Michael Federico Talks Profanity, Accents, And Keeping Up With His Mother
Michael Federico is an actor, playwright, and director. His recent work includes playing Andrew in Becky Shaw at Kitchen Dog, where he is a company member, and co-writing the new musical On The Eve, which begins a run at Theatre Three this winter. Michael is returning to Undermain after seventeen years to play the role of Leo in Sylvan Oswald’s Profanity. He spoke with Stephen Foglia (Undermain’s Literary Manager) about the experience.
Stephen Foglia: How did you begin work on this role?
Michael Federico: The first step for me was really trying to — and I’m still working on it — really trying to tap into Sylvan’s rhythm. Rhythmically he has such a firm grasp on what he’s doing with the language, and so that was where I started. And it actually opened up a lot of character stuff.
You had him here the first week. Did that change the work at all?
I thought it was a really good opportunity. And rare. At least for me, to have the playwright in the room right from the beginning. So he was a great resource to ask questions about the world of the play and to get an idea of what these people sounded like to him. I thought it was a great place to start, having Sylvan here.
Speaking of the world of the play, you grew up in Philadelphia?
I, well, yes, kind of. I moved to Dallas when I was like three, but I was born in Philadelphia, and the majority of my family still lives there, so I spent every Christmas of my youth in South Philly and South Jersey, and my aunts, and uncles, and cousins, and everybody other than my immediate family still live there.
Did that inform any of your work?
This is gonna sound terrible. I talked to my parents a lot more over the past few weeks. My mom – she’s gonna be mad I said this – my mom has a pretty thick Philly accent and sort of an east coast rhythm to the way she talks. So I kind of, unbeknownst to her, have been listening to my mom’s speech patterns a lot lately.
I talk to her a lot, anyway, I just wanna say.
So are you bringing accent work and period physicality into the performance?
Yeah. The accent work has been interesting. We’re trying to meld certain little things from Philly with this idea of east coast Jewish rhythms that Bruce [Dubose, who plays Gersh] would say are informed by Yiddish. It’s a melding we’re working on, and I hope capturing. The rhythm relies on it, and then there are these phrases where if you have a little bit of the Philly in there, they really jump out. Bruce is really good at it. I’m just trying to keep up.
Is there a portion of the text that you’ve found trickiest to unlock? Is there a portion you’ve found most satisfying to work on?
Actually I think both of those answers would be the last scene that I’m in, which is the three brothers. It’s a real shift in style, especially for my character, Leo. Everything he goes through prior to this changes him in a huge way for the last scene. So that has been challenging. Trying to build in things early enough to where it makes sense, but to create a very different person you see in his final scene.
He charts the longest course in the play, Leo does.
I think so. I don’t know if that’s just me being egotistical. I mean, if you talk about all of them, he’s a guy who really starts out on the bottom rung. And by the last time you see him is almost completely in control of things.
Sylvan has that metaphor at the beginning with the dogs fighting.
Yeah, the alpha and the beta. And you go in from that monologue into the opening, and you assume that Leo is definitely gonna be the beta. So I think that shift towards the end is really interesting and challenging, and when we’ve gotten close to nailing it has been rewarding for me.
What have you learned about Leo that you didn’t know on day one?
What have I learned about Leo? I think Leo is maybe far less smooth than I thought he was. Early on when I was working on this scene with Shannon, I had this idea that, you know, “he’s almost there!” And now I’ve come to realize that he’s just not even close.
Does working on a world premiere and originating the role, in a certain sense, does that put more pressure on you? Or does it take pressure off because no one has any prior experience with the role at this point?
You know, I haven’t really thought of it in terms of more pressure. It’s always interesting with a world premiere because there’s not necessarily a road map. Not that if you’re doing a show that’s been done a hundred times you’re going to do it the same way, but generally there’s a reference point. And I think we, as a cast, and Katherine, the design team, are figuring out certain ways things could work to show Sylvan. I haven’t thought of it in terms of more pressure though. I think it’s exciting, and it did give us the opportunity to work with the writer, which, if we were the tenth or eleventh production we might not have had that opportunity.
It’s been a pretty long time since you were in Undermain.
How is it to come back?
It’s been great. I was in The Deatherians seventeen years ago. I know that because I celebrated my 21st birthday during the run of Deatherians. Rhonda Boutte bought me my first drink as a legal drinker, which I think is pretty awesome. And I’ll turn 38 right after we close. It’s funny because a lot of things have changed down here, it’s a lot bigger, there’s all this [gestures towards offices]. But I remember when I came down the stairs, it smelled the same. There’s something about it. It’s really nice to be back. I had a really fun time when I was a kid, working here. Bruce was in Deatherians, so this is the first time working with him since I was seventeen. And it’s my first time to work with Kat. I’m digging it.