BWW Interview: Actor Brian J Smith Talks THE GLASS MENAGERIE
American actor Brian J Smith's diverse credits include independent film Hate Crime, TV series Sense8, and, on stage, John Tiffany's acclaimed production of Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie. The latter was a hit on Broadway and in Edinburgh, and is now playing in the West End at the Duke of York's Theatre.
What was your first theatre experience?
I saw a production of The Seagull at Dallas Theatre Center when I was in high school, and it really did a number on me. Of course I grew up watching acting in movies and TV, but I had never seen acting like this before - it was so physical and emotional, so "big". These people were up there living life at a pitch that made me dizzy. I was in awe.
When did you start thinking seriously about acting as a career?
Probably around the time I stumbled on Stanislavsky's books in my high school library. I loved the idea that acting was something you could develop into slowly, something you could study. I try not to read acting books any more, but they set a high bar for me very early on.
Where did you train?
Juilliard. It was a brutal and beautiful experience.
What was your first paid acting job?
I did a production of A Christmas Carol at the Pocket Sandwich Theatre down in Dallas when I was in high school. That was my first paycheck. I ended up catching the eye of Andy Long and Joe Dickinson who were about to put on a production of a very moving play called Vikings, and they took a chance on me. Still to this day, it's one of my favourite things I've ever done. It was the first time I had that amazing feeling of standing on a stage and hearing an audience cry. Joe died recently, but anyone who saw him in that show will know what I'm talking about - his performance never let any of us go.
How do you balance stage and screen work? And what makes you choose a project?
Well, thankfully the project chooses you. I hope to God I'm never in a place where I can just choose what kind of work I get to do next. I'd make so many mistakes! I guess I'm not that ambitious to be honest. I just want to have a good time and make beautiful things. If it weren't acting I'm sure I'd be doing the same thing with furniture or music or lighting design. And in terms of stage or screen, again, I'll go where the door opens.
Did you know The Glass Menagerie well beforehand?
I knew The Glass Menagerie, but I sure didn't know John Tiffany's Glass Menagerie. He saw deeply into it, and in a different way. He opened my eyes to possibilities in The Gentleman Caller that I never entertained before.
Tell us about Jim and how you approached him
Very early on John made it clear that Jim is one of Tennessee's great "freaks". Sure, he had a pretty spectacular beginning in a pretty small public school in St. Louis, but something terrible happened: the world didn't have any use for him. He loved to sing, much more than he loved sports or debate or girls or any of the dozen other things he was excelling at in high school. I think Laura was the one person who appreciated what came out in him when he sang. And he remembers this about her. She remembers the best in him. And he ends up bringing out the best in her in that gorgeous, terrible evening they have together. They're two unicorns, and they're soulmates.
Did you do much research into the period?
Initially yes. I read lots of books on the period, looked at lots of photographs. Spent a lot of time with some high school yearbooks from that era. Actually, music is the most helpful thing for me. The 1930s had that hopelessly romantic music, with all those amazing singers and all that jazz! I also read everything on Tennessee I could get my hands on, including the notebooks. We became proper Tennessee Williams scholars when we were doing the show's first run at American Rep.
How did John approach the (unreliable) memory framing, realism vs expressionism?
He just listens to Tennessee, quite literally. It's all there in the original forward to the play that Williams wrote, about "Plastic Theatre" - about theatre being a place where magic should happen, not just realism with kitchen sinks and dinner paraphernalia. Film does realism beautifully. Theatre really sings when the audience has to use their imaginations. I think that's become John's touchstone as a director. I definitely felt this when I saw Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
What did you learn from working with Cherry Jones?
That you don't have to be a terrible human being to be a great artist. The best parts of Cherry's talent are tied in with the best parts of her as a woman. She's a living, breathing compassion machine. It just oozes from her. I've had some really bad days on other jobs since I first worked with her four years ago, and I would get through it by asking: "What would Cherry do?"
Why do you think Tennessee Williams' work still speaks to us today?
Maybe because he understood that people aren't all one thing or another thing, that the problem we have is that we don't really see each other. We just see projections. And we're dying for someone to really see us. "There you are. It's okay." I think that's what happens with Jim and Laura. They see each other without filter. But then the world steps in, of course.
What's it like to be making your West End debut?
I couldn't be happier. And Sonia Friedman and her team are taking such good care of us. I've got a nice little one-bedroom apartment in Covent Garden, just steps away from the Duke of York's. And to be bringing a great classic American masterpiece to the West End, in a production that I'm so crazy about - it doesn't get any better than this.
Will you get a chance to see other shows in London or explore the city?
I've been on that already! I got to see that amazing Hedda Gabler at the National, which was the first time I've ever seen the play and I don't think I can look at a can of tomato juice the same ever! It was intimidatingly good. And of course I saw our John's Harry Potter, and I never wanted it to end. It's everything I love about John - it's all there in that show. Magic.
What else have you got coming up? More theatre, screen work?
Looks like I'll be doing another Tennessee Williams play right after we finish Glass Menagerie, and here in the UK as well. I gotta bite my tongue on the specifics for now, but I'm very much looking forward to it.
Finally, any advice to budding actors?
Throw yoga in the mix! It's kept me strong and healthy and it's kept me sane.
Photo credit: Johan Persson