Full Name: James Bennett Ambler
DOB: March 11, 1971
Family: Mother, Father, and two sisters (both older)
Where did you grow up?
Right outside of San Francisco in a place called Foster City.
When did you decide on this career? And how?
I was going to be a pilot, because my dad worked for United Airlines. When I was in middle school I always wanted to be in the airline business. Then, I started swimming and competing on the swimming team in middle school, and I got to be really good. When I started high school I was swimming on the varsity team as a freshman, and I also did water polo. But when I was twelve, going back a bit, I was cast in Peter Pan as John. That was my first show at middle school. And to this day it is my favorite show.
Did you audition for it this past season when it was revived on Broadway?
No. I was doing Cats at the time it was auditioning and I didn't have time. Plus Footloose was already slated to go to Broadway so I just said I would go to Footloose. That [Peter Pan] was my first show, and I just kept doing it as a hobby and taking one dance class a week and voice lessons once a week. I got into high school and I started taking more dance classes and getting more involved in the community theatre, which is called Peninsula Civic Light Opera, and doing a lot of shows there and in high school. I had to decide if I was going to swim or become a performer. I couldn't do both so I had to quit the swimming team because there's not much of a career in swimming but there's a long career you can have in performing.
I'm long winded.
What is your favorite aspect of performing - acting, singing, or dancing?
Acting. I think it's the most challenging. You can have a great singer and you can have a great dancer, but if it doesn't come from something then all you have is a great voice and all you have is a great dancer. That's one of the reasons I went back to school. I was performing in New York as a dancer in 1988 and then I got promoted to one of the roles and I was doing that. I could've started my career as a dancer then but I decided that that's not what I wanted. I don't want to be just a dancer. I want to be able to really bring something to the theatre as an actor. That's why I went to BU [Boston]. BU has a full acting program. If you're going to be a singer then you have to have some type of acting that will go along with it.
You just touched on this a little bit, but can you expand on how much training you've had and where?
I started voice lessons when I was thirteen, dancing when I was fourteen. I started off with jazz and then I went into ballet. I did The Nutcracker when I was fourteen. I played the nutcracker. Then I started tap. With acting, I've taken acting classes all along since I was fourteen. Then after high school I went to a college that was primarily acting. Then I transferred from there to BU into the acting program. I quit that, because I was afraid my dancing and singing would go down and my acting would be great but I still wanted to do singing and dancing. So then I transferred to Boston Conservatory where they had all three. And I still take classes here every now and then.
Was your family supportive?
Completely. They first thought it was just a hobby. "What are you going to do with your life besides this?" Then I started working professionally and they said "Ok, well, as long as you're following your dreams, and we trust you enough to make the right decision with your life" and they've been completely supportive ever since.
How long have you been doing it professionally?
Since I was seventeen. Seventeen was my first show in New York City. It was La Cage au Folles.
What was your first reaction when you found out you were going to be on Broadway?
Exhilaration. I had just graduated from college. Two weeks later I started the workshop. It was a dream because I was working with people I had studied all about in college, and I had been growing up with knowing who they are and then these people were sitting right next to me. I had just watched on the Tony Awards that year (97) Walter Bobbie win a Tony Award for best directing. That next week I started rehearsals with Walter Bobbie. I was doing Cats on tour when I found out it was going to Broadway. When I got my contract is when I really realized I was going. Everything was set. I got the Ren cover. I got the Chuck cover. It was such a wonderful feeling that this person believed in me enough to be on Broadway. When I saw the theatre I was just so elated.
How do they decide who does covers? Do you have to audition for them once you are in the show?
I had three auditions for the workshop and after the workshop they decided who they wanted to keep for the Broadway production. Actually, first, it was going to be a tour. Our company was going to tour the United States and come back to Madison Square Garden and have a small stint there for the summer. The Dodgers came in and decided it should just go straight to Broadway. I had a separate audition in January. They re-auditioned most of the ensemble because they wanted the covers out of the ensemble. I was going in for the cover for Ren and after I did my scenes and songs for Ren, they asked me to read for Chuck.
What role in Footloose is your favorite to do?
They're all great. They all have highs and they all have lows. With my own role I love it because it is so comfortable. I know it so well and it's such a part of me. I made up the role and they wrote it basically around me for the workshop. Everything that was written down was basically coming from me. So, it was very creative. I felt free doing the workshop so that's why I really like doing Lyle. Now, with Ren, it's really challenging because he's got his moments on stage when it's so hard, such as "I'm Free," when it's very difficult to sing and dance and move around and have your point of view at that point. That's such a great role and such a great feeling to have that last bow and all these people are supporting you at that moment. With Chuck, it's also a great feeling because the first twenty minutes of the show you don't stop. And after that you can relax and still have great scenes.
What are your thoughts on understudying?
