You can see why in 1990 Aaron Spelling cast a 21 year old Jason Priestley as a teen idol in the TV soap (sorry, youth-oriented drama series) Beverley Hills 90210. He’s stocky in an athletic kind of way, looks usefully younger than his actual years, is very easy going and not a little handsome and clean cut in a straight forward boy-next-door kind of way. But what marks him out physically are extraordinary and noticeably beautiful eyes that are piercing light blue from a distance yet grey/green close up. He was also not just young, rich cheesecake in the series. He was really rather good, winning a Golden Globe nomination in 1992.
This month he is making his London stage debut in a play called Side Man, co-starring with Edie Falco from The Sopranos, and he is clearly having fun. He certainly laughs a lot, occasionally clicking his fingers with enjoyment or clapping slowly and rocking back in the way that American boys do. Early in the morning in a rehearsal room, the eyes are still sparkling but he looks like he’s suffering a bit from the night before. He was apologetically very late and had that fresh but not smooth enough shave – too much of a rash on the lower neck – that betrayed a good night out with too little sleep. And on being asked about fame and its accompaniments, he went off on an amusing mini-rant about growing up in full view of a nation’s media.
“These gossip columnists call to check what happened if someone saw me changing a tyre on the side of the road, but they don’t call and check when they are going to write that I was abducted by space aliens”. His voice rises in semi-outrage. Which is somewhat understandable, when you’ve spent your twenties playing the concerned one with the pin-up good looks on a worldwide hit TV series that used to make the hearts of teenage girls and gay men tremble before boy bands came along. Priestley has no soft spot for the professional gossipmongers of the American press. “In the 30’s and 40’s they used to be called snitches, stoolies..”, and very deliberately this last in the list, “..rats.”
Once when driving in his car he heard a DJ on the radio interrupt a record and solemnly announce that “Vancouver native Jason Priestley died yesterday in Montreal from a drug overdose.” He had to get out and phone his mum, who had already had several calls from the neighbours. Currently on the Internet the rumours are about cocaine and drunk driving, the latter as a result of a car accident he had in LA in December.
However in London he is well away from the Beverley Hills soap, which he left in 1998, only remaining on the team as an Executive Producer and directing the occasional episode. Side Man, an autobiographical play by Warren Leight, deservingly won the 1999 Tony Award for Best Play on Broadway, where Priestley’s role was played successively by Christian Slater, Andrew McCarthy and Scott Wolf. It is an exegetically American piece about jazz men through the 50’s to the 80’s, as Elvis, pop music and their own personal addictions drove them off the main musical highway into raddled obsolescence.
Priestley plays the central character, Clifford the son of one of them, who narrates the stories of the men, and the tale of his parents’ relationship, through the bars, the smoke, the alcoholism of his mother and the emotional blindness of his trumpet playing father, both of whom he has really looked after since he was ten. “I used to wonder”, he says touchingly at the very end, “how (my father) could sense everything while he was blowing and almost nothing when he wasn’t.”
“I play Clifford at thirty, twenty one and ten years old” says Priestley, “and he has finally got to a part in his life when he can say to his parents ‘Hey guys, I can’t look after you any more. I have to go and do some things for me. I’ve been living for you for the last twenty years.” And with American writing like this you accept that the play is a bigger story than just about the individuals. What in British work is often either didactic or simply grittily prosaic, is rendered richly metaphorical when filtered through say Tenessee William’s Deep South or Arthur Miller’s East Coast. Movies somehow make it easier to treat American stories as a series of bigger myths. Warren Leight tells a story of a generation of Americans who lived, and in these guys’ particular case played, for themselves. Not for fame or money. Or celebrity. It’s about a generational change in America, mostly brought about by television.
So is it too crass to ask Priestley – for so much of his life part of the celebrity food chain – whether moving into a serious piece of acting about a world like this is also a transition for him. Does it have echoes of his own particular journey at the moment? He laughs reassuringly, thinking about it. “No it’s not crass at all. But actually it wasn’t something that entered into my conscious decision making to come to London. I was much more concerned with being here with a bunch of great actors. Acting’s like tennis. It raises your game to be playing with really talented people.”
For a while now Priestley has been on a different tack from what we agree to call ‘TV Zipcode land’. All actors rightly fear typecasting. And soap actors fear it most of all. “Yeah. It can be very scary stepping out of your safety box. Here I don’t now what the London critics will say. I don’t even know if anyone will buy any tickets.” There is a sense of ‘can the soap star actually act?’ And at one stage his nerves get the better of him and he frankly overreacts to one paper that, after paying him a series of compliments on his previous roles, wondered out loud last week whether he will manage ‘not to be totally outclassed by Edie Falco’. “Look, she’s great,” says Priestley with genuine admiration for her but continuing with heavy sarcasm for the writer, “but this lovely individual hadn’t even seen the play. Exactly what did I do, for him not to like me that much?” Nothing, one suspects, except being in a hit global TV series where critics like that think people can’t act. Oh and probably be less good looking.
So Priestley is trying, with some success, to get away from Brandon Walsh the one character he played for eight years in 90210 – “and who didn’t develop that much”. He made his first bound for freedom with a small part (Billy Beckinridge) in Tombstone, Kurt Russell’s version of the Wyatt Earp story in 1993. But he made the bravest dash for the world outside soaps by co-starring with John Hurt in Love and Death on Long Island in 1997, an averagely good script lifted by the chemistry between the two of them. As he reported that he and Hurt had agreed at dinner the night before, “Love and Death does seem to have had an amazing life beyond the cinema. People really remember it and respond to it.” Hurt magnificently reprised his stock- in-trade dignified sadness of the sexual outsider that first dazzled the world when he made Quentin Crisp into the movie star he deserved to be. He played a middle aged British author obsessed with a teen soap star, Ronnie Bostock. It was an unrequited love story told with well-defined poignancy. And Priestley earned audience and critical plaudits by playing the pin-up and “making fun of the situation I had been unwittingly thrust into” he says in a rather odd yet typical description of his 90210 career.
Perhaps because he has been an actor since the age of four when he started in Canada, Priestley is keen to under play his fame. “It took me fifteen years to become an overnight success” he says a little defensively. “I come from a very normal place, you know, where people have normal jobs. I never wanted fame. I’m not from LA!” And then he does the ‘I’m-just-a-working-actor-and-I-just-want-to-do-interesting-work’ speech. But later on talking about the moment when they realised quite what a hit they had on their hands with Beverley Hills he says quite genuinely, in a slightly puzzled voice “I never really travelled the country making appearances in shopping malls. It scared me, made me feel weird inside, almost an out of body experience. It was strange… strange. I can’t really explain it.” And every time one of the other actors from Side Man came into the room to make tea or coffee, he stopped talking about himself or answering questions and chatted to them. He seemed to be deflecting the attention, a little embarrassed by it in front of them.
It’s safe to say that Priestley, despite the matinee status, the professional car racing, the fact that he has spent much of his early life being chased down the street by “mobs, that’s what they become”, he is a pretty regular kind of guy, keen to make it as an actor, rather than continue life constantly being voted one of “The world’s ten sexiest bachelors” or People magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful People”. And if he can pull it off, Side Man is a pretty good vehicle with which to achieve it. As long as Edie doesn’t act him off the stage, that is.