Warm, thoughtful, charismatic, and looking like no one else on television, Empire's Ryan Clardy is just the sort of young man who, during the heyday of soaps, would have been a breakout star. The jury is still out as to whether there will be a heyday for web-based soaps. If there is, Empire is the one to watch. When it comes to character development and sowing the seeds of several inter-connected stories at once, no other web soap has been as effective as Empire. It's the Little Web Soap That Could. The fact that soap vet and fan favorite Tina Sloan has joined the cast of Empire for season 2 bodes well for the show, as does the addition of Orlagh Cassidy, who made a real splash on Guiding Light.
On Empire, Ryan plays Cane Haven - something of a black sheep in the Haven family. Cane, a successful private investigator, was long ago disowned and banished by patriarch Cubby Haven on account of the fact that he's an out and proud homosexual. Ryan Clardy generously made time for me on a saturday afternoon, after having lunch with his costar, Nick Lewis (who plays Cane's older brother, Evan.)
LN: Before joining the cast of Empire, how familiar were you with soap opera as a genre?
RC: I would say I was a lay person. I knew about soaps, and I enjoyed them here and there, but I'd never been a follower. I'd watched Passions with my mom a few times, but I wasn't ever a hardcore fan. I was aware, though, of the fact that soaps had a way of sucking you in and making you want more.
LN: I know that you've done lots of theater, some film, and some television, including One Life to Live. Empire looks vastly different from traditional television. Can you talk about the differences between filming something like OLTL and shooting a web series?
RC: It depends, of course, on the particular production. Shooting Empire is very different than shooting something like OLTL. At OLTL they film every day, from 8-5, or whatever. There's a new script every day, and then everyone comes back to do it all over again, the next day. With Empire, there's a script that covers an entire season. We film everything over a month or so, mostly on weekends. After everything is shot, there's a post-production period and then, eventually, a premiere and a new episode every week. In that way, Empire feels almost like making a film - an indy film.
LN: I grew up in NYC, where so many soaps were produced. With the cancellation of Guiding Light and As The World Turns, and All My Children making the move to California, that leaves One Life to Live as the only soap still shooting in NYC. What are your feelings about this?
RC: From an acting perspective the soaps leaving NYC is a real loss. Having several soaps here in NYC has been something of an institution, so it's sad to see them go. A lot of us are really rooting for OLTL to stay strong so that the genre doesn't leave NYC, altogether. Television is changing a lot because of the internet, and soaps disappearing from the NYC landscape is one of those changes.
LN: For so long, soaps have been a kind of training ground for actors. A lot of people write them off as fluff, because they don't realize that producing a soap is like making a new movie five days a week, which takes an enormous amount of work and dedication.
RC: Definitely. Having done under five (note: "under five" refers to a role where a character has under five lines of dialogue) work on OLTL, I know that it's a real grind. Those folks work really hard. One thing I've noticed, though, is that, by and large, the actors working on soaps are really down-to-earth,welcoming and generous. As hard as the people on OLTL work, they've been willing to take the time to sit down and talk with me, which means a lot to an actor.
LN: One thing I really enjoy about Empire is that the openly queer character on the show is also the only character who is even close to having his act together. Cane is sort of the hero of Empire. Has there been a deliberate move to make the openly gay Haven son, who is secure in his sexuality, also the one sane, well-adjusted character?
RC: Yeah, I think Cane is definitely together and secure. He came out at an early age and, because he was cast out by his father. He's had to fight for himself and learn to be himself. In a way, being forced out into the world by Cubby forced Cane to learn how to take care of himself, protect himself. He's got a solid grounding, as opposed to his siblings, who have been sheltered. Cane has a way of looking at the world around him - the stuff that goes on within his family - and finding the whole thing ridiculously funny.
One thing I really like about this role and about the way Empire is written is that Cane is a gay man, but it's not a coming out story. Being gay is part of who Cane is, and he's fine with it. I appreciate how this has been set up.
LN: A lot of people are trying to include a gay twist in their web series - it's seems like it's the flavor of the month. In most cases, though, it feels like a stunt or an effort at making a "gay program." Empire has gay characters, but it doesn't feel like a "gay show." It doesn't feel like a show about gay characters who live in all-gay, all-the-time Gaytown. Cane is a gay man who is one of several people living in the world of Empire, period.
RC: Yes, that's true. That said, though, Empire embraces the campy, over-the-top aspect of soap opera. It may not be a "gay show", per se, but there's definitely a camp factor at work, which I think is fun.
