Justin Bartha, 34, is a former West Bloomfield Township resident who has gone from starring in school plays and musicals to success on the small and big screens. Bartha is currently starring as David Murray on the new NBC sitcom “The New Normal,” which portrays a gay couple looking to become parents with the help of a surrogate mother. While working on the show, he is also currently shooting “The Hangover Part III,” where he is reprising his role as Doug Billings for a third time. It has been quite a journey thus far for the West Bloomfield High School alumnus and Florida native who went to New York University after high school to pursue acting and later added filmmaking to his resume. Bartha started his film career as a production assistant on the hit comedy “Analyze This” before directing a series of commercials and short films. His big break came in the 2004 blockbuster “National Treasure” in which he played Riley Poole alongside Nicholas Cage, and later also starred in the movie’s sequel as well as the hit comedy “Failure to Launch.” Bartha has also achieved his dream of acting on Broadway as he recently has had roles in plays including “Lend Me a Tenor;” “Asuncion” with his friend, Jessie Eisenberg; and most recently in Zach Braff’s play “All New People.” Despite his extensive resume and achievements, Bartha remains grounded, thanks in part to his Midwestern roots, and continues to strive for excellence in his work and not let complacency set in. Bartha took time from his busy schedule to speak with the Spinal Column Newsweekly about the road he’s traveled, his upcoming projects, and who inspired him to play his character on “The New Normal.”
First of all, congratulations on the success of your show, “The New Normal.” You previously had starring roles in hit movies including “National Treasure” and “National Treasure II,” “Failure to Launch,” “The Hangover” and “The Hangover II.” How did you first hear about the “The New Normal” and what drew you to try out for the role of David Murray? Was it hard to make the transition from playing Doug Billings in “The Hangover” to now playing a gynecologist with a boyfriend?
JB: What drew me to the role was I was reading that Ryan Murphy (“Glee”), the creator of the show, had a new pilot for NBC and I had heard a little about it. So I called some people I worked with to try to find the script to read it and once I read it, I fell in love with and loved the character immediately and the message behind the show, and thought that if it were ever to actually make it to the air, it could be a bit more important than some of the usual programming that was on network television.
Thankfully, Ryan Murphy and the co-creator Ali Adler agreed to meet with me and we talked about the role and I met with with Andrew Rannells, who was already signed on to do the role of Bryan, to see if we had any chemistry and then the rest is broadcast history.
The transition wasn’t necessarily hard. The role itself on “The New Normal” is one of the more challenging roles I’ve had just because it does portray a homosexual relationship at its most real and fullest and it was something that I had really never done before but was looking forward to kind of exploring. So the role itself has its challenges, but the transition was fairly seamless.
Before the show premiered, the show’s subject matter revolving around a gay couple was criticized by some people to the point that the NBC affiliate in Salt Lake City refused to air the show. Now that the season is 6-episodes-old, what would you say that the reaction to the show has been since then and do you think that the show has changed some minds of people who were critical before? How have your family and friends reacted to your roles, especially now with “The New Normal?”
JB: The response has been overwhelmingly positive on my end. I live on the west coast and it’s a bit of a liberal bubble, so I wasn’t expecting the response to be necessarily negative.
I knew that the quality of the show was very high. I don’t expect the people that were actually boycotting and were insulted by the show before — I don’t expect their minds to have necessarily changed because you have to be fairly closed-minded to start in order to be opposed to things like gay rights and single parents and equality.
But, with that being said, if we through our entertainment have changed even one mind or opened someone’s mind, not necessarily changed their mind, just being able to bring a different point of view, then I feel pretty successful.
My family is very supportive. I was raised in West Bloomfield and I bring those Midwestern roots with me everywhere, and my family is very excited. I have one sibling who happens to be a gay man and the portrayal is partly inspired by his struggle. My brother wasn’t openly gay when we were living in West Bloomfield. I lived in West Bloomfield from when I was 9-years-old until I was 17-years-old and that was in the early ’90s. There wasn’t necessarily a lot of gay role models in popular culture then, so that is one of the benefits, I think, of television. It’s a media that is pretty expansive and can reach a lot of people, and showing all sorts of families and different types of people is definitely something that can help expand peoples’ minds. We didn’t necessarily have that growing up and that absolutely affected my brother’s relationship to his sexuality and also coming out of the closet because he really didn’t, I think, kind of know how to do that.
So, looking back at it, hopefully now with our show and the many shows that came before our show that portrayed gays and other sexualities and races and creeds, everything, hopefully that will help people accept their family members and themselves a little quicker. He wasn’t out of the closet growing up. He’s quite a bit older than me, so that wasn’t really a part of our lives then. It was fairly hidden like many, many families across the country and across this world dealt with and are continuing to deal with — hopefully a little less now that our world has become a little smaller.
