The Booker High alumnus and Longboat Key native who co-leads the Netflix show shares what the school means to him.
Sometimes, Charlie Barnett sits in his Los Angeles bed, fires up the soundtrack to “Once on This Island” and thinks.
It was one of the first things the 31-year-old actor did after moving to Los Angeles from New York, where he attended The Juilliard School, in 2012, and he hasn’t lost the habit. Barnett was a freshman in Booker High’s Visual and Performing Arts program when he was first introduced to the musical, which is based on the novel “My Love, My Love; or, The Peasant Girl” by Rosa Guy. With music from Stephen Flaherty and dialogue/lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, it was one of the first productions Barnett experienced, outside of Nate Jacobs’ Westcoast Black Theater Troupe, that featured people of different races and classes, and was not afraid to speak on deeper topics.
“It is always one of those laugh-cry situations,” Barnett says of listening back to the soundtrack now. “It’s like, ‘I had so much fun doing this.’ I miss it so much. It was a pivotal moment for me. It was fun and colorful and exciting and just blew me away.”
Barnett’s star is rising in Hollywood thanks to his co-lead performance as Alan Zaferi in Netflix’s “Russian Doll” alongside Natasha Lyonne. He didn’t know “Russian Doll” would be the breakout hit it became, he says, because you never really know, not until you see how the final product looks after the editing room. But after the show’s release, Barnett got myriad calls from friends and family singing the show’s praises, and it was then he knew.
The show’s success has given Barnett himself a new level of fame, something that brings positives — Barnett is due for a busy 2019, nabbing a role in “The Stand-In,” produced by and starring Drew Barrymore, and Netflix’s revival of “Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City” with Laura Linney — and negatives.
“I used to tell my dad (Bob Barnett), ‘I want to be so famous, I can’t even walk outside,’” Barnett says. “I would never want that now.”
Before “Russian Doll” and “Chicago Fire,” Barnett’s previous starring role, he was a wide-eyed theater student at Booker. Besides “Once on This Island,” Barnett would star in “Seussical: The Musical,” which won competitions at the Florida Theater Conference and the Southeastern Theater Conference, and “The Rise and Rise of Daniel Rocket.”
It was during the latter’s production, Barnett says, that he publicly identified as gay for the first time.
Booker provided Barnett with more than a creative vessel, he says. It was a place of openness, one that deepened his connection to both his craft and himself.
“There is something special about Booker,” Barnett says. “I was a procrastinator. I was not a worker before I got to Booker. I was not approaching the craft as something you can fine tune and work like a muscle. It was the first place to give me that safety and environment to hone in on my skills and start attacking them more like training. It was something new for me.”
He was always proud of his singing and dancing skills at Booker, he says, but acting was not his forte. It’s funny, then, that now he’s on a hit show where he only focuses on the latter.
“When I got ready to go to college, I talked with a lot of my teachers, Mr. (Scott) Keys included, and he mentioned it to me. He said, ‘I know you don’t feel as strong as an actor. That is something you need to look out for.’ And that is why I went to Juilliard, why it was important for me to get to that school. I really wanted to up that ante.”
Barnett has taken what his education taught him and ran with it. He’s an actor who relishes pouring over scripts, pulling apart his characters, molding jigsaw-shaped pieces of a soul and putting them together again. Sometimes, he says, that part of the job is more fun than the acting.
For “Russian Doll,” a show where Barnett’s Alan and Lyonne’s Nadia are stuck in a time loop of death, unlocking Alan meant Barnett had to go to dark places. Even though the show has plenty of humor, it uses it to shine a light on things like depression and suicidal thoughts, or as Barnett says, to “sink into the truth bombs.”
Alan himself is no exception. Barnett says he first approached the character from a physical place, getting an understanding of his insides and working his way out. And his insides, Barnett says, are “pretty f***** up.”
“I knew it would be the safest, most direct way to relate,” Barnett says. “The way he moves, his cadence. Each person has a specific physicality to them. Finding that helped me find the truth within the insanity. I was worried about falling into a ‘camp’ world and letting it get out of control.”
He says he relates to his character in some ways, but in other ways, they couldn’t be more different.
“What scared me the most was the stuff I did relate to, but those things are also what I wanted to work on, what I wanted an opportunity to perform and share with people,” he says. “ (I noticed) His anal retentiveness, his tics, his verklempt-ness, the overbearing pressure he puts on himself, the jail he has locked his mind into. It was stuff that I read and made me say, ‘Ugh, I want the opportunity to play someone like this.’”
Off set, Barnett spends his time like many others: reading or watching TV to decompress. Barnett says he has been reading multiple historical books about black and female cowboys, two groups that are underrepresented in Western films and television. He likes Comedy Central’s “The Other Two,” Pop TV/Netflix’s “Schitt’s Creek” and Adult Swim’s “Rick and Morty.” A self-proclaimed “animated TV buff,” Barnett says he often finds himself wondering how the directors thought of different camera angles and shots. He downplayed his abilities as a writer, but could directing be in his future?
Barnett would love it to be. From his acting experience, he is learning how to talk to actors, refine stories and tell them through a big-picture lens.
But Barnett is waiting for the right time, and that time may still be a few years away. He doesn’t want to get in the way of the current wave of female directors, wanting to see it flourish first. (“Russian Doll” was entirely created, written and directed by women, and Barnett says women filled many of the crew positions as well, aside from one male producer.)
Wherever his career goes next, Booker — and Sarasota at large — played no small part in it. Barnett won’t ever forget that.
“It is where I learned to find the fun in everything,” he says.