Four years ago, my father passed away from cancer. My dad, Leonard Greif, fled the ghettos of Poland during the Holocaust to this country in 1949 and became a part of the American Dream. Through hard work and perseverance, he rose to vice president of a major neckwear manufacturing company and became a success in real estate. When I told him I wanted to be an actor, he said, "Vonderful -- as long as you can be a psychiatrist on the side." (Well, Dad, I played one on a sitcom).
Before an audition, he would tell me to wear a tie and become indispensable to my peers. I took that to mean "Show up and do the best possible job." But the 1980s were very difficult for a gay kid trying to become an actor. Casting directors would peg me as gay and uncastable. Agents did not know where I fit in. Still, I kept showing up. I became a popular stand up comic. Then, I came out as a gay man. I never gave up on my first love -- acting. I continued going to classes to develop myself and grow as a character actor. I was getting small parts in numerous television shows and movies.
My father's death, however, affected me deeply. I started to assess my life. I realized that, even after over 100 acting roles, I was still not getting opportunities to act in the kinds of projects I had dreamed about. Maybe it was time to move to Palm Springs buy a condo and become the youngest guy on the block...
I read about the tax breaks available in many different states around the country that were attracting films and television shows from Hollywood, and I obtained representation in each different market. For two years, I auditioned for projects based in places like New Mexico, North Carolina and Louisiana by putting myself on tape in my dining room with my Apple computer. I finally got a small role on the TV series Sleepy Hollow, but nothing that would largely advance my career.
One day, I got a call from my New Orleans agent telling me that I had an audition for a movie filming in Georgia, and they needed the tape -- by noon the next day. I taped it once again in my dining room and forgot about it. A week later, my agent called again saying I had a callback, but I had to fly to Savannah two days later on my own dime. With my frequent flyer miles, I got on the plane. I arrived at the audition 3 hours early and was rehearsing in the parking lot of the strip mall, when a handsome man walked over to me and said, "I know you." It was Nate Parker -- the writer, producer, director and star of the film for which I was auditioning. The movie was a biopic of black abolitionist Nat Turner called The Birth Of A Nation. I don't know what Nate said because my head was so full I could not hear him, but he instantly made me feel at ease. Nate has this power that makes you feel like you can be you. When I read for Nate soon after, he asked me to make an adjustment and use my sense of humor, which, since I have been a comedian for so long, was no problem. I flew back to LA, emotionally exhausted.
A week later I got a call from my agent asking me how my day was going, because it was going to get a lot better. She said, "You got the part!" I said, "What part?" It was Joseph Randall, the plantation owner in The Birth of a Nation. I instantly started to cry.
As soon as the final draft was ready, I worked every day with a different actor friend for seven days straight. Then, I was off to Savannah to have the best acting experience of my life -- the kind you hear about on Bravo's Inside the Actor's Studio. On the set, I could feel that I was working on something special -- a film that would change people's points of view about racism in America. Most of my scenes were with Armie Hammer and Nate, but it was not like working with movie stars; I felt like we were part of an acting troupe, all here for a higher purpose.
My dream has always been to work with talented people in films that made a difference, and it came true. The Birth of a Nation is about Nat Turner -- one of the first black men to fight back against white slave owners. His rebellion in 1831 was the beginning of Black Lives Matter. The bravery of that particular man at that point in time is extraordinary to me and moved me deeply.
After decades of working on my craft, I, a liberal, gay, Jewish man in 2015, gets to play a white heterosexual, Christian plantation owner in 1831. It's no mistake that a gifted black man, Nate Parker, gave the Jewish son of a Holocaust survivor and immigrant the opportunity to step up to the plate in this moving and powerful film.
On January 25, 2016, I will be at the Sundance Film Festival for the premiere of The Birth Of A Nation.
Thank you, Dad, for teaching to be my best self, and always keep showing up.