Most famous for trying to figure out ‘how to make it in America,’ Bryan Greenberg returns to HBO on Saturday in Bessie, the new biopic starring Queen Latifah as the legendary blues singer, Bessie Smith. Greenberg portrays John Hammond, a record producer who was pivotal in helping Smith become an icon late in her career.
The HBO film is Greenberg’s first major return to TV since How to Make It was canceled after two short seasons in 2011. Since then, the actor has been focused on the big screen, including a new movie, It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong, which co-stars his fiancée Jamie Chung (Hulu’s Resident Advisors).
Ahead of Bessie’s premiere, Greenberg talked to ETonline about working with his fiancée on screen, diving into Chung’s reality TV past, and having brunch -- because everyone’s got to eat!
ETonline: You don’t appear until later in the film, but John Hammond was a big deal in preserving Bessie Smith’s career. Did you do much research for the role?
Bryan Greenberg: I felt a responsibility to do due diligence to John Hammond. He’s a legend -- he founded Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Bessie, and Billie Holiday. The list goes on and on. I found some clips on YouTube and I tried to learn his cadence. Some people at the [New York City] premiere said they knew him and that I didn’t screw it up too bad.
What surprised you most about what you saw on screen?
From a technical standpoint I didn’t realize how good [director] Dee Rees was. Some of those shots that she did were unbelievable. I didn’t see what she was doing behind the camera because we were in front of it. So when I went to the premiere I was taken aback by how good she is and how good the movie looks.
Everyone has iconic roles that stick with them. Does it get weird at all that people still hold on to How to Make It?
Yeah, you guys ran something about it last week I think. Victor [Rasuk] and I took a picture and all of a sudden it went viral. All these people want to see season three. It’s kind of crazy that all these years later that people [want it]. The appetite has grown, at least from my perspective. All I can do is be honored and flattered I was a part of something that people are still so invested in all these years later. If something were to happen, I would totally support it. We’ll see, but I’m not planning on it.
I’m sure it’s hard to be a part of one of the few HBO series that was canceled too soon.
I feel like the show was just revving up and then it ended. To this day I still don’t know the reasons why. You can look at it both ways: you can be angry that we got canceled or you can be really thankful that you got a chance to play a major character and got to be a part of a really cool world that touched a lot of people.
It seems like since the series, your primary focus has been on films.
Yeah, I got real spoiled. [Laughs] But I’m developing some things that I’m excited about in the TV world. But I’ve been focusing more on producing movies and I’m looking at directing a film later this year. I don’t know, as an actor you’re a fool if you think you can plan it out.
We haven’t heard too much about the wedding since you and Jamie Chung got engaged. Are there any updates on the wedding plans?
You haven’t seen too much news about it because we just did this movie called It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong. We produced that and we both starred in it. Now it’s getting in all these festivals -- it’s going to premiere at the L.A. Film Festival. So honestly, we’ve just been working on that and haven’t planned the wedding. [Laughs] We haven’t done anything. We’ll get to it, but right now our focus is on the film.
How was that working together?
It was fun! She’s such a great actress. We help each other all the time with auditions and stuff. So I’m used to it. I don’t know, she might have been a little more freaked out than I was. I was really into it. She suggested that we get separate hotel rooms when we shoot just to build the chemistry, which annoyed me but I think it worked.
Did you ever watch The Real World when she was on it?
No. I can’t find it. She won’t let me see it. [Laughs] I’ve never seen it. All I asked her was, “Did you embarrass yourself?” And she said, ‘No.’ So I was like, “Alright, fine.” …She was like, ‘I was the boring one.’ [Laughs]
Since you’re hosting this brunch for charity, I was curious what a typical brunch with Bryan is like.
Man! I’m pretty boring to be honest. Just don’t sit me next to the TV with a basketball game on because I won’t listen to anything anyone says.
Bessie premieres Saturday, May 16 at 8 p.m. on HBO.
Greenberg's fourth annual The Olevolos Project brunch is on the same day at New York City's McKittrick Hotel. Find out more information about attending or how to donate here.