15 – Nathan Lee Graham: How to Be a Working Actor + Stay Well

In This Episode

Read Full Transcript

00:58 Nathan
When you are your authentic self, people can intrinsically feel that energy. Energy is palpable - energy is real.

01:21 Tony:
Hello, it's Tony Howell! I want to say thank you for listening to this podcast. This is our opportunity to have conversations with Changemakers, seeking the practical ways that we as artists can use our gifts to change this world.

This month's guest is Grammy Award-winning artist, Nathan Lee Graham. His career spans film, television, theatre, music, and more. He's currently starring on the CW as François in Katy Keene, and you'll also see NLG on the upcoming Hulu series Woke.

His feature films include: Zoolander, Zoolander 2, Sweet Home Alabama, and Hitch. Additional TV credits include: The Comeback, LA to Vegas, Scrubs, Absolutely Fabulous, and more.

He made his Broadway debut in the original Tony and Grammy Award-nominated cast of The Wild Party, and other theatrical credits include: The View Upstairs, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Wig Out, and more. I am so excited and honored to have this conversation.

What you're about to hear is Nathan sharing the following:
the importance of authenticity, how to find and develop your voice, your essence;
the rules of the industry, a few lessons from his legendary mentor Eartha Kitt;
how to handle the world that we're living in, including politics, social media, and more.

I do want to highlight that we tried very hard when recording this episode to get things set up from the technical side, but Nathan ended up having to phone in for this interview because he just moved into a new apartment and hadn't slept in 24 hours.

Do accept my apology for the audio quality; we did our absolute best and know that this episode is definitely still worth your listen. Enjoy!

03:35 Tony:
Nathan Lee Graham. Thank you for being on the podcast.

03:39 Nathan:
Thank you for having me.

03:41 Tony:
I'm so excited to talk to you. There's a lot I want to dive into, but just to kick us off, can you tell us what you're working on right now?

03:49 Nathan:
Okay, so I'll give you an example of what happened last week. So I wrapped a current show I'm doing for the CW called Katy Keene - a spinoff of Riverdale, which is a part of the Archie comic world, so it's a wonderful show. It has music in it; we actually sing and dance as well. It's kind of kooky and crazy, it's otherworldly, you feel nostalgic - it's beautiful. So I wrapped that. Let's say I started at 2:42am. That was my call. 2:42am they picked me up, then I shot until 3pm the same day (but it feels different), and then I moved to my new apartment Tuesday morning. So that was a Monday. And then Tuesday afternoon, I was flown to Vancouver to shoot a new show on Hulu, a comedy called Woke.

It was very funny: the weather in Vancouver was horrible, but the people there are lovely. We were shooting in the woods - well, it seemed like the woods because it looked like The Shining. And I said, “what's happening with me!” but the copy of the script for Woke was so hilarious. I had such a good time. I shot that for a couple of days and I came back on Friday morning. My show Katy Keene premiered Thursday evening, which we're supposed to live tweet, as a cast member. I was trying to sort of tweet when I was on the set of another show and then couldn't really do it, so I just sort of … retweeted everyone's tweets. I obviously couldn't watch the show because I was at work. So in Canada, no less, on the other side of the continent, of the country - well not OUR country, but over there. I flew back Friday morning in a fevered pitch because I had to host the 65th annual V & E Opera Ball at Cipriani 42nd street. So that's an example of what's been going on with me.

06:35 Tony:
A day in the life.

06:37 Nathan:
And of course, everything was delivered that Tuesday morning, except for my sofa, which is coming today. And I haven't been in my bed, my brand new bed. I haven't even been in it! I just put it together yesterday.

06:53 Tony:
What a whirlwind! Well, thank you for being on the show and I want to rewind and go back if you would: can you talk about at what point in your early life you knew that you were an artist?

07:06 Nathan:
Wow, that's a good question. Well, here's the thing. I was born in St. Louis, but I grew up in Los Angeles and then I went back to college in St. Louis. But I've lived most of my life in New York City, and there's not really been a point where I haven't been a part of show business, if you will. I mean, we start in school, we start at church, all those sort of things. I guess the bigger question for me would be, when did I decide to actually make this my vocation? When did I decide that I would make a living doing this?

