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Parading to a New Tune


T. R. Knight returns to the stage in Parade, a dramatic musical turn, within days of his Grey's Anatomy character being killed off. Leo Frank, the character he's playing, is based on the tragic life of a Jewish man who was wrongfully accused of murder. While he adamantly refuses to make comparisons -- they are, admittedly, a tad facile -- Knight was also the victim of a scandal that was rooted in discrimination and public proclamations over which he had little control.

While his decision to leave the hit TV series (for which he received an Emmy nomination) had nothing to do with his well-publicized coming-out process, it feels like Knight is more fully possessed than ever, projecting an inherent sweetness that is immediately palpable.

Knight radiates a refreshingly rare humility. You were a gay man playing a straight guy on television. Now you're playing a Jewish character and presumably you're not a Jew.
T. R. Knight: No, I'm not. In my life, I've been interested in Judaism. I've played Jewish characters before. When you play someone -- especially when you play someone who really existed -- you try to research as many parts of the person as you possibly can. That is definitely part of him. Being raised in Brooklyn is part of him. There are many books about this case. But when you do research and you play a real character, you also have to give over to the dramatic work. A lot of times, certain aspects of the character don't match up. When I played Mozart in Amadeus, I remember doing loads of research, but the play is basically a memory play. Like Amanda in The Glass Menagerie [Tennessee Williams], it's maybe not how she really was but how Tom imagined her. So it's how Salieri imagined Mozart. You have to give over to the story that the playwright is telling. In this story, the character is a very complicated person. He's very uncomfortable with emotions -- he's comfortable with numbers. He's a very analytical thinker and he's out of place. He's Jewish in a very Christian world and it definitely carries weight that he's a Northerner in the South -- only 50 years after they were defeated in a war. He's doubly an outsider and also in a marriage where they don't quite understand each other; even though she is Jewish, she's a Southerner and that's confusing for him.

Do you personally relate to his outsider status in any way?

Anyone who is a member of a minority can relate. But not only people who are members of a minority; I think pretty much everyone walking on this earth can relate to being an outsider, in whatever shape or form. We'd be surprised that people we don't think of as being part of a minority -- many of my friends, for example -- have things that can make them feel that way.

The thing that you share with him -- obviously, not to the same degree -- is that his scandal, like yours, was made outlandishly public. I'm obviously referencing the brouhaha on Grey's Anatomy and your subsequent coming out.
I understand how you would ask this question. I don't feel there's any sort of correlation at all because of what he went through; because of his story. He was wrongly accused for a murder. Because I've been so invested in this person and am being as respectful as I can in portraying him, I just personally don't see a correlation.

In playing Leo Frank, falsely accused of raping and murdering a young girl, do you ever look at his possible guilt?
As an actor, you have to look at all sides. It was one of the most unfair trials that I've come across. If the outcome weren't so tragic, it would be laughable. There's so much evidence that points to another person that it's hard for me to imagine his guilt. As an actor playing it, I can't imagine you could play the character as if he were guilty. There are different levels of it when everyone is coming at you; when everyone thinks differently than you. It's crazy.

So George O'Malley died...

I realize this may be poetic, but it feels like Parade is a rebirth of a stage career within days.
I don't know about "rebirth." And it's not "days" for me because we've been working on this for a month and a half.

Even though you began your career "on the boards," and cultivated a sterling resume, you haven't been onstage in five years, right? Do you sing?
I've spent most of my life doing theater -- there's a certain comfort in that, but what skews it, what alters it, what throws it for me is that it's a musical and I'm not a singer. As soon as I found out that I got the part, I started two months of extensive voice lessons. I worked very hard to try to, in a very short time, understand what it is to be a singer. I did musicals when I was in high school but certainly to no acclaim. I certainly don't have the years under my belt that my fellow cast members do. I know that I can only catch up so far in a very short period of time. All I can ask of myself is to work as hard as I can and I'll get to where I'll get to. I'm not going to be at the same level of the rest of the cast; that's just not possible. It's a challenge: a challenge to prepare, a challenge to work, a challenge to learn new things. I have to forgive myself that I'm not further along in the process than I am, which has been a huge learning experience for me. I have a tendency to be very strict and hard on myself. It's so nice to still be learning this much.

You have said, "I hope being gay isn't the most interesting part of me." What is the most interesting part of you?
[Laughs mischievously] I don't think I can answer that. I wouldn't begin to know how. That's a good question, thank you. It does beg that question, doesn't it? [More laughter, more mischievously] I have a lot of self-deprecating answers at the tip of my tongue, but I think it's best if I don't throw them out right now.

Do you feel that being openly gay has cast you as some kind of role model or spokesman?
I don't feel that. I just feel that I'm an actor.

The future? Is there a grand scheme at play?
Right now my future is this show -- until November 15. So my energy is going into that. There's so much I have to learn before we close; so much I want to learn. As an actor, you always feel -- and I've heard this from other actors too -- you always feel like it's your last job. So if I'm greedy, all I can ask is that I work with people who interest me, that I respect, and that I'll learn from. If I can have that in whatever medium -- film, television, or stage -- I'd be very lucky and very happy.

How's the boyfriend [Mark Cornelsen]?

He's seeing the show on opening night. I want to hold off on the previews; there's still a lot for me to sort through.

If it becomes legal, would you consider marriage?

Let's have it be legal first. That's what I'd like to focus on. Then we'd be free to make a decision.

- Click here for more information about Parade.

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