NEW YORK (AP) — As a kid, Michael Cerveris was a big fan of black-and-white monster movies. But his loyalties weren't always with the humans.
"I always identified with the monster. I always felt like, 'Frankenstein didn't ask to be put together,'" he said, laughing. "He's misunderstood. Through no fault of his own, the villagers are rising up and chasing him."
That deep font of empathy has served Cerveris well: The Tony Award-winner has made a name for himself as the actor you must have if your musical calls for a conflicted, complex lead.
Cerveris has played John Wilkes Booth in "Assassins," the title roles in "Sweeney Todd" and "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" and Juan Peron in "Evita." Some are monsters, some just monstrous.
"I do find myself both attracted to the challenge of faithfully representing the scary and the dark and the unpleasant aspects of these characters but also arguing for their humanity," he said.
This spring Cerveris is adding to his impressive gallery of anti-heroes with the closeted and suicidal father at the heart of "Fun Home," a moving musical based on Alison Bechdel's graphic novel memoir.
The show, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and a hit with most of the same cast downtown last year, opens this month at Circle in the Square Theatre.
Cerveris' portrayal is of a manic, unhappy man, prone to obsessions and sudden outbursts, angry and conflicted. But he also dances and joyfully plays with his kids. It is a hauntingly good performance.
"This is not the most demanding show vocally that I've ever done at all. It's not the most physically demanding show," he said. "But emotionally, it's the most draining, exhausting thing I've ever done."
Director Sam Gold said making sure Cerveris joined the cast for the Broadway run was crucial since the actor brings his strong work ethic and sense of compassion.
"He has connected with this character and the story in this really beautiful way that seems beyond acting," Gold said. "Through his eyes, you can go miles down into the depth of that story."
During a recent visit to Cerveris' dressing room, the thoughtful and easygoing actor was preparing for a rehearsal by listening to singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt on a record player that sits near a lava lamp he's dug up from storage. He's forever trying to channel the 1970s, where much of "Fun Home" is set.
Music is a key part of understanding Cerveris, who grew up listening to eclectic radio stations of the 1970s and whose first single he ever bought was the funky "Bertha Butt Boogie" by The Jimmy Castor Bunch.
Cerveris was Bob Mould's guitarist on tour in 1998 and he put out a solo CD in 2004 called "Dog Eared," which poured out of him after a breakup. His country band, Loose Cattle, recently released a live debut record "North of Houston" and Cerveris' second solo album, "Piety," is being released soon.
He grew up in Huntington, West Virginia, the child of artistic parents who encouraged their son's own expression, something of an oddity for that time and place. "I identify with that feeling of separateness and differentness and oddness," he said.
Cerveris, 54, never intended on a career in musical theater, though he sang in choir and was in rock bands in junior high, which he calls "mostly loud rather than good."
After school at Yale, he intended to focus on classics and bill himself as an actor who sang, not a singer who acted. All that changed when he went to an audition for "The Who's Tommy" with a guitar and sang a David Bowie song.
He got the job and would play the lead in that show over 1,400 times, changing his life. He went on to do "Titanic" on Broadway and got pegged as a musical theater powerhouse.
"It still amuses me that I find myself in this musical theater position," he said. "If I were smart enough to be able to strategize a career like mine, it's exactly the career, in hindsight, that I would have asked for."
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits