Over the past three decades, Spencer Garrett has become a familiar face to fans of television and film, all while establishing himself as perennial favorite among industry execs. His hard work and determination as living proof that setting your sights on a dream and diligently working toward your goals pays off in the long run. A third-generation actor, Garrett was born to actress Kathleen Nolan and Richard Heckenkamp, former head of Film Artists Associates. Raised as a bicoastal resident of both New York and Los Angeles, Garrett grew up in an artist’s environment opportune for cultivating his passion for acting. Armed with a degree in Theatrical Studies from both Duke and Fordham, along with his lifelong admiration of arts and entertainment, Garrett immerged as an urbane-artist on the Hollywood scene.
He stepped into the spotlight as a guest star in such television classics as ‘Dallas,’ ‘Columbo’ and ’21 Jumpstreet,’ before being cast in lead-roles on countless television shows including: ‘The X-Files,’ CSI,’ ‘The West Wing’ and ‘The Practice.’ Most recently, Garrett has procured guest starring roles on the hugest and most critically acclaime shows as Netflix hit series ‘House of Cards,’ Showtime’s ‘Masters of Sex’ and AMC’s critically acclaimed series, ‘Mad Men.’ His most recent current recurring role on USA’s newest drama series, ‘Satisfaction’ has garnered him much attention and he looks to kick off the coming year with the a role on NBC’s highly anticipated new series ‘Aquarias.’
His film resume is no less impressive with appearances in Michael Mann’s ‘Public Enemies,’ Shane Black’s ‘Iron Man 3,’ ‘Thank You For Smoking’ and the classic ‘Air Force One.’ Garrett is having an exciting return to the big screen in January 2015 with the scheduled release of Michael Mann’s feature for Warner Bros. ‘Blackhat’ and will also appear in John Erick Dowdle’s newest thriller, ‘The Coup’ expected to open March 6, 2015. The future looks very bright for Spencer Garrett as his star continues to rise!
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Spencer Garrett to discuss his roots in the entertainment industry, his process for bringing characters from script to screen, his evolution as an actor, upcoming film and television projects and what the future might hold for in the world behind the camera!
What got you started on your journey in the entertainment industry and made you want to pursue acting as a career?
It is kind of the family business! My grandparents were actors and my mom and my aunt were actors, along with my uncle. I always like to say, “If I had the sense God gave a donut, I probably would have thought twice before I got on this rollercoaster!” [laughs] I just wanted to carry on the family legacy. I wanted to give it a try. So, when I got out of college, I spent about four years in Washington, DC working for NPR. I started doing theater in Washington, DC and that is where I got the bug. That is when I thought, “Alright, I am going to give this a shot! I will give it a couple of years. If it works, great! If not, I have a good degree and I will move on to something else.” It kind of took hold and I haven’t stopped working since! [laughs] I am waiting for the other shoe to drop but, in the meantime, it’s working out pretty well!
Who had a big impact on you as an artist in your early years?
Certainly my grandparents had a big impact on me. My grandfather was a character actor. They started out on a showboat on the Mississippi River called The Goldenrod, which was docked in St. Louis. They used to go up and down the Mississippi River and stop in little towns. The people from the towns would get on the showboat and there was a theater on the boat. I was inspired by my grandparents’ journey of doing that. They both had successful careers in the business. My grandma went on to become an agent. My mother is probably my biggest influence. Her name is Kathleen Nolan. She was on an old series called “The Real McCoys” in the early ‘60s and went on to become the first woman president of the Screen Actors Guild. I have a lot of strong people and influences in my background. The bar was set pretty high when I was a kid of big things to aspire to! In terms of actors, I grew up admiring Robert Duvall, Gene Hackman, Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffman. It was always the character guys, the guys with long careers and often the guys whose careers didn’t really start until their mid to late 30s. That really inspired me because I got a late start. I didn’t really get started until I was 25 years old, in the film and TV world. I always looked to the guys who started late themselves, the late bloomers who caught fire in their later years. I am inspired everyday by the people that I work with like Kevin Spacey and Laurence Fishburne. I have had the opportunity to work with some wonderful people, so I feel very blessed.
You are a familiar face when it comes to television and film. Have you ever had that “Ah Ha!” moment where you felt you truly made it as an actor or is it something you are always working toward?