You were born in Florida, but you and your family eventually moved to West Bloomfield and you graduated from West Bloomfield High School. While in school, did you participate in the school’s theater department or take acting classes, and if so, how did that help blossom your passion for acting? How would you describe your early life growing up in West Bloomfield and do you still stay in touch with what’s happening in the township?
JB: I did, I was very involved with the theater program at West Bloomfield High School under the direction of Robert Leider (former Theater Arts Program Coordinator), who is a great acting teacher and really wonderful teacher that had a big impact on my life. My life wouldn’t have been the same if it wasn’t for that art program at West Bloomfield High School.
Originally when I first entered the high school, I thought I was an athlete and that thought very quickly diminished after seeing the other athletes. Then I tried my hand in the theater program, mostly because I thought there were cute girls involved and it was an easier path to maybe get a date.
My first play I did was “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and I immediately fell in love with acting because of that program and I immersed myself as much as possible. Outside Detroit there was a wonderful community program called “Jump Start the Arts,” which I became involved in and took acting classes. I started to take my first acting classes through them and did a community theater production and I did children’s theater productions and I did all the plays and musicals at West Bloomfield High School. It pretty much changed the course of my life because of that arts program at that public school.
I stay in touch a little bit with what’s going on in the township, just because I’m very close with many of my fellow students that I went to school with who are mostly now in other cities, but their families still live in West Bloomfield. So through them, I kind of hear what’s going on, but I absolutely loved and think about quite often my time in West Bloomfield. As I think the Midwest of this country is the best, as they say, I’m constantly saying the Midwest is the best. And in California and New York, where I spend most of my time, there are a lot of Michiganders that have moved there and continue to carry that torch. As I said before, I’m very much a product of the values that are instilled by growing up in the Midwest and I think I probably would have gotten up by Hollywood and gone crazy if it wasn’t for those grounding values.
A lot of people have aspirations to be in the entertainment industry, but it’s a hard industry to break into. Please describe how you got your foot in the door and what you had to do to support yourself?
JB: After West Bloomfield High School, while I was still in school I spent a lot of time looking up what the best acting programs were in the country. My family had no connections to the Hollywood community or the New York community. I was very interested in theater so I wanted to go to New York. But I had to start from zero because I had no connections, so I was never really interested in going to Los Angeles or being in television or films because I had really started learning on the stage and I really loved the experience of theater.
So I went to New York and I trained as much as I possibly could, which is a fairly kind of classic route for an aspiring actor. It’s something, if anyone ever asks me, that I tell them is quite important just because it was very helpful for me to go to acting school. I went to (New York University) acting school, I was lucky enough to get in there, and I just trained every single day and tried to become the best actor I possibly could.
Eventually, after I was done training, I transferred to the film school at NYU because I became very interested in film while I was in New York.
After film school, I was never quite interested in doing the regular audition route, which you quickly learn is what most actors do; you go on these cattle call auditions and I thought that was a very tough route. So I instead started to kind of make my own little films and my own content and I started out writing and directing interstitials and commercials for Showtime and a little pilot for MTV. Through my own content that I created, I kind of hustled and got myself an acting agent and went from there.
I would recommend following your own path as much you possibly could to distinguish yourself from others and to really highlight your own talents, whatever you think those are.
At any point in your rise up the entertainment ladder did the struggles become too much that you contemplated whether this was the right career for you, and if so, how did you overcome those struggles? What was the one point in your career where you could say for the first time, “Yes, I’ve made it.”
JD: I still think everyday, I still question everyday if this is the right career for me. Those struggles never go away. And I think if they do go away, that would be really worrisome. I think it’s the struggle that pushes an artist and inspires an artist.
Those struggles change as your career develops, obviously, from when I started out, when I wasn’t sure if I had enough money to continue developing. You’re getting inspired enough by the roles you’re taking and then finally using the struggle to actually help you choose the roles and develop a voice in what you want to put out into the world. So those struggles are always there and they’re always evolving, just like your actual art. So if you’re not struggling, then you’re doing something wrong, I think.
I’m still waiting for that point (to say I’ve made it). I’ve been very lucky in being involved in a lot of successful things, but I would say the first time that I really felt true joy with kind of the path that my career was taking was when I first opened a play on Broadway, which was a dream of mine, and when I felt like I had accomplished a goal and a dream and also put enough work in that I was happy with my performance. So that was probably the first time where I felt that I had accomplished something that was worthwhile.
