Brian J. Smith :: A New Take on The Gentleman Caller
With his All-American good looks and Juilliard School training, it’s not surprising that Brian J. Smith has found himself in demand for the past few years. Having first made a splash in the 2005 independent film, "Hate Crime," this talented thespian has since had major roles in the hit TV series "Stargate Universe" and "Gossip Girl," as well as such films as "War Boys."
Above all, Smith has attracted his fair share of attention on the New York stage -in part for his willingness to bare his body and his fearlessness in playing gay roles -- most notably as the young stud Turk in the Broadway production of "Come Back, Little Sheba," and the sexually free spy Andrei in David Auburn’s "The Columnist."
Right now, however, the 31-year-old Texas native is tackling his highest-profile role yet as Jim O’ Connor, aka The Gentleman Caller, in Tony Award winner John Tiffany’s magnificent production of Tennessee Williams’ "The Glass Menagerie" at Broadway’s Booth Theatre.
Not in his wildest dream
Playing this pivotal role, which he originated in the show’s out-of-town run at Cambridge, Massachusetts’ A.R.T. Theatre this past winter, has more than lived up to the actor’s hopes. "I never in my wildest dreams I thought I’d get to do it in any production, especially one with Cherry Jones, Zachary Quinto, and Celia Keenan-Bolger, and directed by John, who is one of the great theatrical aestheticians that we have today. And it really means a lot to me to be able to do this play on Broadway."
Much to his surprise, Smith landed the part with extraordinary ease. "I went in and read for John one time," he says. Sometimes, there’s a role where you put the jacket on, and the clothes kind of fit. I think here I was able to bring my own life experience to it, so I didn’t have to do backflips and be all angsty or freaked-out."
In fact, Smith says he only had a passing familiarity with the play before last year. "I had seen other people do the famous Jim-Laura scene in acting class," he says. "I think it’s true that every youngish actor has a yen to play this role once they read that scene, though. There’s this effortlessness and magic to it, where he and Laura end up connecting in a way that’s surprising. It happens before you even know that it’s happening."
Smith’s approach to the role is different from many of his celebrated predecessors. He’s a little less cocky, a little less smooth than the more traditional interpretation of the role. "John and I had a pretty strong idea of how to approach the character, and some of it goes against what people say about him in the play, which I think is interesting," says Smith. "Everyone has seen the version of the Gentleman Caller who is exactly what everybody says he is and what he seems; and John was interested in creating a version of this guy who is a little more quirky, and a little more heartbroken."
One of the greatest challenges Smith faces nightly is that he doesn’t appear until the second half, although the character is talked about well before his arrival at the Wingfield household for that fateful dinner. "I watch Act I every night. It’s the greatest show on Broadway, and it’s a master class in acting," says Smith. Viewing his co-stars in action is also a necessity for him to give an optimal performance.
"One time in Boston I wanted to see what it was like to go on stage without watching that act, and it was a disaster," he recalls with a laugh. "I have to be there with them. My performance changes depending on what they’ve done. I can tell where Zach is like physically, energetically, and psychologically within four lines of his opening monologues and then it’s like ’oh, that’s the game we’re going to play tonight.’ It’s the same with Celia and Cherry. My job is to keep the ball in the air once I get on stage, and it’s hard to do that if you don’t know where the ball is."
Smith is incredibly grateful for the show’s pre-New York run, which he believes is one reason this production is already drawing raves here in the Big Apple. "Being able to do this production out of the hustle and bustle of New York was wonderful," he says. "It was a real gift to be able to come together in such an unencumbered way, and for the four of us to form a connection based on trust and risk-taking. I think we all had a common goal: how do we explore this play as deeply as possible, and hopefully make it as successful as it can be. I hope everyone thinks it’s great."
"The Glass Menagerie" continues to Jan. 5, 2013 at the Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th Street, New York City, NY. For more information, visit the show’s website.