As the highly anticipated world premiere production of the Stephen King/John Mellencamp/T-Bone Burnett GHOST BROTHERS OF DARKLAND COUNTY hits its final week at the Alliance Theatre, there’s one thing critics and audiences seem to be able to agree on. Jake La Botz lights the stage on hellfire as The Shape, a supernatural trickster, tempter and Greek Chorus to the Southern Gothic Cain and Abel tale. Arms and chest riddled with tattoos with a slicked back pompadour that conjures images of Jerry Lee “The Killer” Lewis, La Botz looks like the older man your mama warned you to stay away from but who you were certain held the keys to Elvis’s “One Night of Sin.” His untamed bump, grind and sensuosity can’t help to remind one of the scandalous early days of rock ‘n’ roll when church moms sought to ban Elvis and THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW refused to shoot the future King of Rock ‘n’ Roll from the waist down.
All of which makes it a bit of a surprise that GHOST BROTHERS is Jake’s first go at musical theatre. But he’s a veteran musician who often plays tattoo parlors and a character actor in movies ranging from independent cult features like Terry Zwigoff‘s GHOST WORLD to major Hollywood pictures such as RAMBO. His vocals and lyrics reverberate with dark poetry and raw energy. He even sings a song called “The Devil’s Lives in My Throat.” He’s been compared to Tom Waits, Bob Dylan and a “modern day Hank Williams” by Steve Buscemi who has cast him in two of his movies, ANIMAL FACTORY and LONESOME JIM.
ATLRetro recently caught up with Jake to find out more about how he approached the role of The Shape and what’s next for him after the curtain falls on this virgin run on Sunday May 13.
How did you land the role of The Shape and why did you personally want to play the part?
I got an email from Laura Stanczyk, a heavy-hitting New York casting director, a couple of years ago to come in and audition for a show called HARPS AND ANGELS that was set to Randy Newman’s music. At the time I was living in New Orleans, touring as a singer/songwriter, and occasionally acting in films… no background whatsoever in theatre. To this day I have no idea how Laura Stanczyk found me. After flying to New York to meet with Laura, Randy and director Jerry Zaks – and not getting the part – I thought ‘musical theatre… hmmm… what a fluke… but that was interesting.’ Laura must’ve kept me in her mental Rolodex because when GHOST BROTHERS came along, she sent me an email that said “Jake, I have something you are PERFECT for” She was right. I took the job because I wanted to work with an exciting group of people and explore new territory as an actor – both the role and the medium.
Your performance can’t help but remind me of a time when rock n roll was down ‘n’ dirty and just emerging from blues and honkytonk, Elvis Presley was still scandalous with his hip grinds and Johnny Cash wore black. Which musical performers inspired you and why?
Thanks, I’ll take that as a compliment. That was an interesting time in music. It’s almost as if white people were able to touch back into their pre-Christian roots. The stuff Elvis was doing had been done for years by black blues and R ‘n’ B singers before him. Sex and music is primordial – imagine a ‘pagan’ ritual, Greek god Dionysus.
I’m inspired by all the great roots-American music (blues, gospel, field hollers, hillbilly, ragtime, rock ‘n’ roll, soul, etc). My favorite singers are the ones that sound unique and otherworldly: Skip James, Hank Williams, Blind Willie Johnson, Bob Dylan, Tommy Johnson, Howling Wolf. I like to listen to music that sounds like it’s coming directly from “the source,” i.e. not manipulated too much by the entrepreneurial efforts of ego.
Seems like there could be quite a bit of Randall Flag (THE STAND) in The Shape, too—the manipulator, the trickster. Did Steve give you any background reading or direction in how to prep for the part?
No background or prep work from anyone particularly, although the entire cast was asked to watch Tennessee Williams films. The Shape I’m doing now is the same character I created for the audition, though he has filled out quite a bit since then. And I received quite a bit of good suggestions from John Mellencamp, director Susan Booth and choreographer Danny Pelzig along the way.
Your dialogue makes lots of intimations that The Shape might be The Devil. Is he?
Intimations? You mean like riding up from ‘below’ on an elevator? Wearing red? Talking about how I get bad reviews in church?
In the elevator down to the parking garage after the performance, two older blonde yuppie women told me they liked the show overall but that the language didn’t have to be so obscene, i.e. “tone it down.” Why are they wrong?
I’ve heard that a lot. I’m not sure they are wrong.
What was it like working with John Mellencamp and T-Bone Burnett? Did you collaborate with them at all on the music, or was it more just taking what they gave you and bringing the character to life?
What an honor to work with both of them. The direction I was given was to take the songs and make them my own… make them like The Shape. I’ve enjoyed doing that. I’m playing two of T-Bone’s guitars in the show… how cool is that?!?!
There’s no telling at this point about the future of the show or the cast. I haven’t heard anything confirmed. Of course, I would love to be part of this if it goes to Broadway.
Have you had a chance to get out on the town at all while you’ve been in Atlanta? Any favorite hangout or local musician?
What’s next for you after GHOST BROTHERS? I saw something on your Website about a European tour and we’ll be seeing you onscreen in a new movie version of Jack Kerouac’s ON THE ROAD (Directed by Walter Salles; Starring Kristen Stewart, Viggo Mortensen) and in ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER?
From here I head to Cannes for the premiere of ON THE ROAD, followed by a European tour. Then back to NYC to look for a job! Yeah, both movies [are] coming out this year.