This interview took place on March 2, 2020.

Sasha Klare-Ayvazian: Okay, we’re back. The Music Movies & Hoops interview series continues with a fantastic guest. Today we have Andrew Duff, New York City-based actor, featured performer in the Tectonic Theater Project, performed off-Broadway, starred in TV and film, and this year you can find him and Amazon Prime’s As We See It. Andrew, thrilled to connect with you today. How are you doing, man?
Andrew Duff: I’m doing great, man. Thanks so much for having me on really looking forward to this.

As are we, really excited to talk to you. Andrew, I want to start with the Tectonic Theater Project. Tell us about it.
Yeah, so Tectonic Theater Project has been around for a good while. It’s headed by Moises Kaufman. One of their big claims to fame was The Laramie Project. Tectonic really has always been about taking an event or a person or a situation and really examining it.

The Laramie Project followed the story of Matthew Shepard, a young man who was brutally murdered, and put on display because of his sexuality. And this became a national news story. Tectonic really wanted to delve into sort of the town of Laramie, why this happened, how this happened.

And so their process didn’t start in the writing room, it started with them going to Laramie itself and interviewing people, a big part of their process is getting to know the subject, really getting intimate knowledge of what they’re dealing with. And then from there, they do what is called ‘Moment Work.’

Moment Work is where writing the script is the last thing you deal with. And you deal with stuff like sound, or lighting, or props, or just little interactions. And you start with a very little like base idea, something that’s very tangible on stage. And then you build the story from that little bit.

That’s how they did The Laramie Project project and that’s how they did Uncommon Sense, which was the show that I was a part of, for a good long time, which is the one that explored the autism spectrum. My work with Tectonic and Common Sense was really what was really sort of a guiding light and my early to mid-20s, for sure.

My mother did a reading of The Laramie Project. So I know that play well. It’s an extremely powerful, heartbreaking story.
Really tough. Yeah.

I didn’t know that Tectonic is responsible for that play. That yeah, that’s so cool.
I think it’s one of the great plays of our time. I mean, it’s really heartbreaking. But I think it really did shine a light on that issue, for sure.

So what I want to get into with you Andrew, is I hear a lot on podcasts, articles, actors talking about like you’re on the set for a movie and everyone becomes a family and connects and it’s really beautiful. And then you go home and it ends and suddenly like this team and this brotherhood is over.

So being part of a repertory team, a recurring ensemble, and actually getting these relationships to go on—you told me you were with them for five years. Talk about that, what it’s like to have this family sustain?
I think that group, in particular, got really close-knit, because you know, by nature of, we’re seeing each other every night for like a month and a half, two months.

And I think just the nature of time really does connect you closer. But you know, there’s Roman Carolyn, who played my mom, and in a couple of the showings that I went through, I would go to her Christmas parties.

And it’s strange to your point, it’s a sort of a strange nature of the job is that you get really attached, and you get really close. And it’s also I think, just the nature of theater and filming, and I’m sure with like music and sports, basically anything involving a team that’s collaborating every day that closely, right, you’re gonna build something of a bond.

And there’s always room for collaboration later because you get to know like, hey, I work really well with this person, let’s tackle a different topic or a different thing, or, hey, we worked really well on this. Do you want to see if we could do a sequel or do something else like that? Maybe you’ll see each other in the future, then there are some people that you’re just collaborating with basically forever.

Do you have a favorite film from last year?
I really loved Licorice Pizza. I went in blind, I didn’t know a lot about it. I got to see it on 75 millimeter, which I think was just the absolute way to see it. As soon as the screen came on, and you can see the quality of the film, it’s one of those intangible things. I was just blown away.

Yeah, that was really great. What a coming out party for Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman. 
It’s unbelievable. The sky’s the limit for them.

At MMH, we love to talk with people about the things that we cover. So we’re trusting that you love movies?
Yeah, for sure.

What film character do you most identify with?
You know, I actually did a one-man show in college where I addressed this, and I think my answer is still generally accurate. I felt like I am a combination of Andy Dufresne from Shawshank Redemption and Forrest Gump from Forrest Gump.

