Jim Parrack and James Franco Are Opening an Acting School
by april walloga
Jim Parrack talks to Gotham about moving to New York, starring in Broadway's Of Mice and Men, and opening a "Brooklyn Lab" with friend and co-star James Franco.
Jim Parrack as Slim in Of Mice and Men. (photo: Richard Phibbs)
You might recognize Jim Parrack from HBO's True Blood, but get ready to see a lot more of him. The 33-year-old Texas-born actor, who shadow boxes to A$AP Rocky when no one's watching, answers yes with "yeah, yeah, yeah," and uses words like darlin' and sweetheart, recently relocated from L.A. to a huge loft in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. He did so for two reasons. First, to play the part of Slim in the Broadway version of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, directed by Anna D. Shapiro and starring James Franco, Chris O'Dowd, and Leighton Meester. Second, to open a Brooklyn-based acting school with Franco, who he's done several films with. The school, an outpost of L.A.'s Playhouse West, will be called the Playhouse West Brooklyn Lab. Parrack says it will open this May, but for now, headquarters are at his apartment.
Here, Parrack tells us more about the Brooklyn Lab, how he got the part in Of Mice and Men (despite the fact that Shapiro wanted someone older for the role), and the life he's carving out for himself in Brooklyn.
You're so busy. You have this play, a slate of film projects, your own production company...
JIM PARRACK: I'm starting an acting school in Brooklyn.
JP: Yeah, in Fort Greene, we’re looking at different locations.
And you're going to be on the ground running it?
JP: Yeah, yeah, yeah. James [Franco] and I both studied at a place called Playhouse West, and the founder of the school asked me to start teaching about four years ago. One of the reasons I wanted to move out here was to extend the school out here and start the Playhouse West Brooklyn Lab.
So James is in on this, too?
JP: Yeah, yeah, we’re combining. Originally that wasn’t the thought, and then he started the Studio 4, and now, I think you’re the first person either of us are telling this, but we’re going to have his Studio 4 and my Playhouse West Brooklyn Lab combine and be one acting school out here on the east coast. It’s going to be, like, a repertory theater, a place for people to try out their own plays, because with [Franco’s] school there’s going to be writing labs, filmmaking workshops, theater directing classes, acting classes.
Sounds like a big undertaking. What sort of spaces are you looking at?
JP: The place I chose to live in is big enough that it can host it for now. It’s kind of this big 2,100 square foot loft . . . and I picked it specifically so that I could teach out of it until we found a place. But we’ve been looking at some places, like, over at Pratt Institute and BAM. And then there’s this great, old theater called the Paul Robeson Theater. I would love for that to be restored and for that to be home base.
You've done films with James, as well as some theater in L.A., but Of Mice and Men is your first time on the New York stage. Did James turn you on to the role?
JP: I heard about the production when he told me that he was going to do it, and I’d heard of Anna Shapiro; because she’s probably the most respected theater director we have in this country. So I was in England doing a movie and told my reps, like, 'Look, I really want to get in and audition for that.' At the time there was a lot of bad TV stuff coming my way and I thought, I don’t want to do that, I want to do theater, and so I came back out this way and originally auditioned for a different part. They wanted Slim to be an older guy. I asked [Anna] if I could just read it, and had prepared it, and she said, ‘Of course, hit it,” and uh, she said, ‘Okay, I see, it makes sense.’ It’s as exciting as anything I’ve ever done.
Is it a different kind of nerves, acting on stage?
JP: Yeah, yeah, in a good way. It’s electric. In a nice way it’s a familiar thing. It’s been a long time since I’ve been nervous about acting . . . The first time we did this play it was for invited guests only, but there were about 300 people there. I wasn’t nervous before but I got out on stage and suddenly felt this current of adrenaline and self-awareness, like, Oh, shit, this is nuts.
How does it feel now? Is it different every night? Do you have any sort of routine?
JP: The play itself is different every night and I count that as a blessing because if the play were a routine, I think we’d miss a lot of the life in it. But I do have a weird little routine now where I go to the theater before anybody else shows up, I go out on the stage, say a little prayer, and put on some hip-hop music and, like, shadow box in this big empty theater by myself and just get excited.
I think I saw a picture of you doing that on your Instagram. I also saw that you've been catching up on your co-star Leighton's old show, Gossip Girl.
JP: [Laughs]. See, that’s getting caught. I don’t know if anyone has come in watching me shadow boxing to A$AP Rocky, but Gossip Girl is getting caught. Well, I met [Leighton] at the table read and thought she was just a sweetheart, so I was like, let me go just check this thing out. You know, I made fun of it through the whole [episode], but by the end I was like, I’ve got to get another one right away. I kind of did that with the whole first season . . . Leighton's really good on it. A lot of the other people, I don't know, but she's really good on it.
Jim Parrack, Leighton Meester, Chris O'Dowd, and James Franco star in Of Mice and Men. (photo: Walter McBride)
I read a quote from James where he compared theater and film but said that in theater all of the editing happens beforehand. Anna had everyone together working on the play in Chicago, where she's based, before bringing it to New York. What kind of edits did you make to your character and how you play him in that time?