I think working towards that next big thing is probably dangerous. I don’t want to work towards my “Ah Ha” moment. I think if there was a point that changed my trajectory of my career or my life it was probably working with Michael Mann on “Public Enemies.” I had had a good, long and steady stream of work playing lots of guys in suits, lawyers, congressmen and politicians. Michael Mann cast me in “Public Enemies” as something that was completely different from that. It gave me a chance to stretch a little bit and give people in the business an opportunity to see me do something other than the roles I was relegated to playing. That was an “Ah Ha” moment for me because I was very content at playing those guys and the casting people on that film kind of looked outside the box and said, “We know you are capable of doing something better and different.” They really gave me a chance and I will always be grateful for that! As far as the “Ah Ha” moment, you go from one job to the next and are just happy to be in the ballgame. I don’t want to strive for that moment but every time I get the chance to work and work with wonderful people, I sit in my trailer and say, “Ah ha! I am living to work another day! It’s another day where I get to do something different and express myself.” It is the best job in the world.
You have a ton of irons in the fire. One project is USA’s “Satisfaction.” How did you get involved with the project and what intrigued you about the character?
“Satisfaction” was just a great gift that came out of the blue. I got a call from my agent who said I had been offered this thing. I read it and I instantly liked it. Obviously, when you don’t have to jump through all of the requisite hoops that we have to go through all of the time to get the job, it is always a gift. The producers, I guess, had liked my work and said, “You’re the right guy for the gig!” I got the offer and in two days I was in Atlanta. I was really given the opportunity to create this guy from the ground up. It is a wonderful ensemble, a truly wonderful group of actors. I love the writing and it was a joy to go to work on that show every day. I did the first five episodes, I was off for a couple and then I was in the finale. I am really glad to see how people have caught on to the show and are really digging it. That is a cool thing! For me, it was a total gift. I didn’t have to audition. Whenever you get those gifts, you run with it!
What did you bring to the character that wasn’t on the written page?
I think giving the guy a sense of humor was something I brought. I think, on paper, he could have been a stock, gruff, jerky, yuppie type. I think I gave him a little humanity and a little humor. As you see, he kind of softens up throughout the series. He starts out as a rigid, angry guy and, the more Neil goes on his journey, you see Victor’s character soften up and loosen up a little bit, as Neil does as well. I don’t want to give it away but when you see the finale, you will see that Victor has turned a corner himself. You see a different side of him that you didn’t see in the pilot. He has had a nice little arc from the beginning to end of these 10 episodes. I credit Sean Jablonski, the writer, with giving Victor a place to go because it could have been very one dimensional. He gave me the opportunity to make him funny, warm and a little bit more human than he would have been on the page.
Another ensemble cast you are a part of is the new series, “Aquarius.” How did you get involved and what can we expect to see when it premieres next year?
I can’t say too much about it but it is about Charles Manson and the hunt for him in Los Angeles in 1967. David Duchovny plays a very different character than you have seen him play before. He plays a tough, sort of brutish LA cop and he is wonderful in the role. It was another gift from the casting people who put me on “Mad Men.” I tend to fit nicely into period things, so they brought me on board for this where I play a slick, smarmy Beverly Hills lawyer who may or may not be involved with Manson in some shady way. I am doing several episodes of that and I am having a blast because it is a really nice 360 degrees turn from the Victor character I have been doing in Atlanta all summer. This guy is very, very dark and he goes to some dark places and that is always fun to play.
Whether it is this one or any other project, what is your process for putting a character together?
It really starts with the richness of the writing. I have always been one of these actors who likes to go from the outside in. I like to play with props and different looks. Whether it is glasses, the clothes he wears, the color of his tie or tie clip, I like to play around with the look of the guy. I kind of find him from the outside in. That is always fun, whether it is the guy in “Public Enemies” or the Victor character in “Satisfaction” or this guy in “Aquarius.” On “Aquarius,” I get to work with a wonderful costume designer by the name of Amy Stofsky, who I have worked with since “Air Force One” back in 1996. Usually, when actors come on to a project, you don’t have much say in what you get to wear and how you get to wear it. In this case, I am getting to collaborate with the costume designer and she is giving me the opportunity to wear things and style myself in a way that I think this guy would be. That is really a nice thing to be able to do. That is usually what I do with these guys, start from the outside in and then you find them as you go along.
You mentioned working with Michael Mann and you will team up with him once again for a project called “Blackhat.” What can you tell us about it?
Yeah! It was called “Cyber” initially. It stars the great Viola Davis, Chris Hemsworth and a wonderful actor named Christian Borle, who is now on “Masters of Sex.” We spent a couple of months in Asia last year in Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta and Hong Kong. I think it is going to be Michael’s best film yet or at least his best film since “The Insider,” which is a magnificent film. I have been a fan of Michael’s since “Manhunter” at the very beginning of his career. We have had a nice association since “Public Enemies” and I got to work on the unfortunately ill-fated series “Luck” about horse racing with Dustin Hoffman, so this is our third project together. I love working with him.
You had the opportunity to work with so many terrific people along the way, both in front of and behind the camera. What are some of the biggest things you have learned along the way?
