If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere, goes the saying—which certainly applies to New York-born actor Sam Vartholomeos. Hailing from Queens, Vartholomeos has been garnering buzz with his most recent project—starring alongside actor Tom Holland in Apple TV’s new original series The Crowded Room. With an impressive repertoire in past projects including Star Trek: Discovery and Bridge and Tunnel, the 28-year-old actor shows a promising grip on the industry in the years to come.
As the psychological thriller series nears its finale, VMAN caught up with Vartholomeos to talk about his roles and discuss what more he has in store for the future.
VMAN: Can you tell us a bit of a brief background from how you made your early beginnings in the industry to now? Have you always known that you wanted to start a career in acting or how did this aspiration come about?
Sam Vartholomeos: Some of my earliest memories of acting were in Greek plays at the community theater, put on by the cultural center in the neighborhood I grew up in, Astoria, Queens. I was raised in a blue-collar family, and I had a wrench in my hand way before a script, but my mind never wavered from my acting pursuits. I was the kid in the middle of the dance circle at weddings. I was obsessed, and still am, with Frank Sinatra. I re-enacted movies I’d watched with my dad, not always age-appropriate films. Being comfortable in front of an audience, and able to put on different personas paved the way to being an actor or a politician. I went with the thespian. A great friend and neighbor recommended that I audition for LaGuardia High School of the Performing Arts. After an intense audition process, I had an amazing four years of training unlike any other (although with all the familiar angst). The director of the drama department at the time, Sandy Faison, brought out the best in every actor in that program. I took a year off after graduating, and during that time, she guided me and introduced me to her husband, Todd Susman who became my coach and mentor and I still work with them to this day.
From there, I found representation and booked every job that came my way… I wish. I found myself being the runner-up. Close, but no cigar. There were a lot of teaching moments and generous people who put their trust in me to allow me to grow as an actor. Moments others label as “mistakes” should never be seen as such by actors. We should be allowed to fall flat on our faces. Sometimes people prefer that. I’ve had the privilege of working with some of the industry’s most respected creatives, such as Ed Burns, Akiva Goldsman, and Ethan Coen. As confident as I was that this was what I’d do for the rest of my life, as I got older, familial and societal pressures tested that drive. I have a little mantra I say to myself when times are dull: I can do something else, but I can’t imagine not doing this.
VMAN: What are some aspirations or ventures that you hope to accomplish in the near future following this role? How do you hope to grow as an actor?
SV: I’d love to be in a feature film. I’m also itching to get back on stage. I’d been in Ethan Coen’s “A Play Is A Poem,” alongside the gem that is Micaela Diamond, at the Mark Taper Forum in LA. It was supposed to have a run at the Atlantic in New York, but it was canceled due to COVID. I have a small role in Ethan and Tricia Cooke’s upcoming film Drive-Away Dolls that I’m really excited about. I feel blessed to have worked with generous, and talented creatives like Ethan, Akiva, Eddie, and Tom Holland. I believe good people find good people, and I’d love to keep that ball rolling. A uniform lesson I’ve learned from them is to do your own stuff. Whatever that may be, writing, directing; keep the creative juices flowing, because the phone doesn’t always ring.
VMAN: What can you tell us about your character Mike and how he fits into the development of the storyline and dynamic within the show, The Crowded Room?
SV: Mike is a beam of light juxtaposed with the darkness surrounding Danny. He’s a jock, but a nice Jock. The kind of guy you’d want to talk about your day with, good or bad. He makes you feel like you’re the most important person in the room. I worked closely with Tom [Holland] and his acting coach, Ben Perkins on developing Mike and Danny’s dynamics. We settled on [the idea that] Mike is like Tom. He’s effortlessly charming and makes you feel better from the moment you see him. When he’s with you, he’s [actually] with you. I liked Mike right from the audition side. One scene was about him stepping in to help Danny during a pretty intense confrontation with a dangerous dude, and I couldn’t help but admire his charm, and wit even under such conditions. I’m not sure if there’s anyone who wouldn’t want Mike in their corner. Perhaps masochists, and misanthropes. Plus, he’s so New York. He has this “fahgettaboudit” attitude about everything. Where others see problems, he sees solutions. Johnny has a similar outlook, but his methods are quite different, I called them the three amigos. I hope the “amigos” I grew up with agree that there’s a great deal of me in Mike. If you call me, I’ll answer. If I can’t help you in a pinch, it’ll haunt me forever. I’m the “let’s do it,” friend, and if there’s an obstacle, I turn into the “let’s do it anyway,” friend. Let’s see how long I stay out of trouble.