We live in a celebrity-obsessed culture with 24-hour entertainment channels and numerous gossip magazines and websites where people want to know about every move a celebrity makes. As someone who came from Michigan and is now in the eye of the storm, how would you describe to someone what your life is like in Hollywood, including the pros and cons, and is it everything you initially thought it would be growing up?
JB: I never imagined a life in Hollywood growing up, and I never had that goal. I also grew up in a time right before there was not necessarily a celebrity obsession, before there was a business of celebrity obsession. I think there was always kind of a market for it, obviously since Hollywood started, but now it’s kind of been overblown into something else with the advent of reality television and that kind of thing.
My life is pretty unexciting. I just try to work as hard as I possibly can and I have the same values as I did when I started out. I’m obsessed with trying to do the best job as I possibly could and be the best artist and best person I possibly can. So all the other noise, I don’t really pay attention to, honestly. I’m not interested in that kind of thing and it’s easy to block out.
Not to hammer it home, but a lot of that has to do with where I come from, coming from Michigan, where that kind of thing, I was never really even aware of it so it never really meant anything to me.
Obviously, everyone gets their moments of insecurity, but when it comes to the celebrity culture, for me it seems like such an other thing, something that is very different than what my life is. I think as it develops, this kind of obsession with celebrity, it gets even more distinguishable because it just is a bunch of nefarious characters that are interested in fame and that’s something that never really crossed my mind.
There’s been a lot of people that I’ve admired over the years that I’ve not only gotten to meet, but gotten to work with. I’ve been very lucky. I’ve been able to work with a lot of amazing actors and directors.
My father and I, we watched movies growing up. He had favorite movies and that kind of thing. Watched “The Deer Hunter” when I was probably too young. That was always his favorite movie and I later got to work for Robert DeNiro, which was a dream come true.
But, the first time that I was ever aware of filmmaking, my dad gave me a book called “Making Movies” that was written by Sidney Lumet. He had read it and he gave it to me and told me that I should read it, that it was a very interesting book about acting and movies and that I might like it. So I read it when I was a teenager and it was amazing. And then the second movie that I ever did was an HBO movie that never came out that was directed by Sidney Lumet and he was an absolute hero of mine. He’s the late Sidney Lumet now, he passed away (in 2011 at the age of 86), but that was a very meaningful person that I admired that I got to work with.
Over the last couple years, you’ve also took your turn on Broadway in plays such as “Lend Me a Tenor” and “Asuncion.” Having gone to college in New York City, was Broadway always in the back of your mind as something that you eventually wanted to try? Do you plan on doing more theater performances in the future?
JB: Yes, as I said before, that was always the goal, to do theater. I love theater and I think that it’s an extremely important art form that, if it were up to me, every actor should have to do because it teaches you a lot more than acting. It teaches you how to work with a group, how to perform, how to work under situations that aren’t necessarily extravagant, and those types of things.
So, it was absolutely my dream and I’ve done a few plays now and the one, “Asuncion,” that I did was an off-Broadway play that I did with a good friend, Jessie Eisenberg (“The Social Network”), who wrote it and was in it with me and that was also a dream come true to work with a friend on something that you’re passionate about.
If it were up to me, I would do a play every single year. If my schedule permitted, that’s what I would do.
Last year I did two plays. All I did were two off-Broadway plays just because it was a moment in my life that I wasn’t being inspired by movies, so I felt that I needed to go do a couple of plays. So I’m lucky enough that I was able to do that.
We understand that you’re playing the role of punk-rocker Stiv Bators in an upcoming movie called “CBGB” based on the famous New York club. What can your fans expect when that movie is released? Do you have an update what’s happening with “The Hangover Part III,” without giving too much away?
JB: If you like punk rock music, you’re going to like the movie. CBGB was a club that I used to go to in New York that unfortunately closed down because the rents were so high and it was kind of the heart of the kind of post-punk movement in New York City in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Stiv Bators was the lead singer of a band called The Dead Boys, which kind of became a house band at CBGB, the band itself was managed by Hilly Kristal, who owned CBGB. And the part, people can expect something that is kind of a 180 degrees from what they see on “The New Normal.” It’s a guy that is not shy and he’s quite a wild character and he looks a lot different. I lost 20 pounds to play the guy, who’s a very skinny guy.
I do five Dead Boys songs in the movie, so they can expect some punk rock.
(The best show I saw at CBGB), I saw the Strokes there once, and they were fantastic.
I’m shooting (“The Hangover Part III”) right now. I’m shooting at the same time as the TV show. I can tell you that the shoot is going very well and that it’s extremely funny and that fans of the original movie will be very pleased with how funny the new one is.