Actor Bruce Nelson Approaches His Craft From the Outside In
Award winning actor practices a reverse kind of method acting
Published: November 16, 2011
Bruce Nelson describes himself as an “outside-in” actor. This means that he finds a character’s external mannerisms—his voice and body language—before discovering the character’s internal motivations. This is contrary to the “inside-out” process that most American actors use today, but Nelson’s method has worked so well for him that this newspaper has twice named him Baltimore’s “Best Actor”—in 2004 and 2011.
One reason Nelson’s approach works so well is that audiences also work “outside-in.” When we sit in the audience at the Everyman Theatre to watch Nelson play Elyot Chase, the cynical British aristocrat in the white tuxedo in Everyman’s current production of Noel Coward’s Private Lives, the first thing we encounter are those mannerisms, and we use them to discern his inner thoughts.
When Elyot, on his honeymoon, steps out on the balcony of a French hotel for a cocktail, he doesn’t realize that his ex-wife Amanda, whom he hasn’t seen in five years, has done the same at the far end of the balcony. When Nelson and actress Deborah Hazlett notice each other out of the corners of their eyes, they turn their heads toward each other in synchronized slow motion.
We expect an explosion, but all we get are widened eyes, and then back on go the masks of polite smiles and banter. Where’s the big reaction? Wait a minute, wait a minute, here it comes—Amanda leaves the porch and Elyot finally lets go and retches with disgust. These outer signifiers—the surprise, the masks, the retching—tell us everything we need to know about a man who feels compelled to keep up appearances at all costs, even in the face of realizing that he’s not as over his first marriage as he thought.
“When I get a script,” Nelson, 45, says in the men’s dressing room at Everyman, “the first thing I look for are those outer things—a line I can say in a certain way, a bit of business. A director hands you a cigarette case and a lighter and says, ‘Can you use this?’ I say, ‘Sure.’ I pick up the case, tap it, pop the cigarette in my mouth, and then pop it back out because I’m so aghast at something Amanda has just said. That’s how I find my character. I don’t think about it—it just happens.”
And it does happen. In all of Nelson’s most memorable roles—as Elyot, as Charlotte in I Am My Own Wife at Everyman, as Louis de Rougemont in Shipwrecked at Everyman, as Martin in The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia? at Rep Stage—the character always wears a mask of deception, but there’s always a moment when that mask slips. When that happens, not only does the audience learn something surprising about the character, we get the sense that the character himself is making the same discovery at the same moment.
“Most of Private Lives is rat-a-tat-tat, punch line, rat-a-tat-tat, punch line,” Nelson says, “so the few times that it slows down are very important. That’s when the moments of realization come, and then—boom!—the masks go back on. I recently heard [Production Manager] Kyle Prue tell his students here at Everyman, ‘We don’t want to see the character break down—we want to see them fight against breaking down.’ Elyot and Amanda are always on the verge of breaking down, but they fight against it.”
Nelson is slouched on the dressing-room couch, a wiry figure in a dark V-neck sweater, rectangular glasses, and faded jeans. His hair is receding, but even off-stage his face has a rubbery pliability, telegraphing every flickering shift in mood. That ability to bring every feeling to the surface where an audience can see it has fueled his great comic roles, such as the multiple characters in The Mystery of Irma Vep at Everyman and Crumpet the Elf in The Santaland Diaries at Rep Stage. But even in his comic roles, there’s a moment when Nelson lets the mask slip to reveal a surprise. In The Santaland Diaries, for example, the department-store elf who has been making fun of the commercialized, trivialized holiday for the entire show finally confesses that he has a secret weakness for Christmas.
“Directors are always telling actors, ‘Don’t act the end of the play before the end of the play,’” Nelson explains. “You have to lure the audience in with the expectation of one thing, only to give them something very different. I love taking an audience on that roller-coaster ride. It’s hard to do because you can’t wait to get to the meat of the play, the moment that Charlotte reveals her less heroic side or Martin realizes that having sex with a goat may not be as innocent as he thought. But you can’t rush it.
“And you can’t try to fool the audience. When Charlotte is so obsessed with her furniture that she can ignore her past, when Martin is head-over-heels in love with the goat, you have to share those feelings at those moments. If the character doesn’t know what’s coming, you can’t let the audience know either. The actor knows the ending, but the character doesn’t, and you have to play what the character knows. The best roles—and the best plays—are those that lead one way and then take you some place very different.”
Nelson was a sophomore at Wilde Lake High School in Columbia when he first stepped onstage as Rump in Grease. In the school’s next production, a dramatization of Kurt Vonnegut’s short-story collection Welcome to the Monkey House, Nelson played Harry, a hardware-store clerk, a nebbish who only comes to life onstage at the local community theater. The role became a metaphor for Nelson’s own life at that time—a shy, closeted gay teenager who could only express his emotions onstage.
“Most of the time Harry was lost and unaware,” Nelson recalls, “but onstage he reached his full potential. He was Clark Kent by day and Superman by night. That was me. It was a surprise that I could get all those feelings out onstage. Right then I decided, ‘I’m going to do that for a living—or at least in college.’ When all my friends didn’t know what they were going to do in college, I knew.”
He graduated from what was then called Towson State University in 1988 and joined the National Players, a nationally touring ensemble of recent college graduates based at Catholic University, though he was based at the Olney Theatre Center. After three years of that, he landed the lead role of John Merrick in The Elephant Man at the Olney. In the mid-’90s, Nelson was a member of two local theater groups: the Flying Tongues (a comedy-improv troupe formed by Towson grads) and the Bowman Ensemble (a summer stock company formed by McDonogh School grads).
In the summer of 1995, the Bowman Ensemble rented out Everyman Theatre to perform Matthew Ramsay’s The Zalmar Boys, a musical about a ’50s/’60s rock band. Vincent Lancisi, the founder of Everyman, saw the show and was instantly taken by Nelson’s energy onstage. Lancisi cast Nelson as the Reverend Hale in The Crucible at Everyman and saw the actor could thrive in a more serious role as well.
“The hairs on the back of my talent neck went up,” Lancisi says today. “I instantly recognized the energy and specialness of this actor. He was already legendary as a comic act, but when I saw he could do serious roles, I invited him to join Everyman’s resident acting company. I need actors who can transform themselves onstage on a regular basis, so the audience will look forward to seeing them in very different roles and won’t go, ‘Oh, no, not him again.’ I need an actor who can be a chameleon. That was Bruce.”
“The advantage for me in being part of a resident company,” Nelson adds, “is I can be cast against type. If you’re not part of a company like this and you have a reputation only as a comic actor, all you’ll ever be offered are comic roles. But here I’m pushed out of my comfort zone to try all kinds of roles. The other thing is that a resident company develops into a community off-stage, and that translates on-stage when you do a family drama like All My Sons or even a marriage play like Private Lives. It’s easier for Deb [Hazlett] and I to act like we’ve known each other for years because we really have.
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