By: Michael Travin.
In life timing is everything, it can make the difference between first and second place, life or death, or a joke flies or flops. Best known for his recent roles as Nicky “Rugrat” Koskoff in Wolf of Wall Street and Scott Leavitt in HBO’s Vinyl,- PJ Byrne’s genius lies in his perfected comedic timing and improvisation skills that got him tapped by Martin Scorcese. He’s bantered with some of Hollywood’s most notable names such as Leonardo Di Caprio, Will Farrell, Steve Carrell and Nicole Kidman. A name to watch, expect to see him a lot in the coming year, in Big Little Lies with Reese Witherspoon & Nicole Kidman, as well as Eloise with Eliza Dushku and Chace Crawford. Here Resident caught up with the irreverent PJ Byrne in Santa Monica as he discussed his various characters, the existence of unicorns, and his pet peeves which have become his most recognizable trait!
Q: What did your parents want you to be when you grew up?
Byrne: What’s that John Adams quote? It’s like “we’ll study war so that you can study science and math so that the next generation could study arts.” I think it’s technically politics. But my mom was in politics, and then my great uncle was governor of New Jersey. So there was a time in my life where they wanted me to get my finance degree from Boston College to take that investment banking job on Wall Street, make my money and then give back to society through politics.
I think my parents always instilled in me forever to give back for service and always gave back to their alma maters. I think it’s a big reason why I wanted to be in a financial position to give back to help society. Obviously when I chose acting, I thought this is going to get more difficult because I’m like how am I going to pay for breakfast. I got very lucky very early, I started doing commercials. I will never forget the day that I was sort of in a financial position to finally give back to my alma mater. When one of the heads of department said it’s becoming too expensive, students can’t afford it anymore, I started a program that still exists today. It’s seventeen years old called Support Tomorrow’s Rising Stars, which has become a perpetual giving back. I was also on the board to build a brand new theatre school at Depaul.
Q: When did you ever get involved in thinking about being in the arts?
Byrne: It was never a possibility. Someone saying I could go off to be an actor was someone telling me that unicorns were my new best friends so that’s how insane that idea was. I think unicorns exist now because you know that amazing day, you get a call from your agent saying Martin Scorsese wants you to be in his movie. But when the great casting director, Ellen Lewis came up to me during the Wolf of Wall Street premiere and said “Marty is doing a TV show with Mick Jagger and he wants you to be in it.” That’s when you honestly believe that unicorns are real.
Q: How did you get started in acting, what did your teacher see in you?
Byrne: He said to me you understand the drumbeat of comedy so you have a timing, that sometimes you can’t teach actors when to come in with the joke or when to pause, or when to nail a moment physically. He always said you know that innately. You can really refine the technique of being an actor in grad school. There’s an interesting thing, so when I auditioned for the theatre school at Depaul, they said “Well why do you want to go here?” I will never forget I said “Well all these great actors at Boston College had something horrific happen to them and they seem to be able to tap into this emotional well at any moment and the worst thing to ever happen to me was I didn’t make my freshman high school’s basketball team. My parents gave me everything that I wanted in life, they taught me to work hard and give back but I lived a really awesome childhood and I had to find a technique to be an actor that pull from a sense and memory, it wasn’t from a horrible experience.
Q: So after college what was your first true role?
Byrne: The first movie was called Bewitched with the great Nora Ephron directing it and Nicole Kidman and Will Ferrell. I will never forget we were sitting around a table and there is Stephen Colbert, David Allen Greer, Will Ferrell, and we were just riffing out potential story ideas that Bewitched is going to do for an episode. That day when I made Will Ferrell and Stephen Colbert laugh and I’m hearing Nora Ephron laugh off camera that was when I realized it’s sort of becoming a reality that I’m keeping up with these guys, they’re laughing and I just felt so much more comfortable going out to auditions after that experience.
Q: Being around major stars for the last 10 or 15 years is there anything different that you see in actors and actresses that are different than someone in politics or in the real world?
Byrne: What’s different is that they have this X factor that you can’t put a word to it. They’re just sort of magically engaging. It’s kind of Bill Clinton has that thing, they make you feel like the most important person in the room. But then there’s the other side of it where you see them on a big screen, it’s like you don’t seem like the same person when we were chatting, you seem like a regular guy, I want to hang around with you but when they are up on the screen they have that special je ne sais quoi.
Q: Who do you love to work with?
Byrne: The great Martin Scorsese obviously because he has that ability as a coach to give their players the confidence to go out and hit the big shots. If he told me PJ I want you to get out there and play the best Hillary Clinton you can, I think we can win an Oscar for playing Hillary Clinton, I would honestly believe that. I don’t know what that is, on top of his great cinematographic skills, incredible shots and ability to put an incredible team together he knows how to tell stories and lean into character.
Q: So those party scenes in Wolf of Wall Street and Vinyl did he direct you to do that or was that just you improvising?
