ALUMNI SPOTLIGHT: CHRIS SMITH
Perhaps no other Atlantic alum has his hand in as many pots as Chris Smith. The star of Paranormal Activity 3 and the CBS pilot Ex-Men is also the founding member of the award-winning sketch group Harvard Sailing Team, a regular presence in commercials, and a part-time screenwriter.
When you came to Atlantic… what were you expecting?
I actually originally enrolled at NYU in Arts and Sciences program. I was in General Studies. But during my freshman year, I took an Intro to Acting class, taught by [Atlantic faculty member] Anya Saffir. And that class made me want to be an actor. My expectations as I started Atlantic were just that I’d work with her… and I’d lose my Long Island accent.
What part of your training stood out to you?
The first thing that stands out is the work I did in voice class with Katie Bull. She was the one who really made the light bulb go off, in terms of making acting about a physical experience, of having a relationship with your body. I remember Katie Bull pointing at me and saying “stop. Stop right there. You see what you’re doing, physically? You’re blocking your emotional availability. Stop and live in the moment.” And she was right.
So you get out of school… what were you thinking you’d be doing? Did it happen the way you imagined?
I had been catering during school, and I was still doing that as I got out of school. I had a couple of meetings with agents and casting directors through [casting director and Atlantic faculty member] Todd Thaler… and I went and embarrassed myself in front of some agencies and managers. It wasn’t until I got a legit agent, two years out of school, who was interested in investing some time in me. But the whole time, my classmates and I were very aware that we had to do stuff on our own to showcase ourselves, and it helps that I have very strong bond with them.
Tell me about Harvard Sailing Team, and how that came about and evolved.
We had a sketch comedy class with [Atlantic ensemble member] Jordan Lage, and at the end of the year, we put up a show at Stage 2, which was really fun. And we said, “hey – that wasn’t so bad!” We knew we’d have to pare down the group size – 20 people and 60 sketches is too many. But soon after, we put up some shows and had a lot of support – which was mostly getting our family to show up. But if was so important, since we really didn’t have a lot else going on. No one was knocking on our doors, asking if we wanted to be actors. So worked really hard to market ourselves.
Has your experience with HST shaped the way you see your career?
Absolutely. And in a myriad of different ways. The number one thing in the performing arts is collaboration. You have to collaborate. You go to auditions, and it’s a collaboration between you and the casting director – their energy, their ideas. My work with HST has helped when I’m trying to act other scenes. Really listening, taking it in, and adding your own spin. It’s also shaped my taste – I know what I like in comedy and writing, and I know what to look for in a script. I mean, we read and wrote hundreds of scripts. That helps you learn what you like, what turns you on, and what works on stage.
In acting school, you probably weren’t studying how to perform in movies like Paranormal Activity 3. What’s that experience like, as an actor?
Well, everything has taught me a lesson. The school work, auditioning, it’s all contributed – to confidence, being myself, and behaving truthfully without self-consciousness. It’s a journey, finding environments where you don’t feel self-conscious, and striving to create those environments wherever you’re performing. And Paranormal, as it turns out, was all improvised. At the auditions, they didn’t even tell us what the movie was. And when we were on set, the script was changing every day. We filmed three different endings, we played completely different characters. So I had to be really loose and comfortable. All of my training had given me tools to create a feeling of authenticity.
Any news about Ex-Men, the upcoming CBS pilot?
Well, I got the job in July. It should be really fun. It takes place in a divorced-men housing unit, and it’s going to star Tony Shalhoub and Kal Penn from Harold and Kumar. We’ll shoot the pilot in the spring.