On a series such as Tiny Pretty Things, which features standout dancer / actors, we were sure to zero in an absolute favourite, this being Barton Cowperthwaite, who stands head and shoulders with his castmates to deliver a really gripping transformation as the soulful and internally combustible Oren Lennox. We’re not sure that we have seen a character study such as this one on any another series, which features body dysmorphia, repressed sexuality and graceful dancing, but Cowperthwaite more than brings the heat and shows solid growth throughout the series (and wait until the final episode to discover what Oren has in store…it’s shocking).
Brief Take spoke with Barton Cowperthwaite on a recent afternoon from his home in New York, and he could not have been kinder, going into great detail about Tiny Pretty Things.
The following is a condensed and edited version of our in-depth phone conversation.
Brief Take: What did you enjoy about creating this special series?
Barton Cowperthwaite: I think that what I loved most about the show is getting to employ this dual discipline of dancing and acting. These are passions which I have dreamed doing in a professional way and having a vehicle to explore those at the highest level. By doing so on a platform that is globally available, getting eyes on important stories and experiences and representations that aren’t often necessarily put out there, it’s cool to get to dance for the world and to do it in a way that is mixed in with this murder mystery.
BT: How do you dance as Oren? Is it similar to how you would dance as yourself or in a show, say?
BC: I think that…they cast me because we have such a similar dance style. I think that he stands out as a leading man archetype in the dance world. And he’s versatile and he has that ballet foundation, but he can also explore in other styles. He can really branch out and do his Contemporary and his Hip-Hop and he still has that drive to be rooted in the classical foundation and that’s where he sees his future. It was easy to find him as a character because it was easy to find him as a dancer. I felt like in that area, I could really be myself.
BT: Your character shines through in tiny moments as much as large ones. How do you go about playing him?
BC: He is such a complicated person and it was great fun to play him because he’s finding out who he is still. As an actor, we are driven to find out our characters’ motives and overall desires and arcs and get really, really specific. I was able to do that in moments, but also Oren is in that budding point in his life in which he doesn’t fully understand who he is, what’s going on and how he fits in the world around him. He’s super self-conscious and caught up. I think that as the series evolves, he’s able to step out of himself and see the value in the relationships around him and the community, of which he is a part. There is that façade that starts to break down and I feel as though we get to know him as the series progresses as he is getting to know himself.
BT: When you were filming this series, what was your favourite moment?
BC: You would be hard-pressed to get me to say something other than the scene at The Bean, because I have this background in stage performance. That scene was wild because there was ten hired BP’s and everyone else was a real tourist, a live person. [chuckles] It was the biggest rush because I have never done street performing. I have a whole new respect for people who get out there and dance for strangers. We actually ended up having a tourist put ten dollars in that hat, and one of our PA’s had to chase him down and give him back his money. [laughs] But if I were to choose another scene, I think that I would have to say the rehearsal scene with Oren and Nevaeh (Kylie Jefferson), I think it’s in episode eight. Actually…it’s the nightmare, it’s Oren’s nightmare. His chest is being unzipped and it’s just so horrific [chuckles] and it’s really his fears and insecurities coming alive. I think that scene is so much fun to play. Those moments, because they’re horrifying, but relatable- everybody has nightmares, everybody has those insecurities. It’s such a brilliant, creative tool that our showrunners and writers came up with to bring in the show and take us out of the real world, allowing us to get rid of the laws of physics into the psychosis of everything.
BT: You get along quite well with your cast mates. Had you known anyone prior to filming?
BC: Actually, I did. I had actually been on tour with Tory Trowbridge, who plays Delia. I knew Michael Hsu Rosen. I did know people coming into it. I had done the same show as Daniela Norman. We had both done An American in Paris, I did the tours and she had done it in London, I know of her, but I hadn’t yet met her. I had some familiar faces, especially because it’s such a unique casting opportunity to cast high level dancers that can act. That is a pretty niche thing for which to be looking. [laughs] Oh my gosh, we fell in love. I’m lucky to be able to now call this cast some of my best friends in the world. We spent four months diving into this passion project and I think that we all really related in how much we cared about the show, how much we wanted it to do well, how much we wanted the truth to come through in our performances. I developed a mutual respect for everyone because you could see the focus and the drive and the gratitude that everyone carried throughout the process. We knew that we were getting to do something special.
BT: Did you feel like you had lived in this world previously? How close does it match your reality?
BC: I think that it is absolutely rooted in reality. These relationships, the way that they are written is totally real. You would get in fights in your dorm room with your roommate. When you’re put in a boarding school at this age, when you are forced to live with your biggest competition, you’re absolutely going to be at each other’s throats. At the same time, you are lifting each other up when they’re down. I think that the truth of the show lives and we are able to build around this, the heightened reality and the murder at the beginning. It’s setting us up for interesting television. The truth of the matter is that I have absolutely dealt with body dysmorphia and I’ve meditated a lot on my sexuality. It’s this young age, when it’s fraught and everybody is confused and trying to figure it out and trying to figure out what the world has in store for them. I think that honesty was constantly in the front of mind for the creators.
BT: What did you enjoy about shooting in Toronto, which was doubling for Chicago?
BC: I think Toronto was such a brilliant setting for the show. Being set in Chicago, on the lake, in that urban and spread out, much more spread out than Manhattan. Toronto was believable as a double for Chicago and it felt like a sister city. Even when we went to Chicago, it was like you could feel the show alive, going back. It was the perfect place to set the show. It was such a good choice to switch it from New York to Chicago for the series from the book and Toronto…I fell in love with Toronto. I would absolutely spend a lot of time there willingly. [laughs]
BT: You seem to really have gotten along with Lauren Holly, who plays a bit of an ethically dubious character on the series. What did you like best about working with her?
