Nick Westrate Turns Our Head

Written by | Miscellaneous

Actor Nick Westrate opens up about his star-studded on-screen family in Ricki and the Flash and growing up with his real family on a Christmas tree farm.

By Jeffrey James Keyes

Nick Westrate

Nick Westrate is an openly gay actor you might recognize — or you might not, considering how dramatically different many of his roles have been. For example, he’s recently played a transvestite on stage, the son of a wannabe rock star on the big screen, and a secret-keeping colonist on TV.

Nick, you’ve been having such an amazing year. How was working on Ricki and the Flash!

I had an incredible experience. I got to work with so many of my favorite artists all at once — Jonathan Demme, Diablo Cody, Meryl Streep, Audra McDonald, Kevin Klein, Mamie Gummer — so many people I’ve admired for so many years. … It was a dream, so much fun to shoot. The movie ends with a big wedding that we filmed early in the shooting. It turned us into a big family. After the big party scene, we filmed some of the smaller scenes and were really connected in a great way.

Tell me a bit about your character.

My character is Adam: the middle child in this family, the son of Meryl Streep and Kevin Klein. In the story, our mom left when I was about 11 — a really formative time to lose your mom — to follow her dream to be a rock star in LA. I’m also her gay son, which she has not yet come to accept in the film, and it’s a big part of the story.

What else can I tell you about [Adam]? He really likes martinis … and I think he’s possibly the most resistant to having a reconciliation with his mother when she comes back. I think all three of the kids are capable of reconciling with her because we have a beautiful stepmom in the story, played by Audra McDonald, and she essentially came in and saved this family and put them back together.

That all sounds very different from the role you play on AMC’s American Revolution spy drama Turn.

[Robert Townsend] is a really different character for me. He’s very tight-lipped and doesn’t show much of anything. He’s hard for people to figure out. My favorite part about working on this season was this whole cat-and-mouse game between Jamie Bell and me. He’s such a fun, playful, exciting actor, and we had such a good time crafting these scenes together. The stakes on Turn are so high all the time; that’s one of the most exciting things about it. I’m so thrilled I get to go back for Season 3.

OK — enough work talk. This is our “Holiday Entertaining Issue.” How do you kick back and relax?

I love to cook, drink good wine with good friends — sounds like a very cliche dating profile all of a sudden!

No, it’s perfect. We’ve got food all over this issue.What do you like to cook?

I roast a really mean chicken, and I can do multiple chickens at once. I make a good steak, I make an amazing kale salad that I often make for rehearsals, so I have something healthy to have on my lunch break.

The other theme of this issue is family. Where does yours come from?

I’m from a Christmas tree farm in southwestern Michigan.

A Christmas tree farm! Really? What was it like growing up there?

The town is called Cassopolis and it’s right on the border of Indiana near Kalamazoo. It was a very remote, small town, but I had a big family. My dad, his brothers, and my grandfather ran this large tree farm. There were always loads of cousins around. There was always a big Westrate population in the school system. We’d have crazy family gatherings, and it’s always nice to go back there and see them. Growing up there was great, I was raised by two teachers. … They really encouraged my sister and I to do whatever we wanted to do. They’ve always been supportive of my acting career, and my sister now works for the State Department and travels all over the world. She was in Liberia working on Ebola, and now she’s working with an intergovernmental agency for the State Department to fight propaganda from ISIS.

Are you and your sister close?

Absolutely, I’m close with my sister and both of my parents. They all came with me to the premiere of Ricki and the Flash. My partner Billy also came with us. The whole family was together.

I didn’t know you had a partner. Tell me about Billy!

He’s a fantastic actor from Belfast, a little town called Bangor in Northern Ireland, and we met on a production of A Moon for the Misbegotten with Kevin Spacey and Eve Best in 2007.

Our conversation with actor Nick Westrate continues with a deep dive into his time as a student at juilliard and his theatrical career — plus some very special holiday memories.

Did you know Kevin Kline before working with him on Ricki and the Flash?
Kevin did an event with me a while back, I was in the centennial class at Juilliard, and he was in the first class of the drama division. … He was in the group 35 years before me at Juilliard, and we did a PBS event on the birthday of the school in 2006. It was very brief, but I reminded him of that during the shooting.

