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If you’re a straight actor playing gay, who better to instruct you than your own gay twin brother? Perhaps no one, though don’t expect him to go easy on you.
In the case of [title of show], now playing at Signature Theatre, that is exactly the scenario. James Gardiner, who is straight, plays Hunter, a gay man with Broadway ambitions. His gay twin, Matthew Gardiner, is in charge as the show’s director. But don’t cry nepotism — both say their working relationship is no cakewalk.
Rather, these two 26-year-olds take their theater work seriously. One wonders if the womb they shared may have been lined with pages of Playbill. Their gay-straight divide cannot dilute their shared passion for the stage. While Matthew rules the roost at Signature, James’s musical, Glory Days, made it to Broadway. And, more or less, it all started years ago in a suburban D.C. basement, with the 6-year-old twin tots discovering their innate theater legs through Broadway soundtracks, at the same time other kids their age were probably playing in mud or destroying Barbie dolls.
Living distinct though parallel lives, director and actor may also see art imitating life — and something of themselves — in [title of show]. Particularly, there’s a scene where Hunter shares a childhood memory about how a small living room production he and his brother produced had fallen apart due to artistic differences. That scene might elicit a smile from the audience, but it’s bound to pull harder on the heartstrings of those familiar with the Gardiner twins.
”We have the funniest videos of us in the basement doing whatever show, and we would get in arguments or fights,” James says with a laugh.
”The best video is of us doing Cats,” Matthew interrupts. ”You just hear our dad turn on the video camera and go, ‘Let me know when you’re done.’ And then you hear this tape starting to play music. Literally, the entire first side of the tape plays while we proceed to just act like cats — it has absolutely nothing to do with the play Cats.”
Thankfully, for audiences as well as their father, the Gardiner twins have come a long way.
METRO WEEKLY: How did this collaboration for [title of show] come about?
MATTHEW GARDINER: Eric Schaeffer, the artistic director at Signature Theatre, wanted to do [title of show] ever since he saw it in the initial off-Broadway production. And the writers of the show, as well as some of the original performers, are good friends of Signature’s. So he knew he wanted to do it. Automatically, he thought someone like James would be good in the role of Hunter, because James [like Hunter] is actually a writer and a performer, so it seemed like something that James would be good for. Then he asked me if I would direct it.
JAMES GARDINER: It was a setup from the get-go. This is the first time that we’ve worked together professionally, as director and actor.
MATTHEW: There have been many, many productions where I’ve assistant directed shows that he’s been in. But this is the first time that I’ve actually been in the director position since high school.
MW: You were a director in high school?
MATTHEW: Well, the reason I became a director is because in high school James kept getting cast in all t he leads. I kept being put in the role that was furthest away from him onstage. Because we had idiots running the drama program they would basically go, “Okay, James is playing Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls, so we’re going to make Matthew Harry the Horse, because Harry the Horse is onstage the l east with Sky Masterson, so then it will be less confusing.”
JAMES: It was so funny, because [when we shared a scene] they would put Matthew in these dark sunglasses and they made him pitch his voice, like really high.
MATTHEW: I was so over being cast based on what my brother was cast in, that I was like, “You know what? I’m going to try directing a production of Cabaret,” in high school. I loved it so much, because I could boss him around.
MW: In [title of show], did you feel like you could get more out of James because he is your twin brother?
MATTHEW: The relationship is interesting, because we see each other’s bullshit. We can sense when the other isn’t giving their all. It’s easier to tell, and easier to know how to lead him.
JAMES: It’s funny because the other actors in the show would constantly come up to me and be like, “Wow, he’s really hard on you,” and I never saw it that way. The difference is the relationship between a director and an actor: In a lot of instances the director sort of has to tread lightly because actors can sort of be emotional creatures.
MATTHEW: You have to know the room that you’re working with, and in a room where your brother is there, you find that you’re a little bit more blunt.
