This prolific performer and writer also has his eye on design.
Former Metrosource cover guy Bryan Batt has done theater, film and television, but in addition to his work as a performer, this Renaissance man writes, designs and is co-owner of a notable New Orleans destination for elegant home accessories. We caught up to see how he makes time for it all.
Tell us about the one-man shows you’ve been doing.
A dear friend of mine in New Orleans who owned a wonderful cabaret space there asked right when people were coming back after [Hurricane Katrina]. She said, “I need you to put together a benefit show for the displaced actors and musicians. There’s no entertainment; people are going crazy.” And I said, “Sure!” And then I realized I’d never really done that before. I’ve done a lot of Broadway and other kind of performances — usually with costumes, lights, sets, hydraulics and other people — not just me and a piano. But I did it, and I had a blast. It was one of the scariest but most fulfilling theatrical experiences, mainly because it’s a direct connection between the performer and the audience. Basically I just told fun stories and sang my favorite songs. It went very well and organically morphed into a show called Batt on a Hot Tin Roof, which I was later booked to do in London, Australia, and all over [the U.S.]. … I’m putting together a brand new show for London called Bryan’s Song; I’m sure I’ll be performing it soon in NYC or New Orleans.
What songs do you sing and how do you choose?
Everything from Billy Joel to Cole Porter to Joni Mitchell (my pal Patricia Clarkson suggested that one, and I love it). Also, there are some original parody lyrics that my friend [novelist and multiple-Emmy Award winning writer]Joe Keenan wrote … for “Anything Goes” as if Porter were alive today. … One of my favorite lines is: “When Grandma’s face is pulled so tightly / she looks like a Keira Knightley / whose eyes won’t close: Anything Goes!”
How did you start writing in addition to performing?
I realized at a relatively young age that fear is paralyzing. It’s stifling and crippling. Besides acting, I’ve always loved writing and designing. So I finally just said, “Why not? Other people are doing it.” If you have a message you want to share, a story you want to tell, if you have a passion for something: try it, do it. What’s the worst that could happen? You could fail. We fail all the time. That’s really how you learn. The last thing I want on my deathbed is to look back with regret, wishing I had tried. I also have grown not to really care what people think about me that much. I know my heart’s in the right place. So I’ve written two books, a memoir: She Ain’t Heavy: She’s My Mother and a design/decor book: Big Easy Style.
You and Tom Cianfichi have been together for 27 years but were just married a couple years ago.
In the fall of 2014. It was the BEST night of my life. It defies description. I never thought we needed it, but we did and do!
Tell us about Hazelnut, the store you two co-own.
Everyone automatically thinks it’s an antiques store, which it is not. It’s a collection of gifts, tabletop home accessories, personal accessories and small furniture … basically a cross section of our tastes. I hate to use “eclectic,” but it is eclectic. There’s a relaxed sophistication about it. I once heard a retail motto that one should stock a certain percentage of things you like and things that you don’t like but [that] will sell … and we can’t do that. We only sell things we love or respect their design elements. I’ve designed several unique and exclusive things for Hazelnut [hazelnutneworleans.com]. … The Big Easy is celebrating its 300th anniversary, and we’ve been asked by the city to create items specifically for that.
As our interview with Bryan Batt continues, he discusses his Mad Men days, how modern audiences see Jeffrey, and why he loves filming Scream in New Orleans.
In hindsight, what was Mad Men like for you?
It was the best! We had no idea what was going to happen … then suddenly, we were in one of the best TV series ever! Mad Men was the first basic cable drama of the same quality of pay network series. AMC truly believed in us, invested in us; … if our first season were on any other network, it probably would have been cancelled. The characters and scripts were so brilliantly written, [the actors] didn’t need to know anything except the scene you were doing right there and then. Everything was taken care of, handled in the perfect manner. Aesthetically too: costumes, sets, lighting, everything. Matt [Weiner] and the producers were never going to let anything be less that perfect. All of these elements allowed the actors [to feel] secure and free with no worries but to do the work.
How about your theatrical career? What are some of the highlights?
