Actor Bryce Pinkham received the Leonore Annenberg Arts Fellowship in 2012. He was nominated for a Tony Award in 2014 for his lead role as Monty Navarro in “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” and recently starred in the Broadway revival of “The Heidi Chronicles” with Elisabeth Moss and Jason Biggs. He is a co-founder of Zara Aina, a non-profit organization helping children in Madagascar, and is an alumnus of the Yale Drama School and Boston College.

Bryce Pinkham

Bryce Pinkham

Question: You’ve been remarkably busy on Broadway, starring over the last three years in “Ghost: The Musical,” “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” and “The Heidi Chronicles.” Did these productions challenge you in different ways?
Answer: Yes, it’s been a miraculous little string of work that I am very grateful for. Each show has absolutely challenged me in different ways. “Ghost” was a giant machine that had been built without me, which I had to find a way to fit into but also make my own choices and distinctions about the character. The challenge was not to play “the bad guy” but to create a human being that makes a really bad decision. I have never worked harder on anything than “Gentleman’s Guide” — it is a marathon every night, I never leave the stage and am either singing, acting, or slurping from a secret water source at every single moment. I’m immensely proud of the piece and the main challenge was how to make a protagonist, who happens to become a serial killer, likable. “The Heidi Chronicles” was a welcome chance to stretch some different acting muscles alongside Elisabeth Moss, and the challenge was to create an onstage friendship that the audience believed was strong enough to endure decades of change.

Q: You received a best actor nomination for “Gentleman’s Guide,” and were caught up in a flurry of interviews, press events, and an album recording. With all of that happening, what kept you grounded?
A: Perspective. Awards and recognition feel amazing, but even if you win, the flurry will eventually go away. I tried to enjoy the ride like I do a roller-coaster — hands up! Also, having spent some significant time outside the Broadway bubble before “Gentleman’s Guide,” I came into the entire endeavor knowing that I was already incredibly lucky to just be there at all. I guess it is a balance of being grateful and enjoying the moment for all it’s worth, knowing that after all the fanfare will be more work and challenges to face.

Q: As a 2012 Leonore Annenberg Arts Fellow, how has the fellowship helped you? How do you plan to use the remaining funds?
A: There is no doubt in my mind that I wouldn’t be where I am now without the Leonore Annenberg Arts Fellowship. I will forever remember where I was when I received the call that I had been nominated — in the middle of recording a demo for a fellow waiter friend (for free). At the time, I was wrestling with whether or not to accept an acting job I had been offered out of town, to get out of the restaurant job. Once my proposal was accepted, I was able to turn down the out-of-town job knowing that with the help of the fellowship, I could focus my efforts on Broadway and New York, where I wanted to be. With renewed confidence, energy, and focus (not to mention singing lessons, yoga practice, and new head-shots) I was able to actively pursue my goals. Within a few months I had booked my first lead on Broadway. Since that time, the fellowship has allowed me to remain focused on my artistic and professional development. At every turn, I have been guided by the principles Leonore Annenberg believed in, that artists must continually be free to create and to pursue the development of their unique voice if they are to actively contribute to the enrichment of our country’s culture. The fellowship has given me the freedom to not only dream but to actively develop my own projects and continue to develop my own artistic voice, and the skills necessary to use it. Since my fellowship began, I have performed my own physical comedy in several cabarets across New York, and have plans to take this project to the next level!

Q: Tell us about the work and impact of Zara Aina, the project you helped to create for children in Madagascar.
A: Zara Aina, which means “Share Life” in Malagasy, was born out of a crazy idea: to take American artists to Madagascar and work with at-risk kids to help them create their own storytelling theater. Sometimes the craziest ideas are the ones you have to do. Follow the goosebumps. In 2013, 10 American artists and I flew to Madagascar and built a traveling show with 14 at-risk kids, based on a Malagasy folk tale. We saw the impact the work had on the children in the short span of one month, and knew we had to expand. Since then we have expanded our operations and, with the help of our Malagasy partners and staff, are currently rolling out a three-year program for 45 children from one of the poorest neighborhoods in the capital city to have after-school arts/English/scholastic programming six days a week. Our goal is to see 100 percent of our third-year students graduate from middle school every year. To that end, for the three years each child is in our program, they will receive tuition and medical expenses, and their families will be offered a food stipend to help keep the children in school — Madagascar has a 50 percent dropout rate in middle school. This year, our first class will graduate. Of our initial 14, 12 have stayed with the program (85 percent retention rate) and 100 percent passed their national school exams this past year; in our first year they all failed to meet the national standards of testing. We believe that by providing a safe space to grow, learn, and be creative after school (not to mention rehearse and perform a play every year), we are helping set the stage for these children to rise out of poverty and help their community grow over time. We believe that if we can help shepherd them through the danger zone of middle school, where 50 percent drop out, they have a better chance of receiving a higher education, or even vocational training about what is currently available to them.

