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Hair’s Will Swenson on Pantsless Acting and His Former Career in LDS Cinema

It’s Will Swenson's third time playing Berger, the charismatic ringleader of the musical Hair (he started when the revival, opening tonight, was just a one-time concert in Central Park), so at this point, he’s pretty comfortable letting it all hang out in public. Swenson is no Broadway newbie: He left another transferring success, Rock of Ages (in which he played hilarious eighties rocker Stacee Jaxx), to return to Hair. He spoke to Vulture about onstage nudity, hippie thinking, and his illustrious Mormon film career.

Both Jaxx, your Rock of Ages character, and Berger are half-naked for most of their respective shows.
Yeah, that’s a prerequisite in my contract now. No shirts, and lots of girls around I can be completely mean to. [Laughs.] The first time we did it for Hair, it was obviously a bizarre sensation. It was in the park, and it was kind of amazing to do it outside. It’s a different feel indoors. I do walk offstage sometimes like, "Really? I just walked around onstage with my pants off for twenty minutes?"

You have a very lengthy, audience-interactive monologue right at the beginning of the show. What’s the craziest thing you’ve done to an audience member so far?
One night, there was this person who wouldn’t talk to me when I asked him for change. I was like, “Do you speak English?” and I’m still not sure if he did. I just said, “Cause I’ll stand here with my balls in your face all night long … ” and sort of jerked my pelvis in his direction. But I usually play things by ear. If all else fails, I just hug them or say something slightly off-color.

It seems like being in this show is a pretty life-altering experience. Has hippie thinking infiltrated your real life?
Yeah, I guess so. The first day of the concert rehearsal, Jim Rado, the writer of the show, had this list of things like, “What Is a Hippie?” I remember being sort of blown away by them. There were things on the list like, “Is not afraid to hug a stranger” or “Will talk to anyone.” It makes you kind of reevaluate yourself like, “Oh, I guess I’m really not cool with talking with strangers on the street or hugging strangers.” And through the course of the show, I’ve probably hugged 40 people a night, and that certainly bleeds into your life.

Have you experienced Hair groupies yet?
Yeah, I get groped every night; I go out onstage at the end and someone will pinch my butt. Berger’s so approachable and full of love, I think everyone kind of feels like, “We just spent two hours with this guy who loves everybody, I think he’d be fine if I grabbed his ass.”

I visited your website, and it’s sort of random. You list “works well with gays” as a special skill.
Yes! I used to have “Makes Jell-O” as a special skill, because it seemed like such an odd thing to have on a résumé. I’ve also said my audition song is "Freakum Dress" by Beyoncé. Which, sadly, it is not.

You made an appearance on a show called Sons of Provo. Please explain.
I don’t practice Mormonism at all anymore, but I grew up in a Mormon family, and my cousin still is, and he made this comedy and asked if I’d star in it. So my friends and I wrote a screenplay for Sons of Provo, about a Mormon boy band.

And you also starred in films for the Mormon church at some point, right?
Yeah, they do these faith-promoting films of stories from the Book of Mormon, testimony-building dramatizations. I’ve played prophets from the Book of Mormon, I’ve played Jesus. Matter of fact, if you go to Salt Lake to the big Mormon visitors’ center, they play a big movie and I’m the voice of Jesus in that. Of course, they’ll probably shut it down knowing I’m doing Hair on Broadway.

Are you a big celebrity in Utah?
Yeah, actually, it’s bizarre. I’m nobody in New York, and I get off the plane in Salt Lake and can get recognized immediately. Not as much with my long hair, though, which is lovely.

Photo: Robert J. Saferstein