It really was sort of a foregone conclusion because my hobby became my profession. My grandparents [and] my parents always had me in something extracurricular and it just seemed very second nature and very natural. So there was no light bulb moment, but there was a moment where I said to my mom: “I would like to be (and I said these words!) a working actor.” I didn't say a star, I didn't say famous. I said a working actor. I said that sometime in high school before I went to college, and then of course I went to Webster Conservatory, where their whole theme was the working actor. Other conservatories do other things, but that was their motto.

And I just happened to go to that school, so it just all sort of worked out. I wish there was a more glamorous way of putting it, but it was a foregone conclusion that I would be a part of the business, I mean, that I was in show business, that I was performative, an artist. But it was not a foregone conclusion that I would actually make a living at it, and so that's the interesting thing for me.

09:20 Tony:
The twist in the road. And so there wasn't a pivotal moment?

09:22 Nathan:
No, there wasn't a pivotal moment because I'm still very reluctant, even though I've never done anything else. I've never waited on a table, which I think would be fun. At least it would've been, but I've never done anything else, and yet I'm still a very reluctant artist. In that I'm very practical. I'm a Virgo and I'm very practical. And so it seems absurd to me that I'm still in show business, but I'm also a person that thinks and sees things through an artist’s lens. I don't realize this until I'm talking to people and they look at me as if I'm from Neptune. So, I'm not good for anything else at this point. Also, I'm old, so I can't do anything else.

I wear that with a badge of honor because to have been in this business as long as I have, and to have worked pretty consistently (because even when you're not working, you're working), I'm just pretty damn grateful for that and very fortunate. Even though I'm still very reluctant and I ask myself, “why am I doing this?” every day.

10:53 Tony:
It's the life of the artist. So, I want to cover so much. I'm just going to keep asking away. (I love it. Let's dive in.) So I want to ask, because I know that you are political, I know that you're wise, I just greatly respect you as a human. So I want to ask you this question: how did you find your voice? And I mean that technically as well as spiritually.

11:18 Nathan:
Okay. So here's the secret. You always are who you are. You just become more of it, if you are surrounded by people who allow that to happen. And I can honestly say, there's a general consensus that I've never changed. I've only become more of myself. And now becoming more comfortable with that, once again was through naivete and inevitability. I mean, I literally had a horrific childhood, being teased and that sort of thing, but I was never encouraged at home, or with those who loved me or who were teaching me or encouraging me, to change. So that was the interesting dichotomy and paradox. Although I was taunted and teased, those who I would look to, to find advice from or to help guide me, never asked me to change. I mean, if anything, they would do things to help me, to encourage me to be more like myself.

For instance, I was so teased going to the lunchroom that instead of me changing or to become, let's say more accessible, more like everyone else or a “butch” or - I hate using the word masculine, because that doesn't mean anything to me - but instead of becoming someone different, my parents and my teachers and the secretaries at whatever school I was at allowed me to eat in the teacher's lounge for four years in high school. They allowed me to eat privately, they allowed me to go to the choir room, or to the band room, or to the theater, and have my lunch. So I was never discouraged at becoming more of myself, I was only encouraged. And because of that through evolution and age and learning here I am. And that's the honest truth, I must say.

13:43 Tony:
I love that. And, thank you to your teachers if they're listening, but also sorry to you, that you went through that. But also thank you for going through that. I want to congratulate you on your HRC Visibility Award. And I also want to thank you, as a gay man, for your work as a changemaker. You wrote and delivered (underline, underline, underline) a legendary speech for that award, and I'll include it in our links for this episode. But within that speech, you shared a story from Webster Conservatory about what one college professor talked to you about authenticity. Can you share that story for us here?

14:24 Nathan:
Yes, that was my beloved teacher, my first acting coach, actually, at Webster: Susan Gregg. She's no longer with us, but she was delightful because what she saw in me, now that I can already articulate it, was someone who was very talented, but was going to have struggles, be conflicted with the norms of the business, and was going to be forced to either squash or squelch one's talent, or be themselves, and sort of wait for a period or a window where you were accepted for who you are… but your talent was fully actualized.

And so, she said to me, “Do you want to tell a lie now and be less talented, or do you want to tell the truth now and be as talented as you possibly can be?” is basically what she said. She said, “because if you start lying now you're going to have to double act, but if you don't lie, then you'll get right to the juice of the character, right to the juice of what you have to do, and worry about the consequences later of someone saying, oh, you're too this or you're too that, you're not ‘masculine’ enough.” I had an agent once, as writers and artists say to me, after I did a wonderful scene from Does A Tiger Wear A Necktie? He [the character] is a drug addict, and all those sorts of things. Then I came and sat down, and we were discussing it, and I looked at her notes and it said, “light in the loafers.” And I was devastated. And she even said to me, “you're nothing like the character you just played.” I said, “well, no, I'm not a drug addict. I'm an actor.”

