Hollywood and Home
An evening with Sean MacKenzie Bridgers
Recently GR spent a fun evening with Sean at his home in Sylva, NC. An open book, the actor, screenwriter, and producer, known for roles in award winning projects like Room (2015), Johnny Burns in the HBO series Deadwood and on the SundanceTV original series Rectify as Trey Willis. In 2016, Sean's work again hit the big screen in features Free State of Jones and The Magnificent Seven. In this three part feature Sean "shows us his roots", we get a rare a glimpse into the life of a professional actor, and he shares his thoughts on the Southern Highlands.
Sean- We were talking about genealogy which is fascinating in the Appalachians.
GR- What about the Bridgers family?
Sean- My Dad (Ben Bridgers) was from Oklahoma. We transplanted here when I was three. He went to law school at UNC-CH, and your dad (R. Phillip Haire) had the good sense to hire him and bring him to Sylva, NC. Mom is from Pitt County, a little town called Winterville. Her Dad was a farmer. Anyway, we were talking about our heritage and the meaning of names and stuff, and Bridgers -first of all, my Grandfather's name is Jasper N. Bridgers. The (N) stood for "none." He was born in the Ozarks, the Boston Mountains in 1917? He was the ninth of nine kids, and they (parents) really didn't need another child and weren't shy about letting him know that apparently. So they didn't bother giving him a middle name, and they named him Jasper because my grandmother had some complications during the birth, no hospitals around there, and called the doctor; which was a pretty big deal. His name was Jasper. So, of course, they named my grandfather Jasper N. Bridgers the "N" for None.
Hey, this is a funny story. When my grandfather was in the second World War, he was a SeeBee in the Navy. So he was in the South Pacific, and when you wrote a letter home, they were confiscated, read, and redacted to make sure you weren't giving away any information. You know, Loose Lips Sink Ships and all that. So he would write my grandmother who at the time was in Wichita, KS working at the Boeing plant. She was a riveter on B-29s, and she loved it. So my Dad was very young at that point, a baby.
My grandfather would send her letters. The first letter he sent he signed Jasper "G" Bridgers. [laughter)] And the next one would be Jasper "U" Bridgers; then the next would be Jasper "A" Bridgers, on and on. He was trying to spell out Guadalcanal, and when he returned home he asked my grandmother if she got the code? And she didn't "I wondered why you were doing that!" to whit my grandfather replied "I was trying to tell you where I was"
Okay so the Bridgers name is Scotch and Welsh apparently, and we thought for a long time that we were descended from people who built bridges. You know, that's a noble profession bringing people together [laughter]. But you know there was a certain subset of people at that time in history living under bridges… and that's probably more likely. [raucous laughter]
Sean - so we don't know much about the Bridgers except that they were from the Ozarks and Western Missouri. And also, when I say Bridgers - remember my grandfather was the 9th of 9 children and his brothers and sisters all spelled their names differently. Some spelled it Bridges, some of them were Bridger, and some of them were Bridgers - my name. My Great Grandfather was George Washington Bridgers, and he signed maybe four documents in his life, misspelling most of the time.
OH! Check this. My father got into genealogy during the time the television series Roots came out. Anyway, he came into contact with a man in Missouri who told him the Bridgers pre and post Civil War were "Highwaymen" - laughter, which is to say armed robbers - raucous laughter. So from that side of the family, a lot of outlaws. My grandfather told me the story that he ran into the James Gang about 20 miles outside of Missouri. A gang of 8 men, wearing long coats and carrying way more guns than they needed. But the thing he really noticed was that they were riding the best horses he had ever seen. Back in that day the horse flesh you had meant everything for an outlaw - living, and dying - could you outrun the law? That story may or may not be true, but from my dad's side of the family there are lots of stories like that - my Uncle Bob grew up with Pretty Boy Floyd. My Dad's first girlfriend was Pretty Boy Floyd's niece.
So I have a southern heritage that runs pretty deep and a bit rough on my Dad's side. People kept moving because they didn't have land, so you kept moving until you found something.
(Mom) So my Mom's side she's from Pit county, which is Eastern North Carolina. Where Greenville is, and East Carolina University is located. Mostly farming country on the NC Coastal Plain. Her father was a tobacco farmer, and that side of the family we know quite a bit about. The main family was the McGlahorn from Donegal, NW Ireland and then Cox, Kitrells and the Jacksons, which is Scotland. But they had land to farm, but they weren't rich as they didn't have a plantation or anything like that. So that's the tame side of the family compared to the hardscrabble genealogy of my Dad's side.
GR - Where did you grow up?
Sean - I grew up in Sylva, NC, which is in Jackson County, which is in the heart of the Smoky Mountains. It's about an hour west of both Asheville, NC and the South Carolina border. Northeast of Georgia and an hour east of Tennessee. An hour from anywhere or nowhere depends on how you look at it.
GR- Obviously you have to travel a lot for your career. Do you find at times while away from home that you long to return to the Southern Highlands?