Andy Dufresne is an extraordinarily calculated sort of individual and not prone to the downs of prison and the terrible stuff that happens and even through that there’s perseverance and hope that I always thought really resonated with me plus Andrew Duff—Andrew Dufresne, name wise. There you go.

These two characters are both extraordinarily hardworking and extraordinarily hopeful. But just very different in how they approached that hope. And that was something that always stuck with me.

What role does music play in your life?
Oh man, actually like music has always been really important to me. I grew up with a punk rock mom and a folk rock dad. So what does that mean? So like if I’m driving with my mom, you know, we’re listening to Ramones, Sex Pistols, Blink-182, Green Day. But if I’m riding with my dad, you’re looking at Jackson Browne, Neil Young, Ben Folds.

Love Ben Folds!
Yeah, It’s a great combo. Honestly, I got very, very lucky. And it’s funny because my younger brother is a drummer and my older one used to play the bass. I grew up in New Jersey. High school was from like 2003-2008. That was like at the height of a lot of pop-punk, hardcore, and alternative.

Being in New Jersey at that time, every weekend I was at a show. And that was a very great social experience for me because you know, being autistic, sometimes social things don’t always come naturally. But the consistency and getting to meet people at the shows and having that commonality really helped me to feel part of a community even though I couldn’t play any instruments.

I would go and film the shows or I would like we, me and my little brother, we organized a show, my senior year of high school, where we just got a bunch of local bands to play in our backyard and we donated everything to the special education department in my town.

I remember that was one of those stressful times because the first band was a good buddy of mine, a great guitarist, but you know, he had a half-hour set and he proceeded to play for like 55 minutes and I’m like looking at him like we actually have like four more bands dude, you can’t do this. The sun’s coming down. We don’t have lights.

You know, before I go on set or on stage, I actually always listen to Explosions in the Sky, “Your Hand In Mine” to sort of empty myself a little bit and sort of like hit a neutral base, sort of like a meditative thing.

I listen to music when I go to bed. I listen to music when I’m like playing video games are just hanging out, I put on music if I’m going for like a two-minute walk to the grocery store, so it’s a huge part of my life.

What’s the song or album that’s really resonating with you right now?
I’ve been visiting Rise Against again, maybe it’s the whole you know, Ukraine and Russia thing that’s getting me to be like, get back into like my anti-war-vibes again.

And going back to Frank Turner a little bit who’s always been one of my mainstays.

Yeah man, I also have been going back in time with music. Music I listened to in high school, early 20s. I think that with the pandemic, we’re all kind of worn out and depleted and there’s maybe a feeling to like, go back to music that represents simpler times.
Yeah. Because I think to your point, I think even if it’s not necessarily about going back in time, I always think music has the ability to bring you to an emotional state or core memory.

Like I remember, my first legal drink at a bar in New York City was at Merkins in the Upper East Side, and “Free Falling” by Tom Petty was playing. So whenever I hear that song, I go right back to that particular moment.

Andrew totally, totally agree. Music’s ability to embed a feeling or memory into its DNA and then release it back out is incredible.

Man, I want to talk about Little Voice. Was that last year?
I think we had the wrap party November 2019. Like, first off, I mean, I might seem like a cliche to say like everyone really got along. But everyone really did.

The stakes really hadn’t been this high for me because, at that point, I was mostly a stage actor. And I realized I was like, oh, we have one rehearsal before we shoot, and then we just go right into it. It’s not like you have like weeks or months, or years, in my case, to get to know a character and really dig in. It’s like, now, let’s go.

Andrew, I love Sara Bareilles. I think she’s an unbelievable songwriter. Tell us everything about her.
I remember I met her in the callback room. And she came in with like, she was just so cool. She was super approachable, very kind, you know, and when you’re dealing with characters on the spectrum, it can be a little tough to sort of figure out how to navigate things like that. But she just, she was right there.

