Every once in a while, an actor comes along who absolutely floors you. Though some actors are singled out primarily for their ability to leave their teeth-marks all over the scenery, I’ve always been more taken with actors whose work is so subtle and sublimely nuanced that they hardly ever seem to be acting. Tyler Ross is one of those actors. I’ve only seen him in two films, and he’s already become one of my favorite performers of his generation. He gained acclaim for his stage and film work while living in Chicago prior to his recent move to LA.
In Stephen Cone’s “The Wise Kids” and Nathan Adloff’s “Nate & Margaret,” Ross delivered endearing and wholly authentic portrayals of young men on the cusp of exploring their homosexuality. Tim in “Kids” is a devoutly religious and uncommonly confident teenager whose sexuality proves to be taboo in his Southern Baptist community, while Nate in “N&M” is a young college film student whose relationship with his first boyfriend (Conor McCahill) starts to upstage his tight-knit friendship with a 52-year-old aspiring stand-up comic, Margaret (Natalie West). These characters are so vividly portrayed that it’s easy to forget that Ross is, in fact, a heterosexual actor. His next film, “Milkshake,” involves girls and basketball, and promises to be a change of pace from his previous film work.
I interviewed Ross for an article on “Nate & Margaret” prior to its Chicago premiere in June 2012. Below, I’ve included additional excerpts from our conversation, as well as trailers for his two acclaimed features.
On growing up in Jacksonville
“I was raised in a Southern Baptist Christian home, which is one of the reasons why ‘The Wise Kids’ is so personal to me. Through that church, I started getting involved in shows. The first time I acted was in the church musical. When I was little, I remember watching kids singing and acting and doing gymnastics and hand-springs on the stage. I was like, ‘Woah, how do I do that?’ [laughs] In high school, acting became a real passion when I got heavily involved in the drama club. … I’m naturally an introvert and acting provided me with an opportunity to break out of that. At first I thought acting allowed me to play someone else, but I’ve changed my views on that. I use as much of myself as I can, and confidence has come from that. When I got to play Grumio in “Taming of the Shrew” my junior year, I remember having so much fun with that–getting to be loud and crazy. All of a sudden, people in high school who I was too shy to talk to knew who I was and thought I was cool. … I did a lot of community theatre at that time as well, and I credit the community theatre in Jacksonville as well as the high school drama club for providing me with the passion that I now have for acting.”
On pursuing acting professionally
“In middle school, all I was allowed to watch was the Disney Channel. They profiled some of the actors in their shows and did quick, one-minute interviews to show that they were kids just like me. At school, some people from a talent agency came in and tried to [recruit] students. I didn’t end up going with them, but it further [solidified] the idea that I could do this on my own. My mom was hugely supportive. None of this would’ve happened without her. We’d drive two-and-a-half hours to Orlando for every audition. My first audition was for a movie called, ‘Little Men,’ and I ended up booking one of the lead roles. It was made for very little money and no real pay, but it was an absolute blast and it gave me my first experience in front of the camera. Film had always been my first love. If I wasn’t acting in something, I’d want to direct it. The reason I did theatre while growing up was because I didn’t think I could do movies.”
On choosing Chicago
“I was in New York for a week in high school, and everything there felt a little too commercial. I had heard so much about the intimacy of certain Chicago theaters and their huge improv community. I got into DePaul right out of high school, and that’s when I felt in love with the city. After a year, I went back to Florida, and it was after another year passed that I was like, ‘I’m sick of being here, I really want to do this professionally.’ I always thought that I’d end up in LA, but I never thought it would be a good idea to just go there right away. Plus I had never lived on my own, so I thought, ‘Where’s a good place to grow up?’ I never thought I would survive in New York, and I didn’t have a lot of money. So I was like, ‘Where can I live cheaply? Chicago!’ I also remembered John C. Reilly saying, “You want to learn how to act? Go to Chicago,” and I love John C. Reilly, so I valued his opinion. [laughs] When I got there, I had a bit of luck in finding an agent and actually started working in professional theatre. That was never part of the plan. … Once I got into Chicago and started studying the craft, I could start looking at a script on a technical level and make stronger choices. I could start finding more interesting ways to tell a story and delve even deeper into a character.”
On his “Wise Kids” character
“I had never read a script like that before. It felt so true and honest, and it was so personal. It was of those films where I didn’t feel like I had to do a lot of research. It connected on a very intuitive level. I felt like I had a lot of personal ties to the story since I was raised in a Southern Christian home, much like my character. The biggest difference between us is that I’m a heterosexual actor playing a homosexual. In my church youth group, there was one person who everyone thought was [probably] gay, but it was never talked about. It was kind of taboo. Tim is already confident in his sexuality. He’s confident that it’s all going to work out. His inner-peace felt similar to the peace I had gained from my Christian roots. One of my favorite hymns is, ‘It is well with my soul,’ and I tried to bring that to the character as well. … I can’t wait to take this film back to my church and say, ‘Hey, watch this.’”
On acting in “Jackie and Me” at Ruth Page Center For Arts
“That was a blast, man. It was my second show, and it kind of put me on the theatre map, as far as the radar of some of the bigger theaters. I learned so much from that show. One of the biggest lessons I learned was how to behave, how to be a professional–the dressing room behavior. I was working with some veteran Chicago actors who I really respected and had seen in other things like Kamal Bolden and Ron Rains and Sean Cooper. Getting to work with the director, Derrick Sanders, was huge because he’s one of August Wilson’s protégé directors. I often play younger characters, and in that play, I was a ten-year-old, which was a lot of fun. It also taught me how to get up and perform at ten in the morning. [laughs]”
Playing gay characters as a heterosexual actor
“To me, it works the same way when gay men play straight. Regardless of the sexual orientation, people are people, and their relationships can be just as wonderful and problematic. It wasn’t hard to imagine feeling flattered by the attention of someone who you have a thing for, and I figured that sticking to that truth was the way to go. The truth of the humanity must be played rather than the stereotypes. It was extremely easy on “The Wise Kids,” and on “Nate & Margaret,” I had to go a little further in. It’s the same as if I had to make out with a woman who I wasn’t attracted to.”
On the simple essence of Nate and Margaret’s friendship
“They each want something for one another. They just kind of click at this point in their lives. They keep each other from being lonely, they support each other, they enjoy each others’ company.”
On playing Nate
“I tried to take on a bit of Nathan [Adloff]’s mannerisms, but much of it was a fictionalized version of him, so the internal character came from me. But I definitely spent a great deal of time hanging out with him and picked up how he talks and moves. Some of my wardrobe was either his clothing or his boyfriend’s clothing. I was like, ‘When in doubt, do what Nate would do.’ [laughs]”