If you don't know who Wayne Brady is, you will. Many have already enjoyed his hilarious antics on the ABC improvisational comedy show, Whose Line Is It Anyway?, hosted by Drew Carey. The talented Brady hopes if he keeps playing his cards right, audiences will get to know him a lot more, not just as a comedian but also as a well-rounded actor, producer, and writer.
He recently filmed the pilot for a new ABC sketch comedy/improv series he's starring in and co-writing called The Wayne Brady Hour, which will air as a one-hour special and should be followed by subsequent episodes beginning this summer or early fall. The 28-year-old actor will also be producing and starring in a play, The Only Game in Town, at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood this summer.
For the past year, Brady has also been taking his live improv comedy show, Wayne Brady Unplugged, on the road, performing in comedy clubs and packing theatres across the country. He was recently invited to present his show at the prestigious U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, where locals and a heavy dose of industry folks thoroughly enjoyed a firsthand look at this powerhouse performer, who has more energy onstage than 10 men put together, as well as a fabulous singing voice that should land him on Broadway someday soon.
What's clear from watching Brady perform and from speaking with him is that he absolutely loves what he does for a living, and that infectious enthusiasm is what's propelled him from his beginnings in Orlando, Fla., where he was born and raised and began working in the theatre, to his rise as a television personality in Los Angeles.
Actually, one of Brady's earliest jobs in L.A. after arriving in 1995 was in the Mark Taper Forum's stage production of Blade to the Heat. It was not long, though, before TV casting people began calling, giving him jobs as a series regular on the syndicated sketch-comedy show Kwik Witz for two seasons, as the host of the VH1 comedy series Vinyl Justice, and then Whose Line, beginning in 1998.
Back Stage West recently caught up with the busy actor to talk about his past, his present, and what's shaping up to be a very exciting future in show business.
Back Stage West: Tell me, how did you get started in improv?
Wayne Brady: I started doing improv in 1990 in Florida. I started taking improv [classes] because I wanted to become a better actor and help my theatrical craft. I wanted it to help me onstage so that I could give my characters really good life and use my imagination. And a lot of actors are very hampered in the sense that if they don't have a script in front of them, they go to pieces. I wanted to be in a position that if anything ever happened onstage, I would be reliable and I could keep the story going.
BSW: Did things fall into place fairly quickly for you once you moved to Los Angeles, or did you have your share of struggle like so many of your fellow actors out here?
Brady: In the big scheme of things, there are actors who have been here for years—15 years, 20 years—who still haven't achieved any prominence. In light of that, I guess I have had a relatively quick row to hoe here. But I also pride myself on the fact that as soon as I moved here, I started working immediately. I did whatever gigs I had to. I was working at the theme park at Universal Studios. I worked with a company called Characters Kids Love, which I think still may have an ad in your paper. They are the ones seeking "young, energetic actors." What they don't tell you is that they're seeking young, energetic actors to strap into a dog suit and go perform at birthday parties. But I did that. And I did a lot of band work.
I've always been lucky enough to be able to work in my chosen craft, as an actor and as a performer. So I was very fortunate that when the acting work wasn't coming, I was singing. I was dancing. I was performing in the theme parks. I got a chance to perform for thousands of people each day, and I used that to keep busy and hone what I was doing. I had it tough for a brief period here, definitely. And, of course, you have those moments when you're doubtful—when you're like, "Gosh, what's going to happen tomorrow?" Or, "I've got to make this audition." And every single audition becomes, "This could be the one."
BSW: But isn't that usually a myth—that one job or one audition can solve an actor's struggle?
Brady: I think it is a myth. I can only speak for my case, but it was definitely event after event that helped me. And you know, as an actor, all you have to sell is yourself. That's the greatest commodity we have. You get really involved in the thing of "I've got to get this gig. This gig will be it." You pour all your energies into getting it, and, as more often than not is the case, you don't get it. Then your self-esteem is damaged, and you've got to pick yourself up and get going to the next thing.
What I would try to do is really put things in the perspective of, "There's nothing else that I can do. I can't save lives. I'm not a heart surgeon. I'm not going to invent any great new type of space travel." So I just needed to do what I was doing as an actor, and if that meant getting kicked in the butt every single day, then that was cool. I didn't do it to become rich or famous. I did it because I love to act, because I love to be in front of an audience, and because I love to be creative.
