Breaking Cool: a Conversation with Sawyer Spielberg

Sawyer Spielberg looking out over the The Lake in Central Park. “The need to express myself is in me. It’s in my father, and it’s in me too. I don’t want to settle for anything else. I can’t sit behind a desk. I have to act. I have to tell stories. Because I wouldn’t be happy if I didn’t. I have to fight. That’s what drove me to New York.” Photo: Jason Riker

Words by Ginger Makela Riker and photos by Jason Riker

In New York City your best laid plans often go awry. Especially if you have plans to shoot on location in December.
Any bad weather — rain, sleet, snow — can lead to huge delays in this city. Plans easily get postponed, rescheduled, canceled.

LaGuardia Airport is the best example of all of this, and if you’ve ever been trapped there waiting for a flight to depart, you know exactly what I mean.

When Jason and I woke up and looked out over the Brooklyn Navy Yards the East River was a wall of fog. My weather app said an 80% chance of rain.

My heart sank. People in New York typically reschedule in weather like this.

And we had plans at noon to meet up with actor Sawyer Spielberg to take a four-hour walking tour of his former haunts in Manhattan and Brooklyn as part of Jason’s portrait series of young actors and dancers in New York — young people who have come from all over the world with the hope of building a career as professional performers. Their energy is contagious, their dreams big.

Jason texts Sawyer a screenshot of the forecast: You still up for this?

He texts back: I’m OK in the rain. As long as your equipment is.

And so we take our chances on the weather and play it as it lays.

We meet up with Sawyer at 76th Street and Central Park West. He’s dressed in warm fall colors — a dark cowhide jacket, gray glasses, gray corduroy chucks, mustard-colored slacks — and gives us big hugs in the middle of CPW while cab drivers look on.

It is overcast and misty, and Central Park is quiet. The good thing about bad weather in NYC is that you can practically have the city to yourself, if you’re willing to be physically uncomfortable.

We walk along the winding paths, amongst the massive trees and huge outcroppings of gneiss and schist that surround The Lake.

As he talks, Sawyer gives off an auburn, rangy athleticism that seems fueled by a furnace.

Sawyer Spielberg in front of his old apartment in Chelsea. “I was pretty damn afraid of New York, and now I love New York. I’m actually more comfortable in New York than I’d be in a smaller town.” Photo: Jason Riker

He had just ended a six-week production of Of Mice and Men at the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor — a not-for-profit theater that hosts a Literature Live series geared mostly for students across Long Island, to help them emotionally connect to the classics and introduce them to live theater.

For roughly 3,000 twelve- and thirteen-year-old students Sawyer played Whit, a young ranch hand not at the forefront of the story, but a character who works ten-hour days bucking barley and heartily praises the virtue of a good brothel and a shot of whiskey to spend his hard-earned cash on.

“What John Steinbeck wrote about the character was that he had no worries about the future or the past. He was just there to have a good time. There’s a lot of freedom in that. I wasn’t trying to be the most mature, I wasn’t trying to be the leader of the group, I was just along for the ride. I felt like that was the perfect character for me to play at this time in my life, because I was just feeding off what everyone else was giving me. I did a lot of research on the Great Depression. The play/book takes place in the 1930s so I had to get into the mindset of then. During the Great Depression it was a fight to survive, and these guys would do certain things because they wanted to belong and they dealt with a lot of loneliness. Being out on Long Island, living out in Sag Harbor for six weeks during fall, I was able to feel the loneliness and bring that to the stage. To understand the physicality of a ranch hand, I did a lot of weight training. I would work out on the monkey bars to get calluses on my fingers. I would do hundreds of push-ups backstage. I wanted to get the idea of tight hips and tight shoulders — I found my walk through a close buddy of mine in New York who is an urban cowboy. He has this walk with tight hips and a funny amount of confidence. You find stuff like that that helps you creatively as you get into the role. I had a friend of mine come opening night of the play and then on the last night, and she said my character was completely different from when she saw me weeks ago. Every performance is different from the last. I like to keep it spontaneous, and I like to take risks on stage as long as I stay true to the story. Some actors and directors don’t like that because it can be unpredictable but I love doing it because I would be bored if I did the same thing every night.”

