A fun occurrence took place as Brief Take spoke on the phone to Tales of the City and Russian Doll star Charlie Barnett as he was strolling along on the streets of New York City. He was recognized. And what made the encounter especially memorable is that the person seemed to have come up to Barnett and said “What do I know you from?” and Barnett, ever gracious, replied “Russian Doll” (in which he memorably portrayed Alan Zaveri). Barnett will also be recognizable from his turn on Tales as Ben Marshall. He also has a role on the upcoming season of the Netflix series You. For now, Tales of the City and Russian Doll is a one-two punch that is bringing a wide audience to Charlie Barnett and for all of this, it was one of the most spirited interviews in which we have participated.
The following is a condensed and edited version of our interview with the energetic and talented Charlie Barnett.
Brief Take: In Tales, your frequent scene partner Murray Bartlett and you have incredibly similar names.
Charlie Barnett: Oh, I know. The day that I walked in, the first day of set, our chairs were sitting there and his says ‘Murray Bartlett’ and mine says ‘Charlie Bartlett’ and I was like: [laughs loudly] oh great, they’ve already married us off, right? [laughs]
BT: And that’s a movie as well, Charlie Bartlett.
CB: Yes, it is, it is, I was very upset as I was graduating when that movie came out, and I was like [raises voice]: “How did I not get to audition?!”.
BT: What did you like most about working with Murray? You two have such a palpable connection on screen.
CB: Murray is one of the best people on this Earth. I’m convinced, he really is like [chuckles] a gem of a human being. It’s almost too much to even sum up. I hate to put it like this, because it sounds weird to people, but he literally is like a brother to me. He’s such an important part of my life. I’m thankful that I’ve gotten to meet him, and yes, we do have weird sexual experiences on the television show, [laughs] but putting all that aside, he’s been such a great confidant as a friend. And as an artist, he’s always available and challenging. And artists that can actually draw more out of you, and also give everything while you’re there is like: that’s Meryl Streep level, that’s Laura Linney level. I know I can come on that day and have fun because this person is going to make it amazing.
BT: Tales has a wonderful ensemble overall. Had you worked with any of them before?
CB: Oh God, yeah. I had never met Murray, but I knew him from afar. I’d watched Looking and I had a really close friend, Frankie J. Alvarez, who was on Looking, he played Agustín, and he told me stories about Murray and Jonathan (Groff) and how amazing they both were. I mean, that whole cast, really. So I had an inkling into knowing that he was a good guy. [laughs] We didn’t audition together, he auditioned here in New York and I was in L.A., so we kind of booked it on different ends of the country and then showed up.
I mean, other than that, Laura Linney I have been watching since [laughs] the day and I went to Julliard and she actually spoke to us at our third year or something, so I kind of nonchalantly met her. But, come on, how could you not know and be in love with [pronounced with Southern accent] Miss Laura Linney and be in awe at all points?! And Olympia (Dukakis), in the same boat, and Ellen (Page), in the same boat. I’m a huge fan of Ellen’s documentary series Gaycation. I think that the work that she is doing, beyond that, in her own personal field is like…I wish that I had two inches of her strength and ability and ferociousness. And on top of that she’s one of the most loving and enduring and soft, kind human beings with whom I have ever come in contact. I’m so in awe of her. It’s kind of like Natasha (Lyonne). I mean, I love them like sisters, I look up to them so much, but I’m terrified, because I feel like I don’t want to be an idiot in front of either of them. [laughs]
And Lauren Morelli is one of my closest friends now, just because her relationship with Samira Wiley, you know, they’re married. Samira and I went to college together, Samira basically got me in on these last 5 jobs, I feel like. [laughs] I will say that I had to audition for each one of them. I had to prove myself, but the connection of our friendship has been a personal benefit first and foremost, but I think has put me in position. I mean I held a bachelorette party for her, and that’s where I met Zosia (Mamet). I went to her wedding and had known her for years and became friends with Lauren because of it. And one of her producers from Orange is the New Black called me to do a scene because they had seen my work because they knew I was friends with her. I guess it’s how the business works, and I’m thankful for it, but I’m also like “Ooooh, I got a little in”. [laughs]
BT: But if this is your in to jobs, this in itself is a massive change from a few years ago even.
CB: My character from the books, because you know our series starts within the last four books, it’s the new portion of the books that Armistead wrote from 2010 or ’11 on until 2015 or ’16 when he finished them. They are kind of like taken out of the realm of the old books, but there are still a lot of the same characters. There’s still a lot of the same stuff and there’s some new people added, and one of the new people is my character, Ben, and Ben is based off of Armistead’s current husband who is a white guy and who is the most sweet human being on top of that, too. He’s really a great human being too, but he’s a white guy. And so I know from Lauren, initially they were looking for someone that was like him, and they wanted someone that filled that build. I think they’d been auditioning people, even, prior to her being like “Oh, shit, what about Charlie? I know that he’s black, but Armistead, would be open to your partner being reflected as a black man?”. And he asked him as well, and they of course were more than happy with it. I think that race aside, you know, he and I are very similar, [laughs] and we relate, so I guess I should hope to fill the page.
