“Jet Song” is one of Riff’s iconic numbers. What did that mean to you, particularly as it’s depicted in this version of the film?
Where we start with the Jets, they are on the brink of destruction. They are done but they just don’t realize it yet. They’re saying, “When you’re a Jet, you stay a Jet” — on top of a mound of rubble.
Did you feel particularly bonded to the other actors who played your fellow Jets?
I felt it was my personal obligation that we become a tribe. After the first day of rehearsal, we all went out to the bar down the street. Sans Baby John [the young gang member, played by Patrick Higgins], because he’s not old enough. [Laughs.] And I said, “Look, this one’s ours. This is our story and this is our version. You guys are a part of that.” I handed out assignments; “Jet-tivities” is what I called them. And no matter what it was, we all had to do it. We did a whole bunch of shenanigans that summer.
Are there any you can safely discuss?
We went to upstate New York and bought a full arsenal of Nerf guns. There’s video of us setting up this relay race in a house, having to shoot all these red plastic Solo cups from different angles. We did LARPing. It’s brutal, man. It looks like something totally nerdy, but then you’re there and you’re getting tackled by someone and shot in the private areas by arrows. We played laser tag once. I wanted them to feel like they were a part of something bigger. That way, when the cameras rolled, they just were there.
Did you have the opportunity to confer with Russ Tamblyn, who played Riff in the original film?
He did come to set and hung out for a day. He told us anecdotes, what the experience was like for him. But in terms of approaching the work, I’m not Russ Tamblyn. Only Russ Tamblyn is Russ Tamblyn. I can’t try to emulate or mimic what he does. And I didn’t want to. I think it would have done a disservice to try to incorporate him. It would have been an insult to what he brought.
The new film’s release was delayed by a year because of the pandemic. How did you feel when you learned it was being postponed?
I actually was relieved. Steven and I had a phone conversation last year, around September, when they were deciding whether they were going to release the film. At the time, I said to him, if no one ever saw this movie, it wouldn’t change anything to me. The experience of making the movie was everything. I meant it, but I’m an idiot and I take it all back now. Because if we’re going to show it, you want people to see it. After I had seen the film at the New York premiere, I ran into Steven in the lobby. And I said to him, I got to relive the experience of making the movie. I think when people see this, we give them a taste of that. I think this movie is a real testament to why a theatrical experience is important.