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BWW Interview: Tony Winner Reed Birney Talks Acting, Truth, & HOME BEFORE DARK; See an Exclusive Clip Here!

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Theatre veteran Birney plays Sylvester, Hilde’s grandfather who is now living with the family as he suffers from dementia.

BWW Interview: Tony Winner Reed Birney Talks Acting, Truth, & HOME BEFORE DARK; See an Exclusive Clip Here!

Tony Winner Reed Birney has taken the small screen by storm with his role on Apple TV Plus series Home Before Dark.

Inspired by a true story, Home Before Dark is a dramatic mystery series that follows the reporting of a young investigative journalist named Hilde (played by Brooklynn Prince) who moves from Brooklyn to the small lakeside town her father left behind. While there, her dogged pursuit of the truth leads her to unearth a cold case that everyone in town, including her own father, tried hard to bury. In season two, when a mysterious explosion hits a local farm, Hilde begins an investigation that will lead her to fight a powerful and influential corporation - with the health of her family and Erie Harbor in the balance.

Theatre veteran Birney plays Sylvester, Hilde's grandfather who is now living with the family as he suffers from dementia.

Birney won a Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Play in 2016 for The Humans and was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Play in 2014 for Casa Valentina. Birney won a 2006 Obie Award for Sustained Excellence in Performance. He made his New York debut at Playwrights Horizons in 1976 in Gemini.

We had the pleasure of sitting down with Birney to talk about how he approaches acting, how he approaches true crime, and what's coming down the pike for him as an actor.

He also shares an exclusive clip from Friday's episode of Home Before Dark.

Read the full interview and view the exclusive clip below!


What did you miss about being onstage over the past year of this pandemic?

I don't think this is an incredibly original thought, but I miss the interaction of an audience with a company. That has always been such a thrilling part of the experience. I don't think audiences realize how important they are to the process. Without an audience, it's a rehearsal.

Things change - you probably know this, that as soon as there's someone watching, everything changes. It becomes this full event. And I miss that. Obviously, Zoom doesn't come anywhere close to that thing.

As you've pivoted to more onscreen work in the past year, can you tell me how your actor process is different across media?

That's interesting - I think the bottom line is, for me, acting is acting. Telling the truth is the same in either one. Just in terms of the actual doing of it, that feels very similar to me.

But because of the piecemeal nature of filmmaking, I will - If I've got this big scene on Thursday, then I'll focus on prepping for that big scene. It becomes sort of individual set pieces to focus on. Whereas, obviously, with the play, in rehearsal you'll work on a scene that has trouble or you want to make better or needs rewrites or something, but generally you approach it in a holistic way. And that's the biggest difference for me.

Tell me a little about Home Before Dark! What has you most excited about the project?

Well, I had never played anybody older than I am like that. And certainly the whole Alzheimer's element was interesting and challenging. I did some research - I viewed a couple of documentaries. [I watched] this wonderful Glen Campbell documentary called I'll Be Here that his family made when he was just starting to fade away.

Which I thought was pretty close to what Sylvester was going through. He was functioning and verbal, but that documentary was very helpful to me in that you would see Glen Campbell with his family and onstage, but there was something weirdly vacant in his eyes that I thought was fascinating.

You mentioned that to you, acting is bringing truth to a character or a circumstance. What was it like to bring truth to an illness?

I think one of the things I learned is that Alzheimer's manifests in lots of different ways. There's a scene in season two which hasn't come out yet where I'm suddenly very cogent, and Dana Fox, our creator, went through this with her own grandfather. She said there were days when he was suddenly fine. So she wrote that scene in.

Truth and imagination as an actor - I don't have Alzheimer's, knock wood. So all I can do is imagine what my truth would be if I had that. And then the specifics of what I know about his background and what I know about Alzheimer's - I put that all in the pot. I find, as an actor, and I think most people would say this is true, but when I'm full of crap, I can tell. It feels completely different than when you're actually in the groove and operating from a truthful place.

And I think the audience smells it, too! We're so used to seeing crappy performances where people are showing off, and we sort of accept that as acting, and we understand the story being told - oh, he's crying. He's fake crying, but he's crying, so he's sad. And so the story's being told that the character is sad, and I understand that.

But when you see somebody really having the experience onstage, it kind of takes the audience's breath away. I know it does for me. I've been watching this show Hacks - have you been watching that?

Not yet! It's on my list.

I'm embarrassed to say that I was unfamiliar with Jean Smart before, but she has taken my breath away every single episode. It's like, holy cow, lady. You are the real deal.

She's incredible in Mare of Easttown, too.

That's what I hear, so that's on my list. Very different thing.

VERY different. What do you do as an actor when you find yourself caught in a moment where you're 'full of crap?'

First thing I do is apologize to the company! I tell them I'm terribly sorry that I've gone down some terrible road.

No, I think what happens is you sort of stop and think, oh boy, what am I doing? What's the story I want to tell? Have I let my show-off ego come to the front?

I think because I've been at it so long, I can feel it coming on and I will be able to stop it in its tracks.

That's amazing.

I hope so! There's nothing worse than being out onstage and being like, oh lord.

I mean, there are sometimes when you're in a long run where you're just not in the mood, and you sort of rely on muscle memory and things. And sometimes that can feel creepy and upsetting. But I remember reading somewhere as a young actor: it's not my job to cry, it's my job to make the audience cry.

So sometimes when I'm feeling like maybe I'm less than stellar, it probably isn't that different from when I'm feeling it. I would like to think that's the case.

How much experience do you have as a consumer of this mystery, true crime drama you're working in? What are your favorite things to watch?

I'm embarrassed to say that I'm a complete true crime junkie. From Dateline to all these incredible - Making a Murderer, all of them. There's such an epidemic of them now. And I don't know why I have such a fascination with catastrophe. I don't think I'm alone.

Definitely not.

It would be a very interesting psychological study to see why these shows have taken such a foothold in the psyche. But, you know, who doesn't love a mystery? And then I think the twist with the kids solving it - you know, the danger was we'd turn into Nancy Drew. Not that there's anything wrong with Nancy Drew, but that's a very specific audience, I think. And I think what we have been trying to do is to treat the kids in a much more sophisticated way.

Certainly Brooklyn Prince, who is so brilliant at [eleven]. She started in The Florida Project. And you couldn't really do it if you didn't have somebody as nuanced and real as Brooklyn playing the role. You'd really be in trouble, because then it would turn into a Nickelodeon show.

I know that you've been able to return to the stage a little bit at Barrington, but what kinds of projects are you looking for going forward?

I don't even know what the future holds, honestly! I am feeling very much - as a result of the pandemic, I'm feeling very in the moment. That's good and bad. It's good in that they've been telling us we need to live in the moment forever, and so I'm enjoying that a lot. But I can't imagine the future. So when you say, "What projects?," it's like, I really don't know! I don't know how much call there's gonna be for an older white guy moving forward. My mantra has always been - is it a part I want to play?

So whatever it would be, it would have to be something that maybe I hadn't done before, or maybe a twist on something. There's something intriguing about the character, or something intriguing about the project - maybe a director I haven't worked with, or a director I've loved working with and I would love to work with again. But I really don't even see the future, frankly. So I guess I'm just - like so many of us, waiting for the world to turn right side up again and see what comes down the pike.


Home Before Dark premieres new episodes Fridays on Apple TV Plus. See an exclusive clip from this week's episode below!



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