VMAN: With the experience working on this show, in terms of the environment and process in preparation, how has it been different than previous projects that you’ve acted in?
SV: It was different because I was working with a mixture of acting legends, up-and-comers, and first-timers. In previous jobs, I felt like the new kid on the block. The different experience levels made me feel like I was honing my skills while learning from the seasoned vets; a process that I’m sure will continue for the duration of my career. My individual process was the same as any project, and it starts from the audition. Similarly to the way Ed Burns works, I was encouraged to discover the character and given carte blanche to put my own spin on him. To find the Mike in me, as I liked to put it. It always helps me to have an archetype for the character, and Mike’s was Mr. Walter “Clyde” Frazier of the New York Knicks. The stigma for film and television is that they’re quite isolating in terms of preparation. Actors will rehearse by themselves, and come to set ready with their own interpretation of a scene. However, I enjoyed how collaborative Tom, Akiva, and our talented directors were throughout. Part of the series is inspired by aspects of Akiva’s own life. I’m always cognizant of the sensitive nature of personal projects for the writer and director. Being a period show, I also looked to him for accurate dialogue and movement. Akiva was a wealth of knowledge about the entire period. For instance, we had a scene in a pharmacy, and I had no idea old-school pharmacies doubled as breakfast and lunch spots. Imagine getting Xanax and a burger from the same place!
VM: From meeting and working alongside fellow actors Tom Holland and Amanda Seyfried, could you describe what the cast dynamic was like on-set?
SV: I met Amanda at the table read, and she was a ray of sunshine. I’m also upset that I didn’t get to meet her dog, Finn. I’d occasionally bring my German shepherd, Duke, to set and they definitely would’ve been great friends. Between scene changes were some of my favorite moments. In one chair, or more often than not, an Asian squat, you had the talented Sasha Lane reading, only looking up when the legend Lior Raz told some insane true story about his life. Lior and the witty Jason Isaacs, whom I’d worked with on “Star Trek: Discovery,” along with Akiva, playing backgammon on an iPad. Sweet Levon [Hawke] playing the guitar or asking some philosophical question, and me wondering how the hell I got lucky enough to call these people my peers.
On a show of this caliber, with actors, directors, and a creative team like this, there were times when I didn’t feel super confident to speak up, ask for another take, or whatever. We had just finished my coverage of a scene and were moving on to cover Tom, and he noticed I was just off. Without making a big deal of it, he asked if I wanted another take, and I told him, yes. He later pulled me aside and encouraged me to advocate for myself if something doesn’t feel right. I gained confidence on set that I was hesitant to exude before that. It’s a representation of how well he balanced his role as lead actor and executive producer. I get really attached to the jobs I book, and sometimes the jobs I don’t book too. This one was no exception. The people I meet on set become my extended family. I want them to feel good and have full stomachs. I’d bring cookies to set, and on my last day, a Greek version of a donut called loukoumades. As temporary as the relationships are, I still frequently chat with some of the cast, and crew. I made lasting memories on and off set, and friendships that will last just as long.
VMAN: Reflecting on your current and past roles, which has been by far your most favorite and challenging?
SV: Is it cliche to say this one? Too bad! The dichotomy between the different sides of The Crowded Room, and Mike being the lighter side of it was the most challenging and rewarding part of this job. You said “past,” so I’ll give you another one, my character in Ethan Coen’s A Play Is A Poem. I seem to keep working with respected and celebrated people in the industry, and Ethan is definitely a legend. The role required a 1917 Natchez, Mississippi accent, and I was definitely up for the task. I love accents. Ethan and our director Neal Pepe our director later told me that I was the only actor who auditioned with a dialect. Ethan writes poetry, and respecting that poetry while making it my own was the most challenging part of that job, not the miles of dialogue I had to memorize. You want to and need to do his words justice. I enjoyed working with Ethan tremendously because, while he will let you know when he wants something said or done a certain way and there’s always a good reason for it, he’s open to your interpretation of his work. Someone once told me a set is a dictatorship, not a democracy, but I think Ethan knows when to relinquish power. All the geniuses do, you can see and hear the gears turning in his head.
All Photography by Emily Assiran