David St. Louis admits he’s an unadulterated, unapologetic thief. Yep, underneath those bulging biceps and pecs, that sexy smile and dancing eyes, lives a tall, dark and handsome rogue.
No, women don’t have to clutch their purses and men don’t have to check for their wallets. But, if you’re an actor, beware — St. Louis is after something much more valuable.
“I’m a thief,” says St. Louis, looking rather pleased with himself, as an amusing sense of satisfaction, coupled with a devilish grin, takes up residence on his face. “I’m not particular on one method of acting. If one method has something, I’ll steal from it. I will steal from whoever has something I can use. If someone does something on stage that I can throw into my repertoire of tricks, I’m going to use it. I don’t subscribe to one thing. Your art is specific to you. I can’t do what someone else does and make it mine, but I can take elements from it. I do it all the time.”
Thievery comes into play only when St. Louis is somehow moved by someone’s performance on stage.
“When I’m in a show that really inspires me artistically, I will study it from here to kingdom come,” explains St. Louis as he leans back in a plush chair on the top floor of Zona Rosa Caffe in Pasadena.Â “I will ask someone what they study or what their process is.”
St. Louis will be putting his collection of tricks to work in Lynn Nottage’s drama, Intimate Apparel, directed by Sheldon Epps, opening Sunday at the Pasadena Playhouse.
Epps chose the play, which was seen in its premiere at South Coast Repertory in 2003 and a year later at the Mark Taper Forum, for a variety of reasons.
“I am fascinated by the rich characters, the period, and the fact that the play depicts such diversity,” says Epps, who is also the theater’s artistic director. “Also, the theme of the need and desire for “human connection” which is so of its time, but also timeless.”
The winner of the 2004Â New York Drama Critics Circle award for best play, Intimate Apparel is set in New York, circa 1905.
It’s a character-driven drama about a middle-aged, black seamstress who, within the confines of a small room she’s renting at a boarding house, makes lingerie for both her affluent and ladies-of-the-night clientele. While her business is sprouting, allowing her to accumulate a nice nest egg, Esther’s personal life is virtually non-existent.
Realizing just how lonely she is, Esther begins corresponding with a rather handsome man named George, who is working on the Panama Canal. However, George is not the only man Esther has eyes for. She also develops feelings for Mr. Marks, the Hasidic shopkeeper, from whom she buys her satins and silks. Understanding that due to the racial climate she and Mr. Marks will never be able to have a relationship, Esther decides to marry George. That decision proves disastrous.
St. Louis plays George to Vanessa Williams’ (Soul Food, Lincoln Heights, Melrose Place) Esther. The rest of the cast includes Dawnn Lewis (Dreamgirls, Sister Act-The Musical), Kristy Johnson (Jitney, The Good Negro), Angela Reda (Dangerous Beauty, Follies, Wicked) and Adam J. Smith (As The World Turns, Bounty Wars).
“I was familiar with this play before I got the role of George,” says St. Louis. “My mom is from Trinidad and my dad is from Grenada. So, considering that I’m West Indian and this requires a West Indian accent, it’s right up my alley.”
St. Louis, 38, found George to be a worthy opponent.
“George is a bit of a dreamer,” he says. “I like the fact that all of his life he has picked up and gone wherever he needed to be. He has high hopes and high aspirations. I like that about him.”
While he likes some things about George, St. Louis is fully aware that this character has some, well, character flaws.
“What I don’t like about him is his commitment to self more than anything,” explains St. Louis. “It’s pretty much that he’s committed to himself to go forward, but also he will walk over what and who he needs to walk over. He doesn’t do it with malicious intent necessarily.”
This is St. Louis’s second time doing a Lynn Nottage play.Â He has appeared at two theaters in her 2009 Pulitzer-winning play, Ruined, an uneasy look at the horrific conditions women in war face. Loosely influenced by issues in Bertolt Brecht’sÂ Mother Courage, Ruined focuses on the war in the Congo that claimed millions of lives between 1998 and 2003. In 2010, St. Louis was in Ruined at the Geffen Playhouse, which more recently produced Nottage’s By the Way, Meet Vera Stark.
“If you’re smart enough to look into her work, you’ll realize that Lynn doesn’t write villains,” explains St. Louis. “It’s an easy trap to fall into. Everyone is completely justified in their own mind. My character in Ruined ended up torturing the girls in the end, but he says to the girls way before that, to work with him. Then one of the girls goes and hides someone my character considers a bad guy. They are harboring someone. That’s when he says, “˜I tried to play Mr. Nice Guy. Now you’re going to see the bad side of me.’ George is another one of those complex characters. Lynn gives every so-called villain layers of self-righteousness. I love that about her work.”
Epps also appreciates Nottage’s work.
