“You always want to start a character in the moment. If you walk out on stage, you wanna bring with you that moment that happened to you before you walked out on the stage.” – Brent Jennings
Brent Jennings is one of the most recognizable character actors working today. With a resume that includes commercials, theater, TV (Modern Family, Shameless) and film (Moneyball), it’s a sure bet that you seen his always stellar work over the years.
He’s now starring in AMC’s, Lodge 49, about a “disarmingly optimistic local ex-surfer, Dud (Wyatt Russell), who’s drifting after the death of his father and collapse of the family business.” Jennings plays Ernie, a middle-aged plumbing salesman who feels like life has passed him by. He’s a character who he connected with almost immediately. “You get these kinds of opportunities every five or six years, maybe 10, in a career, where something is really special,” he said.
In this interview, Jennings talks about Lodge 49, why he quickly felt a connection to the role, his long career and why he passed up an opportunity to become a school teacher.
Can you talk about your character? How do you like playing him?
Brent Jennings: Well, I love playing the guy. When I first read the script and saw the character, I couldn’t really believe that what I saw on the page was real. And I just got excited about playing this guy who is so multi-faceted, and so three dimensional. There’s so many sides to Ernie, but at the heart, he’s someone that I can relate to, being a middle aged man who feels like his life hasn’t lived up to the hopes and dreams that he had for his life. And he wants to try to, sort of recapture … not even recapture, but capture some of those things and achieve some of those successes before it’s too late.
He feels the clock ticking. I know from his backstory that he had lost his family, mother and father. He had a relationship that ended up not working, and a child was lost in that relationship, that ended up breaking up the relationship. So he’s alone in the world. And the Lodge is the family that he’s adopted. It’s a place that he has made his … What’s the word I’m looking for? His home, his place where he receives some sort of comfort, a sense of belonging, like he would in a home, or around family, or around close friends. That is what the Lodge has become for him.
He’s at that point in his life where he’s just kind of construct something that makes him feel proud of himself. He’s a salesman, so he’s obviously had a lot more of, I’d say, defeats, than successes as a salesman. He’s had the ups and downs, the roller coaster ride, like it is for a journeyman actor, who has seasons where he’s going from job to job and seasons where he just can’t get arrested.
And so, he’s sort of worn out a little bit, but at the same time, he has an extreme vigor, an extreme lust for life. And he’s just going for it with all his might. He’s just really going for what he wants, no holds barred. And I admire that drive that he exhibits in the story as we see him and as we meet him.
So he was just a fascinating character. Not a stereotypical character in any way. Very unique person, just like the show and just like the other characters in the show.
You mentioned backstory. Did the creators give you anything to work from or did you create it on your own?
Brent Jennings: Well, they actually, to show you how thorough and well thought out the show is, they gave each of the regular characters biographical sketches. I don’t wanna say, outlines, but information, on each of the characters, what their past was, where they were before we meet them in the story.
So, there were things that I knew about Ernie going into the first episode. I knew about his experience in the Navy. I knew about his life, his romantic life, his failed marriage, the loss of a child, where he grew up, what the relationship with Connie stems from, where that started.
So I knew all of these things, and like you do in the theater, which is where I’m from, you either make it up yourself, or the writer gives it to you. Because you always want to start a character in the moment. If you walk out on stage, you wanna bring with you that moment that happened to you before you walked out on stage. You wanna know where you’re coming from. You want the audience to see you with some history of where you’ve been. You don’t start anything with just where it starts in the script. So, this is what we use when studying acting. It was impressive because this rarely happens in television. That the characters are that well developed and the actors are given all this information to bring to the table.
You mentioned that you really connected to Ernie. Did you get that when you first got the sides for the audition?
Brent Jennings: I did. I grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas. I’m there now, because I have a mother, she celebrates her hundredth birthday tomorrow.
Brent Jennings: Thank you. And I come back and forth visiting her, making sure she’s okay and all of that. And I was here when I got the script, and going through some sort of serious things with her at the time, and I didn’t even really want to deal with it. I was just like, “Well, I can’t audition right now. I’m really kind of busy. I don’t know when I’ll be back in L.A.” And I thought about it, and my manager was so gracious and said, “Okay, just let me know when you’re back, and we’ll see where it is when you get back.” And it wasn’t one of those things where, “Oh, Brent, what are you talking about? I’m working my tail off for you. Every time I call you, you got an excuse. Grow up, be a man!” And I thought about it for a minute and she was so gracious. Let me call her back and tell her to send me the script. And I read the script, and I was just like, “Wow. Whoa, wait a minute. Let me put myself on tape and send it back to L.A.” And that’s what I did, and one thing led to the other.
