Tonight’s Smash resolved a cliffhanger that no one — especially not optimistic young playwright Kyle Bishop — saw coming.
The car that came bearing down on Kyle at the end of last Saturday’s episode ultimately claimed his life, we learned in “The Phenomenon,” an hour in which his friends and colleagues mourned his loss and flashed back to key moments in their relationships with him.
Theater star Andy Mientus, who landed his first major TV role playing Kyle, said he was initially saddened by his character’s demise — until showrunner Josh Safran explained that the NBC musical drama was telling a parallel story to that of composer and playwright Jonathan Larson, who passed away right before the off-Broadway opening of his landmark musical Rent.
Here, Mientus opens up about how he got the news of Kyle’s fate, what it was like shooting his final musical number (set to Jeff Buckley’s “The Last Goodbye”) and whether he had any trepidation about a storyline that so closely adhered to a real-life Broadway tragedy.
TVLINE | “Oh my God. They killed Kyle!” How early on did you learn your character’s fate, and what was your reaction?
They gave me plenty of notice, which was really nice. It’s not like I found out at the table read. Still, I had a complicated response. Of course, I was upset that I wasn’t going to be able to continue with the show, and I was sad for Kyle because I really love that character. At the same time, knowing the character was designed to meet his end to tell this Rent parallel story, there was a pressure to make Kyle really loveable, not a character that, when he died, people would be like “Oh, great, thank God.” After last week’s cliffhanger [with Kyle caught in the car’s headlights], people really freaked out, — the kids on the Internet — and seemed really, really upset by it. That made me feel like we did our job, because if Kyle wasn’t going to be a character who people would mourn, then the whole arc of the season would be ruined.
TVLINE | In the last three or four episodes, Kyle has really come into his own and gotten interesting. He went from a hapless writer to finding his stride professionally. He went from fawning without any hope over Jimmy to having a relationship with Blake the lighting guy, and then having an affair with Tom on the side. And he finally stood up to Jimmy as his final act. How did you feel about Kyle’s character development, and the point at which he left us.
I’m really glad that we got to see Kyle wrapped up before he met his end. That makes it a satisfying arc. If he was still lovelorn and apologizing for himself and his work, if he was that goofy kid that we met at the beginning, then [his death] wouldn’t really mean anything. But luckily, you see him find his voice, create the musical that he wants to create. And I was really thrilled that, even though it’s not The Kyle Show, they gave him that much time before they used him as a device to affect the other characters. Because it’s about what his death does to everyone else and what it does to the musical. That’s really the story.
TVLINE | You got to sing Jeff Buckley’s “The Last Goodbye” right before Kyle’s death. Obviously, as viewers, we see Kyle packing up Jimmy’s belongings and delivering them to Jimmy’s brother’s drug den. Kyle is taking a stand and saying a last goodbye to his best friend. But obviously you knew as you filmed the scene that those headlights were going to be bearing down on Kyle. How did you approach the moment? And was it intense knowing it was your goodbye to Smash, in a sense?
It was really, really late at night. We’d shot all day that day. The thing that is so great about acting with music on a show like this is that the music does so much of the emotional work for you. It’s like having your own underscoring before they put it in. I was walking down the street looking at the city and hearing in my in-ear headpiece the playback of these string parts, and that made it feel very cinematic while I was doing it.
TVLINE | Kyle’s best friend and writing partner Jimmy has been a really polarizing character — bratty and self-centered, makes so many awful choices. Did Kyle have to die to redeem Jimmy?
Oh, absolutely. The last line that you see Kyle say in the series is in a flashback, as he and Jimmy are writing the show and they’re figuring out how to kill, or if they need to kill Amanda, Karen’s character in Hit List. And Kyle’s last line is something to the effect of “You’re right, she must die so your character can learn something.” And then it cuts back to the present and back to Jimmy, and it’s what Kyle leaves him and leaves the audience with: Someone has to die so that he can learn something. It’s definitely a parallel.
TVLINE | Is Jimmy redeemable?
I think so. We’ve seen snippets of the good guy that’s in there underneath all the stuff that he’s trying to work through. You see the brilliant artist and you see the good friend and the humor. Knowing that Karen has just met him recently, when people ask “Why does she feel for this guy?”, that’s a valid question. She’s only really seen him be this drug-addled, unreliable guy with an attitude. But Kyle’s known him since they were kids. And so if Kyle is a likeable character, then you have to assume that there is something about Jimmy — other than the fact that Kyle might be in love with him — that makes him stick up for him and makes him believe in him still. So I think Jimmy is redeemable and you will see that played out this year.
TVLINE | You had Tweeted that tonight’s episode, which featured Kyle in multiple flashbacks, was your favorite. Tell me about those moments — especially the one with Tom serenading Kyle to Billy Joel’s “Vienna.” I felt like we saw perhaps a more adult side to Kyle than what had been presented previously.
It was such a pleasure for so many reasons. A lot of the time Kyle was used [in the overall scheme of the show] just for information, just to move the story along, because like I said, he’s not one of the main, main characters. But those scenes, they are really…well, I remember Josh [Safran] being worried about them because they were grace-note scenes. They didn’t necessarily move the plot forward, and he was worried that he was going to be under pressure to cut them, because there are so many mouths to feed on an ensemble show like Smash. But luckily they made it through. They were really quiet moments that you don’t get a lot of in a show like ours that is so plot-driven. So I liked that element of them. Also they were with actors that I really admire and love to work with, like with Christian [Borle]. I really think that scene with him is an awesome, really beautiful little moment for Kyle and Tom. And it explained to a lot of people who were confused by that pairing, why that pairing works. And also I just love the episode because it tells that story that I love so much, with the Hit List cast doing that sing-through and the show turning into a phenomenon that it does.
TVLINE | On that note, you mentioned your character’s arc and the parallels to Rent and its writer Jonathan Larson. There was a mix of reader comments at the end of our recap last week — some suggesting that maybe it paralleled real life too much, and to that end, was disrespectful. Did you ever have a worry about that?
Jonathan Larson and his story is something that I really don’t take lightly. He was such genius. Rent is the reason why I am trying to be an actor and trying to be a writer, and there is such a tragedy [to his death] that is still so palpable. I did Rent about two years ago with the director Karen Azenberg, who knew him, who knew his family and was invited to that famous sing-through the night that he had passed away, and couldn’t go because it was too close. And members of her family worked on Rent. She said [Jonathan] was present [in spirit] every day, it felt like, and how that tragedy was still looming over her because of the kind of person he was. So, I was very nervous, sure, but it is a great story and it is something that really happened and you know, hopefully Kyle has mirrored Jonathan Larson’s enthusiasm and his light and positivity in a way that will make that parallel something that’s a tribute and not exploitative. It’s about this kid who loves this art form more than anything, and has worked so hard and struggled so much to get the show to where it is, and then can’t be there to see it through. Hopefully that’s the story that we’re telling.