From his stage work in the Tony Award-winning play “All The Way” and “Jitney” to a lead role in the critically-acclaimed and Emmy-nominated television show “The Americans,” success continues to follow Brandon Dirden. Get ready for a family affair as he’s back on the stage in “A Raisin In The Sun” with his brother, father and wife come September 9 to October 8.
How did you get your start in acting? When did you know you wanted to be an actor?
It’s hard to say how I got my start in acting. I started playing pretend and entertaining people like kids do and I never stopped. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be an actor. I remember a time when I thought I would maybe have to be other things so I studied mathematics at Morehouse College and interned at Shell Oil Company in my hometown of Houston during the summers. I absolutely hated working a day job. I figured if you only live once, you may as well do what you love, so I went to graduate school for acting right after undergrad and have never looked back.
You balance a nice television and theatre career. Is there one that you prefer? What are the pros and cons of both?
I honestly don’t have a preference between television and theater. I just like good storytelling. Theater has traditionally been known for the place where you can tell evocative stories, but I think we are in a time of extraordinarily exciting television that is really pushing the boundaries. Doing theatre is like a high wire act with no net. Anything can happen at any time and it’s so thrilling to get that instant feedback from a roomful of 1000 strangers. You can’t top the feeling of hearing the uproarious laughter or the collective gasp from a live audience. The downside of doing theater is that it’s really difficult to support a family on a theater salary unless you are in a hit Broadway show. You also have to power through sickness and pain if you can. The last Broadway show I did (“Jitney”), I was coming down with the flu the night Michelle Obama came and you better believe I was not calling in sick for that show!
With television, I had to learn how to stay out of other people’s way. Theater is such a collaborative process. For instance, the director may say, “Somehow that chair needs to be moved off the stage during the scene change to set up for the next scene,” and it’s natural for actors to volunteer ways that they can be helpful in getting that chair off the stage. But in television, there are so many people doing so many specific jobs, it’s best just to do your job because you never know when you are in the way. I got in the way a lot during my first season of “The Americans.” I would overhear that a light was causing a shadow that the director didn’t want, and I would volunteer to change my position so the shadow would not hit me. But by doing that, I would mess up the framing of the shot. What I really needed to do was be quiet and let the person who adjusts light, adjust the light! More often than not, when you try to help out on a set, you are just in the way. So I had to focus on just doing my job. And that has allowed me to be more selfish with my characters wants and needs and it is really liberating to not worry about somebody else. In television, I have also learned not to expect instant feedback or gratification and to trust in the work that I am doing. Most directors offer very little in the way of responding to your performance. Their primary job is to keep things running smoothly and efficiently. If you are an actor that needs to hear after every take how brilliant you are, then you are holding up the process and everybody on that set just wants to get the job done and get home.
Looking back at “Jitney,” what was that whole experience like? How important was seeing this story told now?
Being in “Jitney” was the greatest bucket list item on my list. I moved to New York with the dream of doing an August Wilson play on Broadway. And to do the last August Wilson Broadway premiere of his 10-play opus exceeded my wildest dreams. What made that production so special was that every single person involved with the show deserved to be there. We all have committed our lives to theater. Our director, Ruben Santiago-Hudson is a master and knows the world of August Wilson better than anyone on this planet. In an era where conventional wisdom says you have to have A-list celebrities in your play to sell tickets, Ruben went against the grain and assembled a cast with A-list talent.
How special was it winning the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play?
The most important thing about seeing this story of “Jitney” told was the way in which it was told; no trickery, no stunt casting, just great ensemble acting with killer production values and a true genius directing. It was great to see this show honored with the Tony Award. It felt like a win for the journeymen who show up everyday to put in the work without a promise of fame or fortune.
If “Jitney” ever got the opportunity to make it to the big screen, would you ever like to reprise your role?
After working on several of August Wilson’s plays, what would be your biggest message to him?
How is the process for “A Raisin In The Sun” coming along? How exciting is it that this has truly become a family affair for you?
We don’t start rehearsals until August 15th. So right now I am just reading the play a lot and trying to learn lines. I am used to working with family, but usually it is with my brother, Jason Dirden, or my wife, Crystal Dickinson. This is the first time I will be working with my dad and I am very excited! My dad usually comes to all of my shows, but has no idea what I am like in a rehearsal room. He just sees the finished product. I am so excited to share my process with him. It has been years since he has been on a professional stage so I am looking forward to watching his process as well.
I would be remiss if I didn’t ask about “All the Way.” Was it intimidating to play Martin Luther King in comparison to playing a fictional character? I’ve read your preparation for playing King was quite extensive.
It was initially intimidating taking on such an iconic figure and many people’s hero. But once I learned that my job was not to fulfill everyone’s expectations, I was able to focus on the MLK of the play and what he was trying to accomplish. Most people don’t regard MLK as a politician, but “All The Way” shows how Dr. King had to skillfully negotiate with different factions of the Civil Rights movement and also with President Johnson. It became exciting to share with audiences a side of Dr. King that perhaps they did not know about. Of course I still had to work on capturing his signature speaking style and making it sound natural as opposed to a caricature. Our director was really keen on us not doing imitations but trying to capture the essence of each of these people.
As “The Americans” is wrapping up, what has been the biggest takeaway for you? How have you liked seeing your character evolve? Is there anything you can say for what’s possibly ahead going into the final season?
I know about as much as you do for what is going to happen in this final season! Our writers are so skilled subverting all of my expectations, I don’t even try to guess what’s going to happen from one episode to the next. I guess that would be my biggest takeaway: to trust really good writing. When I started on “The Americans,” I was only scheduled to appear in a handful of episodes and here we are three years later. I have really enjoyed playing Dennis Aderholt and getting to know who he is over the years. He has revealed himself to be extremely intelligent and an independent thinker. He is a real asset to the FBI and has had to overcome a lot of internal obstacles. I hope he either brings the Jennings in or gets a glorious death in the final episode.
Is there something you look for when considering/taking a part in a production of any sort?
I first look to see if it’s a story that I want to help tell. I don’t care if it’s the lead or a walk on role. A heavy drama or a slapstick comedy. I just don’t want to waste the audience’s time. Nor do I want to put messages out that contradict what I believe to be true. Now I have a 3-year-old son and I think about how everything I do may be available for him and his friends to watch at any time. So that adds another layer of caution.
Is there a story you haven’t done or a role you’d like to play that you haven’t already?
My brother, Jason, has written a screenplay for our family. It’s actually very good and I would like to get that made in the next year or two if possible. I would also like to play more villains. My character on “The Get Down” was a lot of fun but I wouldn’t put him in the villain column. I want to play someone straight up diabolical who gets what he deserves in the end. Those characters always have the best lines.
Final question: what has been the biggest pinch me moment of your career?
The biggest pinch me moment happens every time I get paid to do what I love!