Before he joined Fox’s House as the yin to Hugh Laurie’s yang, Robert Sean Leonard was an accomplished Broadway thespian with a handful of Tony nominations (and a win — hello!) under his belt. Now, for the first time in nearly a decade, he’s back on the Great White Way in a revival of Garson Kanin’s 1946 comedy, Born Yesterday. So, while the show is in previews at the moment (ahead of its April 24 opening), the actor is juggling his stage duties with his taping of the final episodes of House‘s seventh season, meaning he commutes from NYC to L.A. on his one day off a week. What was so appealing to him about playing the journalist hired by a corrupt tycoon (The Defenders‘ Jim Belushi) to tutor his airheaded girlfriend (played by newcomer Nina Arianda) that he’d put himself through all this? A hint can be found in the headline. But, as you might expect, there’s more to the story — much more.
TVLine | Why did you wait seven years to return to Broadway?
This is my last season of House. I’m shooting my last episode now. Contractually this is it. There’s also no deal for House next year because Comcast bought NBC Universal and no one has a deal. If I do House next year it’ll be under a new umbrella. But legally and contractually, I’m free after this [season]. So my wife [Gabriella Salick] and I were wondering how the summer looked and what we wanted to do. And I’ve never had enough time to do a play [while doing House] because our hiatuses are only about a month of maybe six weeks long.
TVLine | You don’t really believe this is your last season, do you? I mean, House will eventually get renewed, and you’re a huge part of the show so they’re going to want you back.
[Pauses] I. Love. Money. Very, very much. But I also love my wife and my daughter. And when this play first came up I knew the only way it could work is if the show was over because the run [would overlap] with House‘s shooting schedule. And when my contract was not renewed this season… The long and short of it is, I don’t know. I would love to make more money. Money is nice. I also really miss [living in] New Jersey. I also really miss theater. I miss my friends. Gabby misses her family. I’m sick and tired of living in a place I don’t feel at home. There are very pressing, strong things pulling us in both directions at the moment, so I really don’t know what we’re going to do. It’s going to be a family decision, but it’s not one we have the discomfort of making right now because we’re not being offered options. I assume they’ll make another year of House. And I assume I will do it. But I can’t say for sure. My wife and I are really strange people. We never spend any money. I got my first car when I got out here — a Jetta — and I’ve been driving it since the pilot. We haven’t spent much of the money we’ve made.
TVLINE | You’re shooting the season finale of House now. Does it allude to a possible Wilson departure?
That’s not the plot of the episode, no. That’s not what the episode is about at all.
TVLINE | Even if you do return next season, you’ll still have to miss a couple of episodes because of the play, right?
I’d have to miss quite a few. We could do what we’re doing now, but I’m not sure I would do that – for any amount of money. Commuting 2700 miles is too much for me, and it’s too much for my voice… It’s just hard. I would either have to not be in the first few episodes or they’d have to delay the start date. Or I can be written lightly in them and shoot a couple of Mondays here and there. Anything’s possible.
TVLINE | Why did you decide to make Born Yesterday your Broadway comeback?
Because I love the play. And because [director] Doug Hughes hired Nina [Arianda]. If Doug had hired a famous actress I would have been hesitant. The point of Born Yesterday and the joy of Born Yesterday is Nina Arianda and discovering [her character]. And if you do the play right, then the joy of the play is redefining her every 18 minutes. You think you know who this girl is, and then every 18minutes or so you go, “Wait a minute. Where’d that come from.” That’s what makes the play work. Unfortunately, there aren’t many times in theater when you have someone good enough to pull it off, and we somehow got lucky with Nina.
TVLINE | Was it tough to get back into the eight-shows-a-week grind after doing a TV show for seven years?
No, not at all. I’m at House 17 hours a day. To go into a theater and do a play and be home by 11 – oh my god, are you kidding? It’s like nothing to me. And when you have two dogs and a two-year-old daughter, that’s a nice schedule. I drive to [the House set] in the dark and I come home in the dark. Sure, theater is tough because you’re not home at night a lot and you work on weekends – every job has its downside. But to do something that you love doing for two hours a night, that’s a pretty sweet gig.
TVLINE | Did you miss it?
Oh my God yes. I almost didn’t do it because of scheduling. I looked at the schedule and said, “This is insane. There’s no way.” I had days highlighted in yellow that I was going to be in L.A., and days highlighted in pink that I was going to be in New York. I looked at my wife and I said, “Forget it. There’s no way. I’ll lose my mind.” And she basically said, “If you don’t do this I’ll kill you. You need this. You need to do something you feel this [passionate] about.” I’ve been [on a high] since the first day of rehearsal. I love this company. I love Doug Hughes, I love the play. I love doing it. I can’t wait to get to work every night. I enjoy every minute of it.
TVLINE | I gather House has been accommodating with the scheduling?
Yes, amazingly so. They were extremely, extremely accommodating and sweet about it. They were great. They moved some things around, and they probably wrote me lighter in the final episodes.
TVLINE | Were you prepared to use the “Olivia Wilde got to take a year off to make a movie” argument if they resisted?
No. When I called I said, “Look, you guys — If this can work, great. If it can’t, there are no hard feelings.” Wilson is many things but he’s not Thirteen. I can’t just go away. Thirteen can disappear; Wilson can’t. The show just isn’t structured that way. He has to be there. It’s the way the show works. [He’s like] Carlton the Doorman on Rhoda.
TVLINE | What is Wilson’s arc in these final episodes? Is it mostly him continuing to prop up House?
He’s kind of propping up House. This season has mostly been about House and Cuddy and them trying to make [a relationship] work, which is fine with me. I’ve had a lot of time with my dogs and my daughter. I’m just around to pick up the pieces this season.
TVLINE | Were you disappointed Wilson couldn’t make things work with his ex Sam [Cynthia Watros]?
Yeah. I love Cynthia. Anne Dudek was also great. It’s always sad [when Wilson loses a love interest]. But it’s like when Fonzie gets a girlfriend. You’re like, “She’ll be gone soon.” How long can Pinky Tuscadero stick around?
TVLINE | She’ll be hit by a train or something.
[Laughs] Right. Wilson can’t have a long-term girlfriend. It just doesn’t work.
Thoughts? Can there be a House without Wilson? And are you excited to see Leonard stretch his creative wings in Born Yesterday? Hit the comments!