The actor from Bigfork is making a name for himself at the age of 24
Story by Kay Bjork
Some kids act up and act out. Casey Brown simply acted.
The Bigfork native always loved to perform and is now living out his dream as a professional actor. At 24 years old, Brown already has a wealth of experience in theater and film, including a leading role in the movie Copperhead, a recurring role as Benny in the fourth season of the television series Justified, as a guest star on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and House of Lies, and acting in productions with Manhattan Project Theatre in New York and Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago.
It probably all really began when he was 8 years old. He would lie in bed until the house was silent and then quietly creep into the family room to watch Saturday Night Live, a forbidden fruit because of its age-inappropriate material. But he loved the characters and humor – and copying the voices. His obsession with the characters in SNL skits also inspired years of Halloween costumes portraying “Pat,” “Wayne’s World,” the “Spartan Cheerleaders” and the “Coneheads.”
Brown is imaginative and creative, which served him well growing up in rural Montana with plenty of time and space to fill with dreams and schemes.
“Growing up in Montana, there is an inherent sense of adventure where you get familiar with your imagination,” he says.
And Brown had plenty of that. A black wig blossomed into a Cher impersonation. Pretend games included interviewing and videotaping people at the local grocery store with his best friend, Austin, under the pretense that it was “for a social studies project.” The strangest, and most hilarious, antic was dressing up like Martha Stewart to do a mockumentary about her day-to-day life in prison.
Thinking back on his love for performing, he says, “I always knew that is what I wanted to do.”
He was a darling little boy – the chubby kid with curls and dimples – but as he grew older the chubbiness cute factor began to wear thin. The real clincher came when he realized, “I was always cast as the huntsman and never the prince.”
So at 13 he committed to change, uncharacteristic of most boys his age. He worked with a personal trainer and joined the local Weight Watchers Club, where his curls, dimples, and sweet demeanor charmed all the middle-aged women. Today, he still has the dimples, curls and sweet demeanor, but he’s lean and lanky with a rugged edge contrasted by a pretty face capable of cartoon expressiveness.
His first acting part came at age 10 when he played Clyde the dog in a Bigfork Playhouse Children’s Theatre performance – with no speaking lines. The next was as a silent clown. He laughs and says, “I started to wonder: Do I need to work on my voice?”
It wasn’t long before his voice was heard. When he was 12, he was cast in the Bigfork Summer Playhouse production of The King and I, followed by Annie Get Your Gun, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and The Wiz, where his theater education expanded by working with professional actors and directors.
When he was just 16, he was reading lines for Oscar-winning actor Olympia Dukakis, who was performing in The Tempest at the Alpine Theatre Project in Whitefish. He worked as her assistant for one summer. Even though he has gone from boy to man since those summers, the glow from that experience hasn’t dimmed.
“It was incredible,” he says. “It was the best acting lesson, like getting private lessons. And she was so gracious.”
He also found valuable mentors in Alpine Theatre Project founders and Broadway veterans Betsi Morrison, Luke Walrath and David Ackroyd when he performed in two plays. Additionally, he completed two Alpine summer internships in the technical aspects of theater that helped him gain a breadth of theater experience before entering college.
Those mentors added to a support system that he began developing while in elementary school. His third-grade teacher, Christi Deskins, encouraged him to write in character and allowed him to perform his journal in character sketches rather than simply read them. He says that Bigfork Playhouse Children’s Theatre Director Brach Thomson furnished him with both theater and life lessons: “Brach instills a great work ethic and lack of vanity.” His high school drama teacher Valeri McGarvey encouraged him in Speech and Debate and theatrical productions at Flathead High School.
Looking back, he says that he probably received a better arts education right here in the Flathead Valley than many who grow up in New York City. That said, the event that launched him into Hollywood occurred when he was one of 25 high school students accepted from around the world to attend University of Southern California after their junior year in high school. He was the first actor ever to be accepted into the program, but his high GPA and test scores earned him placement in this prestigious program and the David Dukes Memorial Scholarship for acting.
Now living at the doorstep to Hollywood, he was cast in two movies while still in college. In the first, he played the bad guy in a horror story, Slumber Party Slaughter, with Tom Sizemore and Ryan O’Neal, and in the next, a college student in a film noir crime movie called Dirty People. Right after college graduation, he landed a small part in Reach Me, a film with an all-star cast that included Tom Berenger, Nelly, Sylvester Stallone, Kyra Sedgewick and Kelsey Grammar. Unfortunately, the movie was never finished. The first two films had only moderate success but helped lay a foundation for Brown’s acting career.
Now going by his full name, Casey Thomas Brown, his next film was Copperhead, with actors Billy Campbell and Peter Fonda. The dramatic film offered a new spin on the American Civil War, focusing on the divisions caused by the war in an upstate New York village because of its remoteness to the South and the war. Brown says it was an incredible experience and that he befriended fellow cast members while the project was being filmed in several beautiful locations in New Brunswick, Canada.
“It was like summer camp,” he says.
As much fun as acting can be, he notes that it’s not as glamorous as it appears. There’s a lot of hard work during filming. And then there’s the demanding, and sometimes demoralizing, process of getting a part in a film.
“For every 50 auditions, I might get one part,” he says.
Brown takes each of his roles seriously and studies his subject thoroughly, fueled by his love of research and historical projects. He has already been involved in several historical fiction films and plays based on American wars, which could be coincidence, but maybe not.
“I don’t want to sound too esoteric, but I feel like scripts come to you for a reason,” he says.