Oh, and I didn't understand at the time she meant that I was too gay or too efemm[inate], if you will. But I decided then, because of Susan really opening the window because she was someone, yet again, that I respected - I decided then to just be myself. And however that came out was fine. I also started to realize, “well, if I'm playing someone straight in a play that doesn't make me any more legitimate than if I'm playing someone gay in a play.” The point is, is the character well written? That's it. And are you hitting your marks and getting all the beats? So, Susan Gregg was a wonderful touchstone for me that I happened to receive very early on, and she got me on the right path to be my authentic, unique, singular self.

17:30 Tony:
And we get to see that in a number of ways: TV, film, music, all the things and you're always dynamite. So, I know there were many other teachers at Webster, and I also know that you've worked with some major, major players along the way. I'm just going to drop a few names here: Will Smith, Reese Witherspoon, Ben Stiller, Will Ferrell, Lisa Kudrow, and many, many more. So, Nathan, I think I know the answer to this question, but: in your life, who is the number one person who's influenced you?

18:05 Nathan:
Well, I have to say that even in high school, I was a day-one devotee and a fan of Eartha Kitt. So when I got a chance to actually work with her on Broadway in The Wild Party, and we became fast friends up until her dying day, that relationship I cherish so much because I can't believe that it actually happened. And I have to look at photos of us together, or the signed publicity still that I have framed that I will be putting up eventually in my new bedroom that says, “to my faithful Nathan, Love Eartha.”

I say that because, for all of the right reasons, she was a person of color who was doing things that no other person of color was doing. She was singular, she was in her own sort of wheelhouse and everything she did spoke to me on a visceral level before I even met her. And then when I met her, of course, the back of my head blew off. I mean, what do you do? And she thought that I was kidding when I said that I was this rabid fan of hers, and then she realized that I wasn't kidding because I knew some really obscure stuff, but also she saw my interactions with other people that I wasn't as sort of “over the moon” for, or I was very sort of measured. Because I, quite honestly, have grown up working with superstars, even as a kid.

So, it really was about the artists themselves that impressed me the most. So, I mean there's nowhere to go, but down. So with Eartha, she was so singular, and so pivotal, because she did become a mentor for me, and even when I was in Los Angeles for a stint after The Wild Party, she kept saying to me, “you really should come back to New York. This is going to be the best place for you, for a person with your talent.”

So I'm just saying, she would call and she would leave a voice memo on my recorded message with those little things. And she would say, “Nathan, it's Eartha” and I'm like, who else will be calling with that voice? Who else is it? But she would always announce herself, and I just would always be so tickled by that. But, out of respect, I erased every message because there were people who would keep her recordings and misuse them, or try to sell them, or something like that. So I erased every one.

21:22 Tony:
Oh, wow. I don't feel like I'm worthy of asking this question, but I know that that relationship is really special to you, and at this point, if you're willing, can you share one pivotal lesson that she taught you that you can pass on to the listener?

21:44 Nathan
She did say to me, well, two things, I'll get really deep and then really not so deep. She said to me that I might be alone because “people like us need someone that challenges us.” And she said, “you might have one, two loves, but you basically will be alone because you have to do what you have to do alone.” and so that was sort of ominous to me, and so far that's been true. I hope that it's not a self-fulfilling prophecy, but she did say that to me.

And the second thing she said was to always wear sunglasses: morning, noon, and night. She said it's good for your eyesight, and then I subsequently found out from my eye doctor that that is true: especially when it's cloudy, I should always wear sunglasses. But she said, “more importantly, it keeps people at bay without you having to be rude. So the parameter is up, but they just assume that they can't come too close.” So those are two things that she said to me, amongst many things, and they're like, the opposite ends of the spectrum. But as we were walking her beloved poodles between shows, and she had on her sunglasses and it was dusk, she said, “where are your sunglasses?” I said, “what do you mean?” “You must always wear your sunglasses. It keeps people at bay. It's also good for your eyes.” So that was happening on 8th Avenue and 52nd Street, right outside the Virginia Theater, which is now the August Wilson.