Sean - I always want to get back to the Southern Highlands. What's funny about that is that as a boy I wanted to leave. I had a great childhood here in Sylva, but I guess most people think where they grow up is not very cool. [laughter]. Right? Growing up in Sylva in the 1970's and 80's was still a small town, and there were about 3,000 people here, but there was a university close by. Western Carolina University is in the town of Cullowhee seven miles away. The University has really, REALLY grown into what I believe to be a world-class institution. That relationship has made Sylva and Jackson County rather unique in the sense that lots of people have come here to get an education and have been seduced by the beauty of the place - absolutely gorgeous place. These mountains are amazing. I, of course, didn't notice it when I was a kid.
I have a memory of my mother.. this must have been 1972 when we were living in a little section of Sylva called Dillard Town. We were renting a small house. I remember sitting on the porch with my Mom; I was about 4. Mom's home is flat down closer to the ocean as I mentioned before. But I remember her saying "look at those mountains, Sean. Aren't they beautiful?" and I had never thought to pay attention to it [laughing] because I was 4. But I remember looking and thinking yup; they are something.
Traveling home from work, often I fly back into Atlanta and either get picked up or grab a car or have one in airport parking. When I reach Northern Georgia something begins to change. As we get on into Franklin, NC I start to feel really, really comfortable because I know I'm coming home. But Sylva has dramatically changed since I was a young boy. Scott, you can attest to this; when we were kids you had to go to Asheville or if you were lucky you got to go to Atlanta once or twice a year to see the [Atlanta] Braves or go to Six Flags. Maybe you'd get to go to a Mall; which was the ONLY way you could get any decent music. Because the only music store in town was the Roses department store and the only music they had was The Oak Ridge Boys, easy Disco, or the best Rock and Roll you could find was maybe The Little River Band. Nothing good! [GR does indeed like The Little River Band although the point RE: Good Rock & Roll is valid]
I remember having to go to Asheville to find a Foghat album. All the way to Atlanta if you wanted to pick some AC/DC. You [Scott] didn't struggle at all because your big brother provided us with a lot of music, but that was all "Devil music" [raucous laughter]. We were not supposed to listen to that. I remember moving back in the late 1990's with my wife and Sylva suddenly had a record store - In Your Ear Music, where you could get all the Devil music you wanted or the Oak Ridge Boys. You could finally get any music you wanted. I think things like that have changed. You know we couldn't buy beer for the longest time. You had to go one county over to the town of Waynesville, NC. They finally changed the law because college students were driving to Waynesville to get the beer and breaking into their beer on the way home across [steep/curvy] Balsam Mountain coming home. Finally, they figured that's not a good idea, and hey, the revenue isn't bad! So things have changed, they have three craft breweries in Sylva, soon to be four this summer. So we grew up in a town that was dry. You had the ABC Store [Alcoholic Beverage Control] Ummm, and now we have breweries, and now we have hippies and hillbillies co-mingling, having a great time! We have world-class bookstores where authors come often. We have WCU who has literary festivals. We sport some of the BEST fly fishing in the eastern United States. I don't want to brag, but that's the truth of it. The streams are clean, cold, ancient, and beautiful - scenic vistas every direction you turn.
When we were boys Scott, you remember we had the old paper mill in town. The refuse or whatever it was coming out of the paper mill flowed into Scott's Creek, and it STUNK. That stream flowed into the Tuckaseegee River and somehow the EPA found out and placed regulations on the mill that saved our precious resource. We have people now coming from across the country to fly fish. We have a whole industry if you will, catering to the sport. You remember Scott when we were kids we would ride our bikes down to the river to fish. We didn't have all of the "accouterments" you see now, but we caught trout. The entire area has changed all for the better. This area is really special - like all of our Southern Highlands. [cacaughany of birds singing] See even the birds agree. It still has the charm of old, but the downtown eateries, and shops combined with the natural environment and pace of life - it's just something special.
GR- What is your education/training for your career as an actor?
Sean- I would say it started, honestly started with you Scott and all of the other bunch of idiot kids who would go into the woods and build forts and play War. Honestly, that's what it comes down to. Acting is playing. So I had a very vivid imagination filled childhood. We didn't get cable TV until we twelve or thirteen years old; at which point, our friend Dan Christy's dad owned the cable company. So I spent most of my childhood outdoors. I don't remember ever being bored. We rode our bikes everywhere, and we played ball every day. And we grew up in a neighborhood - I guess within a mile there were ten or twelve boys all within three to four years of the same age. So there would be epic football games at Sossman's Field. Okay, we say "Sossman's Field" to make it sound like Clemson's Death Valley or some other storied turf, but in fairness, it was an exquisitely groomed pasture owned by Mr. Sossman where he let his two ancient Shetland ponies roam, and if you remember Scott, we would play football there. Tackling somebody in a pony "patty" amounted in an automatic first down penalty. You'd be grabbing and tackling someone who starts shouting HOLD ON! HOLD ON! HOLD ON! and you'd move over a couple of feet then throw them down. [lady in attendance shouts"Oh my God"! - Sean chuckles].
You know, we had pick up games of football, basketball, baseball, and soccer. We'd ride our bikes downtown and go to the town pool almost every day in the summer.
