Pillow Talking’s Interview with ERIC BRYANT
Someday Productions LLC and Pillow Talking are pleased to present the following interview with actor ERIC BRYANT
Eric Bryant to appear in The Invisible Hand
At Westport Country Playhouse through August 6th
Eric Bryant is an actor and Yale graduate. He has appeared Off-Broadway in Angels in America. His film and TV credits include The Blacklist, Blue Bloods, Deception, and Squid Man. He presently is starring in Westport Country Playhouse’s production of The Invisible Hand by Pulitizer Prize-winning playwright Ayad Akhtar.
Pillow Talking caught up with Eric just before his “ten-out-of-twelve” tech rehearsal!
PT: Thank you for granting us an interview on this early Saturday morning. I hope we didn’t get you up!
EB: No, no. Just finishing up this breakfast in the hotel. This weekend we are doing our tech rehearsal. We are doing what’s called a ten-out-of-twelve where we are rehearsing from 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. with just two hours off. So they put us up in a hotel nearby and I’m just finishing up a very delicious continental breakfast. So I’m caffeinated up and ready to go.
PT: Great! (Stephanie) I’m all about that caffeine, too!
So let’s start with the standard question, tell us a bit about your background.
EB: I’m from North Carolina. My dad was a drama teacher and that’s how I got first exposed to theatre. It was the kind of thing where I grew up all around it – going to see my dad’s shows, I would be a kid in some of his productions that called for crowd scenes or children. I’d be hanging out with the high school kids when I was like ten and they were seventeen. I thought it was the coolest thing.
EB: And then when I became sixteen and seventeen and went to high school myself – I went to the high school where my dad was a teacher – and, of course, that is the uncoolest thing that could happen (laughs). So of course, I rebelled against that. I wanted nothing to do with plays or the theatre department once I was a teenager. What was annoying to me at the time was that to my friends my dad was the “cool” teacher – and they were like, Come on you have to do the play. And I was like, No, no my dad is not cool. Please stop saying my dad is cool. Will you please stop doing that? (laughs). But eventually they wore me down. One student dropped out of a production and they literally dragged me down the hallway into rehearsals. Once I got involved, the sense of camaraderie, the non-competitive, collaborative nature of theatre was something I really responded to. From then on I was in all of the shows. I also did something that’s called forensics in high school.
EB: Yeah. I say, “forensics” and a lot of people say, “You mean like investigating dead bodies? They have that in high school?” But forensics is a term for speech and debate and the events that I did were interpretative events. So between acting in the plays at high school and speech and debate, that kind of set me on my course so to speak.
PT: And you pursued it afterwards.
EB: Yes. I went to undergraduate school thinking I was going to be a lawyer but after a lot of trial and error, I realized that I don’t want to be a lawyer as much as I want to play a lawyer on TV maybe (laughs). So I realized I was really responding to the performative nature of being a trial lawyer. That was abandoned. I eventually found my way to drama school, trained, and have been pursuing it professionally since 2009 when I graduated drama school.
PT: (Wayne) I am a lawyer even though I’ve also been on the creative side in the film and theatre business for thirty years and I can tell you that nothing will kill a deal like an attorney.
PT: (Stephanie) It’s funny you say that because we’ve probably spoken to a half dozen people who either became lawyers, went to law school and abandoned it, or, like you, thought they wanted to be lawyers but then abandoned it. I think it has a lot to do with the idea of performing in a court room and trying to sway people.
EB: That’s usually what you do. Without giving away too much, there’s a great line in the play about lawyers that I think you’ll appreciate.
PT: (Laughs) We know you went to Yale and received an MFA. (Wayne) Back in the day, when I was on the other side of the desk casting and a resume came in with Yale or Juilliard on it, we would definitely take notice. We were talking to Michael Urie recently about his experiences at Juilliard. How was it going to Yale and going on for an MFA?
EB: It was the most challenging thing and also the most rewarding experience I think I’ve had. I remember getting there and in the first couple of weeks to months realizing that it’s just about working really, really hard with talented people under the tutelage of really talented instructors. I was initially disillusioned because I thought they were going to take me to a back room and say, “Okay, this is a pill we gave Meryl Streep.” (Laughs) I thought there was going to be some magic formula to it or some sorcery because there’s such a mystique clouded around those institutions.
PT: (Laughs) Right!