“I think that Lynn is simply one of the best contemporary American playwrights,” says Epps.Â “She is versatile, inventive, wide-ranging, and prolific. Â I especially admire her gift for language in this particular play. Â Her characters have such strong and distinctive voices, and the words of the play are like great music.”
Epps has nothing but good things to say about St. Louis.
“David brings to the production his good looks and charisma, first of all,” says Epps. Â “In addition he is a wonderfully strong actor in every sense of that word. Â Also, he has great facility with the beautiful, but complicated language that I mentioned before. Â He also has found ways to humanize the character and understands that George is not a villain at all, but behaves as he does because of the time and society in which he lives.”
Working with Epps has been a fulfilling experience for St. Louis.
“Sheldon is a very, very, very, very smart man,” says St. Louis. “He’s a Scorpio, so he’s very reserved, but you see the wheel turning like nobody’s business. The first day of rehearsal was a relief for me. When I got to know him, he reminded me so much of my first mentor and teacher at Howard University, Mike Malone, who was a brilliant man. Sheldon’s energy and approach was immediate comfort for me andÂ allowed a high level of trust. It’s great to watch him work. He evaluates where we are and what we need. He has a lot of trust in us, which is empowering. They say 90 percent of directing is casting. He has the cast he wants, which allows him to trust.”
Dressed comfortably in a hugging, black pullover, a silver chain, jeans and black kicks, St. Louis, who is single, looks like a laid-back kind of guy. He’s easygoing and has an effortless smile. And, while he’s a thespian who loves the stage, he’d prefer to leave the drama right there.
“I don’t like drama any place else but the stage,” says St. Louis after taking a sip of coffee. “If possible, I’ll let as much slide as I can. As long as I’m not being disrespected. Intention means a lot to me.”
Although she has been a longtime friend, Dawnn Lewis admits St. Louis can be a bit complex.
“He’s the kind of man that you truly have to “˜look into’ in order to see him for who he genuinely is,” she says. Â “The catch is, David doesn’t always make that easy. Â At first glance it’s obvious he’s handsome, reserved and often very serious. Â But beyond that you’ll find, ifÂ he lets you,Â that he’s one of the most genuine, funny, caring, not-shy-to-speak-his mind, true “˜deep water’ friends you could have.”
“I’ve known Dawnn for a while,” says St. Louis. “It’s really good to work with her. We don’t have any interaction on stage, but it’s good to know she’s there.”
St. Louis Bound
At, 38, St. Louis says he’s a number of contradictions, although he doesn’t care to elaborate.
When asked to divulge something most people don’t know about him, St. Louis thinks for a minute, sits up in his seat, slides back down and then utters the words, “well, not a lot of people know I was a professional fighter between shows, while working in New York.”
Yes, while working on Broadway, in between shows such as The Scarlet Pimpernel, St. Louis was mixing it up in New Jersey as a MMA (mixed martial arts) fighter. He actually has a MMA card.
“I never lost a fight,” he says nonchalantly. “You’re more liable to get hurt training, not fighting.”
Born in Washington, D.C., but raised in Maryland, St. Louis has a twin sister, Nicole, who is an attorney in the nation’s capital.
Both he and his sister attended Duke Ellington School of the Arts in D.C. Blessed with a mighty voice, St. Louis went on to become a classical voice major at Oberlin College in Ohio, where he got a full ride.Â But he decided the program wasn’t for him.
“I liked singing, but I didn’t love it,” he says. “I kind of kept doing it because that’s what I was pushed to do. People said I should do it. I remember everyone kept talking about Beethoven.”
During a required break from Oberlin, he went to Howard University, walked into the theater department and the musical theater program and fell in love.
“They were talking about Shakespeare and [George Bernard] Shaw like the people at Oberlin were talking about Beethoven,” he remembers. “It clicked that this is where I need to be. I got the buzz when I had my very first acting class.”
His first professional gig was Bessie’s Blues, a show at the Studio Theatre in D.C. about blues singer Bessie Smith. For his efforts, he received a Helen Hayes Award for outstanding supporting actor (resident musical).
“I guess I made the right choice,” he says. “Once I was in, I was in.”
St. Louis says there was never a Plan B.
“I don’t believe in them,” he says. “If you have something to fall back on, you will. I want to keep going forward. That’s how you have to look at it in this business. There is discouragement everywhere. If you don’t believe in yourself enough to commit fully, you don’t have much of a chance.”
St. Louis says when he made his way to Los Angeles, after having been on Broadway, he found himself nearly having to start over.
“I went from turning down shows in New York, to coming to LA and not working for about two years,” he says. “I did a few things out of town, but here, I couldn’t get seen by any of these theaters, not Pasadena, the Ahmanson, the Geffen. I’m coming with Broadway credits and they wouldn’t even see me.”
St. Louis says he knew when he made the move he’d be starting over, but he didn’t expect it to be that difficult.
