In "Road to Nowhere," the episode of “Detroit 187” that airs Tuesday, Lepard (who turns 47 today) plays Cyrus Layton, who assists Detroit police officers Fitch (Michael Imperioli) and Washington (Jon Michael Hill) in the investigation of a multiple-murder case. He landed the featured role after two previous auditions for the ABC series, which shoots on location in the Motor City.
Lepard, the executive director of Williamston Theatre and a frequent performer on area stages, initially went to a “187” casting call for the part of a custodian. “But that didn’t really work out,” he said. “There were other guys in there who were dressed like janitors. One guy came in with a plunger. Another had a spray bottle.”
Undeterred, Lepard returned to the “187” offices to read for another role, “a small part — three or four lines — as a witness, I think it was.” He wasn’t selected for that spot, either.
But his third visit paid off. “It’s a pretty good part,” he said of Layton. “I’m lucky this was the one they cast me in, because if I’d gotten the job as the janitor, that would have been it for me and ‘Detroit 187.’”
Casting directors are wary of using the same actors for different characters within a short timespan; it would look ridiculous to viewers if the same guy who was mopping floors and bagging trash in one episode turned up as an investigator a week later. Layton might return in a future installment; the actor who won that coveted janitorial gig probably won’t be back anytime soon.
How does Cyrus Layton figure into the plot?
“I don’t come into the story until the second half,” Lepard said. “There’s a triple homicide on a bus, and it gets complicated because there’s a lot of money involved, a briefcase full of cash. Fitch and Washington start figuring out who these (victims) are and then they start figuring out it’s more complicated than it seems.
“They check in with me once in a while, and then we all head to headquarters to sit around the ‘war table’ and figure this thing out. Eventually, they all say, ‘What should we do?’ and they look at me.”
So the guest star finds himself in the driver’s seat.
“Detroit 187” is one of several non-Williamsburg projects that have kept Lepard busy during the last two years. He played a police officer in director Drew Barrymore’s roller derby comedy-drama “Whip It” and a minister who witnesses murder suspect Sam Rockwell’s arrest in “Conviction.” On April 15, he’ll be back on the big screen in “Scream 4,” which shot last year in the Ann Arbor area.
“I got to hang out with (director) Wes Craven,” Lepard said, proudly. “I played an English teacher, and I’m apparently teaching kind of a creepy English class: There were Edgar Allan Poe quotes and ‘Macbeth’ quotes all around the room. Basically, I’m talking to the class when suddenly all their cellphones start going off: Somebody’s been murdered.”
It was a role that probably didn’t require much research on Lepard’s part: He teaches theater classes at Michigan State University, his alma mater. Lepard was a telecommunications major at MSU in the mid-1980s when a conversation led him to change direction.
“I was having a discussion with a friend and he was asking, ‘What do you really want to do?’ And I said, ‘I’d like to do theater, but I don’t think you can make a living at that.’ And he said, ‘You should do what you really want to do.’ And I changed my major.”
Even at that point, Lepard had a substantial background as a musician. By the time he was in kindergarten, the Lake Odessa native was performing with his family. The Lepard Family Gospel Singers recorded an album and toured the country. While studying first at Lansing Community College and then at MSU, Lepard became an accomplished drummer and joined the Spartan Brass. After meeting pianist Bob Baldori, Lepard found his way into various combos, including a long stretch in Dick Deal & the U.S. Male, a cover band.
“We would get jobs in Garden City and Inkster and around here,” Lepard said. “But one thing about being in a covers band is that it really burns you out. We were playing lots of really smoky rooms, and my drumheads were covered with nicotine. We would drive to Inkster to play four sets from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m., and then I’d have to drive back because I had school in the morning. And it was the same songs, over and over. I was looking around at the other guys in the band, and they were in their 40s — I was 20 — and I saw myself heading down that same road, if I kept playing cover music.”
Working with Baldori was an entirely different experience. “Playing the blues with those guys was pretty exhilarating. Some nights I felt like we were really ‘in the pocket,’ as Bob used to say, and you feel that in theater, too.
