STAGE TO SCREENS: Brian Geraghty of "The Hurt Locker" and The Subject Was Roses

STAGE TO SCREENS: Brian Geraghty of "The Hurt Locker" and The Subject Was Roses Meet Brian Geraghty, the rising star of the Oscar-winning film "The Hurt Locker" and Mark Taper Forum's The Subject Was Roses.
Brian Geraghty in rehearsal
Brian Geraghty in rehearsal Photo by Craig Schwartz

This profile was posted on Playbill.com on March 6, the day before "The Hurt Locker" won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director.

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For actor Brian Geraghty, landing the part of the war-hero son in The Subject Was Roses (playing at Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum through March 21) was as easy as a walk at the beach; or to be more precise, the role fell into his lap while he was actually walking on the beach. Geraghty, who loves to surf and has the sun-kissed blonde locks and chiseled features to prove it, was at the beach in Malibu one day and ran into Martin Sheen and his wife, Janet Templeton. Geraghty had starred in Sheen's son Emilio Estevez's 2006 film, "Bobby," so he had met Martin and Janet before. The group decided to go back to the Sheen house, and they spent the rest of the afternoon talking about life and work. More than one director had remarked to Geraghty that he looks like he could be a Sheen sibling, and Sheen and Geraghty began gently batting around the idea of acting together one day.

To Geraghty's surprise, he says, a few weeks later the script for Frank Gilroy's The Subject Was Roses arrived at his door, with a note explaining that Sheen was hoping to do the play, but was looking for the right actor to play the role of the son, Timmy Cleary, the part that helped launch Sheen's career in the original 1964 Broadway production (and subsequent film '68 version). Geraghty, who's career was starting to ignite with memorable supporting roles in films like "The Hurt Locker," "Jarhead," "We Are Marshall," and the recent festival favorite "Easier With Practice," seemed like a good match, and he had been looking for an opportunity to do a play.

Geraghty recalls, "When I read the play, I was like, 'Oh my God, this is an amazing role and a great play. But I'm scared. I don't think I can do it.' My mom was in town for a visit, so she read it and was like, 'You have to do this. You can't not do it.'" Sheen and Sheen/Estevez Productions had approached Michael Ritchie (the artistic director of the Center Theatre Group in L.A., which runs the Mark Taper Forum) with the idea of mounting "The Subject Was Roses." Ritchie was enthusiastic, and initially told them they could stage it in the 2011 season. But he eventually found a spot for it this winter, and things fell into place quickly from there.

While the production came together fairly easily, Geraghty admits that learning the part and acclimating to the rigors of stage acting has been the biggest challenge of his career. While he trained for two years in conservatory program at the renowned Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City, he hadn't been in a professional theatre production (other than for readings or small one-off shows) since he moved to L.A. more than seven years ago.

"I thought in my career I'd be doing regional theatre and so on. But it just happened that I started working in film and never really got back to it. I've been banging around doing black-box stuff, this and that, whatever I could do for years. But this is my first real professional Broadway-type show."

Brian Geraghty in The Subject Was Roses
photo by Craig Schwartz

Set in the Bronx in 1946 at the close of World War II, The Subject Was Roses, is an emotionally devastating family drama about a combative Irish-American couple, their unhappy, combustible marriage, and their only child, who has just returned home from the war and finds himself caught in the middle of homefront combat. The play, which won the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for best play, finds Timmy hiding his war hero status from his father, because dear old dad yearned to fight in the war and come home with his own medals. "It's the hardest thing I've ever done — by far. It scared me. And I could have said, 'Wow, that's a great honor, but no thank you.' But it was such a great opportunity, I couldn't turn it down," he says. "I've acted more this month than I have in the last year because it's every day. It never stops. I'm struggling constantly with it, but it's also been a tremendous experience for me an actor."

Geraghty has always been a fan of Sheen's, even before they met and got to know each other ("He starred in two of my top five favorite films of all time: 'Badlands' and 'Apocalypse Now'"), but he was amazed at how unassuming, unselfish, and giving Sheen was in rehearsals. And he's become something of a father figure to the young actor.

"I had an immediate connection with Martin the first time I met him. He just made me feel so comfortable," Geraghty says. "I don't think any actor that originated a role could be more selfless, more generous, and have no ego about themselves and what they've done in the past. He's had a tremendous career and still does, and he's such a generous guy. He makes me want to come to work and do a good job every day."

While Timmy was a seminal role in Sheen's career, Geraghty says that the elder statesman is giving this young upstart plenty of space to find the character for himself.

"He'll come up to me at the end of the day and go, 'You've got it now. It's yours. You own it. Congratulations.' And I say, 'Oh, wow. Really? I mean, I don't feel like I do.' But he just says, 'Just let it be now. Trust it. You've got it.' So he lets me know that I'm on the right path."

Geraghty certainly seems like he's on the right path these days. His career is beginning to lift off thanks to such memorable roles as the acid-tripping campaign worker in "Bobby" opposite buddy Shia LeBeouf, a hot-headed Gulf War Marine in "Jarhead," in which he has a volatile face-off with Jake Gyllenhaal's character, and a recent turn as a womanizing Wall Street banker in "Law & Order: SVU."

