In TV shows like Orange is the New Black and Justified to the films Fury and Split, Brad William Henke has played a wide range of characters, but his latest role is probably his most “challenging” yet. Henke is currently starring as Tom Cullen in CBS All Access’ adaptation of Stephen King’s classic novel, The Stand. “I knew it was a character where I could either be amazing or terrible, like where I could fall on my face,” he said. “That really was exciting to me.”
In this interview, Henke chats about his role on the show, what he does to prepare for a role, why he likes self-tapes, auditioning and a whole lot more.
Can you tell me about your character in the show?
Brad William Henke: My character’s name is Tom Cullen and he received a blow to the head, a head injury when he was smaller, so he’s kind of slow. I knew this guy that I went to high school with, he was older than me, but he got a brain aneurysm while playing college football. And a few years later, he was like, “inside is still me” but he couldn’t communicate that… and that really resonated with me. I’ll always remember that because it made me cry. Like, inside he’s still thinking like himself, but his words can’t come out, you know what I mean? People don’t realize that. So, I really tried to bring that to him. The character is like the heart of the show and he does some heroic things that you wouldn’t think he was capable of.
Did you read the book prior to auditioning for it?
Brad William Henke: No. Luckily, I didn’t have to audition for it. Because it’s like… right now, I do these self-tapes and then you’re like, “Hey, man, did anyone watch that tape?” “Oh, well, they’re not going to go till May.” “Well, then why did they need it in two days? If I would have known that I could have taken a couple weeks with it.”
But anyway, Ben [Cavell], he called me and offered me the job. I met him when I was doing Justified. He and Taylor [Elmore], who’s another producer, were the main writers of my season 2 of Justified and that’s how I got to know him. And then I did a show called Sneaky Pete that Ben was a writer for, so he kind of had me in mind for this character.
So, I read the 1st four episodes before I took the job, but I would have taken the job immediately, because I knew it was a good character and I knew it was a challenging character. I knew it was a character where I could either be amazing or terrible, like where I could fall on my face. That really was exciting to me.
Just hearing you talk about who the character is, it’s got to make you feel good that they immediately thought of you. Especially because how challenging it was, you know?
Brad William Henke: Yeah, it was a big compliment. And they just let me do what I wanted to do. The first time they heard me talk was the first time I talked as my character.
And, an interesting story, though… A couple weeks before we started, I looked up this this guy I knew, Ed Reinhardt Jr. He has this video of him talking and so I was kind of like using that as the way my voice started, you know? But then, Angelina [Kekich], she’s the costume designer… she’s like, “What is Tom’s voice going to be like?” And I did it for her, and she was like, “Ummm…. I thought he was gonna have a little more Oklahoma in it. A little harder, child-like.” And I thought, “You know what? She’s right.” So, I kind of incorporated that.
And I looked at this thing where people who have head injuries, a lot of times they start singing songs, that’s how they start being able to talk. And so, they had this Dolly Parton shirt for me, and I found this Dolly Parton song called, ‘Coat of Many Colors’. And I talked in a pitch which was a little higher than my voice.
And so that that encounter with her, where she so nonplussed about my voice… the thing is she is so invested in the costumes and everything else, I like that she did that, you know what I mean? It really helped a lot. The production was such that everyone was so good and so committed that I would listen to anyone.
I mean, this was the best experience of my life. I just liked the people. I liked the writers so much. They made me feel so creative and they made me feel like I could go for it. They were all supportive of what I did.
And I’ve never had three months to get ready before, so that was just great. I could walk around as my character. I could figure out how I’m gonna walk differently, work on the voice. As an actor or artist, it was so rewarding. I was in Vancouver and it’s dark and raining all day. I was there with my little 15-year-old puggles, I have two of them. And I was isolating myself more than we are now, you know what I mean? But it was fun. I would have line readers come over and read the lines. And besides that, I would just think about what was going on. It was awesome.
Kind of talking along the lines of that… When you were working on Orange is the New Black, you had this Instagram post saying that you would write in a journal as your character. Did you do that?
