Music

Tony Winner Will Brill on Thanking His Therapist and Becoming a Bassist for ‘Stereophonic’

When Will Brill got home after winning his first Tony award, he was a little, well….spooked. “I was in bed and somebody texted me like, ‘How are you feeling?’” Brill recalls. “And I was suddenly hit with like, There’s a Tony in this house. It can’t be seen. It is lurking! So weird.”

A week after winning best featured actor in a play for his performance in Stereophonic, Brill admits it still “feels a little weird.” His portrayal of Reg – the hilarious, endearing, and often frighteningly coke-and-booze-addled bass player in Stereophonic’s fictional 1970s rock band on the verge of mega stardom – made Brill the only cast member from the most-Tony-nominated-ever play to bring home hardware. But on Tony night, Brill made sure to give his full cast its due: in his delightfully off-the-cuff acceptance speech, he asked all his castmates to stand up for an ovation (he also, memorably, thanked his therapist).

Like his fellow Stereophonic cast members, Brill wasn’t an experienced, trained musician before joining the ensemble. But acquiring the skill to convincingly play one onstage (and perform the play’s Tony-nominated score by Will Butler there) was the kind of deep-dive experience Brill has long relished as an actor: His wide-ranging roles have included Dr. Astrov, in the hyper-intimate off-Broadway production of Uncle Vanya that took place in a private New York loft last year, as well as Roy Cohn in Showtime’s miniseries Fellow Travelers, and the peddler Ali Hakim in the 2019 Broadway reimagining of Oklahoma!.

As Stereophonic continues its run on Broadway through Jan. 5, 2025, Brill spoke to Billboard about adding Reg to that list, as well as about his action-packed Tony night.

Have you started to come to terms with cohabitating with your Tony?

Sort of… I mean, people keep like asking, “Where are you going to put it?” I don’t know…. wherever it…looks good? Wherever it fits? Like, I had to put my bike in this one corner because that’s where it fit. I don’t have a lot of art in my house, and now I have this thing I’m like, obligated to display.

You have to put it somewhere unexpected, like the bathroom.

Totally. My idea, which I believe is a step too far, was to put it in the toilet. So it’s really a surprise to anybody who is using the bathroom. I have a buddy who keeps his in the fridge. And I heard that Ian McKellen keeps his many awards on his roof so that they can “rest.” I don’t know what that means, but that’s allegedly what he does.

Before we discuss anything else, I need the story of your ensemble for Tonys night: the pleats, the jewelry… it was a look!

I was working with a stylist, Savannah White, and we had bounced around a lot of ideas of stores and designers and we were largely on the same page: Vivienne Westwood, Thom Browne, Commes des Garcons, and Issey Miyake, who I didn’t really know of until he passed. I just saw an article about him and started Googling him and was really moved by his aesthetic.

So then Savannah came back with the two looks [of Miyake’s] that I wound up wearing. I was like, “Oh my God, this is so unlike anything I’ve seen, and I have to imagine it’s going to be totally unlike what anybody else is going to be wearing.” I wanted to be wearing something that wasn’t following a gender binary, and I feel like Issey’s stuff hangs on any human body beautifully. I felt really lucky that we sort of nailed it. Everything was sort of flowy and weird and off-kilter — and few straight lines except for the pleats themselves. It was really a fun fit.

Will Brill accepts the Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Play award for
Will Brill accepts the Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Play award for Stereophonic onstage during The 77th Annual Tony Awards at David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center on June 16, 2024 in New York City.

Your speech was iconic, to say the least. When you thanked your therapist, it became one of the most-memed moments of the night. How did you hear about that?

My PR person came up to me and was like, “The internet loved your speech.” And I was like, “Oh, that’s so nice. I just assumed that it was like, either the internet loves your speech or hates your speech — I had no idea that me shouting out my therapist was going to be any kind of a big deal or that shouting out the rest of my cast, for that matter, was going to be a big deal too. But they both sort of showed up everywhere. I got a really sweet text from my therapist that at first was all caps, “HOLY S–T, YOU WON! F–K YEAH!” And then, two minutes later, “Oh my God Will, this is so sweet,” which really made me happy.

You also gave a shoutout to your bass teacher. What was the process of learning the instrument like for you? You really get the physicality and personality of a bass player down, as well as the technical aspects, which seems uniquely challenging.

