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'Treme' actor says persistence pays in building career

| Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2013, 9:11 p.m.
Lance Nichols of HBO's 'Treme'
Jackson Beal
Lance Nichols of HBO's 'Treme' Jackson Beal

There's no place like home. Just ask seasoned actor and native New Orleanian Lance Nichols, who's about to bid adieu to his role as dentist Larry Williams in the HBO series “Treme,” currently in its fourth and final season. Set three months after Hurricane Katrina, the show follows the lives of New Orleans residents in Treme — one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city — as they return to their homes and deal with the aftermath of the devastating 2005 hurricane.

With a seasoned career under his belt, Nichols' longevity has been a byproduct of his thick-skinned resilience. His credits include “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, “The West Wing,” “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “Desperate Housewives” — with half a dozen roles already in the can for 2013.

When he's not in front of the camera, he's lending his insights and pearls of wisdom behind it as an acting coach for others hoping to make a career in the arts. His advice? Leave the better-safe-than-sorry mentality at home. Persistence, stubbornness, patience and passion are what keep you a viable player in the Hollywood game. “Treme” airs at 10 p.m. Sundays on HBO.

Question: So how does a pre-med major end up in Hollywood?

Answer: He takes one look at his transcript at the end of his freshman year and says, “Who are you kidding?” That's the Cliff's Notes version of it. I actually started off doing musical comedy when I was 16 years old, but when I started college, I really wanted to be a pediatrician because I love kids. So, I'm taking all of my prerequisites, but I also took a drama class. I was really struggling my first year. My GPA was like 2.3, and then I started doing the math and I thought, “Man, I'll be old (by the time I finish). I have to find something else to do!” So, I switched my major to drama communications. And my GPA went from a 2.3 to a 3.8. And I thought, “I can play a doctor, I don't have to be one.” So, it's not like I didn't completely fulfill my calling, I just fulfilled it in a different way.

Q: You've enjoyed a career that's spanned three decades in an industry that is a revolving door to so many others. What's the key to that kind of longevity?

A: I would say persistence. Either I was too stupid or too stubborn to (give up) or a combo of both. You've gotta really be thick-skinned, because there's a lot of rejection. A lot of people telling you “No,” or, “You shouldn't do this,” or “Maybe you want to do something else,” which kind of disturbs me. If you wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer or a teacher, no one would say to you, “You know what, so many people want to be a doctor, maybe you should be something else?” But if you want to do anything in the arts, whether it be visual or performing arts, people don't encourage that. It's almost like “What about your real job?” It is your real job. There is no timeline in pursuing your entertainment career like there is a timeline to pursue being a doctor, or a lawyer, or a teacher.

Q: What's behind that discouragement?

A: I think people who are artists, we don't have very conventional minds, and I think when you think outside of conventional thinking, red flags go up. And I just think that people outside the business don't understand what we do and why it is that we do it. Unfortunately, the standards are kind of different in this profession. Unless you are an A-list actor, or singer, or dancer, your level of success seems to be diminished. You don't have to be a world-renowned physician to be considered a successful physician, or a world-renowned lawyer to be considered a successful lawyer. But unless your name is up in the marquee in lights and everyone knows who you are, then you're not considered successful. ... There's a different standard applied to people in the arts.

Q: As native of New Orleans, is it easy to play the part in a series like “Treme”or does it just add pressure to deliver a genuine portrayal?

A: I would say it wasn't hard for me because I was born and raised here, so I'm a native. I'm the real deal. I did have concerns that the creators of the series would be able to make a series that told the story right. And they hit a homer. I think sometimes outside of New Orleans or outside of Louisiana, people look at Katrina and say, “Its old news.” What a lot of people don't understand is that we maybe have survived the physical scars but the emotional scars still exist. The mental illnesses, the homelessness, the crime – a lot of those are by-products of us still trying to survive Katrina. But it's an honor to be on a show about my hometown. Sometimes I have to pinch myself because it seems so surreal.

Q: The series is coming to its fourth and final season. Is it a bittersweet experience or are you ready to move on?

A: Very bittersweet. I don't feel like the story is complete and, unfortunately, we're sort of at the whims of HBO, but there's a lot more to be told. I'm just curious to see how the producers and writers are going to finish telling the story in an abbreviated season — we only have five episodes to complete the season. But as the old saying goes, all good things must come to an end, so you move forward. It's been a blessing to me to be part of such a wonderful cast and outstanding writers.

Q: As an acting coach, what's one pearl of wisdom you'd give to those who want to make it in the entertainment industry?

A: I would have two pieces of advice ... 1. Make sure this is absolutely what you want to do, not that you just have a casual interest in it. You need to have a passion, a burning desire to do it. 2. Don't listen to outside voices, whether they're coming from family, friends, associates or whatever. A lot of people will try to discourage you from being an actor. If I had listened to those people, I might be a doctor making a good salary, but there's a lot of people making money that aren't very happy. I'd rather be happy living my dream than going into a profession just because it was safe. <

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