Chris McCarrell is an artist’s artist. Calling from his home in Sleepy Hollow on a gray day in January, the actor is brimming with energy, excitable and thoughtful by way of restlessness. He paces his room as he speaks. As he searches for the right way to articulate his thoughts, he adjusts his hat, a beanie that couldn't have been more of a metaphor for a thinking cap if it tried. He ponders out loud and then laughs after delivering insight into his creative process. McCarrell is not a tortured artist; he's its antithesis—an ecstatic artist, one who is just happy to be making work.
McCarrell played the titular role in his last Broadway show, The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical, which closed two months before the Broadway shutdown. But McCarrell has made the most of the idle time, delving into his other creative passion: photography.
Though photography had been an interest long before the Broadway shutdown, with theatres dark, it’s been a lifeline for McCarrell, a way to stay creative while his industry remains closed. Where as McCarrell is buoyant, his photography is grounded and gritty, displaying another dimension to the actor than the person seen onstage, a dimension that shows vision and craft behind the bright exterior.
McCarrell sat down with Playbill to discuss his photography, staying creative, and how he hopes to blend his passion project with his theatre career.
How did you initially find photography in addition to your career as an actor?
It happened during this weird time of my life. I was living in Manhattan, and I had just finished [the Broadway revival of] Les Misérables. And I randomly started camping. Every second I didn’t have something to do in the city, I would rent a car, and I would go to the Catskills by myself. I didn’t know why I was doing it. It was this weird push to get out of the city mindset.
Around the same time, I was talking to this girl I follow on Instagram, The Emma Experience, because we were going to do a shoot together. She was going to photograph me but then she went off the radar for a few months. She said she was taking a break from photography and I didn’t think much of it. Then she popped up and said “I’m back but I live in the Catskills now.” And I had been camping in her town!
As soon as we met each other, it became the fastest, closest friendship I’d ever made. So we did a shoot— We were just messing around and having fun, and I saw what she was doing. I thought, “Seeing it up close, I love your side of this.” It was so unintimidating. Seeing how beautiful of a world we made together and how barebones the process was, I went and got my own camera. I was just going to do camping photos but then I got into portraiture because I love it. Emma taught me lightroom and coloring, and I learned by always talking about lighting, inspiration, looking at other people’s photos. Just being around her is how I learned.
You were learning from Emma, but there is a difference between learning from someone and developing your own eye. How did you go about honing your own style?
So, I love Survivor. [Laughs] I would always watch with my friends and would always talk about how everyone looked better when they leave the island at the end than when they came back for the reunion show, all dolled up with make up on and perfect hair. To me, they just looked better when they were dirty on an island!
Photography kind of opened up this world where I realized I could make people look how I see them, how they could be. It was fun to take my musical theatre friends from the city, have them come up to Sleepy Hollow and rough them up a little bit! It was so fun to work with these people who had never seen themselves in a rugged, semi-mid-western mindset in this new photographic world. Instead of seeing them in their city-selves, I loved seeing everyone in this durable form. It was a fun world for me to create.
With your vision in mind, how do you find inspiration? And how do you stay inspired?
In general, I try to be inspired by getting technically better and using shoots as an excuse to test out what I’ve been learning by myself at home through research. To test out where I’m at.
Photography honestly is hard for me. I’m naturally more insecure with it than I am with theatre—I second guess myself a lot with photography but I keep barreling through it. And I’ve been getting into video work kind of as a middle ground between photography and theatre. It’s not a static, final answer. It’s how I view you as a moving image which feels more authentic since its multiple frames of the person.
Do you find that your photography effects your work as a performer?
I’m gearing up everything for becoming a director one day. That’s always been my big goal. Photography creates a visual awareness that you can’t have unless you are polishing your visual eye by itself. When I get into directing, I want to be the kind of director who talks to a lighting designer and other creatives differently. I want a more advanced language to be able to speak about the visual side of theatre [with the creative team]. I am, for sure, saving all of this knowledge for the future.
I’ve always been interested in every aspect of theatre, and I’ve always been the guy in the cast who is talking it up with the technicians. Talking to the heads of each department as they are working, noticing what they are noticing. I love talking to anyone who is really good at their job technically.
Do you have any advice for someone who is looking to stay creative throughout the shutdown or explore photography?
With photography, I would say you can buy the best camera in the world, the best gear, but the first photo you take will look a little better than your iphone. If you do want to get into photography, it’s not just a money game. It’s an entire curriculum of lighting, which I learned from a friend and before and after photos. Lightroom, I learned coloring on YouTube, people dissecting coloring in movies. And then if you want to get into portraiture, how people look. Go to a drawing class, look at how people are structured and how a lens may distort that. Lighting, lightroom, and anatomy.
And to stay creative, I would say… well, if you’re bored, be bored! [laughs] You’ll crush any true creativity if you force it. Let yourself be bored for a week and then when you feel it, make a project. And if you’re sick of it or think it’s crap, throw it out. The quickest way to sap the fun out of [your creative work] is to be like “I’m a boss. I have a business.” The lower the stakes when it comes to passion projects, the better. Feeling like a pro immediately doesn’t always make your art better. There is no need to become an American mogul with your side artistic hobbies. Let them morph into whatever they want to morph into it!
Take a look at McCarrell’s work below and be sure to follow along on his photography Instagram account.