You definitely learn something different from everyone. In a span of about two or three years, I have worked with Mike Nichols, Michael Bay and Michael Mann, my trio of Michaels! [laughs] Each one could not be more different from the other. Obviously, Mike Nichols is a legend from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and “The Graduate.” Michael Bay has his own brand of filmmaking and his own style. Michael Mann is one of the great visual stylists in film history. Every opportunity to work with people like that is like going to school for me. You get to see how these masters work. They all have different styles in the way that they work with actors but I take away something from each project. I had great reverence for Mike Nichols when I worked with him. He is very much an actor’s director as opposed to Michael Mann or Michael Bay, who work in a different way. Mike Nichols is very much about the actor and the performance, where as Michael Mann would basically say, “I hired you to be the guy … show me what you’ve got!” He relies on you to bring to the table what he hired you to do. It is a different way of working. With Michael Mann, it was about trust. He trusted me to bring to the table something good and hopefully you deliver and he brings you back to the party another time!
Looking back on your career, what was your biggest evolution as an actor?
Not to sound cliché but I like to think I am still evolving. I have been doing this for 25 years. My old acting teacher, Sanford Meisner, used to say to his students, “It takes 20 years to become an actor.” I remember the first time I heard that and we all collectively sighed in the classroom! [laughs] We were all thinking, “Well, I don’t want to wait that long.” Today, I feel like I am just hitting my stride and just getting good at it. Even though I have been working as long as I have, I just feel like I am kind of hitting my groove. I’m evolving with each new project and like to think I am getting better and better. I am in this for the long haul and I like the way things are going! I am a student of life and a student of film, so with each job I get to learn something different, grow and hopefully bring it to the next project with me.
Is there a type of project or genre you are eager to tackle as an actor?
You know, I have never done any sci-fi. I have done a couple of what I guess you could call horror films but I have never done any science fiction. I am a huge fan of the “Alien” films and things like that, so I think it would be fun to be a part of something weird and wonderful like that! That is a genre I haven’t been invited to play in yet but I am hoping that I do! It is definitely on my bucket list!
Do you aspire to explore the world behind the camera in the future?
I produced a film three years ago. It was a film that sort of fell into my lap as a producer accidently. I was asked to play a role in a movie called “Below The Beltway,” It was going to be a funky little indie film that was going to be shot in about 20 days in Washington, DC. I fell in love with the script. I turned to the writer/director, Dave Fraunces, who was a guy I knew from working on “Bobby” with Emilio Estevez, who had been shepherding this project for many years and said, “Let me call some of my fancy friends and see if they love the script as much as I do and want to come and play with us.” Within about a month, I had Tate Donovan, Noah Wyle, Xander Berkeley, Kip Pardue, Grant Shaud. It was a group of amazing actors! They all came and worked for nothing and we made a wonderful little film which did very well on the festival circuit. We shot it in 21 days for $250,000. It was my first experience producing and it was very gratifying. I have a couple more films in the pipeline that I am hoping to get into production in the spring.
What is the best piece of advice you can pass along to aspiring actors looking to make their career in the entertainment industry?
The business has changed and evolved so much over the 20 years that I have been in it. Obviously, now you have Netflix, Amazon and so many different platforms that there is greater opportunity for work but it is still very hard to get work. What I say to the young drama students that I speak to at Duke University when I go back a couple times a year and at the class I teach here in Los Angeles, which is something Mr. Meisner said to me when I was starting out, “Don’t do this unless you are 1,000% certain it is in your blood and your bones and you want to do it for the rest of your life.” I heard that said to me in 1984. Those are very strong words and words to hold onto. I think they hold true now more than ever because the business is so difficult. I would say, as a piece of advice to anyone thinking about getting involved in show business now, don’t do it unless you absolutely have to live for it. It can be very tough out there. Study, study, study, study! See as much theater and watch as much film as you can. Read plays and go to see small theater and immerse yourself in the culture of theater and film because being an artist is not something that is really smiled upon. I think being an artist kind of gets a bum rap. Acting is an art and a very proud tradition that I want to carry on. If you are serious about it make sure you do your homework!
Are you involved with any charity work we can help shine a light on?
I have been involved with The National Breast Cancer Coalition for the last 15 years. I perform at a benefit for them every year. The NBCC has done some extraordinary work over the years. My mother is a breast cancer survivor and I got involved with them several years before she was diagnosed, so it is even more important to me now! I have also been involved with Project ALS over the years. They are both amazing organizations that I am happy to lend my support.
Thanks so much for your time today, Spencer. We will spread the word on these terrific projects and wish you continued success!
Thank you, Jason! It was my pleasure! Take care!
Connect with Spencer Garrett on Twitter at twitter.com/1SpencerGarrett. To learn more about the charites Spencer Garrett supports, visit the official sites for The National Breast Cancer Coalition and Project ALS.