So every day I would get out there and audition, and I did what I had to do. And slowly, I think, even the auditioning started helping my performing, because I became a more confident auditioner. So I was more confident in my goods when I would present them in front of someone.
BSW: Another myth is that comedy is somehow the easier form of acting, compared to drama. But I'd have to believe that what you do is really difficult.
Brady: Of course it's difficult. I hate when actors say, "I don't do comedy because I'm a dramatic actor." You are an actor, plain and simple. You need to develop the basic skills to do both, because that's what your job is. If someone asks you do a role in which you are required to make a character sympathetic—and sympathetic enough that the audience feels for you and cries—then you've done a dramatic turn. But, to me, the greater actor is the one who can take that same character and make people cry, but then also make you see the humor in it, because that's real life. I think that to be a good actor, you've got to be able to do both.
I mean, look at Billy Crystal, Robin Williams, or Denis Leary. These are three people who I guess you could consider comedians because of their past work, but, by all means, they are incredible actors. And to me, that's the ultimate aim. If I have God on my side enough to make it happen, that's the same breadth that I would like to have, this very well-rounded actor—as opposed to, "He's just a comedian."
BSW: Let's talk about your recent experience at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival. I was talking to your agent, Stacy Mark, about what someone at your level, who's a lot further along than many of the comedians performing in Aspen, can get out of a festival like that. She said, "The thing about Wayne is people know him as the black guy from Whose Line Is It Anyway? That's changing." She went on to explain that an opportunity like Aspen is a great way for industry people who know you only from Whose Line to see what else you can do. Do you think you achieved that in Aspen?
Brady: Since I've been doing this touring show for the past year, I'm not just the "black guy from Whose Line Is It Anyway?" anymore. I also wanted that on the industry side, and it was very important for me to come to Aspen and to present myself, because a lot of industry people don't watch a lot of TV. Unless you've done a lot of film work or unless your show gets a ton of attention, people may not be aware of you. So it was very important for me to put myself out there.
On a selfish note, I just really wanted to meet a lot of the people up there, like Steve Martin and Billy Crystal, whom I've loved and respected for years.
BSW: I'm always pleasantly surprised when an actor shares some of his or her fears with me. You told me when I saw you in Aspen that you were nervous about your first performance that night. Is that the same fear you have whenever you get up in front of an audience—that maybe people won't respond favorably to you?
Brady: I think at Aspen I was nervous because an industry audience is different from an audience of people who have gotten into their cars to come see you, who love you week after week, and they want to watch you because they don't want you to fail—as opposed to industry people who say, "I've seen it all. So entertain me." It was a compliment that I was able to go to something like Aspen and have very jaded industry people dig my show and like me. That was a minor victory in itself.
The nervous energy that I feel when I'm performing in front of a regular crowd of people is different. I love performing for folks. I really love it. It's funny to say this, but some days—even in the midst of all this great stuff I'm doing—I still miss performing in the theme parks. I loved getting up every single morning and putting on my makeup and doing my show five times a day. And at the heart of it, it's a very people-oriented art—doing the live thing.
BSW: Is the stage where you feel the most alive?
Brady: Oh, God, yes, because there's this connection that you can't make on TV. As much as I love working in TV, I can't look at every person in every one of the millions of homes that watch me. When I'm in front of a [live stage] audience, I can pick out that one person and see that they're having a good time. I can share a joke with those people, and I can feed off that energy. There's no feeling like it.
BSW: What you do now as an improv comedian seems really physically exhausting. Can you picture yourself doing what you're doing now when you're 50?
Brady: One would hope. I'm only using him as an example because he's the performer I want to be at his age—but Colin Mochrie, from Whose Line, is in his mid-40s, and we just did a live show in Florida together—the two of us—about two weeks ago. Colin can do everything—well, mostly everything—that I can do physically onstage. That's such an inspiration to me. I think if I can keep in shape, I can definitely do a high-impact show like ours well into my 50s and, I hope, until I'm 90. I want to be performing for people until I can't physically get up and do it. That's my love—not that I will be doing an improv show when I'm 50.