As an understudy, you don't have to do everything the other person does. Such as my Ren is not Jeremy's [Kushnier]. That's where you get the freedom to do what you want with the role within the boundaries.
Do you ever get to rehearse the roles you undersudy?
Yes. Every week we have understudy rehearsals. Most of the time if a Broadway show has been running for awhile and if they have the same cast and the same understudies, they rehearse maybe once a month for understudies. For a new show that has a lot of people changing throughout the show, then you rehearse maybe once a week.
What is your favorite role you've ever done?
Something that I will probably never do again. Che in Evita. It was the fourth time I had done the show. First time I did it I was fifteen and I was ensemble. Second time I was twenty and I was a tango dancer. Third time I did it and I was a tango dancer again and I was twenty-three. Then I did Che at school and I was twenty-five. It was my favorite because that role has so many challenges to it. You're telling a story and you have to make sure it continues throughout from the top to the bottom with climaxes. It's basically your story. It's about Evita, but you have to make sure everybody sees your point of view also. And your point of view throughout the show has so many levels to it. And besides...he's got great songs!
Where are all the places you've performed? Which stick out in your memory?
I've performed basically all over the world. The only place that I've never been is Asia. On tour with Cats my favorite place to perform was San Francisco because it was my hometown and I performed in a theatre that I would come to the city to see shows in when I was a kid. I was doing a show in my hometown at the Golden Gate Theatre and I used to go see shows there. I saw A Chorus Line there. I saw Bye Bye, Birdie there. I've seen so many shows at the Golden Gate and then all of a sudden I was performing there. My favorite place around the world has to be- shoot! There are so many. Venice is one of the most amazing places. Buenos Aires is incredible. Buenos Aires, I think, is my favorite.
What are some of your dream roles?
Raoul in Phantom-- these are going to be roles in the immediate future because these are the roles I've been auditioning for and have been up for. Chris in Miss Saigon is one I really want to do. Les Mis is my next step. I know it is. It's just a matter of time. I've been up for Enjolras five times so it's just a matter of time.
Does that get frustrating going in for roles over and over?
It does and it doesn't. I know that for Phantom and for Chris in Miss Saigon I just look way too young because I don't look my age. When I will do those roles, it will be the right time for me to do them.
What are your dream roles if things like age, race, gender, etc didn't matter?
That's a good question! That's a really good question! I'd love to be Peter Pan. There is a theatre I was performing at in California where their Christmas show every year was Peter Pan. They would have a young guy do Peter. That's a role that I'd always want to do. There are so many women roles out there that have the best songs. But there are some great men roles also. Back in the classics the men roles are better then the female roles, I think. Nowadays women roles are getting better. Ellen in Miss Saigon would be a great role to do. I could say Effie in Dreamgirls. It'd be fun. It's such an amazing show.
Who were your role models growing up?
I can't say that I had a role model. I looked up to many people for many different things. There's this guy named Rocky that I looked up to in high school because he was a great dancer. If I could pick any person that I would like to be like, it would be the career of Frank Sinatra. I would love to become something like Frank Sinatra and have his career. I love Frank Sinatra. I love his music, I love his phrasing, I love the way he performs. I have two cabarets and my own show and one of them is all dedicated to Frank Sinatra.
What were you like as a boy?
Rambunctious. I always did what I wanted to do, even when I was younger. No one could stop me from what I wanted to do. Don't get me wrong, I would respect my parents completely. I was always doing something. I was a very busy child.
Do you like touring or Broadway more?
They both have great things to them. Right now I want to tour again. For one thing, to save money, because on tour you can save money much more easily than here in New York. For one thing you get a per diem, so basically you just live off your per diem and sometimes you can save some from that as well as from your check. Plus a lot of tours are a much younger cast. So right now I probably would be cast in a tour show more than I would on Broadway because of my age.
What would you be doing if you weren't performing?
I'd do something dealing with people because I really like people. I don't think I'd teach. Famous line from Cassie in A Chorus Line: "I don't want to be teaching other people what I should be doing myself." So I would be doing something other than theatre and the performing business. I don't think I would be in an office. I don't think I could handle it. I wouldn't like being stuck in an office for eight hours a day doing the same thing. Maybe sell real estate.
What's the funniest thing that's ever happened to you onstage?
With Footloose, I was on one week for Chuck's vacation. Then Jeremy got sick so I had to go on for Ren six performances that week. I started out as Chuck on Tuesday and did everything as Ren until Saturday matinee. Saturday matinee, I was Chuck. Then Saturday night I was Ren again. And Sunday I was Ren. So when I went back to Ren after doing Chuck on Saturday, when Willard comes toward Chuck to fight in the Burger Blast II scene, I didn't know whether to go up to him as Chuck or Ren. I forgot who I was. Another thing, my bike fell apart once. I just picked it up and went. You can't be afraid onstage because things are going to happen every night. That's why it's live theatre. That's why it's so exciting to come watch and so exciting to do because every show is completely different.
