A Georgia Son in the Big Apple
The Brit Whittle Interview
By James Calemine
Acting is a rough trade. Few attain moments on the silver screen. The streets of Hollywood and New York are paved with bones of dead aspirant thespians. Georgia native Brit Whittle is making a name for himself in New York City. In November, Whittle appeared in an episode of Law & Order: SVU. Whittle played Dr. Piers Lindstrom on the episode titled "Educated Guess". He's appeared in TV shows such as 30 Rock, Blue Bloods, All My Children and One Life To Live. Brit grew up in my hometown of Brunswick, Georgia, back in the 80s. He's a long way from Georgia's Golden Isles...
He's appeared in films such as The Adjustment Bureau, December Thaw and Odessa. In April 2011, Whittle played baseball legend Ty Cobb at the Riverside Theatre in Vero Beach, Florida. Whittle has also been cultivating his writing such as his 2007 play The Legend of Eustis Ray, and his latest Debts and Trespasses.
In this Swampland interview, we discuss his Georgia roots, acting, writing, Florida State, The South, film, Shakespeare, storytelling, television's pilot season and life as a working actor in The Big Apple. Whittle admitted to this writer about the cutthroat world of big-time drama, "I've been finding the more that I bring the Brit Whittle who grew up in Brunswick, Georgia--born in Macon--spent some childhood in Atlanta--the more I bring that person into the room, the further I get."
Here is a glimpse behind the curtain...
James Calemine: We played in the same little league football program, walked the same halls at Glynn Academy high school and know a lot of the same places. Let's go back to your Georgia days for a bit...
Brit Whittle: I went to college at a place that used to be called Georgia College in Milledgeville, Georgia. What happened was my dad used to be the district superintendent for Georgia Power is Brunswick. It was a lateral move, and they asked him if he'd go up there and take the same job in Milledgeville. This was right when I was graduating from high school. So, it was kind of weird. During my last four months of high school I was planning to move somewhere else. I'd been looking at other schools, but I couldn't make up my mind where I wanted to go. My dad put me to work on the line crews during the summers for the power company in Milledgeville. I decided I was going to stay there for a couple of quarters. As fate would have it that's where I discovered theatre. It was a crossroads.
In high school I had thoughts of being a minister or a preacher. I literally had an offer to be a youth minister. They asked me, and for some reason I said, 'No, I think I want something different.' A week later I saw this musical, and I'd sang in choirs before and they put me in the chorus. Then two weeks before the show opened, the professional actor they brought in to do it dropped out so they threw me into the lead role. From then on I was obsessed.
JC: That eventually led you to Florida State's Asolo Theatre...
BW: I always wanted to do that. I went there later than I would have liked, but nothing is ever too late. In 2003 I accepted an offer to go down to the Asolo Theatre. They have an acting conservatory there that's involved with Florida State. That was an amazing three years. I worked with the film school at FSU. I did two different films there with a lot of different people.
JC: Acting is a tough craft. You've jumped through some necessary hoops to be where you are now. The theatre seems an essential foundation...
BW: Yeah, theatre is a big challenge. Theatre and TV are two different approaches as an actor.
JC: Only one take in theatre...
BW: I've never seen in an actor's Oscar speech where they thank their editor. The secret is I'm sure there are a lot of actors on the set who think, 'I had no idea that performance was going on and then the editor and director put in this performance and it's like wow. I completely forgot about that scene.' Or, I'd be taking these real long dramatic pauses and they edited up the performance. What you're doing onstage is all about timing. You have to check in with the audience. Sometimes your only audience is the crew. Theatre is a lot more spontaneous. You have to be good at improvisation. You have to be good at staying in the moment. You might have to do a scene 15 different times and keep some continuity to it, but it has to be fresh every time you do it. That's really hard, but it's part of the craft of what we do. It's like the first time each time you do a scene.
JC: Talk about playing Ty Cobb in April 2011...
BW: It was a surprise gig really. We got to do it in front of Faye Vincent. He was the former commissioner of baseball. He lives down there. He was in the audience. He came backstage and talked to us for a long time. That was really a great play. I thought it was going to be a straight-up baseball story. It was anything but that. Lee Blessing wrote it. He's an extraordinary playwright. This play is one of the things I think in the late 80s, early 90s launched Chris Cooper. Chris Cooper played the role I played of Ty Cobb. It's a really tight, well-woven play. We did it 'in the round'. When you do a play in the round you always have to be conscious if there's a part of the audience you haven't gotten to yet. The big thing is was I was a big Ty Cobb fan and then you find out who he really was, and you're like 'Whoa'. How do you do this? He was a really challenging person.
JC: The burden is on you...
BW: Yes, the burden is definitely on you. That was the pleasant surprise--could I play a bad guy and do it believably?
JC: It's tough to make a prick appealing to an audience in any way...
BW: Oh yeah. You can't really judge him--as hard as that is. You have to find a way to empathize with someone who loses their moral base because they get so lost in their ambition that they become a bit of a monster. As an actor, I can't think about that. I just go line by line. One of the premises of the play is haunted by this character who was--Oscar Charleston--he was deemed the black Ty Cobb in the negro leagues, and he's haunting Cobb at the end of his career like 'Wouldn't you like to test yourself against me just once? Just to know?'
Anyway, that was a great experience. We had four weeks. We had rehearsals for two weeks and then we'd run it for two weeks, which was great. With a film, it's like two months. Most plays are four weeks of rehearsal and then may a six to eight week run. You run it six or seven times a week. So, six to seven times a week you have to get up and make it believable every single time. That was particularly challenging because Cobb had such rage, and to bring that every single time, and to make direct contact with the audience. I'm saying things that horrify me as a person and you're looking out and there's a black person in the audience, and you can't hold back. You have to put it out there as a character. It really challenges you. You have to lose yourself in the role and trust in the story to make sense to everyone.
