“Actors need a kind of aggression, a kind of inner force. Don’t be only one-sided, sweet, nice, good. Get rid of being average. Find the killer in you.” ~ Stella Adler
Recently NBC aired “Hairspray Live!” a live musical adaptation of the hit Broadway musical, “Hairspray.” “Hairspray” is one of my favorite romantic comedies of all time, created by legendary filmmaker John Waters, with the original film starring the iconic Divine. It tells the story of a “pleasantly plump” teenager trying to pursue her dreams of stardom and taking a stand against racial segregation in ’60s Baltimore.
In celebration of “Hairspray Live!” I spent the day hanging out with the talented Garrett Clayton who plays Link Larkin in this broadcast adaptation. We chatted about how he discovered his love for the theater, why he adores Peter Pan, and his early days in Hollywood.
Garrett Clayton, The Life & Times
Justin Howard for Black Chalk – So let’s have a conversation…
Garrett Clayton – Like we have been the whole time?
Black Chalk – This is a metaphysical question: “How did you get here today?”
Garrett Clayton – Got it! I moved from Detroit metro. I think of the series of events in my life as a snowball effect.
Black Chalk – Not a landslide, but a snow ball…
Garrett Clayton – Yes. Because I lived in 5 states before I was 4. My parents split up and until I was 15, I lived in my mom’s house and my dad’s house every other week. My dad lived in Redford and my mom lived in Canton. Canton is an upscale community. People make jokes about people having money in Canton. But my family has never had loads of money. Canton is a nice area, Redford is more rough.
Black Chalk – It was a weekly trip between nice and rough.
Garrett Clayton – The back and forth was an interesting lifestyle, I guess. I got into commercial modeling when I was 13 in Detroit and Chicago. That was by my choice. I told my mom I wanted to try to get into modeling or acting. I loved acting, but my mom said, “Why don’t you see how feel in front of the camera first”. She had a friend who modeled. So she decided to let me try it, but first I had to get my grades up. I was excited. So I got my grades up, she talked to her friend, and I got an agent. Her friend also knew this agent in Chicago. This friend was very supportive of my family and knew my mom worked very hard. My step-dad had knee surgery, and my mom had to work like crazy to keep everything going.
Black Chalk – So your mother had a very strong work ethic.
Garrett Clayton – Yes. She was a flight attendant, she was a bartender, she has her nursing degree. She knows her stuff.
Black Chalk – Sounds like you really respect your mom.
Garrett Clayton – I do! She racked up the money and we greyhounded it to Chicago a lot for work. It was funny because at my first agency meeting, she expected to have to be the parent during this situation. But, hilariously, she said I suddenly turned 40. I kept asking the agent questions like “So what’s your plan?” “What can you do?” I was this 13-year-old kid telling this woman, “How are you going to do your job for me?”. Fast forward, when I was 15 I happened to be at this modeling agency and they asked if I wanted to audition for a movie? They thought I would be perfect for it. So I ended up doing a cold read for it. I was like ‘Great, why not?!’ I then got the movie.
Black Chalk – What was the movie?
Garrett Clayton – Originally it had another name, but today it is called “Magic Mentah” directed by John Higbie. I just played this snotty kid in this blue screen movie. It was this giant warehouse with a blue screen. It was wild. Over the years I just kept going to castings. I got “Days of Our Lives” from a talent search. I got Dustin Lance Black’s “Virginia” with Ed Harris and Emma Roberts. I went to this casting call of over 1,500 people and it ended up between me and kid who got the role I was auditioning for. They ended up giving me a part in the movie anyway.
Black Chalk – Dustin is an interesting character.
Garrett Clayton – One of the executive producers was part of Roar Management, a group I used to be with for 4 or 5 years. He saw my audition tape from this and wanted to meet me in person. I got that very ‘Hollywood’ call. I was at my friend Sam’s house. It was one of those things that sticks with you.
Black Chalk – What was that call like?
Garrett Clayton – I think I was 17 or 18 at the time and I got a call from the guy who used to be my manager. He said “I saw your audition tape for “Virginia”.” I was like, who is this? He replied “This is So and so. I am one of the executive producers on it. I think you are really talented. If you ever want to go to LA and keep your head on straight, I think you could have a big career.” I was like ‘What? OK… Is there anything I need to do?” He said “Well, you are going to be shooting this week, I will sit down and talk to you.” I told him I wanted to go to LA.
Black Chalk – You were still in Detroit at this time?
Garrett Clayton – Yes, mind you I drove three hours for a casting call while I was doing “High School Musical 2” on stage for the city of Dearborn. It is one of those things in life, you can’t make it happen, it just happens to you.
