Sometimes the most creative acting gets done off-camera.
Take Scott Cohen, whom big- and small-screen audiences will recognize from the television shows “Gilmore Girls” and “Law & Order: Trial by Jury,” the film “Kissing Jessica Stein” and, most famously, “The 10th Kingdom,” NBC’s seven-hour fantasy narrative in which he played the half-man, half-wolf lead. When Cohen heard about “Brother’s Shadow,” Todd Yellin’s film about a family of Jewish furniture craftsmen in Brooklyn, he was immediately interested in the role of Jake, the ex-con son who is forced to reconnect with his family and with his true self. But Cohen, who in person comes across as a clean-cut “nice Jewish boy,” realized he would have to do something dramatic to show that he would be capable of filling the highly physical role. So before his first meeting with Yellin, the actor parked his car, opened the hood and stuck in his hands, smearing them with oil and dirtying himself up.
The postscript, of course, is that Cohen is now appearing in the film, which debuted at this springr’s Tribeca Film Festival.
Cohen relishes the bad-boy side of himself — “I’m an atheist,” he said in an interview, stabbing a forkful of pasta at lunch on the final day of Passover before adding, “more of an infidel, actually” — but it can’t hide his appreciation for Jewish history and culture.
In “Brother’s Shadow,” Cohen’s character returns to Brooklyn after 14 years to find his family sitting shiva. His twin brother, Michael, is dead, leaving his wife, son and Jake’s father, played by Judd Hirsch, bereft and about to sell the family’s long-held custom furniture business. Cohen portrays Jake as a talented craftsman who attempts to resurrect the family’s business — and his family in the process.
“The idea of a family of Jewish artisans is so rare now,” Cohen said. “That was what was compelling to me about this role: the idea that I wanted to continue the tradition that we are Jewish, we are artisans, we are Brooklyn, this is ours.
“It’s about saving the tradition, saving this thing that’s been around a long time,” Cohen said, considering his words and their implications. “It just doesn’t come out of nowhere.”
Neither did he. Cohen grew up in the Bronx as the youngest of a musician’s five children, acting in a few plays in high school though he always thought he would grow up to be a pianist. In college at the State University of New York at New Paltz, Cohen remembers flipping through the course catalog to find an intriguing class on “clowning.” He implored the professor, dramatist Jonathan Fox, to let him into the already full course, which Cohen followed up with an actual job in a circus.
“I was very dark — a tramp clown, very political,” Cohen recounted. “I’ll never forget it. My act was right before intermission, and I did a whole shtick, in rhyme, about nuclear power.” The audience’s response? Dead silence. He was fired.
Despite Cohen’s professional failure in the clowning ring, Fox invited him to audition for the then-fledgling Playwright Theater Company, an improvisational group. He auditioned and was admitted as the youngest member. He later went on to train in Manhattan at the Actors Studio, as well as in individual theater classes. Later he broke into television and film.
What’s next on the agenda? Cohen will play a customs agent who befriends an Arab American boy in the film “Jihad in Jersey,” and one of the male leads in NBC’s new sitcom, “Lipstick Jungle,” based on the novel by Candace Bushnell of “Sex and the City” fame. So who knows — Cohen might just be television’s next Mr. Big.
Jordana Horn Marinoff is a lawyer and writer at work on her first novel.
This story "Nice Jewish Boy Turns Bad, Gets Role" was written by Jordana Horn.