Carver Duncan: Advocate

Photo by Jackie Abbott of JMA Photography

Amidst the din of small-talk chatter, my ears perk up.

“The epidemic deeply affected me,” casually reveals Carver Duncan to me—then stops. He’s greeting passengers outside the state-of-the-art theater aboard the cruise liner, The Viking Sea. He and his fellow musicians just finished a rousing production of “The Music of ABBA,” and they left the audience dancing in the aisles!

Carver had dropped a bomb, but this wasn’t the appropriate time to continue the discussion. We agree to meet tomorrow in more quiet surroundings.

In my cabin later that night, I drink red wine on my balcony, allowing the gentle sounds of the Mediterranean Sea splashing against the ship to lull me into a state of euphoria. The moon amplifies the beauty of the serene scene. With computer at hand, I research Carver on social media. One of his tweets: “I just accidentally said ‘idiocity’ instead of ‘idiocy’ proving that I am, in fact, an ‘idiot.’” I like him already.

The Triple Threat (singer, dancer, actor) hails from Vicksburg, a small town outside

Illustration by Davidd Batalon

Kalamazoo, Michigan; he tells me later: “The population is so small that it’s classified a ‘village.’” Carver, twenty-four, is a Virgo—just like yours truly. NYC is now his home, but he landed a nine-month contract with Viking, an absolutely unparalleled cruise line.
I was talking to Johan, the assistant manager of the World Café restaurant, and he said, “Viking hires on smiles, not skills. That gets you through the first interview.” That says it all about the friendly crew aboard this circuitous trip from Barcelona to Barcelona.

What a ship! C’mon, we’re talking heated bathroom floors, free laundry facilities (including soap), every day in your room filtered water is supplied in glass carafes (plastic is toxic), and complimentary land tours provided at each port! Viking is heavy into charity and operates an extensive corporate giving and sponsorship program around the world. Their core commitment is to arts, culture, and health. They also extend support to a vast list of nonprofits, donating hundreds of staterooms each year.

Back to Carver, whose CV includes the national tour of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, West Side Story (received a BroadwayWorld Award for Best Actor), High School Musical, and Legally Blonde. He’s a graduate of NYU Tisch School of the Arts, and has performed at Radio City Music Hall, Joe’s Pub, and the Beverly Wilshire, in Los Angeles. Carver has also participated in benefits on behalf of Broadway Cares.

At 6 p.m. sharp, before his evening performance, I meet Carver at the World Café on Deck 7. We are dining outside on the stern, with the romantic Monte Carlo lights twinkling around us.

Ruby Comer: Carver, tell me [I fire in rapid succession]: your favorite movie, the book you’re currently reading, a role you’d sell your right arm for, and who influenced you spiritually.
Carver Duncan: Well, let’s see…in that order: unquestionably, Young Frankenstein by Mel Brooks; the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series; Pippin; and Brené Brown. She is brilliant. If you haven’t listened to her speak or read her stuff, do it. She’s helped me through so much. Who have you learned from?

Gee, I haven’t heard of her. Will check out. As for me, well, I’ve learned a lot from Louise Hay. [I pause.] And…Carver, Carver, Carver, I can definitely see you as Pippin. Ever so much! So tell me, what calls to mind when the epidemic is mentioned?
Truthfully…I think about two profound plays that introduced me to the subject—Angels in America by Tony Kushner and The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer. Both are brilliant pieces depicting what so many have lived through.

Omigosh, brilliant. Brilliant. [I take a bite of my dee-lish peanut-encrusted chicken breast with lemongrass sauce.]
I encountered both plays my freshman year of college at Tisch. My fabulous professor, Mr. Kent Gash, exposed us to such great material that year and these were two of the plays that he assigned scenes from. A daunting task for one so young, but it pushed us all to understand these characters and what they were experiencing. It taught us so much about this time in American history.

When I was working on a scene from Angels in America, my acting teacher told an incredibly moving story about one of his close friends who died from AIDS. He told us what it was like to open the newspaper every week to see which one of their friends passed away. Or what it was like to attend a funeral every week. Heart-wrenching. It affected their lives palpably and dramatically. [He takes a moment, as the warm breeze flips through his dishwater blonde strands.] Though I did not experience the epidemic firsthand, just listening to his stories and other’s experiences, I connected to the material instantly and intensely.

Carver Duncan performing on The Viking Sea. Photo by Chris Dikman

And like you said last night, you channel all that into the character you’re creating.
Yes, Ruby. In class, I played the part of Prior in Angels. I felt that it was coming from a truthful and honest place. [He pauses, biting into his sushi.] I appreciate all those people who were so open and generous to tell me their personal stories.

For an actor, yes, quite beneficial. [All of a sudden I size him up. He looks at me quizzically.] I have to tell you, you have an uncanny resemblance to Andrew Rannells….
Ruby, if I had a dime for every time someone said I remind them of Andrew Rannells, I’d be rich! Yeh, I have to admit I agree.

Sorry to interrupt your train of thought. Please forge ahead. [He smiles.]
If you study the history of theater the epidemic is so evident in art from this time. One of my favorite musicals, Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim, which opened on Broadway in November 1987…

[I interrupt] You even know the date! You sure are a Broadway baby…[we both chuckle].
The musical twists a lot of famed childhood stories into a brilliant piece for everyone to enjoy, with spine-chilling melodies and unbelievable emotion. In the second act, the giant comes down the beanstalk and begins killing people without rhyme or reason. Think about it…a large, unseen monster taking the lives of innocent people in the late eighties. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? It took the witch’s daughter without warning, leading the witch to unimaginable heartbreak and devastation. She says “Remorse will get you nowhere. Wake up. When you’re dead, you’re dead.”

[He shakes his head.] What kind of heartbreak must someone have gone through to say something like that? By studying and practicing the art of this time, we are engaging and interacting as characters that have lived through these times. The actor’s job is to put themselves fully and completely in another’s psyche.

Carver, you’ve captured it wholly…and beautifully. Insightful.

Photo by Jackie Abbott of JMA Photography

I am secretly a bit of a nerd! I thought I was maybe destined to be a mathematician or a doctor, but halfway through my education, I realized that the arts were my true passion.

Another passion of yours is to give, like Broadway Cares. Where does that come from?
My parents definitely instilled that value in me. I have two of the most supportive and generous parents on the planet and they have always encouraged me to give back whenever I can. Broadway Cares is an amazing organization that helps so many and it is my honor to assist them, whether it’s lending my talents to a benefit concert or putting some money in the red buckets on my way out of a Broadway play.

Unfortunately, so many of your generation are becoming infected with the virus. Can you address that?
Several of my friends back home are infected. [He thinks.] We must continue to encourage everyone to get tested regularly. Knowledge is power. Besides that, always be safe…no matter what! [With that, he pecks me on the cheek and bows out to his performance of Beatlemania called The Long & Winding Road that’s staged in the mammoth pool area, with the night stars substituting for the ceiling.]

[Carver doesn’t get far until he abruptly stops, turns about face, and returns to me, concluding in a more-than somber staccato tone] Tell your readers, don’t…let…one… poor…decision…affect…the…rest…of …your…life.

Ruby Comer is an independent journalist from the Midwest who is happy to call Hollywood her home away from home. Reach her by e-mail at [email protected].