Two recent Ensworth alumni have experienced incredible breakout years in their young acting careers. Jack Alcott ’15 and Briana Middleton ’16 have found rare success right out of the gate as they have each landed multiple network and Hollywood projects.
Last year, Jack was chosen by Ethan Hawke to play Hawke’s son in Showtime’s John Brown miniseries, The Good Lord Bird. This year, Jack is back on set for Showtime starring in the reboot of the network’s hit series Dexter.
Meanwhile, Briana was chosen by George Clooney to feature in his upcoming film, The Tender Bar, which shot this spring. This summer saw her starring in Netflix’s new horror flick, The Last Will and Testament of Charles Abernathy. Perhaps most exciting for some is Briana’s recently announced project for Disney+. She will play the female lead in a new Beauty and the Beast prequel series, effectively giving Ensworth our very own Disney princess… or as Briana says: Disney heroine.
On one hand, it’s unfair to expect success of this caliber from any young actor, no matter how talented they may be. On the other hand, for those of us who know Jack and Briana and who had the opportunity to enjoy their work on Ensworth stages, their success comes as no great shock. We saw and valued their potential a long time ago.
Jack and Briana have both stayed active in their relationship with the Ensworth theatre program visiting classes and helping with shows. Watching them cultivate relationships with our current students has been a joy. With that in mind, we thought it would be nice to offer a glimpse into a recent Zoom discussion that Briana and her former teacher, Ensworth Director of Theatre David Berry, had with Mr. Berry’s Acting 3 class.
David Berry: Welcome back to the Blackbox! We are so excited for you and so proud of you. Briana, you made a movie with George Clooney! What was that like?
Briana Middleton: He’s a great director. I mean, he’s an actor, too, so working with him as an actor is super easy. He understands the process of an actor. His set is an easy-going set to work on. It’s quick, too. It’s not like we’re doing 120 takes of something; I think we did five at most. How easy going he is, and how relaxed he is, is just a testament to how much he trusts the people that he’s working with. And when I realized that, I realized, “Oh, he’s not worried about me. I guess he trusts me, and I can just do the work that I’ve been doing.” Walking away from that experience, I thought, “Oh, I bet the directors who are really great to work with are the ones who make you feel like they are not worried about you, and they’re not worried about the project, and they just trust everyone that they’ve brought along.” And that frees you up so much to relax and do your thing and just play.
DB: You’ve certainly gained a wealth of training and experience since leaving Ensworth. That said, are there lessons, values, or principles that you continue to carry with you from your time in the Ensworth theatre program? And in particular, was there anything that was helpful when it came to transitioning into working as an actor in college and in the professional world?
BM: You, Berry, and the program at Ensworth really shaped my values as an artist. For me, coming into Ensworth as mainly a singer, I was thinking: “Oh I’m going to do musical theatre; I think I’m just going to be a musical theater person.” When I came in as a freshman, acting felt really far away from me, like I couldn’t do it. I thought, “I’m not an actor; I’m not good enough for that.” And the way that Berry talked about acting made it feel so much closer and more accessible, and I realized that the skills that I had, the things that I was interested in, and the things that I felt wired for were geared towards acting. Looking at it from a storytelling mindset just changed my view of it so much. I think that when I went to college, it grounded my work in a way that was really comforting and ultimately healthy. Everyone has their own connection to this work and why they do it, but I think the way that I learned and the way that we talked about storytelling, acting, theatre and film in this program set me up to be a true artist, to ask questions and be curious, and look at the world in different ways.
DB: OK, these guys have a few questions. The first one is about how you go about getting an agent and getting started professionally.
BM: So, it’s one of those things where you get connections from the good work that you do, whether that’s someone seeing you in a casting room and talking to someone about you, or even a friend talking to someone about you. So, it can be through a couple of different avenues: it can be through a showcase, word of mouth, or other people that you auditioned for. Ultimately, if someone believes in you, and if you’re a hard worker, and you’re a good person, and you’re good at what you do, then I believe that travels.
DB: You do something and people talk—maybe not about the finished project—but about working with you.
BM: Right. That’s how I got this opportunity. I auditioned for something last year; it was a Netflix series, and I got really, really far on it, and then it didn’t happen. But then when this latest film came up and I was up for network approval, I was told, “They approved you really quickly; they’ve known your name for a long time.” So even if something doesn’t happen and you don’t get the gig, that’s not the end of it. It will come back around if you did good work.
DB: The next question is about your process when working on a role.
BM: My process is in process! I always reread the script a lot, as many times as I can. What I definitely do every time is literally just write down everything that my character does. Then I’ll ask, “OK, what’s happening here? What is this story about in this moment? What does my character want?” I just try to keep looking at my script as much as I can.
DB: Sounds like you’re saying it comes down to Ensworth style close-reading and your acting journal.
BM: Heck, yeah! You have acting journals in college as a grade. I still have an acting journal. I’ve kept every acting journal since the one I had in high school. It’s so, so helpful.
DB: So, turning back the clock, are there projects from your time on stage or in class at Ensworth that were particularly impactful for you or that you continue to carry fond memories of?
BM: The show that will always stick out to me is our production of The Fantasticks my junior year. Working on that with the group we had was so fulfilling. I cackled and cried. The things that show says are so simple while being so huge. I believe that taught me, no matter the scale of the work I’m looking at, to always dig for the deeper, more instinctual messages. Because even the art that seems so singular and far from our own personal experience was made to evoke things in us that are universal.
DB: Finally, where can we tune-in (or log-in) to see your work?
BM: Don’t look for me on social media, because I’m not there. I jumped ship. But, you will be able to find my work on streaming platforms, including Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple TV, and Disney+.