Bursting in with a hefty camera in hand, Jim French arrives at the small coffee shop minutes after finishing an audition. This blonde-haired, blue-eyed third year student in USC's Masters of Fine Arts program is in his stride as an actor.
French hasn't always pictured himself on stage or camera. In fact, this former high school quarterback practically had to be forced into aspirations of a career in acting. Now he dreams legitimately of winning Tony's and Oscars- as evidenced by his recent appearance as the Mormon lawyer, repressed homosexual, Joe Porter Pitt in Tony Kushner's "Angels in America" in USC's astonishing recent production.
As with many freshmen and sophomore males, French was more preoccupied with sports, "majoring in fraternity parties", and "spinning my wheels and having a great time."
During his sophomore year, French found himself in an entry level theatre class in order to fulfill a course requirement at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. However, he wasn't able to fool the professor by skipping every other class, and was forced to retake the class to avoid flunking it.
During his second go-around, French still missed classes, but he fell under the wing of a persistent professor who recognized French's thespian talent combined with preternatural Adonis looks and pushed him to take it more seriously. "I was all over the place," he confesses. "The professors in the theatre department got ahold of me and said, 'I think you could do this.'"
To make up for missing still more classes on the second go, the professor held French to performing a Biff and Willy Loman scene from Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" in front of the other students.
Despite the "bitching and moaning" that led up to his performance, it was during these infamously emotionally charged scenes that French experienced an "aha" moment.
"I probably looked horrible, and it is hilarious to think about it now, but it was the first thing that I really sort of felt," French says, adding that the importance of that experience is that until then, "I had never done anything in college that I felt good about."
Fast forward five years and French is now in his final year of the USC's MFA program, when he captured attention in March for his astonishing real and deeply felt portrayal of Joe in "Angels in America." Preparation for this role as a principled, married Mormon who falls under the sway of lawyer Roy Cohn (dear friend of Donald Trump as his lawyer, as it so happens) and must resist being drawn into Washington politics, while also coming to grips with his repressed homosexuality, centered around asking and answering questions put to him by director John Rubenstein. But even eight months after casting, French says, "I still have many questions. A lot of them I've answered…but you certainly don't want to get locked into a way of thinking." Some of the questions that his professors often prompt him include, "Why am I here? Why am I saying this? Who am I talking to?", in addition to more internal dialogue that French has when speaking with other characters about why they're speaking and the meaning behind the conversation.
For French, many of Joe's important moments and ultimate understandings came down to the subtleties of each performance, particularly with Julian Juaquin who played Cohn. Cohn and Joe's relationship teetered on a fine line between caring and potentially flirty. "It was so subtle," said French in reference to some of these debatable moments. "I picked it up as Joe just noticing, 'Oh, his fingers are touching my knee'…or 'He's looking at me with such kind eyes.'"
Though acting was not on his radar just a few years ago, he says his previous experience with sports has actually helped him in theatre.
"I think sports and theatre are similar in that they are collaborative," he said. "The thing about theatre though that separates it from sports is that there is no winning or losing. The goal is just to have an experience."
If you had told French, during the peak of his quarterback career, that he would be acting in some of the most acclaimed and praised plays, he undoubtedly wouldn't have believed it. "I think theatre and the arts is well suited for me, even though I hated the idea in college," he admits. "I know deep down in my soul that I wouldn't be happy doing anything else."