JAMES: Blunt not in a bad way, but you just don’t have to sugarcoat things.
MW: James, had you played a gay character before?
JAMES: Actually the first show I ever did out of college. I played the role of Beethoven in Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead. This is only the second time I’ve played a gay character onstage.
MW: Do you feel like you had more insight on how to play gay, having grown up with a gay twin brother?
JAMES: I don’t really think so. At the beginning, what I found sort of intimidating about the role of Hunter was I didn’t want to do the character a disservice by going, “Oh, well, he’s gay and that is the only thing that he is.” Matthew worked a lot with me on getting over my own concerns and hang-ups about who this character is.
MATTHEW: The main thing that’s different between this character and my brother is that he is gay, which informs his sense of humor. That’s it.
JAMES: It’s funny because Sam Ludwig and I, who play the two main characters of the show, are both straight guys. But onstage we would constantly be talking about musical theater and about different references, and they would be offstage watching us during rehearsals and just be like “You two, I swear, you guys….” [Laughs.] It’s interesting because there are a lot of stereotypes there sometimes and I don’t think they’re necessarily [true]. There are plenty of straight guys in musical theater that in a weird way are what typically would be referred to as “show queens,” somebody who knows all the factoids about musical theater.
MW: How far back do you trace your interest in musical theater?
MATTHEW: Oh, forever. The first thing we ever saw was our cousin’s musical production of The Wiz. We became completely obsessed with it when we were 5. We just became enamored by it and started taking dance and voice lessons. Both he and I, even when we were little, were professional actors. We were doing movies and plays. I was in A Christmas Carol at Ford’s when I was 6, and both of us were in The Nutcracker almost every year at the Washington Ballet.
JAMES: When we were kids, it was funny because our idea of fun was to go in the basement of our house, and we had a ton of cassettes of different Broadway shows and we would essentially act out the entire cast album. That was our idea of a good time. Or we would get our cousins together and force them to put on a show at family gatherings. Like The Sound of Music or Phantom of the Opera.
MW: Did your parents have a musical-theater background?
JAMES: No. Both of our parents are computer savvy. They both work for the Department of Agriculture. But I think that experience of seeing The Wiz, for us that sparked interest in theater. And then our parents saw that that was something that we loved and they bought us all the different cast recordings and all the different musicals and they just exposed us to that. Which is funny, because my mother for a long time was a phys-ed teacher. In a weird way you would expect them to have wanted their children to be into sports and big athletes.
MATTHEW: But instead, when I was 7, I said I wanted to be a ballet dancer. They were like, “All right, sounds good. We’re going to take you to the Washington Ballet and you’re going to be in the best dance program in the city.”
JAMES: I decided I wanted to play T-ball and baseball, and now I’m kicking myself over that decision. [Laughs.] I think having that training in ballet and dance would have served me better than my expertise in hitting a T-ball.
MATTHEW: But both of us from the age of 5 loved musical theater. We could fall in love with the same show. He would be in love with the character of the Phantom and I would be in love with the character of Christine. It’s the way we were enamored by it. I was obsessed with Judy Garland —
JAMES: And I was obsessed with Frank Sinatra.
MATTHEW: Our parents were amazing about that. My mother bought me every Judy Garland album when I was 6 — and he had to listen to them, too.
JAMES: I did. [Laughs.] I was never as quite enamored by Judy Garland, not that I am not aware of her talent.
MW: So you loved Judy from the age of 6. When did you know you were gay?
MATTHEW: Always. Was I always out? No. But I always knew. I don’t know if I think about that question, because my family is so wonderful and accepting.
MW: When were you aware of that difference between the two of you?
JAMES: When you reach a point in elementary school, the differences start to become a little more apparent. When kids become aware of the idea of what gay is, on the playground, boys — or anybody — can be nasty and say, “Oh your brother is gay,” or something like that. That’s something I had to deal with when I was in elementary school in learning how do you respond to that when, especially you yourself, feel like you’re a bit of an outcast. It was just an interesting experience when you’re a kid. Those moments to me stick out in my mind more than the moments when I was picked on. And that’s not to say that Matthew was terribly picked on.
