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Friday, June 18, 2010

Deeper Dish with Nurse Jackie's Stephen Wallem

Actor Stephen Wallem, who plays Nurse Thor on the Showtime series, Nurse Jackie, is living proof of "what a difference a year makes." I've known this groovy and talented guy since his Forever Plaid days in Chicago, so I was thrilled for him when he was cast as Thor. And when he contacted me last July to help spread the word about the show, which was then in its first season, I was, of course, more than happy to oblige. However, I had been kicking around an idea for a new feature called "Deeper Dish", in which I would interview fascinating people about their careers and ask them a few pop culture questions. So I asked Steve if he would be my first interviewee, and being the sweetheart that he is, he immediately agreed (you can read my interview with him by clicking here). One question that I asked him was, "Have you been recognized out in public by any fans?", to which he replied, "I've noticed a few people staring on the street or the subway with that 'How do I know that guy' look, but no one has come up to me yet."

And this brings me back to "what a difference a year makes." Since last July, Steve has been featured in The Advocate, The Chicago Tribune, and on - and he even got to meet Rosie O'Donnell at a charity event (she later talked about him on her radio show, which you can listen to below). And with the second season of Nurse Jackie having recently aired, Steve is now getting recognized all the time.
It's obviously been a very good year for Mr. Wallem, who will be returning to his theatrical roots this Wednesday, June 23, with the 20th Anniversary Edition of Off the Wallem at NYC's Don't Tell Mama. When I saw him perform this wonderful show in Chicago years ago, he described it as tracing "the tribulations of a large but perky performer struggling for exposure in the Chicago theatre scene while searching for the perfect Hardee's breakfast biscuit and maintaining close friendships with Stephen Sondheim and Stefanie Powers." It was voted one of the Top Five productions of the year by Gay Chicago Magazine, and Steve received an After Dark Award for Outstanding Cabaret Artist. I urge everyone reading this - and their mother - to go see Off the Wallem. You'll have a great time.

I am delighted to have the fabulous Stephen Wallem back here on the Dish to give us an update on his life and career and answer a few more pop culture questions.

What is the most exciting thing that has happened to you in the last year?
It would be hard to top having Rosie O'Donnell run up to me and hug me at a recent fundraiser and then talk about meeting me on her radio show the next day. I've been such a huge fan of hers for so long, it was truly beyond surreal to hear her talk about me on the air. Plus, she kept calling me a "young" actor! I love that she thinks I'm a fresh new thing just off the turnip truck. I didn't have the heart to tell her she's only six years older than me!

You will be appearing in Off the Wallem on June 23 at NYC's Don't Tell Mama.  What inspired you to create the show 20 years ago?
I never really planned on becoming a cabaret singer - it all kind of happened by accident. I was watching peers of mine get cast all over Chicago, and I was learning pretty quickly that directors and theaters just didn't quite know what to do with me. So instead of waiting around for the phone to ring, I decided to create my own showcase. The very first version of OTW was much longer, and I even had a band and two back-up singers. My writing partner and musical director Danny Musha and I did it as a benefit for Chicago Academy for the Arts, where he was teaching. It then morphed into the version that played Cafe Voltaire, which you actually saw, Marc! I can't tell you how delighted I am that people still remember specifics about that kooky little skit we put on for about a buck-fifty.

What is one of your favorite parts of Off the Wallem? And are you adding any new songs or segments to the show?
I will always be fond of the final three numbers of the show, which are all parodies of shows I had done the year prior to the Voltaire version of Off the Wallem, including the bus-and-truck tour of Into the Woods. Without giving too much away, the grand finale (with choregraphy by my brilliant, hilarious friend Scott Calcagno) is my personal favorite. It's warped and wrong and offensive - all the things I love most.

This will be the first time the majority of the material will be seen by a New York audience. There are quite a few references to Chicago musical theater in the original version so I'm making revisions accordingly. Also, a few of the numbers just don't feel as authentic 20 years later, so I'm replacing them with material that has more relevance to who I am today. Danny and I really weren't interested in doing an exact remount. You certainly can't completely recapture the exact formula that worked two decades ago. The "greatest hits" of the original show are all in tact though. As we've been rehearsing, Danny and I realize that it's become more of a valentine to our long friendship and collaboration than anything else.

