Peter Facinelli had plenty of passion and determination but not much in the way of craft when, as a stiff New Yorker with a “My Cousin Vinny” accent, he enrolled at NYU and threw himself into a drama career. Now co-starring in Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie” and heading up the Cullen vampire clan in the “Twilight” series -- his next film, “New Moon,” opens Nov. 20 -- Facinelli is a nonstop working actor with a wide range and a long resume in film and television.
He spoke with Eric Estrin about how he lost his Queens swagger, the value of not having a Plan B, and Dick Wolf’s tradeoff.
When I was in third grade, I was in the school library and I picked up a picture biography book on Robert Redford. I started reading about him and the things he did, and I thought, "That’s a fun occupation to do."
Then I saw “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” not too long after that, and I thought, "That’s what I want to do."
So I told my parents when I got a little older that I want to be an actor, but to them it was like saying I wanted to go to Mars. They kind of just laughed at it. The next time they asked, I said I wanted to be a lawyer, because I got a lot of oohs and aahs in the family.
For a long time I kind of convinced myself I wanted to be a lawyer. I never did any plays in high school. I was quite shy actually.
And then I went to one year at St. John's University, and I’m studying pre-law, and I take an acting 101 class and I love it.
I remember there was a kid in the class and he said, "This is fun, but what are the chances of us actually ever being an actor?" I kind of got mad at that, and that’s when I made the decision that I was gonna be an actor, and I said, "I don’t care if it takes me six years to start getting work." I was just that passionate about actually doing it, and I didn’t like the fact that this kid said that we couldn’t.
I knew a manager who kind of found me through friends, and his name is Mark Amitin. Mark steered me in the right direction. On his advice, I transferred into NYU to study acting.
For a whole year I was going up on stuff and I was probably really terrible. Every time I walked out of the room, I had this great high, like I was doing what I wanted to be doing, and I was really excited that I was able to go out on things. I was getting some really crappy feedback, but for some reason, my agent stuck with me.
I was horrible. They were saying, "This kid can’t act, he’s terrible." But you know, it was a great learning curve for me.
I think I had natural instincts, but I was also stiff as a board when I first started out. I also had a really thick New York accent at the time. I was like “My Cousin Vinny,” so that was very limiting, but you know, NYU knocked that right out of me.
When you’re studying acting, you’re studying every tool you need. I had speech classes, I had voice classes, I had movement classes, I had acting training classes. You’re reading plays …
When you walk in, you have all these character traits, and what they do is, they neutralize you, so when you walk out, if you start in a neutral position you can play any character.
So I kept training and I kept studying and then I booked a “Law & Order” episode and I took two weeks off from school to do that.
Then Dick Wolf liked me, so he put me in the guest lead of a short-lived series he had called “The Wright Verdict,” and I had to take another two weeks off from school to shoot that. I was off for about a month and I realized, now it’s too late to do the semester, so I thought, I’ll just take a semester off and go back.
But then I started booking other work, and I never went back, 15 credits shy of graduating.
People always ask me if I have any advice about going into acting, and I say, "Don’t have a backup plan, because you’ll use it." I didn’t have a backup plan. I was 15 credits shy of graduating college, so for me it was sink or swim.
It’s funny because I saw Dick Wolf years later. I was up for a SAG Award for “Six Feet Under” for Ensemble, and I saw him there at the SAG Awards and I said, "Dick, you’re the reason I don’t have my diploma. But you’re also the reason why I got my SAG card, so it was a good tradeoff."
Eric Estrin has covered Hollywood for People, TV Guide, Television Week and Los Angeles Magazine, where he was contributing editor and TV critic. He also has written episodes of many shows, including Cagney & Lacey, Miami Vice, Hercules and Outer Limits. He created the Script Project for LA Observed.