There’s a stigma that you have to choose, but I’ve recently come into the feeling of wanting to consider myself just an artist.
You know you’re in good hands with Steven Spielberg. Widely considered one of the great filmmakers of our time, he is also a sentimental favorite. His vision, and his knack for transferring it to the screen, has proven tireless time and time over. There is perhaps no one better at working out the technical angles of creating an illusion where the boundaries of cinema are concerned.
His West Side Story is a dazzling, exuberant revival. Knowingly a new interpretation of the 1957 play, rather than a remake of Robert Wise’s 1961 film, Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner give the venerable property a new paint job, secure a few walls and build their own edifice. Yet the broad strokes remain comfortingly familiar: A reconfigured take on Romeo and Juliet, which recasts the Montagues and Capulets as two warring gangs in New York City, the Italian-American Jets and Puerto Rican Sharks fight for supremacy over the Upper West Side as two star-crossed lovers, Tony and Maria, are torn apart by the climate of hate and intolerance that surrounds them.
Purists will no doubt continue to interrogate Spielberg about tackling such an ageless classic, not to mention his first foray into the genre. (Hasn’t there always been something rather musical about his camera?) Nevertheless, the reboot has resplendent life all its own, largely thanks to the slide and swing of a gifted ensemble of highly expressive professionals. Among them is Kevin Csolak.
Anthem recently sat down with the rising star to discuss his lifelong dedication to performance, Spielberg, and joining the cast of Animal Kingdom for its sixth and final season, set to air in 2022.
West Side Story is now in theaters.
[Editor’s Note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.]
Hi, Kevin. How was the New York premiere?
I mean, come on, we only have so much time, Kee! It was remarkable. We had a blast. It felt like everyone was really taking their time, taking in all the moments. Technically, we’re leaning on three years that we filmed this. We shot it in the summer of 2019. It was my second time seeing the movie. The first time was like “Oh my god, this is happening.”
The release of course got pushed a year because of Covid.
I’m so used to instant gratification with the stage. This was a difficult one to wait two years for.
The early reactions have been great: “Top-tier Spielberg.” That’s quite a thing to say.
Hell yeah. I’m actually keeping away from reviews right now because, for at least the two premieres, I wanna have my own experience with it. I’ll look at them later. But that’s great to hear.
Do you have a favorite Spielberg movie?
It has to be E.T. For my birthday last year, right around when we were supposed to have our premiere and to get into the spirit of it, I actually went to a Brooklyn drive-in and watched E.T.
A true classic.
It’s such a classic. It’s so special and interesting for the time. It’s great to look back on it. I think that was one of the first ones my dad showed me of Steven’s work. Then you have Indiana Jones. I remember being a kid and going to Disneyland: My brothers wanted to go on all the rides, but all I wanted was the Indiana Jones whip. I dragged my mom all around the park. I still have the hat.
He’s the architect behind so many childhood classics. His filmography is wild to look at.
Totally. And one of the things that Steven does in all of his films is, there’s this feeling of hope. You’ll see it in West Side as well. Love and hope are the two things he loves to showcase no matter what the conflict is. That’s the essence in all of his movies.
The hallmark of musicals. His first musical.
There’s been some movies he shot that are almost a dance. I’m thinking of the beginning shots of, maybe Raiders? It’s action, but he’s still capturing movement with music. It was interesting to see his take on dance specifically on West Side. Being a dancer at heart, I think he did it beautifully.
What’s he like as a person?
He has a calming energy. He has this “everything’s gonna be okay” energy. I don’t know how he is on other sets, but he was so welcoming with us. He hired a lot of Broadway vets for the ensemble cast, coming from the stage to this new medium. He was in the second callback with us and you could see in his eyes the excitement he had when we would finish doing a combo. You almost wouldn’t think he was Steven Spielberg. We’d be at crafty and he’d walk up to me to ask how my day is going. He’d be telling me some story like “Me and my friend Tom were shooting this one war movie,” clearing talking about Tom Hanks and Saving Private Ryan, one of my favorite movies. From now on, everyone needs to be nice like him. If he can do it, you have no excuse.
He’s the standard?
In my mind, he is! That’s where the bar is set now.
You were also in the Broadway production of West Side Story. Which came first?
I actually did West Side Broadway first. I did a Dance Lab and it was during that month while we were in rehearsals I was also auditioning for the West Side movie. For me, it was cool. In the middle of doing these rehearsals for a modernized, contemporary version of West Side completely set in 2018, I was going and auditioning for hours in front of Steven Spielberg.
You played a different character on stage.
I played A-Rab, who’s the kid that won’t shut up basically. He’s that fiery kid in the friend group you just wanna slap in the face. In the movie, I play Diesel. He’s one of the older, more reserved Jets. He’s trustworthy and has little to say at points, which is kind of more my personality.
You’re a triple threat: You dance, act and sing. And I know you’ve been in dance classes since 3 years old so that’s like your entire life. How did you get into it so early?
It’s funny because I started dance classes at 3, but I was around it from the get-go. My mom owns a dancing studio, The Star Maker School. It’s in Clinton, New Jersey. It is an amazing school for the performing arts. It’s not just for dancing, acting and singing, there are also music lessons and my mom does a concierge service to mold kids into these artists, to prepare them for the industry because, you know, it’s a crazy thing. There’s no rulebook on how to do this. I’ve been auditioning and acting and dancing and singing professionally since I was 10, and my mom was with me through it all. She now uses what she’s learned along the way to bridge the gap for other young artists the correct way, which is amazing. So I grew up in her school. I had no choice. My mom’s a dancer and a singer herself. My dad is a drummer. I grew up around all of it, all the time. My mom did a beautiful job of making this feel second nature to me. I feel like I definitely would’ve ended up in the industry either way, but she has been an incredible guiding hand.
