point in one's career - to feel too comfortable about anything. You have to balance that comfort with the fear that it can be yanked away from you at any time.
You know, my life is out here, my family and friends are out here, and I love the industry I'm in. And so you just work at it every day, and try to enjoy it as much as you can.
For more on Kyle Bornheimer's association with The Curtainbox Theatre Company, see the Ensemble page at TheCurtainbox.com.