The first thing one notices about Joe Wissler is his size. At six-foot four, two hundred and twenty-five pounds, he usually stands out in a crowd. The next things that become quickly apparent are his gregarious nature and welcoming sense of humor. But the Manhattan-born, Brooklyn-raised character actor gets very serious when discussing the details of his chosen career. “What I love about Joe is his professionalism and dedication to his craft, which he clearly loves," playwright and casting agent David Bellantoni says about Wissler, who was recently nominated for Best Actor at the Unchained one-act theater festival for starring as a Brian Dennehy-like tough guy in Bellantoni’s Laundry, which took the Audience Award. “Most actors, no matter where they are from, think they can pull off a New York character – accent, attitude, swagger,” Bellantoni continues, “but in performance you can almost always tell they’re from somewhere else. Joe is the real deal, the genuine article. It was a pleasure to work with him and I would do so again in a heartbeat.”
Wissler is very much the real deal. In order to start dating (and eventually marry) Grace Argentina, he had to get past her eleven not-so-friendly brothers. Grace and Joe’s son is a Suffolk County police officer, their daughter a Nassau County teacher and track coach. And Wissler continues winning better and better roles in an extremely difficult business. This week Wissler, who has appeared onstage with John Amos (Good Times, Roots) in Felony Friday at the Fringe Festival, on Law and Order: SVU on television, and in such indie films as Waiting for the Blackout and Abscond Valley, is back at the Fringe in Baby GirL, Kutumba Theatre Project artistic director Kim Ehly’s semiautobiographical comedy about adoption, coming out as a lesbian, and searching for home. In between rehearsals for the show, which runs August 8, 10, 14, 18, and 24 at the Kraine Theater, Wissler discussed his acting career, his size, his deep, profound love of his craft, and more.
twi-ny: You were last at the Fringe in 2011, when you starred with John Amos in Felony Friday. What was that experience like?
Joe Wissler: In a word, it was amazing. Of course, I have been a fan of John’s since I can remember. I was so glad when he came to the rehearsals ready to work like any other actor. No pretense, no attitude. We shared most of his scenes, so we rehearsed quite a bit together. I’m happy to say that we became friends and remain so to this day.
twi-ny: This year you’re appearing at the Fringe in Baby GirL. Can you tell us a little about your role and how you got the part? It’s a different kind of show for you.
JW: I actually play two roles in the show. In the first act I play Dave, adopted father to Ashley, a very traditional, head of the family, “meat and potatoes Republican” living in South Florida in the late 1960s to 1980s. I dote on Ashley, which is why she comes out to me first, that she is a lesbian. Things take a turn from that moment on. In act two, I play Henry, husband of Ashley’s biological mother. Henry is a simple man who doesn’t say too much, thanks to the nonstop talking of his wife.
I auditioned for the roles, with absolute abandon. In one flashback scene, I jump into four different scenarios in a matter of one minute. There is just no way to win a part like that unless you are willing to completely commit to that individual moment. There was no playing it safe at this audition.
twi-ny: What is it that resonated with you to make you want to work on this play?
JW: Baby GirL is a play about struggling. Ashley struggles to find her sexual identity, her birth parents, and her life. Dave and Mary struggle to conceive a child, raise a child the way they think she should be raised, and then break away from the child they don’t understand. Struggle is what creates conflict, which is what creates drama. The beautiful thing about this play is there is lots of comedy mixed in with the drama, and a fine cast that understands how to work both the comedy and the drama so it will move the audience to laughter and tears. I’m sure the audience will walk away from this show with a lot to think about and talk about. And hopefully it will help someone out there struggling with his or her own personal feelings, be that if they need to come out, accept someone who comes out, or just choose to live the life they want for themselves.
twi-ny: You’re six-foot-four, two hundred twenty-five pounds, and from Brooklyn, yet you’ve appeared in a wide variety of genres on film and television and onstage. Do you think your size is a hindrance or an advantage?
JW: [laughs] My size can be both an advantage and a hindrance. Most times I find it to be an advantage. Of course, I can remember times when it worked against me. Many years ago, when I was a child, I started growing at an unbelievable rate. I can remember walking into auditions at ten years old and being taller than the man auditioning to play my father. More recently, I was being considered for a great part in a film. I was to play Jon Voight’s brother. Before production began, I was told that Jon Voight would not be doing the film. Instead, Malcolm McDowell was the new lead. Jon Voight and I are almost the same size, but I am seven inches taller than Malcolm McDowell. Apparently, size did matter. I always find a way to fit my dimensions into the skin of the character I am playing.
What about your accent?
JW: [laughs again] What accent? In my day-to-day life, my New York accent is certainly apparent. I have learned to eliminate it for professional purposes. Just listen to me say “You didn’t talk much at dinner” in Baby GirL.
twi-ny: What’s more fun – playing the cop or the mob guy?
JW: I love acting. I love the characters that I get to play. I humanize the characters by a simple yet effective method. I find myself in the character, I find the character in me and find myself as the character in the situation. With that, anything is possible. The rest just depends on the costume.
twi-ny: You were recently nominated for Best Actor in David Bellantoni’s Laundry, in which the cast really seemed to bond. You’re a gregarious fellow; what’s it like when a group of actors don’t really come together on a set?
JW: Laundry was a great experience. A set is a family. It’s very important to make it work, with everyone involved – cast, crew, writers, production, and director. We are all working toward a common goal: To do the best work we are capable of. Nothing on set or behind the scenes should distract from that goal. That being said, jealousies and insecurities are always possible. While studying at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute, I was taught that just like any other walk of life, you will meet all kinds, just more so in acting. Concentrate on your work and leave the negativity to those who need it. I only experienced that kind of situation on one project. Hopefully, never again.
twi-ny: You’ve also done stand-up comedy; do you still go back in front of that brick wall?
JW: I have not in quite a while. I am thinking about performing stand-up in L.A. on my next trip there in September.
twi-ny: What do you have coming up after Baby GirL?
JW: I will have a couple of weeks here in New York City to enjoy the rest of the summer. I am cowriting a play that I hope to finish this year. I will be traveling back and forth to the West Coast. My L.A. agent, Marlene Hartje, is amazing. I can’t wait to get back out there and see what she has waiting for me. There are a few plays being produced here in New York that I would love to finish the year out with. John Amos and I have been trying to coordinate our schedules for a couple of years, with the hopes of mounting a great two-man play a friend of his wrote. And of course, I am constantly on the hunt for a production of John Logan’s Red that is casting.