Mike Faist is tall and lanky, and looks like he was born with Wranglers. He cuts a remarkable figure in the Amazon Prime series “Panic”: His character, Dodge Mason, is a rodeo guy who wears Stetson and breaks untamed horses and then gazes soulfully into their eyes.
However, this is by no means how the character was written in the young adult novel by Lauren Oliver, who inspired the show, which debuted Friday and where Dodge and a dozen other small town teenagers face a series of life-threatening challenges – think a naturalistic “Hunger Games” with more class war.
After filming a pilot in New York state (where the book is set) in 2018, production completely restarted a year later in Austin, Texas, and Dodge’s backstory was changed to better fit the new locale. Suddenly the school wimp who was interested in cards and magic had become a Western archetype: the strong, real loner who doesn’t say much. Faist went with the flow.
“Ciphers can be really boring,” said Oliver, who also wrote the script, “but he manages to capture the power inherent in a certain degree of invisibility.”
Dodge is quite a dawn for Faist, best known for his Tony-nominated performance as the tortured, cynical Connor Murphy in the Broadway musical Dear Evan Hansen. The 29-year-old actor, who is blessed with a fiery charisma and a bone structure that appears to have been carved with a scythe, could easily have “panicked”. But his sensitivity is closer to that of atypical leaders like Adam Driver, and he’s modernizing a potentially boilerplate part.
“Mike really didn’t want to be a cartoon, but I don’t think he could ever be,” said Jessica Sula, who plays Natalie, Dodge’s love interest in “Panic.” She recalled that when the Texas shooting resumed after a hiatus imposed by Covid-19, Faist chose to live in a trailer on property with his rescue dog, Austin.
“He’s just so fabulously ridiculous and wonderful,” she said of Faist and laughed lovingly.
Faist’s own course has been on the rise since dropping out of drama school at 18, and his plum role in Steven Spielberg’s much-anticipated “West Side Story” as Riff, the leader of the Jets, should put him on Hollywood’s speed dial on his debut December. (Filming completed in September 2019.)
Yet the actor spent much of a recent conversation openly admitting that he is ambivalent and insecure. He’s spent something of the past year to drive around the country with Austin and write a script. He turned down offers and is now selling his Brooklyn apartment and returning to Ohio.
Faist was warm and relaxed on a sunny morning in Park Slope, and he laughed a lot at the seemingly protective self-loathing as he pondered his professional, professional, and other future. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
How did they get the new Dodge on you?
It was still the same elements about “Oh, this is the new guy”, but instead of being a strange magician, he’s now a … cowboy? I said, “What do you mean I’m a cowboy now?” They said, “Yes, yes, you will be fine. Maybe try an accent. “
You look pretty comfortable playing a horse whisperer.
I had never worked with a horse on a production line before. There were two of them: a very calm, gentle horse and a hideous one. We just worked with this shy horse because it actually did things. The scene in which the horse is moving towards me wasn’t planned or choreographed at all. You are unpredictable.
It could have been less intimidating than a sex scene. Is the one with Jessica Sula your first as an actress?
May be. I dont know.
Wouldn’t you remember
You would think! I made a romantic scene [onstage] in “A Month in the Country” with Taylor Schilling. I remember getting pretty [expletive] Review. [Laughs.]
Since autumn 2018 you have been going back and forth between “Panic” and “West Side Story”. How did you deal with these very physical projects?
For “West Side” I found these Bruce Davidson photos of Brooklyn gangs from the late 50s. If you look at their photos, these guys are emaciated, they have tattoos and they look wired. Any money they had they would pool and buy cheap wine and maybe they would have fries or something. Then they did drugs. So I said, “I have to take something off.” But my body totally collapsed. Then I tried to collect as much as I could for “panic” – just eat potatoes.
Did you do any special training?
I started going to the Mendez boxing hall in Manhattan for West Side. I worked with John Rosado who grew up in New York, Puerto Rican, Badass. He said, “I can’t believe I’m training a jet!”
Her first big job was in the Broadway musical Newsies, which is pretty dance-heavy. Still, was it daunting auditioning for “West Side Story”?
I put a band together and then they said, “We want you to come back and dance.” I said, “is there any way not to make me dance?” They said, “What are you talking about? This is ‘West Side Story’! “The only salvation is Justin Peck [the choreographer] and I have similar body types: tall, nothing but arms and legs. They had cut out their work for her to get me to snuff.
Why are you not in the coming Film “Dear Evan Hansen” next to your former co-star Ben Platt?
I feel like I couldn’t do it. I started when I was 21 and been with it for five or six years. When you do eight shows a week, it very much depends on whether you are confident in your technique and what you are doing. And the show was such a contemporary thing. It really took away a lot from me and I didn’t really have it in me anymore.
What’s up with “Panic” and “West Side Story”?
Maybe that’s so presumptuous, but “West Side” was everything I ever hoped for as an actor. It’s really crazy, but it was transcendent: either I didn’t feel like myself or I was the most authentic version of myself. I can’t really tell which one. After running out of money and just wanting to be a working actor, I don’t want to be just a working actor anymore. I had this experience. It [expletive] me up.
What has done
“West Side” in the best possible way. I can’t see what I saw. The pandemic almost killed us and – what, I just want to be an actor? That’s ridiculous. [Laughs.] It is not important enough to me. It’s a strange thing: I can’t tell if I hate acting or if I love it too much. It’s not that I don’t plan on doing it. I just don’t want to follow the path the industry demands of me.
Which is what
Put on a cloak and wear a mask. I have to take more agency because no one will do it for me. It’s difficult, but interesting, and quite exciting. I’m going to hang out with my family in Ohio and then find out where I’m going. I want to be of use and benefit in the end. Then I feel best.