“Nothing I brought with me mattered,” he says.Â “My first job, I found a job teaching kickboxing and Muay Thai, while also catering and doing security. I did a number of things at the same time while waiting for something to click. I wish, when I was in college, there had been a class on the business side of things just to prepare me for things I’d have to learn the hard way. I, like every young punk, expected the doors to open as soon as I stepped on the carpet.Â I’m here.Â You come in with having idealized the whole experience of show business. It’s the business of show is what a teacher said to me. I found that to be true when I got into it. “
St. Louis doesn’t consider himself a ham. But something clearly happens to him when he’s on stage.
“I have a different perspective on the whole thing,” says the Ovation Award winner (for the Mark Taper Forum’s 2009 production of Parade). “There is more magic when the lights come on in a completely dark box. Everything is filled in that space with you. It transports me to be stepping on the stage. It transports me into a totally different way that you can’t get in television and film. On stage it’s provided for you. You walk on stage, and you can be where you need to be emotionally. Everything is working for you. There are no distractions like cameras in your face or mechanical contraptions running around you trying to catch the picture. The lights are way off. When they hit you, you can believe even more that you are that special thing.”
Theater patrons shouldn’t be surprised if they see someone in the lobby that looks a lot like St. Louis. That’s because it’s probably him.
“Most shows, I like to hang out outside, pop into the lobby and hang with the ushers,” says St. Louis. “Then, I go get dressed five minutes before and then walk on stage. I like to be me for as long as I can be me, then I go put on the garb and be that other person. You spend so much time finding where that character lives. It should only take me a second when I hit the stage.Â I can be one foot off stage, and as soon as the other one lands I can be where I need to be.”
The 2012 Lunt-Fontanne Fellow’s credits also extend to film: At Your Convenience, Trigger Effect and Temptation. Television credits include NCIS, Third Watch, Law and Order, Law and Order S.V.U., AÂ Royal Birthday, The Jury, One Life To Live, Homicide: Life on the Streets, and The Secret Path.
Still, the stage is clearly where St. Louis has spent most of his time. His Broadway credits include Harlem Song, Rent, Jesus Christ Superstar and The Scarlet Pimpernel. Elsewhere, he has been seen in Thunder Knocking at the Door (Cincinnati Playhouse),Â Cousin Bette (Antaeus Theatre Co.), The Life (Jaxx Theatricals),Â Ragtime (PCPA Theatre), Porgy and Bess (Zach Scott Theatre), Golden Boy (Long Wharf Theatre), Henry V (Shakespeare Theatre), and Candide (Arena Stage).
Like other diehards, theater is where St. Louis is comfortable.
“You hear from a lot of actors that they do television and film to support their theater habit,” says St. Louis. “I have done both and they’re much more product-oriented. Where I can feel like more of an artist and more in control of my work is when I’m on stage.”
Even though he has to “pay my rent like everybody else,” St. Louis says he won’t take just any acting job.
“I’ve turned down well-paying jobs because it’s not what I wanted to portray,” says St. Louis. “I look for something that speaks to me. I want to start one place and go some place and end up some place. I’d like to have some integrity in the character.”
Over the years, Dawnn Lewis has watched her friend’s growth as an actor.
“David is very particular about the roles he takes, because he is driven by character depth, the quality of the project and his genuine belief that he embodies the role,” offers Lewis. “He’s never really been interested in ‘just doing a gig’. He digs deep and transforms himself seamlessly each time you see him on stage or screen or listen to him sing. Â He has a beautiful singing voice that often makes his speaking sound like music too. Yes, I’m a fan.”
St. Louis is enjoying the rehearsal process for Intimate Apparel.Â He’s happy to be working with Epps, Lewis and the rest of the cast.
“There are some distinct personalities in this cast, it’s a nice stew,” says St. Louis. “Vanessa (Williams) is very sweet and a very giving actress. It’s a trusting atmosphere. No egos are involved, thankfully. We’ve got television and film actors who are very much established. They could pull diva, but they’re all a part of the ensemble and they’re all generous. It’s a joy to work with people who inspire you and you can inspire as well.”
For as long as he’s been an actor, St. Louis insists it’s always been about the work.
“Fame is nice and cute, but I just want to make my living working as an actor until the day I die,” he says. “I don’t need fame. I want to work. I like the work. That’s why I’m in it. Years from now, if there is a role for an 89-year-old, I want it!”
Intimate Apparel, Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino, Pasadena 91101. Opens Nov. 11. Tue-Fri 8 pm; Sat 4 pm and 8 pm; Sun 2 pm and 7 pm. Through Dec. 2. Tickets: $22.00 – $62.00, with premium seating available for $100.Â www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org. 626-356-7529.
***All Intimate Apparel production photos by Jim Cox