JC: When did you move to New York?
BW: I moved to New York in May of 2006. Literally a week after I graduated from the Florida State Conservatory.
JC: As a southerner living in New York, I'm sure there's an aspect of southern culture you miss or utilize in New York City...
BW: It's so interesting that you bring that up. It's been a real big challenge for me. The rooms I'm getting in to read for really requires me to bring in my most authentic self. I've been finding the more that I bring the Brit Whittle who grew up in Brunswick, Georgia--born in Macon--spent some childhood in Atlanta--the more I bring that person into the room, the further I get. It's easier for me to do here than my eight years in Atlanta because when I was doing theater in Atlanta, my accent way much thicker and I have this deep love for Shakespeare. Nobody wanted to hear that with a bit of southern accent. Here's the interesting thing, when I went to London to study, I was working with Patsy Rodenberg. She's the voice coach at the Royal National Theatre in London. Her students include Ewan McGregor, Daniel Craig and Ian McKellen.
I got four weeks to work with her on Shakespeare. She asked me what my biggest fear was in doing this, and I said because of my accent that I will come off as unintelligent. She gave me so much confidence in my natural voice. She told me when Shakespeare wrote, the native accent of England at that time was very, very close to the southern accent. The southern accent is actually closer to what Shakespeare spoke than current England or New England...or wherever. That did more for my confidence by being able to tap into my voice. I mean can you think of anything more personal than your voice? That's where you come from. If you don't have confidence in that--even if people don't like it--I've had to deal with that. Sometimes when I bring it out people make decisions about me, and there's nothing I can do about that. I just have to be who I am when I come into the room.
JC: I can see that. It's like being from the south and see how they are all portrayed in Hollywood as hicks on TV or film. Even if they try to shine a real light on the south, it somehow still falls short because of bad southern accents or dialogue.
BW: I think that's why I really love Swampland. You're going in the direction of southern stories that I want to find that you can put onstage or onto film. Hey, what was it like to grow up in a middle class suburb of the South? We all weren't living in trailers. Some of us are incredibly well read. The last play I just finished, I'm getting closer to that. I'm to the point now where I have my bearings enough in New York. I've submitted it to different places, and I've gotten a lot of positive responses, but there's so much out there that you're competing against. I'm just going to produce it myself. With Kickstarter and different things like that it's easier to raise money and put it on yourself. People come to New York because they want to put something out that is going to have enough of a populace that it will have a national following. What's interesting here is some of my friends are on the producing side of it as far as television. The big move of big networks is regional. They find that concentrating on different markets--the programming is completely regional based, and that's where things are going.
JC: Well, you were in The Adjustment Bureau--that's a film that will be seen by a lot of people.
BW: Yeah, I had one day on the set with Emily Blunt and Matt Damon. It was cool. You only see me for a second. But it was a really cool experience. They filmed my scene in the New York Public Library over by Bryant Park.
JC: You were in 30 Rock. That's a big show.
BW: Oh yeah. What's funny about that is I have one line and I'm yelling at Tina Fey. I had one line and I stuttered it twice (laughs). I was so nervous. My first big TV gig, and it took Tina Fey ten minutes to stop laughing at me.
JC: You've been in soap operas like One Life To Live and All My Children. What's been the most difficult thing to learn in the industry?
BW: It think it's hard...it's just the state of it. You don't have time to doubt yourself, which I think in the long run has been very helpful to me. When you go on a soap opera--you only get one take. You're not even going to rehearse it. On one, they had me in this reoccurring role as a bailiff of Pine Valley. They would bring me back when they would have court scenes. They have this long trial scene where at the end this woman is going to pull out a gun. These things are shot really fast. They literally shoot an episode a day. So, we have this huge scene where a woman pulls a gun, and there's 20 of us. They did this rough block on it. I remember one of the lead actors literally came up to me and said, 'Where am I supposed to stand?' And then they say, 'Action!'. Everyone starts acting and everyone hopes they just don't look ridiculous.
JC: What's on the horizon? Anything specific we should be on the look out for?
BW: I had a nice appearance in Law & Order: SVU last month. That aired about two weeks ago, so that should be running for a little while. The next big thing for me is pilot season. That starts now until the end of March. What happens is all the networks, cable and prime time networks start putting out pilots to see if there are any possible shows and they start casting for those TV shows. My goal is to get a series regular role on a TV show. I'd like to get on one from the ground floor of the pilot. I did one two years ago, which had a studio audience. Matthew Broderick was in that, but it didn't get picked up. It's very competitive. Ethan Hawke did one last year that didn't get picked up. I'd like to get picked up for one that runs for several years. In TV it's as much as the writers as the producers because the writers--once they get a feel for you and your vibe--they can write around your character. They can write around who you are.
JC: It's also good that you get to read these scripts and see how it works at that level.
BW: Oh yeah. I never go to an audition without having read the play or screenplay if it's given. Lately, they've been calling me to read for lead roles in these TV pilot scripts. I can read through those. And you get the whole script--not just your scene. So I can get a feel for how they write out some episodic scripts. How is an hour juxtaposed with a 30 minute show. 30 minute shows are only 22 minutes long because of commercials. An hour is like 41 minutes--that's prime time. If it's a cable show it's probably 30 minutes. It's helping me as an actor break it down quicker because I can see the formula thing they're doing and how my character fits in. As a writer, what's exciting is that's my next thing to delve into is to write teleplays. You actually have to write less. You have to build a script around pictures. You're going to tell the story visually as much as what the characters are saying or doing. A play is all language. That's my next project, I want to write a pilot script and see what that would be like.
JC: Well, we'll check in on you next spring Brit and see what's happening...
BW: I look forward to it James.