When Clayton Dean Smith says he’s interested in the complexities of human beings, he really means it. To his credit, the openly gay stage and screen actor has an impressive range of roles on his résumé.
That’s a feat for someone who has only been acting for eight years.
“I came to New York when I was 27,” the 35-year-old said. “I was a social worker in San Francisco before that. So I had a big life shift. Secretly all along this is all I ever wanted to do.”
And today, that’s pretty much all he’s doing. Smith stays busier than your average actor and is just as likely to be seen in supporting roles on comedies like “Flight of the Conchords” as he is on serious dramas like “The Sopranos” or any of the “Law & Order” shows, or soap operas like “One Life to Live” or “Guiding Light.” Smith recently filmed an upcoming episode of “30 Rock” and a pilot episode of a new Comedy Central show, “Michael and Michael Have Issues.”
“Normally it is either broad comedic stuff or, in theater, I’ve done a lot of tortured souls,” Smith said. “I love it. That’s my dream. The ‘30 Rock’ episode I shot the day before I started rehearsals for ‘Defiance.’ If you had to do them the same day, that might be kind of hard. That’s the kind of actor that I am. I really like to slip into whatever character I’ve been trusted to take on and do my best. That just spices it up for me.”
Most of Smith’s spicier performances happen on stage. He is currently starring in the Philadelphia-area premiere of John Patrick Shanley’s “Defiance,” through Sunday at Bristol Riverside Theatre. His character, Chaplain White, is a departure from the roles he normally takes.
“I get to really chew on a whole different type of guy,” Smith said. “It’s a new challenge because the whole thing about ‘Defiance’ is who’s really the good guy and who’s really the bad guy. It doesn’t paint the picture or do the work for you. I’ve enjoyed that kind of moral ambivalence.”
Shanley’s works are undoubtedly getting a boost these days with the Academy Award-nominated big-screen adaptation of “Doubt” still fresh in people’s minds. Smith said the acclaimed film has generated a surge of interest in Shanley’s works.
“That’s the great thing about movies,” the actor said. “They reach such a mass audience that it leads people to become familiar with the playwright and they’re curious what else he does. People are comparing ‘Doubt’ to ‘Defiance’ even if they haven’t seen the play of ‘Doubt’ because of the movie, and it makes a lot of sense to compare them. ‘Defiance’ deals with a lot of issues of truth. How do you know what’s true? What do you choose to believe in? Is it intentional? Is it something that you have a blind loyalty to because you grew up with it or something?”
“Defiance” is the second part of a loosely associated trilogy of plays written by Shanley exploring hierarchies in America. “Doubt,” which won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama and a Tony Award for Best Play in 2005, was the first. The third play has yet to be written.
“Defiance” examines the ethics of power in the military, race relations, honor and morality as two Marines — a white colonel and an African-American captain — clash over issues of authority, discrimination, infidelity and loyalty in North Carolina circa 1971.
“One of the early reviewers called it ‘a lean fist of a play,’” Smith said about what attracted him to “Defiance.” “It’s exactly what it is. The first time I read it, I was amazed at how densely and efficiently it tells its story and raises incredibly provocative questions. It stuck with me. I couldn’t stop thinking about it.”
Smith added that he’s a fan of Shanley’s works, which include the Academy Award-winning screenplay for “Moonstruck,” even though the playwright’s recent works are worlds away from what he wrote 20 years ago.
“Going in to see ‘Doubt,’ I was a huge fan of his work,” Smith said, “but it almost seemed like a different playwright to me. The first play he did, ‘Danny and the Deep Blue Sea,’ is about this abusive, conflicted guy. His use of language in his early plays is expulsive. His characters talk and talk and talk. ‘Doubt’ and ‘Defiance’ are so economical. People say what they mean. There’s not a stray word. He’s really evolved and developed as a playwright.”
Audiences should catch Smith in his dramatic turn now, as he promises his next high-profile performances will be significantly more madcap. The actor is especially excited about his part in “Michael and Michael Have Issues,” a hybrid series from comedians Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter.
“They were totally awesome,” he said of the two. “Everyone on that set was hilarious. It was kind of like a party. It’s about those two guys. Michael and Michael go way back. It’s totally autobiographical and self-deprecating about their career and stuff. It’s about them being comedians and trying to get a show up off the ground, which allows the show to film them doing their routines in front of a live studio audience. It also, á la ‘Flight of the Conchords,’ goes into their heads and shows the twisted, funny mind trips they go on. It combines a sketch show with some kind of reality show. It’ll be interesting to see what shape it takes because that was just the pilot.”
As for his own artistic preferences, Smith said it’s hard to choose which he likes better — stage or screen performance — because each has its unique qualities and challenges.
“The stage is more physically demanding, but film ... neither one of them is easy. But the thing about film is you have to do so little. It’s demanding in a very different way. You have to be utterly and completely human, down to the nuances, because the camera catches every flip of your eyelid. On stage, it needs to be kind of punched up and highlighted so that it reads across the distance. It’s a whole different kind of math to do that. They’re two different planets.”
Oddball comedy and riveting drama also appear to be two different planets, yet Smith finds similarities in those diverse roles.
“It like two sides of the same thing,” he said. “It’s like a different language and terms. My job is to bring emotional honesty to whatever the writing offers up.”
Smith added that he hopes to bring some of his emotional honesty to the creative side of the filmmaking process in the future.
“I’m working on a film project that we’re doing collaboratively. I’m not setting pen to paper at all, but once something is down on paper, we’re developing the script from that. I’m learning a lot more about writing as my career goes on.”
The actor also has a growing interest in the technical side of film and TV.
“Every time I work on a set, I’m really interested in what the camera guy is doing,” he said. “I’m interested in working literally behind the camera not as a director, just operating the camera. My interests are all over the place.”
As for his characters’ sexuality, Smith said he’s pretty sure some were meant to be gay, even though they might not have been written that way.
“The funny thing is, I’ve played a lot of characters where it’s not stated in the script. If you have a character in a story where it’s not specifically stated that the person is gay but it’s also not stated that the person has a heterosexual partner, then what I bring to it is my humanity. Oftentimes, gay characters are pointed out as being gay in order to move the story forward or as kind of a tantalizing plot point. I find that sometimes characters are made gay only to make the story livelier or to have a funny, flamboyant character.”