Lee Strasberg Theater and Film Institute at NYU is known for its catchphrase “An Actor Prepares.” Ryan Perez, a 2010 graduate of the Strasberg studio, started a podcast — “An Actor Despairs” — in which he features veteran working actors, agents, casting directors and others in the industry who might not be featured on talk shows, but play an essential role in film and TV nonetheless.
The roster of actors he has featured so far include Denzel Whitaker from “Black Panther,” Shea Whigham from “Vice” and “Joker,” and Kathleen Turner, who was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for “Peggy Sue Got Married.” On the podcast, Perez and his guests discuss what it takes to be an actor in such a rapidly changing industry, and the struggle it takes to realize what Perez calls the delusional dream of acting.
“The postgraduate life isn’t easy for anyone, but for actors, I especially feel NYU at the time didn’t do a great job of preparing aspiring actors to just survive, never mind pursue acting,” Perez said. “The actor’s journey feels riddled with despair…yet you can’t feel sorry for us because we chose this.”
Perez notes how heartbreaking it can be to willingly dedicate so much of your life to a passion, only for that passion to repeatedly lock you out. He said he struggled with self-worth coming out of college, recounting how a lack of direction led to complications with depression and alcoholism.
Why become an actor then, if it is so miserable? Perez referenced “Jaws” and “Back to the Future” as his inspirations.
“It’s really cheesy, but when I saw ‘Jaws’ and ‘Back to the Future,’ I knew that was my higher calling,” Perez said. “It is literally the hardest thing you ever choose, but I am so lucky I had that experience so young because nothing in this pursuit for me has come organically.”
When Perez brings guests in, he notices that regardless of caliber and stardom, every person working in the industry has a moment in which they realize that film and TV are their passion. There was so much they were willing to endure in pursuing that passion. That drive unites a lot of actors: Perez notes that without the close friendships he’s developed with guests Whitaker and Whigham, as well as friends Harry Lennix of “Chi-Raq” and Giullian Gioiello of “Iron Fist,” he would have dropped out of the business.
“Even though it’s called ‘An Actor Despairs,’ it is supposed to be an optimistic podcast,” Perez said. “But in order for it to be an optimistic podcast, we have to talk about the dark, the beginning. I’ve seen this happen with guests in a lot of interviews — I can see them kind of reliving it — ‘Oh, yeah, I do remember that struggle.’ It drops their guard and makes them vulnerable in the right ways.”
The podcast was in part a labor of love, a love letter and a way of giving back to a craft that has given so much to Perez, but he also wanted to vocalize the struggle that is often forgotten in Hollywood. During hard times post-grad, Perez said he would find inspiration by looking at the early stages of famous actors’ careers. The podcast started because it was, Perez admits, the cheapest way to realize this project (the first episode was recorded on the cheapest mic he could possibly find).
However, the podcast format lends itself well to creating intimacy, and it also made Perez anonymous in a way that helped highlight actors’ stories instead. So while at first he mainly asked friends in the business, including Whitaker and Whigham, as the podcast grew in listenership he was able to reach out to other New York actors, agents, and casting directors such as Fisher Stevens, Dean Winters, Tom Fontana and Malik Yoba. He currently records at Gotham Podcast Studio.
“I got sober three years ago,” Perez said. “I’m not in AA anymore, but for AA its main component is altruism, doing another thing for a stranger and passing it along. For every actor on the show, they’ve done the show because someone helped them along the way, and they want to help other people understand the chaos of this business — it’s just them giving back. It is a way we lean on each other, because they know what it is like having to wait tables. That is how we keep each other inspired and keep each other positive.”
You can listen to “An Actor Despairs” on Apple Podcasts.
A version of this article appears in the Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019, print edition. Email Jessica Xing at [email protected]