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The Long Way Home

The actor who hails from Fairfield shines in the bright lights of Broadway and Hollywood

Photograph by iStockphoto.com

Justin Long is talking, so there must be a punch line coming. But right now, he sounds so deceptively serious. The marquee face of a talented Fairfield family of thespians has just made his Broadway debut in Seminar, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Theresa Rebeck’s provocative look at the tormented world of writers.

Long’s eight-week run, with a cast that includes the iconic Jeff Goldblum, must be a dream-come-true moment for the thirty-three-year-old actor best known for his hilarious turns on film and television. The stage is his comfort zone and Broadway is as big as it gets. But Long sheepishly confides, as special as it is, he hasn’t spent much time preparing. So it’s better not to ask him about his character’s motivations or the influences of his Stanislavski actors’ training.

“You know, some actors spend all this time worrying about process and studying their lines,” Long sighs, setting up what’s coming with bone-dry bluntness. “If I forget something, I’m just going to make up stuff or say lines from other plays. I mean why should Theresa just expect me to read only her lines? There are so many great playwrights. Arthur Miller is out there. Chekhov too. I think it’s arrogant for her to just expect me to read her own lines.”

Leave it to Justin Long, the guy who once played the role of class clown at Fairfield Prep, to go for the laugh (which he gets), even when he’s talking about a seminal career moment. He even teases, “Um, Fairfield? Is that anywhere near Bridgeport?” It’s like he just can’t help it. Comedy, after all, comes naturally to this native son, who has a knack for stealing scenes (think Dodgeball, Galaxy Quest, Ed and the voice of Alvin in Alvin and the Chipmunks) playing slightly nerdy but completely endearing characters.

Long’s success has always relied on his relatability. He’s played the kindhearted shoulder to cry on (He’s Just Not That Into You); an immoral, bumbling hacker (opposite Bruce Willis in Live Free or Die Hard), and an unflappable, hip Mac computer trading barbs with a stodgy PC. (Adweek called his sixty-six Get a Mac commercial series “the best ad campaign of the first decade of the new century.”)

Since he performed his first stage roles in Fairfield Teen Theatre back in the ’90s, Long’s had enough substantive roles to keep fans’ Netflix queues loaded for weeks. But one thing he’s never played is mean.

So when he agreed to take over Seminar’s pivotal role of Martin, a diffident but talented author wary of sharing his work, Long broke type. The play centers on the lives of several aspiring Manhattan scribes (played by Long, Jerry O’Connell, Zoe Lister-Jones and Hetienne Park) who’ve plunked down $5,000 to suffer the blistering critiques of fading author (Goldblum) with a tendency to dismiss manuscripts by the first semicolon.

[Martin’s] not at all delicate or vulnerable or a mumbling nerd, the kind of guy I’m used to playing,” Long reflects. “He’s way more angry and rebellious than anyone I can ever remember playing. And the whole time I rehearsed [so he actually did practice his lines], I’ve had to fight the natural instinct to play the role the way I’m used to playing things. I’m usually a goofball just trying to get a girl. When that’s your part, you go for likeability. You don’t want to be too much of a douche bag.”

While Martin demands dramatic range (and a bit of douche bag), it was Long’s uncanny sense of humor that got him the part. The play relies on heavy doses of wit, which Long oozes. Seminar’s director, Sam Gold, says he began recruiting the young actor to join the cast after working with him last summer at the Williamstown Theater Festival. There, Gold reports, Long was “constantly cracking everyone up.…He is genuinely one of the most funny and charming people I’ve ever met. He brings this and much, much more to the stage, and I’m so thrilled I persuaded him to join our cast.”

This playing against type may explain the slight case of nerves Long confesses to the day before he is to begin performances at the Golden Theatre. Long downplays the milestone of his first Broadway role; as if the mere mention might jinx him or make the unfortunate cold he is fighting that much worse. He volunteers that his actress mother, Wendy Lesniak Long, “helped me read my lines and is probably way more excited about this than anything I’ve ever done. But I’m trying not to focus too much on the weight of it or dwell on what it means. I’m trying to pysch myself up to think, I’ll get up there and it will just be like any other time on the stage. But I get the gravity of it, which makes it exciting and completely terrifying all at the same time.”

The Back Story

This expression of vulnerability is a revelation, because so much of Long’s life has been spent center stage. And acting has always been a family affair. His mom, an accomplished actress with her own Broadway credits, was a popular drama teacher at Roger Ludlowe Middle School. His father, R. James Long, teaches Latin and philosophy at Fairfield University. Older brother Damian is an actor who teaches drama at Weston High School. (Justin raves that Damian’s recent production of Guys and Dolls was “absolutely fantastic.”) No surprise, younger brother Christian caught the acting bug too. Christian was also Justin’s writing partner on A Case of You, a romantic comedy Justin recently produced, directed and starred in opposite Evan Rachel Wood and his friend Vince Vaughn.

Barry Wallace, a writing teacher at Prep, who calls the Long boys “three of the most remarkable students I’ve ever taught,” says he often wondered if the family “didn’t bottle talent and creative energy.”

