Audiences and theater artists have known two Jake Walkers: the Old Jake and the New Jake.
The Old Jake weighed north of 200 pounds and ate whatever he wanted to. He was a baby-faced, energetic young actor who was always interesting to watch.
The New Jake is still fun to see onstage, but he’s lean and mean, focused and mature.
Aside from prodigious talent, both Jakes have something in common: a perpetual gleam in the eye. Walker looks like he enjoys every second onstage.
The 34-year-old actor recently described the Old Jake as a cautionary tale.
“I was in my 20s and I definitely took advantage of being in my 20s,” he said during a dressing-room interview at the Coterie. “I enjoyed myself maybe a little too much. I’m glad I survived it. But I learned a lot. I think a 20- or 25-year-old has to do that because then you learn why you don’t do that. I’ve always had to learn things the hard way.”
Walker began his career in Kansas City but then spent about five years in Denver, where he worked at most of the professional theaters in the city. A little more than a year ago he moved back home, and local theatergoers saw the New Jake.
Coming home looks like a smart career move because at the moment he’s on an upward trajectory.
On his return he landed a role in “As You Like It” at the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival, followed closely by an evening of short plays by Shel Silverstein for last year’s KC Fringe.
In September he played a likable medic in “Red Badge Variations,” a world premiere at the Coterie about troops in Afghanistan. In March he was part of a fine cast in the Unicorn Theatre’s production of “Other Desert Cities,” a drama about a California political family.
Through Aug. 3 he’s anchoring the Coterie production of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” as inventor Caractacus Potts.
And he has begun work on an ambitious undertaking by Kansas City Actors Theatre: dual productions of “Hamlet” and Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” to be staged in repertory beginning in late August.
Walker will play Hamlet, his first Shakespearean lead. The Melancholy Dane is perhaps the most complex role for a young actor in all of Shakespeare.
“I’ve done a lot of Shakespeare, but this is the first title role,” he said. “It’s a hell of a first one, too. It’s the one everyone knows, and the one everyone has advice for. When people heard I was cast in ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ nobody came up to me and said, ‘Here’s what you’ve got to do for Caractacus Potts.’ But for Hamlet, I have plenty of tips.”
He has a toy story
Walker grew up in south Kansas City, attended Hickman Mills High School and for a year majored in theater at what is now Missouri State University in Springfield. That’s as far as he got in college before he started working professionally.
“I thought, ‘Well I’d rather make 400 bucks a week rather than pay 400 bucks a credit hour,’” he said. “Who knew at the time whether that was the right decision or not? Now it seems I’m doing OK. After 15 years I maybe have the equivalent of a B.A.”
His first paid gig was in 1999 at the Horsefeathers & Applesauce Dinner Theatre in Winfield, Kan.
“It was old-timey dinner theater, and they had plywood cutouts of cowboys and cowgirls (with signs saying) ‘Vittles This-a-Way!’ It was great because all the actors were on different crews. So we’d get up at 7 in the morning and go to the company meeting and then I’d sew costumes for three hours. Then I’d build sets for three hours and then rehearse a play for three hours. Then I’d go back to the costume shop.
“You kind of get a taste for all the different sides of it, and it helped me respect all the other people helping to put these plays on, not just actors and directors.”
In 2001 he was cast in the Unicorn Theatre’s production of the surrealistic farce “Fuddy Meers.” It was his first professional job in Kansas City. It came at a fortuitous time because the corporate world was courting him.
“I was working at the FAO Schwarz toy store on the Plaza and was on this kind of fast track,” he said “I was a great salesman. I was great with customers. I was the demo manager. I was on the verge of taking this job where I would fly to different cities and train other salesmen to play with the toys in a way that would make people buy them. I would have had a 401(k). I almost had a regular job.
“Then I got cast at the Unicorn, and I was like, ‘I quit!’ And I have not looked back.”
These days Walker gets by without a straight job.
“I have learned to lower my standard of living to where it’s not totally required for me to have a day job,” he said. “My wallet might appreciate me having a day job. But I’d rather not.
“Right now this is all I do today. And I can go home and look at my notes … or work on ‘Hamlet’ or whatever else is coming up. I can really focus on my craft that way. I have to drive a used Ford Focus, but …”
Walker said he learned a lot in Denver, but he’s glad to be back in Kansas City among a community of actors that seems to thrive on mutual support. It was in Denver that he acquired a new professional attitude that he said allows him to learn from older, experienced actors in Kansas City.
It was also in Denver that he physically transformed himself. He went from 240 pounds to 170.
“There’s no way I could do ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ back in the day,” he said. “I’d have a heart attack.”
These days he lifts weights, walks as much as six miles a day and tries “to not eat like an idiot.”
“I’ve always been me,” he said. “I would describe it more as what I expect out of life and myself just shifted. When I was younger I didn’t expect much of either. So when I was younger I grabbed any kind of short-term pleasure.
“Now it seems incredibly fulfilling being part of an ensemble where everyone cares about telling a story. That drives me and makes me want to take care of myself and my health and take care of my friends and family more.”
Finding kindred spirits
Some of the directors in town who have worked with Walker said he brings singular talents to any show.
“He’s got a unique set of skills because he’s got classical ability and can handle language plays, but he’s also a comic,” said Jeff Church, artistic director of the Coterie. “And he’s also kind of an improv guy. He can handle anything you throw at him.”
Walker has appeared in nine productions for the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival. Artistic director Sidonie Garrett said there was indeed a marked contrast between the Old Jake and the New Jake.
“He’s just matured,” Garrett said. “He was innately skilled, innately talented, and now he’s had time to go out in the world and experience things, and that informs his work. He’s learned how to be more professional.”
Aside from his abilities as a performer, Garrett said Walker is an enthusiastic collaborator.
“He’s very inventive,” she said. “He’s a great mix. He’s an actor-clown, which is a good thing. There’s a real sense of joy and fun in him. but he also understands the tears of a clown really well. … He has a very facile brain, and he’s a good company man. He loves working in a company, and he loves collaborating.”
In Denver, Walker said, most actors were just passing through. They had their sights set on Chicago or Los Angeles. Kansas City is different. There’s a sense of community here — and years of accrued experience.
“Not a lot of people stay in Denver 35 years,” Walker said. “Gary Neal Johnson could work all year in New York for sure. Or he could live in New York and be a regional actor working in Kansas City and Oregon and Indianapolis. But he lives here. John Rensenhouse lives here. And that counts for something.
“In Denver there’s a kind of weariness: ‘I like you and you’re nice but I don’t want to get too close because you’re just gonna leave.’ Everybody leaves.”
Here, Walker said, the emphasis is less on career and more on the quality of work.
“It’s like one big repertory theater with 13 different stages,” he said. “People stick with this city, and they’re proud of it. Everyone in this cast and in every show I’ve been in since I’ve been back are really putting their bodies and souls on the line for the sake of making the play good, for telling the story the way it should be told.
“I didn’t get into this for the money. I got into this job because I liked doing plays. It’s nice when everyone’s on the same page. There are no egos. We just work on the play.”
To reach Robert Trussell, call 816-234-4765 or send email to email@example.com.