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The Bear’s Lionel Boyce Didn’t Bake Those Doughnuts, But He Did Glaze Them

Photo: Gregg DeGuire/Getty Images

On The Bear, nearly everyone in the kitchen of the Original Beef of Chicagoland experiences a disconnect between what they’re supposed to be doing and what they’re actually doing. Chef Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White) is supposed to figure out the byzantine finances left behind by his older brother Michael (Jon Bernthal), who died by suicide. In reality, he’s mostly grappling with Michael’s best friend Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), who objects to every change Carmy tries to make. Second-in-command Sydney Adamu (Ayo Edebiri) is tasked with training the staff in the brigade de cuisine system, but she’s having a hard time getting their respect. The only person blissfully in their own world is Lionel Boyce’s Marcus, the Beef’s resident baker whose passion for all things dessert is a kind of tunnel vision. His quest to perfect the doughnut is a season-long subplot that provides some of the eight episodes’ most gratifying moments.

“I tried to make doughnuts, and boy, did I burn those. It’s not easy,” says Boyce. “I’m looking at Instagram pages and watching people make desserts that seem really difficult to pull off. I was like, I don’t think I could do this, but it would be cool to see Marcus make French pastries.”

Before The Bear, Boyce’s TV experience was primarily connected to his friendships with fellow Odd Future members: He created and co-starred in the sketch-comedy series Loiter Squad, and wrote and voice-acted on animated series The Jellies. That comedic timing comes through every so often in his performance of the soft-spoken, driven Marcus, who is curious about everything from properly steaming bread to fermenting fruit. In a Zoom chat with Vulture, Boyce spoke about seeing himself in Marcus’s sense of ambition, his genuine fondness for Michael Jordan’s Steak House bacon, and his quest to find the best doughnut in Los Angeles.

You shot The Bear pilot, written and directed by series creator and co-showrunner Christopher Storer, last summer, and got all the scripts this past winter. Reading through them, what stuck out to you about Marcus’s arc? 
I thought it was cool that he had something that he wanted to strive for. He starts off as a person who’s just kind of working in this restaurant as just a job. It’s not like he has direction; you don’t feel that he wants to pursue food, but he gets inspired by Carmy, and that sends him on a journey. It’s the first person who believes in him and sees that he has talent in this, he can do it. And I think that’s what I responded to — someone striving for a goal and actually going for it. I love doughnuts and I love desserts. It’s the best research. I didn’t need to, but I was like, Well, now you gave me a reason to go around L.A. and try to find the best doughnut in the whole city. I spent a lot of time doing that. But no lie, the doughnut is what connected me to it because I do love doughnuts.

That journey of discovering you’re really passionate about something and working toward it, was there anything in your life outside of this show that you were able to draw inspiration from?
Yeah, I think it’s directly connected to this industry and wanting to make things and be in things. I’ve always worked with my friends — the way I came into this was working with my friends. Tyler, the Creator, Taco [Bennett], Jasper [Dolphin], we did Loiter Squad together, and everything came from us being kind of on the outside of this industry and just making our own world over on Adult Swim. Even with this show, it was kind of cool because someone outside of my normal hub saw me and said, You can do this, and I believe in you. That’s what I connect to. Carmy saw that with Marcus, and it felt like a parallel to me.

Some reviews are calling The Bear a comedy, and others call it a drama. Nobody seems able to decide what it is. I’m wondering if it was described to you as a certain genre, and what you personally think.
You know, it’s funny: Chris never said, “Oh, this is a comedy or a drama.” I know he always said that he wanted it to feel real. I don’t think it’s really inherently funny. They’re not writing jokes. The comedy comes from these people and what they think is funny — just like real life. Everybody is saying bad jokes that they think are personally funny, and sometimes it connects with people, and sometimes the situation brings comedy to it. I don’t know what to call it, either. “Dramedy” makes sense, but when I describe it to friends, I say it’s real life … kind of.

When I think about a character like Ebon Moss-Bachrach’s Richie, the dumb stories he’s telling aren’t funny. But he’s so passionate and enthusiastic about them that I end up laughing at it because of the presentation, not the content. 
Exactly. And that’s why I love him. He’s so specific. He thinks he’s so cool, and that’s why he’s funny. You know that character in real life. That’s a character in the workplace or in the office, that you’re like, This person humors me because they enjoy themselves so much. They take themselves so seriously.

You guys filmed in Chicago. Did you have any activities or experiences you did as a cast, or did you explore the city on your own?
Every Friday, after a week of shooting, we would get together and grab a meal, and that felt like this cool camaraderie thing. Some days, when I was off by myself, I would rent a Divvy Bike and explore. I started off with the regular bikes, and then I got on the electric ones and I found this great electric one that goes like 40 mph, and that changed my life. I was just flying down Lake Shore Drive like a crazy person. It was the time of my life.

Was there anywhere you ate in Chicago that felt particularly representative of the city? 
I always tell people Chicago is the city of revolving doors, and not as a metaphor. There’s a lot of revolving doors out there; they’re just everywhere. It was a lot of food. There was this one soul-food spot called Oooh Wee It Is, that was really good. I was on a quest to find the best wings; Jake Melnick’s Corner Tap was pretty good. There was an Italian spot that we all went to eat at, I can’t remember the name. Obviously the steak houses, like Bavette’s Bar & Boeuf and Gibsons Bar & Steakhouse. And you know, I’m not going to lie to you, I truly do love the bacon at Michael Jordan’s Steak House.

That conversation between Marcus and Ayo in the finale made me so curious.
That was real! The bacon is good. It’s frowned upon, I know that. But hey, I can’t control what I love.

