A Sunday with Patrick Carroll
Words & Images: Augustus Britton
June 05 2016
It’s midnight and we wait. It’s a Sunday also, and we won’t be going to church today. Coincidentally, we are at a popular gay bar in West Hollywood named The Abbey. I am here with the 34 year old actor Patrick Carroll and two girls. We’ve never been here before, but both of us are artists, so the whole scene isn’t frightening, more illuminating. How might this be frightening? You ask. Well, men doused in oil, tanned and waxed, dancing in g-strings are inches away, as heavily bass-driven electronic music comes through the loudspeakers: for two heterosexual men that might sound…frightening. But not for men who grew up with people who phase change in life and shape shift to kingdom come.
I drink a tequila and light up a joint filled with Strawberry Cough, a sativa that makes the body feel at once like it is floating and at once firmly secured to the bottom of your feet, almost screwed to the ground by nails made of marshmallow. I buy a plastic blue rose with a light on the end of it that glows different colors, alternating from pink to red to yellow and green and back again as a flagpole in case Patrick and I lose one another in the rising crowd.
I’ve met Mr. Carroll over a series of Sundays in my life. Our meetings took place across the U.S. from New York City to Marfa, Texas to East Hollywood. I first met Mr. Carroll when he was on Broadway in David Lindsay-Abaire’s play Good People. Patrick had never been on Broadway before. He has a slouched and beaten demeanor – yet with bright eyes and those traits fit the role to a T. But to win the role he had to claw his way to it, beating out dozens of other highly trained actors across Manhattan.
He says acclimating to the Broadway stage was a special kind of feeling, “The first time we put the play up in front of an audience after a month of rehearsal I had the first entrance of the show. Frances McDormand and I walked downstairs. I look up, and I see…just a cloud, a sea of faces, 850 people looking right at me. In that moment I got to where I was supposed to be, but I couldn’t move. And I must have looked like a deer in headlights, but Frances knew exactly what was happening. She gave me a gentle nod and a little smile. She skipped over the line I had lost, fed me the next one and it brought me right back down to earth. We were flying, and we didn’t stop for 195 shows…and it was a fucking incredible experience.”
Before his debut on Broadway he played roles on primetime television in shows like Law and Order, and landed a leading role in Redacted, Brian De Palma’s controversial flick on the war in Iraq, which was shot in the deserts of The Middle East. He has since worked on HBO and other major networks and plays off-Broadway as well as on Hail, Caesar!, the Coen brothers most recent film.
In some ways, a lot of dreams have come true for Patrick, but he is still making his way across the desert landscape that the life of an actor can be. Cut to many years later…
We’ve quickly lost the girls (after all, I’m doing a piece on Patrick, so he does get my attention) and he and I are in the middle of the dance floor. I’m holding onto his back as the floor is so crowded that you cannot move. A song begins to play with its main sound being that of a whistle. The whistle goes up and down, as do Patrick and I, jumping, lifting our feet off the grimy black dance floor as high as we can without toppling over. We’ve created a mosh pit at The Abbey. An abyss of gay and straight men and women grind all over us. I remember very little after this point, other than Patrick drove home on his motorcycle, and me being taken home by the girl, as I fended off various assaults from the creatures of the night because I was wearing a New York Knicks jersey.
I wasn’t worried about Patrick driving. He doesn’t drink, only chain smokes Marlboro Reds. A short stint in The Tombs, an underground jain in lower Manhattan, convinced him that drugs and alcohol were not life enhancing. He is a warrior poet, and I’m glad he has reached some kind of sober Elysium, as a stay in The Tombs is not something one wants to make a habit of…because, after all, Rikers would be next…
We’ve now slept off the previous night’s debauchery. It’s around noon. Patrick says being an actor is about being the last man standing. About getting where you’re trying to go. Understanding the path you’re on, respecting it.
“Could you do this forever?” I ask, sitting at his home in Boyle Heights, a small suburb of Downtown LA. It’s not the best neighborhood. The infamous 101 runs through his backyard. A man was shot about a week ago while driving and careened into the front door of a house a couple blocks down. Here, graffiti is the main source of inspiration.
“What, you mean…quit?” he says, staring at me behind purple tinted reading glasses. Eyebrows flexed. He sits up, flings a football up in the air, “You know, acting is really about patience…”
“A patient person acts?” I say.