So, it just knocked me out when I first read it, because of what you said when you started the conversation, it’s unique. There’s nothing like it, and it’s sort of literary. It’s written like a short a story, or novel-esque, if there’s such a word. It’s subtle, with the nuance and attention to behavior, as opposed to punchlines and these long expositional paragraphs. So, it’s really just a pleasure to get something that reminds you of why you became an actor, what you wanted from it. And you get these kinds of opportunities every five or six years, maybe 10, in a career, where something is really special, and is really also saying something about the human experience.
I was looking over IMDB, and I know it’s not the be-all-end-all of your resume, but this can’t be true because you’ve been working forever. This can’t be your first series regular role, is it?
Brent Jennings: Well, no. I did one way back in 1992, I think it was, called The Antagonists, for CBS, Lauren Holly, David Andrews, myself. It only ran 13 episodes. It didn’t get picked up for the back nine. And that’s the only series regular … That’s not even IMDB for some reason. But I’ve done pilots that didn’t go. I’ve done pilots that have been on the schedule to go and been pulled off the schedule at the last minute. So, I’ve had one that ran 13, close on others, and now Lodge 49. So, yeah, I mean, I can relate to Ernie.
That just is amazing to me. I think you’re one of the best character actors around. You’re like a utility player, you know? You need somebody interesting? Let’s call in Brent Jennings!
Brent Jennings: Right. Well, thank you. A theater director that I worked with in New York called me after seeing a couple of episodes of the show, and he said, “Brent, I am so happy to see you finally get something that shows that you’re allowed to do what you can really do in the way that you do it.” And I think sometimes being a character actor is an asset, but also it could be a hindrance in a way, because you’re not a leading man, and you don’t get the lead part because you’re not the guy that when you walked through the door all the women fall out. [laughs]You’re just a regular guy, and there aren’t that many regular guys that are written about. They don’t cast most interesting roles or lead roles for regular guys, for your everyman type of guy. So, there just aren’t that many opportunities for interesting stuff.
I did something called A Lesson Before Dying on HBO years ago, where I played a rural uneducated minister, who was trying to preach to a guy on death row, who was about to be hung for a crime he didn’t commit, and I felt that was a very interesting role. And I did a role called Hopping Bob in Life, which was a guard, with Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence, a comedy. But it ended up being a fun role, an interesting role, and a memorable role. I’m still complimented on it even though it came out in ’98, ’99, something like that. And a few other things along the way, and there were theater parts along the way.
You have an interesting story where during one of those ‘lean actor times’, I guess you could say, you became a substitute teacher for your son’s school.
Brent Jennings: Yeah, that was one of those times when it was just so lean. It was lean. I had a good agent, and I just wasn’t booking things, or getting out on things. I didn’t know what was going on, and I thought maybe I hit that point where you have relationships with people and it kind of gets to the point where you’re taken for granted and maybe they aren’t … I was always an actor you had to fight for. It was never … Anything that I ever got, I had to fight in one way or another, or my representation had to fight. But I’ve never been, “Oh, yeah, let’s just get Brent, and give this to him.” You get worn out by so many fights. You know what I mean?
One time I went to SAG and I wanted to look at my earnings for some reason. And I remember the woman said, “Oh, wow, you really hit a wall.” It was just like, “Yeah, okay, thanks for making me feel great.” I just got to a point where it just wasn’t happening. So I had my kids in this private school, and I wanted to keep them there, because it was good for them. And I started subbing there, and then as my condition became known, the headmistress came to me and said, “Look, how about you work for us as assistant admissions director, and you teach drama?” And I said, “Okay, that sounds good.” And then my kids would have free tuition as long as I did that. So, it was really like leaving acting, leaving my career.
