Samurai Shopper | The Sweet Smell of Raúl Esparza
By: S.S. Fair
Actors go to great, often absurd lengths preparing for roles: Robert De Niro gained more than 60 pounds to better portray Jake LaMotta in “Raging Bull”; Nicole Kidman did Cyrano de Bergerac one better by growing a formidable Virginia Woolf-like nose in “The Hours.” But real method acting is less complicated and literal than that. It’s about making connections to sensory experiences — sights, smells, tastes, sounds — in order to flesh out a character’s character. The consummate Broadway actor Raúl Esparza is very clever in this regard: he picks a cologne/perfume for each role he takes and wears the scent until the the show shutters.
“A particular smell puts me in a place so much faster than any intellectual work I could do,” he explains. It makes perfect, Proustian sense. Right now Esparza is starring as the religious con artist Jonas Nightingale in “Leap of Faith,” a musical adapted from the 1992 film of the same name. The Samurai Shopper attended a preview weeks ago and said: Positively electrifying! Audiences were ecstatic. The almighty critics, however, were not. Though “Leap of Faith” won a Tony nomination for Best Musical, Esparza takes his final bow at the St James Theater on Sunday; all the fire and music in his performance will be history.
But the sweet smell of Raúl will undoubtedly linger on. Esparza’s been sporting Tom Ford for Men for his role as the flimflam man. “Tom Ford smells musky on me and a little bit trashy, in a good way,” he said. “And it’s not ridiculously expensive; it’s something Jonas — my character — could afford. The cast likes it, too.”
In “Speed the Plow,” Esparza went with Red, a honking, hyper-masculine scent by Giorgio of Beverly Hills from the ’80s. “It reminded me of a truck stop on the Florida turnpike,” he said. “It was so, so wrong. I smelled it and I was back in high school. My character was a cokehead, wore power suits and drank till he couldn’t see straight; today he’d be one of those frat-boy investment bankers, an overgrown boy.”
Esparza also chooses scents for sentimental reasons. “As the M.C. in ‘Cabaret,’ I wore Guerlain’s Imperiale because my grandfather used to wear it,” he said. “My grandmother would spray handkerchiefs with it when I had a headache, and put it on my head. It worked. As Lenny in ‘The Homecoming.’ I wore Old Spice because my dad always wore Old Spice.”
Everyone’s dad wore Old Spice. “I’m drawn to those tobacco-y musky smells,” Esparza admitted. This was the Samurai’s cue to whip out Frapin 1697, tobacco-rich, rum-laden and smelling like Havana. Esparza, a Cuban-American, was hooked: “Mmm. Cigars, leather, burnt sugar, espresso that’s been boiling for too many hours.” He died for Tom Ford’s Black Orchid. “This could be Jonas in ‘Leap of Faith’ too. Totally Jonas!” Ouarzazate by Comme des Garçons struck another chord. “This is Sundance, not the film festival but the actual town, the mountains and again, the woods and smoke.” Richwood, by Xerjoff XJ at $670 per 100 milliliters caused the first nose wrinkle: “Too rosy and sweet.” But as it dried down he had his epiphany: “Actually, this smells amazing.” Then the Samurai went in for the kill: Copper Skies by Kerosene, chockablock with amber, tobacco — loud, macho spices that end in a delicious whimper. Esparza was halfway to olfactory heaven. “These may be great for some future characters, but right now they’re for me.”
No matter the vagaries of life on Broadway, Esparza’s done time with the best of the best: Shakespeare, Stoppard, Sondheim, Pinter, Mamet. Whatever’s next, I’m certain he’ll come up smelling like roses. Or tobacco, amber, citrus.