For years, the Houston natives' trajectories have coincided — with both brothers embarking on acting careers, and making great strides at it, too. Brandon, 35, the eldest of the two, is currently playing the role of civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the Broadway transfer of Robert Schenkkan's critically acclaimed All The Way at the Neil Simon Theatre.
Just a few blocks away, Jason, 33, — the youngest of five Dirden siblings — is gearing up for his role as George Murchison in Kenny Leon's revival of Lorraine Hansberry's classic A Raisin in the Sun at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, opening April 3. In the past, they both have experienced the bright lights of Broadway via bit parts and understudy roles in plays such as Prelude to a Kiss, Enron and Fences. This spring both have roles in big name shows boasting the likes of Academy Award and Tony winner Denzel Washington, Tony Award winner Anika Noni Rose and Emmy Award winner Bryan Cranston.
"We have been so lucky and blessed to be able to take part in so many projects that are revered or, like, 'the thing to be in,' and we have nothing but our parents to thank for that," Jason said.
The apples didn't fall far from the tree when it came to Willie James Dirden and his two youngest sons. A seasoned actor in his own right, their dad exposed his children to arts at a very young age via his own varied acting gigs. "A lot of the plays he did [were] more grown up and we were a little too young to see [them]," Brandon shared. "But the few that we did see [were] mesmerizing, absolutely mesmerizing. To see this man who we know one day as dad, and then go to see him playing the Angel of Death was a little traumatizing to see."
"He's been so influential on us as far as being [an] artist, period, and just the purity of the craft of acting, and the theatre, and also instilling integrity and humanity in us," Jason added.
The Dirden brothers have so much in common: From the same undergraduate studies (Atlanta's Morehouse College) to the same post-graduate degree program (University of Illinois). They both even have acclaimed actresses as real-life love interests: Brandon is married to Theatre World Award winner and Clybourne Park actress Crystal A. Dickinson; for the past few years Jason has been dating former 3LW singer Naturi Naughton, who also starred in Broadway's Hairspray and in the movie "Notorious."
"I'm waiting for him to do something original so I can follow his lead," Brandon deadpanned.
|Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva|
But let Jason tell it, he didn't set out to be his big brother's copycat.
"If you look at my journey, you could think 'Oh, well you're just following your brother' but that wasn't necessarily the case. It just kind of happened like that by accident," he said. "He's two years older than me and he always wanted to go [to] Morehouse, ever since he was in high school applying for college. So he got in. I actually didn't want to really be in acting, I wanted to do more radio and be a DJ personality, but I wanted to go to Atlanta so I actually applied to Morehouse, as well as Clark Atlanta University. At the time Clark had one of the best mass communication programs in the country and I got into both schools, but Morehouse gave more scholarship money. So my mom was like, 'Uh, you know where you need to go, right?'"
Majoring in theatre, Jason ended up developing a real knack for the craft. Soon after, Brandon headed to Illinois for his master's degree in fine arts. Jason was later offered a full scholarship there, after auditioning for several other programs.
"Those were actually two of the best decisions in my life, even though they have been defaults," Jason said.
The brothers have also shared the stage on a few occasions, most recently in the Ruben Santiago Hudson–directed revival of August Wilson's The Piano Lesson for the Signature Theatre Company. Other credits include The First Breeze of Summer (Signature Theatre Company), Topdog/Underdog (Two River Theater Company) and Ceremonies in Dark Old Men (Los Angeles Theatre Works). Brandon says being onstage with his younger brother is a feeling like no other. "There's a trust factor that's built in there that you just can't create with anybody else... When I know he's turning left, I can follow him with no worries. And I can turn right and he's right there," he explained. "And we can tell each other the hard stuff. If he's doing some bad acting, I can say 'Man, this stinks.' And he can tell me the same as well, but we try to be nice to each other. With that trust factor, you just can't buy that anywhere else. It's always good when we get to work together."
Jason added, "Many times casting directors or people will ask us if we were ever up for the same role. They can't believe that we aren't more competitive because a lot of times when brothers are in the same industry and are so close [in] age, they sometimes beef with each other because they both want certain parts or what-not, but we have always been raised to understand the bigger picture, and that is the last name matters more than the first name.
"Both of us could want the work, but as long as one of us gets it, it's a win-win for both of us because we've always followed the principle that whoever gets into that door first, just make sure you bring the other brother in. And that's what happened over our whole entire career."