As a resident of Manhattan, Paul Sparks has met his share of Jerrys, one of those guys who stands a little too close, talks a little too loud, and who doesn’t let the fact that he’s a complete stranger stop him from striking up a conversation with you.
So he’s well-cast as the irksome vagrant Jerry in a new limited-run production of “Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo,” directed by Lila Neugebauer, which opened Off-Broadway at the Pershing Square Signature Center on Feb. 21 and was recently extended through March 18. The play’s first act (written in 2004) depicts an afternoon with an uptight businessman, Peter (“House’s” Robert Sean Leonard) and his wife (“Bloodline’s” Katie Finneran). Act 2 (which premiered on its own in 1959 titled “The Zoo Story,” Albee’s very first play) features Jerry and Peter in a life-altering encounter in Central Park.
An Oklahoma native, Sparks, 46, is best known for playing gangster Mickey Doyle on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” and writer Thomas Yates in Netflix’s “House of Cards,” and co-stars in Paramount’s miniseries “Waco.” He and his partner, actress Annie Parisse, have two children.
Do you see Jerrys in your normal day-to-day?
This play is so New York. So yeah, I see ’em. These strange, well-read, penniless transients.
Ever been trapped in conversation with one?
Sure. Just last summer, a guy starts talking to me about the unfairness of life. This was in Tompkins Square Park. There are people there who are certainly transient, at the minimum. It turned into . . . “So what can you do for me?” It wasn’t necessarily aggressive. And it’s a really important question. As someone who loves his neighborhood and believes in a certain political policy of being a good neighbor, I thought, “Yeah, what am I gonna do for him? What are we gonna do for our neighbors to make sure they’re OK?” It’s better for everybody to do that. So I think it’s a nice question.
Nice? Many might find it off-putting.
Yeah. But I feel like there’s not that big a dividing line between us all. You know, I’m a couple breaks away from being destitute myself. And I don’t know what else I’d do or where I’d go.
What’s it like waiting offstage till Act 2? Get a lot of reading done, or knitting, or . . .?
I’m a crossword guy, myself. [He laughs.] But I listen to [my co-stars]. That first act tees us all up, gets us ready.
I read you were in college studying to become a chemist when you stumbled into acting — and it was your father who encouraged you.
Yeah. It was a watershed moment. The plan had been to become a chemical engineer. My drama teacher — and I say this lovingly — she conned me into auditioning for a theater scholarship. I thought it’d amount to taking a few humanities classes. Of course, it was more than that. I auditioned for a show, got in and soon lost interest in the math and science side of learning. I became smitten with the theater community. I probably would’ve been a really average chemist.
So yours are probably the only parents in the world who actually pushed their son to be an actor.
That’s right. I think my father saw I wasn’t doing well. I seemed lost. I think he thought I’d be a local drama teacher, or that I’d do regional stuff and live in Oklahoma City. But that wasn’t meant to be. I went right to New York, and started at the very, very bottom. But yeah, they’ve always been hugely supportive. That’s a gift.
In “Waco,” about the FBI siege on the Branch Davidian compound, you play cult leader David Koresh’s right-hand man. The FBI is certainly in the spotlight these days.
I’d be lying to say there wasn’t a part of me that felt like, wait — should we tell a story that so calls into question the decisions made by federal law enforcement? Is that a smart idea? But I have to believe — have to believe — this is what we need. I’m OK with the truth. I think people can handle the truth, and stories told with nuance. I think we did that with “Waco.” I’m proud of that show.
One last thing — I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention three words: “House of Cards.” We saw you depart last season. Might you return, in some form or another, in the upcoming final season?
That’s one you’ll have to hold your breath for. I’ll hold mine, too. I don’t know what the situation is over there. If there’s something for me to do, I’ll do it. If not, I’ll happily watch just like everyone else.
Here are 13 websites offering free or discounted tickets to TV tapings, Broadway shows, concerts and more.48 celebrities who've had Broadway rolesCelebrities who have taken their acting talents to Broadway. TV listings Best TV shows on NetflixNetflix originals "Orange Is the New Black" and "House of Cards" may be the obvious choices for must-binge shows, but the streaming service has plenty of others to satisfy any TV appetite.