Joshua Malina stars in world premiere play at the Old Globe

In his nine years as a dad to two Webster Elementary kids, the actor Joshua Malina could often be seen around campus volunteering or chaperoning sleepaway trips. Such is the life of an actor with downtime between projects; in Malina’s case, work on the hit television show “The West Wing,” where the popular actor was a series regular playing Will Bailey. 

For the last 30 years, the New York born actor has been busy in Hollywood with roles in the television shows “Scandal,” “Sports Night,” and “The Big Bang Theory” along with film roles in “Bulworth,” “The American President,” and scores of others. Now the former Malibu resident has gone back to his roots starring in the comedic and captivating play “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank.”

Malina first landed on Broadway right out of Yale. “I graduated in 1988, and all I wanted to do was theater. I got a classic lucky break because one of my close friends, Aaron Sorkin, had written an incredible play called ‘A Few Good Men.” Malina called the role a “dream come true.” “I did the play for 15 months, had the time of my life, and mistakenly thought that a career in theater had been born.” But then stage acting took a backseat as Hollywood called and quickly gave Malina the opportunity to work in film and primarily television, with one of his first recurring roles on “The Larry Sanders Show.”

Malina has now come full-circle with his starring role in the world premiere of “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego. It’s a comedy, and as the title suggests, it’s thought provoking. The play was written by Pulitzer Prize finalist Nathan Englander, whose books Malina was already a fan of. “I read the play and was completely knocked out by it and also recognized it as one of the great roles of my career that I was being offered.” The two had never met until Malina won the starring role.

“It is time finally I have an opportunity, an incredible role in a terrific play, and I’m doing a play again for the first time essentially in 30 years. I’ve done some things on stage, but not a full play,” the actor said.

“To some extent, I forgot my initial love for acting, which is to get in front of a live audience and to get that feedback immediately. I’ve become used to acting in bits of 30 seconds here and two minutes there, and if you mess up, you go back to the beginning. There’s something exhilarating about stepping on stage and doing a 120-page play over the course of the next hour and 40 minutes. All day I look forward to the 100 minutes I’m going to spend on stage with the rest of the cast. It’s a very funny play in addition to being moving and taking on some big issues.”

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Playwright Nathan Englander described his piece as about “friendship, belief, and passionate ideas.” “The theater is in the round, and you’re literally peering into a kitchen where two best friends are reunited after 20 years, and one is radically secular, and one is Hassidic. I’m very interested in how we remember the Holocaust, not just as Jewish people. This story happens to be set in a Jewish milieu, but it has to reach across those lines, or it doesn’t work.” The playwright described Malina in the lead as a “dream get.” “I love his general person presence even before I met him. I find him charming onscreen and off. He’s electric in this role. What he brings to it. I love watching his range in it.”

Malina reminisced about his days as a Webster parent while he was an ensemble player on “The West Wing.” It was a “dreamy dad job,” he said, that allowed for many days off. He even arranged for a history class (not his children’s) to take a field trip to the set of the hit TV show when they were studying the White House.

Now no longer in Malibu, the actor said, “It was a beautiful place to live. I miss the people. My kids had very good experiences in the public school system.”

The play runs through October 23. Because it was commissioned by Lincoln Center, those involved are hoping it makes its way to New York.

(from left) Nathan Salstone as Trevor, Rebecca Creskoff as Debbie, Joshua Malina as Phil, Sophie von Haselberg as Lauren, and Greg Hildreth as Mark in What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, 2022. Photo by Jim Cox.

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