Talk Nerdy With Us had the chance to talk with Chris Sullivan, who currently stars as Toby on NBC’s new fall drama, “This Is Us.” Chris talks about how he got into acting, his character Toby, and his love of horror movies.
Tell me about how you got into acting?
My very first audition I was 14 years old, it was my freshman year of high school. My mother abandoned me at the audition and said, “I’ll be back in an hour. Audition or don’t.” [laughs] She had seen some performative qualities in me, and I had pretty much dipped my toe into every other extracurricular activity. I auditioned and got it. I had two lines in “The Sting.” And I have been acting ever since.
What was your first major acting job?
My first major acting job was a national tour of a Broadway one-person show called “Defending the Caveman” and I did that, on and off, for about four years, about 1,000 performances. That was an hour and forty-five minute monologue, no intermission that we would do in about 2,000 seat theaters all over the country.
Have you always wanted to be an actor?
I think so. Once I experienced it, there was kind of nothing else. The only other thing that stuck with me up to college was that I was a competitive tennis player for about a decade. I went to college on scholarship and competed at the regional and national level as a junior and played for Loyola Marymount University my freshman year of college. Then gave it all up my sophomore year of college to focus on acting.
If you, today, weren’t an actor, what career would you want to have?
I thought about that recently. I think I would probably like to teach or I would probably [want to do] some kind of service. My minor in college was, I was trained to be a dependency counselor. The program was called Alcohol and Drug studies. They trained for people to become dependency therapists.
What would you say is some of the best career advice you have ever received?
Oh wow. Well, when it comes working on film and television, I think, oddly enough it’s so simple and kind of off the mark, but it is a very kind of Buddhist thing. I heard Helena Bonham Carter interviewed once and she said, “When you’re working on a film, if you’re standing and you can be sitting, sit. [laughs] And if you’re sitting and you can be laying down, lay down.”
And why would you say that that’s some of the best advice you have ever received?
I think it speaks a great deal to self-care and conserving your energy and while you’re working, being present and aware of your energy levels. I recently talked to someone about Daniel Day-Lewis and how people like to make fun of him for staying in character for some of these more challenging roles that he takes on. But, after hearing that and delving into some larger characters myself, it takes more energy to get out of that character than it does just to be in that character. So what he is doing is not an egotistical thing, it’s more of an energy conservation thing, I’m guessing.
I obviously haven’t spoken to Daniel Day-Lewis about it. I don’t know; there is something simple just about that advice. When I heard her say that, I was like, “Oh. That makes sense.” It’s come in handy on several occasions. The only other advice that I’ve gotten that I try to stick to is, “Show up on time. Do your job. Don’t be a dick. Go home.” [laughs]
That’s some good advice.
I think that applies across the board. It’s a motto for life.
If you had to give advice to anyone that is aspiring to be an actor, would that be the advice you would give them? Or would you tell them something else?
Yeah, I would say, “Show up on time. Do your job. Don’t be a dick. Go home.” But that’s when you’re working. If you’re aspiring to be an actor and you’re working your way towards working, I think it’s the job of the actor to experience as many things as possible so that you can relate them to other people. So my advice to an aspiring actor is to go live life.
We know about you as an actor, but not you as a person. What do you like to do when you’re not acting?
I like to play music; I like to write music. I have an ever-changing group called “The Benevolent Folk.” We put out an album about three years ago. I like to read, I like to play tennis, I like to spend time on the beach now that I am out in California.
What is one thing people don’t know about you that they would be surprised to learn?
I get pedicures frequently, and I get my toenails painted.
[laughs] Yeah. I’m looking at sparkly blue toes right now. It makes me laugh. And it looks good. It looks much better than regular man feet.
Let’s move on to talk about your current project, “This Is Us.” What was it about that project, and specifically your character, that you drew you to want to be involved?
I wanted to be involved because to have the opportunity to work with Dan Fogelman is a chance that any actor would jump at. And to work with John Requa and Glenn Ficarra, the two EPs [executive producers] and directors, is another opportunity that any actor would jump at. But, it is also a rare opportunity to be given a chance to inhabit a character that is so well-written and so realistic and so honest.
Would you say that Toby is similar to who you are as a person in real life? Why or why not?
I think I bring some of myself to Toby. I think Toby medicates tough situations in life by using humor and comedy, maybe doesn’t take things as seriously as they ought to be taken.
When your character first crosses paths with Kate [played by Chrissy Metz], it was evident that a romance would be forming between the two of you. What can viewers expect for this pairing throughout the rest of season?
They can expect a romance for the ages! [laughs] That was supposed to be a joke. I think they can look forward to…I don’t know if I should tell them what to expect. They can expect two people trying their best to connect while fighting through their own individual feelings of shame, I guess, as it relates to relationships, and their weight, and their lack of self-confidence in certain areas.
I loved the first two episodes, and one of my favorite lines in the pilot episode is from your character and he jokes that dessert is his life’s work. What is your favorite dessert?
There is a restaurant in New York called Salumeria Rosi that makes a chocolate mousse that is one of the best things I’ve ever eating. I love it so much.
It’s very simple; it’s just a chocolate mousse with chocolate shavings mixed into it with powdered sugar on top.
Our website is called Talk Nerdy With Us, so what brings out your inner nerd? What do you “nerd out” over?
I probably nerd out over old horror movies, anything from the 70s.
Do you have a favorite?
I can’t remember if it is from the 70s or the 80s, but one of my favorite horror movies of all time is John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” starring a young Kurt Russell. That movie is terrifying.
What is it about old horror movies that you like so much?
I think there is something very honest in feeling fear. It’s something that everyone can relate to in some sense or another, obviously on varying scales. I think I like, especially looking back now, I like the low budget quality, I love the simplicity of a storyline where the only plot is somebody trying to get away from something else. It’s a very simple idea to wrap my mind around.
Have you ever been in a horror movie?
I’m trying to think. No. I really want to. I want to be in a zombie movie, I want to be in a horror film, and I want to be in a western.
You want to be in a western?
Oh man, boy do I. [laughs]
What do you think about today’s horror movies? Are you a fan or just of the older ones?
I think a lot of the horror movies that come out today are based on the new system of testing movies with test audiences and things like that. I think a lot of horror movies cop out in the third act and they show too much of the monster, they reveal too much, they are trying to answer too many questions.
I think the best horror movies are the ones that leave questions unanswered. Probably the best horror films I’ve seen in recent times are “The Babadook” and “The Strangers” with Liv Tyler.
I’ve seen that one [The Strangers]. That was a good one.
Holy cow. That was a great movie. They don’t answer any questions; you don’t really know why. That’s what makes it scary. As soon as horror movies start answering the question why, the whole movie starts to fall apart for me.
There’s a movie called Fun and Games that there was an original foreign version that was amazing and then they remade with Michael Pitt from Boardwalk Empire. The remake is just as good as the foreign version.
See, now we’re going to go on for hours talking about my favorite horror movies. [laughs]
It’s not something I watch a whole lot. But, I like good ones. I don’t like some of the silly ones.
Yeah. Have you seen “Let the Right One In”?
No. Is that a good one?
There you go. Yeah. It’s fascinating, it’s a vampire story, but it’s modern day, and it involves two teenage kids. There is a foreign version, and there is a remake with Chloe Moretz, and they are both very good.
“This Is Us” airs on Tuesdays at 10/9c on NBC. You can follow Chris on Twitter (@SullivanTweet).