News Column

Actor David Whalen hustles from role to role

September 29, 2013

YellowBrix

Sept. 29--All things considered, David Whalen would rather be close to home, which makes it all the sweeter when a film like "The Fault in Our Stars" comes to our area and Pittsburgh theater's go-to leading man can land some screen time.

The Valley High School and Point Park graduate (class of '82) left for fame and fortune in New York after earning his master's at the University of North Carolina and found a bit of both quickly, on TV soap operas and with regional theaters from here to San Diego's Old Globe. When he and wife Naomi became parents, they decided to raise their children close to family, with Saxonburg, Butler County, as home base.

With blond good looks, athletic build and tenacious work ethic, Mr. Whalen has not wanted for roles. If you've called yourself a Pittsburgh theatergoer during the past decade, you know his face, even if you can't pinpoint a type. His range spans the madcap father in City Theatre's modern fantasy "Monster in the Hall" to the sullen title character in Chekhov's "Ivanov" for Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre.

He has worked as an adjunct professor at Carnegie Mellon and Point Park universities, and as far as theater goes, he's booked through June of next year. He juggles jobs like roles in a repertory company, most recently during the grueling run of PICT's "Don Juan Comes Back From the War," a dark drama that pushed the limits of endurance at more than two hours without intermission.

"I was filming a movie in West Virginia at that time called 'The Legion,' " Mr. Whalen recalled. "I'm playing a Catholic priest who is battling the occult. I would leave after the Sunday matinee, drive to West Virginia, shoot Monday and Tuesday and get back for the Tuesday or Wednesday show, depending on which was there. So to keep both roles in my head was a balancing act but ultimately invigorating."

Whatever the challenge, bring it on -- but it's best if David Whalen can be home in time for, say, driving lessons with his daughter.

"I'm a competitive person -- I wouldn't be in this business if I wasn't -- and I've played sports all my life," he said of making a living at a job that for so many actors can be filled with disappointments and dry spells. "I equate acting and sports. If I'm going to do it, I'm going to try to win."

Not one to sit still

On a recent weekday afternoon, he was wearing a crisp white shirt as he sat for coffee talk, a block of time sandwiched between a workout in Shadyside and teaching a class at Point Park. He arrived first and was on the phone with fellow actor Patrick Jordan (they will co-star in "A Steady Rain" for barebones productions in February) about their fantasy football league.

Finally seated, he talked about winning the role of Mr. Waters, father of Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), in "The Fault in Our Stars." The film, being shot in and around Pittsburgh, also stars Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern and Willem Dafoe.

"I'm thrilled. What a great cast to have. At my callback, just to meet the director, Josh Boone, and the producers, they were the nicest group of people ever. So when I got cast, needless to say I was thrilled. Plus, my daughter's favorite actress, and all of her girlfriends' at Knoch High School, is Shailene."

Earlier this week, Mr. Whalen reported that Madison, 16, was treated to a day on set, "and they treated her like a queen."

Both father and daughter are fans of the book. Mr. Whalen found John Green's young adult novel of two teenage cancer patients to be "moving and so well-written without being pandering" to an age group. Like the recently shot-in-Pittsburgh "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," no vampires or superpowers, just families and kids coping with hardships.

The actor who had a bit part in "Jack Reacher" and a role in the short-lived TV series "Three Rivers" has the same insecurities about "Where will my next job come from?" that most actors do. But between teaching and stage and screen roles, work doesn't seem to be much of an issue.

He still goes to New York for auditions and his agents want him there during TV pilot season, but they know he prefers the boundaries to be Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, "anything not too far for me to travel from the kids and my wife. And having so much family here, it's so great for them to see the work that I do and not have them travel to LA or Boston or St. Louis or ... ."

The list goes on and on. He figures he has appeared in 26 regional theaters in the United States, but these days, his children are reminder enough of his travels -- they are named for the streets that mark their parents' early courtship in New York: Madison and Lexington, 11.

Parts and recreation

When not on a stage or set or at the front of a classroom, Mr. Whalen usually can fit in as just another suburban dad.

"I really don't get recognized. I live out in Butler County. I always wear a cap and sunglasses, not because I'm hiding, but that's just me. What was interesting was 'Sherlock Holmes [and the Crucifer of Blood]' was such a huge hit for PICT, when I was at the mall during that time, when all of these people who never came to the theater came to see it, that's when I got recognized the most."

The best part of that holiday run as the great detective, which he will reprise this season, was seeing PICT's Charity Randall Theatre near capacity for almost every performance. Mr. Whalen, a fan of Arthur Conan Doyle's great detective, recommended the play to Andrew Paul, who had been looking for a buzz-worthy holiday production for PICT. Director and actor reunite in "Blue/Orange," an Olivier Award-winning work that will launch a new Pittsburgh theater company, The Phoenix, on Nov. 1.

"David is one of my closest friends, and he is also the consummate professional actor," said Mr. Paul. "He is always prepared, researches his roles and material thoroughly, has enormous energy and commitment, and will do anything to make a show better. He is also that rarest of rarities; a genuine leading man, and yet he is not afraid to look silly on stage."

The actor has played so many diverse characters, he doesn't have a bucket list of roles, although he is looking forward to the Shaw play "Candida" for Pittsburgh Public Theater's Ted Pappas, another frequent collaborator.

"David brings a ferocious commitment to every play with which he's involved," said the Public's producing artistic director. "He's smart, sexy, disciplined and very, very talented. What more could you ask for?"

The time arrives to get up and go, and Mr. Whalen springs off his seat.

If it sounds as though he needs a vacation, well, he does head out of town once in a while -- family in tow. But that's not to say his day at the beach means a chaise in the shade.

"We took 10 days and went to Aruba in June. So we always make at least a week to 10 days with just family, doing something outdoors," he said. "Our vacations outdoors, we don't sit and read books. We surf, we hike, we bike and spend quality time. For me, even when I'm on vacation, I'm very active. I have a hard time sitting still. I'm still very excited and curious about life."

Sharon Eberson: seberson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1960.

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