Pop-Culturalist Chats with Nicholas Belton
Nicholas Belton is on double-duty in this season’s smash Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. Belton plays two characters: Prince Bolkonsky, an antique noble who casually hurls emotional abuse at his daughter (Gelsey Bell); and Bolkonsky’s son Andrey, a dashing, critical character who is noted for his absence, since he is off fighting in a war that is “going on out there, somewhere.” Bolkonsky is as laughable as he is malicious; Andrey’s absence is ever present, and in only a handful of scenes, he is brought to life with dashing resolve, wry anguish, and subtle cruelty. But in Belton’s skilled care, two seemingly different characters couldn’t be more alike, and the unity of his performances reveal how human callousness can rear its head in the most unexpected ways.
In other words, Nicholas Belton is one actor you need to know about. We recently spoke with Nicholas about theater, life, and why one of the most popular shows of the season is actually Broadway’s greatest work-out.
P-C: What has being a part of this show meant to you?
Nicholas: I know it sounds cliché, but it’s been kind of like a dream come true. It kind of encompasses everything that I love about theater which is the non-artistic commercial side and also getting to play instruments and breaking the wall. It’s taking the whole concept that is two-dimensional theater where the audience is here, and the performers are there and tossing that out the window and making your own rules. On top of that, there’s Dave [Malloy]’s music and Rachel [Chavkin] as a director and team leader. Now, getting to play this part—you know jumping up from the ensemble that I was doing in the tent—it’s just like if I could have secreted what I wanted to do when I moved to New York and what show I wanted to be a part of this would be as close to perfect as it gets. I come to work every day thinking “this could be it” because who knows when you’re dealing with something on this level. And all the factors involved and the people working on the show. It feels very fragile and I just want to like protect it. I feel like everyone is in that boat, too.
P-C: The audience is an essential part of the staging. How does that effect you and your approach to your performance?
Nicholas: I’ve said this before, it kind of doesn’t let you drop your character ever. You just live in that character because everyone can see you all the time. You can’t slip into the shadows and drink your water and relax for a second. Sometimes, you can look at it and say, “That’s scary,” but it’s actually very freeing. Not being able to have that. It requires more of you as someone who can be in this place for a few hours, and it’s really special when you tape into that.
P-C: Did you read War & Peace when you were cast, or had you read it before? What is the relationship like between the novel and the cast?
Nicholas: When I joined the show, I tried to, I bought the book and was all excited, but I have such bad attention deficit problems and it was hard for me to get through the first thirty pages because there’s so many families involved. I put it down and eventually picked it up again and just read that section that our show is based on. If you read that part, it makes for a perfect stage show.
P-C: What is the most challenging part of the show for you as a performer?
Nicholas: Less the characters that I play, including the old man where I do a lot of shaking, but it’s more the ensemble stuff we came up with at the beginning of rehearsals. Sam [Pinkleton], our choreographer, would show us his idea. It was fun because we all had our own versions of that based on what our bodies could do or want to do. And once I realized I was doing these Russian-like [moves where I was] getting down on the knees and getting back up and doing that five times in a row super fast, I was like, “Oh, I have to do this every night now. What was I thinking?” And he’s like, “That’s great! Perfect, let’s keep it.” I always believe that building your muscles up and working through the pain is a much better way of preventative care than just doing things cold and hurting your body. So I feel like, as hard as it is, it’s like going to the gym; but we’re also building up our muscles so you can do it every night. I do this move down the middle of the aisle–there’s a middle of the orchestra aisle that we built—and I’m basically folding and unfolding my body doing those Russian moves while I’m playing the guitar and moving my head back and forth. Sometimes it’s like I’m about to run the 100-meter dash and my stomach churns for a second, and I have to take a deep breath and be like, “OK, here I go. Let’s hope my knees are intact!”
P-C: When did you know that you wanted a career in theater?
Nicholas: My oldest brother Patrick was an actor—there were eight kids in my family–and we all looked up to Pat. He did everything first, and then I wanted to do it. He was really big into acting and he went to theater school in Chicago at DePaul, and I would go see the shows there, and then I followed his career going to LA after that. He was doing some miniseries and commercials, and I’d tell my friends when I ended up in college a few years later, “That’s my brother!” He was kind of the impetus to get into it. I also realized I could sing and then I started dancing a little bit and I was like, “I really like this and this is more my calling.” And then that was it. My dad kind of followed both of us later in life: he started directing high school and college shows, so it’s kind of all in the family.
P-C: Are the rest of your siblings artistic too?
Nicholas: It’s a very artistic family. We grew up singing around the table and playing instruments. My dad has this thing around St. Patrick’s Day where he plays his guitar and tells old Irish folktales. I feel like our family is definitely steeped in that artistic tradition. My sister actually also got into acting later, too. She’s been doing commercials. She lives out in California now too. She also stars in a Patsy Klein cover band.
P-C: What’s your dream role?
Nicholas: I would love to play Edmund in King Lear. I also would love to play one of the Johnstone brothers in Blood Brothers. It’s one my favorites. AND this musical called Floyd Collins. I would love to play the younger brother.
P-C: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received that you can pass along to aspiring actors?
Nicholas: I always say you can’t portray another character until you know yourself. I feel like knowing yourself is a layered thing because you’re only as wise as your age, even when you’re the most open person in the world. But regardless of that, I feel like we are all capable of so much. It’s that ability to tap into those things that we’re capable of, and [the question is] how much and how deep we’re willing to go and to let ourselves be the most present people and the most receptive people at all times. It’s good for stage, but it’s also important for real life and our relationships.
Pop-Culturalist Speed Round
Guilty pleasure TV show or movie
O Brother Where Art Thou
I just saw this recently: A Doll’s House Part 2. It really blew my mind.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Go-to Karaoke Song
I don’t know if it’s really hidden, but I’m a really good cook. I used to be a butcher, actually, briefly.