Their stars shine the brightest
Drama Department professors share their experiences with famous alumni
When most students think of famous Drama Department alumni, Tina Fey comes to mind. But many students don’t realize there are multiple other distinguished alums who got their start within that same University department. With names ranging from Mark Johnson, producer of “Breaking Bad,” to Lear deBessonet, director of public works at the New York Public Theater, the Drama Department has trained professionals who have achieved success both on screen and behind the scenes.
“All of these [famous alums] are wonderful people,” Drama Prof. Bob Chapel said. “They were wonderful students and great people in the department. You had a good idea they were going to probably do something out in the world in a bigger way.”
Beyond Fey, some of the University’s biggest on-screen alums include Sarah Drew and Jason George from “Grey’s Anatomy,” Sean Patrick Thomas from “Save the Last Dance,” Ben McKenzie from “The O.C.” and Emily Swallow from “The Mentalist.” From the beginning, drama professors noticed exceptional skills in these performers.
“Something that was the hallmark of all these actors was a very particular and lively sense of humor,” Drama Prof. Richard Warner said. “They are incredibly playful, imaginative artists.”
Many of these performers showed an unwavering commitment to the University’s Drama Department, participating in acting, writing and directing.
“What was wonderful about Tina was that she was really a very good citizen of the building,” Warner said. “It wasn’t simply that she was here to write or here to act. She really was omnipresent.”
Some of these performers even received professional acting opportunities before they actually graduated from the University. At the end of her third year, Drew auditioned for the role of Juliet at the McCarter Theatre, one of the country’s top regional theaters. After receiving the part, Drew had to complete classes while working on this career-launching role.
“Sarah [Drew] was a natural,” Warner said. “She had an absolute connection to her emotional life — exceptionally so. She was very special from the get-go. She has a sensitivity and vulnerability that was so noticeable, even when she was young.”
Other distinguished alums went on to graduate school in order to improve their skills before fully developing their careers.
“Emily played more leading roles for me than any other person who has ever gone through the department,” Chapel said. “Emily went right from graduating to the graduate program at [New York University’s] Tisch School of the Arts. [From there], she has been in and out of various leading roles at major theaters. She’s been on Broadway and she was a regular on a TNT series called ‘Monday Mornings.’ She just [received] a recurring role on ‘The Mentalist.’”
Thomas also participated in Tisch’s graduate program before earning his breakout role in “Save the Last Dance.”
“There’s something quite wonderful about what Sean [Patrick Thomas] does when he smiles,” Warner said. “He has the ability to portray someone that is absolutely fierce and absolutely powerful, and in the wink of an eye he can turn that smile into something absolutely joyous. It was my pleasure to help him get to NYU.”
Warner also helped prepare George for a graduate program at Temple University, though George soon got picked up for a nighttime soap opera and never graduated. George eventually went to act on “Grey’s Anatomy” with Drew in Los Angeles.
“From the [start], Jason [George] was a silver lining guy,” Warner said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen that fellow down-and-out. There’s always something just so positive and upbeat about him. He was a generous fellow and he gave a lot of time and energy to projects.”
After graduate school, many of these University alums moved to New York or L.A. to work in theater or television. Like Drew and George, McKenzie ended up in L.A. after he received a role on “The O.C.”
“Ben [McKenzie] was quiet — there was sort of a James Dean quality to him,” Warner said. “He was a very subtle actor. He had a real truthful quality to everything he did. He was a fearless actor that could erupt. All of a sudden he would explode and his energy would be really watchable.”
Although University professors were instrumental in providing critiques and audition assistance, retired drama professor Betsy Tucker notes many students were well on their way to success before they arrived at the University.
“Most of these students came to us with a lot of theater experience,” Tucker said. “They knew where they were going, and we were just a convenient laboratory for them for a couple of years. I don’t take credit for much of anything, except for giving them good, hard critiques.”
During her time working with these students, Tucker warned them about the difficulties of pursuing an acting career.
“I don’t encourage anyone to be an actor, because it’s a ridiculously hard life and it’s not necessarily financially viable,” Tucker said. “Not everyone gets a TV series that is renewed. The people who want to do it certainly have to be ambitious and have to be dedicated and willing to sacrifice things like real lives.”
Along this vein, the University’s Drama Department hopes to provide a broader background for young artists, providing graduates with a liberal arts degree and not a Bachelor of Fine Arts.
“Every professor’s legacy is their students,” Warner said. “[Some of] ours just happen to be on television.”