23:44 Tony:
Only in New York, these magical memories. So let's zoom out: you have an illustrious résumé, the ubiquitous NLG. People can Google you and find out everything and I'll include it in the intro and outro, but I'm not going to ask you to name a favorite project. But here's another tough question for you my friend: what's one project that is really, really special to you and why?

24:15 Nathan:
That is difficult because each [project] is special to me in some kind of way, or infamous in some kind of way where I've learned a lesson. What I can say is, I've done everything that I wanted to do so early that now, it's more about how I feel when I'm doing something. For instance, Katy Keene: never in a million years did I think I would have an MGM moment, but all of a sudden Kelly Devine is choreographing me in a number for the show! I turned to Lucy Hale and I said, “oh my God, you are Debbie Reynolds and I’m Donald O’Connor at this moment,” because we had to jump up and turn around at the same time and land at the same time, and it was just very sort of Singin’ In the Rain. And in between takes, I had a little clamped-tear moment because I said, “Here I am at 51 having a new experience, and I didn't even know that I would have that.” So it's things like that that are very special to me. Just things that I can recall.

For instance, when I shot Sweet Home, Alabama, the confluence of me working with Jean Smart, Candice Bergen and Mary Kay Place, and the four of us hanging out, all of us at the same time. Now, I didn't include Reese in that because Reese and I would hang out on our own, but to have those veteran actresses all at one point in my life and me get to share with them and listen; it's things like that that really are special moments. Going back and doing Zoolander 2 in Rome. I literally was in Rome for 40 days and 40 nights with everyone. There's never really been some sort of breakout moment for me because I don't think of my career in terms of breakout. I think of it just as a continuation, some people would say. Oh, for instance, when I went from LA to Vegas, that was such a special moment because it happened so quickly.

It happened, while I was on stage doing The View Upstairs, that I shot that pilot. So those two things were happening at the same time; both were very special. I flew out to Los Angeles to that series and the five people that were on that show, or I guess the six of us, really were so special and it was such a special experience and we all got along so well that I would trade it for nothing. Even though the series didn't get picked up for a second season, we were a mid-season replacement and we shot 15 episodes. You don't shoot 15 episodes for the regular season, so it was just special all around. Each one of these projects has been special to me for some reason on its own. I'm so sorry that was such a long answer, but it's the truth.

28:29 Tony:
And then all of those moments are earned. It's like reflecting back to you all of the work that you've put in. Nathan, you've led many a show, many a project, many a company. What are your biggest lessons in leadership?

28:45 Nathan:
Okay. Here's the thing. The business is very subjective, so I've seen people come and I've seen them go. I've seen them burn bright as a comet and then just like a comet, burn out. What's mostly impressive to me is consistency and discipline. This is what I learned at Webster. Consistency and discipline. It's my reputation on every step and every show that I do, and to go along with that, my advice to students is really, really simple. And you would be amazed how many don't do it, which is: show up on time, know your lines, hit your mark, and don't be an asshole. You would be amazed how many of those things, how those four things, those four pillars are not heeded on a regular basis. You would be amazed by that. Showing up on it. Be on time, know your line, hit your mark.

It doesn't mean that you won't flub a line, but people can tell the difference between you knowing a line and flubbing it, and you not knowing it at all. You cannot be an asshole because your reputation does precede you, and I can tell you, there are certain people that I will never work with again. And I will tell people who ask me about them, that they shouldn't hire them. But, the key is, those people have no idea that I feel that way about them.

30:32 Tony:
So, Nathan, I also know that you are quite politically engaged and always informed. And bouncing off this about “not being an asshole” being a key pillar of leadership, can you talk about how you are handling the world that we're currently living in?

30:50 Nathan:
Well, I will say that everything's absurd and sort of turned upside-down, topsy-turvy. And when that happens, you have to recalibrate on a daily basis with things that are positive. There's going to be a negative road all the time, but if you start off with something that's positive, I feel as though that sort of sets you up to be able to take the good and the bad. Because you have to be informed, but at the same time, you cannot be drowned in it. So you have to check in, it's important to check in, but then you have to have some gravity. And so what I do is: I check in all the time.