Byrne: We rehearsed a little bit but he wants you to be free in the moment. He is about character, character, character. He is about not sounding too scripted, he is about improvising and being loose. I think he knows at least for me if he asks me to run through a wall, I would take the measurements of the wall, find out what day that wall was built, what the guy was eating or drinking that day, and what color is was painted and do all my research and then run through it in a completely free, humorous and interesting way for him. I come armed with jokes, I rehearse the hell out of it and I’ll have ten lines in my pocket that I wouldn’t even use. The way I like to prepare for everything, then PJ the improviser takes over and is like how can I add to this or raise the level and without it being trite, I want to say something that no one has ever heard before. So in the Wolf of Wall Street these guys like to take the piss out of other people or joke on other people but they’re also horrible people. They would always talk about how hot a girl is and what they want to do to them. They say it in the cheesiest way, that’s just so lame and boring and I want to ace it in an interesting humorous way while showing how disgusting these guys are as men and how they objectify women. So one of the lines I said with the cameras on me was the first time we saw Margot Robbie, and this is a horrible line, PJ Byrne would never say this, I said “She’s so hot I would let her give me AIDS.” For the time period that’s massively inappropriate to have sex with this girl and kill himself but that’s an original way of saying she’s so hot.
Q: Do you always just improvise?
Byrne: Here’s the biggest thing, you never pitch a joke. You pitch a joke to somebody, it’ll never be as funny as just doing it in the moment and that’s the great thing about being in front of the camera and being on screen. When you’re watching playback, it decides in that moment whether you got it or you didn’t get it so I’ll always bet on me doing my homework and having something armed and just say action and get out of my way, I’ll bet on that all day long.
Q: Who have you worked with that is best at improvisation?
Byrne: Will Ferrell and Jason Sudeikis when I was doing The Campaign. That was an awesome day because Will was just free flowing and I think I learned a lot from being in the moment with him. If the improvising is going poorly and I need something to go in, or throw one of the things that I’m armed with or I’m just going to be here with Will Ferrell and Will is great because he can push you and prod you and he can come up with his own magic. Jim Carrey can play along with you obviously and Steve Carrell is amazing and Paul Rudd. There’s a reason all these people do what they do and how they rise to the top. They can get into character and they can become that person and are ready to play.
Q: What’s your character like in Vinyl?
Byrne: My character is Scott Levitt and he likes to mumble that he is a junior partner with the great Bobby Canavale, Ray Romano and J.C. Mackenzie. I am the lawyer. I am great on paper meaning I can look at a contract and rip it up and down but when I open my mouth, I’m a little uncouth and untrained. I try to overcompensate the way I look with my outfits so with these little muttonchops and little caterpillar lip hair and insane outfits. I feel like my character feels like he’s wearing what’s in the latest GQ tries to overcompensate his lack of musical talent.
Q: What are your favorite restaurants in New York?
Byrne: My favorite restaurant, my friend just opened it, Missy Robbins with the help of my other friend, Sean Feeney, it’s called Lillia and it’s in Williamsburg and I think it’s the hottest ticket in town right now. She makes the world’s greatest pasta and it’s all made in-house, she’s just a magician. Angela in Little Italy, they make a thing called spedini. The sauce they put on is not the red sauce it’s this beautiful magic sauce and if I can be buried it in, that’s the sauce I want to be buried in. My mom’s Italian, she makes this great meatball and gravy. I make incredible meatballs. I’ll swing by and I’ll use veal, pork and beef. I make it using tomatoes from my garden. My dream is to make my own sauce one day.
Q: What do you enjoy in your free time?
Byrne: I love basketball, played my whole life and used to coach basketball camps. My dad is 6”4, I could have been somebody. I belong to the Los Angeles Athletic Club. One of the best experience i’ve had was coaching basketball camp at Duke in the summer where everyone had amazing coaches and I happened to be this actor coach. If I wasn’t an actor and Wall Street never happened I really think I would have been a college basketball coach, which is my other dream job.
Q: Do you plan on coaching your daughter’s team?
Byrne: Oh absolutely. My wife was the captain of the cheerleading team in Villanova so we’re going to have a battle. She could be a cheerleader or a basketball player but hopefully both.
Q: When you walking the streets of New York, LA, how many people recognize you?
Byrne: This is something I’ve never said in an interview ever. This is interesting, I always hated my voice growing up because I have a naturally high voice like a 16-year old boy. Even as I got older, all my buddies had these deep voices and I still had kids voice and I couldn’t stand it. I was embarrassed by it and I purposely tried to talk deeper. But that’s what got me this great cartoon and I played these awesome cartoons like the Legend of Korra and there’s also a new one coming out later this year.
But people oddly enough, people recognize me by my voice when I’m walking down the street talking or ordering something, which is the craziest thing I’ve ever encountered. That to me is like the wildest thing for something that I hated and was embarrassed by is now become something that I love.
Q: New York and LA what’s the difference between the two in terms of recognition, in terms of people stopping you?
Byrne: At the airports, it’s always big in New York and LA because all the TSA guys know to look for actors coming through New York – they’re the best and have the greatest eyes for anybody and are amazing at it. I think in LA it is more because people know how to look for stars and in New York it’s the greatest surprise ever because they’re not expecting it at all.
Photographed by: Ryan K. Orange
Styled by: Natalie Mark @blackcatstyling
Shot on location in Santa Monica at 201 Ocean Ave (www.nestseekers.com/570841/3-br-highrise-santa-monica-los-angeles)
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