Italian seems to come easy for Tony Shalhoub. He had his first big break playing Antonio, an Italian immigrant who ran a taxi service in the '90s sitcom "Wings," and then had a critically acclaimed screen role as an Italian restaurateur-chef in "Big Night" (1996).
Now Shalhoub, who's Lebanese, embraces his inner Italian again as the immigrant father of a budding violinist-turned-boxer in the Lincoln Center Theater's 75th-anniversary production of Clifford Odets' "Golden Boy" on Broadway. Donning a salt-and-pepper wig and sporting a full-grown mustache, Shalhoub may seem unrecognizable to TV fans who know him best from his Emmy-winning role as Adrian Monk, the obsessive-compulsive detective he played for eight seasons on USA's "Monk."
We caught up with Shalhoub, 59, in his dressing room at Manhattan's Belasco Theatre after a recent matinee, where the actor talked about his stage and TV roles as well as his lessons in Italian and boxing.
What was it about the play that attracted you?
I hadn't read the play in years, probably since I was in school. And I was struck by how timely it is. I thought it was incredibly moving, and there's something about that 1930s patter, I'm just really drawn to it. Almost all contemporary plays have language that is very edgy. In this one, you never hear [profanity] ... and you don't miss it. It's almost refreshing to see what these playwrights did in place of that easier phrase. Yet, it's gritty, it's poetic and it speaks to audiences today.
I thought your Italian accent in this show was very convincing. Was it hard to do the accent without making the character seem cartoonish?
It's very tricky in this particular piece. . . . Whether or not Odets saw this character as a real peasant class, he seems to have come from a family in Italy where maybe they weren't wealthy but they were educated. They were focused on the arts and music, they were sophisticated though poor. But it's written in very peasant broken English, and in a sense, it's a bit inconsistent. So we tried to massage it and even it out a bit.
You seem to get cast quite a bit as an Italian.
I see it as one of the arrows in the quiver. There are enough other ethnic roles, but it's something I like to do. I've been taking an Italian course. I've taken lessons before in the past, and then dropped it, and now I'm getting back into it.
And you even worked some of your Italian in the show.
There was maybe once where it was written in the play and other times where we took the liberty of adding more. For example, when I'm onstage alone after the boxer leaves, I thought, why would I be speaking in English when I'm by myself? I would love to even add more.
Are you fluent in any other languages?
I'm not, not even in English.
Do you miss doing "Monk"?
I miss the people because we did it for eight seasons, 125 episodes, and I think it ended at the right time. We felt that we had explored everything we wanted to with the characters. We weren't canceled, we just decided with the network that this would be the final season, and it was always intended to go that long. It's always better to leave an audience wanting more.
Did any of Monk's eccentric qualities rub off on you?
Little things here and there. I try very hard to stay separate from my characters, although you do invest a lot of yourself into it, so there's always some DNA exchange. I think I always had some of those tendencies before I did the show, but I was made more aware of them.
Did you grow the mustache just for this show?
Actually, I grew a beard and had a full mustache during rehearsals. And then we looked at a lot of '30s mustaches, and there are a lot of mustaches in this play, and decided this was the one for me. [Director] Bart [Sher] thought the beard was a lot. And then I have this wig, of course, which helps me move away from myself. It's a full wig and it's really beautifully made. It's donning the brain of the character.
Are you a boxing fan?
I love boxing. I actually was doing some boxing training this summer. It was nothing to do with the play, but just a good workout that I could still handle at my age without destroying myself. I did get into it. It was sort of empowering.
Did you have any interesting experiences boxing?