“With an audience, when you’ve got them laughing, you know you’ve done something. It’s the same thing when you can feel tears welling up in their eyes.”
Lepard shifted his focus to stagework. After getting a master of fine arts at the University of Nebraska, he returned to Michigan, where he found steady work at Jeff Daniels’ Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea and in the dozens of “industrial films” that were being produced by the auto industry.
“But after four years of that, I started seeing a rut I didn’t want to get into. I was getting these terrible scripts about cars and carburetors, and I wanted to do real movies.”
So, with his wife and 1-year-old daughter in tow, Lepard made the leap to Los Angeles, where he quickly discovered “L.A. seems like one of those towns where everyone is from some place else and they’re all trying to get into the movies. I couldn’t take my kid to the playground without someone striking up a conversation about some dubbing they were doing. You were always trying to make connections.”
The constant networking and “trying to claw my way in to see people” was wearisome, but Lepard said it was a learning experience, if nothing else.
“I don’t think I would have been happy staying in Detroit. I had to know what the business was like. I got an agent, but what I found out was that there are different levels of agents, and mine couldn’t get me any auditions.”
the next seven years, he said, “It got better. I started to get to know
casting directors and I got some jobs, but there’s no paying theater in
L.A. You’re working in these 99-seat houses where nobody gets paid and
you’re doing shows so you can be seen by people in the business — and
the last thing they want to do at the end of the day is go see theater.”
made occasional returns to Michigan to appear at Purple Rose, most
notably in the world premiere of Lanford Wilson’s “Book of Days.” He
would go on to join the Off-Broadway cast in 2002, playing the
manipulative Rev. Bobby Groves.
Lepard was tempted to relocate to New York, he realized “that’s a tough
place to raise a kid” and, in 2003, he and his family returned to
Michigan where he could work at Purple Rose.
“We moved to Williamston because I liked the school system and it’s only 45 minutes from Purple Rose,” he said.
Purple Rose underwent personnel shake-ups in 2005, Lepard began to
wonder if Williamston might be “a great town for a theater, like
former Purple Rose associates Tony Caselli, Chris Purchis and Emily
Sutton-Smith signed on, Steve Zynda of Midwest Homes found them a
building to use “and the snowball started rolling,” Lepard said.
Williamston Theatre heads into its fifth year, Lepard is delighted by
the theater’s success. “We’ve grown at least 15 percent every season,”
he said. “The last show we did, ‘Greater Tuna,’ was our best seller ever
— I think we had about 2,250 people come to see that show.”
has also established partnerships with other theaters, such as Meadow
Brook Theatre at Oakland University. Last year’s “It Came From Mars,” a
co-production with Ann Arbor’s Performance Network, was one of several
new plays Williamston has showcased. In a time when many theaters are
determined to play it safe, sticking to established titles, Williamston
has devoted much of it schedule to premieres from playwrights like
“Mars” author Joseph Zettelmaier (Lepard will star in Zettelmaier’s
comedy “And the Creek Don’t Rise” at Williamston in July) and Annie
Martin and Suzi Regan (“Home: Voices From the Midwest”).
you promote it right, you can do new stuff,” Lepard said. “If you have a
reputation for not letting people down, you can do new plays and people
will be excited about them because they’ll say, ‘Well, the last one was
“We get very few complaints. It actually floors us when we get a
complaint. But you do occasionally get someone who says, ‘I don’t wanna
see something like ‘Greater Tuna’ that makes fun of people in Texas,’
or ‘I don’t wanna see ‘Blue Door,’ about African-American history and
hangings.’ It’s sort of they’re saying, ‘I don’t wanna be depressed,’ or
‘I don’t wanna laugh that much.’ But Tony (the artistic director who
makes the final selections for each season) knows what he likes and he
knows what people like.”
for what Lepard likes, well, it’s certainly enjoyable to be able to
tell your Facebook Friends that you’re going to be on the next episode
of “Detroit 187.”
“The cool thing for me — moving back from L.A. — was that the film industry followed me back,” Lepard said, with a smile.
“That was a bit of luck.”
10 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 1 on ABC
Opens at theaters nationwide April 15