Actor Rob Hille has a newfound appreciation for the costumed characters taking photos with tourists in midtown.
“I absolutely look at everybody in Times Square as, ‘I bet they have an MFA, too,’” says the Kensington resident, who suited up in a cumbersome star-shaped outfit Tuesday evening as the lead role in the “first-ever Off-Broadway play produced, directed and performed entirely by a quick-service restaurant.”
That’s how Carl’s Jr. — the national burger chain with franchises concentrated on the West Coast and in the Southwest, opening its first Manhattan location Wednesday — described the 30-minute production written by Hille’s longtime colleague John Behlmann and mounted at a modest black-box theater in midtown.
In “Written in the Stars,” Hille plays the company’s cheery mascot Happy Star, a not-so-happy actor struggling to find work in New York City. (In the self-referential opening scene, a casting director tells him the Off-Broadway play he’s trying out for has no actual intention of hiring anyone but a “star” — the figurative kind, naturally.)
Getting into character is easier than maneuvering the stage in a costume that extends his wingspan by roughly four feet and limits his peripheral vision: “I just think about what it was like when I first moved to New York City nine years ago, before it all went wrong,” quips Hille, now 35. “I think he embodies the wide-eyed, aspiring actor that we all used to be … It’s kind about him coming to terms with that dream and maybe something else that he would want to do instead that isn’t heartbreaking at all.”
Employed as a waiter, Happy Star demonstrates a talent for grilling up charbroiled burgers when the head chef at his restaurant abruptly quits (and marches offstage in a huff about his deferred dream of dancing professionally). Happy’s friends convince him to pursue a career in the restaurant industry and open his own burger joint — a business no less risky in New York City than acting, let us note parenthetically here.
Unlike his character, Hille has determinedly stayed the course.
”There’s nothing else I want to do,” says Hille, who pays the bills now as a stagehand and carpenter at St. Ann’s Warehouse in DUMBO, and has worked every kind of job from bartender to truck driver. “It’s just keeping the rent paid and your ear to the ground.”
You could say he’s been fated to play the part of the Carl’s Jr. mascot since attending graduate school in Colorado, where a visiting professor at the National Theatre Conservatory pinned his curriculum to one highly unusual fast food analogy: “[He] would come in and talk about acting as just about making choices … The example that he always used was Carl’s Jr. or Jack-In-the-Box? I just remember this guy saying Carl’s Jr or Jack-in-the-box 7.000 times when I was taking this class, and thinking ‘What is Carl’s Jr. and why is this guy so crazy about it?”
Hille is personally devoted to Five Guys’ double bacon, double cheeseburger, but like any brand spokesman worth his salt, he says he’s looking forward to trying the Carl’s Jr. version on Seventh Avenue, across the street from Madison Square Garden. (As for the beer and wine on tap at the midtown location, he won’t be turning that down, either.)
Does this unconventional gig come with lifetime perks, we have to ask.
‘I don’t know about for life — I hope I get a burger out of this at least,” he says. “I don’t think I’m going to walk into Carl’s Jr. in San Bernardino the next time I’m visiting my parents, and say, ‘I’m sorry, do you know who I am?’”
At the very least, the challenge of emoting in an outfit with stiff, four-fingered gloves, a profile view that is just one red stripe and a smiley face printed on its belly has undoubtedly expanded his range as an actor: “There’s a lot of thumb acting that’s happening in this for me.”
Determined to shine in a crowded fast-food market, Carl’s Jr. is now serving the city its $5 “All-Star” meals, “Thickburgers” made with Black Angus beef patties weighing in at one-third or a half a pound, smaller slider versions and ice cream shakes at both 425 Seventh Ave. and 1201 Surf Ave. in Coney Island.