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Meet This Season's Breakout Actor

Date: Mar 18, 2013


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Many actors would be lucky to book one high-profile play in a season, but Cory Michael Smith is on his third. He is currently making his Broadway debut as Fred in Breakfast at Tiffany's at the Cort Theatre. In the fall, he played Elder Thomas in The Whale at Playwrights Horizons. Over the summer, he starred as John in Cock at the Duke on 42nd Street. "This past year I've been really fortunate," Smith says. "A lot of the things that I've pursued and been interested in have just kind of lined up magically."

It wasn't quite magic, of course. Smith had to work for the parts. He auditioned for Cock, about a man named John who's torn between his long-time boyfriend and his new girlfriend, after the actor originally cast as John dropped out. Smith was asked to cold-read two-thirds of the play at his final callback.

In The Whale, Smith played Elder Thomas, a Mormon missionary who visits Charlie, a 600-pound recluse trying to connect with his long-estranged daughter. Smith played the role in Denver, but he had to audition again for the New York production at Playwrights Horizons. He met with new director Davis McCallum and explained the extensive research he had done about the Mormon community, which helped him land the role.

He approaches each role differently and only does this type of research when it's called for. "Any time you're working with a character who has a very intense belief system or participates in a community that isn't necessarily insular but very connected, it's very important to really understand that mindset in terms of how you communicate with people and how you engage with them," he says. "His entire demeanor and the way that he talked to people was very dependent on me understanding the rules of communication, because there is a certain way that missionaries are supposed to talk to people. It was really important to me to make that as authentic as possible."

Smith says Breakfast at Tiffany's, about New York City party girl Holly Golightly in the 1940s, came to him the easiest. He was in callbacks for two other Broadway plays when he went in for Tiffany's, and he got the part after only one audition.

Smith likes to pursue parts that he has an emotional and intellectual response to and that provide him with a challenge. "If there's not something about the piece that's interesting in terms of subject or about the actual human being---something really complex and complicated---then I don't know how you can successfully do that as an actor," he says. "I don't know where the intrigue lies or how you can sustain curiosity in a piece."

But the appeal of Breakfast at Tiffany's was a little different than with his previous work. "It's so poetic and gorgeous," he says. "I didn't pursue this necessarily because the content was dangerous or challenging. This one was more interesting to me because it has such a history it. It's this amazing classic story that so many people have read or the film that people have seen. And I was interested in participating in that."

The play (by Richard Greenberg) is more indebetted to Truman Capote's novella than the Audrey Hepburn movie, and Smith says he was excited to show audiences a new version of Fred. For instance, Fred is in love with Holly Golightly, but he also has relationships with men.

That's not unlike the sexual ambiguity in Cock, and it's a theme that Smith is drawn to. "We love stories about love because there is really no way to explain that feeling or what it does to us," he says. "You can't label it or really describe it. We put a four-letter word on it, but none of us really know what anyone else is talking about when we say love because everybody's experiences with it are so vastly different."

He adds, "I feel the same way about sexuality. I enjoy talking about and studying people that are not so easily definable. I like the ambiguity and curiosity that people can have sexually. I think that's something to celebrate and be excited by."

There are other common threads in his work. In Breakfast at Tiffany's, Fred is the narrator, which means Smith never leaves the stage, and that was also the case with Cock. "There's a certain skill in leaving the stage and coming back on and putting yourself back in a place of 'performance mode,'" he says. "And I don't have to do that, which is kind of lovely. I'm with the audience the whole time and in the zone of response, which is nice."

Smith hasn't had much time to reflect on his whirlwind season yet. "I'm still in a cloud," he says. "But I feel like any time I'm working on a project I become a better actor."


Linda Buchwald tweets about theatre as @PataphysicalSci. She contributes to StageGrade and the theatre blog Pataphysical Science.
Photo by Nathan Johnson