Sawyer loved the experience of performing for a student audience:

“Students have such an authentic response to what you give them. They are the best teachers because they don’t hold back. There are no filters with kids — they were cat calling, yelling, howling, screaming, and clapping. With adults, there are filters, and they’re not as reactive.”

Growing up in Southern California, Sawyer and his family spent summers and fall in New York next to Central Park at the San Remo, a majestic twin-towered limestone building built in the 1930s.

At eighteen, Sawyer moved to New York permanently to study acting full-time, following in the footsteps of the masters: Paul Newman, Marlon Brando, James Dean, Montgomery Clift.

“I’m not a big fan of ‘method’ acting. My definition of method acting is do what you have to, but when that becomes destructive to you and the actors and the people around you, I don’t think it’s very good. When I played Whit, I found him through weight training, and I got callouses on my fingers and my palms but other than that it wasn’t self-destructive. There are only a few actors who can really go all the way and do it without bothering anybody else. I’d be cautious to get into that world because it can be pretty self-indulgent and selfish. My opinion is that acting isn’t selfish at all, especially for the stage, because you have hundreds of people watching you. And if you’re not aware of hundreds of people watching you, you’re out of your mind. If you walk on stage and think that you’re at a ranch, then you’re nuts. And you should check yourself into rehab.”
“Sometimes I’ll feel the need to play a character, and then I’ll do it, and I won’t have that need anymore. If I was going through a rough time with a break-up, I would heal that part of myself by exhaling that character.” Photo: Jason Riker

Sawyer has been in New York City for six years now, and the high-octane energy of the city suits him well now, but when he first moved here, it took a while to get his sea legs.

“When I walk down these streets, I am reminded of those times when I fucked up a relationship, or I did a great job on that scene, or had some of the best sex of all time, or I got wasted and had to stumble home. Or I’m reminded of when I’d wake up at six in the morning to go box downtown and had to figure out the subways and how to get on a certain train. I grew up in California, so having my first winter alone without my family was hard. Being able to walk to my acting classes and have the snow fall down on my head was magical. Experiencing things for the first time was exciting, and then I got used to it, and by the second winter, I’m like fuck this, I want to go back to LA! When I graduated from acting school, I started working in theater, and then I got really into yoga, and then got really into jiu-jitsu. I feel like there’s a part of me that’s curious, that wants to learn as much as I can, which drives me to play characters who are also curious and ambitious. I don’t like when things become old or repetitive, I like when things are new. I like change and difference. I’m getting to a place in my life when I’m getting more comfortable with uncertainty, but I’m also getting comfortable with routine and staying in one place at a time.”

Many of us have oversized dreams of New York City when we first move here. We’ve watched Sex and the City, Friends, Manhattan, Mad Men, Wall Street, Crocodile Dundee, Ghostbusters, Girls, On the Waterfront, and hope to find some of that magic for ourselves, using those movies and TV shows as maps.

But then you live in the city and experience its frantic harshness, and you realize that whatever romance you had in your head is completely useless, although a fun fantasy, and you have to make the city your own with what you’ve got.

For Sawyer, making the city his own means being part of an artistic community, acting on stage, and practicing jiu-jitsu, a strategic martial art that he describes as “chess with your body.”

“I measure people by experience, not by money or looks. I measure people by what they’ve done, and I feel like everyone can teach you something because everyone has done something that you haven’t. Playing characters and acting is a great way to learn about somebody else’s life, and that’s what drove me to it in the first place.”

It’s refreshing to hear a young man in his early 20s talk about the power of art to help him empathize with others — or as Sawyer likes to call it, “getting out of my own head.”

There’s also something rare and special about the role of live theater in our U.S. culture now. A theater is pretty much the only place now where you can’t record the experience with your phone, and in essence has become one of the last sacred spaces free from the distractions of technology and media.

