NEW YORK (AP) — Actors like to switch it up, but Santino Fontana has taken that to ridiculous lengths.
The title role in “Hamlet”? OK. A big dance show like “Billy Elliot”? Check. A period comedy with “The Importance of Being Earnest”? Sure. What about a Stephen Sondheim musical or a role as a suffering orphan in an off-Broadway play? Yes and yes. Even the Prince in the latest Broadway “Cinderella.”
“I don’t want to repeat myself. I don’t want to get any one muscle stronger than any other,” says Fontana, who recently added to his eclectic resume by singing on the “Frozen” soundtrack.
He credits his ability to zigzag to no one ever telling him he couldn’t. His appetite for doing it all may also be due to a scary accident that taught him life is short.
“I have no problem acknowledging that there’s a lot of randomness and it’s not going to stop. The world will surprise me, again and again and again. The only thing I can control is what I love to do,” he says.
Fontana’s thick resume – he’s only 31 – takes another turn this spring as he steps into the role of playwright-director Moss Hart for Lincoln Center Theater’s play “Act One.”
Hart was a giant in the theater during the 1930s-’50s, directing “My Fair Lady” and “Camelot” and collaborating with George S. Kaufman on “The Man Who Came to Dinner” and “You Can’t Take It With You.”
The play, which begins performances Thursday, also stars Tony Award winners Andrea Martin and Chuck Cooper, and Tony nominee Tony Shalhoub, who was on Broadway last year in “Golden Boy.” James Lapine directs.
Martin, who plays Hart’s aunt, among other parts, has been impressed by Fontana’s range. “He’s able to be charming and witty and light and self-effacing. But he also has such depth for such a young man. He’s able to go very deep,” she says.
To Fontana, Hart’s story – his autobiography, also called “Act One,” is a Bible of sorts in theater circles – was inspiring when he read it in college. Hart was dirt-poor, had no connections and his first play was a flop, but he persisted.
There’s even an echo in Fontana’s own life: “He didn’t know where he was going to fit in but he didn’t stop,” says the Tony nominee. “He just kept going. And there was nothing telling him he should be doing it.”
Fontana, who was born in California but raised in Richland, Wash., was both a baseball player and a theater guy who became a 2004 graduate of the University of Minnesota-Guthrie Theater actor training program.
He says some of his love of performing was instilled by his grandfather, who was frequently tasked with looking after the young Santino. “His way of baby-sitting was basically to go to Blockbuster and just rent movies that he used to love,” says Fontana.
Fontana recalls seeing “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Bridge on the River Kwai,” “12 Angry Men” and “An American in Paris” over and over. “I think because he didn’t know what to do, he would rewind them and we’d watch them again.”
That versatility would serve him well when he astounded educators during the application for a scholarship when he showed up with a David Ives comedic monologue, a song from “West Side Story” and then a scene from “The Seagull.”
“I recognize now that must have been crazy,” says Fontana, who lives on the Upper West Side with his girlfriend, an actress and singer who just won a part in “Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella,” the show he’s just left. “I get it. It’s nutty.”
He played “Hamlet” at 23 in the Guthrie’s final production on its old stage in 2006. He came to New York perhaps expecting a hero’s welcome, only to find himself “back to zero.”
Fontana got small parts in “Sunday in the Park With George” in 2008, then a larger role in “Billy Elliot.” He thought he was on his way after snagging a part in the 2009 revival of “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” but it closed after just nine performances.
Three months later, a brain concussion he suffered during a stage fight forced him to withdraw during previews for “A View From the Bridge” opposite Scarlett Johansson.
The injury kept Fontana in a darkened room for almost a month – “I couldn’t say the alphabet all the way through,” he says. Though he’s made a full recovery, he now suffers from migraines, though his memory is better than ever.
“The good news is I’m fine. The bad news is having a brain injury is one of the worst things in the world. Doctors don’t know what’s going to happen,” he says.
Even with a play, Fontana has plenty more up his sleeve. He’s got a role in the HBO pilot “The Money” by David Milch with Nathan Lane. And he’s got a five-song EP of standards he’d love to release soon. Whatever the next thing is, it will be unexpected.
“I’ve been so lucky. So lucky,” he says. “I pinch myself constantly.”
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits