When Bryan Greenberg was a struggling actor a decade ago, he was caught up in the kind of New York hustle familiar to the aspiring fashionista he plays on HBO’s “How to Make It in America,” a gritty series about the American dream amid Wall Street disaster.
“I didn’t get a lot of sleep,” the 31-year-old actor said. Instead, he juggled auditions while working as a waiter, bartender, caterer and assistant to a mortgage broker.
“New York forces you to do multiple things at once because it’s so expensive,” Greenberg said from his current Hollywood Hills home. “But that is true now everywhere, because of the economy. It’s not just go to college, get your degree, get a job. You have to be sharp and have a bunch of different hustles just to try to get by, which is why the show is so timely.”
Greenberg plays Ben Epstein, a fashion-school dropout in his late 20s who is still employed folding jeans at Barneys — to his own dismay and that of his Upper West Side Jewish parents. But this sensitive Jewish boy and his cocky Dominican buddy (Victor Rasuk) have a plan: to somehow launch a retro jeans line with a roll of exclusive Japanese denim purchased from the back of a truck.
Working on the same streets that once saw early 20th century Jewish immigrants laboring in the schmatte business, these modern-day garmentos scrounge for funds by selling vintage T-shirts and trolling downtown parties for contacts. They connect with Ben’s childhood friend, David Kaplan (Eddie Kaye Thomas), a wealthy nerd who agrees to invest, in part, because Ben can get him into a downtown club that routinely rejects him.
“Anything is still possible in America, even for some loud-mouthed Jew,” the socially awkward Kaplan exclaims. It helps that Ben plays basketball with the club’s bouncer.
Greenberg, too, found connections on the basketball court. That’s where he met the HBO series’ creator, Ian Edelman, who at the time was still working as a production assistant.
Greenberg, who grew up Conservative in Omaha, Neb., and attended Camp Herzl in Wisconsin, had enjoyed some modest success in roles on TV’s “One Tree Hill,” “Unscripted” and “October Road,” and as Uma Thurman’s much-younger lover in the film, “Prime,” which starred Meryl Streep as his Jewish mother, a psychoanalyst. In fact, Greenberg’s own mother is a therapist.
“I had no idea that Ian was a writer, just that we had great chemistry on the court. So when I read in Variety that he had sold this show to HBO, I was stunned.”
The actor couldn’t call his basketball friend directly — he didn’t have Edelman’s home telephone number — but rather had his agent set up the formal meeting with the series producers. Edelman liked what he saw in the audition room.
“[Bryan] just felt like Ben Epstein,” Edelman said. “Ben is like a lot of kids knew growing up in New York: cool, creative, friends with a lot of different types of people, comfortable uptown and downtown,” he said. “But we worked hard to make Ben feel real. To me his Upper West Side Jewishness is all part of that. A way of seeing the world, a wit, a self-deprecating charm, an openness to all different types of people, socialist grandparents.”
Greenberg’s career had started to take off in 2005, when he played himself as the star in George Clooney’s HBO series, “Unscripted,” a mix of reality and fiction revolving around the demeaning, real life travails of aspiring actors. Greenberg’s character, named Bryan Greenberg, constantly humiliates himself, as when he brags about beating out an actual developmentally disabled person for the role of ... a developmentally disabled person.
Clooney proved charming and supportive, flying Greenberg to the set of Warner Bros.’ “One Tree Hill” in his private jet so that the younger actor could work that show at the same time as “Unscripted.” Greenberg said Clooney could also be blunt, such as the time he called the younger actor into his office after he hammed up one scene.
“He said, ‘I don’t ever want to see you act. The second I catch you acting, it’s over for me.’ It’s still the best acting advice I’ve ever received,” Greenberg said.
“How to Make It in America” has helped Greenberg move closer to his own American dream: He’s the romantic lead on a show that shares producers with HBO’s “Entourage,” and a home in the Hollywood Hills has replaced the two-room East Village dump with the leaking toilet that he once shared with two other people.
But trying not to be limited by stereotyping has proved challenging at times. “There was an audition that came up last week for a project where they didn’t even want to see me because they thought I was ‘too Jewish,’ ” he said. “But that’s OK. With a last name like Greenberg and because of the characters I’ve played, there’s going to be some baggage.”
These days Greenberg is striving to expand his repertoire and to challenge himself as an actor: “I’m going into audition rooms in character and trying to earn these parts that people don’t necessarily want to see me in because they don’t envision me in that role.” Certainly, the character could be Jewish, he said, but right now he’d rather portray a racist cop, for example.
“You never get to a place where you’re totally comfortable,” he said of his approach. “You’re always hustling, always trying to make it.”
“How to Make It in America” airs Sundays on HBO.