Native New Yorker Joshua Bitton reprises the role of Calvin in Rob Mersola’s hit comedy Backseats And Bathroom Stalls, reopening this weekend at the Lyric Hyperion Theatre.  The Rutgers University MFA grad has appeared off-Broadway in The Crumple Zone and Romeo And Juliet, in addition to Los Angeles starring roles in Loot (at A Noise Within) and Of Mice And Men (at the Pasadena Playhouse).   With his shot-in-Australia HBO mini-series The Pacific set to be televised later this year and Backseats about to reopen, the busy young actor still found time to sit down and answer our questions about being a working actor in Los Angeles.

Josh, you grew up in New York City.  Were you exposed to theater at a young age? 

New York is amazing for that.  The arts are everywhere, and my mom was a big fan. We went to museums, concerts, and theater. The first play I ever saw was Peter Pan on Broadway starring Sandy Duncan. I was six. We sat in the first mezzanine, and I remember her soaring over the crowd, and my mom had to hold me in my seat, because I wanted to jump up and catch her. Years later, Sandy Duncan heard the story and came to see me in my off-Broadway debut in The Crumple Zone.  Because of my Mom, I got to see some amazing productions growing up. Bill Irwin’s Largely New York blew my mind.  Every summer my friends and I would camp out in Central Park, then go see all the shows at the Delacorte. 

So was this early exposure the reason you decided to become an actor?

It was an amazing education, but that exposure isn’t what really made me decide to do this.

What was the catalyst, then? 

While I was an undergrad at SUNY Albany, I took an acting class at the urging of my best friend.  We were doing these “open” or “content-less” scenes with ten to twenty lines.  We were told to memorize the dialogue, which was like A: Oh B: Oh  A: It’s you  B: Yes it is etc…, and show up to class.  I was working with this girl who I barely knew, and the teacher gave us a circumstance—we were a couple, we had a fight the previous night, I stayed out all night, and now it’s the next morning. We started the scene, and when we got to the end of the given dialog, our teacher whispered to keep going. That’s when lightning struck.  I had no idea where I was. All I knew was this woman in front of me. We improvised for a few minutes and were just about to kiss when the class started applauding.  It was shocking!  I was so…lost.  I was so lost in the moment, lost in her, and had no idea anyone else was watching. I was hooked. Sorry Grandma.   No law school for me…

What a great inspiration for becoming a performer! I notice that you got your MFA at Rutgers University. I’m always curious about what makes a successful working actor decide that a BA in Theater isn’t enough.  Would you care to fill me in?

When I was ready to graduate from Albany, my mentor there, Bill Leone, recommended I look into an MFA.  I trusted him so I went for it. My personal reason was simple. I had no idea how the business worked and I figured a good masters program would usher me right into the professional world.  Then Bill Esper offered me a slot at Rutgers.  I went, knowing they were a top-ranked school.  When I got there my eyes were opened.  Now I knew why I was there—to actually learn how to act. I was surrounded by remarkably talented actors.  The training was massively intensive—acting, voice, speech, movement, text analysis, Shakespeare, etc… Classes from 9:00 to 5:00 every day, then a two hour break for dinner, and then rehearsal for the show you were in from 7:00 to 11:00.  On Saturdays we’d rehearse from 10:00 am to 8:00 pm with a two hour dinner break. And one day a week we would have “off”—which was really spent rehearsing with our various scene partners—acting class, Shakespeare, etc.—constant rehearsals with partners, directors for their scene work—it was total immersion. What I got in undergrad was a base, but Rutgers provided me with true technique. The Meisner work that Bill teaches completely opened me up, taught me to live in the moment every moment.  The Michael Chekhov work Lenard Petit taught was imaginative and expansive. Our voice and speech teachers got rid of my lisp, helped me find my voice, and movement released years of tension.  It was grueling, but inspirational, and the education and relationships I left with were life changing.

You did a lot of theater in New York.  Can you talk a little about that and about what made you decide to relocate to Los Angeles?

Working in theater in New York City is an amazing experience.  The community thrives, and is remarkably tight knit. The first play I did was the Crumple Zone, opposite Mario Cantone . We ran for nearly 6 months, and it was so much fun.  The other thing that is so great about New York is that almost every regional theater casts out of the New York acting pool. I was able to work all over the country doing an amazing variety of plays. I thought I would never leave when a very unique opportunity appeared.  

