P.J. Byrne turned a lot of heads as Nicky “Rugrat” Koskoff in The Wolf Of Wall Street, yet that role followed more than a decade of appearances in big movies and television shows. With previous credits including Horrible Bosses, Final Destination 5, The Legend Of Korra and It’s Always Sunny In Phildelphia, P.J. has been steadily working in both comedies and dramas. Not bad for a guy that nearly became an investment banker after finishing his undergraduate studies at Boston College.
Working with Martin Scorsese yet again, P.J. is now earning his acclaim for his portrayal of Scott Leavitt — the head of legal for fictional-yet-believable record label American Century – in the new HBO series Vinyl. Created by Scorsese, Mick Jagger, Rich Cohen and Terrence Winter, Vinyl is a single-camera drama rooted in the seedy 1970s music business. The rock-centric series premiered on Feb. 14, launching a 10-episode first season, and is rumored to have Andrew Dice Clay in a recurring role.
On behalf of Downtown, I had the opportunity to interview P.J., a native of Old Tappan, New Jersey who owns a home in Brooklyn. Aside from Vinyl, P.J. recent sold a script titled Brothers Of The Bride, which is on slate to be produced by Ben Stiller’s Red Hour Productions. P.J. had some great “last words” within our Q&A. For more of that, you can follow him on Twitter via handle @PJ_Byrne.
As you’re starring in such a music-centric show, I figured I’d ask what you first concert was…
P.J. Byrne: The Violent Femmes at the Beacon Theatre. I was a freshman in high school, and it was just me with four of the most beautiful girls in the sophomore class. We drove there in a stretch limo and I thought I was for sure the coolest man on the planet. I would happily have dated anyone of those girls. Subsequently, I never even held hands with any of them.
As the story goes, you nearly wound up as an investment banker after studying at Boston College. Bankers and lawyers aren’t too far one when considering the work atmosphere, culture, and the financial expectations. Is there any of you in Scott Leavitt?
P: I have come to look at record men the same way I look at venture capitalists. We are all trying to find the next new thing, and when we do we lock it into a contract and throw money at it to help it succeed and pray to god it pays off. And having a finance degree, I instinctively understand how dire the situation our company is in on the show and I use it to help me get into character. It has literally made me sweat in scenes.
Did your working with Martin Scorsese in The Wolf Of Wall Street factor into your casting in Vinyl?
P: It had everything to do with it. Period. I think he knows if he asks me to run through a wall I would never second guess him, and on top of that, I would speedily calculate the exact dimensions of what materials were used and what time of day it was installed. I would also inquire if the carpenter was in a happy relationship and if he likes chewing gum. And then — without hesitation – I would strategically run through the wall in a interesting and humorous manner. And it certainly didn’t hurt that our fantastic show-runner Terry Winter wrote Wolf, our legendary casting director Ellen Lewis cast Wolf, and my favorite producer, Emma Koskoff, produced both as well.
Prior to landing Vinyl, had you worked with any of the cast in other film or TV projects?
P: Yes. Emily [Tremaine] and Mackenzie [Meehan] and I were in similar scenes on Wolf together. And that’s always nice to show up on set knowing some great actors who already happen to be your friends. But something very interesting happened with Bobby [Cannavale], Ray [Romano], J.C. [MacKenzie] and I on day one of shooting the pilot, even though we had never worked together. Right from the first shot we all settled in to our interactions with each other so incredibly fast. It was like we had been playing these characters for years together.
Does being a show called Vinyl bring you any pressure to listen to music on record? Or at least listen to more music from the 1970s?
P: It does. There is also something relaxing about the process of unsheathing a record, placing it on the record player and gently dropping the needle. Then that moment is immediately ruined by my two-year old, who has to touch anything that moves. But I’m genetically-programmed to love her, so it’s all good.
A lot of people seem to be focusing in on who’s producing Vinyl and that it’s about the dirty end of the 1970s music business. Is there something that you wish more people knew about the show?
P: Some shows lean in to PLOT or STORY, Marty and Terry are about character, character, character. They aim to find the real human side of people and what makes them tick. Then it’s our jobs as actors to bring that grounded, individual originality to the table and hopefully we met their expectations.
Many of the shows and movies you’ve appeared in have taken place on the East Coast. As a native of New Jersey, what brought about your move to Los Angeles?
P: After I received my MFA in Acting from DePaul [University], I wanted to get into the film and television business, and at the time there was a lot more opportunity in L.A. then NYC. Also after spending three winters in Chicago, moving to L.A. didn’t sound like a bad idea.
Is there anything that you miss about living on the East Coast?
P: Yes, having the option to eat the Spedini at Angelo’s in Little Italy at any moment. You can bury me in that sauce. Also, my dear friends just opened a place around the corner from me in Williamsburg called Lilia, and I dream about the Cacio De Pepe Fritelle. I also have my dentist on the East Coast, Dr. Frank DePaola in Hoboken. He’s the best. He’s also my cousin.
Do you have a professional accomplishment that you’re most proud of?
P: I don’t know if I would call it an accomplishment, but I’m definitely happy to be in a better financial position to help students get an education. My parents instilled in me how important it is to help others, and they always gave back to their alma maters. Now I certainly don’t have enough money to name a building or an auditorium, but I think I named the next best thing.
So if you ever find yourself in Chicago and you need to relieve yourself, by all means swing by the Theatre School at DePaul University and hit up the P.J. and Jaime Byrne Restroom. No joke, it’s real.
When you’re not busy with your career, how do you like to spend your free time?
P: I’m a kid from New Jersey and my grandfather grew up on a farm in Sicily. So I’m at my happiest growing tomatoes in my garden or sharing what my Pop taught me with my daughter and nieces and nephews and making gravy and meatballs for my friends and family. Swing by, I’ll cook for you. Also, if any of this can happen with a big screen TV playing a Clippers, Knicks or anything college basketball in the background, I’ve hit nirvana.
Finally, P.J., any last words for the kids?
P: Yeah. My Dad worked for IBM his whole career. I love IBM! And in 1975, a researcher named Benoit Mandelbrot conceived fractal geometry — the concept that seemingly irregular shapes can have identical structure at all scales. This new geometry makes it possible to describe mathematically the kinds of irregularities existing in nature. Fractals later made a great impact on engineering, economics, metallurgy, art and health sciences, and are also applied in the field of computer graphics and animation. So kids, if you are wondering why you have dope cartoons and video games, thank IBM and my man Benoit.
-by Darren Paltrowitz