That was your incubation chamber.
[laughs] That should be the title of this: “Incubation Chamber.”
Going down this route at 10, did that set you apart from most other kids your age?
I think definitely. At the time, I think I was the only boy dancer in my small hometown. It was definitely a different thing for me to be doing this. At that young age, what that did was, I started creating this home and family in New York City around this art form, and also at my mom’s studio. It wasn’t until I got to high school that people started being like “This is actually kind of cool what you’re doing.” Once I started coming into the city and started meeting friends who had this same love of the craft in which to express ourselves, I really started to fall in love with that atmosphere. New York became home pretty quickly. I like to say that I’m a New Yorker. I’ve been here, off and on, for about six and a half, seven years. I lived for two years in LA, but since the age of 12 or 13, New York was home. I bet some New Yorkers are gonna be like “No fucking way! You’re not a New Yorker!” Also, I love my hometown. I love going back. I’m actually now thinking about building a performing arts center out there soon. We just got a Starbucks, two years ago?
I love that you use Starbucks as the yardstick.
We’re coming up!
So do you have a favorite aspect of performance?
I was actually talking to my girlfriend about this, going back and forth. There’s a stigma that you have to choose, but I’ve recently come into the feeling of wanting to consider myself just an artist. Because at the end of the day, we’re all at different stages. At the end of the day, we’re all artists. I think I used to box myself into a category, but over the years, I developed an equal love for the expression of art through all the forms. Expressing art to deliver a message or to change someone or to lift them out of their day to make them feel better or to pull them into a fantasy world that we call Broadway or a movie—I mean, that’s what we’re doing, right? So to be a vessel for that, I just like to consider myself an artist, as plain as it is. The bottom line is that I love every form.
With dance, music is inseparable. I wonder if you see a through line with acting because, at the very least, there is still rhythm. Actors study movement. You’re hitting all the marks.
Totally. I sometimes teach at my mom’s school and I think it’s probably the best thing for an actor to take dance classes and for dancers to take acting classes. It all weaves together. Dancing has helped me through my acting one thousand percent. Dancing is what I have the most comfortability with and there’s rhythm to how you speak. It’s been a great perspective to have.
How often do you teach?
During the pandemic, I taught weekly. I taught two acting classes and two dancing classes. One of my classes was donation-based and all the proceeds went to the Black Lives Matter movement and other related foundations. I had friends in the industry come in and we would teach together. That’s something I want to continue to do. We’re just a little hectic right now, but in the best way.
You’re already off to a great ’22 with Animal Kingdom on the way. How did you get involved?
During the pandemic, stage and Broadway shut down while I was doing West Side. So once SAG and TV and film started to ramp back up, I started auditioning and sending in self-tapes from home. This is a crazy thing we do: I did like fifty self-tapes, probably from October 2020 to mid-February. That’s fifty job interviews basically and one of the ones I got was Animal Kingdom. I originally auditioned to play younger Baz, but they wanted to bring me back in for younger Pope. Before the callback with the director, they were like “Please watch a bit of the show.” When I tell you I binge-watched this show, I went through four seasons in maybe three days. Granted, it got to the point where I had to skip because I was getting down to the wire, but I was trying to get all of Shawn Hatosy and the essence of that character. So I did a Zoom callback, another callback and then a chemistry read with Jasper Polish and Darren Mann. We clicked right away. It’s funny because usually with chemistry reads, you’re doing it in-person. You’d think it’d be harder over Zoom, but I think we found something really nice. I got the part. Four, five days later, I was on a flight to LA. Another three, four days later, we were on set filming. This is my first full-season character arc with 13 episodes. I’m so blessed to have that be my first job out of the pandemic, to have such a learning experience and something completely different from West Side Broadway.
That starts airing next summer, right?
Yes, I believe around NBA Finals time.
We actually have a mutual friend in Darren. He’s getting married today.
Today?! Oh my god. Shout out to Darren Mann!
He said to jog your memory about when you woke up to him screaming in your apartment.
[laughs] Oh god, that’s hilarious. It really wasn’t anything. Two of my best friends came out to LA and we all went out to some beer gardens. When we came back to my apartment, it was on the later side so Darren asked to crash. I woke up to someone screaming that night: “Someone’s in the apartment!” So I run to the kitchen and one of my friends is standing there getting a glass of water, wide-eyed shocked. Darren looks at him, looks at me, looks back at my friend like “Ohhh.” I guess Darren didn’t recognize my friend because they had just met that night.
It’s great that you guys have a friendship that’s not just tethered to the on set experience.
It definitely ranges from job to job. It’s personalities too. With Broadway and stage, you definitely have more time with the cast. You really get that family aspect because there’s no going away from that family. You’re a part of them hopefully for years to come. With TV and film, I’ve been on set for one day to do a job, say hi to people, say thank you and that’s it. I was on set for like half an hour and in my trailer for three hours. But then you have a film like West Side Story where we had three months of rehearsals and three months of shooting. We had an absolute blast. The summer of 2019 shooting this movie—I’ll be telling my kids about it. It spoiled me and the bar is set so high. So I think it is rare. That’s why when a great opportunity comes along and everyone’s on the same page and you’re having an amazing time, you really have to savor all the moments.
Right. Counting your blessings.
Oh my god, I’m doing that right now every day with West Side. And now having seen the film, I think it really speaks to the time that we spent together. I think you can really see that on screen.