BWW In-Depth Exclusive: Andrew Briedis on the Past, Present, and Future of Annoying Actor Friend
Parody Twitter accounts can be a lot of things. They can be sarcastic (Condescending Wonka), they can make you think (Bored Elon Musk), they can be utterly ridiculous (not the real Bill Murray). The theatre community's favorite parody account, Annoying Actor Friend, has been all of those things at different times during its nearly three and a half year existence. The one constant for the character, whether it was brazenly flirting with the official SMASH account, championing causes important to theatre actors and fans, or shamelessly plugging its concerts and books, has been its anonymity. That is of course until yesterday when the account, followed by over 20,000 people, innocuously retweeted a link from a seemingly random blog by Andrew Briedis.
The third paragraph of the corresponding post opens with the straightforward statement, "My name is Andrew Briedis, and I am Annoying Actor Friend." And with that, the well protected secret of Annoying Actor Friend's identity was no longer a secret. Briedis had planned for this eventuality from the beginning. In fact, many times, he thought that it would have happened by now. However, with last week's publication of his second book, #GRATEFUL: EVERYTHING HAPPENS FOR A REASON, and a continued effort to shine light on important issues in the theatrical community, Briedis knew the that time was now.
Last month, in anticipation for this reveal, I spoke with Briedis on the phone for over an hour and a half about the past, present, and future of the Annoying Actor Friend persona. The part of our conversation about #GRATEFUL, can be found here. However, that wasn't the first time that we had discuss his eventual coming out. In June he sent me a rough copy of the blog that was posted yesterday. It was clear even then that he had put a lot of thought into when, and how, he would make his true identity known.
"Some time in the summer I started working toward it," he told me on the phone. "I wanted to tell my story in some form within the book, and I want to start doing other things with this account. I think the anonymity has run its course; I've reached the end of that chapter, and I have closure with that."
One thread in #GRATEFUL, which is set up similarly to Choose Your Own Adventure Books, follows the reader's character as he/she falls out of love with acting, and begins a career as a personal trainer, and eventually starts his/her own anonymous twitter account. That is Briedis' story. In 2005, while still in college at the University of Hartford's prestigious Hartt School, he earned his Equity card in the ensemble of THE BOYFRIEND's National Tour, directed by the show's original star, Julie Andrews.
As Briedis explained in his blog, that was the first, and last, Equity contract that he ever signed, though he remains a dues-paying member to this day. In fact, many of the causes that Actor Friend has taken up (SETA tours, workshop contracts) have been about reforming Equity's treatment of actors. However, that should not be taken as an indication that his reveal is an extensive plot to relaunch his acting career.
"I have no desire to be an actor again, absolutely not," he said. "I knew that this day would come since (Actor Friend) began. I've wanted to tell people every day for over three and a half years, but it was never the right time. I feel like I have done this story the justice I wanted to, and whatever comes after that, I know that I won't have any regrets."
Actor Friend: Then and Now
As Briedis shared in his blog, Actor Friend was not his first attempt at a parody account. However, what his blog didn't say was that the inspiration to start one at all came from his wife, actress and photographer Sarah Marie Jenkins. Just two months before Andrew created Actor Friend, Sarah began parodying the CHICAGO Times Square flier crew with @RoxieRedTights.
After the disappointing results of "Jaded New Yorker" and "Condescending Trainer," Briedis latched on to an issue that had been aggravating him and his wife for some time.
"Sarah had this huge rant on her Facebook about 'Guys, I don't care about your callbacks!' two weeks before I created this," Briedis said. "I had been really annoyed with social media behavior for a solid three months, and it was that, intermixed with the fact that I really wanted to do a Twitter account. So, I ended up with a theatre-related Twitter account, even though I didn't set out originally to do that."
This shared, vocal frustration led many of the couple's close friends to guess that one, or both, of them was behind Annoying Actor Friend. While close friends were let in on the secret, Actor Friend began requiring a Non-Disclosure Agreement, at Jenkins' insistence, be signed by anyone let into the circle.
Despite this precaution, guessing Actor Friend's identity has been part of the character's allure almost from the beginning. However, few have ever guessed correctly, especially from outside of the couple's social circle. In fact, the only time someone that Briedis didn't know personally confronted him about the topic was on Twitter earlier this year.
"This random Twitter account that looked like a spam bot tweeted, 'Did some sleuthing and figured out who @Actor_Friend is. Your move @AndrewBriedis,' and tagged us both," he said. "Actor Friend would always 'like' something like that, but I'm not active in 'liking' on my personal account, so I just kind of ignored it all together. It was a weird account, it never tweeted after that. I went back to it recently and it tweeted a bunch of FUN HOME lottery entries, and that's it."
