He won a 2011 OBIE Award and has appeared in numerous productions on stage and in film. Actor Michael Chernus is currently playing Cal, the brother of inmate Piper Chapman in the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black.” He also had roles in “Captain Phillips” and “The Bourne Legacy.” The Ohio native will be playing genius scientist Louis “Fritz” Fedowitz on the new WGN America televison series “Manhattan” about the clandestine development of the atom bomb. “Manhattan” premieres Sunday at 10 p.m.
Do you ever feel typecast?
I do sometimes feel typecast and I have been. I am trying to work against that as much as I can. Obviously, for any actor, especially when you are starting out, it’s just a gift and a huge blessing to make money as an actor no matter what. I have a beard and long hair, and I get cast as the lovable stoner a lot [laughing]. I think the character I’m playing in “Orange is the New Black” is the best version of that guy. He is actually multidimensional and not just like a goofy hippy stoner. Since I get to play that part and he is so much fun, I’m kind of tired of playing that guy. It’s like been there, done that. What’s really fun about “Manhattan” is he [my character] is not that at all.
You play a scientist. So how were you in science in school?
[Laughing] I was OK at science. I did really well freshman and sophomore year, and then when we got to chemistry and physics, all the math was involved and I really fell apart. I did really well in biology. Not that biology is simple, but it’s not a lot of math. I remember my biology teacher saying, “You should consider AP chemistry.” So I took AP chemistry my junior year, and it was a disaster.
I get it.
Yeah, so the great thing about this show [Manhattan] is we have a wonderful staff of advisers and science experts who come and make sure we are not making fools out of ourselves. Also, like in reality -- especially in the 1940s without computers -- a lot of what these guys were doing was just sitting around and talking and brainstorming and thinking and coming up with ideas. So in terms of stuff to do as an actor, it is rare you get caught just doing something ridiculous. There were experiments happening but it was a lot of theory and discussion.
Do you feel you are learning things playing this character?
I feel I’m learning a ton. I hesitate to say this show is educational because that just sounds boring to people, but I am learning a ton. I feel like it is such a fascinating moment in not just American history but in world history. I feel like we as a species haven’t really fully grasped or come to grips yet with the idea that we created this bomb, this terrible thing that can destroy on such a huge grandiose level. It’s like we were playing God a little bit. While I think it was incredibly important to end the war as quickly as possible and save as many lives, I think we didn’t realize until much later what we were unleashing onto the world.
You like this character, but have you ever played one you couldn’t wait to walk away from, like an annoying co-worker?
[Laughing] That’s a great question. I don’t know that I have. I can’t say that I have because I don’t want to annoy any writer out there that I have ever worked with [laughing]. But seriously, it is going to sound like one of those annoying actor answers, but in order to do your job well, you have to find a way in. Even if you don’t love that person, you have to find empathy for whoever it is you are playing. There are some characters who it is harder to live in their skin every day. Even if you are playing the most horrible serial killer you have to find a way to as truthfully as possible express that point of view without judgement. I mean, I have played characters -- especially in the theater, and I started my career on stage in New York -- who are really dark and have very troubled lives or pasts you want to just get away from because it starts to take its toll after doing it eight times a week. .
What was it about your childhood in Ohio that brought you to this? Was your mother an actor?
No, my parents are not actors. They are wildly smart people but not particularly artistic or creative in any way. To be honest, and I am not saying this to get sympathy, I was kind of a nerdy kid. I was a little chubby in junior high. I didn’t have a lot of friends. I did a play in junior high, and it just felt like a place where I could get attention. I felt like I had a community of friends, and I felt like I was good at something. I was always trying to be an athlete and I was on the junior high basketball team, but I rode the bench the whole year. I’m just not an athletic person. Theater is where I just fit in, and there were girls there who would talk to me.
I loved to read. There was something about doing a play and just living in language in a way that I wasn’t in my day-to-day life as a kid living in Ohio. The first role I ever played was Gandalf in the Hobbit when I was 13 [laughing]. I was hooked right away.
Did you ever see yourself as leading man material?
Yeah, I think I did and have at times. When I moved to New York and was in theater school, I was thinner and younger and got cast in some of those young lover roles. When I got out of school I had a really hard time finding my way as an actor. I think it was because I just kind of look like everybody else, and I was trying to be the young leading man. There was always someone in the audition rooms who was better-looking than me or more of that ‘thing” -- whatever that is. Then I did this play in D.C. probably about 11 years ago. I was playing a character who suffers from bi-polar disorder. I grew out my beard for the first time, grew my hair out and let myself gain a little weight. I think in that moment my exterior started to fit my interior. Work just started coming easier to me. It’s not to say because I grew a beard I started to have a career, but I started playing with character, you know?
I stopped thinking about being the young leading man and started transforming myself physically in the character role. Actors like the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman or Paul Giamatti are people who transcend the idea of character actor. They can be the romantic lead or the sympathetic lead.
Yes, what is leading man material anyway?
Back in Shakespeare’s day, you had a sword fight, so there was a certain level of fitness and athleticism. You would probably be running around the stage for three hours. But yeah in today’s world it is very different. So I am interested as I grow older and hopefully grow out of the lovable stoner character [laughing] to continue to play more and more complicated human beings
Are you a planner or do you go with the flow?
A little bit of both. I am a planner in the sense of the vision that I would like my career to look like. I know as an artist the kind of roles I’m interested in, and I definitely have goals, but part of being an actor is you’ve just got to kind of roll with it. Not take anything that comes to you, but just be in the moment and deal with the job in front of you.
One trap especially for a young actor is comparing yourself to somebody else. For a long time I was like: At 25 I should have been at this place in my career and I’m not, so I’m a failure. But, I’m trying to let go of that thinking. I love the theater. I am always going to be coming back to the stage. In fact I am going to be doing a play in the fall in New York.
I think the theater keeps you on your toes as an actor. It keeps your acting muscles in shape. I love this show “Manhattan” that I am on, and I hope it has 100 seasons and we are all doing it until we are old and gray, but I want to keep challenging myself.
To be honest, Phil [Philip Seymour Hoffman] was a big inspiration to me. I didn’t know him -- we met once or twice in New York -- but he was able to bring such complexity and empathy to potentially unlikable characters, losers in the hands of a lesser actor. So I think -- and not to compare myself to him in anyway -- but crafting a career like that which has a lot of nuance and color and includes time on the stage and films and television is important to me.
Thank you for taking the time to do this in between filming scenes in New Mexico.
Not at all. I wanted to say that I did a tiny part in a movie in Pittsburgh years ago. I did like a day on “Love and Other Drugs” but had to be there for like a week. I loved Pittsburgh even though I am from Cleveland. I was just by myself, and I wandered around the city in the autumn, and I just had a blast.
Patricia Sheridan: email@example.com, 412-263-2613 or follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/pasheridan.