When the actor Jeremy Allen White shows up on Zoom for this interview, he looks like he could be calling from The Original Beef of Chicagoland, the restaurant from his new show, The Bear. Wearing a tattered baseball cap and a white shirt, White signs on from his New York home during a dreadful heatwave. Despite the heat, which causes most to run from the city, the 31-year-old actor says he enjoys this season the most. “I have a soft spot for it,” White adds. “I grew up here and there’s something about summer in New York.” (He spent the morning at the park with his two daughters, he tells me.)
A leisurely stroll with the kids sounds very much unlike what his character, Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto, would have on the docket. If White were in the world of The Bear, Carmy—a talented but harrowed chef who works in some of the world’s best restaurants before returning to Chicago to take over his deceased brother’s sandwich shop—would have been scrubbing down kitchen machinery with almost manic levels of intensity and screaming at his fellow The Beef chefs: the savvy sous, Sydney (Ayo Edebiri); an inspired baker, Marcus (Lionel Boyce); and Carmy’s loud cousin, Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) among them. The Bear is FX’s undisputed breakout series of the summer, having taken over the Internet with glowing reviews and plenty of memes; it’s also White’s first leading role since Shameless, in which he portrays another talented-yet-flawed Chicagoan. Like Shameless, The Bear touches on central themes of family—this one being chosen kin of the kitchen—reigniting the world’s love for disheveled, emotionally unavailable men along the way.
Working as the lead of a stellar cast, including Matty Matheson, Liza Colón-Zayas, Abby Elliot, and more, White discussed with W his work in restaurants before filming, a deep friendship with Edebiri, and how he celebrated the series being picked up for season two.
Obviously, the Internet loves The Bear. Did you think that people were going to thirst over Carmy so hard?
Truly, no. The show itself is so void of any romance, certainly any sexuality, so it wasn’t on my mind at all during shooting. Is struggling attractive? I’m surprised, but I hope it means that people understand Carmy as intrinsically good. He’s behaved poorly at times, but I do think he’s trying. And people trying…that’s never not cool.
Many are wondering why the show is so sexy with no sex. But people have also been talking about how they want to see Carmy and Syd together. You’ve discussed how Carmy is not in a place where he can explore love. Do you think fans should get what they want in season two?
This is my first time, just in recent weeks, even thinking about anything going on with anybody. I hope for Sydney’s sake that’s not going to be explored in later seasons. I just love their relationship [as it is]: the amount of respect they have for one another, and that they have a shared history, even if it’s not together. They’ve been through similar traumas and they really see one another. To add romance or sexuality would monkey up what I enjoy about their relationship.
I agree there. I didn’t see them as anything more than friends, and I think the cast works so well because of the family dynamic going on. What was it like working with everyone in such an intense and emotionally driven context?
We shot the show so quickly, there almost wasn’t time to ask permission. Everybody showed up like, “This is who I am, this is how I’m doing this.” So something really instant happened: there was ease, and no time to look back and adjust. We came as ourselves, we understood the world of the show, and we were in that same world. That’s not always the case—sometimes, actors have different ideas about the levels of the reality they’re playing.
Although it was such a short shooting period, you went through a lot of prep to learn the skills of a chef. How long were you working in restaurants and taking cooking classes?
Before we did the pilot, I went to the Institute of Culinary Education in Pasadena. That’s where I got to know Ayo—we were getting to know one another while cooking, which was nice, since so much of the way Sydney and Carmy communicate [with] one another is through cooking. I worked at this place before we shot the pilot called Pasjoli in Santa Monica. Chef-owner Dave Beran was a Chicago chef for a long time—he worked at Alinea—so not only was he really talented and let me in, but he also had a knowledge of Chicago food specifically. Then we shot the pilot. As soon as we got picked up, I had three months to work with a chef here in New York called David Waltuck, who had a great restaurant called Chanterelle. We did one on one, Monday through Friday, for weeks, just preparing and working on knife skills. Then I went back to Pasjoli for a while and they let me work the line, which was really insane.
So even though the show took place in a more casual restaurant, you worked in mostly higher-end places?
They were all pretty serious fine dining places; that’s what I wanted to explore because that’s the world Carmy is most familiar with. He’s a fish out of water in the sandwich shop, so I wanted to feel as lost as Carmy would in that environment.