There is this huge amount of tension in the kitchen — and yet Marcus seems outside of it. He has his own station, he’s doing his own experiments. How did you get into that mind-set for Marcus, of being part of the craziness of the restaurant, but also doing his own thing?
It was two things. I was fortunate enough to, in preparation for this, stage at a couple places. Just to mostly observe, I got to stage at Tartine. I did one day to observe them, to see the hours, to talk to everybody working there, and they were telling me these stories about the kitchen and how the bakery is its own tempo, its own pace. You work at their speed, but it’s also controlled. You’re on your own rhythm. You’re not part of that madness, although you’re adjacent to it. And I also got to observe for two weeks at this place in Copenhagen, Hart Bageri. That was cool because I got to see, from working there full hours — from five in the morning to 3, 4 p.m. every day — if they have a big order to fill, they’re still moving with the attentiveness and speed and urgency that a restaurant would. It’s their own rhythm, they put their own music on, you’re in your own world. So I knew that feeling. I wanted to make sure that comes across, and hopefully it does.

And also, it was something Ayo said. I think she just ad-libbed the line, or we were in between takes, and she said, “Marcus is a space cadet.” And I was like, Oh, I love that, because that’s exactly what he is. He’s off in his own world. He’s so consumed with trying to achieve his goal that he dissociates himself.

Everything is chaotic in seventh episode “Review,” but he’s interrupting Carmy and Sydney with a doughnut like, “Can you try this?”
[Laughs.] That moment, I remember reading that and thinking, This guy is out of control. Talk about no social awareness. But that’s why you love him, because he’s real. That’s how people are. You just come in and you’re ignoring everything else.

Along with Marcus’s obsessive quest to perfect the doughnut dough, we see him working on fruit fillings, making chocolate frosting, baking and cutting cakes. How did the food preparation work during filming? 
I credit [co-producer and actor] Matty Matheson and [culinary producer] Courtney Storer. They really got all the food together. They knew what they were doing because they come from that kitchen world. It was mostly them informing everyone, telling them, “Okay, we’ll prep this to a certain level, then we’ll have you finish it on-camera,” so it was kind of real. We also had [chef consultant] Sarah Mispagel-Lustbader, who is a professional baker, and she would prep the cakes and teach me how to do the last steps. It would be me frosting it, or putting the glaze on, or filling the doughnuts, or whatever it was. It’s just me doing the final steps, because baking takes forever. We don’t have eight hours to film them from start to finish. It’s just TV magic.

That doughnut moment happens in the seventh episode, which is presented as one uncut 20-minute take. Can you talk about that filming experience? Was it actually one take, or were there some secret cuts hidden in there?
That’s what’s cool. It started off as a normal script, and then somewhere during production, Chris and [co-showrunner, director, and writer] Joanna Calo had the idea to change it. They wanted to really capture this feeling and this tension because it’s a climactic moment of the season. They came up with the idea to switch it like that and turn it into a oner, and then we rehearsed it and ran it. It was kind of like doing a play, and we did several takes of it as a oner, all the way through. You just feel so accomplished: Wow, this is so crazy. We did it. We filmed it, we ran it, we did a bunch of takes of it all the way through, nonstop, 20 minutes.

Looking back on the season, is there a scene that you’re proudest of? 
It’s always weird when you watch yourself, because it’s like, Well, the best compliment I can give myself is I didn’t ruin the show, so I guess that’s all right. But I really do love at the end of the first episode, the moment with Marcus and Carmy where Marcus says, “You can throw down,” and Carmy says, “Grab me a fresh Parm brick,” and Marcus says, “Heard, Chef.” It’s such a quiet moment, but the timing of that, it didn’t feel too rushed. That one, I was proud of. That was good.

You mentioned Ayo, and the two of you have a very easy chemistry. Had you met before?
No. It’s cool because it’s rare that you meet people that you just, Oh, okay, click, we’re at 100 percent and on the same wavelength. I met her on the first day of rehearsals or something like that, doing the pilot. We were at the same hotel, and we got in the car, and we didn’t know each other. The first thing we started talking about was the Fast & Furious movie that came out last summer, and it was a conversation as if we’d been talking for the past week. Ayo is just a very easy person to click with.

I read in an interview from a few years ago that you were watching Bob’s Burgers while working on The Jellies. That’s also a show focused on the process of how to make food, come up with ideas, and execute. Are you a food-TV watcher, like someone who watches cooking-competition shows, or the Food Network, or cooking documentary-style shows?
I don’t watch that much food TV, honestly. It was mostly Bob’s Burgers because I liked that show, and I love animation as well. They have cool music and the whole package. When I was a kid, my dad loved Emeril [Lagasse]. I think everybody grew up watching Emeril. And also the Guy Fieri show, Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, mainly because I was envious of him and wanted his job.

Everybody wants Guy’s job. You drive around in cool cars and eat? Who doesn’t want that!
And you say three adjectives to describe it every time? It’s awesome.

When you were going around Los Angeles eating doughnuts for inspiration, which were your favorites?
I’m from L.A., I grew up in Inglewood, and I’ve always loved Randy’s Donuts. That is still one of the best doughnuts. SK Donuts is really good, too. I drove over to Glendora, it’s called Donut Man, I think? That one was really good, too. I was one day too early to have this famous strawberry-filled doughnut that people line up to try. There’s one in Carlsbad, near San Diego, the Goods, that one was really good too. They had these Tahitian vanilla doughnuts with glaze, and I was like, Wow. This is 10 out of 10.

Are you a filled-doughnut person, or a ring-doughnut person?
Ring doughnut. I love the standard chocolate ring doughnut. That’s probably my favorite.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The Bear’s Lionel Boyce Went on His Own Doughnut Quest