Hard work pays off with role on 'Smash' for North Hills graduate

| Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013, 8:00 p.m.

One young Ross Township resident might have discovered a backstage career if his first experience with the theater hadn't taken him in another direction.

Andy Mientus, a 2005 North Hills Senior High School graduate, is one of the new cast members of NBC's musical drama, “Smash,” which started its second season earlier this month. He plays Kyle Bishop, who is creating a contemporary rock musical with his writing partner, Jimmy Collins.

His first TV casting and the role are something Mientus, son of Jeanie Mientus of Ross Township and the late Bob Mientus, has been working toward most of his life. He remembered exactly when the acting bug bit.

“It was in fifth grade at a baseball game,” said Mientus, who had volunteered to help a baseball buddy paint scenery at Act One Theatre School in Shaler Township. He returned to watch the performance, and soon, he began his own theater training with weekly classes.

His parents were unsure of his talents, his mother said, “but he was always very comfortable in front of people, entertaining people. He wasn't playing baseball like the rest of the guys. He went against the grain.”

Mientus became more earnest about performing while attending the Pennsylvania Governor's School of Excellence in the Arts during high school. There were 200 students at the Mercyhurst College campus, he explained, in different areas — writing, dance, music, theater and visual arts. For five weeks one summer, he and other young actors worked on their drama skills.

“For six days a week, we studied,” he said, “and every night, there was a required art experience, like a performance, gallery show or collage. It was fully immersive.”

This state-funded program, now defunct after 36 years of operation, was extremely valuable to him.

“It's easy to look at the arts as a luxury, as a niche, but it was necessary to me as a kid who was not athletic nor academic,” he said.

After his return to high school, he spent a great deal of time with Harriet Valliant, then the choir director, and Glen Richey, musical director.

“I was in every single choir and every musical,” Mientus, now 26, said. “I have great memories. They taught me a lot.”

Richey remembers Mientus as hard working, energetic, cooperative and always wanting to do the most that he could.

“He was leaning toward being a professional, even then,” said Richey, 66, of McCandless, counting nine musicals and plays during Mientus' junior high and high school career. “If someone was going to succeed, he'd be one of them.”

Mientus took what he learned to the University of Michigan, where he studied musical theater. At the end of his junior year, he was touring the nation in the musical “Spring Awakening.” Other credits include Mark Cohen in “Rent,” “February House” at New York Stage and Film and several productions with the New York Musical Theater Festival. His most recent was an off-Broadway debut in MCC Theater's production of “Carrie.”

“I was planning to go back (to school), but one thing led to another,” he said.

From the professional stage to the small screen was a destination for which he always had wished.

“It was a huge goal of mine, to get to TV,” he said. “It's where everyone wants to be. It reaches more people. Millions can see your work.”

“Smash” auditions were pretty standard, Mientus said. Executives at NBC and Steven Spielberg, executive producer, made the final decision.

“I knew I had a good shot,” Mientus said. “I had a lot of people in my corner. But I thought it might go to a more seasoned actor. I had never done one line on a TV show.”

His mother remembers the call she got about the news in mid-June.

“He was screaming with delight, and so was I,” she said.

Mientus and his character have a lot in common. His mother sees it in the character's mannerisms.

“That's Andy. He's not acting at all,” she observed after watching the first episodes.

Mientus is aware of the similarities, as well.

“He's like me about five years ago,” he said. “He's an uber fan of Broadway and theater and super awestruck by the A-list stars.”

He said he saw “Rent” about 30 times and cut out pictures from show programs to put on his binder for acting class.

“It was very geek,” he said.

He finds the character of Kyle, a confident gay young man, to be refreshing. He and his writing partner are collaborators and friends, not romantically involved.

“His being gay is not a story line,” he said. “He's not hiding. He's not being punished. Being gay is not the focus of life even for gay people.”

While Mientus, family and friends enjoy his latest success, he understands that in the acting business, “you never really make it.”

“Safety is never comfortable for an actor,” he said about settling into a role long term. “Every job ends, but it's your artistic medium. You're interested in growing and seeing how far you can go. There's always the next step.”

But his professional dream career has just begun.

When people congratulate her on her son's success, Jeanie Mientus tells them, “I raised him, but it was his talent and perseverance. Andy pursued all avenues.”

He had been so taken by “Spring Awakening” that he created a Facebook page about it while at the university, his mother said. When he read for auditions for the musical in Chicago, the director and staff recognized him as “Facebook Andy.”

“I'll never stop being a fan of acting,” Mientus said, even if it's “sometimes really hard, stressful, scary and personal. I'm buoyed by the love of what I do. I've had a steady stream of projects. I've been lucky so far.”

Dona S. Dreeland is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-772-6353 or ddreeland@tribweb.com.

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