“Yes, a patient one. I mean, a feral one. An animal one, but a calm one. A pretty one. An ugly one,” he says, energy moving through his legs.” he continues, “Actors require a higher quotient of patience, I think, because so much of their “success” is relegated to the whims of other people: directors, casting directors, producers, agents, managers. But, like Mark Duplass said, “the cavalry isn’t coming.”
“Meaning?” I ask.
“So I’m producing a play this fall, and I’ve got a film to make over the next three years.”
“Anybody you like in particular? Actors? Roles?” I ask.
“Mark Rylance is my favorite actor, but I also love Eddie Murphy as Axel Foley in Beverly Hills Cop.”
Patrick then does an impression of Eddie.
“Look, man, I ain’t fallin’ for no banana in my tailpipe!”
We both laugh. Flashing back to The Abbey, where I can only assume various bananas were aimed at our tailpipes.
Patrick doesn’t like staying put. He’s always on a new track. Suddenly, moving with the clouds, I’m following behind him as he drives his newly acquired Triumph Scrambler motorcycle. Los Angeles is teeming around us. We stop off in front of Canter’s famous deli on Fairfax. We go in and sit down for a coffee.
I catch a glimpse of Patrick’s eyes behind his sunglasses and I know, suddenly, we are going down the rabbit hole of what it is to be an actor…
“Well, the question of comparison comes up…actor in LA…actor in New York… actor in London. In London, acting and the theatre, playwriting, etc. these are all such rich underpinnings of the entire culture. There are theaters and monuments of theatre history that represent hundreds of years of reverence to the process of making plays. People on the street have a twinkle of respect in their eyes when they meet an actor. In New York there is a thick theatre community, people hang out with each other, they love each other, they fuck each other, they marry each other, they pound the pavement and audition against each other and when you are working on a play in midtown its geography takes on a whole new meaning. You’re in the middle of what feels like the destination. The place where all these people have come to see one play and you have a chance to share something with them. That’s a pretty magical feeling. If you’re doing a play downtown it is gritty and you can tear the lid off a little bit more. There is less of a formula you are asked to conform to, more freedom perhaps. But, you know, New York is a town full of very serious people…”
“And Los Angeles?” I say.
“Well,” he says again, humming a bit to himself, looking gently up at the ceiling, “In LA I often say I am a film editor.”
I can’t help but laugh. This is an elite actor lying about his occupation to keep his dignity. How perverse, especially in a town that is meant for actors.
He continues, “It’s sad but there is a snarling lip-curl of dry mouthed disgust that can wash across the faces of people who’ve just learned you are an actor, and I’m pretty sure some of those people are actors themselves. That’s kind of a gnarly feeling to censor yourself as you introduce who you are…what you do. But LA has an enormous current of art running through it right now. And as an actor it feels incredible to be in the midst of that churning generation. I work less in LA actually. But my rent is affordable. I have a ton of space. And I have people around who mean a lot to me.”
“And it’s easy to keep the creativity alive no matter where you go?” I ask, “keep the energy flowing while, dare I say, not working?”
Patrick and I are now rubbing elbows. I’m glad we’ve reached a point of openness about his art form.
“There’s only so much one can do, really,” he says, “I don’t do any physical or vocal work. Maybe I should. But an Oscar winner did once say to me “life is my warm up.” But another Oscar winner spoke to me about theatre while doing a yoga head stand for several moments at the age of 82. And one guy with an Oscar playing Richard the third had a steady diet of booze, smokes and debauchery. Another guy with an Oscar had a strict regimen of volleyball that took place every day before his shows. Actors have so many ways of preparing and working on themselves. What works for one role may not work for another.”
I think about seeing Patrick in the lonely desert of Marfa, Texas. His dog, Mighty Belle, was with him then. I was working at one of the local hotels. And he was there for the same reason I was: a search for art in the most obscure. It might not be enough to grow up in the big city. All the saturation of creativity might not be what every person feeds off. If not, then seek…
“What works for me shifts and changes, but I’m a pretty technical guy and my mind makes choices and my body makes impulses that some times I can’t explain…”
He stands up. Both of our coffees drained. He moves a fly away from his face. And I get the sound bite we’ve been waiting for.
“I think life is my warm up…and then I look to escape from under water while shackled at my ankles and wrists. Acting is a type of alchemy…it is magic, and what can I say, it’s kind of cool when people look at you like you’re Houdini.”