JP: I came on with the attitude of fully trusting Anna, not just because she’s good, but because she has impeccable taste. It didn’t take too long for me to realize this wasn’t a director who was going to say, ‘Faster, louder,’ because she didn’t know what else to say. This woman is so sharp and so informed and, for some reason, knows more about men than we know about ourselves.
In the book Slim is the older, wiser guy on the ranch. How did you get into character?
JP: In the book and the play [Slim is] described as a really good guy. [The thing] that helped me play it maybe in a different way than it has been played before is that in a time and place like that, a good guy isn’t how you are but what you do. It’s not that you go around making everybody feel cheerful and shit . . . A good guy is a guy that gets the job done better than anybody else, gets your back, is honest, minds his business, and looks out for his buddy . . . I also thought if I am a little younger than what maybe most people have cast the part as before then there has to be a reason I would have risen to [a higher] position on the ranch. What I came up with and what Anna was very quick to agree with is that you just work harder and better than everybody. So I asked her if in every scene I could be working on something. Even when the guys are off work I wanted to be working on something.
You said that Anna has a very acute understanding of men. In what way?
JP: She understands men in a way that I think is safe to say no other director I’ve worked with has. She loves men’s men. She’s put a lot of time and thought and understanding into what makes us tick, what’s in the way of our hope, why we can’t say it. [The story isn't set in] 2014 where you can look at your friend and say, ‘So, how are you really?’ These guys wouldn’t know how to ask and they wouldn’t know what to say. ‘How are you? It was hot today. Things are fucked up.’ And that’s about as far as you’re going to go. ‘It was good. I got laid last week.’
But then there's also a fair amount of humor. The audience is laughing a lot.
JP: Chris [O'Dowd] is responsible for a lot of that . . . I found that it got more humorous when the partnership with the audience began. There were things we would chuckle at and stuff in the rehearsal, but those moments got infused with the response to humor.
And sometimes the audience is laughing and what's happening is really not funny. How is that for you on stage?
JP: Sometimes they laugh I think out of shock. When that gun goes off at the end, the number of nights we’ve heard people giggle out there, that’s happened pretty often . . . [Chris] has a line after he snaps the girl’s neck, where he says, ‘I’ve done a bad thing,’ and I’ve heard people laugh at that.
It's a mob scene when James comes and goes from the theater. Are you able to get in and out quietly?
JP: It’s like The Beatles. What I’m finding is that it’s totally up to me. At first I kind of wanted to get in and get out quietly, so I would go out about the same time that Leighton or him did so that nobody could possibly give a shit that I was going out, too. But I find it’s been nice actually taking a few minutes to stop. Last night there were some people that were True Blood fans that had come from Chile to see the play, and I thought, That wouldn’t have been a very worthwhile experience for them if it had been a night that I’d decided to just breeze out of there. So I think if I can I’m going to make an effort to stop and just make contact and show appreciation, because it feels good.
Have you been exploring Brooklyn, or is Of Mice and Men owning your life right now?
JP: It is a little bit now, in previews, because we do the show and then come during the day and rehearse and tweak, and it’s still a work in progress. But once the show opens I don’t have to be there until 7:10 for the night shows, and that means you can stay up all night and wake up at 11 and still have eight hours before you go to work. So I’m excited about that.
What else are you working on right now?
JP: This movie I’m directing, Black Curry. It’s about what happens when you turn a good thing into an ultimate thing. It follows this Amish girl who’s forced into the public school system by the state and she’s a total misfit and total outcast, and I play a schoolteacher who’s an army veteran with PTSD. So I’m around these kids trying to get my life back together . . . but instead I kind of lose my mind a bit and we both come under this supernatural influence that turns things scary pretty quickly.
And you're producing that through your company, 120 Productions?
JP: I’m producing it, directing it, I wrote it. I’ve got this unbelievably talented group of my students that are in it. There’s also some pretty awesome people from Hollywood in it as well.
I heard that James is directing a play in New York later this year. Do you know if that's true, and if so, are you in it?
JP: Yeah, as far as I know it’s true. I’m not going to be in that one but I think my best friend since I was 10-years-old, Scott Haze, who was the lead of Child of God, we grew up in Texas together, is going to be the lead of that play.
So when are you and James going to open this acting school?
JP: We’re looking at May 15 . . . It’s going to be a quiet beginning. We’re going to make the information available about where you can interview and the first fundamental classes that I’m going to be offering up. Basically I’ll just take interviews with people and tell them what it’s about and see who’s a fit and see who’s interested and, uh, we’ll get it going that way. And then I imagine around the time James starts doing social media stuff for it there ought to be a couple of interested people.
You're really coming into New York with a bang.
JP: That was the idea. I want to be in the greatest city in the world. In L.A. people are so relaxed. I found myself getting a bit comfortable. This is a place where everybody around me is running on octane. So I like that better. I like when it’s tougher to keep up or tougher to get ahead. I don’t know, maybe it’s the Irish thing. I kind of like having my back against the wall and being like, Alright, let’s get it.
Cover shoot: May/June 2014 issue of Gotham magazine.