I remember when I was cast in Cats on the road and then quickly transferred into the Broadway company. With all due respect, that company has been running for, like, eight years; some people were, well, kind of “over it.”And here I show up: bright eyed and bushy-tailed, thrilled to be back on Broadway. There was some adjusting. … I must say Sunset Boulevard was a magical Broadway experience. It was fun to be in the big hit of the season. We were always written up in the press and had something going on. Glenn was fantastic, and then my buddy Betty Buckley came in, and it was a wonderful experience — to be in the show that wins all the awards and was the talk of the town is really thrilling. Around the same time, I had the good fortune to do a breakthrough play called Jeffrey and reprise my role in the film. It was the most charmed experience from beginning until the end. God bless Paul Rudnick for writing such a wonderful comedy that really cut to the core of the terrifying AIDS crisis, basically telling people that — despite horrible adversity, disease, prejudice, etcetera — finding love is what we all want and need.
Do you think Jeffrey is still as relevant today?
Several months ago, we did a reading of the play to see how it would work today. I played the older role of “Sterling” — the Patrick Stewart part — along with a stellar cast, including my pal Michael Urie in the title role. It was very interesting and fulfilling to have the opportunity to see and perform that great script from a different perspective. I am older, wiser and a designer of sorts; so it’s perfect casting in a way. The play truly held up. It still is hysterical. It still is very moving. But what I found most interesting is that younger people in the audience — the people who really didn’t live through what we all lived through — were laughing louder and [more] emotionally wrought at the end. They were crying and very moved by the piece. When I spoke with some of them afterwards, they said that they had no idea what we all went through, what it was like in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s before all of the breakthroughs in HIV medication. This is something that is not taught, our history. Young people have to seek it out, go to the Internet and really search. Maybe because it was such a difficult time — with friends dying left and right, memorials on a daily basis, not to mention the fear and bigotry. Although the LGBT community has made incredible strides in a relatively short time, there is still work to do and ongoing prejudice to overcome. I think Jeffrey is extremely relevant today, and I would love to see it on Broadway.
How have you maintained such a long-lasting relationship?
Most things can be worked out … unless someone has a serious character flaw that is toxic or nonnegotiable — like serial killing or something like that. There will be problems; … we’re all human beings, and we all have our issues and quirks. If we really make an effort, we can deal with each other’s problems and survive them. You fall in love with someone and make the decision to commit to them, and then stick by it if that’s what you really want. I love the fact that [Tom and I have been] together this many years.
How did you guys come up with Hazelnut for your shop?
My grandmother’s name was Hazel and she was a nut!
What prompted you to open the store?
We’ve always loved home decor and interior design, … shopping, decorating, and entertaining. Tom did a great deal of window design … then worked in different beautiful retail shops on Madison Avenue in New York for many years. Finally his bosses said: “You really have to do this on your own.” We thought, “Where would be the best place?” … We knew we loved New Orleans, and Magazine Street is a five-mile stretch of individually-owned shopping, which really doesn’t exist anywhere else. I’m from there originally, my whole family is there, and it’s a great town. So we chose New Orleans; then the hurricane happened. Tom and I hunkered down, got back as soon as we could, reopened, and it’s been booming ever since!
You’re currently filming MTV’s Scream in New Orleans, right?
Yeah! Last season was Baton Rouge, and this season is New Orleans. It’s much easier now that it’s in my backyard!
So what’s next?
Scream is filming into the summer. I have a week off to go to London to do my show, … and then I join rehearsals with Betty Buckley and Rachel York for Grey Gardens in LA at the Ahmanson Theatre. … I’ll be playing “Gould” and I cannot wait! Then — who knows?! That’s the one thing about being an actor: You never know where the next paycheck is coming from — I might be in the store gift-wrapping packages.
And what is it about New Orleans? What keeps bringing you back home again?
I think there’s something in the water? No, I’m kidding. I was born and raised there, and I knew it was special. The music, the food, the architecture … but really the people and the slower pace; … I love not always being in a rush all the time. [Although] my husband would disagree: he still thinks my doppelganger is the Tasmanian Devil.
Last modified: October 16, 2017