EB: I think that’s the experience everyone has when you are on the outside looking in. It’s kind of like The Wizard of Oz – they pull back the curtain and you see the training. How the training works, I think, is that they provide you with a three-year incubator where you are training together in small classes. You go through the program with the same fifteen or sixteen people over the course of three years, so you are growing with these people who also are really talented. And you’re learning from them. You always are working on really challenging material and you’re doing it under the watchful eye and guidance of people with a lot of experience. So that’s how it really works. There’s no magic to it. But when you are on the outside looking in you can get fogged out in the mystique of the name. But it was a really good school and I learned a lot of difficult material. At the end of three years you emerge with – and I think it’s the biggest thing – is confidence. Drama school and a training program is not going to make you into an actor that you aren’t already.
PT: We agree.
EB: Drama school can’t make you more talented. It really just works with the talent you already have, to hone it, and to give you more confidence. That is the biggest take away that I got from that experience.
PT: (Stephanie) I remember Michael Urie telling us that Juilliard sent a lot of people packing. People went in with a different idea and they left in tears. They just didn’t make it. I imagine with a challenging program like that, it’s going to make or break you.
EB: Yes. It can be really challenging especially with the hours you keep. You have classes in the morning, rehearsals in the afternoon, and then you have another project at night. And then you have acting homework so you have to carve out time during the day to rehearse. You could have a scene to work on for your voice and speech class, so you have to work on that. It can take a toll and it wasn’t without its challenging moments.
PT: We noticed from your resume that you worked on classics and did a lot of Shakespeare.
EB: Yes. The great thing about working on classical material is the challenges to make the language clear. It is so much more strenuous than contemporary material – both in terms of character and language. In one year at Yale – the second semester they focus on Shakespeare – and in one semester I got to play both Shylock and Ophelia (laughs) That’s the great thing about drama school. You get to play roles that you would never play in the real world. But you grow so much just in attempting to meet the challenges of those roles.
PT: Turning to The Invisible Hand, we saw Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced on Broadway. So we are really looking forward to your play. We don’t know much about it but we know it’s a political thriller. Without spoiling too much for our readers, tell us about the play.
EB: The play at first glance exists as an exciting hostage thriller. I play a guy named Nick Bright, an investment banker working at a Citibank in Pakistan. He is kidnapped. The central premise of the play is that his bank and the United States have the policy of not negotiating with terrorists and will not talk to his captors. So he then comes up with the idea of using his life savings as an initial capital base to trade on the stock market and earn his own ransom of ten million dollars.
PT: That sounds really engaging.
EB: Yeah. That’s how the play begins and then hijinks ensue. On a larger scope, the play also is an examination of huge broad topics – globalization, international economic policy, politics, terrorism, fundamental belief systems, and the undercurrent of idealism that is underneath fundamental beliefs. The play makes a comparison between free-market capitalism – which is an unfettered pure belief system – to fundamental Islam. At the core of these systems is still an idealism that all of the various beliefs grow out of. So what I enjoy about the play is that it touches on all these big things – and it’s in the package or the dramatic delivery system of being a classic thriller. I think that is the real genius of the play. It does both of those things at the same time. The play doesn’t provide any answers. It illuminates how truly complex the questions actually are, if that makes any sense.
PT: Yes. It makes a lot of sense. It sounds like Disgraced in that it was very even-handed. It brought up so many issues on all sides. It didn’t favor any one point of view per se.
EB: Yes. The Invisible Hand does the same thing. And like Disgraced, it also examines larger issues of identity, country, loyalty, and family within the context of one man’s personal experience. I think The Invisible Hand does that in such a great way – to personalize the big ideas.
PT: We know that you are still relatively early in your career, but what advice would you give to artists starting out?
EB: My advice would be to act as much as you can wherever you can. Whether that is in your community theatre, in college – if that is what you really want to do, then keep doing it. When it comes time to go to the next level, I would recommend seeking some kind of training – whether that is just studying in a studio in New York City or going back to a three-year training program. I can’t recommend that experience enough as far as giving you tools to sustain you throughout your career and various forms of material. It’s invaluable.
PT: Good advice. In researching your background, we came across Mr. Squid, a film on your resume. We have to ask you about that.
EB: (Laughs) I have to correct you. It’s Squid Man.
PT: (Wayne) My bad! (laughs) Tell us about Squid Man.
EB: That was a project I did right out of school. I had no on-camera experience. It was this little independent film that we shot in Pittsburgh and West Virginia. I was really excited to get it. It was my first time to get any film experience.
PT: What do you perceive are the difference in performing for film as opposed to the stage?
EB: Squid Man was an adjustment. That’s why I was excited to do the project – to understand what will read two feet away versus what reads across the theatre. I’ve heard over and over again that it’s a lot easier for stage actors to make the transition to the screen easier than screen actors making the transition to the stage. I think a lot of that is in terms of size. It’s a lot easier to bring something down once you’ve the size of a gesture or an expression or the vocal power that you need to hit the last row of a theatre – once you find that, it’s easier to pull it back and to adjust it than it is to learn after you develop this muscle of intimacy and truth for the camera to expand that once you get on the stage. I find that to be true.
