Michael Cerveris has a home in New York and mostly works there, but his bona fides as a New Orleans local are strong. He owns a yellow-and-turquoise painted house in Tremé, for which he sought Vodou priestess Sallie Ann Glassman’s help in injecting some good juju; he’s a frequent musical collaborator of Paul Sanchez; and he’s a Saints fan – predating the bandwagon era – who calls Steve Gleason a friend.
Many know him for his roles on TV’s “The Good Wife,” “Fringe” and “Treme,” but he’s a stage star, making his Broadway debut in The Who’s Tommy in 1993 and earning Tony Award nominations for that role and for those in Sweeney Todd and Assassins, winning the award for the latter. Recently he played Juan Peron in the revival of Evita.
Cerveris can be a haunting presence on stage and screen, making him perfect for those formidable roles. But when I meet him in a coffee shop in his neighborhood, not long after a trip to South Carolina for a concert performance of the off-Broadway musical Fun Home and stint filming “The Good Wife” in New York, he’s casual and friendly – like a typical New Orleans guy.
What first brought you down here? I had all these friends over the years who would say, “You really have to go to New Orleans. It’s really your kind of city.” And then it was a movie, Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant, that shot here and that was what brought me down in 2007. They put me up in a hotel at first, and it was just off Canal Street … I was calling my friends and saying “You know, I don’t really see why you think this is such a great city for me, because to me it looks like a slightly more interesting frat party.” I decided I didn’t want to live in a hotel for three months of shooting, so I just started going on Craigslist and looking for a place. Then I found this place on Carrollton and Claiborne … I was also reading One Dead in Attic at the time, and I was kind of living sort of near where (Chris Rose) was from and where he came back to, so it sort of made the whole experience of the storm and flood more tangible and concrete. I felt like if I had been here then, with my background and frames of references and stuff, I imagine my experience would have been somewhat like Chris Rose’s. I started looking for a place then. I found a place and was all set to commit to it and realized “I can’t actually afford this.” Which maybe I should have thought of at first. Instead I just came down here all the time. I have so many friends here, and everyone has a guest room.
I still had a goal of actually having a stake in a place. Then Evita came up a couple years ago and I was sort of on the fence about whether I wanted to commit to doing it, and my girlfriend at the time said “You need to do this because this will be the kind of job that will give you money to put away to actually be able to buy a house.” There were other reasons, too, but secretly my real reason for taking that job was a house in New Orleans. I think of my place as the house that Evita built.
I like being part of a community. I know my neighbors here and I’ve been in the house since January; I’ve lived in my place in New York for like 17 years and I barely know my neighbors in my apartment building.
Do you like lifestyle of living one place and working in others and traveling a lot? Pretty quickly after I bought the place I had that buyers’ remorse moment of, “What am I doing? Why am I making a home in a place where I have to fly for two hours (to get to New York)” But then I thought that people have homes out on Long Island or Upstate (New York) that they have to drive four hours to, and then they’re only there – I spend two and a half hours and I’m in New Orleans.
There are great things about it and difficult things. The great things are: I realize even when I’m not able to be here, when I’m up in New York working, just knowing that it’s there, it makes me happy and relaxed. (New Orleans) is so not about career ambitions, it’s about life and friendships and being a part of a community … it’s kind of the best of both worlds. When you want a little more activity or a little more speed or a little more excitement, (New York) is there, but it’s not as exhausting because it’s not your whole life.
From your perspective and the experiences of your friends, do you think New Orleans is a good place for an artist to live? Many artists here get to the point where they feel like they need to move to New York City or Los Angeles. My immediate answer is yes, absolutely. Because all you have to do is look around. You see visual art, music, culinary arts and just the art of living in every place here, and it doesn’t feel like it’s reserved for specific places like it is in some cities.
In the time that I’ve been here I’ve seen so many young people especially come out of training programs in theater and recognized or discovered that New Orleans is a kind of wide open place where the cost of living is much different from New York or L.A., there is more availability of space … it’s just a gentler place to try and create. There’s more support for the idea of being a greater person. When the whole city turns into a massive performance art piece for Mardi Gras, you know it’s a good place for the arts.
However, it’s a great place to start things like that – and I guess I’m thinking mostly of theater and performance art. As a musician you can gig and make a living, but you have to work hard and wear yourself out. I’m starting to see lot of the people who came down here straight out of school, now it’s seven years or so since they came here, and they sort of run up against this ceiling here and now they’re thinking about things like, maybe I don’t want to have my creative thing not be able to support me, to have to have another job, even though I’ve been doing this for seven years.
True confession: I’m a devoted watcher of “Nashville.”
At a Glance
Age: “Old enough to know better, but don ’t” Profession: act or/musician Born/raised: West Virginia Resides: Tremé, New Orleans/New York City Ed ucation: Yale Uni versity Favorite movie: Wim Wend ers’ Wings of Desire Favorite TV show: “Friday Night Lights” Favorite band/musician: Bi g Star, Drive By Truckers, Townes Van Zandt Favorite restaurant: Lilette Favorite food: Liuzza’s barbecue shrimp poor boy Favorite book: James Agee’s Le t Us Now Praise Famous Men Favorite vacation spot: “A porch swing”