Ted Sod: Where were you born and educated, and what made you decide to become an actor? Did you have any teachers who profoundly influenced you on your journey?
Brandon Gill: I was born in Winthrop Hospital in Garden City, New York, and I grew up on Long Island and in Queens. I wanted to be a singer because my mom sang. My mother was in a singing group called Triche. I would be doing my homework while her group rehearsed in their studio. I was about five years old when I told my mother I wanted to be “inside the television.” So, my mother put me in these musical theatre classes on Long Island. It was a program called Way Off Broadway. At the end of the program, there was a showcase for agents and managers. And that’s when I signed with my manager, whom I’m still with today. I was 11 years old. I went to LaGuardia High School, and I had an amazing experience there. After LaGuardia, I went to The Juilliard School. I was the first person in over 17 years to go straight from LaGuardia’s drama program to Juilliard. A teacher at LaGuardia who had a profound effect on me was Harry Shifman. He directed me in West Side Story, and he was the one who encouraged and pushed me to audition for Juilliard. At LaGuardia, I also had the good fortune of being taught by James Moody, who was an acting teacher there as well as a graduate of Group 1 -- the first graduating class of Juilliard’s drama division.
TS: Why did you choose to play Bowzie Brandon in Jiréh Breon Holder’s play Too Heavy for Your Pocket?
BG: Jiréh wrote the character for me. I met him in 2014. I was doing a reading of one of his first plays at Yale, and about a year after that reading, he got in touch with me and said, “I wrote this play, and I wrote a character with you in mind. I would love if you did a reading of it.” It’s such a blessing that it’s now being produced by the Roundabout in New York City and I get to be in it.
TS: Rehearsals haven’t begun yet, but will you tell us what you think the play is about?
BG: I think the play is about family, it’s about courage and forgiveness and understanding. Every one of the characters is coming into themselves. Thetwo male characters are coming into their manhood. And the women are on a similar journey. I also think it’s about the ever-evolving human spirit through various trials and tribulations. Jiréh writes with a tremendous amount of heart.
TS: What kind of preparation do you have to do for a role like this? I’m curious how a native New Yorker prepares for a play that takes place in the South at a time when African-Americans were treated as second-class citizens.
BG: This play is set in Nashville, Tennessee in 1961, a time where historical events were happening in the South during the civil rights movement. The play is dealing with the changes about to happen in America. For African-Americans, it was definitely a trying time. They had to find strength in God and their community and fight for their basic rights as an equal in society. My grandmother grew up in Montgomery, Alabama, and also Gadsden -- my great-grandmother did as well. My grandmother marched with Martin Luther King and had dinner at his house. I have been very privileged to have her as a living resource not only for my family’s history but for African-American history. She has told me stories about being chased down dark, dirt roads by the Ku Klux Klan while traveling home from a march. I’m definitely going to lean on my grandmother to hear the wisdom and stories she has to share.
TS: How is the character of Bowzie relevant to you? I’m wondering what you find most challenging or exciting about the role?
BG: Bowzie Brandon and Brandon Gill are two young black men who are trying to support their families while achieving their dreams in a world that tells them that they are less than equal. I think I can learn from Bowzie. His courage and determination to face adversity and continue forward are inspiring. We are both trying to achieve a level of success for the benefit of ourselves and for our loved ones as well. He’s so headstrong. Being accepted to Fisk University in 1961 on full scholarship is such a great accomplishment for him. And he risks it all to fight for his rights, for the rights of his family and, most importantly, the rights of his children. I’m excited to explore his emotional depth and the thought process that takes him from the university to a penitentiary. So many African-American leaders have found themselves unjustifiably sitting in jail cells for days and weeks at a time while participating in the civil rights movement. Parchman Penitentiary was famously known for being the worst of them all. That’s something that I also have to research -- what life was like there.
TS:How do you understand Bowzie’s relationship to his wife Evelyn? How do you understand their dynamic?
BG: I think Jiréh has given these characters the gift of humanity. Bowzie has been lucky enough to marry his best friend. Evelyn is his rock, his support system. At times she’s stronger than him. I think all the relationships that Bowzie has in this play are beautiful. He’s actually known Sally the longest. Sally’s like his older sister. And then, of course, he has this wonderful relationship with Tony, which I think is very important as well, because it’s important to show audiences the trust and camaraderie that black men, especially in that time period, had with one another. There is an unspoken code of support and respect.
TS: Why do you think Evelyn gets so upset at Bowzie and some of his choices? Is she afraid of this movement that’s happening?
BG: I think it’s a bittersweet situation. Evelyn is being a wife, and I think she’s worried about her family. She’s worried about her husband and the hateful things that will happen to him if he goes on this bus ride. She’s less afraid of the movement because the movement is necessary. She stands behind the movement itself. She does not stand behind the possibility of losing her husband and the father to her unborn child. Her struggle is knowing that she has to let Bowzie be a man, but it comes with a big price -- jeopardy of their family unit.
TS: There is an idiosyncratic rhythm to the way Jiréh’s characters speak. I’m curious how you view it?
BG: I think the dialogue in the play speaks to the history of African-Americans and how we tell stories -- how we use words. The characters are exuberant in their language. Sometimes the dexterity of Jiréh’s language reminds me of the characters in August Wilson’s plays. There is a cadence in their individual voices. And I love how they choose to impersonate people in their community. There’s a scene where all four characters are reenacting things that happened at church. They imitate these glorious characters like the pastor and some of the elder sisters who worship there. I think Jiréh does a wonderful job speaking to the authenticity of African-American culture and the unique way we use language as storytellers.
TS: What do you look for from a director when you’re working on a play?
BG: I want to work with a director who has a collaborative vision. I think it’s important. I think it’s important that a director knows what he or she wants the audience to come away with. Are we making a comment on the present times? What are the themes that we are discussing and interpreting? I’ve had the great pleasure to work with some awesome directors. They all had amazing imaginations and encouraged a collaborative spirit to make sure we’re all on the same page so we can tell the best story possible.
TS: How do you keep yourself inspired as an artist?
BG: I surround myself with a community of friends who are also artists. I relish celebrating them and the work they do. When you surround yourself with artists who are hardworking and who have strong determination to change the world with their art, that is always inspiring and motivating. I also love teaching. I’m always inspired by my students and the classes that I teach or individuals that I coach – I try to use my art to entertain, educate and inspire.
TS: I’m wondering what you would say to a young person who says they want to have a career in acting. What advice would you give?
BG: The first thing I stress is training. I tell everyone I work with, “If you want to be an actor, you have to train. Hone your craft.” Playwrights and Directors want to invest in someone who has invested in themselves. I also tell young people, “You have to believe it’s going to happen. If you don’t believe it’s going to happen, then you’re setting yourself up for failure. It only takes one audition to change your life. One random audition on a Tuesday at 3:15 can change your life forever.” If you believe that that audition is coming or that project is coming and you’re going to meet someone like Jiréh who is going to write a great role like Bowzie for you -- then sooner or later -- it’s going to happen.
Too Heavy for Your Pocket opened at The Black Box Theatre on October 5, 2017. For tickets and information, please visit our website here.
2017-2018 Season, A Conversation with, Roundabout Underground, Too Heavy for Your Pocket