What was that?

A friend of mine had an audition for the movie 8 Mile. He needed someone to read with him at the audition. I went, and read with him and ended up reading with two other actors who didn’t bring their own readers. The casting director—Mali Finn, who has since passed, and was the best at what she did—asked me to be a reader at the callbacks, where I met the director, Curtis Hanson.  He asked me to fly to Detroit to play Eminem’s role for the screen tests. I got to Detroit, read with some actors, while Curtis and Em watched.  Afterwards we sat down and worked on some of the scenes for a few hours.  Em asked me for some thoughts and ideas. We worked on a few things, and then he screen tested the other actors. I guess they liked the way Em and I vibed, because I wound up staying on the film as his coach for the next four and a half months. After that, LA seemed to be the next move. I had friends out here, and some confidence that I could work out here.

So the very good notices Eminem got for the movie are due to you!  That’s something for the cinema history books!  Moving on to your stage work in L.A., one of the things that most impresses me about your work is how you transform yourself totally for each role.  Take for example the first role I saw you in, as Hal, the bisexual wood-be bank robber in Joe Orton’s Loot at  A Noise Within. What drew you to that part and what’s special about doing an Orton farce?

Ahhh, Hal! Man that was fun.  I got to work opposite this Brit named Joseph Rye, and we just had a blast! What a fun place to work.  I loved the seediness of Orton. His irreverence. Hal was fun, because he was like a puppy—he would play with whatever was in front of him, completely innocent in his twisted, sociopathic way. The thing about doing Orton is—it moves. His plays have such a distinct rhythm, and if you catch it, the humor takes care of itself.  You simply let go and just play off the other actors, because Orton was so smart, he did all the work for you.

Josh (on the floor) in Of Mice And Men and with onstage wife Madison Dunaway and Madison’s pooch Darcie

Then you did, in StageSceneLA’s words, “scarily effective” work in the Pasadena Playhouse production of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice And Men, playing Curley, the mean, short-tempered boss’s son who keeps his left hand inside a Vaseline-filled glove, supposedly to keep the hand soft for caressing his beautiful young wife.  How did you go about playing such a strangely warped character?

Curley was all about need. I needed respect, I needed to be feared, and I needed that damn woman to stop flirting with all the other men on the farm and show me love.  In the novel, Steinbeck made it so clear. The fact that Curley finished 2nd in the Golden Gloves tells you two things—1. the guy can fight and 2. he didn’t win—and I think that always made him insecure about who and what he was. Curley picks a fight with Lenny because he is sure he can win—beat up the big guy, and the rest just fall into place.  Again, it goes back to need—the need for dominance.  As I went about building the part, I just started to open myself to anything that I could perceive as a possible threat. After a while everything just started to bother me.  I had no trust, and I was perpetually touchy.  Just ask Zarah… 

Josh and girlfriend, actress Zarah Mahler 

Fortunately, the play closed and you could get back to being yourself. And now, most recently, you appeared as hopelessly romantic gay boy Calvin in Rob Mersola’s Backseats and Bathroom Stalls, the most hilarious new comedy I’ve seen in ages, a role which you’re about to reopen. What I loved about your work was that you played a “non-straight-acting” gay character believably and at the same time never allowed the stereotype to cross over the line into caricature.  Talk a bit about the process of creating Calvin.

Calvin scared the heck out of me.  It wasn’t a role that was in my wheelhouse, so to speak.  Rob originally played the role in New York—and was brilliant—and here he was directing me in it. Luckily we are very close—we roomed together at Rutgers—so that made it easier.  We trust each other.  The beginning was similar to Curley—as crazy as that sounds—need.  Calvin needed love, desperately.  So that was where I started.  Once that was in place, the character work came. Rob came to me in the middle of a rehearsal and said “time to ‘Gay it up!’”  With his blessing, I just went for it, and tried not to “apologize” for my choices. Then we layered in the drunk—because Calvin is a drunk! Rob wanted the fall down drunk, who doesn’t really care if you know he’s hammered or not—and that was ridiculously fun!

Knowing how you created the character makes me even more excited about seeing it again in March!  So … what makes an actor who’s worked in large, hopefully well-paying Equity theaters not only decide to take on a Waiver production but go back and do it again for the extension?

