BWW Interviews: Chatting with DETROIT's Darren Pettie
Anyone who follows the theater scene in New York realizes that hardly a year goes by when actor Darren Pettie isn't appearing on Broadway, Off Broadway or regional theater. He's also been seen on television in "Mad Men", "Pan Am", "Castle", "Gossip Girl", "Brothers and Sisters" and a host of other shows. Not only is he one of New York's busiest actors, he's one of its finest, too. Take, for example, his performance two seasons ago in THE MILK TRAIN DOESN'T STOP HERE ANYMORE. As the enigmatic Christopher Flanders, Pettie was required to utter the single syllable word "Boom" to emulate the crashing of the waves upon the rocks surrounding Italy's Divina Costiera. Other actors in the role have faltered here, but Pettie imbued the line with authority and conviction that were never apparent in previous incarnations of the work. "Thanks," responds the actor via telephone. "There were some nights that I was very self conscious about that line."
Currently appearing in Lisa D'Amour's new play, DETROIT, Pettie is sharing the stage with David Schwimmer, John Cullum, Amy Ryan and Sarah Sokolvic. It would be hard to imagine five finer actors gathered together in any production. It's a play that is human, thought provoking, irritating, astute and sublimely funny all at the same time. It's also packing in the crowds at the Playwights Horizons Theater. Chatting on the day the New York Times ran its rapturous review of the play, Pettie sounded remarkably relaxed and loquacious.
A native of Andalusia, Alabama, Pettie had a peripatetic childhood as his family moved from one small town to another-each one more lacking in arts programs than the others. It wasn't until his senior year in high school that Pettie found himself in a school where one of the teachers started a drama program. Pettie and one of his buddies took the class because they thought it would be easy. To Pettie's surprise, he found himself enjoying it. "I really loved it," he explains. "I was at an age where I didn't know what I wanted to do but wound up going into the Navy after high school. When I was in the military I started to see the world outside of my little corner and a buddy of mine was from New York, so we made several visits up here. I caught some shows and acting kept coming back to me. Finally, I realized it was something I loved. Now, I can be a very lazy person, so I understood that whatever I did for a career had to be something I really loved doing. I'm really not that good at hard labor. I was fortunate to discover this crazy career but it took me a while because I didn't grow up in a place where anyone knew how to go about doing it. I also had a lot of fear."
"I wound up in California after the military. I was supposed to go to college out there and I started taking theater courses. I had a teacher who thought I was pretty good. She told me I had to go to New York for training if I wanted to be a real stage actor. I asked her how I'd go about it and she explained that I'd have to audition for schools. The one that she mentioned was Juilliard, which I'd heard of but never thought of as a theater school. I auditioned and I got in. I came to New York and that's pretty much how it all started."
Upon being graduated from Juilliard, Pettie was cast in the ensemble of a production of MEASURE FOR MEASURE at the Delacorte Theater. "I was one of the gentlemen who followed John Pankow around and had a total of three lines. It was a great experience," Pettie recalls. It was during the run of this play that he was cast in his first major role Off Broadway. "It was in four one act plays that Doug Wright had written called UNWRAP YOUR CANDY. It was a really good experience," Pettie says. Thus began the string of roles the actor has played. Looking back on his career at this point, Pettie realizes that he's accomplished quite a bit but in a recent conversation with a fellow actor he mused, "We never feel like that, so it's great to know other people feel we're accomplishing things. We're always concerned about when our nest job is coming and how we'll keep a roof over our heads." Is there a secret for being cast so consistently in quality productions? "I don't think there is a secret," he says with a laugh. "It's a matter of being available. It's easy to get bent out of shape about the ups and downs of this career. I try to be as grateful as I can about getting any work; whether it's a guest star on a TV show, a part in a movie or a great Broadway play. It's all been fulfilling. I keep auditioning the way I did when I first got out of school. Luckily, I get offers now, too, because people have gotten to know me better. I guess another good thing is that I try not to take myself too seriously. When I do, that's when I have a hard time. Keeping peace of mind is important if you're going to sustain a career."