BC: It was so easy to get along with her. She’s such an innate leader, she has experience in this industry. Obviously, I grew up watching Dumb and Dumber and Double Dragon and these movies that are fun and iconic. Getting to meet her, I was like fangirling. But then her as a colleague, she’s supportive and was constantly reminding us that we had a support system as actors. She knew that some of us were doing this for the first or the second time and our experience levels varied and she was there as kind of a confidante and a mentor for us. For the dance aspect of the show, she was like a patron for the arts for us, she was just like: “How cool is it that…” You could really feel that she was stoked to be playing that character and invested. You could feel that same level of care for the series that we all did, and as dancers, getting to do this.
BT: Talk a little bit about your audition for this show, it appears to be quite the story.
BC: It was absolutely mind-boggling. I did my self-tape in the basement of a theatre in Chongqing, China and travelled to Nanjing the next week to open An American in Paris. The morning after we opened the show, I had my 8 a.m. [chuckles] Skype callback. It was 8 p.m. in New York and 5 p.m. in L.A. and I was screaming into a pillow to do my warm-up and wake up my body and had a Netflix producer call back at 8 a.m. in Nanjiang, China. It was the single hour that my wi-fi went uninterrupted. [laughs] There were absolutely angels on my shoulder. Then, two weeks later, I flew from Beijing back to North America [chuckles] to start filming an episode.
BT: Did you know the character when you started filming? How developed was Oren in your mind?
BC: I actually had someone in mind, and…I didn’t know them personally, but I knew who he was. As the show developed…I knew who he was in real life, and in real life, I felt like he was this monster. His anxiety had taken over him and he had become not a nice person and aggressively, toxically masculine, abusive and in the closet. I saw the potential for Oren to become that, to be able to play Oren who is dealing with these same obstacles, to see him then be able to begin to find a path towards being someone who is kind and empathetic and honest, especially with other people, about his insecurities and his relationships and with himself about those insecurities. This was very gratifying because I felt like there are other chances…for everyone who has these kinds of anxieties. In the dance world, it is so fraught. I think that in that way, it was really cathartic.
BT: What were some plot lines on the show that really resonated with you?
BC: Oh my gosh! I think Neveah’s storyline is empowering right now, and we shot the show last year. Rewatching it over the summer with the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, and then the content in the middle of the series in which you find out Neveah’s backstory and the backstory for her family, I was blown away by how the show became so topical. After the fact. It was stuff that was obviously going on in the world, but it became even more rich and important to be telling her story. That was really exciting. I also am in love with June (Daniela Norman)’s evolution. She’s a character that starts off timid and submissive and then she becomes such a force. That’s so much fun to watch, June’s solo, when she’s crying and dancing in the studio. It’s so emotional, (that) every time I’m like: “Ah!” It’s devastating!
BT: What has this recent time meant for you as a person?
BC: It’s been a very interesting time. I absolutely was trying to find productive ways to be an ally, to be involved and, with the parameters of a pandemic, in which activism has to be socially distanced. If I’m going to be on a Netflix show, if I’m going to have a platform, then what is my voice moving forward? What am I going to say? What are people going to associate me with? This time was about asking myself those questions, and then, not only philosophizing about it, but acting it, doing it and I think that I still have a lot of room to grow. [laughs] Which is great, but I am proud of the work that I have been able to do during this time and I know that the work never ends. But it’s been wild. There’s been so many things. [laughs] I miss dancing so much. But I have been able to feel productive as an activist and that’s a new part of me for which I’ve always wanted to give life and this time forced it out of me.
BT: What does your Netflix queue look like? Do you think that this show would be able to exist outside of Netflix?
BC: I mean my girlfriend and I just finished Elite last night. I think that it lives in such a similar world for the YA content. Netflix is the perfect home for this show! It’s such a blessing to get to bring this show to the world. There are 200,000,000 subscribers in 90 countries. The scale of it is incomprehensible. The gratitude that I feel is immeasurable because I’ve always had some crazy desire to share myself to the world as an artist, as a vessel for creativity and art and process, and this is as big as a dream as I could have imagined come to life. [laughs] I’ve got to go back to the drawing board and come up with something to dream now.
BT: What does dance feel like to you, on the series, and in real your life as well?
BC: It’s a brilliant question and something that is hard to articulate because it is singular. But man, when I’m dancing or in a scene that feels alive, I’m outside of myself. I’m watching myself. I feel like I’m not responsible for what’s happening. The work that I put in beforehand, when it’s good, when it’s so good, it’s not me out there. It’s like the creative energy soars, it feels like flow, and that is the most addictive feeling of being active and free, engaged. It’s such an expansion of consciousness and you dissolve into the world that you are creating. And that is such an incredible feeling.
BT: This is all because of taking one dance class for your brother?
BC: [laughs] Yeah. I won my talent contest in the sixth grade because I could do the Worm and everyone gave me a standing ovation and I won about three pizza lunches for my middle school. And I was like: “Hey! If I can get three pizza lunches, imagine where else I can go?”.
BT: Is the Worm still in your repertoire?
BC: Yeah! In the scene at The Bean, I was really happy to put it in the show. I was like: “If I can squeeze this step into the show, it has come full circle.”
Tiny Pretty Things is now streaming on Netflix