Well, first and foremost, I love to act. I’m a better human being to be around when I’m doing it. So, if there is a great part, with a great cast, and I’m free—why not?! If I was doing this solely for the money, I wouldn’t be doing this.  Of course it’s amazing to get paid a livable wage as an actor, but there is something to be said about doing something yourself. Everyone in this cast is like family to me.  We all either grew up together, trained together, or have been friends for ages. 

Wow! I didn’t know that.  

Given those relationships and Rob’s script—it was a no-brainer.  Rob’s script had been optioned for a film, but spent years in development hell. One day Rob and I were talking, and I said—take the option back and we’ll do the play. Well he did. Anil had been lobbying all of us to produce this play ever since we moved to LA.  All of a sudden the pieces were in place, so… As for remounting,  we love doing the show, and people seem to enjoy it, so we figured—why not?  Let’s do it again and see if we can really build something here.

What’s your favorite thing about Backseats And Bathroom Stalls?  

It is so smart.  I feel like it is such a “well made play.”  Everything works, the set-ups are clear, the characters well drawn, and the situations—as sordid and dirty as they are, are all things that people can relate to.  I love the fact that it’s gay, straight, and bisexual, that’s it’s dirty and raw but also sweet.  And the cast. Those people are so amazing. Jeni is so fierce, Sadie such a kook, Anil is wild and insane, Danny is so strong, Michael so smooth—and all so god damned talented.  Every performance is a party for us, seriously.  We love it.

You also seem to have worked quite steadily in film and TV.  Do you consider yourself primarily a stage or film actor?  Which gives you the most satisfaction?

That is hard to say. First of all—I just want a job!  It’s hard to get work, so I consider myself lucky to work in any of the mediums. I love the stage—the energy of the people right there, it’s so reciprocal.  You know when it’s working and when it’s not. Also, the chance to live through a performance from beginning to end is a thrill.  But, I do have to admit I’ve had some pretty great experiences on some sets that have made me start to wonder.  It sounds so generic to say, but I love it all. 


I understand that you spent some time down in Australia working on The Pacific, a 10-part miniseries from the creators of Band Of Brothers.  How long were you in Australia?

I was in Australia for about 6 months. 

What was the experience of living and filming there like?

It was the single greatest experience of my life.  Starting with our nearly two-week boot camp, and then working through shooting, it was a living dream. The people I worked with have become my second family. The material was so rich, and so meaningful—who gets to do that?!  And to do it all in Australia—what a beautiful place.  We started shooting in Port Douglas, which is in the Daintree Rainforest, on the coast of the Great Barrier Reef.  I learned to scuba dive there, took tours through the rain forest.  Zarah came out twice—we went to Fiji, spent a week in Sydney, then finished with two weeks in New Zealand. It was mind-blowing. We finished shooting in Melbourne—a city I could see myself living in—great food, great people, art everywhere…I could go on about this for hours.  

StageSceneLA is also interviewing your beautiful and talented girlfriend Zarah Mahler.  How did you meet? 

We met in an acting class. She was just the most talented actor, and that is one hell of a turn on. We actually got together right after I booked the Pacific. We knew I would be going but we couldn’t really turn away from what we felt….

Is there any play you think would be perfect for both of you?

If I could sing (which I can’t—not a lick) I’d love to do The Last Five Years—she has to play that role. I would love to do Henry IV with her—Hotspur and Lady Percy, that would be fun or Ballyhoo.  I think Burn This would be fun to do with her, in a few years.  I don’t know. We’ve never done anything together, any of it would be a blast. 

One last question—any desire to direct?

Yeah.  I’ve directed a bit. The first thing I ever did in LA was direct a play at the old Theater/Theater called Stranger written by Brett Pearsons, and starring Jeni Hennigan.  We did really well, critically. However opening night was the most torturous event ever.  I never experienced anything like it. You rehearse for weeks, then all of a sudden—it’s gone. It’s theirs, and you’re just a spectator—that was tough.  Since then I’ve directed two other plays, and I wouldn’t mind doing it again….we’ll see.

Thanks Josh for taking the time to answer our questions! We hope that your audiences for Backseats And Bathroom Stalls Redux is even bigger and more enthusiastic the second time!

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