And so, I considered it, and I went back to have a follow up meeting, and said, “Okay, what’s the salary? How much are we talking about?” And I don’t want to say exactly what the salary is, because I don’t want to insult people who are making that amount of money, but I said to her after she told me, I actually started laughing. And I said… not laughing, I just kind of chuckled like, “You mean, this is a full time job. You want me to come here every day for that money?” And it was like, “Yes.” And I’m thinking, “That’s why I’m sitting here now, because that’s all I’m barely making. I don’t want to put the lid on that and top it off and say that’s it.” So I rejected it. I rejected it. I declined, and I decided I would look into doing commercials, and commercials kind of saved me financially.
I started really getting kind of hot in a very quiet way in commercials. My character look helped me there and it helped me get just enough… You know, I would have four national commercials go out in a year, so everything was going well. And I realized, “Well, it’s better to make a living as an actor, in some way, than not making one at all as an actor.” And when I ended up a few years later, I ended up shooting Life with Eddie Murphy and Bernie Mac and Martin Lawrence.
You know, 3% of actors are making enough to qualify for healthcare and all of this other stuff. That includes your superstars, everybody, 3%. So, if you can stay in there and do that, you’re a success. You’re succeeding.
Since you’ve had such a long career, what is the secret to just being able to work this long and to cultivate a career like you have?
Brent Jennings: Well, that’s a good question. Sometimes it’s just done for you. As I get older now, I realize how little it’s under your own control.
In my home state, they have this thing called The Arkansas Black Hall of Fame. They nominated me this year, and I had to go back and write this bio for them. And as I’m writing the bio, I wanted it to be as comprehensive and thorough as I could make it. So I started in the 6th grade with a teacher who suggested that I become an actor. And I started going through up until the present, and I saw all the people that just sort of walked into my life and opened doors and helped me. So then I knew I was doing something I was kind of meant to be doing, and I felt good about that.
I think the longevity comes from just… Like, this is the kind of life that chooses you, and you have to understand that and be true to it.
I’ll tell you a quick story in a nutshell. My father and I had a conversation before he passed away. We both really never see each other again. And I asked him, “Should I become an actor?” And he said to me, “Brent, you’ve always talked about it. You’ve always wanted to do it. If you make it, the money will be great. If you don’t, so what? It’s the path you’re meant to be on.” And three days later, he was gone, and I thought about that a lot. And I realized that what he was telling me was that one day I’m going to be sitting where he’s sitting, and all that’s gonna matter is, were you true to yourself? Are you doing what you want to do with your life? That’s all that matters. So it was about the journey and that’s all its about. So I realized that there was no way I could fail. And that gave me the faith to sort of wait things out and just always stay true to myself.
I think when I was look back on it now, when I was turning down the teaching job, I actually was being true to myself. Saying, “Well, that’s not really what I want to do with my life regardless of the pressures that I’m in.
So, the longevity is just like what do you tell other people? You have to really be in something that has to be something that chose you. You have to really love it. You have to love the struggle as well as overcoming the struggle. You have to love the process of looking for a job when you don’t have job. But then you have to love the elation you feel when you do get one. You have to be able to embrace it all.
What’s been your worst or most embarrassing audition?
Brent Jennings: Oh, wow. Oh, I had an audition for a film once, and I went into the audition, and I had had a surgery, and I shouldn’t have been back at work. You know what I mean? I should’ve given myself time to heal. But I’m so… I gotta get back. And I get in this audition, and for some reason I just can’t focus. And I wanted to memorize it, and I get in there, and I kept starting and saying, “Wait a minute, let me start over again.” And they let me just start over again. And then I start again, and I stopped to go, “No, no, no. That’s not right. Let me start over again.” I must’ve done that four or five times, until the director said to me, “Relax, man. Just relax. What’s wrong? Why are you taking it so seriously? It’s just a movie.”
And I was so riled up and so tight that I just was… I was totally embarrassed about it. I left, I called my agent in the car. And I said, “Look, I just tanked this audition. I just was not focused. I just couldn’t relax.” And she said, “Yeah, I know the casting director just called me and said, ‘Brent just had a pretty bad day today.” And that was the worst audition I ever had.
For some reason I just couldn’t get on track. I guess maybe I knew I shouldn’t have been there, or I hadn’t prepared or something. I don’t know, but I’d almost forgot it until you brought it up. So it’s definitely something I push way back deep into the recesses of my mind.
Sorry about that! Well, if you start having your first drink early in the day then it’s my fault.
Brent Jennings: No, I won’t go that far!
Lodge 49 airs at 10pm on Mondays on AMC