PT: We would agree.
EB: I would see playback of my first couple of takes on that little movie that I did and the director would be like, “Can you do that a little smaller.” For three years they train you on your voice and speech to really articulate so the sound will carry to the back of the room and then you get on the set for the first time and they give you a wireless mic that is clipped under your shirt. In many ways, the sound is more sensitive than it would be in real life. So a lot of the time I would be in scenes on camera and I would feel like I wasn’t doing anything because I was actually communicating smaller for the scene than actual real life. In other words, if you and I were sitting across from a table that was maybe six feet in diameter, the level of expression that I would use in a lot of takes in the movie would be too big. It would register as theatrical even though I was speaking at “real life” levels. So making that adjustment and learning that was an invaluable experience.
PT: (Stephanie) We have produced and directed many our own things and we definitely have found that with actors who have not had a lot of stage experience that they don’t know how to go big enough. You can tell them to project, project, project and they just don’t get it.
EB: Yeah, yeah. And I think that’s the difference between training and advice. Do you know what I mean? To tell someone you need to make this bigger or project – you can say that – but unless they have the training, they won’t know how to execute it. That’s what I think is the difference between training and a helpful tip. By the same token, I’ve found that acting for the camera and being on set is just as challenging, but it’s challenging in different ways. For the stage, you have the challenge of being aware of your body and space and acting and speaking to fill a room. But most of the time you really just have the fourth wall to ignore, right? With the stage lights in your face, the audience kind of disappears. The first couple of times – especially for network television – it’s unbelievable the sheer amount of people around you, looking at you and who are in your eye line. The amount of concentration needed to shut that out—
PT: (Stephanie) I can imagine it’s daunting.
EB: Totally. And at the same time you can be walking and you need to finish your speech on this line while you also land magically on this spot we’ve marked down with tape on the floor. But you can’t look at it (laughs). But that is its own skill. So whether its stage or film and TV, both mediums have very specific skills that you have to learn to be adept at both of them. So I don’t want to make it seem like for film you just have to speak more quietly. And it’s also the level of concentration. You’re talking to someone and behind you are fifty people. Eight inches above your head is the boom mic. On stage with the fourth wall you usually just have your fellow actors to connect with. It’s easier to shut that out.
PT: (Stephanie) Being a writer and director and not being an actor, I always found it amazing and challenging in films to stay in character when everything is so chunked up and you are doing this scene this day and the going back a year the next day. I definitely can appreciate the unique challenges of both. Of course, with a play, you have to remember two straight hours of dialogue.
EB: (Laughs) Exactly, exactly!
PT: What’s on your future agenda?
EB: Well, beyond this play I have a wife and two little children. So unfortunately my opportunities to go out of town to do theatre are primarily limited to the New England area. Being an actor is kind of like being in a circus in a sense. You’re one job in and then have to go looking for the next job and the next job – back in the cycle of auditioning and hoping the next thing comes along.
PT: We understand the kid part. We have seven kids between us.
EB: Oh my goodness, you guys are the Brady Bunch plus one.
PT: That’s exactly how we characterize it. We have a blended dog family as well.
EB: Step-pets! Cool!
PT: (Laughs) So tell us, what do you think the impact of social media has been on the industry?
EB: Well, I can only speak of my own experience. Embracing and accepting social media is a necessary evil and it’s kind of challenging for me. I’m not really the type that says, “Hey come look at me!” (Laughs) In my experience with actors, a lot of times they are really kind of shy and not exhibitionists. And I think if I had to put myself in one of those categories, it would definitely be of the shyer variety. I was incredibly shy in junior high school. Acting in high school helped me come out of my shell. Social media is kind of a fact. It’s the new normal. You have to be unapologetic about it, “Hey, I’m in a show!” “Here’s me – look at my picture!” You have to do it. It’s marketing. And that’s the thing I keep telling myself. You’re not being obnoxious, you’re just marketing. Every actor is a small business owner and that’s how you have to think of it. Because there are so many actors, it really is about you and being on someone’s mind. You’re in their mind because they just saw something on Facebook. “Oh yeah, that guy. I remember him.” Or maybe it’s from a mailing that you do. You are at the mercy of someone’s memory when it comes to being called in for a project or a director thinking about you.
PT: So true.
EB: Even directors that you’ve worked with before and have had positive experiences with, you have to be constantly in their minds so they can think of you for a project. I just put something on my Facebook page about previews start next week for The Invisible Hand.
