In Sons of the Prophet, he earns such lauds, tackling a host of hot-button issues—among them race, health care, journalistic integrity—with ease and agility. Fontana is Joseph, a 29 year-old, Pennsylvania native, once a running star whose body is now victim to a host of peculiar aches and numbness, seemingly without diagnosis. At the play’s start, his father has just been killed in a car accident, leaving Joseph saddled with not only his own medical predicament, but caring for his ailing uncle and younger brother. Throw in his boss, a neurotic, exiled New York book publisher (strains of Judith Regan abound) and his genealogy (he is related to the Lebanese author of the best-selling book The Prophet) that she wishes to exploit, and it’s a miracle Joseph makes it through the play’s first 30 minutes without a melt-down.
But Fontana knows something about staying sane in the face of life’s curve balls. Here, the actor discusses the risks of taking on new plays, the occupational hazards of emotional characters (cab pummeling anyone?) and why he feels a certain empathy for Joseph’s health issues.
Your character, Joseph, has a veritable shit storm of awful things thrown at him over the course of the play, from his chronic pain, to his father’s death and his uncle’s health problems. How would you describe his handling of all of it?
I think he always plays by the rules. He always chooses what will offend other people the least. He’s always thinking of other people first because in a way he’s a protagonist who doesn’t want to be a protagonist. He doesn’t want to be in any of the situations he’s in so he wants to leave the least amount of tracks as he gets through it. And all of the decisions he makes are all about, How can I not make as much of a stir here?
He’s a protagonist who doesn’t want to be a protagonist, and yet you’re on stage for the entire show. How do you convey a character who doesn’t want to be the center of attention, yet physically is in the play?
I had a friend who came and saw it and was like, “Oh it’s so hard, you just look like you’re suffering so much.” And I was like, “I don’t feel like I’m suffering at all!” ‘Til maybe the very end. I just feel like I’m getting things done. And I think Joseph is just thinking like all of us that if you just get this one thing done it will all be better and it will all be clear. Although it’s really well written, so just when I think one thing is taken care of, this happens, oh god. So being on stage for the whole time, it’s a great gift from a writer to an actor because a lot of the work is done for me. Because I can’t get off. I can’t leave! I have to stay on stage. And the next thing that’s thrown at me, I have to handle that.
Fontana (right) and Lizbeth Mackay in Sons of the Prophet.
Despite the fact that Joseph is trying to be proactive by handling everything, it’s still some pretty heavy material he works through. Is that something that weighs on you as an actor, doing that every night?
I feel like, especially doing theater, doing eight shows a week, it’s going to affect you. I did a show where I played a kind of rebel political guy [Tony in Billy Elliot], he was always screaming and I like pummeled a cab. I was crossing the street and this cab cut me off and I punched the trunk. This is a couple years ago. And the cabbie stopped the car, got out and all he said was, “What?” And he got back in the car and he drove away. And I was like, “Who am I? I’m 5’10! Like I’m gonna’ hurt him?” But in that moment this character had bled over into my life a little bit. I’m not going home and worrying about the tragedies of Joseph, not at all, but I do notice that I’m more private than I think I normally am and I think that’s probably because of Joseph. Because I’m not as introverted as he is.
I read you received the script for this play while recovering from an injury you incurred while doing A View from the Bridge and that you weren’t even able to read it properly because of your injury. Was it eerily fateful to have this land in your lap while you were convalescing, given Joseph’s own health issues?
Totally. I mean it was a terrible time. And I couldn’t read for very long without getting a migraine and the migraines that I was getting, I had to go to sleep, there was no way to treat it, I couldn’t take medication. And I got the reading and my agents were like, “You should do this.” And I hadn’t done a contemporary play in New York and I got to the end of the play where I have those lines, “I’m not doing good, it’s been a bad year,” and sort of lost it. And went to the writer and director afterwards and was like, “Why did you cast me in this? Did you know what happened?” And they were like, “We didn’t know anything, we just heard you were a good actor.” So it was a weird experience, but I have to say, it’s also like what’s in the play, you have terrible things happen to you, you move on and you’re better off for it.
And how was it doing a contemporary play after so many revivals?
I mean I’m excited just to be in a play where I don’t have an accent, first of all, because every show I’ve done in New York, I’ve had an Italian accent, I’ve had a Northern English accent, I’ve had a posh British accent. With revivals, you’re guaranteed the script is in pretty good shape because it survived, which is a great thing, but if the play’s not working, it’s not the writer, it’s you. With a new play, the big risk is thinking, “Holy shit—is this me or is this just not a good play?” And you can’t know, it’s just a big chance. Luckily, we’ve got a great writer and a great director and the play does work.
Photos: Joan Marcus