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"The amount we shot, the time we shot it in, travelling as much as we did, shooting six-day weeks” – just some of the demands entailed with embarking on what Brandon Sklenar describes as his most challenging role to date. “Carrying the weight of my character was a lot of responsibility which I hadn’t felt before,” the 32-year-old says.
Another challenge in his standout portrayal of brooding yet honourable Spencer Dutton in Paramount+’s 1923 was commanding attention on-screen alongside acting veterans like Harrison Ford and Dame Helen Mirren. However, thanks to the New Jersey-born burgeoning star’s tour-de-force in the cowboy-studded American Western drama, created by Taylor Sheridan, he’s now one of the most buzz-worthy names in Hollywood.
Fresh from his very first talk show appearance – a ‘trippy” experience according to Sklenar – the passion the 32-year-old radiates as he sits down to talk all things his character and craft is a match for the vast excitement his performance has engendered.
Talking his acting origins, his Grandmother’s role in getting him hooked on the silver screen, and his relentless pursuit of making it in the industry, Brandon Sklenar talks to Man About Town, below…
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Let's start off with a quick-fire round: Movies or TV shows?
It’s a tough one. TV is new to me, so it took me a while to get into it. I think I'm more of a film guy. However,  feels like a film when you're on set and watching it so I get the best of both worlds.
If you could ask any actor for advice, alive or dead, who would it be?
I’ve got a couple, you know. Meryl Streep, Marlon Brando, and Paul Newman.
Favourite place you visited in 2022?
What's the best way to learn a script?
Cowboys or spacemen?
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Onto the serious questions, what inspired you to pursue acting?
Since I was little, I was obsessed with films. I think lots of people that end up being actors grew up in a hectic environment. They find solace in books or music or film. For me, it was watching films. My grandmother would take me to the video store every Wednesday and let me watch whatever I wanted. Movies take you away from whatever you’re doing, they inspire you. It’s all I wanted to do.
Your grandmother sounds like a wonderful person, helping you explore that passion.
She's amazing. She hooked me up with cream cheese sandwiches and a bunch of popcorn.
You were born in New Jersey, right? What’s your journey been like from home town to Hollywood?
Yeah, I was born there. I left right after high school, packed up the car and didn't tell anybody I was leaving. Just left in the middle of the night, very much like a Springsteen song. I told my dad the day before I was going. He said, “good luck” and bought me a GPS because he's amazing. I worked in construction and on odd jobs to make ends meet, like being an extra in a bunch of movies and TV shows.
This is a classic Hollywood story… One day, I was eating at Mel's Diner on Sunset and I went up to a guy to ask for a lighter and he asked if I was an actor. He was a manager and ended up signing me. I started working around age 20 and studied a lot across LA. For the first five years, I wasn’t concerned with booking much work, I was studying religiously. Progression has been good since then; I had a clear vision of what I wanted to do and stuck to it as much as possible.
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It’s inspiring to hear how dedicated you’ve been from a young age. Has that passion intensified?
Oh, absolutely. I love the work. As you get older, the roles get better and, touch wood, there’s more to work with. My dad’s a carpenter and I grew up blue-collar, so I need to feel like I'm working hard. It fulfils me. It’s about putting as much heart into your work as you can.
If you could go back in time to that school-aged Brandon who’s about to set off into the night to pursue his acting career, what would you tell him?
I’d tell him not to worry so much. Don’t be so hard on yourself. That’s something I've learned over time. I’m still working on it. Just trust and have fun.
It feels like the last few years have been pivotal in your career. How have things felt for you recently?
It comes down to the fact I’ve had a specific vision of what I want to do for a very long time. Way before the pandemic happened, I cleared out some personal hiccups when it came to my ability to believe in what I was doing. I hooked into my belief.
I’ve been relentless with that vision in terms of the type of work I wanted to do and who I wanted to work with. Working with Taylor was something I’d visualized for a long time. When 1923 came along, it lined up with what I’d been imagining. Belief and vision are two powerful things when they work together.
Your role as Spencer in 1923 is particularly emotionally complex. How did you prepare for that?
Most of my initial work was building Spencer’s memories from the war. I mean, you do your classic prep: watching movies, documentaries, interviews. But I was taking all that information and meditating with it, quite literally building memories that felt real until I had an emotional response to them.
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Did you learn anything about yourself during that process?
That’s one of the great things about doing this for a living. Every character teaches you something about yourself. Spencer taught me a lot and continues to. I think having not experienced war myself, the small glimpse into how I would react to it surprised me. You might react with humour or whatever your coping mechanism is. It’s a constant learning process.
It feels as if Spencer's coping mechanism is his indifference, like when he tells the train conductor, “I have no destination.” Obviously, he’s not talking about train travel. Do you think that’s changed throughout the season?
It absolutely changed. He was trying to run from his trauma because it was so painful and confusing. He filled that space with drinking, hunting, and travelling. By episode four, he meets Alex (Julia Schlaepfer). She makes him feel love again, so this exterior he’s built up unravels. When he receives the letter from Aunt Cara (Mirren), there’s a profound shift and his purpose becomes completely clear. His life’s purpose is to protect his family and make up for all that lost time by showing up for them in a tremendous way.
Moving onto the behind-the-scenes preparation for the role: I heard you participated in a ‘Cowboy Camp’. What went on there?
Cowboy Camp was two months of riding horses all day every day, with some of the best wranglers in the business. I had a little bit of experience on horses as a kid, but nothing compared to [what I have] now. Even that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I mean, most people would kill to wake up every day in Montana on a horse, on a trail. It's beautiful.
1923 is available to watch on Paramount+ now.
Read the full interview in Man About Town Spring/Summer 2023...