From Myrtle Beach to international film and television fame
Act 1, Scene 1 for the reality story of Michael Kelly opens with a young Kelly in Lawrenceville, Ga., in a middle school play that has him on stage propped up in bed reading a newspaper.
Spoiler alert: this isn't when and where he was bitten by the acting bug.
"I remember thinking, 'I do not like this!'" says Kelly, laughing, in a recent phone interview from his apartment in lower Manhattan. "And I thought it was such a good idea to be reading a newspaper so I could put my lines inside the paper because I could never remember them."
Kelly instead saw his future in the courtroom as a lawyer. He was eligible for a cross-country scholarship at several small colleges, including Coastal Carolina University (CCU), which he toured with his father. "Coach took us to the beach and told us, 'Yeah, this is where we train sometimes,' and that did it. I thought, 'This is awesome!'"
Act II begins with cross country runner Kelly as a political science major at CCU in the late 1980s. But his path would soon cross the stage at the theatre department, when he decided to take a random "intro to acting" elective under professor of theatre Sandi Shackelford. "Sandi talked to me after class and said, 'You really have something here,'" recalls Kelly. "I realized after the semester that I really liked theatre, so I thought I'd make it my minor."
But after his role in the "The Glass Menagerie," directed by theatre professor Charles Whetzel, he knew he wanted to act for the rest of his life. "I quit running on the cross-country team and earned a theatre scholarship in my third year at Coastal," says Kelly.
"Between Sandi and Chuck Whetzel, they gave me my foundation," he adds. "I was just talking to Sandi the other day and she said, 'You don't need to give me all this credit!' But I do. The people you meet in life really shape you—help shape you to be the person you become. And there's such a goodness and easygoing attitude in the atmosphere and people in Conway and Myrtle Beach. People here [in New York] told me to put up my guard, but I never did. I continued to believe that you have to just trust the people who you think are good people."
Kelly graduated from CCU in 1992 with a bachelor's degree in dramatic arts, sticking around Myrtle Beach to wait tables for financial survival, surf with his buddy and fellow alumnus Stoney Cantor for entertainment and to work for a children's theatre troupe called Patchwork Players. But a call to a family friend in LA for acting career advice had him packing for New York with less than $500 in his pocket.
He and an old friend in Hoboken moved into a two-bedroom in the East Village, and the game of landing auditions began. "You're lucky to even get auditions," says Kelly. "I would scour issues of 'Backstage' for auditions, send my headshot and resume with a letter. I got some roles; then a casting director gave me the name of a commercial agent and I started doing commercials."
Kelly, who turns 42 this year, shares that he started making a comfortable living at age 30, comfortable enough to finally quit his side jobs after his move to the Big Apple in 1993. "Just to be able to do this, I know that I am one of the very few fortunate folks who are making a living at what you love to do," he says. "You have to be lucky and you have to be persistent—even if you're good and really talented. I just happened to get some auditions with a lot of hard work and some talent."
Hard work that has paid off for Kelly. In 1998, it was in Sundance Film Festival winner "River Red;" in 1999, he starred in "Man on the Moon" with Jim Carrey; TV gigs followed, including "Law and Order," "CSI Miami" and "The Sopranos;" next, was a career highlight with "The Changeling" by Clint Eastwood in 2008, the year he was also nominated by "Variety" for "10 Actors to Watch;" and his latest big screen and TV roles are "The Adjustment Bureau" with Matt Damon, "Fair Game" and recurring on CBS in "Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior."<p>
Why has the industry embraced Kelly? "I think I'm a subtle actor," he says. "I don't go big and broad. The recognition I have received is for being able to convey something through my eyes. Something I learned at Coastal was the ability to listen to the other person."<p>
"My all-time favorite role was in 'The Changeling,'" says Kelly. "The script was written really well and the character [detective Lester Ybarra] was described in such detail that it made it so much easier to slide into. I couldn't believe they were considering me for this because this is exactly what I would've done in this situation. … And, with working with Eastwood, everyone on the staff and cast brings their A game because he often only does one take. He's one of the few directors in Hollywood that comes under budget.<p>
"And friends are always hoping to get some dirt on [co-star] Angelina Jolie, but she's a wonderful mom and very kind," continues Kelly. "She always brought some of the kids on-set." Kelly, too, now has to juggle script-reading in a Manhattan-sized apartment, travel around the world and work, with his new family life: 2-year-old daughter Franke and wife, Karyn, a celebrity personal trainer.<p>
"It's nice to be relaxing now after a film with my family," says Kelly, on a rare spring break in New York. "So much of what I do—memorizing and reading scripts—needs to be done in a Zen-like atmosphere. I mean, I have a lovely apartment in Manhattan with a balcony, but it's hard to get work done in a two-bedroom when Franke only goes to bed at 7:30.<p>
Act III for Kelly is ongoing, as he and his agent are going after a few films since the season close of "Criminal Minds," plus following up on offers to guest star in shows like "Law & Order: Criminal Intent."<p>
And he aims to find time to hang out with his "best friend in the whole world, Stony," with whom he owns a condo in Myrtle Beach, surf and play a round of golf—"even if it's a par-3 or putt-putt."<p>
"I'd also like to figure out a time to visit Coastal," says Kelly. "I want to give back and want to give any bit of insight to them."