This project has grown faster and bigger than I ever imagined, but I have been inspired to devote free time and effort to this worthy cause, and carry Leonore Annenberg’s belief that the arts can change lives to another remote part of the world. It has enriched my artistry no end and has offered me invaluable perspective on my entire career. The first audition I had upon returning from my initial month in Madagascar was for “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” and I still think to this day it’s because I came in knowing how lucky I was to even have a dream and to be following it that I was able to prepare the way I did, and eventually book the part. Zara Aina would not have happened if I had been still working at the restaurant, or if I had taken that job outside of New York. “Sometimes the perfect timing feels like a work of art.” – Marvin Hamlisch, “Sweet Smell of Success”

Q: As a proud alum of Boston College and the Yale School of Drama, what advice do you give to aspiring young actors when you return to your alma maters?
A: First, I tell them to get a good education. Being a good actor has to do with more than just what happens onstage. It’s like a running a business. In fact, if I could do it all over again, I would go back and double-major in business. I tell them that being a fledgling professional is no different than opening a start-up company — it’s basically being an entrepreneur. That said, a certain amount of training and talent is also required, yes. However, I feel that the business side is often left out of the training, so that is what I usually emphasize first. Beyond that, I try to encourage them to “hold onto the goosebumps,” that is, to memorize the feeling they first had when they took the stage — the first “arrival of the butterflies” — and weld it to their heart, to live by it and crave it. There is so much that stands in the way of being a professional actor, one has to get addicted to that feeling of being out there, of being scared and exhilarated, of the butterflies dancing in your tummy. You have to want that feeling so bad that you will stop at nothing to get it again. So I tell them to memorize it, and ferociously seek it at every turn, to put themselves in situations where they might get it again, if only briefly. “Make friends with the butterflies, and invite them to return,” I say, “they will carry you through the hard times!”

Q: What is The Grimaldi Project?
A: An obsession. A passion. A nuisance. An insatiable curiosity.

For many years now I have been obsessed with one moment in the history of a particular actor who was, at his time, the most popular performer in England. Joseph Grimaldi was known as the King of Clowns. His physical comedy in plays at Drury Lane and Sadler’s Wells Theatre, in the late 1700s and early 1800s, became so famous that the word “Joey” is now nearly synonymous with “clown” in England. However, I am most interested in a moment early in his life. At 21, a backstage romance with the theater owner’s daughter had led to marriage and a life in a new house around the same time that he was offered the chance to play in his first Shakespeare play — a big deal for a young actor who had up until that point only played in “low” comedies. On top of it all, his new wife was pregnant. “Sometimes the perfect timing feels like a work of art.” Their marriage was bliss, and she rehearsed his lines with him as he tended to her every need before heading off to the theater at night. Then, quite unexpectedly and tragically, both she and the child died in childbirth. Two days later, Joseph was onstage playing in his first Shakespeare play. The play was Hamlet, his part was the gravedigger. As I said before, we have to follow the goosebumps, and this one moment in time has given me goosebumps every time I think or write about it. I want to know what that performance was like, and how it informed the rest of Grimaldi’s great career in which he would rise to the height of popularity, but eventually die alone and penniless.

The Grimaldi Project is an investigation of Joseph Grimaldi with an eye towards eventually bringing his story to life. I have used the Leonore Annenberg Arts Fellowship to improve my physical acumen in pursuit of Grimaldi’s physical comedy, taking both gymnastics and flexibility training. More recently, I have begun a collaboration with some British composers who have agreed to write a few songs inspired by this moment in Grimaldi’s life. Within the next year I will perform those songs and others, and hopefully some physical comedy as well, at a cabaret show in New York, which I hope the final installment of my fellowship will make possible. If time and my schedule allow, I will also travel to London to gather further information on Grimaldi and his legacy there. The cabaret will be the culmination of my investigation up to this point, but with an eye towards further development. A Grimaldi musical? Who knows. Leap and the bridge will appear!

Q: You’ve incorporated as Flying Pigs, Inc., and are known for decorating your dressing room with flying pigs. What does the name mean to you, and what will Flying Pigs do?
A: Monty Navarro, my character from “Gentleman’s Guide,” is told early on that the likelihood of him ascending to the rank of Earl is about the same as pigs flying. “Pigs Can Fly” becomes his mantra and eventually proves true. On the family crest at the end of the musical is the Latin phrase “Cum Volare Porci” [“When Pigs Fly”]. I have often felt like this entire experience with “Gentleman’s Guide” and also my own journey, being in the part and the show winning Best Musical, etc. has been about as likely as pigs flying. For that reason, I decided to embrace the unlikelihood of it all in my decision to incorporate and essentially start my own company. I thought Flying Pigs Inc. would be a great way to remind myself at every moment that anything is possible, for it has been proven to me by Leonore Annenberg and others that Pigs Can Fly!

Q: What would be your dream role? Is there a role you’d love to perform some day, but just don’t feel ready for yet?
A: Other than Joseph Grimaldi, I would love to investigate other icons. I have a hankering to play Buster Keaton. I have an itch to get inside Harry Houdini. I want to know what happens in Sherlock Holmes’ brain. I’d love to take Amadeus Mozart for a waltz and see what happens! I’d love permission to walk a few hours (or more) in Nicholas Nickleby’s shoes. I don’t know why these parts attract me so much, I suppose it’s because I want to know more about these men, what made them tick and what made them who they were. As for Nicholas Nickleby, I just think it’s one of the greatest roles ever created or performed, and while no one will ever touch Roger Rees’ definitive performance, I would like to see the part and play revived for a new generation.

I’d love to play Willy Loman some day. Let’s be honest, if I’m still able to be an actor by the time I am old enough to play Willy Loman, I will be a happy man.