Good luck typecasting Norbert Leo Butz. Best known to TV audiences as the hotheaded brother Kevin Rayburn on the Netflix family drama “Bloodline.” Butz is also a two-time Tony Award winner, equally at home in Broadway musicals or dramas, slipping from romantic prince (“Wicked”) to scam artist (“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”) to a disgraced CEO (“Enron”).
This spring he’s at it again, flipping from Cockney scoundrel to billionaire. In the current Lincoln Center Theater musical revival of “My Fair Lady” — which is based on George Bernard Shaw’s play “Pygmalion” — he plays the penniless, lovable drunkard Alfred P. Doolittle, who witnesses his daughter, Eliza (“Six Feet Under’s” Lauren Ambrose), transform from flower girl to high-society woman, courtesy of a makeover by linguistics professor Henry Higgins (Harry Hadden-Paton). Butz delivers a rousing, energetic performance at the Vivian Beaumont Theater and just nabbed a Tony nomination for best featured actor in a musical.
He also has a recurring role as Gordon Getty, one of the sons of eccentric oil magnate J. Paul Getty (Donald Sutherland), in the new FX series “Trust.”
Butz, 51, is married (to “Wicked” co-star Michelle Federer) and has three daughters. He sat down with Newsday contributor Joseph V. Amodio in the lobby of the Beaumont before a recent performance.
There’s been a lot of talk about this being a “My Fair Lady” for the #MeToo era — how we’re seeing a more empowered Eliza. How does that affect your approach to your character?
I feel like there are certain lines that [Higgins or] I say in the show where you can feel a cold wind coming from the audience. They’re not as fast to throw their hands together and clap at the . . . really misogynist stuff. People are hearing things differently. And that’s good. My middle daughter — she’s 18, a high school senior — she saw the show recently and was really affected by Eliza. She’s growing up in this #MeToo culture, so she connected with Eliza’s sense of independence and courage. That really excited me, to know this means something to young women.
Doolittle is typically played for laughs — the old sot who sings “Get Me to the Church on Time.” But in reality he’s an absentee dad on one long bender. How do you balance that?
I’ve spent many, many sleepless nights trying to figure out what it IS about this part — audiences love it. How can that be? He’s a terrible father, a hopeless alcoholic. But by the end of the show everyone’s beaming and clapping as he sings “Get Me to the Church . . .” That’s the genius of Shaw — Doolittle’s behavior is terrible, but his philosophy saves him. He’s usually seen as a stock English music hall type, but Bart [Sher, the director] said he’s more like the Beat Poets of the ‘60s.
Now there’s a comparison I didn’t expect.
Those counterculture types, like J.D. Salinger, or Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters — a group of writers and musicians who rode around in a bus just . . . causing mayhem.
Ole Doolittle would’ve loved that. So you’re saying he’s kind of a rebel, challenging the stiff upper class?
For this part . . . I worked on the [Cockney] dialect and all that, but I also read [Jack Kerouac’s] “On the Road” again, and [Kesey’s] “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” It’s funny — there’s so much to think about. And then you’ve got to go out and do this real Broadway song-and-dance showstopper.
Riiiight. The number is physically challenging. Keeps me in shape.
No kidding — like the way you spring into the air onto that table. Doolittles usually seem older, stodgier.
Yeah. Where’s some wood? (He knocks three times on his chair for luck.) I haven’t fallen yet.
You play a different kind of guy — with a very different size bank account — in “Trust.” What’s it like getting into the head of Gordon Getty, son of the very, very, very rich?
And with a very, very dysfunctional father, who shunned Gordon when Gordon decided to be an opera composer, wanting nothing to do with the big family oil corporation and all those shenanigans. The role is small this first season. But I think it’ll expand if the show is picked up for a second or third, because Gordon eventually got into the business and went head-to-head with his dad in a vicious battle.
The Getty family seems pretty epic — in wealth and weirdness.
The things that went on — so decadent and bizarre. What I like about Gordon Getty is that most people agree he emerged the most unscathed, the most quote-unquote “normal.” He was happily married, had several children and he kept them out of the limelight. I have a lot of empathy for him.