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Bryan Greenberg.

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How to Make It in America’s Bryan Greenberg on His Real-Life Hustle and VIP Treatment

Before Bryan Greenberg played Ben Epstein, a New York City skater kid hustling to start his own T-shirt and denim line with his best friend (Victor Rasuk), on HBO's How to Make It in America, he was doing his version of that professional climb in acting. It's been over ten years since Greenberg, 33, graduated from NYU and started getting small-ish parts in TV and film. His most recognizable film role to date was probably playing Meryl Streep's son and the much-younger love interest of Streep's therapy patient, Uma Thurman, in 2005's Prime. On TV, he had a recurring guest role on One Tree Hill, and starred in a short-lived improvised HBO series about struggling actors, Unscripted, produced by George Clooney, Steven Soderbergh, and Grant Heslov. In How to Make It's second season, which aired the second episode of its eight-episode run on Sunday, Ben and Victor have finally launched their clothing line, Crisp, with the help, and sometimes hindrance, of Victor's Rasta Monsta–pushing uncle, played by Luis Guzmán. Just before the season premiere, we sat down to eat with Greenberg. Right before that, he and Rasuk had spoken on a panel at the Apple Store Soho where one of the audience members asked the following question: "(a) Was the show based on any particular designers? And (b) Would Ben and Victor accept these two shirts from my brand? 13 Majors, y’all! 13 Majors!" Greenberg gave the man a round of applause and accepted the gift: "Can't knock the hustle."

Was there a point before this show where you would not have gotten into the downstairs area of La Esquina?
Half this city I couldn’t have gotten into before this show. It is pretty amazing how many doors have opened. It is ridiculous, actually. And I am not stupid, I know what is going on.

What do you mean?
Well, it’s not because I am a nice guy that I am getting free drinks and getting into the cool places. And hanging out with these people. I get what’s going on. But I don’t take it so seriously. I look at it as a fun ride. I never got into acting for all this shit that comes with it. It’s cool, all the nice side perks, but it is really about working, about getting the next movie.

Did you have well-connected friends before?
No, when I was at NYU, I could barely get into, like, the fucking Irish pub. I had to get, like, a fake I.D. to do that.

Of course you had to get a fake I.D. to do that.
Well, even after I was 21, there was no clubbing, I wasn’t going in any velvet-rope places. That was not my scene. I was more of the dive bar guy. But it wasn’t until I started working as an actor that I could get into nightclubs and actually benefit from going to nightclubs. Being on television, it does wonders for your single life. It’s amazing. But that’s what I am saying: I get it; I know why those girls are talking to me.

You don’t think they are going up to you because you are cute?
No. C’mon. I don’t wanna talk about my single life, but I was never the most outgoing dude. I am still pretty shy when it comes to that kind of stuff. Being on TV helps that.

Why don’t you wanna talk about your single life?
I just feel like it is a door that you open and then you can’t get mad at the media when you invited them into your life. I have seen it happen where the media is like just dictating people’s love lives and it’s like, 'You asked for it, man.'”

Are your fans mostly girls?
If a fan comes up and it is a middle-aged lady, it is probably from Prime; if it is a younger girl, it is probably from when I guest-starred on One Tree Hill. And if it is, like, a skateboard kid or a hipster kid, I can tell they are How to Make It fans. If I am working on set, a lot of times an extra will come up to me and it is from Unscripted. Fellow actors love that show. There was this girl that was there tonight who was just there for music. I just got off tour and she had come to Philly and New York and to the Bloomingdale's thing we did for Fashion's Night Out and she came tonight. She's a fan.

Do people identify with your character on How to Make It in America, with his hustle?
Yeah, people come up to me and they will give me their business cards and they are like, “Yo, you are just like me.” It is cool. I usually don’t follow up.

Do you still ride the subway?
I got cornered by a bunch of high-school girls who recognized me and there was no way out. And, don’t get me wrong, I am not scared of my fans; I am flattered. But I just felt trapped; it was not a good feeling. I will ride the subway when I am with friends. I just don’t usually ride it by myself. I would rather pay a little more money not to feel that way.

In the season premiere, Ben and Victor go running through a subway tunnel while Ben is tripping on some pot that's been laced with something. How did you get to shoot on the tracks?
[Pulls out MTA badge.] Certified motherfucker. Means I can walk down there. If we have a filming permit, I am licensed to do it. You take an eight-hour course and you take a safety test, and then they will show you a picture at the very end of some guy that was, like, fried from touching the third rail. And then you actually go down into the subway and you have to learn how to cover up and go in the middle of, like, two trains passing by on either side of you. Pretty cool.

How big were the rats?
They were pretty fucking big. Some could, like, jump on my back.

Have you ever had a bad trip on drugs like that?
I got high a few years ago at Coachella and kind of bugged out a little bit. I told Ian [Edelman, the show's creator] about it and somehow it ended up in the script.

What happened?
I smoked some weed and just freaked the fuck out. I used to smoke a lot in high school and college. I’m not scared to admit that. But I don’t do it anymore; I couldn’t remember my lines. I just remember smoking at Coachella and being around crowds and I just got overwhelmed. I already have anxiety, so the weed is not good for me. I stopped smoking weed after that.