Yet despite the undeniable influence of those dramatic genes, Long confesses he fell into acting—quite literally—making mischief. His 1996 Prep yearbook names him “most likely to not be in class”; a dubious distinction that foreshadowed blockbuster things to come. Long says his classmates’ superlative was “spot on” and describes himself as a reluctant student intent on getting a rise out of his classmates by pretending to, well, break a leg: “I’m not proud of it, but I didn’t like school. Socially, I just wasn’t suited to it. And I would go to great lengths to avoid it. I had a habit of creating all kinds of mystery illnesses. But when I was there, we would often get into fake fights—which I loved to choreograph—and I would throw my body over chairs and desks. I think the teachers probably knew we were faking, but I liked to get them riled up. I guess you could call that acting. Probably not very good acting, but acting nonetheless.”

His teachers (at least the ones Fairfield Living spoke to) recall being more charmed than bothered: “He just seemed to know himself as an actor really early on. It was just very, very obvious this was his path,” observes Frank Bramble, another Prep teacher who served as technical director on several of Long’s high school plays.

Wallace, still a fan, shows his students Dodgeball every year as a coda to believe in their own potential.

Besides, it wasn’t just a desire to annoy his teachers that lured Long center stage. It was the opposite sex. He explains: “I went to one of the plays my mom was directing and there were lots and lots of girls back stage. I immediately thought, “Now this is the place to be.” I hate to say that’s what drew me in, but it did. I was a short guy who wanted to meet girls. I wasn’t going to meet them playing football.”

No surprise, single-sex Prep was an awkward fit for Long, who says his parents sent him there after Tomlinson Middle School to give him the advantages of its classical Jesuit education. “They just wanted me to study Latin and do my homework and have some discipline; perfectly normal things for parents to want.” But he left for half his junior year to give Fairfield High School a try. There, he was inspired to continue acting by drama teacher Fran Kondziela (now at Roger Ludlowe High School) and his fellow performers in school theater productions. “It was an extremely talented bunch of people. I made great, great friends and was very happy to be part of it,” he recalls. But “too many distractions, too many extracurricular activities, too many girls” caused his GPA to plummet and soon it was back to Prep.

At Vassar Long followed in his dad’s footsteps and studied philosophy but, once again, his most satisfying moments were on stage; especially as a member of the campus comedy troupe Laughingstock. “Everything I did at school that interested me involved the stage. It kind of seemed silly to be there for any other reason,” he says. So he opted for a self-styled budget version of the “junior year abroad,” a sabbatical to make treks to open casting calls in Manhattan. “The plan was just to see if this was a silly idea or if I could actually do this and get paid for it.” To make ends meet he delivered pizzas, waited tables and “had an assortment of various, crazy, really weird jobs.”

Then, just as the discouraging year was coming to a close, he got lucky. He received a callback for a role hosting Nickelodeon’s animated children’s series Blue’s Clues. And although he ultimately didn’t take the part, (“People told me I was insane”), the casting process got him an agent. And that’s when things really began to happen.

After “bombing” a tryout for WB’s Popular, a devastated Long dragged himself—completely unrehearsed—to read for a bit part in Stuckeyville, a pilot that eventually became the hit NBC series Ed. Long made such an impression reading for the obscure role of “student No. 2,” a part was written just for him: His casting as Ed’s lovelorn, insecure fifteen-year-old Stuckeyville high school wrestler Warren Cheswick was the big break before the big-screen breaks. Then came Dodgeball (a role many fans still consider his classic scene-stealing best). The gift of his career, he says, has been remarkable opportunities; especially leaping from television to film to the stage and back again. “It was unusual I was able to make those moves when I started. Back then television and film were really segregated. You really didn’t get the chance to do both.”

Frank Bramble was never surprised by Long’s success, but was fascinated by the swift trajectory of his career: “One thing that’s always impressed me about Long is that he’s had the opportunity to act with some very talented people at the top of their game. And it seems whatever they gave, he committed to it and gave it back.”

Long’s ambitious versatility is something he attributes to his mother’s enduring influence: “To do well in this business, you have to be crazy lucky, and, beyond that, you have to have a certain work ethic and level of dedication and commitment. That’s the part of her I always feel in my work.”

This Just In

Speaking of those deft transitions, last year Justin Long joined the hit Fox series The New Girl to play the love interest of star Zooey Deschanel’s character. (Fox recently announced more episodes featuring Long will air this spring.) And in the coming months he’ll be bringing A Case of You (his independent film project about a guy who fakes a Facebook profile to woo a girl) for showings at film festivals. It is his most personal project to date. Long expects the critical attention A Case of You receives may make him feel as vulnerable as Seminar’s Martin. “I’ve been involved in every aspect, from finding financing to asking my friends to be involved,” he says. “It’s just a lot of responsibility.”

Although Long’s career has made him a celebrity, he makes a remarkably grounded first impression. Save for a few public romances with former costars (Drew Barrymore and Ginnifer Goodwin being the most notable), the actor has mostly kept his private life private. He deliberately avoids the predictable actors’ haunts of Hollywood and New York in favor of a part-time base in Austin, Texas, a city that attracted him for its “great people” and urban culture situated so close to the great outdoors. “I just feel very comfortable—and me—whenever I get the chance to be there.”

But when he gets a long break—or spends lots of time in New York as he will during the Seminar run that wraps May 27—you just may catch him picking up his favorite Chinese takeout or driving along Fairfield’s beaches. “I come home an embarrassing amount for a grown-up guy,” he confesses. “I still like to hang out with my parents and my family—which is actually pretty cool.” And with that, you get the sense, Justin Long isn’t kidding around.

Correction: Justin's favorite haunts includes Hunan Pavilion not Hunan Cafe.

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