It's so funny: over the last two weeks, I haven't had my television set up and I haven't really been watching my Hulu on the laptop, because I've been either working or unpacking. It's been a nice break for me, but I've also realized that not knowing is not good either. So you have to have a good balance and be well informed about things and sort of drill down to find out what the truth is and the facts. So if you could sort of do a pu pu platter of different outlets to find out what's happening and then go with your gut. I think it's important just to keep yourself well informed, but not drown in it. My mother always says “deal, don't dwell.”

32:42 Tony:
I like that advice.

32:43 Nathan:
So deal with things, but don't dwell on them.

32:47 Tony:
Just dipping here quickly: you mentioned hearing from a lot of different sources and making your own opinion. And so I do want to talk about sort of social media, this idea that everyone is putting out a story. Can you share your take on what 2020 means for the world at large in terms of digital media, but then also how you engage with that social aspect on a day to day basis?

33:18 Nathan:
Well, it's kind of peculiar and kind of funny because of my generation, because of my age, and because I was born into an analog world and now I am in a digital world with everyone else. I do have this weird sort of struggle from time to time. Also, because of the nature of my career at this point, it's a constant struggle and a give and take for me for how I engage with social media, and it's a delicate balance because I don't have to do certain things that other people who are younger than me have to do. Meryl Streep does not have to be on social media at all! She just doesn't have to do it. So there's a part of me that doesn't have to do it because I'm not going to be hired based upon how many followers I have because I have an established career, and I'm old. So that's a plus, because I don't have to do as much.

Now, I do have to participate when said company, said network, said production company asks me to do things. So that's still a challenge for me to live tweet because I'd rather watch the show than miss something by live tweeting. But what's good about that is that people don't usually watch something when it airs anyway, because it's all over the place. I don't either. My queue is way too long and I don't have time to watch things when they actually air. So I am definitely a part of the community when it comes to things like that.

Instagram, it's funny: I sometimes will pick up more followers the less I post, because I feel like people find that because I'm not posting as much, they find it intriguing because they actually know that I'm busy. But there are people who grew up in this digital Instagram world exclusively, and so it is a part of their DNA to post every day. What I've come to find out is that I accept my relationship with social media and I embrace it the best way that I can without becoming stressed about it, so that it becomes something that's enjoyable, instead of purely a chore.

Now, for some people, Instagram actually is a job, but for me, it's an enhancer, it's a window into some of my private life. I am old school. And so I find it intriguing to have an actual private life and for there to be some sort of mystery. I'm that person that doesn't want to see you before a show. So that I don't ruin the illusion of what's about to happen. And I like that. I think that's a part of my social media mystique that I don't post all the time. And that when I do, it's something fun or something pivotal or something interesting.

I remember this past New Year's and I thought, “I'll do only black and white clothing and I'll document it. It'll be my editorial story for my trip.” Well, come the third day, I was so exhausted from being Annie Leitz. And I was just like, “oh my God, I can't take another picture of myself. And I mean, I just can't do it. I'm not enjoying myself because I only brought black and white.” So I literally was changing into black and white clothing constantly, and I was changing three to four times a day because of bathing suits, and going out to dinner, and my pajamas were black and white. And then I said, “Oh God.” So what I decided to do was upload a collage of a couple of looks, and post those over a period of three to four days and say, “that's enough.” But see, I reconciled myself with it. I had fun. I did what I said I was going to do, but then I also enjoyed my life and I stopped taking pictures of myself.

37:57 Tony:
How do you measure success after all of your credits and awards?

38:04 Nathan:
That's a hard question to answer, “how do I measure success?” I suppose I measure it by actually enjoying what I do. People use the wrong word when they ask me how a role is going. Are you having fun? Fun is for children. Fun is for playgrounds. I'm doing a job. It's enjoyable. Enjoyable is the right word for a working adult actor. And I think I measure success by how much I'm enjoying the process, how much I'm enjoying the job that I'm actually doing. And I'm so fortunate to be sort of heady and eccentric and esoteric. And I can have my granola hemp moments because I'm afforded to do so! And I guess that is success.