She was right on the ball in terms of running that authenticity of wanting to show various places on the spectrum. And when she’s on set she’s a hard worker, she’s there to work. But does it with such kindness and such vitality that I think it sort of set the tone for the whole set.

Andrew, you’ve mentioned a couple of times in this conversation that you have autism.

Please tell us about how that’s impacted your career.
Yeah, absolutely. I was diagnosed at two, so super young. So I sort of don’t know life without knowing, there’s a lot of individuals that get diagnosed at like 14 or 15, or people that get diagnosed at like 29-30, or people that never get diagnosed.

And that can affect sort of how you look at it and your relationship with it. Having been diagnosed so young, I think especially during middle school, I always knew, there was something different. But I think generally, in the day-to-day, it just sort of went, it wasn’t until I got the college that I was like, oh, there could be like something I got to figure out here. Because I clearly am struggling in a different way here.

And so with my career, I think being super open about it actually has been the saving grace. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer in terms of either being open about it or keeping it to yourself. I think that’s, that’s pretty individual. And it should be.

For me, I ended up doing a one-man show about being on the spectrum. And it’s based on this idea of loss of innocence, or what does it mean to get better if it means anything?

Because that was a big part of what I was going through at the time, I decided this put it on YouTube. I was like, yeah,  it’s my senior thesis, let’s put it on there. And Andy Niska saw that from Tectonic, and that started everything. It’s wild. It’s absolutely freaking wild.

First off, the conversation of what if I wasn’t autistic, but also what if I was but I wasn’t open about it? Because, you know, once you say something like that, generally a person’s perspective on you is going to shift, not necessarily negatively. But it’s just, like, okay now I have to make a mental note of that, and that perspective shifts.

I don’t think it’s necessarily limited. The opportunities I get, if anything, it’s been a really nice foot in the door in terms of getting opportunities, especially now, when authenticity and representation are so important. It’s actually really great to sort of being on that wave.

In terms of challenges, I need a good amount of heads up, and in terms of like scheduling, I like to sort of know like, generally what we’re talking about, what is happening, if I need to prepare.

You know, there are people [on the spectrum] I’ve seen on sets that may need a little more care, you know, maybe they need a quiet space to go while the site is being is being constructed, or the lights being put up. Or maybe they need a little more guidance through a costume change or something like that.

Thankfully, all the sets I’ve been on, at this point, have always been really accommodating of that. So even though I might not have needed all of these accommodations, seeing other people be able to get those accommodations has been huge.

Yeah, Andrew, this is powerful. You’re talking about challenges. I’m also hearing you talk about how your identity has enhanced some opportunities for you. I think we’re on a wave of wanting to hear new voices, who we’re seeing on screen, who we’re listening to, that is a huge foundational point of emphasis for our platform.

And I think probably 20 years ago, having autism would not have been like this. So I’m excited for you and a lot of the different identities we’re seeing now. God bless.
Yeah, no, it’s it’s awesome to see. And it’s funny because with, you know, with autism, in particular, one of the things I noticed was when I did Uncommon Sense, we had four distinct characters on the spectrum—arguably five or six, that was sort of left to like dramaturgy.

But we would still have individuals that would come in and say, I didn’t really see my perspective on autism, or I didn’t see my experience with it. And that was fine. I was like, we have almost six characters with very different situations. And then I realize it’s like, okay, that just goes to show how many stories there are to tell, not just on the spectrum, but if you look at sort of the deaf community of the blind community you know, like all the different communities out there.

In Euphoria, one of the main characters is trans, Jules. I think it’s a huge thing for trans people seeing their community represented on like, the most popular show.
Is the actor trans?

And that’s a huge thing, too, because we have had, neurotypical people play autistic roles.

I always think of Leo in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.
Right and actually, you know, that there’s definitely a section of people that look on that and view that as completely wrong. I think we’re in a time where we need to be putting ourselves in these roles to have that authenticity, to have that representation.

I do have the question of, do we want that to be the end of, for example, only autistic actors play autistic roles? And if so, can autistic performers not play nonautistic roles? And the answer to that, in my opinion, is no, we can play anything.