Did you always just want to live in New York?
Pretty much. My dad is from Queens. I remember visiting as a kid. My grandparents grew up here. All the actors I respected were coming out of here. All the hip-hop I was listening to — Beastie Boys, A Tribe Called Quest, Biggie, Wu Tang — was coming out of New York. I’m just into it. I didn’t go to L.A. because I wanted to move to California. I went to L.A. to work as an actor. It was always the dream to come back here. I always said I was going to make it in L.A. and then move to New York. And I just decided on this last trip — I’ve been living out of a hotel, subletting, for years now, and I’m fucking sick of it. I always said if we get a third season, I’m going to get a place. But I think even if we don’t get a third season I’m going to get a place anyway.

When did you know you wanted to be an actor?
I got the acting bug really young, when I was around like 10. I pretty much just wanted to be Michael J. Fox. He was in Teen Wolf — that was, like, the coolest role, and then he did Back to the Future and that was the coolest role. Growing up I wanted to be a scientist and a baseball player, and then I looked at this guy and he got to be a wolf and he got to travel back in time. Everybody told me that if you slouch it will stunt your growth and I knew he was short, so I would always sit in class like this [slouches] so I could like be shorter. It was crazy. And I got to meet him. It was after the premiere of Prime. I am coming back to L.A. from New York and Dustin Hoffman was on my flight and he asked me, “Can we switch seats?” And I was like, “Oh, yeah, sure. Okay.” Like, "Okay, Dustin Hoffman, one of the greatest actors alive." And then I look over and I am like, “Oh my God, it’s Michael J. Fox.” And my manager used to be a casting director, and she put him on some TV show. And she was like, “Do you want me to introduce you?” And I was like, “No, you are not introducing me.” When I see somebody I really respect, I don’t want to meet them because I don’t know what to say. “I want to be your friend”? What is that gonna lead to?

But you introduced yourself, right?
So my manager goes, “Excuse me, I actually met you years ago. My client is such a big fan of yours and he is too shy to come and say hi. He just did his first movie with Meryl Streep.” And I am looking over and I am like, “What are you doing?” I was really starstruck. This was 2005 and he was shaking so I went over to him, and I was like, “Hey, I am a big fan.” And he was like, “Congratulations, I heard about your movie.” And I am like, “I just want to say you are like the reason that I became an actor, man.” It is kind of an anticlimactic story, but whatever. It was really nice.

Does anybody else in your family act?
No, I’m from St. Louis and there are not a lot of people that do what I do. I’m not a renegade, but I don’t know any other people coming up that are pursuing it.

How to Make It didn't get great ratings or reviews last season.
Well, I think we need to figure some things out. It got a good core audience, but it wasn’t a hit. But there was something there. It has this unattainable thing — cool factor. I think maybe I’m too enthusiastic about the show. Maybe I’m going to get my heart broken. I don’t usually buy into the hype, but I fucking love this show. I really do.

Can you tell me more about your own hustle coming up?
Oh man. I was a telemarketer at the Hollywood Bowl. I was a mortgage broker's assistant. I was a waiter. I’ve bar tended. I waited at O’Flaherty’s Bar and Grille in midtown. I got fired from Phebe’s on Fourth and Bowery. Fucking shithole. I still hold a grudge. I’ve still got a chip on my shoulder. I was not a very happy waiter because I didn’t want to be doing it. I didn’t take a lot of pride in my work. I was a college kid and I didn’t really get along with the manager. He was a dick. I was never one to put up with anyone’s shit. It’s not their fault, but I’ll never step foot in there again.

So how hard were you working to make it? How far did you debase yourself?
Here’s the thing: I’m a super-motivated guy. I’m very driven. I’m very focused. Ask any of my friends. I knew what I wanted at a very young age, and I went for it. So I kind of can relate to Ben, my character. For some reason, I gave myself a false sense of confidence and it got me through. I don’t know how it worked. I’m so driven and I wanted it so bad. I came from a middle-class family. I took out student loans to get through NYU, which I paid off maybe five years ago. It was a big deal for me.

And The Perfect Score was your first big break, but it wasn’t well received.
It was a very important movie for me because it managed my expectations of what the rest of my career would be like. I was like, "Okay, I booked a studio film, I don’t have to audition — straight offers from here." I had no idea. I thought you just had to get into the club. I had no idea it never ends. People always ask me, "How you make it?" And that’s the thing, you don’t make it. You keep grinding it out. A lot of things happened because of that role. But I’m glad it didn’t do well, because it really managed my expectations of myself and how things work. I think I would’ve been just a major asshole if that had blown up, because I had no idea.

What did you think was going to happen?
With Perfect Score? Oscar. No, just kidding. I thought it would be easier and not harder.

The reality was that you actually had to audition more.
Yeah, there are so many dudes in that club who have been there longer with so much more experience. It’s just the beginning, the tip of the iceberg. I learned it’s going to be a scrapping fight.

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Photo: Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Bacardi