Also, I feel successful because I've never felt the need to be in competition with anyone except myself. So that's a measure of success too. I'm very comfortable in my own skin and I'm very comfortable on my own track. When people say to me, oh, Nathan this is going to be really big for you. I say to them, what are you talking about? Because I honestly don't understand that concept. I've always felt every job was the same. Now some jobs may be higher profile than others. Some people may see if I'm doing a show Off-Broadway downtown, not as many people are going to see that if I'm on national television. But I approach every job the same way. So I'm always dumb-smacked when people say things like,” oh, well this is going to be really big for you.” And I'm like, “oh, sure, okay. I've never had that concept.” Or, “I love you in that show. I can't wait to see you do more. I can't wait to see how you blossom.” I'm like, “what I'm doing right now is enough. I'm there.” Do you know how hard it is to land a Broadway show within these few city blocks? Do you know how difficult it is to get a break off of a Broadway show? Do you know how incredibly hard it is to be in a feature film and do you know how exceptional it is to be on national television in a role? All of these things are very coveted and very difficult to get. So, if you see my black ass on television, or on the stage, be happy for me and let's move on. Don't want more, want what is.

41:04 Tony:
Ooh, she's dropping the tea today!

41:07 Nathan:
What is, is it enough?

41:08 Tony:
Yas Queen, I have a follow up question for that, for when something has been really big: can you pinpoint a specific award or a specific review, some sort of recognition that has been that moment of the cleanse for you? And why was it that, those words, or that particular award? Why was that so special?

41:34 Nathan:
Well, I must tell you, I don't read reviews and Eartha told me not to, so I stopped. The last one I read when I was reading reviews, I believe within 1998, and I was doing Jesus Christ Superstar in Nyack with Billy Porter and Emily Skinner. Emily Skinner was playing Mary, Billy was playing Jesus. And I think this was directed by Gordon Greenberg, and I was playing King Herod. And who else was in that production? Oh someone with non-equity, he did Jekyll & Hyde and he was on American Idol. What's his name?

42:14 Tony:
Constantine Maroulis

42:17 Nathan:
Yes. He was not equity at the time, and tons of wonderful people in that show. I remember The New York Times came up to review it because we were so close and it was such a pivotal show. And it was an excellent, excellent production that I believe Tim Rice even saw and really loved [it]. Andrew Lloyd Webber would not allow it to come to Broadway - jealous much? - but the review said “The Definitive Rendering of Herod.” I thought, well, I'm not going to ever get a better review than that. And that happened to be the last review that I read.

Now subsequently, I do have friends who let me know. They let me know if a review is good or bad, and I've been very fortunate not to have any bad reviews over the years because, let me tell you, the children will let you know if it's bad. But people do know that I don't read them. So what they'll do is they will let me know, on the sly: “well, so-and-so said this, and so-and-so said that.” And then my publicist, my theatrical publicist, Dan Fortune, will send me reviews but marked “danger, don't open until show is closed. ”

So what I've become accustomed to is like, several years later. Like for instance, I just recently read the reviews for Wig Out that was done at the Vineyard. The Tarrell [Alvin] McCraney play, Wig Out, that was directed by Tina Landau, [for] which I was nominated for a Drama League, I believe. And some other awards, but Drama League is what I remember.

44:20 Tony:
Outer Critics.

44:20 Nathan:
Yeah, something like this. I remember going to the Drama League reception, and I was in a bathroom stall, and Elton John came up right next to me and said, “I love your work.” And I couldn't tell if he was looking down at my penis, or if he was commenting on Wig Out, but I just went to fantasyland and I was like, “thank you, Rocket Man.” And that's just on the side!

I was also sitting near Angela Lansbury, I believe, that year. So funny; I met Angela Lansbury at Joe Allen. Eartha introduced me to Angela. She goes “Angie, (I think she called her Angie, maybe Angela,) this is Nathan, Nathan meet Angela.” And then of course, my eyes popped out of my head and I was just like, okay, whatever, because that is another actor that I think is singular and she's one of my favorites. And of course, she, like Eartha, is an anomaly. She looks the way she looks. No one looks like her. No one's like her. She's done everything. She's ubiquitous. She's wonderful. I love Angela Lansbury. So anyway, I got off track, but what was I talking about? What were we saying?

45:43 Tony:
The definitive rendering is this pivotal moment.

45:48 Nathan:
Yeah. So that's the last one. So, Eartha told me to stop reading reviews. I did, just recently, read some reviews from Wig Out, and that happened in 2008. That show was very important to me because it was my return to the stage. I hadn't been on stage in quite some time, and I was going through a very toxic relationship with my then-boyfriend (who's a very nice guy and I of course wish him well). But I hadn't been in New York for a while and it was my return to the stage.

I was terrified to be on stage again because I didn't know if I could do it. And it turned out to be a huge milestone and turning point in my career because I returned to the stage, and realized that I could do everything. It used to really, really bug me, that I felt like I was a jack-of-all-trades and a master of nothing, because I would be on the set, or I would be on the stage, or I would be doing a concert, or I would be on a film. And everybody in these different mediums would look at me as if I were new because I kept going to each one.

And then I suddenly realized, oh, you are actually a master of all of them bitches. That's all. It's okay to travel. It's okay to be. “I'm not new, I just don't know these people, but I've worked at the top of my game in each medium,” I happily say, and it's been a joy.

47:27 Tony:
Nathan, we have to cruise to the end, but there are so many questions I want to squeeze in. So if I may, I'm just going to keep firing away. So what is one failure that you can recall that really taught you something? One big one.

47:46 Nathan:
Okay. I don't believe in failure, and I'm not being esoteric. I do not believe in failure. Once you've tried something and have followed through, I believe that it may not turn out the way you wanted, but that's not a failure. It just didn't turn out the way you wanted it to. So it leads you to something else. A very dear friend and colleague asked me why I would do Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. “Why would you go backwards and do a featured ensemble role?” And I said to him, “well, I needed the job.” I wanted the money and I needed to move back to New York, and I needed to get out of my relationship that I had in Los Angeles. When I told them the truth, it arrested them. It absolutely dumb smacked them; mind you, they weren't working, but it put them in their place.

So that's my real answer: I do not believe in failure. If you see something all the way to the end, you haven't failed. If it turns out to be something else, then that was what was supposed to happen. So failure is not in my vocabulary. You have tried something and it turned out differently is simply “you have tried something and it turned out differently.”

49:13 Tony:
There are many people listening, and some of them are young, some of them are colleagues. So, you've covered a lot; there's been some really just amazing gems in here, but is there anything that you would say, if you could, to someone at your level? Just like, the truth bomb that they need to hear: what would be your advice to a veteran or a celebrity artist from Nathan Lee Graham?

49:38 Nathan:
Calm down. That's it. I mean, listen, that encompasses so many things. Whatever your mantra is, you need to calm down. Calm down that internal clock, calm down. It will be the best thing for you. It will keep you alive and well, it will keep you consistent and well, it will keep you focused and well: you must calm the internal clock down.

50:15 Tony:
Thank you, thank you, thank you. So, the clock is ticking and I do want to ask you: this is a podcast about changemaking. So, from your experience, in all areas of the industry, what changes would you like to see in the future of arts and entertainment?

50:34 Nathan:
I don't know why I'm on this kick, but I am. I would love for casting agents to give actors of a certain note, certain veterans, their due. And what I mean by that is: have a little bit more value in the résumé. I would love for that to happen. I would love for that sort of moment to happen, where we could squeeze time together, where we could close the gap: the donut hole between being hired and your resume. Certain things, you shouldn't have to go in for anymore. Certain things, you should be offered. Now, mind you, I'm offered a lot of things, but there are certain things you go in for that are so repetitive. And yes, you're being called in because you probably have done this, but I would love for the casting agent, the good casting agent to sort of go, “I'm just going to put this person on a shortlist and this will go straight to offer because that would make everybody involved feel so much better about themselves.” When you have to go in and repeat things over and over again, as an artist of note, or as a veteran, it gets to be very worrisome. It gets to be, you start to second guess yourself. You're like, I've already proven I can do this in real time. Now, if you haven't been around, and you've done something [but] it's been years, that's different, but I would love the gap, the donut hole, for casting agents to be a little bit shortened.

52:17 Tony:
I love it. That's the truth, and I already have clients in mind who I'm like, yeah, I definitely know what you're talking about. So, taking a larger lens, looking at either our country or the world, if you could wave your magical wand and make change, what would you like to see change in the world?

52:39 Nathan:
Right now to be quite honest, is this administration. It's just, it really does rot from the head and it's just so overwhelmingly negative; even if you're getting things done, you're getting them done in a negative way. We're all in a low-level depression. There's a low grade of depression. Because even people who voted for this person in the White House currently, you cannot tell me that they want constant chaos. You cannot tell me that they want constant ridicule and to live under this sort of heavyweight, this heavy murky mire, this drudgery. It's just not fun.

It's like growing up in an abusive household, where at any moment someone's going to set daddy off. You're all walking on eggshells and everyone's smiling and going through the motions and going to work and doing all the things. But at any moment, you're going to be called a name, or made fun of, or cheated on, or not paid, or persecuted. So, I would love for this administration to change because it's so toxic, dangerous, and negative.

54:08 Tony:
I agree. So with that, I thank you for all that you've shared with us today. What is the best way to get connected with you Nathan?

54:18 Nathan:
Through my agents? Oh my God, I'm so old school, “call my press agent.” But honestly, things don't seem legit to me unless you call my agents. But I do respond to, occasionally, I will respond to a DM on Instagram because that's the easiest, that's the sort of fastest way if you don't have my personal stuff, which you shouldn't. But DMs through that - and I get some weird stuff, Tony. So, I do not answer everything because one shouldn't, but you know, if there's some sort of job opportunity or job question, it's best to call Carlton Goddard and Freer (CGF) Talent because they know all of my business and they have my entire calendar.

55:22 Tony:
We love them.

55:24 Nathan:
Yes. We love them.

55:26 Tony:
Nathan, thank you for being here and again, thank you for all of your work, both on stage, online, on screen, but more importantly, like, who you are as a human.

So, to close us out, I want you to take a moment and think what is one final thought for the listener of how they can create change in the world?

55:49 Nathan:
What immediately comes to mind is: being your authentic self, because when you are that, (unless you're a serial killer) when you are that, your authentic self, and you don't dim your light, the world is brighter. It's just brighter. But if you're not your authentic self and you're constantly sort of dimming your light, metaphorically, to make someone else feel better or to compensate… If everyone's lights are on, then everyone can see and everyone gets a chance. As my sister says, to have their “step out,” their “step out moment.” So, being your authentic self, it all comes back to authenticity.

I can't speak this morning because I've been up for 24 hours, but it all comes back to authenticity because when you are your authentic self, people can intrinsically feel that energy. Energy is palpable. Energy is real. So try to be that, try to find who that is as soon as you possibly can and just become more of it. Always, whoever you are, whatever you are, become more of it. And I mean that, because it's just a better world when everyone can be themselves, whatever pronoun that is (my pronouns are Nathan and Diva).

57:18 Tony:
And on that note, we will call it an interview. Thank you so much Nathan for being on the show. And thank you for listening.

I wanna highlight just a few things that Nathan shared. The first, the big idea, is just: be yourself. You're gonna hear it a lot of different times, a lot of different ways, but I like the way that Nathan says it: whatever you are, whoever you are, becomes more of you. Be that singular sensation.

I also love his rules: show up on time, know your lines, hit your mark, and don't be an asshole. And if you're not a performer and you're listening to this, just find your equivalent of knowing your lines and hitting your mark.

And finally, perhaps maybe the most important thing in the times that we're living is to calm down. Calm the internal clock that is telling you that you should be farther along, or that there's not enough time to keep yourself well.

I know that Nathan and I would both love to hear your takeaways, your favorite moments. So, take a screenshot of this episode right now and share your biggest takeaway with him and me on social media! You can tag @NathanLeeGraham and @TonyHowell.

If you want to hear more conversations with our changemakers, be sure to check out the other episodes on your pod-catcher of choice. And of course, I would love it if you would subscribe, and love you even more if you would leave a review.

For all things, Nathan Lee Graham, just go to NathanLeeGraham.com or follow him on social media @NathanLeeGraham.

Of course I would love it if you would hop over to TonyHowell.me - we have a digital wellness quiz to grade your online presence.

And in the weeks ahead, we're doing some completely free training on how to build your own personal website. So definitely hop over to TonyHowell.me, and if you click on the link in the episode description, you'll also find lots of bonus resources for this conversation, including Nathan's performances and his acceptance speech for the HRC visibility award.

Thank you so much for listening to Conversations with Changemakers, but more importantly, thank you for the work that you do. Please continue to go out there, even if it's just online, and use your work to change the world.

Maybe you and I can have a conversation about it very soon.

Nathan Lee Graham is a Grammy award-winning artist spanning film, television, theatre, music, and more. You’ll hear Nathan spill the tea on his past, as well as what he’d like to change about casting, social media, and politics.

Click here to access bonus resources from this episode.

Connect with Nathan Lee Graham:

Connect with Tony Howell:

Episode Credits:

If you enjoy this episode, please leave a review! Be sure to check out our past conversations and subscribe for next month’s special guest.

Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices


You have Successfully Subscribed!

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This