What jobs have you done before you were a performer?
I waited tables a little bit. I worked for something called Hospital Correspondance Copiers which was in California and when I came to New York I worked there also as a quality insurance representative so I had to make sure the hospital records were okay. I worked at Chevy's as a host. I worked there most of the time I was going to school in California. I worked at the Disney Store for three years. That got me through college.
What do you do in your free time?
Read. I like adventure books, love stories, and philosophy books also. I also really like plays. A teacher told me once that we're just like people who work in the office. They have to get up at eight o'clock in the morning and go to work. It just so happens that our work, the performing aspect of it, is at night. During the day you still have to bone up on your books. In college I didn't have time for it even though it was curriculum. That's why I went back when I was older so I was more focused. Also, there's a place where they have pottery and you can paint and design what you want on it and they fire it for you. I enjoy going there in my free time. I like to take classes in my spare time, mostly singing and acting.
Is anyone else in your family artistically inclined?
All of my family tried to be. Both of my sisters, when I was younger, performed. One sister took dance classes when she was fourteen. My other sister performed in church shows. I have a cousin who is part of the Oakridge Boys. My grandfather played the flute and piccolo in the San Francisco Symphany.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to be where you are?
If you really love it, you can't take no for an answer. You really have to have the ability to live in New York and the ability to take rejection from all aspects and believe in yourself. That's difficult to do. It's hard not to take it personally because what we do is such a personal thing. You just can't give up on what you want. If you want it and if you're willing to do everything it takes to get it, then you'll get it. I really believe that if you're meant to do it, then you'll do it. You just can't give up. If you give up, you give up your dreams and if you want to have your dreams lived, then you have to make them lived. And there are so many ways to perform. There are so many aspects to performing. There is no reason why you shouldn't be able to find something to do. Cruise ships, theme parks, regional work, stock companies. There are so many ways of getting it. Start off in the ensemble and get to where you want to go. Anything. There are so many ways of doing it.
What is the best part of your job?
I get to do what I like. I get to do what I really have a passion for. I get to live in New York City and have time to do it, and go to the theatre everyday, walking through that door. Enjoying it. Enjoying the people that you're performing and working with. Becoming part of that family. Being challenged every night to keep it fresh. To be challenged every night to stay in the moment and make sure the story is getting across. I love the audience. I love people. Meeting new people. I think the people are the best.
And the worst?
Drama. People create their own drama and they love it. They can't find enough drama in the theatre. They have to create it for themselves.
How has performing changed your lifestyle?
I rest and go to the gym. A lot of people have to change eating habits, but not me. I eat anytime I want to. For the role I am doing right now I basically don't hold myself back from anything. When I was doing Munkustrap I had to watch what I ate, I had to watch how much I drank, the amount of rest that I had. One of the most important things is rest and a lot of people don't understand that unless they've done something like I am doing right now. After a year of performing you have to develop habits to make sure that the show is crisp and clean and I am not tired when I go in. The funny thing is I sometimes work out between shows which gives me even more energy for the evening show and doesn't allow me to get tired between shows. Rest. My days off are my days off. I sleep. Most of the time performers are night creatures anyway. So that's when I live. At night.
Has your job changed you as a person at all?
It's helped me to grow. I've learned a lot from doing the show for a year and a half. I've learned a lot of what not to do and what to do. What to stand up for. Pick your battles. What not to stand up for. What to let slide, but what not to let slide. I think I've grown as a person and matured a lot. Patience. I've learned a lot of patience.
What's next for you?
I want to do bigger roles. I want to create roles such as I did with Footloose. But those don't come along very often so I just want to keep working in the business as long as I can. and I want to stay here. I love New York. I never thought I'd stay in one place this long. I've really been able to enjoy the city and living in the city. Not just because I work here. Just living here because this is a place where I am going to live for a very long time. In the near future, my plan is to do Les Mis. If something else comes along, then great. I'd like to tour again to save up money so I can buy an apartment. I'd like to get bigger roles so people will take me more seriously as an actor than just a dancer or singer or someone who covers.
Do you have any aspirations for career in a different aspect of the arts such as directing or writing?
If it comes along, great. I don't want to choreograph. It's not something I am interested in. Directing would be fun later on in life maybe. But right now I want to concentrate so much on my performing and I want to make a living of it. Same with TV and film. It's something that's there. If it happens then it happens. If not, then great, I can still perform in New York. But if Los Angeles calls me to go out there to work, then great because I love California. But right now New York is my home so there's nothing else I want to do but perform right now.
Interview conducted in January 2000 at Barrymore's in midtown Manhattan. Please do not use any of this interview without expressed consent from the owner of this website. It was a long and painstaking process getting it published here for your viewing. Please respect that. Thank you.