So I think this step is really about getting our foot in the door, getting representation for these groups that haven’t really been able to get on-screen and share their story. And then really, once we’ve established that base, then we could start intermingling and integrate a bit more.

I don’t think we’re we should do that, again, until we really have these sort of disenfranchised or marginalized groups that haven’t been able to be represented properly, get that representation.

And not just as actors, but in the writing room on the crew, directing. I think, once we get through all of those things, then we can start to look at the integration of these roles again. But I think we’re at a pivotal point right now, like you said, in terms of having a trans character played by an actual trans individual is huge.

It’s such a powerful point. When you talk about race and gender. If somebody is in a role, there’s no masking, you know, if you’re Black, you’re going to be a Black character. If you’re a woman, you’re a woman.

But for other groups, you know—whether that be queer or autism—you could have somebody in theory who’s not from that group. It’s not my place to answer that question, but examining whether only people who are in that community should play those roles, I think is a fascinating question.
Yeah. I think the answer as of right now is we should, it’s more about the opportunities and getting the voices and stories to be authentic, right? Because actually, the best autistic representation that I’ve ever seen was by a non-autistic actor. It’s Christian Bale in The Big Short.

What a call Andrew.
There’s a deleted scene, where his son is diagnosed with Asperger’s. And he finds out he has Asperger’s. They could have had that element in there, and they cut it out. So you have this individual through the whole movie who’s just quirky, and has a lot of these nuances at the social things. And it’s never mentioned once and I think there is something really outstanding about that.

And I think that’s sort of where I think we need more stories like that to a degree. I think he came in and he did a great job. So I think, you know, we can represent each other authentically. I think as an autistic person, I could represent a neurotypical authentically. But it’s I think the bigger issue is opportunity and representation and authenticity, which comes in a lot of different ways, shapes and forms as we talked about.

It’s been just a joy talking to you. I want to wrap up with a couple questions. First, this year, we can see an Amazon Prime’s As We See It. It’s been out for a month. Tell us what we can expect from that show. Oh, man, I love that. Like, honestly, I just watched the first two episodes and I was like, Oh, this is good. But then I was like, Oh no, this is really good. I’m first in episode three. I was like, oh, man, I have a lot to keep up with!

So the story follows three roommates on the autism spectrum, Violet, Jack, and Harrison and they exist at different planes of the spectrum. You know, the characters are coexisting while actively pursuing and dealing with different things. And you have Mandy, who’s sort of guiding them through the trials and tribulations and the goods and the bads. And there are some really hilarious moments.

You know, we were talking about integration, and we’re getting there. This show really goes there. And Jason Katims the showrunner, you know, he has an attachment with his son on the spectrum. So everyone really came into it, you know, gung ho, and the set was very much about that.

I play the role of Douglas, who was just the sweetest boy. He’s trying his best and in a lot of ways—without spoiling much—he is, I would argue, a braver individual than me and I will leave it at that.

We’ll end with a fun one! Imagine that you got a cooler of beer and you got a buddy with a boat.
Yeah, okay. Yeah.

And you can take any three actors out with you, for just a Sunday on the boat hanging out, shooting the shit, drinking beers. Who are you bringing?
Oh boy Alright, well, first off, it’s got to be Tom Hanks. I’ve heard nothing but good things about about Mr. Hanks. Two, I think Emma Stone because I’m trying to keep a vibe of really good people. Great, great talent, but good people.

Okay, then I think I got to go Leo. On the basis that I really haven’t anything of his I didn’t really like. I get the sense that he can just hang and I think that’s kind of what I’m looking for, people that can actually just lay back and vibe a little bit.

We’ve seen pictures of him enjoying himself on boats!
Exactly. So we have evidence that he in fact can do that.

Yeah, that would be a fascinating afternoon.
Leo and Tom know each other from Catch Me If You Can already.

I love that movie.
And the fact that it’s based on a true story. Like, you know, sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction, really fascinating stuff.

Yeah. Andrew Duff pleasure connecting with you, man. Thank you so much.
Yeah, right back. Thanks for having me on.