Claybourne Elder, who is currently starring as the hilarious flight attendant “Andy” in the Sondheim hit Broadway revival of COMPANY, wows us with his musical and acting talents! His love for music started with the violin and evolved to singing in time until he made a full career out of it. Having grown up in Utah, there wasn’t much opportunity for “full-time artists” but that did not stop him! Music is part of who he is and we can’t wait to see and hear what Claybourne has in store for us!
You act and sing! Tell us more about what each role fulfills in your life.
My first love of music was actually for the violin! I studied the violin for 8 years – my grandfather played and so did his father. But I was never really great at it, even though I still love to play now. I started singing when I was in high school and I found that it was a lot like playing the violin, the same sort of expression through a melody but with words to highlight the meaning. That’s what I love about singing now: the emotions are too great to just speak so you have to sing what you want to say. As for acting, I fell in love with it from an early age. I’m the youngest of 8 and about half of my siblings studied psychology, so I think the inspection of human behavior was always something present in my life.
Have you always wanted to pursue a career in the arts? Explain.
I always wanted to pursue a career in the arts but I’m not sure I thought it was possible when I was a kid. I grew up in Utah and I didn’t know anyone who was a full-time professional artist – TV and Broadway actors seemed almost mythical to me. It seemed so far from possible that I would actually get to do it, and I didn’t have anyone to tell me how to “make it.” When I was 14 I started calling all the community theatres in my area and made my mom start driving me to auditions. My parents have always been hugely supportive and spent so many hours driving me to and from rehearsal when I was a kid. My mom taught photography at my high school and my dad built houses – they both did something they love so when they saw how much I loved acting, I don’t think they questioned whether or not I should give it a try.
Going into the business, what did you expect? How have you expectations changed/evolved?
I decided to study acting in college, and boy did I study haha. I went to 4 different colleges and then studied acting in Russia before I got my undergrad. I joke that I was trying to get a diverse education in acting, though the truth is probably more that I was floundering with who I was, who I wanted to be, and where I wanted to end up. Growing up gay and Mormon was conflicting and took some years for me to figure out. After I finished college I spent most of a year backpacking around southeast Asia and doing some heart searching. I decided that I was going to move to New York and give it a year. I didn’t know many people in the city, but I found an apartment and I started pounding the pavement. I was going to 2-3 auditions a day sometimes and after about 7 months things started to happen.
I think that because I thought the possibility of me succeeding as an actor was so small, I learned to celebrate little wins and realized that the attention from big wins is fleeting. To me, the most important thing about having a career in the arts is buoyancy. You have to ride the ups and downs without letting it get to you. It’s why I never read any reviews: if you read something positive then you will only focus on that one aspect of your performance and if you read something bad then you will always remember that one bad thing. It’s better to just decide for yourself that you’re doing a good job. It took me a long time to figure that out.
What is it like going from Broadway to TV? Do you prep for your roles the same way or have different routines based on the type of performance?
Broadway and TV/Film acting is the same and completely different. That’s confusing haha. At the heart of it, my process is the same: I like to research and explore the background of the character and then explore the text. But in TV/film there’s no rehearsal, so you have to show up on set with your ideas and be able to throw them out and look at things in a different way depending on what the other actors are doing and what the director suggests. Since music is such a big part of my life, I like to make a playlist for each character I’m playing. It helps to get me in the right mindset very quickly.
Growing up, what role did music play in your family?
Music is a huge part of my family, though there aren’t many musicians in my family. But we really loved music. And all kinds of music really. I remember when my grandmother died we inherited all her records and my brother and I would come home and play Edith Piaf on the record player after school on many days. My dad’s family played country music – my uncle who is in his 90’s still is the lead of a Hank Williams tribute band that plays at bars! He’s awesome. My mom loved Joni Mitchell, my sister loved Tracy Chapman and Paul Simon – there was a big variety of musical influences coming my way. But you know what there wasn’t? There wasn’t ANY musical theatre haha. No one in my family was really into it, in fact none of them are particularly excited about coming to see me in Broadway shows because they really don’t like Broadway shows haha. I mean, they’re very excited for me and supportive, but they don’t really love the material.
But like I said, I grew up playing the violin and studying music. And like anyone who grows up to love something, I had an amazing violin teacher. She really taught me to love music.
Tell us more about your current projects and what each of them mean to you.
I feel incredibly lucky to be employed at all right now when so many artists and actors are still struggling to come back from the pandemic. And to be working on two projects that mean so much to me makes me feel like the luckiest guy in the world. I mean, for me it might not get any better than this. I’m working on a Broadway show, Company, by my favorite writer – Stephen Sondheim – and directed by someone I have hugely admired – Marianne Elliot, and getting ready to film the second season of Gilded Age for HBO when I was such a fan of Downton Abbey. That said, I can’t emphasize enough that for most people I work with, this time has been filled with more uncertainty than ever in a business that is already pretty uncertain.