The bottom line, for me, is story. I love a good story - who doesn't? The love of a good story is really what made me go into acting. In my mind, there are a few things that are necessary in life: eating, drinking, sleeping and stories. Some people might have the idea that just throwing a bunch of beautiful people on the screen is the formula for producing a successful series, but I disagree. It's nice to look at beautiful people, but if there's no substance, no story, there's nothing to keep me engaged. Greg and Brian (the writers of Empire) are hardcore soap opera fans. They love a good story, and they've developed a long-range plan for Empire that's all about good story-telling. Everyone involved with Empire wants to put out something that's exciting and engaging. If a soap delivers a good story, it's in a good place.
LN: While other people jumping on the web series bandwagon have had the advantage of big-name stars attached to their projects, and access to highly-visible, national press coverage, Empire sort of chugged along and produced a first season where, with very little money and almost no fanfare, an entire cast of characters was introduced, several stories were launched, and a really slick and original look was established. I love, for instance, the way you guys have integrated the fact that the Havens are a publishing family, and made Empire actually look like a newspaper. It's clever, and it's a great example of making the most of one's resources.
RC: Our director, Steven, worked hard on establishing that look, which just won an Indy Soap Award, by the way. And, yes, we've definitely made the most of what's been at our disposal. The study set, for instance, which was so prominent in season one of Empire, was actually built in the writers' apartment. As it turned out, they liked it and kept it.
In season two, people are definitely going to notice that we've upped the game in terms of production values. We're looking at product placement possibilities, and shooting in HD. David Brandon, who worked on Guiding Light, has joined as Empire's Consulting Producer. Also, Tina Sloan and Orlagh Cassidy have joined the cast, as well, which is exciting.
LN: Anyone who reads my blog knows that I'm a longtime fan of Tina Sloan, so having her and Orlagh Cassidy join Empire is a really exciting development from my point of view. Have you had a chance to work with them?
RC: I've done some work with Orlagh, but not with Tina. Without giving away any spoilers, I can say that both Tina and Orlagh will be involved with story lines connected to Cubby and Sandra Haven. Season one set up the Havens as the core family of Empire. Season 2 will branch out more. Cubby and Sandra will have their circle of friends and acquaintances, and my character, Cane, will have a more fully developed personal life. In season 2, viewers will see more of Cane's personal life, which was only hinted at in season one. They'll get to see how he is within the context of a relationship. This will also mean an expansion of the world of Empire, because Cane lives in Manhattan. Season 3 will explore Cane's professional life as a private investigator. I can't give away much, but I can say that viewers will be along for the ride as Cane shows off his tracking skills.
While I haven't had an oportunity to work with Tina, I took a chance and asked to "friend" her on Facebook, which she said yes to right away. I'm looking forward to actually meeting her in person when we have a wrap party for season 2, which going to be held at a karaoke place. If she's game, I'd love to do a karaoke duet with her!
LN: I've actually interviewed Tina and had some email contact with her. She's got a great sense of humor and loves to have a good time - I'm guessing Karaoke would be right up her alley. Tina is someone who's probably recognized in public all the time. Have you had that experience yet - of having someone recognize you in your "real life" as Cane?
RC: I've had it when I've done regional theater and then been recognized by someone at a shopping mall or whatever. It's left me with a warm glow, to have someone say, "Hey - I saw you in such-and-such play!" Who knows where my acting career will lead me? If I did wind up being someone who's recognized in public, or who reaches some level of fame, I have no idea how I'd handle it.
LN: I know you guys are still shooting season 2 of Empire. Do you have anything else lined up that you want to talk about?
RC: I'm mostly going for auditions, right now. I'm an actor first and foremost, but I want to try everything, and the song and dance thing is something I do enjoy from time to time. One of the shows I'm auditioning for is Carnival, for Goodspeed, which is pretty prestigious on the East Coast. As a person and as an actor, I don't ever want to get stuck in any one thing. Of course, one of the things about this industry is that you have to be willing to put yourself on a shelf, sometimes, and do a soap or a sitcom for 20 years."
One thing that I am very interested in is the power of the Internet as a tool for connecting with people. I've been building a website which is far from complete, but which is a work in progress. It's slow going, but it's getting there.
If you haven't seen Empire, catch up at www.empiretheseries.com where the entire first season is free to view.
Season 2 of Empire will be launched in April, 2010.