It was really important for me to look authentic. I had experience learning an instrument for a [project] before — I learned to play 12 songs on the guitar for this David Chase film Not Fade Away, and that’s actually where I met Robbie Mangano, who was in The Grandmothers of Invention and is an astonishing guitar and bass player. He taught me and Jack Huston how to play guitar for the movie.

But it was a different thing; we really just needed to look like we were playing the songs, which were pre-recorded by essentially the E Street Band. We didn’t actually have to play for sound, we just had to look like we knew what we were doing, and there were all sorts of ways to cut around the fact that we didn’t know what we were doing.

So for this show, I called Robbie to help me learn the bass. But Robbie was also weirdly at the intersection of my life where I started to think about sobriety, which is like another huge part of Reg. I got really drunk at a show of Robbie’s, and he wrote me this two-page letter, where he was like, “I’ve seen too many talented people not have the life that they should because they got caught up with drugs and alcohol, and I really believe in you and I count you as a friend and I hope that that would not be something that happened to you.”

At the time I couldn’t hear it, and I actually wound up not talking to him for several years because I was so embarrassed. Years and years later, I got a divorce and then I got sober and then [Stereophonic] came back around. So by the time I called Robbie to start learning the bass again, I was two years sober and got to tell him that he was a big part of that. And he wound up saying to me, “Wow, that’s crazy. I am recently sober too.” It was really crazy and moving. So he’s been a very special touchstone in my life.

Great bass players especially seem to have this innate comfort in your own skin. Was that natural for you to achieve or more of a journey?

It was a journey, for sure. But what was cool was, when I was a little kid, I thought I was going to be a magician. I would practice card tricks alone in my room for literally 12 hours a day. I didn’t pursue magic because it was too scary to perform in front of people these things that required incredible dexterity. But when I started learning the bass, it triggered this long dormant part of my brain, which was like the joy of doing something dexterous 1000 times alone in your bedroom and losing sleep over it and trying to perfect this one thing and getting closer and closer. So I really felt like I was practicing magic again.

You and your castmates opened for Will Butler at his own actual album release show just a few weeks after previews for Stereophonic started. What was that like?

It was insane. A lot of people took videos with their phones and sent them to me afterward, and I was so embarrassed at how stiff and terrible I was that I was like, “Okay, you don’t have to just get good at the bass, you have to look amazing, you have to be able to dance and play the bass at the same time.” It still never feels like it’s easy, but it’s cool to have audiences come now and say that it looks like it’s easy, because that’s sort of the goal.

Stereophonic, Will Brill
From left: Tom Pecinka, Will Brill and Sarah Pidgeon in Stereophonic.

Were there particular bass players who were models for your portrayal of Reg?

I definitely watched videos of John McVie playing. Will Butler is the only frontman I can think of off the top of my head who also plays bass, and he is so dance-y in his shows — he’s so free, he’s a true wild man on stage, and he was really a big source of inspiration.

I went to see Muna recently, and the band that opened for them [Nova Twins], it was these two British girls playing kind of hardcore music and dressed up sort of like punk-style Raggedy Ann. The bassist would jump around and run around the stage, and I remember thinking like, “I want to get close to that and I want to have that freedom of movement.” Other than that, learning the instrument was so hard and learning the play was so hard that there was not really a lot of room outside your imagination to do extra research.

This seems like such a lightning in a bottle kind of experience for all of you. Has it in any fundamental ways changed what you want from the work you do going forward?

Yeah, for sure — but I think every role I play, to a certain extent, is a reassessment of what I want to do going forward. The ultimate thing that I love about performing and exploring characters is exploring the different the levels of myself that I don’t know completely or understand and by extrapolation exploring the human condition more and more deeply.

I was just talking about this in therapy today, actually. Like, I’m constantly straddling a line: Am I doing justice to myself and the role that I’m playing by putting in an amount of effort that actually does meaningful excavation for myself and for the people coming? Or should I be resting a little bit more, and can the process be easier and more joyful?

I would say the peddler in Oklahoma! was a more joyful than difficult experience for me; probably A Case For The Existence of God was too and probably Fellow Travelers was a little more joyful than it was difficult. And then Uncle Vanya and this have both really ridden on the cusp of joy and difficulty. They have been the most challenging experiences of my life, but also deeply, deeply gratifying.

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