Even with his name up in lights on a Broadway marquee, former “Grey’s Anatomy” star T.R. Knight is achingly insecure.
The fact that he’s now starring — and gets equal billing — with the mighty Patrick Stewart in a David Mamet play hasn’t chased away the 37-year-old actor’s gnawing fear that it could all be taken away.
“You wonder if they pulled the name from the right list,” he says, only half-joking, during an interview in the empty Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre. “I haven’t been canned yet. But you never know.”
Some of Knight’s self-effacement might be due to a bronchial infection that’s sapping his strength. Some of it may be simply due to his apparent ego-less personality. But much of it is the result of the ups and downs of a show biz career that began at age 5.
“You set your expectations low so you’re not disappointed and then something like this happens and it’s fantastic. So then you go to the next job and it’s like, ‘Now I’ll never work again,’” he says. “We choose a job where we’re rejected 99 percent of the time. We have to be just completely bonkers in order to do that.”
That’s not to say that sometimes an actor can reject a job, too. Knight might not be appearing on Broadway in “A Life in the Theatre” if he hadn’t last year walked away from his role as Dr. George O’Malley on the ABC medical drama.
He asked to be released from his contract early after realizing his part was not fulfilling. His departure also came a few years after co-star Isaiah Washington referred to him with an anti-gay slur, prompting Knight to publicly disclose his homosexuality. Washington was fired.
“It was time to go,” Knight says of his decision. “Looking back, I learned so much and it was so valuable. But there are times in anybody’s job where you feel the best decision is to move on. It doesn’t detract from the knowledge that I gained, and it doesn’t detract from my gratitude.”
As expected, Knight says he holds no grudges. This is a guy who still peppers a discussion of his career with shout-outs to people who cast him or advised him years ago, from camera operators to voice coaches to everyone else.
“I have good friends still on it so you’re not going to get me to say anything bad. I support them and I love them,” he says, adding that former co-star Kate Walsh has already seen his new play and other ex-cast members plan to attend opening night.
After Knight’s five-year, Emmy-nominated run ended, he had no immediate plans other than renovating his home in Los Angeles. That’s not good for an actor who confesses he has daily what-am-I-doing-with-my-life questions. He also was walking away from a comfortable, regular paycheck.
“People like to add up all the dollar signs and how much you’re walking away from, and let them. That’s cool. I’m the one that’s walking in my shoes,” he says.
Knight, who was appearing in a production of “Parade” at L.A.‘s Mark Taper Forum when he heard that he’d gotten the Mamet play, knows that being on a hit TV show certainly helped him nab the part. But director Neil Pepe says Knight’s skills were most important, calling him a detail-orientated, meticulous professional.
“He just so honestly and bravely brings the truth of who he is to everything he does, and that’s an element we’re always looking for in great actors,” Pepe says. “There’s no question in my mind that T.R is a formidable talent.”
The play is a love letter to the stage and actors. Told through two dozen vignettes, it shows the sometimes competitive, sometimes touching interaction between an older actor (Stewart) and an up-and-commer (Knight).
“I’m in some amazing company and very lucky to be included,” Knight says.
On a more personal note, he isn’t sure yet how publicly coming out has changed his acting. “As far as the effect of it, I really think that I’m just too in it,” he says. “I’m too close to it. That’s for others to decide. And everyone has an opinion.”
He’s currently subletting an apartment in the cool and young Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg with his two large rescue mutts (one is 70 pounds and the other is 50 pounds). “They’re kind of like, ‘Apartment living, huh? Really?’ But they’re getting used to it,” he says.
Knight, who acted at the Guthrie Theater in his native Minneapolis for years, hit some high spots when he spent six years in New York before “Grey” turned up: parts in the Broadway production of “Noises Off” in 2001 and then “Tartuffe,” which earned him a Drama Desk nomination. He also had low moments, as when he was fired from one job and was dumped by his agent.
“That roller coaster — it’s a pretty severe ride sometimes. I was lucky and had some great experiences and there was a lot of tumbleweeds as well,” he says. “But that will happen again.”