You are here
Home > Arts > INTERVIEW: Jay Russell and <em>The Girl from the North Country</em>

INTERVIEW: Jay Russell and The Girl from the North Country

Singer-actor-director Jay Russell

Singer-actor-director Jay Russell performs in the new Bob Dylan musical Girl from the North Country, which runs October 10-14 at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis, MN.

Girl from the North Country, a musical with a book by Conor McPherson using the songs of Bob Dylan, opens tomorrow at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis. Named after the eponymous song by Minnesota native Bob Dylan – widely recognized as one of the greatest singer-songwriters of all time – the show unfolds in Duluth, MN in the icy grips of a Great Depression winter.

The Arts Reader’s John Anderson spoke with film, TV, and stage actor Jay Russel, who plays Mr. Perry in the show – and graduated from Minnetonka – about returning to his own Minnesota routes and breaking into other creative roles.

As might be expected in a cold winter in Duluth during the depression, group singing is a major part of the show. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

You grew up and work in a few different parts of the country. What are your Minnesota connections?

I was born in NYC. When I was 12, my dad got a job at Fingerhut, and we moved to Minnetonka. I went to East Junior High and Minnetonka High School. Also went 1/2 day every afternoon to The Children’s Theatre during my junior and senior year in high school. Did shows at the Children’s Theatre, Theatre in the Round, Minnetonka Community Theatre and more.

As a professional actor, I toured thru the Orpheum as Lumiere in Beauty & the Beast, and also did Sir Evelyn in Anything Goes (opposite Sandy Duncan) at the Ordway. Was lucky enough to work at my dream theatre and the one that really made me want to be an actor: the Guthrie. I did End of the Rainbow there, and after the run at the Guthrie, we moved to the Belasco Theatre on Broadway for a commercial run there. My family (mom and sister, niece and nephew) are still here in Minnesota. 

You teach at the American Musical & Dramatic Academy in New York City. What happens to that job when you go on the road on a tour? Do you take a break, meet with students online, or…?

Wow, you’ve done your research.  My degree is a BFA in Acting, so I have no education degree. I was hired at AMDA because of my professional experience, and as we work on a trimester system, when any of us get work, they make it work. (Though it can occasionally be an inconvenience, they actually like for us to stay ‘working professionals.’)

I was able to give them a good deal of notice with Girl from The North Country, so it worked out fine. I still stay in touch with a lot of my former students. Even though they weren’t my students we do have two AMDA graduates in Girl from the North Country. 

In addition to acting, you’ve also done some dramatic writing. Do you have any current writing projects in the works, or making their way out in the world?

I have written on and off since college really. Wrote a lot of short plays and one full length play. The year before the pandemic, I decided to turn one of my short plays into a short film. It’s called RUOK. I wrote it, directed it and produced it. It was both the hardest and more rewarding thing I have ever done.

It [RUOK] had a great success in the film festival circuit and played all across the globe and won many awards. It is now a part of the Boys on Film series- 2020. So it’s available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime and Vimeo. I am extremely proud of it and honestly the success it had really helped me get thru that long period during COVID of not doing anything creative.

As actors in the 21st century, it is essential to do more than just act – I have added many hyphens to my list (actor, writer, director, producer, teacher, etc…), and probably will continue to. I wrote a horror screenplay with a friend during the pandemic and have another feature in my brain floating around but been too busy to get to work on it. Perhaps while I am on the road…?

Todd Almond leads the cast of The Girl from the North Country in a spirited number. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

How do you balance film and TV vs. stage work? Does your agent just send you out to everything, or do you spend periods auditioning for one more than the other? 

Good question. I love the theatre. If there was a way to make a continuous and lucrative career just doing theatre I would probably never stray from it. However, the opportunities on film and tv offer more financial incentive and exposure. Also I have grown to really enjoy doing it and have had some incredible experiences…on Gotham, Ugly Betty, Louie, The Sopranos..on the film Morning Glory with Rachel McAdams and Harrison Ford, and the most recent thing I did which was an indie feature called Queen of Knives, that is making its way thru the festival circuit now and hopefully will get a distribution deal soon. We just premiered at the Soho Film Festival in NY and it was a thrill to see it with a full house there.

My short, RUOK, also played Soho a few years back so was nice to be back there. As far as my agents go, first off – they are amazing! Yeah, DGRW!!! They do send me out for a huge variety of projects – theatre, film, TV, audio plays, etc… and I do love being considered for so many various projects. 

Tell me about the process that led to your being cast in the national tour – when did it begin, what did you do, when did you get the news? 

I first got an audition to put myself on tape, which we call self-tape. Since the pandemic, self-taping is being used for the majority of auditions. We have all had to become experts in lighting, editing etc and now every actor has a ring light, microphone, and backdrop in their apartments. I am also lucky in that my best friend is a master at this, so he has helped me a great deal.

For the first audition, I read the last Mr. Perry scene and sang a song in the style of Bob Dylan. I got a live callback and did the same material but in the room with casting, the associate director, and a few others. Connor McPherson was [also] on Zoom from Dublin.

Then, I got a second callback, which included a movement call with our INCREDIBLE movement coordinator Lucy Hind. I did the scene again, this time with an adjustment from Connor. I really thought I didn’t take the adjustment well, so I thought I blew it, but soon found out I was ‘in the mix”, and about a week later I got the offer. My agents called me on a conference call to give me the news. 

What’s a favorite moment in Girl From The North Country, and why?

That’s a hard one. I love Mr Perry and I love all of his scenes. The first scene with Marianne is so funny and sweet and painfully awkward. And the final speech he has in my last scene with Marianne is so beautifully written and I love doing it.

I love the dancing in “Duquesne Whistle”. I am not a dancer but a good mover and it’s been awhile since I got to do it in a show so really enjoy that. And I also love the whole Thanksgiving scene. There is quite a lot of improvisation in it and we all eat real food. It is very easy to get lost in the scene upstage and miss your cue in the scene downstage so still working hard on balancing that.

I love singing “Forever Young” and “Pressing On” at the end. Exquisite orchestrations and the sound this company makes is like nothing I have ever heard. 

What’s a must-have item in your touring luggage? Why?

Well, I am touring with my cat, James Madison, so there is quite a lot of ‘cat stuff’ in my touring luggage. I toured Wicked with my previous cat, Samantha and she was an incredible traveler. I got James during the pandemic and he is pretty clingy and not sure what kind of traveler he will be. So please pray for us.

Other than that- my individual one cup coffee filter is a must for obvious reasons. And my RUMPL which is a puffy little blanket for naps, etc… Got it from a friend and it’s the first time it is going on tour.

Minneapolis is our first stop so maybe I will have a better idea of what my must-have will be in a few cities. 

John Anderson