What has been your favorite episode and/or scene during Nurse Jackie's second season?
Without question, the finale. The day we filmed the basement scene, I had to say to myself, "Wait a minute, am I really teaching Edie Falco a cheesy tap routine?" That day was so fun, so joyous, so silly. It was a gigantic gift to be handed that scene.

Have you had any interesting encounters with fans of the show and your character in the last year?
I get recognized all the time now, and it's admittedly been so much fun. People have been so incredibly nice, and nothing makes me happier than when a fan who works in the medical field comes up to me. My favorite encounter was in D.C. waiting in line to take a tour of the Capitol with my Dad. A very sweet woman emphatically told me that Nurse Nancy was her absolute favorite show. Bless her.

What would you like to see happen to Thor in the third season?
I kind of love the fact that I truly have no clue what those genius writers will come up with for Thor next season. It's like Christmas morning every time you're handed a new episode. But, okay, I admit it, I would love for them to find an excuse for Thor to sing.

What is the most memorable and/or funniest moment you have had while acting?
One moment that always comes to mind was during Plaid Tidings in Chicago. There's a section of the show where we would bring an unsuspecting female audience member on stage with us to participate in a song, then we would hand her some souvenir dental floss to thank her. One night we brought a very small, very old, very red-haired woman with a smoky voice and giant tinted glasses named Ina. When we handed her the floss, she said (in a deep, gravely growl): "Oh, thank you, I can't wait to go home and hang this on my Hanukkah bush." I had to turn upstage for about three minutes to gain my composure. It was so funny for oh, so many reasons.

You lived in Chicago for many years and now you live in New York . What's one of your favorite things about each city?
Favorite thing in Chicago: All my friends, of course. In New York: Living in the theater district. It's impossible not to be inspired every time you walk by those marquees.

If you could go back and give your 19-year-old self a wise piece of advice, what would it be?
Do sit-ups.

The last good book I read was:
Uggh. It's been so long since I've relaxed enough to read a book. I do that awful thing where you talk yourself into thinking you should be doing something "productive" instead of reading a book. I HATE when I do that. I read lots of pamphlets though, does that count?

Five movies that I think everyone should be required to watch are:
The complete catalogue of Hayley Mills.

If I had handed out the Tonys this season, I would have given awards to:
The Cagelles from the revival of La Cage aux Folles. They need to implement a new category for Best Ensemble (like the Jeff Awards have). Those girls made me laugh harder than I have in years, as well as being astounding dancers.

If I could go back in time to see any Broadway show, I would see:
Probably West Side Story. It must have been remarkable to experience something so groundbreaking. And, of course, who wouldn't have wanted to see Carrie?

If I was asked to choose the Sexiest Man Alive (besides my boyfriend), it would be:
Richie Jackson, who produces Nurse Jackie (I still want Meryl Streep to play Thor's mother, so I have to kiss up every chance I get).

When I was 19, I thought the Sexiest Man Alive was:
Me. Have you seen my first headshot?  Nothing could stop me and that hair.

If I could have anyone in the world - living or dead - be a guest at my dinner party, I would invite the following three people:
Kathy Griffin, Charles Schulz and Lizzie Borden.

What's next for Stephen Wallem?
In August, I'll be appearing in a play for the New York International Fringe Festival called The Hurricane Katrina Comedy Festival. It's a wonderful piece compiled of verbatim interviews from five residents of the Ninth Ward who did not evacuate. I can't tell you how grateful and excited I am to be doing theater again after so long.

Thank you, Steve, for getting Deeper with us here on the Dish. To make a reservation for his show, Off the Wallem, at Don't Tell Mama this Wednesday, June 23, at 9:15 pm, click here. And to learn more about Mr. Wallem, check out his groovy website at You can also become a fan of his on Facebook and Twitter.

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