Last fall, he was thrilled to join the prestigious Steppenwolf Theatre cast in Chicago for the production of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, set during World War I. Actor and Chicago native Gary Sinese is one of the founders of the nonprofit theater, which has captured 12 Tony Awards since its inception in 1975.
In preparation for his part as Aaron in East of Eden, Brown studied Steinbeck’s works, letters, and journals, and he visited Steinbeck’s birthplace in Salinas, California, where he collected a small amount of soil as something both symbolic and tangible to share with his cast. He was part of eight shows a week during the three-month run, with a total of 79 performances and an additional 20 preview performances. The schedule was grueling, but exhilarating.
“It is a thrilling job the moment I step on the stage,” he says.
He thinks he’s probably secretly an adrenaline junkie but is “too scared to rock climb or sky dive.” So instead he does live theater.
One moment he recalls fondly was when he shared cocktails in the dressing room with another cast member after both of their characters died before the end of the play. Another highlight was when numerous family members and friends, including his parents and high school drama teacher, attended his performances.
The end of the play only marked the beginning of something else. As he left for his flight out of Chicago, he received a call to re-tape an audition. He ran around the airport asking people to help him with the taping but ended up having his dad help him when he arrived home in Bigfork. Shortly afterward, he got another call, and his Thanksgiving break was interrupted with the news that he got the part.
Brown left the next day for his role in House of Lies, a Showtime comedy series starring Kristen Bell and Don Cheadle. He plays an egotistical member of the largest boy band in the world. He says it was a hoot to shoot and the cast was incredible. He was also thrilled to play in a comedy because that’s his first love, even though most of his parts have been in dramatic works. During lulls in acting, he loves to write sketch comedy. He has already written a comedy that he hopes to sell as a pilot.
He also collaborated with singer-songwriter Laura Marling on a short film that they wrote, directed, and edited in just 72 hours in Marfa, Texas for the 72-Hour National Film Challenge, winning awards for Best in Genre, Best Actress, and Best Soundtrack. Marling sings three of her songs for the soundtrack of “Woman Driver,” where she also plays a mysterious hitchhiker picked up by Brown’s character, who is driving an old-school bus cross-country.
Looking in his rearview mirror now after living on both coasts in New York City and L.A., and in the heartland in Chicago, he says he appreciates his Montana heritage that much more.
“The landscape is so inspiring,” he says. “When I’m home I feel like there is nowhere else on the planet I would rather be. I’m happy alone and in the trees.”
Brown is glad that he learned his values in Montana. He acknowledges that some of the temptations associated with the intense and competitive environment of the Hollywood scene are real.
“It requires utilizing mind and spirit to stay clear,” he says, “and restrain from things that might get in the way. You have to find other ways to get high.”
Brown found Yoga.
“It’s also the best acting warmup – Hogwarts for grown-ups. It feels amazing, like a car wash for the body and brain.”
He credits his parents with offering guidance and support since day one.
“I truly would have given up multiple times without their encouragement. They talked me back to sanity after so many ‘Why am I doing this?’ telephone calls.”
“My mother is keen and intuitive,” he adds. “My father is playful and energetic, and my sister Elli is the funniest person I know.”
Brown is thankful for where he is.
“It is a blessing to be able to do what I love to do,” he says. “If it requires sacrificing values and artistic integrity, I can walk away. I am not in this to walk the red carpet or to get my picture taken. I am in it for the thrill of acting.”
Q & A
Which character that you have portrayed was the most like you?
There are so many aspects of a person to examine, and I try to think of myself as little as possible when I’m preparing for a part because one is always going to bring one’s self to the part, regardless, so I focus more on the imaginative aspect of the craft and decide how I can focus or alter my energy to best speak for the character and their circumstances. I think I have a very similar ethical code as Jeff Beech, who I played in Copperhead, though I’m not nearly as brave. The character I played in East of Eden and I share a quest for goodness and desire to live righteously, though I am not as hardbound by my ideals and have literally no sibling rivalry, so we are different in those regards.
How about the least?
I share very little in life with Matt Cooper, the rapist on SVU, the Kentucky wire thief I played on Justified or the egomaniac pop star I play on House of Lies.
How hard is it to play a character that is nothing like you? And how do you do it?
I think it is easier to play a part further away from one’s self. That’s my favorite aspect of the job! Human personality is a much more malleable and pliant thing than we’re often willing to admit. Transformation is just a process of inspiration, imagination and experimentation. Sometimes the character comes to you; sometimes you have to knock on every door to find it. Sometimes it’s a voice or a costume piece or an intrinsic understanding of their personality that is the ‘ding-ding!’ moment and sets the rest of the work in action.
When did you start going by your full name and was there any special reason that you did that?
There was a 73 year-old woman named Casey Brown already in SAG when I joined so I added the Thomas. And I love my dad a lot, and if you blur your eyes or cover the ‘Casey’ during credits, then he sees his name on TV (ha-ha).
What do you miss the most about home and how do you fill that spot while in L.A.?
So many things! The people. Skiing. My family. Showthyme’s ginger ice cream. Pulling into Bigfork Bay on a summer night right before the sun sets. Thai Palace. Not waiting in line at the grocery store.
Luckily some of my best friends from Montana live in L.A., so that definitely helps. I was at the beach with Austin Krause, who I grew up with, yesterday and am going to brunch with Olivia Heinle, who I met in the Bigfork Playhouse Children’s Theatre, tomorrow. I’m very blessed to have as many great lifetime friends as I do, very nearby. I also visit home as often as possible and plan on buying a place there as soon as I can.