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Come Back, Little Sheba

S. Epatha Merkerson stars in Manhattan Theatre Club's production of William Inge's classic play.

Brian J. Smith

 

Age: 26

Hometown: Allen, Texas, "a suburb 20 miles north of Dallas."

Currently: Making his Broadway debut as Turk, the young stud whose affair with Marie Zoe Kazan sets off Doc Kevin Anderson in the Broadway revival of Come Back, Little Sheba.

The Wizard and I: Smith won his first part in a school play at 17 as the wizard Alcandre in Tony Kushner's adaptation of The Illusion. "Our theater teacher, Miss Marie Benson, was the first person to say to me, 'You've got something,'" he says fondly. "I'd never really had a group to belong to—I wasn't much into sports, which was weird for a kid from Texas—and my first time onstage was just a magical experience. I had on this long wig and this amazing wizard costume, and I still remember the smell of the stage fog. I'm getting goosebumps thinking about it."

Road to NYC: Before venturing to New York, Smith served as an apprentice in the theater department at Stephens College, an all-female school in Columbia, Missouri. "They take a couple of guys a year to play [male] roles and build sets, hang lights—whatever needs to be done," he explains. Being surrounded by 850 girls sounds like an ideal recipe for romance. "That's what everybody says!" he laughs. "But after a while, you kind of get sick of it." Back home in Texas after two years, Smith appeared in a play with Michael Urie, now a star of TV's Ugly Betty, who urged his new friend to apply to Juilliard. "I thought, 'There's no way I'm getting in,' but Michael was right. I owe the courage I found to audition to him."

Under Pressure: Smith thrived at Juilliard, but he has a clear-eyed view of the stress inherent in spending four years in one America's elite acting programs. "You're like a little science experiment," he says of the faculty's relationship to student actors. "You go from having major breakthroughs to being heartbroken. I saw it destroy a lot of people, but for me, it was great because it gave me a thick skin. There isn't anything a director could say to me that's as frightening as getting up in front of your teachers and classmates at Juilliard. Even opening on Broadway is not as scary." Working against Smith's all-American looks, the honchos at Juilliard continually cast him in character parts. "If there was an old man or a crazy person, I played him. In my fourth year, I finally got a young leading role—but it was Juliet in an all-male production of Romeo and Juliet! In hindsight, I'm appreciative because they gave me the tools to transform and not just play myself."

Busy, Busy, Busy: After Juilliard's graduation ceremony last May, Smith says, "I ripped off my robe and cap and headed to rehearsal" for the off-Broadway play The Fabulous Life of a Size Zero. Then came a stint on the New Mexico set of the as-yet-unreleased feature film The War Boys, co-starring Peter Gallagher. By year-end, the young actor was back in New York preparing for his Broadway debut in William Inge's classic drama alongside S. Epatha Merkerson, Kevin Anderson and Zoe Kazan. "I sat in on a lot of rehearsals, because I told myself, 'I'm surrounded by Tony-nominated actors, so I'm soaking this up,'" he says of Sheba. "It's the kind of play I love because it's all about behavior. There's so much nuance and subtlety in the relationship between Doc and Lola. Every night, I am bowled over listening to this play; like Epatha's performance, it's so full of pathos and simplicity and wonder, without any cynicism or need to be clever."

Strike a Pose: As Turk, Smith upsets Lola and Doc's emotional applecart with his casual seduction of their boarder, Marie. "Turk's a jock, and you could easily play him as just a dumb, horny guy," the young actor observes. "We wanted to wake up the stereotype and make him more complicated, because Turk is actually quite important in the structure of the play. My job is to come onstage and spark something in the other three characters, then take off." His job is also to strip to his boxers and pose, clutching a javelin, for Marie to sketch and Lola to admire. "I remember reading the script and thinking, 'Oh boy, I'm going to be semi-nude in front of 600 people on Broadway every night," Smith says with a laugh. "Spontaneously, I fell into a pushup position. As long as I go to the gym that day, I don't feel self-conscious."

Present Tense: After the whirlwind of the past nine months, Smith is open to whatever may come next. "I want to continue to do film," he admits. "I find it exciting and it's a whole different set of skills. But, hey—it's the life of an actor. You're up one minute, and you could be bartending in two months. Who the hell knows? And that's fine. I'm just having a great time right now."

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