Matt Holzfeind | Performer of the week
Andrew Jackson is one of the most controversial figures in American history, expanding the size of the nation while killing thousands of its native population. Matt Holzfeind portrays the seventh president of the United States in the emo-rock musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, a high-energy Chicago premiere courtesy of Bailiwick Chicago. A native of Dallas, Texas, who moved to Lexington, Kentucky, for high school, Holzfeind always had an appreciation of the arts, one that his parents heartily supported. He studied theater at Indiana University, where he would meet the founders of Strange Tree Group, building friendships that would translate to him becoming a company member when he chose to move to Chicago. He’s been working consistently since graduating, appearing in Strange Tree’s Jeff Award–winning The Three Faces of Doctor Crippen as well as more classical fare like Court Theatre’s Porgy and Bess. Holzfeind speaks to us about researching the role, finding the character’s rock-star attitude and how he found sympathy for the morally questionable figure.
Are you a history buff?
I definitely am interested in it, but I’m not a buff, admittedly. I did do a lot of research on this one, though, because I felt like doing a historical character of that magnitude needed some heavy-duty research.
What kind of research did you do?
I read a book, I read Jon Meacham’s American Lion, which is mostly about [Jackson's] presidency, but had a little bit of him running up to it. It was a good portrait of what he was like, both in public and in private. Did a lot of research on the past production in New York, and what brought it to this premiere in Chicago. Basic online stuff here and there, I’m sure a Wikipedia article now and then. [Laughs.]
How did you and director Scott Ferguson work to capture the rock star attitude of the character?
It’s definitely a way of portraying him using a modern context and emulating him as a rock star. He could be considered the equivalent of an 1820s rock star; his brash attitude, he had a sordid past but he was also a war hero and well respected by the public. He was very much, without modern day media, he was as big a pop culture icon as you could’ve been back then. So bringing it into a modern context, the rock star seems like a good idea, and the script is just really well written and it jumps off the page. But we did a lot of work in the rehearsal process of making sure that rock attitude came out, because it’s the main storytelling mode that we use. [Ferguson] stressed that this could be a new vaudeville piece, where the typical rules of readers—fourth wall, that kind of stuff—could be broken down to get into the nitty-gritty of entertaining people and all the ups and downs in that respect.
How do you think the play’s themes of celebrity and presidential obligation tie into the current presidential election?
It’s fascinating to study this political figure and see for better or for worse what we have today, and there are crazy similarities and of course incredible differences. I think it’s really cool to see that. I think when people come in to see the show, they’re saying, “Ooh, that’s kind of like what’s happening now.” And then they’re like, “Oh, but that would never happen now.” I think that’s a cool juxtaposition to see.
The show is BYOB, have you had any fun audience reactions?
All of the audiences have been game, it’s been great for that. We did get a couple girls with a huge bottle of wine that they were passing around. [Laughs.] It hasn’t turned into a bar brawl, people are keeping their cool. You walk into that space, and it’s such an interesting space, and I think that ties into the whole attitude of the show. And being able to bring in a beer or whatever, it makes for a cool atmosphere, and I think people are digging it.
Most of the plays I’ve seen you in have been these sort of irreverent, tongue-in-cheek pieces. Is there something that attracts you to that kind of work?
I really love doing everything. I find that when I do one type of show for a while, I start aching for something else. I was in Utah all summer doing Shakespeare and Moliere, so being able to come back here and do something like this is completely refreshing. I love flexing the muscles in different ways.
I was really impressed by how much fun everyone looked like they were having onstage. Was there anything done in rehearsal to boost that party atmosphere?
Well, the cast is great, and everyone has this energy. Everyone understood the energy coming in, I think we were all excited it was the Chicago premiere. Bailiwick is an old name, but it’s a young collective, and they’ve got great energy that I think rubbed off on us a lot. The director had a great vision going forward, and I think that all contributed to this sense of “We’re putting on something really cool here.” That’s the biggest thing. Everyone does have a lot of fun, though. You’ve got to in a show like this.
Was there anything specifically challenging about getting into Jackson’s character? He’s not the most sympathetic figure.
You kind of always have to find the good attributes and the “why?” People do some horrible things, but there’s usually a reason for it. Not that it can ever be justified on a human scale, but people always have their reasons, and I find that fascinating. [Jackson] did some bad things, but he was a great man in many other respects: he loved his family, loved his close friends, was loyal and respected and rewarded loyalty. Those are all things that I think are very good to have as a human being in this world. I definitely latched on to those things, but I tried not to pull any punches either, and I hope that’s what the show does, too. It’s funny and we can all laugh, and then it does get serious at the end because he did do some serious stuff, but I hope we realized that there are serious consequences to these things that we do. It can be bad, but in the end, he made this country what it is today, and it wouldn’t be if it weren’t for him. It’s an interesting story to tell and a fun jungle gym to play on every night.
Bailiwick Chicago’s Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson runs through November 11 at National Pastime Theater (941 W Lawrence Ave, 773-327-7077). Read our review of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.