This recording ban is in place out of respect to the live performers who are up on the stage hanging by an emotional thread — actors with beating hearts, imperfections, and insecurities like the rest of us.

For Sawyer, being on stage leads to vulnerability and a connection to the audience that is unique:

“It’s a good feeling to hit those places in yourself on stage where you touch a nerve — it breaks a cool in you. It’s boring to be cool, and I’m always finding ways to break all of that so I can be open and natural.”

From Central Park, Sawyer leads us to the No. 1 train and then the R train to the 4th Street Theatre in the East Village, the location of one of his first performances. Outside the small theater the street is swarming with gorgeous-looking NYU students and actors, and it’s impossible to get a good photograph without anyone gaping in the background or interrupting us asking what the shoot is for.

Outside the theater, Sawyer looks at a poster of Daniel Craig and David Oyelowo, who are co-starring in Othello in the fall of 2016.

“My top three favorite actors right now are Javier Bardem, Michael Fassbender, and Daniel Craig, and it’s because of their authenticity and courage to go where other actors won’t go. There’s no sense of vanity, they have a rugged look to themselves, and behind their eyes they have a need. I think you’re born with it. I’ve met a lot of actors — young actors, old actors — and there’s something in their eyes that they just have, a quiet confidence, a wit. And that’s where I want to get to in my acting. That’s what drives me — always going deeper and deeper into the work to learn more about myself and characters. And these guys seem like good guys, too. They seem like guys I’d want to grab a beer with and just talk. They have a sense of humor about themselves — they don’t take themselves too seriously. I don’t like to take myself too seriously. The second I got over myself, I started to work more, and I started to do more projects, and people wanted to work with me more.”

And then the rain, which had held out until then, starts to fall.

We duck into a small Japanese restaurant and sit by the front window to catch our breath, dry off, and fuel up. We talk about the difficulty actors and artists have building a career in the city.

“I feel like people get into acting for all sorts of reasons. I think that there’s a lot of actors who have low self-esteem, and I really believe it’s time for a change for all artists. When I walk into auditions, I see people who are so competitive and nervous and scared. It’s hard to wake up and audition and get rejected, and do it again, and do it again. It’s the only job a know of where you get rejected constantly. But the rejection is good. It doesn’t mean anything about you. I want to inspire other actors to not be afraid and find the comfort in the discomfort — the only way to do that is by doing it over and over and over again. And then when you book a job it’s great and it’s exciting and you get to work. I’ve met a lot of actors who feel like they won’t be happy unless they get their face on a magazine, or unless they book a big TV show, or book a big part in a movie, or they’re on Broadway. And the reality is that’s not true at all. And that’s coming from somebody who grew up in all that stuff. It’s the pursuit, and it’s the curiosity, and it’s the act of doing it that’s exciting. And if you’re never comfortable with that, you’re never going to be comfortable with the final product.”

After lunch we walk to Chelsea where Sawyer had his first apartment near the West Side Highway.

The sidewalks are covered with wet leaves. Black Uber SUVs spray waves of water over crosswalks. This is one of the oldest and most picturesque parts of Manhattan. The cobblestone streets are irregular and don’t fit neatly on a grid.

When I was 17, I was living in LA, I had a very romantic idea of New York. When I moved here, I got a huge kick from reality. My first apartment was in Chelsea and so the West Side Highway has a lot of meaning to me. I spent my first two years there — 18, 19 those are really big years. These first six years in New York were incredible, and looking back on them, I don’t regret anything. Everything was amazing. Even the shit.”

We pause at Sawyer’s former apartment building on Jane Street, and then we cross over the highway to the Hudson River, which is a dreamy shade of gray, and we stand looking out waterward.

Looking out over the Hudson River. “Extreme people scare me, but there’s a middle ground that comes from experience. That middle ground is what I’m searching for.” Photo: Jason Riker

On damp days like this, you clearly see Manhattan for the island that it is, surrounded by rivers which once teemed with ships. The water is the soul of the city, whether you recognize it or not. It is pure adventure, mystery, and ungraspable power. If you think you can control it, you’re totally mad.