While this "detective" might have been the only one to guess correctly, he or she was certainly not the only one to try. Over the years, the most common guesses of his identity have changed depending on what Actor Friend was focused on at the time, but for Briedis, being lumped in with some of theatre's biggest names was exciting.
"What I do love about it is that the focus keeps changing depending on what I am doing at the current moment," Briedis said. "It's gone from Andrew Keenan-Bolger to Chelsea Nachman to Alex Wyse; lately I've gotten a lot of Laura Benanti and even a few Lin-Manuel Mirandas, as if none of these people aren't extremely busy living their public lives.
"During the touring stuff, people thought I was Keala Settle and last weekend someone asked if I am Steven Pasquale. If anything, the range of possible personalities has been extremely flattering," he said.
Now that his identity is public knowledge, Briedis is looking to explore other opportunities, both as Actor Friend, and as himself. "One thing I really want to do is go to schools and talk about social media," he said. "I've worked on other projects as well that I'd like to throw more focus to. I want to write a lot of different types of things, and right now I am deciding which to pay attention to first."
As for what's next for his character, Briedis doesn't anticipate much changing for Actor Friend. "I don't know if the character is going to realize that it's out," he said. "I think the character is just going to keep on 'charactering.' It'll be fun to figure out what it becomes!"
All for a Good Cause
Because of how funny the Actor Friend voice often is, it is easy to forget just how powerful and far reaching that voice has grown to be. However, what is very clear from talking to Briedis about his Actor Friend experience is that he takes the responsibility that he has stumbled into extremely seriously. From broaching issues with Actors Equity to organizing social media movements to honor fallen Broadway community members (#Dim4Joan and #Dim4Kyle), Briedis understands that Actor Friend has a unique ability to reach people passionate about the theatre, especially its younger generation.
All of the causes that Actor Friend has supported have been very personal to Briedis. When Actor Friend took on the falling wages of touring actors under tiered SETA contracts in his first book, #SOBLESSED, it was because Briedis and Jenkins had experienced that firsthand.
"I lived through the beginning of when the contracts were switching to tiers," he said. "Sarah had worked on all of the contracts. I watched her go from full production to being on SETA tour, and not able to pay her rent."
That personal connection to, and passion for, the issues that Actor Friend addresses is one reason why Briedis felt that now was the right time to unmask; he believes that he can have a more direct, substantive impact on issues that he cares about without the distracting of having to hide his identity.
"I've wanted to write the lab/workshop sequence in #GRATEFUL for two years, but that piece would have been much different in 2013," Briedis said. "It would have been angry, because that's where the character was then. Now, my approach has changed; instead of getting mad at Equity, it's about getting involved with Equity."
After the release of #GRATEFUL last week, Briedis posted a section of the book that focused on the transition from Equity workshop contracts to lab contracts for actors involved in the early stages of shows. The workshop contract, originally crafted by Michael Bennett to recognize the dancers who contributed to the creation of A CHORUS LINE, provides all of the actors in a project's initial workshop a share of 1% of the show's future grosses. However, in recent years, producers have been opting to avoid the workshop contract in favor of a lab contract, which pays the actors slightly more at the time of the lab, but gives them no future ownership of show.
While this can be a short-term bonus for the actors, if a show becomes successful, like KINKY BOOTS or HAMILTON, both of which were created under a lab contract, the actors who help mold the show and its characters receive no on-going royalties.
"I think that excerpt landed because HAMILTON is the success that it is, and that cast developed the show under a lab contract," Briedis said. "We live in a golden age of musical theatre, and to assume that we won't see another mammoth hit like HAMILTON on Broadway within the next few years would be pretty naive. Let's not forget that between THE BOOK OF MORMON and HAMILTON, there was KINKY BOOTS, which also didn't started on a workshop contract. Developing a new Broadway show is a complicated and nuanced process, so it was important for me to discuss it so that fans of the theatre have an idea what goes on long before they sit in their seats, and even more importantly that actors get fired up enough to get involved in the union if they want things changed."
While his similar treatment of the SETA contracts received support from the community, the response to the workshop section in his latest book has been met with incredible online support from some of the theatre's biggest stars, including Pasquale, Marc Kudisch, Jeremy Jordan, Kelli O'Hara, Leslie Odom Jr., Phillipa Soo, Anthony Rapp, Eden Espinosa, Will Chase, Julia Murney, and more.
"I feel this is different than the touring outcry because big named stars are endorsing it," Briedis told me earlier this week. "I think those are the kinds of people who need to get behind concerns like this, and I was thrilled to see that happen."
Hiding in Plain Sight
As has been discussed, guessing Actor Friend's true identity has become a favorite pastime for a certain subset of theatre fans and community members. However, Briedis' tangential relationship with the business has worked in his favor, making him nearly invisible to most followers, many of whom assumed that he was a bigger-name star.