Can you give us a sense of what it’s like to be part of the Juilliard universe?
The greatest thing about Juilliard is how diverse their classes are. You really only work within your class at the school, [but] each class is extremely diverse with regards to age, background, experience level and race. Everything about the class is diversity. The program is incredibly rigorous. You go through this extraordinary training for four years and perform in a lot of plays with the oddest, most fun, exciting, crazy group of people you could ever imagine being paired with. It’s a really intense experience, but people who go to that school have a great fraternity — even if you weren’t there at the same time. When you meet somebody from years before — like I did with Kevin — you realize you shared a lot.

Is there anything you worked on during your time as a student there that stands out in your memory?
My favorite project I worked on at Juilliard was a production of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II — [with the director Sam Gold, who] recently won the Tony for Fun Home. Sammy was in my class in the directing program and Edward II was my last show there and by far my proudest achievement when I was a student there. [Sam] is an incredible director, whether it be Annie Baker plays, classical pieces, or musicals, he’s a real genius.

What did you first work on after Juilliard?
My first job out of school was a production of The Merchant of Venice directed by Daniel Fish. That started a great collaboration between him and me. We’ve worked together a lot and are close friends. That was at the California Shakespeare Festival in Berkeley, CA. It was a great show we performed outside in the beautiful Orinda Hills and an idyllic way to start my work in the professional world.

How do you generally start preparing for a role?
It really varies from project to project. Turn obviously lends itself to a lot of research. I read Alexander Rose’s brilliant book called Washington’s Spies which is what the entire series is based on. I’m also really lucky because my father is a historian, so I was raised going to a lot of the battlefields of the American Revolutionary War, and he is a really great resource. The play Casa Valentina also had a lot of research; we spent a lot of time meeting transgender people and transvestites, in particular, in order to learn about this whole other world. It was such a different period! But other pieces are based more on intuition and just trying to respond to what the writer has made available.

When I think of the plays I’ve seen you in — The Little Foxes, Casa Valentina, Unnatural Acts — they’re pieces with integrity. It seems like you’re pretty selective.
Being an actor is hard. I definitely am not in a place where I turn everything down, but I’ve been very lucky I’ve been able to work with many projects that have so much integrity. I try to just work with great people. I try to keep working with the people I admire the most. The Little Foxes was maybe my favorite project I’ve been a part of, and I would have done anything to work with [its director] Ivo van Hove. I would walk over glass or eat fire to work with a director like him. I feel like the only way to get better is to work with the best people possible because, as an actor, that’s where your artistic timing can continue to get better. Working with people like Elizabeth Marvel, Reed Birney, David Cromer, and Mare Winningham (who I have now had the great fortune of working with three times) — these people make me so much better, and I learn so much from them. Most of these opportunities are good luck … learning from these people teaches you that these are the types of projects you want to work on. You can’t go backwards after working with so many great folks. You just don’t want to.

How do you navigate between TV, film and stage?
Well, I love working on film and television because it supports the theater habit. … The theater community in New York is such a great family, and luckily we have a lot more television and film [here now] than when I first got out of school. I think a lot of great film and TV casting directors come and see plays in New York. A lot of great directors also come to see plays. … At my first audition for Jonathan Demme, he was really curious about [Casa Valentina] and my process of doing that play. It was about transvestites in the Catskills in 1962; there was a lot to talk about. I feel that lots of casting directors love theatre actors.

Since this is our “Holiday Entertaining Issue,” I wanted to ask if you have any memories of special holiday meals to share?

My work keeps me in New York over the holidays quite a bit. … We love having orphan dinners for Thanksgiving and Christmas — where everyone who couldn’t make it home gathers together. It’s a really fantastic time, and our group grows every year. My favorite thing about that is how [it] expands, and those people stay in touch and become somewhat a family of their own as well. I’m so proud of my family of friends here; it’s so wonderful to share the holidays with them.

Theater does seem to create new families like that.
The last show I was doing over the holidays was Pride at the Barrow Street Theatre. On Fridays, Mare Winningham would bring homemade challah bread and a little Manischewitz. She would sing the sabbath prayer to us and we would light candles … before we went on stage. This was great because we were a big Jewish family in the show.

What’s next for you?
A new play called A Delicate Ship, which is a three-person play at The Playwrights Realm. It’s a really great play I’ve done readings of for some time. We … run through September 12 at the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre. It’s a terrific play about friendship, memory and loss. It’s a holiday play that takes place on Christmas Eve. We’ll probably be closed by the time this issue comes out, but, hey, that’s next! After that, I head back down to Turn, which will take over my life again starting in November.

Last modified: July 27, 2017