A few months ago, just after Company opened on Broadway, I got COVID and was out of the show for 10 days. It was hard to be away after waiting for 2 years to get to do it, but I had a mild case and recovered very quickly. When I was coming back to the show I decided that I would buy two tickets and give them away on Instagram, just to pay it forward and because I was excited to finally be back in the show. The act was inspired by something that happened to me when I was visiting New York before I decided to move here. I had come to town to see as many shows as I could and I was getting standing room and rush tickets because that’s all I could afford. After seeing a show in the standing room, someone walked up to me after and said “You look like you were enjoying the show more than the people in the expensive seats. Here’s $200, go buy yourself a ticket to Sweeney Todd, it will change your life.” I was shocked and maybe a little confused by the generosity in this big city that I was sort of afraid of. I asked the man if I could take a picture with him, though we never exchanged names or anything. Just a stranger doing something nice for someone. So cut back to me being out of the show – I posted the picture with the man and said that I was giving away tickets and two amazing things happened: First, people started sending me money to buy more tickets for people who couldn’t afford a ticket to a Broadway show. And second, a friend of mine from The Gilded Age, Doug Sills, called me up and said “I know that guy.” So 15 years after he handed me that money and walked away, I got to call him up and say “You bought me a ticket to see Patti Lupone on Broadway and now I’m starring on Broadway in a show with her.” It was incredibly moving – I mean, the thing about a random act of kindness is that you never get to thank the person for what they did. And I got to thank him. We still text a lot and he’s going to come out and see the show soon. In addition, the ticket giveaway has turned into an initiative that has welcomed over 450 people to the show for free and raised over 25k. I’m still giving away tickets and I will as long as donations keep coming in – I’m now working with organizations like Black Theatre Coalition and the Arthur Miller Foundation to offer the tickets to more people. At a time when I have a few projects that I love going on, that’s the project that I’m most excited about.
What would you say is your “ultimate goal”?
This is going to sound a little cheesy, but I think right now my ultimate goal is to be a good dad. I think about it a lot. My son is 4 and is just a little sponge right now – watching the way he takes in the world and learns is astonishing. Raising a kid and working in the theatre is tough, and there aren’t a lot of gay dads surprisingly. My contract on this show is for a year, so I miss bedtime almost every day. So I have to really spend quality time with him when I can and I try hard to really focus on our time together.
From a career perspective, there are lots of things that I would like to do. But I just want to keep working. That’s what I really want. My dad said to me when I was starting out “Just do the best that you can do. And as long as you do, you’ll always have a job.”
You also happen to be quite the handy-man…What inspired you to renovate a house throughout the pandemic?
My dad is a contractor – he’s almost 90 and he still works because he loves it haha. So I learned how to build things from him. My husband and I bought a house upstate in the fall of 2019 and when the pandemic hit we retreated up there. There was a lot of work we wanted to do on the house and I wanted to do it myself – but we thought we would do it over a few years. When I suddenly found myself with nothing to do, I started making a list of projects. I started small: painting and stripping wallpaper. One thing led to another and I was tearing out bathrooms, ceilings, floors…I’m proud of how it turned out and all the personal touches I was able to add because I was doing it myself. I have two favorite projects that I really love: For the guest bathroom, I found a historic map on the county website that included the property we live on. I found a company to turn the picture into wallpaper, Murals Your Way, and put it up on the walls. It speaks to the history of the area and the whole style of the house. The other is that I found an old radio from the 1920s at the dump when I was dropping some things off. I took it home, restored it, put a sink on the top of it and now it’s the vanity in our bathroom. I still have a lot of projects on this house, but we’re already eyeing other houses that I could fix up.
Favorite part of having complete control over how your home would look?
Architectural Digest did a feature on the house and the renovation I did and when they called I said “my house isn’t perfect!” I think of Architectural Digest as being perfect, beautiful and finished homes. But what I love about the house is that in every corner there is a story of how I made those ceilings and fixed that wall, stories that I will get to share with my son about making that house a home.
What would you consider a true dream come true?
Is it possible for me to think that my dreams have already come true and to simultaneously have a million dreams I want to come true? I’m going to say it is haha. I have a lot of things I dream about, but let me just think of one….ok, how about this one: I would like to take a year off sometime in the future and just travel with my husband and son. I lived France, Russia and China at different times in my life and I would love to take them back to the places I lived. That and I would wish for unlimited wishes. And a pony.
Photos by Matthew Priestley
Interview by Alexandra Bonnet