Brad William Henke: I mean, I did everything as my character with this one. It’s not like I’d walk on the set and you’d have to call me, ‘Tom.” It wasn’t like that. But I would sing songs in my trailer as the character. And when you’re doing things like that, you’ll have dreams as your character. You’ll know when you’re doing good when that happens. And that happened a lot just because that’s all that I was doing.
I like to do that stuff and at that point in my life, I didn’t have a girlfriend. I didn’t have to talk to anybody. I was just doing it.
It sounds like doing all those things, it helps so much.
Brad William Henke: Well, first of all, I think having three months really helped me. But journaling as your character… if you just write down a certain emotion or you write down a different character you’re doing scenes with… just write their name and just write what you feel about them. Just write whatever comes up. Like a five minute write up, where you can’t stop writing. And if you get stuck, you just keep writing the same word over and over.
I had two different line readers that I was using, and I would just run lines and run lines. I would be completely off book a month before I shot a scene. And two weeks before, I would have a couple of days where I did the scene over and over and over and over.
I used to be, “Oh, I’ll wear [the scene] out.” But now I feel like the more I run it with no agenda…. just run it, run it, run it… Then things will start happening. You’ll start feeling the beats. They’ll just happen, you won’t make them or create them. So, that’s what I was doing.
And by the time I got to shoot a scene – they were always late at night, I don’t know why – but I would listen to a sleep meditation tape in my trailer. And, when it was time to shoot, they would come wake me up because it would put me in this empty minded mood, do you know what I mean? Like, no thoughts. It would just clear my mind. I don’t know how to explain, but if you’ve ever listened to a tape like that, you just feel kind of… you do feel a little Zen and loopy. And I would just go into the scene like that.
And I would never have my sides because I knew those lines a long time ago. So, I would just go there, and they’d say, “Action.” If something happens I react to it. If someone talks to me, I react to it because I already know all those lines. They’re just gonna come. But they’re not going to come out in a way that I planned. They’re just going to come out because I know how my character would react. Just like you know how you would react if I was a d— in this interview or if I said something that you related to. You know how you would react. So, I was just trying to get to that point.
But you can’t do that, I don’t think, if you don’t have the time, right? I’ve always been a position… like Orange, I got that job and three days later, I had to be there.
I always like to be away because you don’t have normal life stuff. And you can just walk around the new city as your character, thinking like your character. It’s funny, because I would try to do that and I did do that… it worked but sometimes, but sometimes people would be like, “Hey, aren’t you Piscatella from Orange in the new Black?”
How did you get your start? Before you started acting, you were in the NFL?
Brad William Henke: I was. I was barely in the NFL. Many times, my coach would say, “I hope we can find someone better than you by tomorrow.” I’ve had, like, seven operations on my ankle, and now I’ve been having all these back things. I hurt got hurt in college, but it took a couple of years for it to become chronic stuff. And in the NFL, I was just kind of trying to survive.
But that’s what I had planned to do. I worked so hard at that since I was eight years old and I just felt like the biggest failure. So I kind of went into a funk. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I coached football at a junior college. I did well, but I didn’t like it.
And then I happened to do a commercial where they need extra football players in the background. And I met someone who invited me to an acting class. I saw someone up there and they were feeling all these emotions that I have never felt. As a football player, you don’t try to feel anything, you know? I didn’t even know about that. So, watching these people and watching these characters that they created and these emotions they felt, I kind of got addicted to it. I didn’t do any of that in my real life, but I was starting to do it in acting, and then it kind of bled over.
And I feel like I grew and evolved as a person because of what I was trying to learn about myself… only for acting. I wasn’t trying to learn anything about myself to be deeper as a human, you know what I mean? I was just trying to figure out what my buttons were as an actor, but in that process, I think I grew as a person.
And now, I feel like in the last five years – since I got a late start – I feel like I have finally put in my 10,000 hours. And I feel like I’m able to do the stuff that we we’re talking about. Like, trying to create a different voice for every character, try to create… I try to create a different injury history with a character. I walk in a certain way, I try to protect my ankle and protect my back and I don’t want to do that as every character, so I try to figure out a way that they compensated because it’ll consciously make me not do it the way I do.
