Victor Rasuk, one of the stars of HBO's "How to Make It in America," grew up on Avenue D and East 8th Street, in the gritty outskirts of New York's East Village, much like his character on the show. Looking at him now, though, you would never assume he once aspired to be like the hustlers on Avenue D. In fact, he seems kind of goofy -- too friendly to be a tough guy and too good-looking for street fights.
"One of my favorite places is Tompkins Square Park," he says with a smile. "I learned to play basketball there, that's where I learned to play football, I had my first kiss in that park -- that park, to me, was my escape from the concrete jungle."
Growing up in the projects, acting seemed more like a dream than a reality. "I would go to Cafe Pick-Me-Up on Avenue A and just think about what the fuck I was going to do after high school." Then, during a school field trip, he saw John Leguizamo in his one man show "Freak," and that's when things changed. "I wanted to make people feel like he made me feel."
So Rasuk took an interest in acting, starting off in independent, student films. In just a few short years, he's worked with some of the industry's biggest names, including Benicio del Toro, Steven Soderbergh and Robert De Niro.
In "How to Make It in America" Rasuk plays Cam Calderone, a fast-talking, ballsy skater living and hustling in the Lower East Side, who -- along with his best friend, Ben (Bryan Greenberg) -- starts a premium denim label. It's a half-hour weekly comedy-drama that follows the day-to-day struggles of young 20-somethings living, working and trying to survive in New York City -- and the cut-throat fashion world.
In reality, Rasuk doesn't know a thing about the fashion industry -- but neither does Cam -- and despite playing one of the godfathers of skate boarding in the movie "Lords of Dogtown," he still has no idea how to skate.
He's just a 27-year-old born-and-raised New Yorker who "grew up in the projects on Avenue D and 8th Street," he reminds me. "Cam is sort of like a composite of the guys on Avenue D, who I always wanted to be like," says Rasuk.
"You know, I live on Avenue D and 7th Street," I tell him.
"Bullsh-t," he replies. "Are you above the pharmacy or the bodega?"
"The pharmacy," I reply. "I'm always a little afraid of the bodega."
"I could see that from my window, and I had friends that worked there," Rasuk explains. "I grew up in Jacob Riis, literally two buildings from your window. That's awesome that you live in my hood. It's funny, John Leguizamo used to live right down the block from you on East 7th Street, between Avenues C and D. For years, he would walk in that neighborhood. How many years?"
"Only a year," I say. "And where were you before?," he asks. Great, now I had to ruin my newly found street-cred. "I was an NYU student."
"Oh, no way," he says unexpectedly. "My whole career, I have to thank NYU in a way because the filmmakers I work with were all from NYU." One of those filmmakers included Peter Sollett, who directed the independent film "Raising Victor Vargas," Rasuk's breakout performance. In the film, Rasuk plays a Dominican teenager coming of age on New York's Lower East Side.
However, Cam, as a character, couldn't be more different than Rasuk. "He's ballsy," says the actor. "He doesn't know a thing about running a business, but he's going to make you believe he does. I wish I was like that."
Rasuk's co-star, Bryan Greenberg, has his own New York story to tell.
"I'm in love with New York. I always have been," says Greenberg. "I grew up in St. Louis, and I just couldn't wait until I turned 18 because I wanted to move to New York. I feel like I'm myself here more than any other place in the world. Our show is such a tribute to the city. We shoot on location in every borough."
Even Greenberg's favorite East Village hole-in-the-wall egg cream joint, Ray's Candy Store, will be featured in an upcoming episode, "a serious win" for the actor, who says he owes a lot to Ray's and their egg creams. Perhaps Ray can even learn a thing or two from Ben and Cam.
"Everybody is aspirational," says Greenberg. "Especially, with the economy right now, everyone is always trying to move up in the world and so are Ben and Cam."
Greenberg reveals that Ben is a new man this season. "I call him Ben 2.0," laughs Greenberg. "He's not beating himself up any more. He's not second-guessing himself any more. He's going all the way for his dream this season, and he's saying yes to everything. He's having a bit of an identity crisis as well, trying to figure out who he is and what he wants this company to be. He flies a little too high this year, a little too close to the sun, like Icarus."
However, perhaps the biggest character development this season is Domingo Brown, played by rapper Kid Cudi. Some fans were disappointed with Cudi's lack of screen time last year, but Rasuk assures fans not to worry -- because this season, Cudi might steal the show.
"Kid Cudi is going to be the biggest surprise this season," reveals Rasuk. "He's getting a major story line this year that's going to test Domingo and Ben's friendship. Between the first and second season, Kid Cudi worked with an acting coach, and he really worked on the material. I would be shooting with Cudi and he was so prepared, sometimes he would know my lines better than I would. He plays a huge part in the second season. That's going to solidify him as an actor."
Meanwhile, Cam, the no-nonsense hustler, might be softening up this season. He's always been quite the charmer, and with his growing interest in design, it looks like Cam's finally found his muse.
"Cam doesn't know a lot about business, so this season he's getting really into the creative side, making designs for the label," says Rasuk. "He meets someone, and she inspires him and keeps him on his toes. She's super smart, owns her own business and is doing exactly what he wants to do, so she kind of takes him out of his comfort zone. For a guy, that tests your manhood -- and I think he's really going to grow up this season, professionally and personally."
Rasuk, who now splits his time between New York and Los Angeles, has come a long way from the projects -- but Cam and Ben still have a ways to go.
Catch the season two premiere of "How To Make It In America" on Sunday, Oct. 2 at 10:30 PM ET on HBO. The complete season one is out now on DVD and Blu-Ray from HBO Home Entertainment.