You may have seen him as a lord on Gossip Girl, or as the loyal boyfriend in the coming-of-age indie Frances Ha, or as the hot photography teacher on Casual. Maybe you caught him onstage as he toured the country as Lancelot in Spamalot, or on the small screen as Lisa Edelstein’s gay brother on Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce.
Who is he? He’s Patrick Heusinger, and he’s finally graduating from the School of Character Actors.
The Jacksonville, Florida, native has made a career out of being the invaluable supporting player in Hollywood, and as he approached his mid-30s, the Julliard-trained actor recognized it was time to go outside the lines.
Fresh off a season of Girlfriends in the summer of 2015, Heusinger found himself in a moment of clarity when he landed the lead in the Los Angeles production of Martin Sherman’s groundbreaking 1979 play, Bent, about the persecution of gays in Nazi Germany. Offered the opportunity to return to the Bravo series (“It was a blast and it was significantly more money than a play,” Heusinger admitted) or take a leap of faith with the theater job, he chose the latter. The risk paid off.
“I ended up for the first time in my life -- including high school, including college -- playing the lead role in anything, where I was on stage in every single scene,” Heusinger, 35, told ET of the moment he felt his career turned. It was then that he made a promise to himself: “I’m not an activist in my life, but I’m an activist with my art and I’m an activist with the stories I choose to tell.”
Heusinger received rave reviews for his portrayal of a gay man who is arrested and thrown into a concentration camp in the 1930s -- “riveting,” the Los Angeles Daily News praised. He wouldn’t know it at the time, but it was that complex performance that led Heusinger to his biggest Hollywood role yet, as the main villain in a big-budget studio film starring one of the most coveted action heroes in the world, Tom Cruise.
Victoria Thomas, the casting director for Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, happened to be in the audience at one of Heusinger’s performances of Bent. “She thought after watching me do this play -- where I play a man who was searching for his identity as a homosexual in 1934 Germany -- here’s a good character actor who could potentially pull off the villain role,’” he recalled, chuckling at the memory.
At 6-feet tall and looking every part the all-American jock, Heusinger -- who has sun-kissed blond hair, chiseled features and an athletic body (yes, he has a six-pack) -- made a name for himself, one could say, playing to his external qualities. Like the title of the movie, though, he embraced the challenge of straying from the path that seemed pre-ordained for him.
“I think the world didn’t know what to do with me,” Heusinger said with a laugh. “In college, I was a character actor all the time playing Richard III, playing Silvius in Shakespeare[‘s As You Like It] -- I was always the old guy, I was always the comic funnyman. A lot of the time, people want actors to look a specific way if they’re going to be a character actor, and I was fighting that.”
“I love creating human beings from the ground up and creating something that you don’t expect, especially if you watched me from Gossip Girl or Royal Pains,” he added.
Heusinger dabbled briefly in the world of villainy, when he starred in a failed Amazon pilot , 2015’s Point of Honor, in which he played a “psychopath” Civil War colonel, and pulled from his arsenal in preparation to play The Hunter, an army vet obsessed with Jack Reacher, in Never Go Back. Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman in 2000’s American Psycho (“not really a textbook psychopath”) and Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh in 2007’s No Country for Old Men (“that guy nailed the lacking all empathy of a human being”) were also inspirations.
“What am I going to bring? Obviously I can’t do a performance like [Bardem’s] in a movie like this, otherwise everyone will be bored out of their minds,” Heusinger said, tracing back his steps. “But what can I bring that’s very similar in psychology to this character, yet still make him colorful and interesting?”
Every single fight, stunt and punch in the face in Never Go Back was performed by Heusinger himself, an accomplishment he was proud to point out, giving similar credit to Cruise and co-star Cobie Smulders. “It was incredible,” Heusinger said of his training, which began more than a month before he shot his first frame, where he learned everything from shooting to stunt driving. “We all didn’t use all of [our training] in the film, but we walked in with this wealth of knowledge.”
They wanted everyone in front of and behind the cameras to be prepared, but Heusinger could never have predicted this in his acting life.
“Imagine being a little kid, 5 years old, running around Jacksonville, Florida, in the middle of nowhere. There’s no one in your family who’s involved in this industry at all [and] the closest you ever get to it is watching Die Hard over and over from 10 to 13 years,” he reminisced. “Watching Top Gun, being a fan of Tom Cruise and then... eventually standing [on set] with Tom -- it was an absolute dream.”
“It all happened so fast, I almost didn’t have time to pump the brakes and realize what was happening. I never got nervous, I never had any anxiety, it was just happening to me,” Heusinger continued, a sense of awe creeping through. “I didn’t even have an opportunity to realize the world I just stepped into.”
In his mind, Never Go Back marks the next step in a new chapter of his career, one he hopes is filled with surprises that lead him to even more places left of center.
“I’ve said ‘no’ to a lot of jobs that I don’t think fit in that category of Bent,” Heusinger admitted. “My goal right now is to do what I always set out do: to change people by the time they walk into the theater and by the time they leave.”
Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is in theaters now.