Still, it's the critically acclaimed awards darling "The Hurt Locker" that's been garnering Geraghty the most attention and praise. The film, which is up for nine Academy Awards March 7, is perhaps his most high-profile role to date. In the jolting, adrenaline-soaked film, Geraghty plays one of three members of a bomb-defusing squad in Iraq a year after the American invasion. Directed by the beloved action helmer Kathryn Bigelow, who's a frontrunner to take home the Best Director Oscar, the film depicts the brutal realities, moral dilemmas and psychological damage that soldiers grapple with every day on the front lines of an intractable war. Geraghty plays Specialist Owen Eldridge with a mix of white-knuckle fear, shame, vulnerability — and even wry humor. The random violence and utter unpredictability of his daily life has brought him to the verge of a mental breakdown.

While Geraghty admits that the shoot was a challenge, he always kept everything in perspective. "It was grueling. It was hot. And it was tough," he says. "But as far as film goes, I mean, I was still making a movie and still acting. I mean, I wasn't in the war. It would be hard if I was in the war. I know I couldn't do that. I don't have the courage to do what those men do. So it was tough, but it was great, too. I got to see a new part of the world. I got to grow in ways as a person and as an actor and have that experience."

Despite all the accolades that have been showered on "The Hurt Locker," Geraghty's probably most excited about his latest film, "Easier With Practice." In the film by Kyle Patrick Alvarez, based on a non-fiction article in GQ, Geraghty plays an awkward introverted writer, Davy Mitchell, who's driving around the southwestern U.S. with his younger brother on an ill-advised tour to promote his book of short stories. One night in his hotel room, he receives a random phone call from a woman named Nicole, who seductively asks him what he's wearing, and before long, Davy is having steamy phone sex with her. This becomes a regular thing, and what commences is a relationship of sorts — one in which dirty talk leads to phone sex, which leads to intimate, post-coital conversations — all over the phone. The film, which played to acclaim at festivals and is nominated for two Spirit Awards, paints the not-uncommon portrait of an immature, emotionally stunted young misfit who finds it easier to connect with a woman through the gauzy membrane of a phone line than live and in person.

The part was a challenge for Geraghty because he really had to step outside his own personality and find a way to identify with a character that he didn't have a lot in common with. "I've played sensitive and vulnerable guys before and I've shed tears in film, but it's something that I never thought I'd be doing. It's so different from me personally. In high school, I was like a party animal, a surfer, hanging out with lots of chicks. Some actors with big egos might be like, 'I could never play that guy.' But I'm like, 'That's sad, dude. That's what acting is, man. You've gotta go in there and just find a way in.' This guy is the unexpected hero of the film. You root for him the whole time."

The part forced Geraghty to tap into his vulnerable side and risk more than a little embarrassment. After all, he had to sustain ten-minute-long scenes of just him in an empty hotel room — loquacious solo phone sex sessions that required him to get all hot-and-bothered and then simulate pleasuring himself on screen. "When we saw the film, I almost had a heart attack, because I masturbate in it for like ten minutes," he says, with a hearty laugh. "I have this one scene. I was like, 'Oh my God, I cannot believe I did this.' And then we saw the film with an audience, and I saw how much people were digging it and seemed to really like the story and the character."

Geraghty has already earned early rave reviews for his turn in "Easier With Practice" ("Terrific, understated, honest, and uncontrived" and "Brave isn't too strong a word to describe Geraghty's performance"). So it's hard to believe his previous agent recommended that he pass on the part. However, Geraghty insisted on doing it, because he "just had a strong feeling about it."

Geraghty hopes those instincts continue to pay dividends in a career that seems poised to skyrocket in the coming years (The Los Angeles Times recently named him one of its Faces to Watch for 2010). While leading man roles in bigger budget films may be just around the corner, Geraghty says that he's often humbled by the work and still feels he has a lot to learn. But that doesn't mean he isn't relishing the challenges that await.

"People are like, 'You should be doing leading-man roles.' And I'm like, 'Give me a well-written one, and I'll do it.' …I still need good writing to hide behind," he says. "So the long and the short of it is: There's a lot of pressure to perform in this business, and I can get sucked into that, too. But at the same time, I have things that I feel. So I just kind of go on instinct. People help guide me, and I have good friends who I trust. Those interesting character roles still appeal to me. But once you do something a certain way for a while, you're like, OK, I did that. That feels comfortable. Now let's push myself ... I've already checked off everything on the list [of goals] that I made. The last thing was to do a really great play. So I guess now I have to start a new list."

(Christopher Wallenberg is a Brooklyn-based freelance theatre and film journalist and frequent contributor to The Boston Globe, Playbill, American Theatre magazine and the Christian Science Monitor.)

Brian Geraghty, Frances Conroy and Martin Sheen
Brian Geraghty, Frances Conroy and Martin Sheen