Ethan Slater was a sophomore at Vassar when he took the train from Poughkeepsie for a casting call that would change everything, and he was on the train back when he got the word. “Oh, man, I must’ve left my backpack in the room,” he thought.
Now 26, Slater, in his Broadway debut as the title invertebrate of SpongeBob SquarePants – The Broadway Musical, has been Tony-nominated in the Best Performance By A Leading Actor in a Musical category. He’s been with the show since its first workshops, through a 2016 Chicago premiere and onto the stage of New York’s Palace Theater. He thinks director Tina Landau might have noticed a certain natural optimism in his character, something that all but shouted SpongeBob, but whatever combination of exuberance and talent she saw hasn’t gone unnoticed by critics and audiences.
Here, Slater talks about his life-changing gig, how he transforms himself into a cartoon character (no foam rubber, thank you), and a future after Bikini Bottom.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Deadline: I just saw you on The View. You’re everywhere. How are you holding up?
Ethan Slater: It’s definitely a lot, but everything I’m doing is really fun, and I’m getting to meet some pretty amazing people. Each event is pretty exciting, not to mention the fact that I’m still doing the show every night, and that’s a great touchstone. I love doing the show, and I love the cast and the crew backstage. Getting to do the show and be with people that I like spending my time with makes everything a whole lot easier.
Deadline: With all the Tony Award-related appearances, there must be a sense of a little community…
Slater: It’s super cool. I went to the Theatre World Awards yesterday, which are for Broadway debuts, and Lauren Ridloff – she was the star of Children of a Lesser God – said that these faces that were once strangers’ faces that we’d only seen from afar now feel like family. James McArdle [Angels in America] made a joke about how it feels like we’re living in this weird sort of dream where Glenda Jackson always happens to be there. I did a little radio interview, and Laurie Metcalf went right before me and [SpongeBob co-star] Gavin Lee, and I never thought that I would have the opportunity to like look over and have Laurie Metcalf be like, Hi, Ethan, and I was like, Hi, Laurie, how are you?
Deadline: You’re probably sick of going through this, but tell me again how you got this job.
Slater: Well, I am really fortunate because I’ve been working on this since day one of casting calls, which was six years ago. I was a sophomore in college and sort of lucked into this audition. I didn’t have an agent or a manager. I was not in a union or anything like that. I just happened upon this audition for The Untitled Tina Landau Project. They knew Kyle [Jarrow] was going to write the book, but he hadn’t written anything yet, and there was no music. So, the entire process was just figuring out how to take these two-dimensional cartoon characters and make them human and present them onstage in a way that was innovative and new. They didn’t know what that was going to be, whether there was going to be some elements of puppetry.
The audition was just to do a physical comedy routine, and say a couple of lines like SpongeBob. And I’ve been brought along ever since.
The decision was made pretty much right away that I would be in some variation of a shirt and pants. At the time, I was wearing a yellow t-shirt and sweatpants for a presentation to 10 people…and everyone immediately believed that I was SpongeBob, and that Squidward was Squidward. We had figured out how to capture the silhouettes of these characters and, as Tina likes to say, present the DNA of the characters without doing an arena show, without putting on foam outfits.
Deadline: What do you think it was they saw in you, that connected with them on a SpongeBob level?
Slater: That’s a good question. If I had to say two things, one is that I’m a little bit square in shape. I’ve got broad shoulders – not in the way that people are like, Oh, he’s tall, dark and handsome with broad shoulders. I mean, I’m a short redhead with pretty square shoulders, but I think that paid off.
I would say the other thing is that when I went in to do the audition, I didn’t actually try to do a voice. I must’ve been one of a few people who went into this audition and just sort of did it like how I would act the scene instead of trying to do an impression of SpongeBob, of [voice actor] Tom Kenny’s version of SpongeBob. I think that paid off for two reasons: One is that it allowed my sense of optimism and my sort of inner positivity to come through, I hope really clearly, as opposed to being obfuscated by an impression.
And the other reason it was helpful is because even though Tina did ask me at the end of the audition to work on the voice and come back, looking back from today’s viewpoint, we’ve done a lot of work to take the voice and make it my own, make sure that I’m not doing an impression onstage. I am my own version of SpongeBob, and everything I say comes from a truthful place and not just a nasal place. I think that, in retrospect, showed Tina that’s where I was going to be coming from as an actor. Which is where she was going to be coming from as a director. I like to think that that aligned.
I don’t know. It’s one of those things that’s sort of hard to talk about because I just feel like, even at the time, I like could not believe that I had been cast. After my callback, I was on the train back to Vassar College, where I was at school, and I called my dad from the Metro North and said, “Hey, so, I had a callback, it went really well, you know, Tina was super nice, and so I got to meet, like, one of my idols, and that’s that. You know, they’re definitely not going to call me. It went well for me, but it didn’t go that well.”
And my dad was like, “Don’t worry about it, it’s a big victory just to have gotten the callback.” And while I’m on the phone with him, I had a phone call from the casting director, offering me the job.
Deadline: So what did you tell your dad?
Slater: You know what? If my memory is serving correctly, I checked my phone because I had the incoming call, and I thought, Oh, man, I must’ve left my backpack in the room because they’re calling me. I [told my dad], I think I left something in the room, give me a sec. I just put him on hold for 2 or 3 minutes, and then got back on the phone with him and told him I got it. He was thrilled. He was thrilled. He was like, That’s great, you’re going to be able to pay rent.
Deadline: What are some of the biggest changes that phone call had on your life?
