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Hunter Parrish of `Weeds' finds his Broadway voice
By ERIN CARLSON
Associated Press
2008-08-29 08:23 AM
Hunter Parrish, who was raised in the conservative Dallas suburb of Plano, has played a pot dealer on TV and now has sex on stage. Well, not quite: It's simulated.

But the scene is one of the most talked about in the Tony Award-winning rock musical "Spring Awakening."

"It's weird to, like, fake sex and put your parts up against someone else's," the 21-year-old actor says. "But I figured, 'You know what? I'm going to be naked every night in New York, I might as well get used to it.'"

His role in "Spring Awakening" certainly isn't the first time Parrish has bared his bottom. In the acclaimed Showtime series "Weeds," Parrish not only deals drugs and smokes, but also steals and drops trou as Mary-Louise Parker's oldest son. In real life, though, he's never inhaled.

"I know that if I ever smoked pot I would probably become, like, a total pothead because I think I would like that," he says. "I have, like, a chill personality, so that's why I'm never going to start, because I don't like to be dependent on anything. I don't even drink coffee."

Never say never _ to coffee, at least. Taking the stage eight days a week might wear him down. He could find himself addicted to a good French roast, like any other sleep-deprived Broadway actor in need of a caffeine fix.

Parrish stifles a yawn during an interview with The Associated Press at a tapas restaurant in downtown Manhattan. It comes out of nowhere, though, since the rest of the time he's a verbal dynamo, leaping animatedly into such eclectic topics as his celebrity crush (actress Amanda Seyfried), aversion to organized religion (he says it's too hypocritical) and decision to wear a black rocker T-shirt instead of a "pretty-boy sweater" to lunch.

The night before, he had officially stepped into his role as rebellious schoolboy Melchior Gabor in "Spring Awakening," an adaptation of Frank Wedekind's classic German drama about sexually repressed teens.

It's a career-defining move for Parrish, a loving son and liberal Christian, who has a surprisingly potent set of pipes. Again, he's playing against his wholesome upbringing.

In a recent episode of "Weeds," now in its fourth season, Parrish stripped down for a graphic sex scene with actress Julie Bowen. It can be viewed on YouTube (warning: not suitable for work), and further separates him from the Zac Efrons of the world whose handlers veto material that could possibly alienate the parents of the core tween audience.

Parrish and Efron, the 20-year-old "High School Musical" heartthrob, co-star in the upcoming comedy "Seventeen Again," about a middle-age guy who wishes he were 17 again. Parrish, whose film credits include "Freedom Writers," "RV" and "Premonition," might have landed Efron's role in the hugely successful "HSM" franchise, but he skipped his final audition to do a movie instead.

"I would have a very different career right now, and I'm happy where I'm at," he says, grinning widely.

What Parrish is likely too diplomatic to acknowledge is that he has more creative freedom than his Disney Channel peers, and unlike Efron, Miley Cyrus ("Hannah Montana") and the Jonas Brothers (who toured with Cyrus), he has no squeaky-clean, multimillion-dollar image to maintain.

Parrish possesses undeniable stage presence, and his angelic features _ turquoise-colored eyes, high cheekbones, shaggy blond hair, choirboy smile _ pop under bright lights. His singing voice is a rich tenor, gliding easily into falsetto in the ballad "Left Behind."

Producers sneaked him on stage _ unofficially _ several days ahead of his debut, however, and Parrish was more than a little nervous.

"I was petrified! It was petrifying," he says, but by the second performance, he adds, "I was like, `All right man, I'm ready!' I was eager. That was great, because I just sort of was fueled, you know?"

Parrish says Parker, his TV mom, sat in the audience Aug. 18 and ended up in tears.

"She came up to my dressing room and she was crying and she was like, `I'm so proud of you. I can't believe that you're doing this. This is Broadway. You belong here,'" he recalls.

It was Parker, a Tony winner in 2001 for the play "Proof," who persuaded him to do theater during his hiatus from shooting "Weeds." Parish, who had been in local theater productions in the Dallas area before heading to Hollywood, missed the stage. He flew out to New York last year to talk about a role in the musical "Hairspray." But in a lucky break, he also connected with "Spring Awakening" while the show was recasting its original Melchior, the multitalented Jonathan Groff.

It was love at first sight for the show's producer Tom Hulce.

"I don't get Showtime, so I don't have any great reference for him, and so when he came in to see us last November, we couldn't believe that there was this guy who was so charismatic and such a good actor, and then when he opened his mouth and sang for us, all the little hairs on our arms stood up," Hulce gushes. "I feel like we just had a very fortuitous moment ... just the right person, the right time, the right part."

Parrish's run extends at least through February. He leads an ensemble cast that includes Alexandra Socha (as sweet, curious Wendla) and Gerard Canonico (as the tormented Moritz).

"He has a very empathetic spirit, and it allows him to climb into the character from the inside-out, and in a kind of complete and authentic way. ... He's so big-hearted as a person that he can stand at the center of the story and the audience wants to climb in with him. And that's such a gift," Hulce says.

Parrish began singing in church as a boy, and is now working on his debut album, which he describes as fitting into the "rock-acoustic-chill-coffeehouse" genre.

But he geeks out over portraying Melchior, a freethinking atheist who rebels against the buttoned-up society of provincial 1890s Germany.

"I feel like we would be good friends," says Parrish, who relates to Melchior's strong moral center and progressive-minded parents, if not the character's atheism.

He says he loved growing up in Plano, "but they definitely put you in a box, and my parents were very lenient and very open-minded and let me explore for myself what I felt was right and wrong. And they raised all their kids that way, and none of us have problems with alcohol or drugs."

Parrish has an older brother and sister, both in their 20s, and the siblings are "all very centered, grounded people," he says.

But you wouldn't be able to tell that by Parrish's portrayal on "Weeds" of Silas Botwin, who insinuates himself into his mother's suburban drug operation.

"Silas is totally opposite of me, and also not as smart as Melchior," Parrish says. "So Silas is like the stupid version of not being me, and Melchior is like the smart, intellectual version of not being me. ... But I like doing that. I like being able to play roles that are totally different from me."

And Parrish hopes to be acting for the rest of his life: "I like people and I like characters and I like jumping out of myself."

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