Greg Jbara is a friendly guy. This is the first thing I noticed when I walked into the Juilliard Board Room on September 24 for an installment of the Lunch With an Alum series. Jbara, a 1986 graduate of the Juilliard Drama Department, was here to speak with my class (Group 39) about his time at Juilliard (Group 15) and his subsequent life in theater, film, and television. We were fresh from looking for material for our end-of-the-year showcase—the time when we present scenes for agents, casting directors, and theater professionals who, we hope, will give us jobs. Thinking about showcase always makes me nervous. Jbara, with a warm smile and a firm handshake, immediately made me feel at ease and the stress of the day faded into the background. Within minutes he had the entire class laughing at a story about his first time getting lost in “the actor’s imagination.” Michael Kahn, then the director of the Drama Division, had given an assignment in which each actor was instructed to perform a private ritual in front of the class. Jbara decided to present what he called his “morning ablutions,” which involved practicing choral cantos on the toilet with his pants around his ankles. Kahn got more then he bargained for.
As we listened to this anecdote, it would have been easy to forget that the avuncular man making us giggle had recently accepted a Tony Award for his performance as Jackie Elliot, Billy Elliot’s father in the musical of the same name. Easy to forget—until he pulled the Tony out of his gym bag and passed it around the room with a proud smile. If this had come from someone else it might have seemed arrogant or boasting, but coming from Jbara it was an unexpected pleasure. Knowing we were all ambitious stage actors, he brought the award along, both shamelessly and generously, because he knew we would be dying to examine it!
This generosity comes with Jbara wherever he goes. For those who watched the Tony’s, he was the actor who pulled his wife up onstage with him. There, with tears sparkling in his eyes, he thanked her for “spending the majority of the last year as a single parent raising our two sons in Los Angeles so that I could have this opportunity here tonight.” He spoke glowingly of his family to us as well. Stories about his wife and his boys segued into an anecdote about Robert Neff Williams. Williams, a legendary voice teacher who has been working with actors at Juilliard since the Drama Division’s inception, gave Jbara one piece of advice at the end of his first year: “Date other women,” he said. The next year, when Jbara had clearly not taken that advice, he simply told him, “Get a dog.” Describing these conferences, Jbara chuckled, but then thought for a moment, leaned forward, and confided: “What he was telling me was, the things that will go into my heart and my DNA from those experiences, the work, the love, the hardship that comes from those experiences, will fuel me as an actor. So now with two sons, having one failed marriage and being very happily remarried … it’s really life, you know, that made [acting] easier.”
Jbara is one of the rare actors who earns a stable living working in film, television, and on stage. As he told us, “Getting the part is 50/50: being right for the role and being someone they want to work with.” He must practice what he preaches, because there are a lot of people who want to work with him. Before his role in Billy Elliot, he was seen on Broadway in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Victor/Victoria, Damn Yankees, Chicago, and Wonderful Town. On television he has had guest spots on Friends, Grounded for Life, Monk, The Unit, All My Children, Touched by an Angel, and numerous others. His films include Enchanted, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and In & Out (the latter two with fellow Juilliard alum Kevin Kline).
As our lunch was winding down, Jbara said, “As actors, our only real job is being prepared for the audition; getting the job is actually the gravy.” After his Tony win he got his first straight offer (without an audition) for a film titled Remember Me, in which he plays Lena Olin’s husband. The time has come for Jbara to enjoy his gravy. For my classmates and I, who are starting out, he offered candid advice and warm encouragement that made our day brighter.