Just doing that kind of stuff, the deeper level stuff, I wasn’t doing at first because I was just trying to be real.
Was there anything that you took from like being a football player that you brought to acting?
Brad William Henke: Being able to take criticism or direction. Direction because some people get it and it hurts their feelings. We filmed practice every day in college and pros, and then you watch… they have that little back and forth clicker and they’ll say, “You took the wrong step. You took the wrong steps.” “Yeah, man! I took the wrong step five times. I know!” So, if someone says, “Hey, try this,” I say, “Ok.” I don’t take it wrong.
You know that painter, Bob Ross? He’s painting and he’s like, “Now I’m going to add some moss.” And you’re like, “Don’t add anything! It looks great already!” But then he adds the moss, and it looks great. So, I just feel like they’re just giving you ideas to add on to what you’re doing.
When I became less insecure and more open to everyone’s ideas, like the costume designers’ ideas, then I feel like that’s when I’ve grown. When I hear about people acting badly or have a tantrum, it’s just because they feel insecure. When you feel secure about what you’re doing… like on The Stand, I felt like everyone there believed in me and it was such an environment where you could just try things. I never felt insecure. I always felt so confident. And half of that’s me and half of that’s how the writers and directors and other actors treated me, you know? It just became this perfect environment to make this character that, like I said, you could either fall on your face or be amazing. I was trying to be amazing, you know what I mean? I was just thinking about being amazing by preparation and diving into the character.
I didn’t talk a lot. When everyone was there, they would sing songs and have fun, and it was great, but I was just kind of sit off to the side, just because I wanted to be in my own world. And no one cared, they were cool. They respected my process. I just wanted to feel alone.
What’s been your worst audition?
Brad William Henke: Okay, so there was a pilot. It came on the same year Lost did. And when you’re going for a pilot, you go through an audition or two and back then you had to test in front of all these network people. I was so nervous my hands were shaking. I could hold my sides, but I didn’t really want to hold them because they were shaking.
And for a room like that, you should do a little bit bigger performance then you would then if you were shooting it. I didn’t really know that at that time. So, I was like, “Oh, I’m gonna be so small and so real.” And I just bombed. The only time I’ve ever gotten nervous in acting is when I’m testing. You have to sign the contract. You’re gonna be making this much money.
But nowadays, you just have to put it on tape at home. I like that, too. I actually feel like I’ve become a better auditioner during Covid because I end up only needed one or two takes. Because usually when you go in, you’re like, “I wish I could have more takes.” How do you feel about that?
I love doing them. They’re much more convenient but I also feel like they take me forever. I end up doing them like 50 times because I want them to be perfect.
Brad William Henke: I understand that and I feel the same way. But, I don’t need to watch it, I know it when I feel it. You know, sometimes it does take me a bunch of takes or sometimes I’m thinking about lines or something. I don’t like to ever be thinking about lines. Even if it’s an audition, even if I have to call someone on facetime and pay them, I will run this thing for hours until I just know it.
Last week, on a Wednesday, someone said, “Hey, can you have this audition in by Friday?” And I looked and it shoots in May. I’m like, “Why do I have to have it in by Friday? Why don’t you give me a few days with it and I’ll be awesome?” And so they said, “Okay, you can turn it next week.” And I worked and worked on it and it was great. And now they like, “Oh, they’re not to that role yet.” Then why did they tell me to do it in two days?
My ex-girlfriend was a casting director and she said they’re just trying to get those tapes in because they’re doing their job. They have to say, “Oh, yeah, I got this many tapes in.” Sometimes it is moving that fast, and you do have to get it in, but sometimes you just have tell your agent or manager, “I would do a much better job if I had one or two extra days. Is that possible?” And most of time it is. Unless you’re auditioning for a guest star or a co-star on an episodic that’s shooting the next week. But those are just frustrations about acting.