MATTHEW: I don’t remember these things. But that could very much be me blocking out things in my head.
MW: Did being gay ever make you feel inferior to your straight twin?
MATTHEW: There were times in elementary school or middle school when people would make comments that were hurtful, about me liking musical theater or taking ballet classes. In those moments, sure. [But] never to think that James was the ideal or better. [Laughs.]
JAMES: Well, I don’t know if you blocked this out or not, but I have a distinct memory when my brother and I went to private school. Until fourth grade we went to a Christian school. I remember some of the guys in class who I would have probably at the time considered my friends, say mean things to him. Like if we were in gym class they would be like, “The girls are supposed to be over there, Matthew. Why aren’t you with the girls?” And I remember a couple of occasions where I would tell the kids to shut the hell up. But there are moments where I remember I didn’t say anything.
I remember one day when we were coming home from school and I think it was a hard day for you, you had been picked on. My father was just like, “You’re not going to that school anymore.” In the next year we went to a public school, a performing-arts middle school (Thomas G. Pullen Arts Focus School). I was kind of angry, because I was like, “But my friends go here.”
MATTHEW: I don’t remember that at all. When we got to the other school, there was a ton of boys dancing, so it was a different environment.
MW: Matthew, did you come out to James? Or was it something that went unspoken?
MATTHEW: Most of my experience with most people was unspoken. With James, it was unspoken, but at a certain moment, a conversation did happen and it was very anti-climactic.
JAMES: It was a moment where I felt like I needed to hear him say it. We were 18, freshmen in college, and he was coming back from school. I think it was during winter break and we were in the car, driving somewhere. Maybe it was that thing when you come home from college — especially from the University of Maryland — and you feel so liberal. Everything is so, like, “Fuck it.” Just tell me if you are. I just remember I basically pulled it out of him.
MATTHEW: It wasn’t pulled out of me —
JAMES: No, not pulled out in the way that you didn’t want to tell me. It was more like, “All right, we’re going to have this conversation now because we’re going to.” It was like, “Are you or aren’t you?” Matthew was like, “I am.”
MATTHEW: In most of my experiences though, in my relationships with people that I’ve known a long time, I don’t feel like it should define me. So it’s never something that is the first thing to come up. And usually when it comes up it’s very much organically a part of the conversation. It’s almost always a “duh” moment.
JAMES: Actually, when he did come out to me, the most interesting thing that Matthew said was: “I’m not in any way, shape or form ashamed of the fact that this is who I am. But I also don’t feel like this is the only thing that I am. So for me to feel like I have to –“
MATTHEW: Have a coming-out parade —
JAMES: Is not necessarily what worked for him.
MW: Did that conversation bring you guys closer together?
MATTHEW: More open with each other, sure.
JAMES: I wanted to be able to have a more open dialogue about relationships. I was always aware of the fact, in the same way that he was aware of the fact, that my brother was gay. I think I always knew that. I don’t think there was ever a moment of me going, “Hmm, I wonder….” If there was a girl that I was dating or seeing, I wanted to be able to have that conversation, and I wanted him to feel like he could talk to me about it if something was going on in his life, too. If you don’t at least come out and say it, then it could always just be a weird elephant in the room.
MW: Why did you wait until college to have that dialogue?
MATTHEW: In college it was always “Matthew is gay,” so I never had to come out in college. From the moment I stepped foot on campus I was. When it comes to my job and theater and arts, I’m a very driven person, and it is a consuming part of my life. So relationship-wise, I was always so consumed with dance and theater and ballet, that everybody kind of thought, “Matthew is not in a relationship, because when it comes to theater and dance, Matthew is such a workaholic.” So it was never a situation of, “Matthew’s off in the corner sucking face with some boy and keeping it a secret.” In high school, getting into a certain college, being in ballet class every day after school — that was just who I was. So it just didn’t seem necessary until that time. The conversation never needed to happen before then.