I do remember talking with someone from a city in the North East. I know I'm probably romanticizing it a bit, but I don't think so. I feel like I had as close to a Tom Sawyer childhood as anyone could in the twentieth century. It was fun.
GR - Both of your parents are published, authors. What influences have they had on your life and career path?
Sean- Let's get back to the whole career path thing. My Mom read a lot; she was a novelist. I didn't know she was a novelist until I was about eight. She had a book published by Random House. My mother met my father at East Carolina University where my dad was a teacher. Okay, she was not his student - so nothing salacious going on there [laughter]. But anyway, they got married, he joined the Air Force and went to law school and then that brought us to Sylva.
But my mother had a book published in 1976, [Home Before Dark] and basically, she would get us ready for school, get us on the bus, have a coffee and then she wrote novels. While doing so she finished college, receiving a degree from Western Carolina University, while my father was an attorney here in Sylva.
My father also read extensively, and I didn't find out until many years later that he was a poet. He was a poet, and I didn't know it [raucous laughter]. He has some published books of poetry as well as a book he wrote about the Hellespont, which is this straight across Turkey and Greece which he swam when he was sixty or sixty-one. He had just been diagnosed with cancer and was like you know, he was kind of a "boss" so he just swam it.
Stories were always important in our family. With the university nearby they took us to plays, musicals, etc. whether we wanted to go or not. Long car rides in the ‘70s with no cell phones or VCRs or iPads - Mom would read to us to keep us entertained. Mark Twain or Eudora Welty, and others, so I think being an actor was a natural progression in that way. That's all I consider myself - a storyteller. That's just what I can contribute as a performer in telling a story.
So, when I got to high school and then to undergrad and started performing in plays at WCU it wasn't completely new to me, it was rather natural.
GR - do you have a preference between theater and film?
Sean - I haven't done a play in sixteen years. The last play I did was at the Lahoya Playhouse in San Diego. I remember it being sixteen years ago because that was the day our middle child - Kate, first stood up. I do have aspirations to perform in plays again, maybe five years down the road I'll start doing that more and more. Because doing a play as an actor is a different kind of challenge, it's terrifying in a different way. You have more time to prepare so you can really delve into it. There is something about doing it live that is fantastic. Feeling the energy of the audience is fantastic.
I don't have a preference. I'm from the Southern Highlands, and we're pragmatists. I'm a father of three and television and film pays better. You get paid more for your time. Being away for a long period of time is something that is required in doing a play. It hasn't evened out in respect to how much I get paid, so if I'm going to be gone for a long period of time, I want to be paid. What I prefer is to be gone a long period of time and be paid well or being gone a short period of time and be paid well enough that I can come home and be with my family.
GR - How do you prepare for a part?
Sean- I have a theory, it's not my theory. Whatever role I'm working on be it television, theater or film, the most important thing is to be really relaxed in the performance. The first thing is to understand the story and where/how your character fits into the story. What does your character contribute? What is needed for your character? It's all about the audience and telling the story, and I have a pretty good understanding of that and like I mentioned, I grew up with parents who read to me, and I understood stories, but it varies.
I played a lot of horrible people in the last few years. In Room, I played the bad guy, Old Nick. I was fortunate to be nominated for four Academy Awards. The key to playing a bad guy is this - bad guys don't think they're bad guys. So, my job is to speak for my character. My Dad was a lawyer right? So I'm kind of honor bound to plead my character's case. In the instance of Room, I play a horrible person, I'm not playing him now so I can judge him, but at the time I can't judge him. No, I'm playing a person who has some flawed logic, has some moral ambiguity, but really when you're playing a scene or a character, your job is to realize: What is it they want? What are their intentions? What do they need? In the case of Old Nick in Room, he wanted the girl he kidnapped to love him. He simply wants love, he's just very, very damaged. Now the story writer and director will communicate how damaged he is. My job is to flesh out a fully formed human being within the context of the story, then I trust everyone else to do their job, and in that case, it worked beautifully.
Let me put it this way. Adolph Hitler thought he was right. So if you're playing Adolph Hitler, you don't say "Oh I'm the biggest monster of the twentieth century if not the history of mankind," you play a guy who is trying to save his people. You internalize it, but the danger with that is your body doesn't know your acting, so you have to be careful of that, so you don't go "nuts." I don't think I've ever had a problem with that, but I have a pretty balanced, normal life and a good sense of who I am.
Look, playing a good guy or someone who's cool is EASY. And that's why a lot of actors want to play someone who's cool because you feel that way. At this point, I'm consciously trying to steer away for playing characters that are severely damaged. I've done that enough, although I'm grateful I had the opportunity. Early in my career I always played a good guy, a character who had a conscience.
GR - is that type of character truer to self?
Sean - you've known me my entire life and know I'm an empathetic person.
GR - Well, seeing someone I know so well on the screen playing a terrible person… disturbed me and I remember telling my wife "He's not like that at all" [Sean stops me to belly laugh], but that's a complement to your skill.
Sean- Well thanks, but that's my job.