With the rain coming down harder, we make our way to the F train and ride out to our studio in Clinton Hill before completely losing what little light we have. We make it with about 10 minutes to spare before sunset, and Sawyer and Jason head up to the rooftop and shoot what they can in the grainy light.

On our rooftop in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. “What’s really inspiring to me is when I hear and see what other people are doing. It’s an opportunity to listen to somebody across from you.” Photo: Jason Riker

To me, Sawyer feels like an anachronism, a throwback to a different time in U.S. culture when we were less mediated and more aware of the immediate world around us. He has an excited, searching interest in people and their stories, and he listens closely to what you say and then looks a bit off to the side as though he’s considering it.

I could see him as a sailor coming into port at the Navy Yards — a young man excited to experience the world with equal amounts of adventure and discipline. He’d make a great Ishmael, if anyone like Amazon or Netflix is interested in creating a series out of Moby-Dick.

He breaks many of the stereotypes our culture has right now of Millennials: self-centered, obsessed with personal fame, lacking historical context, disdainful of hard work.

“You only learn about yourself when you put yourself in uncomfortable situations. How you are in the red zone, it brings out all of you. Life is short, and I want to face as much of life as I can face. I believe in the 10,000 hour rule, and if you’ve been doing something long enough, it comes by second nature. ”

He sees art and acting as a form of generosity, sharing with an audience a truth or feeling that will resonate inside of them.

“I think people are afraid of letting go and giving. They want to make their marks, and they want to be important. But when you find importance in yourself, you don’t need other people to validate that. That’s what I’m figuring out and getting comfortable with. I’ve met people who are extremely successful in what they do, but they’re not happy because they’re not happy with themselves. I know I won’t be happy unless I find it for myself. I can’t rely on other people to give it to me. I’m constantly searching for that release that comes from acting and training and traveling and meeting people.”

Over pizza from Il Porto I ask him what’s next, what roles he wants to play:

“I want to play Ken in John Logan’s Red, which is a play about Mark Rothko and his relationship with art and being an artist. And I want to play the character Billy in Cuckoo’s Nest. Both of those kids have the answer but aren’t being heard. Or they know the answer or don’t have the courage to express it. In Red, in the final scene, Ken expresses all of the feelings that he’s been bottling up about art because Rothko would never give him a minute to express it. Ken is the person who plays Rothko’s assistant, and he expresses himself, and the last thing that Ken says is ‘I’m fired aren’t I?’ and Rothko says ‘No, this is the first time that you’ve existed.’ And I think that a lot of people just want validation, and they want to be heard. I like playing characters like that. It gives the audience validation, and they get to see someone overcome obstacles for themselves. And Billy’s character in Cuckoo’s Nest — he’s in an insane asylum, but is he insane? He has a stutter, which could come from a lack of self-esteem, and his relationship with his mother — his mother doesn’t sound very good — who never gave him the confidence to be a young man and be himself. I think it’s important for everybody to be able to feel comfortable enough to express themselves, to be able to stand up for themselves.”

At his core Sawyer is interested in getting good work done, making progress, and moving on to whatever is next.

Nothing symbolizes this more than the leather jacket he’s been wearing the entire day. It’s part of a series of jackets he’s worn since he was 15 years old. This incarnation is one that was given to him by his mother, and like the jackets before it, he’ll wear it until it no longer fits and then pass it along to someone in his life.

“I’ve been through three jackets. They become a part of me. Whatever you see, your jacket sees too. Whatever I experienced, my jacket experiences. I want to wear this out until it molds to my skin. I love the idea of adding experience and watching things change. Everything I have, I use it up until I can’t even see it anymore. I have the same relationship with acting. I like to absorb as much as I can, with what I’ve got. My jackets are a big part of me. It’s like wearing history.”

And with that, we call it a day. We’re all tired and our batteries are drained. The city wore us out.

We drop Sawyer off at the F train with one of our spare umbrellas.

And Jason and I are once again reminded that the true beauty of New York is its unpredictability, its way of dashing expectations.

You can only show up, put the work in, and see what happens.