PT: (Stephanie) I just found that by the way. I was creeping your page!
EB: (Laughs) I’m not on Twitter or anything like that. I don’t have a YouTube page. I don’t even have a website yet so I’m really behind in that regard. I’ve been reluctant to embrace it but I have to embrace it. It’s not going away. Like I said, it’s the new normal. It’s the way we communicate now.
PT: In some ways it does give actors a way to be discovered. In the past, you’d have to be seen in a production. Now, at least, they can look you up and they are able to find you.
EB: Yes, exactly. Today, in 2016, if you’re an actor, it’s like, What’s wrong with you? says the guy who doesn’t have a website (laughs). It’s all connected to the revolution of the smart phone. We have, in our hand, at all times, access to information. So our comfort/threshold for not being informed is reduced to seconds. If there’s something I want to find out like. Where’s that restaurant? or Who is that actor? – before the smart phone I would just accept the fact that I don’t know that information and go on with my life. I confess that I am addicted to knowing it now – I want to know it now. If I see an actor, I have to know it now – now, now, now.
PT: (Wayne) My famous quote is: That is why they call it show business and not show art.
EB: (Laughs) Exactly right!
PT: With your dad being a drama teacher, do you ever think that down the road you may want to teach acting?
EB: Sure. I enjoy helping my friends out with their auditions. That is something I do fairly regularly. I find that I do get artistic satisfaction from helping them with the scene as much as if I was in the scene as well. So, yes, definitely that is something that I am open to. Do you have any leads? (lLaughs)
PT: (Laughs) Not at the moment but we’ll let you know! But we’ll be your social media platform and tweet your interview to thousands of people. How does your father feel about your embracing the boards?
EB: I was really lucky. I had the most supportive parents. They were behind me one hundred percent. None of that traditional, What are you doing with your life?! They were behind me all the way. I was really blessed.
PT: We’ve talked to a lot of celebrities and well-known actors who have said they do not want their children to follow in their footsteps.
EB: Well I don’t know if I would necessarily recommend it to my own children. Until you get to a certain level, it’s all luck until you become a brand. In the acting business you are a “name.” When you are a “name,” you are a “brand.” When you’re a “brand,” you are a “commodity” that can be used to help sell a production. I am definitely nowhere near that point. Every job you get is from an audition which is essentially like winning an acting contest. Every job that I’ve had is from going to an audition. For plays, you can be auditioning with thirty people for the same role depending on the size of the role and the size of the project. And even it’s for “Cop #2” with five lines, there could be thirty guys coming in to audition. So the fact that you got that job means you won a contest.
PT: That’s a cool analogy.
EB: So essentially your career strategy in the beginning is just keep hoping to win the contest. It’s like a drug. I knew how difficult pursuing an acting career is and I knew the odds. But it’s like gambling and the high you get from playing blackjack in Vegas. You can go months and months without a job and you almost come to the point where you say, “Maybe I should look into pursuing something else” but then you get the next job and then you say, “Okay, I’m BACK!” And you forget those months where you were unemployed and thinking that you were never going to work again. Getting the next job erases all those memories. It’s like reset.
PT: (Wayne) It’s like how the pain of childbirth gets erased when a woman has another baby.
EB: (Laughs) I think the pain of childbirth just might be a little more difficult. Just a smidge.
PT: (Stephanie) Yes, it is a bit more difficult, even though it does get erased. Have you performed at Westport before?
EB: Yeah, I did. About three years ago I was in a farce called Room Service which was so much fun. It’s so gratifying to be back there but in a role which could not be more different. A lot of times as an actor you have to be concerned about being typecast or “I worked with these people on this kind of project. Will they be open to seeing me in something completely different?” It’s been great to do that. Last time I was there I was playing a young, naïve playwright in a big city. It was a farce with silly things and falling pants. And this is a heavy, dramatic thriller. It is so gratifying to get to be able to come back here and do The Invisible Hand at the same place where I had such a wonderful experience doing Room Service. And every one at the theatre is just so warm and it’s like a family.
PT: We have a last signature question that we ask everybody – if you were to sum up your life to date in one word, what would it be?
EB: Oh my goodness! Ummmmm – “Finding the happiness in the chaos.”
PT: That’s great – it’s a phrase, but we’ll take it!
EB: I’m a New York actor with two children and trying to navigate finding a public school and all of that fun stuff. So, yeah!
PT: We’ll let you go relax a bit before your big, crazy ten-out-of-twelve! We are really looking forward to seeing the show! And thank you so much for a great interview!
READ PILLOW TALKING’S OTHER INTERVIEWS