While working in these restaurants, was there ever anyone saying, What are you doing here? You’re famous, an actor.
I came into every experience apologizing first, for messing with the way things are working in an excellent establishment. I made it clear, even if they’re completely unfamiliar with me: “I am not staging. I am not a chef. I am not a cook. I’m here to learn. I’m sorry if I fuck your shit up.” [In terms of] guests, I always had a mask and my baseball cap on, so I never ran into anything like that.
While you prepared for The Bear, did you try out any new restaurants?
In Chicago, I had some great experiences. I went to Smyth with Matty Matheson, who’s an actor on the show and also a wonderful chef and our food consultant. They have a place called The Loyalist under there, which has a really delicious burger. I had one of my best dining experiences at a restaurant called Oriole, which is not far from Smyth—it was a real performance. It’s dramatic, you’re being taken on a bit of a journey, and I’d never felt that captivated in a restaurant setting. The chef at Oriole, Noah Sandoval, has been really lovely—we’ve been texting a bit here and there. He’s seen the show and really enjoyed it. Even before the show came out, he made me feel very welcome.
What was the most surprising thing you learned about restaurants?
I think every restaurant is a miracle. It’s constant problem-solving, and nothing’s ever going great. How competitive it is, especially in cities like New York, L.A., and Chicago, for restaurants to be consistent and to be full, seems truly impossible to me. In places like Balthazar in New York, it doesn’t make sense that it’s been decades and they’re doing the same thing all this time, but it’s still so consistent. People always come back for the environment. And that’s what makes, in my opinion, a place so special—and that goes for a deli, or the French Laundry.
Talking about problem-solving, let’s discuss episode seven, in which you’re losing your shit the entire episode. How do you get into a hectic headspace for scenes like those?
Pressure is what that episode was about, and we were all feeling a lot of pressure ourselves. You really do feel this weight of everybody needing to work together for success. What I’m in pursuit of with acting is, “Can I get a little bit lost in between ‘action’ and ‘cut?’” If I can do that, I’m doing okay. When it’s “action,” you’re freed from the pressure before “action,” and you’re chasing something else. Since everybody’s so good, it felt easy and natural to react to the situations and the other actors. What’s so nice about shows like this is, yes, there’s so much yelling—and that stuff is exciting to watch—but in contrast, it gives a nice scope for the quieter moments, too.
I thought about the quiet moments with Carmy and his sister a lot, especially the scene where she says, “You never ask how I’m doing,” and he replies, “I don’t even know how I’m doing, so it feels crazy to ask.” It was interesting to think about grief that way. Was there anything that influenced how you were going to portray this grief Carmy is feeling throughout the show?
It’s a feeling that seems familiar to me, or has at certain times in my life. I think Carmy is so preoccupied with himself that it’s quite difficult for him to truly see and engage with the world around him. I hope a lot of that stuff has left me as I started to have kids, (and hopefully, a little bit before, too), but as a young man and a young actor, I was one-track-mind with my career. I didn’t have space for a lot of other stuff in my early 20s—Carmy is in a similar place. It just seemed, very much on the page, that the way Carmy was dealing with his grief was that he wasn’t. That doesn’t mean his feelings weren’t real, but he was definitely pushing them far down. That gave me permission to play Carmy consistently at high stakes, in a way where he could do something shocking at any moment, and the audience would still understand.
It’s not until Carmy’s seven-minute monologue in the finale that viewers get any insight into his relationship with his brother. What was that like to shoot?
It was such a blueprint to Carmy and his trauma, and where he’s been coming from since you’ve met him. It was written really, really beautifully by Chris [Storer, co-creator and showrunner]—what I wanted to do was [have it feel] like Carmy was making these discoveries for the first time, in front of an audience. There’s something inherently vulnerable about being in front of a group of strangers and speaking about something that’s so close to you. That worked in my favor because that’s what acting is. What was nice about the way that scene was written was, it’s the first time Carmy’s not hiding from anything. And once he started, he couldn’t stop.
I have to congratulate you, since the show got renewed for a second season recently. How did it feel to get that news?
Ayo’s boyfriend lives a couple of blocks away from my house in New York, and she texted right away, “Should we go for a drink?” It’s nice to have somebody who is such a big part of the experience to be so close. We went up the street to this neighborhood spot called Rolo’s, and they gave us some crazy drinks. It was a blast.
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