Black Chalk – It is literally serendipity.
Garrett Clayton – I love that word, serendipity. I love it. So I met with him and he just repeated what he said earlier. He asked me “If you move, what’s your plan?’ I was like what do you mean? He replied “Well, you are going to need a 6 month, 1 year and 5 year plan. Where do you want to be in 10 years, who do you want to be?’ I was like “Oh God!’ I don’t know, I was like I am 17. I just want to stop getting zits, you know. It was like a year later when I was in a BFA for Musical Theater, I was planning to move to New York. It was then that I got “Days of Our Lives” from a talent search. That was another 1,500 person casting and they were going to pick one lucky person to fly out. I was sitting in large group of people in a huge ballroom in Detroit. They narrowed it down to twenty of us. It was a two-day process.
They called up the first winner’s name, and there was only meant to be one person. But they said they were so impressed by this other person’s performance in the room, they couldn’t say no. Then they called my name. I was shocked! I ended up doing another movie in Michigan, as a dancer.
But after ‘Days of Our Lives’ flew me out to LA, I decided to stay in LA for an extra couple days and ask if I could meet with that manager who called me. Then he said the same thing “What is your plan?” I was like “I want to move out here soon.” It was quite a day, I had just gotten kissed and slapped all the same day by Taylor Spreitler for our scene in “Days Of Our Lives”. Very Hollywood I guess. Taylor Spreitler invited me to her BBQ, where I met my first two roommates in LA. They kept asking when I was moving to LA. I was like “I want to, but I have nowhere to go. It is going to take some planning.” They told me flat out that they were looking for a roommate in six months. They said “Let’s be friends on Facebook and see if it will work out.” I told the manager I did meet these guys who need a roommate. He replied “In the first 6 months you need a car, a place to live and a job and most importantly you need to get into acting classes. Then after six months I want you to call me”. I was like “Ok, if I can get out here.”
I ended up deciding to leave my musical theater program and had a week long garage sale where I sold everything I owned. At some point my parents were pulling furniture out the house because they wanted to make sure I had enough money to get by for the first month or two because you don’t know how long it will be before you can get a job. They were really supportive. My best friends were coming and I was so emotional. I was really sad and I got really tired, I basically couldn’t help but fell asleep a lot. My best friends were standing outside and just trying to do this because I was so emotionally torn. I wanted to follow my dream but I didn’t want to leave the people I love.
Black Chalk – You didn’t want to leave your nest.
Garrett Clayton – I was so lucky. I had 5 really good friends from doing theater in different cities and these two friends I went to school with. It was this hodgepodge of misfit toys, you know.
Black Chalk – That is the beautiful story, “The Island of Misfit Toys.”
Garrett Clayton – There is a picture of me and my two best friends, where after we had been sobbing all day right before I left. My best friends knew my favorite thing is Reese’s peanut butter cups, so right before I went through the airport they gave a huge one and all had signed it saying “We love you!”
Black Chalk – Do you still have that?
Garrett Clayton – I did until all my things got stolen at one point when I was in LA. But it is in my heart.
Black Chalk – That is a very sweet story.
Garrett Clayton – It is just a random series of events. I mean even when I got to LA, I found a job on the first day, a car after 3, and I got acting classes in 2 weeks. I worked at Crave.
Black Chalk – What did you do at Crave?
Garrett Clayton – Everything. I was a waiter, a cashier and a night manager by the time I was 20. Which is why no restaurant would hire me because I was overqualified to be a waiter anywhere else. They didn’t want a 20 year old telling them this a better way to do this. I kept telling everyone “Trust me. I am fine. I am super chill, I am not going to mouth off.” They said “No, you are too experienced.”
After the first month I got a call from a vocal coach who knew an agent in LA, who was in their musical theater program back in florida who told this coach “If you ever have any students in LA, I would love to meet with them. If you believe in them, I know they are talented.” He asked me if I wanted him to set up a meeting. I just brought in my head shot and said “I want to work! I know what I am doing.” He said “Sure, why not?” He got me set up and did my head shots. Then I emailed that manager, I was like “Hey I did everything and I got an agent.” He never emailed me back. I emailed again and no reply. I sent an email with the title “Finale Email” I said in the email, “I am serious about this. I am going to work with you or someone else. Get back to me if you are serious about this. If not it was nice knowing you.” He sent back a big “HAHAHAHA. Are you free this Thursday? Come into the office and meet with me and my associates.” I was like “yeah, I can’t I believe that is what they describe in ’40s films as having “gumption,” something I didn’t know I had at the time. He came back and said “That was pretty ballsy of you.”
