'Pretty Little Liars' star Keegan Allen talks his NYC stage debut in 'Small Engine Repair'

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Image Credit: Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images

Sure, you can find Pretty Little Liars‘ Toby, the show’s second most questionable fella, running around Rosewood, but starting this month, the same can’t be said for Toby’s portrayer, Keegan Allen. Rather, Allen, 26, is spending his days on a stage just out of Rosewood’s reach.

Allen is starring in the off-Broadway play Small Engine Repair. Put on by MCC Theater, Small Engine Repair is a comic thriller about three old high-school pals who regularly meet up at an off-the-beaten-path repair shop. What they do, we’re not sure. But we do know that when 19-year-old Chad (Allen) shows up, things start happening, and social media plays a big part in all the goings on.

The play, which is written by John Pollono, already found success at L.A.’s Rogue Machine Theatre, even winning a Los Angeles Drama Critics Award for playwriting. And now it has made its way to New York. Small Engine Repair is directed by Jo Bonney and stars, along with Allen, James Badge Dale (Iron Man 3), James Ransone (The Wire), and the playwright himself, John Pollono. Previews begin Oct. 30 at the Lucille Lortel Theater, with opening night set for Nov. 20.

We caught up with Allen to talk about the play, his acting choices, and that James Franco movie:

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What is Small Engine Repair about? How did you get involved?
KEEGAN ALLEN: Small Engine Repair is a psychological thriller that is also a comedy. It has a huge amount of twists and turns. When I look at material that I want to do, I look at it as would I want to see this? Would I want to be an audience member that would want to not only purchase the ticket but walk away from it with something. And John [Pollono] hits on all cylinders with this, not only with the comedy but also with the very interesting look at our generation and social media, [and the] huge lack of empathy now because of texting … Twitter or Facebook or anything, Four Square, all of these technical aspects that remove us from human contact. And he touches on this and kind of brings two generations colliding together, so it was great. I play a 19-year-old privileged jock, would be the best way to describe it in a very vague way so as to not give anything away, amongst these middle-aged men. It’s a really challenging role.

So these three guys are meeting under shady circumstances, and you come in as the preppy college guy?
I mix it up.

So are you sort of the social-media aspect or is that its own thing?
No, there’s a whole bunch of it. The social-media aspect plays the biggest role within this play. Mostly just because it really touches on a lot of issues with social media, and I don’t want to ruin anything… You know what it is? I think it’s something that when people see it, I think they’ll want to go up to somebody and give them a hug.

Face-to-face.
Yeah, face-to-face handshakes and stuff, not texting and tweeting.

Has it affected your personal take on social media?
Yes and no. I know that I use social media for different reasons, whether it be to promote the show or promote what I’m doing or just express myself artistically, so I have a different view of social media than sometimes when I look at people’s social media. I think we’ve all fallen victim to being a little bit too informative of our lives on social media. But it’s affected my ability to text people now; I’m trying to call them or see them in person.

And you know all about social media from PLL.
It’s our demographic that gets on and really is serious. I’ve never seen anything like it.

And yet this is a play a lot of PLL viewers should maybe wait and see in 10 years based on mature content, right?
Depending. I really pushed it and was saying it’s NC-17, but if you’re over 17 and you have an open mind, and you’re very ready for it. It’s a train going downhill with no brakes. You’re locked in. It’s equivalent to seeing Gravity I think, except with a twist of live performance. It’s that feeling of “I can’t look away.”

From what I’ve read, much like PLL, this play is all about a big ending.
Oh yeah. It’s very much like that. There’s a huge point in the story that really switches everything. You think it’s going one way and then it really does switch. And that’s the whole reason I got involved in the play. I was like “Oh, wow. That’s what this is.”

Was there something that really surprised or challenged you about getting back to theater after doing television for a few years?
It’s very hard for anybody to get into this routine, this regimen of rehearsals, because it’s the same thing every day. You have to get used to those moves, and you’re all one big song and you’re playing your notes to make it look beautiful. The challenge is not to watch yourself do that, to step out of yourself and allow yourself to get lost in the story. After you’ve done it a million times it’s like — I don’t know if you ride the subway or take public transportation… you must remember the first time you ever came to New York or the first time you ever rode by yourself, you were a fluster of “The 1 goes to the E,” trying to figure it out. Now you don’t even think about it. You can actually get on half asleep and just ride. That’s the problem. [You have to remain] that person that’s trying to find everything. I think that’s it. When I was going to school, I was just finding those moments and really connecting to the characters. It’s not like it doesn’t exist in TV but it’s just like a totally different sport than theater.

Did this wake the theater beast in you? Do you want to keep going?
I’ve always loved theater. It was my first passion. My dad was very much a prominent thespian, and eventually I would love to be able to do theater in between doing film and television, because it really keeps you sharp for when you’re going into film and television.

It’s like the saying: Film is a director’s medium, television is a writer’s medium, and theater is an actor’s medium.
Theater is an actors medium. It is completely a privilege. It is literally the most rewarding medium of the arts.

What are your big theater goals?
It’s definitely to go on Broadway, hopefully one day when I’m old enough to play the role of Jerry in The Zoo Story. That would be one of my favorite roles that I know that I can play. That would be amazing.

Switching gears, what’s going on with Palo Alto, your movie with James Franco?
They are still in festivals. They went to Venice, did really well, got really great reviews. I have a small role in it with Val Kilmer — his character in this is so fun. I got to play a drug dealer and I got to tap back into my high school days of seeing these kids that were really shady and I’d always be like, “I wonder what they are going through in their lives that make them this person,” and I got to kind of experience that with this role. And Palo Alto’s a really nice place, this is where Mark Zuckerberg lives, it really touches on that aspect of the suburban overly privileged child but also how damning it can also be. It’s like a curse, but beautiful. I think the film is so beautiful. James [Franco] is incredible. Everybody knows I have a huge crush on James. Gia [Coppola] incorporated it from his book, Palo Alto, so it’s kind of his life story pseudo-documentary style but it’s shot beautifully and it’s through Gia’s eyes. She’s a force. She’s definitely a force.

It sounds like you gravitate toward darker roles.
I’ve always gravitated … originally Toby was the black cat of Rosewood. He’s like the Boo Radley. Of course. Definitely. That’s who I am. I’ve been the male romantic lead for a while on the show. I gravitate more toward the Joaquin Phoenix-esque roles.

Do you think darker characters tend to be more complex?
We look at the villains in the past, Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs or even recently in Star Trek, Benedict Cumberbatch playing this insane genius. You couldn’t take your eyes off of him. Even in Captain Phillips this guy who plays Muse, you look at this skinny Somalian guy with this AK-47 and you’re terrified of him. But why? It’s because they have these complex backgrounds. Their stakes are so much higher. I think that’s so much more interesting to play. And that’s very much how Chad is. On the page it’s funny, in the description of the character, “19-year-old handsome jock,” I was like, “Hmm.” And then I read it and I was like, “Oh my god.” It’s so not what one thinks it is, so that’s what drew me to it is that dark element. I think I have a love affair with these dark characters.

Any final words on Small Engine Repair?
I want people to come into it with a really open mind and be prepared for the extreme. Of all the plays I’ve ever seen or ever worked on or read, it’s up there as one of the most extreme plays. And it’s a contemporary view, it pulls from the bones of all of these great TV shows, plots of these TV shows, it has everything from everybody’s favorite TV shows in it to drive it to this one point where a firework goes off. People are just going to flip out.

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