This is not to belittle anyone’s coming-out story, but for me — and it has to do with the fact that the family I was brought up in was always so supportive of me and my brother and what we wanted to do — it was never hard to come out. It always was about when was the right moment to [come out] with certain people. But my experience has never been one of, “Oh, I’m so nervous to tell this person I’m gay.”
From my brother to my parents to everyone, my experience has always been, because it’s an important thing, it just needed to be the right moment for everybody. I was always aware that everybody knew that I was gay. I never thought that it was going to be a surprise.
MW: How would you describe the bond that you have as twins, and what it was like growing up together?
MATTHEW: You have somebody who you feel so close to, and are so much alike in so many ways, but so different. And when you’re growing up people view you as one unit. It was always the Gardiner brothers, the Gardiner twins. When we went away to different colleges, people would be like, “Oh my God, how can you do that? How can you leave him?” And I’m like, “Very easily?” [Laughs.]
JAMES: When you’re a twin, everyone asks, “What’s that like? What’s it like being a twin?” I don’t know what it’s like not having a twin. What do I know?
MATTHEW: It’s just like having any other sibling, but there’s definitely a bond and an understanding to being a twin that’s different than having other siblings, maybe. I don’t have other siblings, so I have no idea.
MW: James, you’re getting married in October with [title of show] cast mate Erin Driscoll. Was it important for you to wait until same-sex marriage became legal in the District, or was the timing coincidental?
JAMES: There are people who say, “I’m not going to get married until my gay friends can get married.” I’m not like that. But [marriage equality] is a big thing. [LGBT equality] is one of my big things. I’m very passionate about it. But to me, when I see stuff like [marriage equality passing], I’m like, that’s great, that should have happened a long time ago. Every time I see something like that, my response is a little bit angrier than it should be. Because it’s a great step, it’s amazing. At the same time, there’s no excuse that shouldn’t be the case already. With “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” I understand that President Obama is trying to move that agenda forward to a certain extent, but then I see Defense Secretary Gates come out and say, “We need time to survey the troops and get their response.” You don’t need time to get their response on what it is to be a bigot.
MATTHEW: James is far more political than I am. Sometimes he gets angrier on the topics than I do, whereas I’m more understanding of the time that it takes to get things accomplished. While I want to see change happen too, I’m more patient than him. And I find it wonderful when I look at my straight twin brother, who is more passionate and more angry than I am.
MW: [title of show] wraps on June 27. Do you see yourself working together professionally again?
JAMES: Absolutely. The funny thing is before we did this we had sort of made a pact, because we knew that we’d be working in the same region. We were like, let’s not, for the sake of nepotism — or we knew that people were going to be like, “Oh, Matthew is just going to cast his brother” — let’s just try to stay away from working with each other as much as possible.
MATTHEW: It’s funny, because that conversation of, “Oh, you’re casting your brother,” the subtext is nepotism. It makes me so mad. I cast him because there is no one else in this city who can play this role the way that he has. He has written a Broadway show, he knows what that experience is, and the most rewarding thing is when people come up to me and say, “Your brother is tremendous.” Because he is. The reason I’m working with him is because he is one of the best musical-theater actors in town. Is he right for everything? No. He’s auditioned for me many times. He just auditioned for me for something and I didn’t cast him.
JAMES: I don’t expect him to cast me all the time just because I am his brother. I wouldn’t want him to cast me just because I am his brother.
MATTHEW: But it is interesting that at a certain point, we very much committed that we weren’t going to work with each other.
JAMES: We’ve both been in this town for about five years now —
MATTHEW: — and it just seems pointless.
JAMES: Because people know what I can do, and people know what Matthew can do.