Slater: Oh, that’s a really tough one. I mean doing the show, it really is my life right now. There’s not much outside of it. It’s me and my fiancée and then the show. My social life is sort of non-existent, it’s on hold.
Deadline: You have a fiancée, so your life isn’t entirely SpongeBob.
Slater: I don’t know if I would be able to do this without her. She is such an unbelievable teammate. She’s been with me every step of this way. That’s one way that my life hasn’t changed.
Deadline: When I spoke to Gavin Lee [SpongeBob‘s Squidward], we sort of deconstructed where his character’s voice comes from – a little Paul Lynde, a little this and that. What are some of the influences on your portrayal, things you thought about consciously or, looking back, just sort of creeped in?
Slater: That’s so interesting. Vocally, it’s a little hard for me to say, although now that you bring it up, I’m going to think about it. For sure, for me, it started with Tom Kenny and then sort of just dropped into more of me as much as possible. There’s that nasality of SpongeBob, but I think what was really important was that I took the very forward nasality of the character and brought it back into his body.
Deadline: What does that mean?
Slater: You know when you hear SpongeBob on the cartoon, it’s coming straight out of his nose, the sound. It’s like really pingy and bright and sort of whiny almost, like it’s coming straight out of Tom Kenny’s nose. When I do it [for the stage], I try to make it a full-body experience. People talk about the difference between acting on the stage and acting on film, that when you’re onstage, you’re playing to the back of the house, and when you’re on film, you’re basically whispering. It’s a similar thing here. When you have 15-minute [cartoon] episodes, you can sort of throw every line out with maximum velocity. When you’re doing the full [stage] show, you need to project but you also want it to be coming from a truthful place. You want it to feel like something that’s relatable, and I think that means that the voice has to come back into the body a little more. I’m not sure if that makes any sense, but…
Deadline: It does. An acoustic guitar uses its whole body to resonate.
Slater: The physical movement is a little easier for me [to explain]. I worked with an amazing movement director early on in the workshops. His name is David Nuemann, and we spent every lunch break working, the first two or three workshops. We would take maybe 10 minutes to go grab some food, and then he and I would go into the second studio that they had, and we would work on the physicality. It was a lot about planning out how to hold the shoulders, and the silhouette and where to hinge the hips. A lot of it was also revisiting things that I’d been watching since I was a kid – Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. SpongeBob is definitely Tramp-esque, you know?
As much as I watched the TV [SpongeBob], I maybe watched more Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. And looking at pairs like Laurel & Hardy and Abbott & Costello, seeing how they relate to [each other]. SpongeBob and Patrick are very reminiscent of Laurel & Hardy.
Deadline: What about the hands? All I have to do is say “the hands,” right?
Slater: The little wavy hands.
Deadline: In just that one little movement, you capture the whole spirit of the show.
Slater: My favorite thing about that is that it comes from maybe the first episode of SpongeBob. He’s just walking around, looking for a job, and his arms are just like moving. They’re just flowing like they’re underwater, and I remember we were like trying to figure out, like, what is that move? I’m sure it was over one of our lunch breaks where we had the realization that it’s like, Oh, he’s just underwater. Like if you’re underwater and you’re trying to move yourself forward a little bit. You know, they teach you at summer camp, if you’re tired in the lake and you’re floating on your back, just move your hands a little bit and it helps you stay afloat. It’s like that.
Deadline: That’s really very cool.
Slater: In a lot of Tina’s work – I don’t know if you’ve read her book Viewpoints [The Viewpoints Book: A Practical Guide to Viewpoints and Composition by Anne Bogart and Tina Landau] – but there are these expressive gestures that that represent something much bigger, a little foot move, a little kick that represents heartbreak or something, you know?
Deadline: Do you ever find yourself walking down the streets of Manhattan, doing your SpongeBob hands?
Slater: Usually the hands don’t happen, but every so often I will be leaning backward. Which is not great for my posture.
Deadline: Speaking of which, are you getting recognized on the streets? That’s another change that must’ve felt overnight…
Slater: Yeah. It’s a little weird. A lot more in Times Square, where people are sort of looking, but it’s been happening on the subway, too. It’s a nice thing when somebody comes up to me and says, I saw the show and I loved it. That’s really cool. But it’s definitely weird when somebody just tries to be sneaky about taking a picture. It makes me feel real paranoid, because my initial thought is, There’s no way they’re taking a picture of me, right? And it turns out they are.
Deadline: So, what’s coming up for you? What are you looking forward to?
Slater: With the Tonys coming up, there’s that. I will say I’m really excited. I’m doing [SpongeBob] at least through November, and there’s been a lot of press that goes into opening the show, and then the award season things. I’m really, really excited to get back to focusing on just doing the show, which is not to say I don’t love this other stuff. I actually really do, but I love our show, and I love our company, and it’s going to feel like a real treat to be able to just come to work every day over the summer..
And then in terms of the next career thing, I’m hoping I’ll be able to do a play or something along those lines next. I love musical theater, and I love SpongeBob, but I would also love to do something else.
Deadline: Something serious?
Slater: Yeah. I was a big drama person when I was in school. I love doing comedy, but it wasn’t like my my main thing. So, I would love to be able to do a drama, do a play, if they ask me.
Deadline: They will. What about film or TV?
Slater: Yeah. Yeah. I’m also a writer, and I’m working on a couple of screenplays and stage plays as well, but I would love to do film. I’ve done a handful of films, but it’s something I would love to get into more.
Deadline: One last thing. When’s the wedding?
Slater: It’s in the fall.
Deadline: This is some time in your life, huh?
Slater: It really is. My cup runneth over, is how I feel.