It's wonderful that I'm doing this now, but I have bigger plans for myself than just touring around doing improv. By the time I'm 50, I hope to be like a Steve Martin or Robin Williams and to have had a great measure of film work under my belt and to have written things and to have produced projects for other artists—to have a bit of an artistic legacy behind me. But you have to take everything one step as it comes, and until I can achieve those lofty goals, I'm Wayne Brady, the black guy from Whose Line.
BSW: One thing that never ceases to amaze me is how you are able to take a seemingly weak suggestion from an audience member and incorporate what he or she suggests into something hilarious. I loved, for example, when you asked someone in the audience at Aspen what his favorite thing to do is, and the guy replied, "Living," and you turned his answer into a really witty song. In fact, you always seem to make up really great songs off the top of your head. Are you naturally gifted or was this something you learned to do over the years?
Brady: I think it's a very necessary skill to have in order to become a really good improviser, and I think I'm just very fortunate. Ever since I was a kid, I've always been musically inclined, and ever since my mom made me learn to read I've always been a voracious reader. I found that putting little songs together, as a kid, helped me understand things better and it helped me get through my work quicker. So I was always able to put a tune together in my head, and I never thought anything of it.
It wasn't until I started doing improv, formally, that I thought, Hey, I can do that song, and then people really responded to that. Then I really wanted to focus on that particular art, because that, in itself, is a cool art—the art of musical improv. I probably won't get a chance to do it this year, but by next year, I'm thinking of doing a show where I produce and improvise a musical, where I'll have a cast and we'll just do an improvised musical each week. The aim would be to really make it look and sound as much like a real musical as we can.
BSW: The thought that often strikes me when I hear you singing is, Why isn't Wayne Brady on Broadway? You have the voice, the charisma, and the acting chops to do it. Is that something you'd considered doing at some point?
Brady: Well, that was the dream of mine. And when I first moved out to L.A. to pursue TV work, I was getting offered stage work left and right. When I got my first series, a show on VH1 called Vinyl Justice, I'd just gotten an offer to join the Toronto cast of Rent, and then I would have moved on to the Broadway cast. I had to turn it down because I wanted to stay and do the series. Then at one point I was offered The Lion King in the original company, and I turned it down.
I trained my whole life to be able to get to Broadway, and then I had to turn it down. So I'm hoping at some point to get there. Tomorrow, in fact, I'm going to New York to meet with my William Morris agents there, and the hope is that by Christmas or early next year, I would love to take over a role in a show.
I've really been blessed. It's not every day that you can fulfill a lot of your life's dreams, and I've been doing that. The fact that I have people in New York who could get me into a musical, and the fact that I've got my own TV show, and the fact that I get a chance to perform for people all the time doing improv and doing stuff I love—it's just mind-blowing.
BSW: I'm curious—have you had your 10-year high school reunion yet?
Brady: Yeah, I did three years ago, and it was really awesome.
BSW: Were your classmates at all surprised at what you wound up doing?
Brady: No, and it's a real pat on the back. But there's a certain stress that goes along with your reunion, especially when you're named Most Likely to Succeed or Most Likely to Be Famous. There's a stress that if you walk back into your high school reunion and you haven't succeeded or you haven't gone far, then folks are like, "How sad. He had so much promise in high school."
So I guess to a certain extent I've always been driven. Five years before my reunion I said, Man, my 10-year reunion is coming up in five years. I'm not going to go back as anything less than a success. I didn't mean success like I needed to be a star. To me, success as an actor isn't validated by if you're on a TV show or not. It's if you have been able to work and your body of work is consistent and good. So it was a wonderful position to be able to walk into my class reunion with my [achievements]. It was a little dream come true, especially since I was such a nerd in high school. I was a huge nerd in high school.
BSW: Really? So you weren't "Most Likely to Succeed?"
Brady: No, but by my senior year I'd gotten "Most Talented." I think I became pseudo cool once I started acting, but up until that point I was really lost, and I had a horrible complexion, and I was really skinny, and my voice didn't match my body. It was wonderful to go back and feel like I'd really accomplished something. BSW