BT: Did watching Russian Doll feel the same as being in that world?
CB: No, one hundred and fifty per cent, no. [laughs] And I hope that they won’t take offence to that. I mean I’m sure that they would agree in some parts. I mean we had no clue what it was going to be and it’s not necessarily because of the piece, it’s not necessarily because of any of the creators or the producers or any of the technical shit, actually more so the technical shit. We block shot it over two and a half months, and basically in Tompkins Square Park in Manhattan. The block shooting, if, I don’t know if you know, is basically you film everything that is in one location on that day or in that week, and we’re a cyclical show, so we would be doing episode 1, 4, 8 and 3 today, jumping back and forth all in between. For an actor doing that, and on top of it on a show that, you know, we come back and forth into the same situations each time that Natasha and I experienced it, it was completely different. We have to take what we received from the last one and it has to feed into our information even if it’s returning to the same place. It was really, really, really, really challenging. And like good or bad wasn’t part of the equation, it was more “Am I doing what I should be doing so that we can connect these beats? Is everything going to add up? Is this going to be able to edit together?” It’s like “Oh God”. The way that it turned out? I could not have expected that. I’m blown away, and I mean that with the utmost love and respect and not surprise, but more so happiness.
BT: How did you find the proper tone for Alan?
CB: Think of it in your own life as having to squash a part of yourself that is so apparent. [laughs loudly] It’s really fucking hard. I had a lot of questioning if I was doing it right. Luckily, I was guided by these incredible women who had my back and I trusted. It was scary and at times I freaked out, like anybody would and should, you gotta earn this shit. [laughs] But it was really hard, it was a challenge for me. It’s about not doing less, he’s not doing less, I know that a lot of people think, “Oh, he’s not doing anything”, He says so much, there’s a world of fire burning inside of him and he tries to hold it all down. I think about this often. I had a teacher at Julliard say “Any person in real life, if they’re crying, they don’t want to cry with all of their ability”. There’s a vulnerability, it’s a break. And it’s beautiful and it’s useful, but you usually don’t want to feel it, you have to fight it with all of your ability. For Alan, it’s like this man has a fuckin’ hurricane inside of him and he’s not letting any of it out. That is where his physicality came from and that’s where he was really born.
BT: What does the ending to the show mean?
CB: If you’ve seen Hedwig and the Angry Inch there’s a song at the beginning of it about finding at the beginning that you’re all connected, like two heads in one, and then we separated off, but it’s all about finding that perfect balance. And it’s not necessarily a relationship balance, it’s not a sexual balance, it’s more like an emotion, like ebb and flow, and that’s how I look at Russian Doll, too, big picture. I don’t know if Natasha and Leslye agree with me.
BT: If it were offered to you, would you come back for another season of Russian Doll?
CB: Of course. How could anybody say no to that?! [laughs] Heck yeah!
BT: What do you think of people coming to Tales who aren’t schooled in acceptance and tolerance?
CB: As much as this show is for the LGBTQIA+ community, it is for solace. What I really love about it is as much as we deal with drama, that scene in the fourth episode with the table and the aftermath of my race and how it figures into that situation, there is dark parts and there’s struggle, it is a show about life. It’s not a show that is going to see an LGBTQIA+ person in a terrifying, dramatic, horrible situation, you get to see relationships crumble. You get to see them build. You get to see them putting effort into friendships, you get to see people called out on challenges, beliefs and thoughts, but it’s not a traumatic world. And for me, I’ve always loved, like Friends was kind of that. Something safe and enjoyable that made me risk, of course at times, but made me feel welcome. Let me correct myself: Friends didn’t do that much for my race or my gender identity [laughs] but it did do a lot for being a person moving to New York [laughs] even though that was kind of bullshit too. Friends is maybe not the best example, but this show I am excited for because I hope that it does give a safe place to go and watch. And if in that it also turns some people who maybe have disparaging ideas of this community: all the fuckin’ better. Hell yeah!
BT: Are you excited for Tales of the City to stream on Netflix?
CB: I’m going to be blatantly honest, I’m hesitant. I know, being a part of this community, I know our demands and our wishes and our dreams to see representation. And God knows, it’s a wide pool of representation. I think that for years and years people try to categorize, well, if you’re gay, you’re this or that, if you’re a lesbian, you’re this or you’re that, if you’re transsexual, you’re this or you’re that, and it’s like: “No!” even within those guides, we disagree, we’re completely different and on a different scales. And then not to mention that race factors into it, wholeheartedly, there’s still a lot of representation with Tales that I feel is lacking. But I’m excited to see how much people can relate on a human level. And maybe don’t see their exact representation, but maybe they can understand, you know, [chuckles] Mary Ann more than they thought that they would and relate to some of the feelings that she has that will actually help them in their life. I know it’s cliché, but it’s the age old kind of stuff. I’m really interested to see how the community reflects on it.
Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City and Russian Doll are both currently streaming on Netflix