Black Chalk – To say the least! Let’s talk moments with you. What was that first moment you knew you wanted to be an actor?
Garrett Clayton – I quit drama club in 10th grade. We were doing “Wizard of Oz”, and I didn’t get the role I wanted. I auditioned for the Scarecrow and Tinman, I had no clue what I was doing at the time. I had just started trying to even do any of this. I remember, it was a week into rehearsals and I was laying on my back looking up at the ceiling. Just bored at rehearsals. The director came up and said “Sorry, I would have cast you as Tinman but there is another guy “Cheese” who is a senior and he deserves the part.”I was like “Oh…” And I got stuck in the Lollipop Guild. I was the doorman who said “No!”I just remember she had told us we had to do a Lollipop Guild jig and the guys I was with weren’t dancers. I didn’t know I was a dancer at the time. I was just frustrated by their lack of dancing skills. I was like “Step on the mark!” I was just so mad I wasn’t the Tinman and …
Black Chalk – They are lovely individuals who had no rhythm.
Garrett Clayton – Yeah, not everyone is meant to dance. That’s ok. I had gotten so mad and when you are a teenager you get really mad! So I went up to the director the next day and said “I can’t do this any more” and then I joined the swim team. Then realized I hated the swim team. I went through this whole thing with bullying and wanting the wrong things, I started throwing all these parties. I lost myself in this quest to be liked.
Black Chalk – But you found yourself by getting lost.
Garrett Clayton – Right. I got lost in this mixture of teenager feelings where if I throw these parties, I will be liked. That is where I fit in, I am the party person. High school happened, it turned against me, and I was getting picked on. I thought to myself, where did it go wrong? I remembered how happy I was in the drama club. It was the summer when I finally realized that. They had just started doing “Peter Pan,” and I have always loved it. So I showed up as it was a summer thing with the director where you could help build sets.
Black Chalk – You get to have the full experience of being in a theater production.
Garrett Clayton – I started showing up and you could already tell the director was like “Great, it is the kid who quit, then came back to half ass it.” I said to her “I heard you are doing Peter Pan.”She goes “Yeah…” There was already another guy she wanted to play Peter, who was older then me and who looked like Peter. The original Peter, who was a redhead. I was like “I really want a shot at Peter.” She just laughed in my face. We joke about it now because I still help out at my old drama club every December. She laughed in my face and said “Ok.” I was like I know you want so-and-so to be Peter, but I know I can do it. I was like how can I have a real chance at this. She said “If you can show me, you are committed through the production of “Fame”, I will give you a chance at Peter.” I was like “I can do this!”
They ended up casting me as Leroy. No one is going to look at me and see the character, they are going to be thinking, this is a super white-looking kid. So I over committed to the character, thinking I could be hard, I can be rough, whatever. I committed so much that the two weeks before “Peter Pan” started production I had made a costume from the original production. I made it at my aunt’s house. My aunt is super artsy, she dances. It was my aunt and my mom who taught me how to dance. She helped me block the entire scene. Mind you, I had this Peter Pan costume on. I showed up to the audition, with my blocking down and my costume on. The whole 9 yards. That was when I knew I wanted to be an actor.
Black Chalk – When you were Peter Pan?
Garrett Clayton – When I got the part.
Black Chalk – Let’s fast forward. You are in LA, you have some experiences under your belt. What is the moment when you realized you had made it?
Garrett Clayton – When I did the first Teen Beach movie for Disney. I was going to do Disney Infinite. You know the game where you have your character on console and you build a world?
Black Chalk – I have a vague impression…
Garrett Clayton – It is a game with all the characters from Disney. So they had sent me out there to promote the film. It was in Times Square. They sent me and a cast mate out to do autographs. We both had different time slots. When I got there, there was a huge screen with my image on it. In Times Square in New York. They put me up in a hotel in Manhattan and had a driver for me.
Black Chalk – It was your Hollywood moment.
Garrett Clayton – It was so big. I was driving up in a private car to do a signing with a huge screen displaying an image of me behind a booth they had built up. It wasn’t part of another building, it was one they built up. You can see an image of it on my Instagram from years ago. It was so surreal, I was completely overwhelmed. A bunch of my friends from musical theater showed up and were being assholes. haha. But I love them. They waited in line to get a signature and when it was their turn they were screaming at me, pretending not to know me. Yet when they got up to the table they were like “How did you like that?” They made me sign the things they had brought and then were like “Want to grab a bite afterwards?”
Black Chalk – When you have history with people, that is how you stay real. You don’t want spend your whole life surrounded by sycophants.