"I like to think that I have enough self-awareness to know that nobody knows who the hell I am," Briedis admitted with a laugh. "I've been doing this from an observational point of view, but most people think that I am somebody who is working in the business, who is an actor, who has been on Broadway."
That personal knowledge made revealing himself in a blog much more logical than on stage at 54 Below or at the upcoming BroadwayCon. "For me to go out and do something grand, would be really great if I were Andrew Keenan-Bolger," he said. "I think that would be fun if Laura Benanti went onto a stage at BroadwayCon, pulled a paper bag off of her head, and everyone went, 'Oh my gosh, it was Laura Benanti the entire time.' But it's not."
While Actor Friend's identity might not be the blockbuster that some expected, Briedis told me yesterday that the response has been overwhelmingly positive; something he wasn't exactly sure would happen.
"I feel like the themes in the reveal essay are resonating with a lot of different kinds of people, and that makes me really happy," Briedis told me. "One of my main objectives when I was writing that piece was to speak to the part of a person who isn't certain if what they are doing in life is right for them, and I'm thrilled to see that it all seems to have come across. I feel embraced by the community, and that confirms to me that I did this at the right time, in a way that I could never regret."
While this might have been the right time to reveal himself, Briedis was not above sprinkling in some clues for eagle-eyed followers along the way. Earlier this year, when Julie Andrews appeared on the Oscars, Briedis, as Actor Friend, took the opportunity to unleash a completely in-character humblebrag.
"I tweeted, 'I've worked with Julie Andrews. She's a fine woman,'" he said, "and people who knew my identity texted me, 'I can't believe you did that.' And I said, 'Why? Nobody is going to randomly assume I'm that third chorus boy from the left in a tour they never saw. This character would totally say something like that!'"
Additionally, Alan Cumming read Briedis' name as the Executive Producer of the #SOBLESSED audiobook, and on the cover of #GRATEFUL, he used initials and a common internet acronym to leave some breadcrumbs. "On the left hand side of the book cover for #GRATEFUL are the letters: ab/ is/ af/ irl; 'Andrew Briedis is Actor Friend in real life.'"
Since Briedis is not actively involved in the business anymore, he turns to friends when trying to make sure that certain tweets, and sections of books and blogs, ring true. One of his castmates on THE BOYFRIEND tour was Krysta Rodriguez, who has collaborated with Actor Friend multiple times; also after the first #SOBLESSED Live concert, Briedis began directing Ellyn Marie Marsh's cabarets. Their next collaboration will be Marsh's January 3rd concert at Joe's Pub.
"Besides the gym storyline, there's other autobiographical stuff in #GRATEFUL, I'm using Ellyn's experience for the section on doing a cabaret at Feinstein's/54 Below," he said. "For things I don't know, I go to other people to make sure I'm as factually accurate as possible. Krysta Rodriguez filled me in on the general specifics of pilot season. Aaron Albano helped me a lot with anything about Broadway in the first book."
However, Actor Friend's anonymity was nearly compromised after a prank Briedis pulled off on his personal social media accounts this summer. Beginning in July, he began posting on Instagram and Twitter that he was cast as a transgender Michelle Tanner on Netflix's sitcom reboot FULLER HOUSE. In an over-the-top character, not dissimilar to Actor Friend, Briedis began posting updates from the set, photoshopped pictures of his script, and even interacting with the show's fans and staff members.
The joke was so successful that Aunt Becky herself, Lori Loughlin, got in on the fun. Briedis detailed the entire process in a BuzzFeed article, which, surprisingly, didn't put an end to the online uproar. When members of the Broadway community retweeted Briedis' FULLER HOUSE tweets, he began to pick up new followers.
"I got a windfall from the Michelle Tanner stunt," he said, "because a few friends in the community were tweeting about it and some followers of Actor Friend crossed over to me, and I feel like a couple of them started to put it together after that."
Lori Loughlin (@LoriLoughlin) August 21, 2015
Ultimately, Briedis views Actor Friend's reveal as an important step in his life. While the character might have needed its anonymity to grow, the inherent secrecy had its impact on Briedis' everyday life. From personal training clients to friends not in the know, hiding such a big part of his life became taxing, especially when writing an entire 400 page book in the Equinox lounge.
"There's just always this weird thing about me that people didn't know about, and that sometimes got to the point of being uncomfortable for me," Briedis said, "even if they wouldn't know what (Actor Friend) was. Sometimes it was a little difficult to not be allowed to talk about the two books I've written."
Ultimately, in addition to a new creative outlet and a burgeoning new career, his kooky online character has brought Briedis something even more valuable. "I've made really great friends through this," he said, "not that I set out to do that, but I am so thankful for the people I've met." #SoBlessed indeed.
How did you react to Actor Friend's stunning revelation? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below, or on Twitter @BWWMatt. If you want to follow along with my "366 in 366" articles, you can check out #BWW366in366 on Twitter.