John Lloyd Young plays Four Seasons lead singer Frankie Valli in director Clint Eastwood’s film adaptation of the hit musical “Jersey Boys” – a role Young originated on Broadway in 2005, and for which he won a Tony.
Young himself originated at Mather Air Force Base, where his navigator father was stationed. His family left the Sacramento region when Young was a baby, and he later lived in upstate New York, Alabama and Nebraska and attended Brown University in Rhode Island. He now lives in Los Angeles.
His most lasting geographical tie might be to New Jersey, since he has played Jersey son Valli – and hit those incredible falsetto notes on “Sherry” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry” – in the stage show off and on for years, including earlier this year in London.
Young, 38, has appeared on TV’s “Glee” and “Law & Order,” but “Jersey Boys,” which follows decades of friendship and enmity among the Four Seasons’ band members, marks his most prominent screen project to date. The film opened in theaters Friday, and finished fourth in weekend box office receipts. Reached by phone during a recent publicity stop in San Francisco, Young discussed playing Valli, and Eastwood’s attraction to the material.
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You played Frankie Valli for so long on stage. Was it different to play him in front of a camera?
I kind of knew what to expect. I had done film and television before, (though) clearly nothing of this scale. I knew the medium enough to know I would be able to take a character I knew very well into areas I always wanted to explore but couldn’t, because I was constrained by the script of the stage show. (That script) is obviously very good, but when you play a part 1,200, 1,300 times, you have certain insights into that character that you could express if you were given other places to do it.
I knew the film would give me more area to breathe, and to just sort of let the psychological reality of my character be there. Because the camera captures what you are doing, captures your eyes.
Clint Eastwood is not the first director who pops to mind when you think “musical theater.” But he has composed scores for some of his other films. Did he show an affinity for this material from the start?
What drew Clint Eastwood to the property was the element that always appealed to me the most. Which was that in the world of Broadway and the world of musical shows, very few delve deeply into character (and are) rich and psychologically layered. And “Jersey Boys” touches on that on stage. It moves fast and the music is clearly front and center, but the story underneath was written by very good writers, one of whom, Marshall Brickman, won an Academy Award for “Annie Hall.” That real element of drama – and these relationships of the characters – is what I loved most about it.
And Clint was drawn – I knew it intuitively, but now I know for sure because I have heard him say it in these press things we have been doing – he was drawn to that idea of the Italian American thing, that very dramatic Italian American thing from this era when young men would hold grudges and never let go.
Are you Italian?
On my mom’s side.
Are you done playing this role, or will you revisit it?
(Laughs) It’s like that Al Pacino line in “Godfather III”: Every time I think I’m out, they pull me back in. I thought I was done with “Jersey Boys” on stage, then I wrapped the movie, and the production in London asked me to do six weeks there. So I went and I did it, and I loved it. … But I got to explore the character with far more depth (in the film) than I would ever be able to hope to on stage, and so it was a strange feeling to be on stage. I felt like I wanted to shake people in the audience and say, “Listen, I have more to tell you! But I can’t do it.” So … can my answer be “I don’t know”?
Sure. How long did it take you, when you first rehearsed the role, to get Valli’s voice down?
Well, I always had those notes. I don’t think you can play the part if you don’t have those notes. You would, like, hemorrhage your vocal cords. … But I wanted to evoke Frankie, because I don’t think an exact imitation is as compelling, because it would not seem like a real person. I kind of use the same mental process when approaching the singing style as I do approaching the New Jersey dialect. I just kind of layered the singing with shadings of Frankie Valli that would evoke him.