When your parents are actors who’ve made careers taking on dark or difficult roles, it should come as no surprise to discover that you’ve inherited that characteristic. That’s one of the things that 24-year-old Gus Birney is discovering firsthand. Daughter of Tony winner Reed Birney (The Humans) and SAG Award winner Constance Schulman (Orange Is the New Black), Birney made her Broadway debut last year in a brief, devastating cameo in Lorraine Hansberry’s The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, playing Rachel Brosnahan’s ill-fated escort sister Gloria. This winter, she’s back at Brooklyn Academy of Music (where Brustein originated before moving boroughs) in Tadeusz Słobodzianek’s Our Class, a drama that follows the lives and deaths of 10 Polish students in the time leading up to a 1941 pogrom in the village of Jedwabne.
In Igor Golyak’s new staging (running through February 4 at BAM’s Fisher Fishman Space), Birney plays Dora, a young Jewish mother who is eventually among that pogrom’s casualties. Like Gloria in Brustein, it’s a small-ish part, but one that haunts the play throughout. And Birney is up for the challenge.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
I loved your performance in Sidney Brustein. It’s a hard role in a hard play, and I think you did it beautifully.
Thank you. I learned a lot doing it. It was hard.
Our Class is no slouch either.
Oh my gosh, you’re telling me. What’s on the page is very difficult, and I think Igor, the director, is trying to create this whole other world, visually. If we pull it off, it’ll be gorgeous.
I saw the Cherry Orchard project he did during in 2022.
There was a robot onstage, right?
It was cool. It felt like going to the planetarium.
So, Jessica Hecht, who was in it, had reached out to me about The Orchard. I think Anna Baryshnikov, who I know from Dickinson, was supposed to be in it but ended up having to drop out, and Jessica told me that I had to audition. I wasn’t available during that time, but I clocked Igor as a director, and he was an interesting person.
I read for Dora [in Our Class] over the summer. I feel like this is me, humble-bragging, but apparently, they were seeing a lot of girls and couldn’t find the right one for it. It’s interesting, because she is, I think, the smallest role in the play, but she’s this flavor that’s important to be correct. I don’t know. I did a couple of meetings with him and some of the other cast, and that was it. And I’m having such an amazing time doing it.
What was it like when you realized that you’re going to have to go through Dora’s traumatic journey eight times a week?
Obviously, I was very intimidated. But there’s also something about being surrounded by a group of people who you trust and know have your back. The second I met the guys who are going to be in the scene where she has a lot of horrible stuff happen to her, and I met Igor, and I got a sense of the energy in the room, I knew I was going to be OK.
Sidney Brustein wasn’t your first time at the rodeo, but it was your first big, New Yorky, Broadway project. What did you learn from that experience, and how are you implementing it for your Our Class run?
Doing Sidney Brustein last year was one of the most transformative experiences of my life, not only as an actor, but as a human being. Anything after feels almost like, “OK, I know I can do this. I just went through something hard, and I have taught my soul how to handle going to a really dark place.”
Anyone who says they saw it, I’m always like, “Which did you see, BAM or Broadway?” It took me the entire BAM run to figure out what I wanted to do with the role and how to own my space. When I heard it was moving to Broadway, I was so happy, not only because I got to go to Broadway, but also because I got another try at it. I understood the character so much better after the first run. It is like trial and error. You have to be willing to fail and take risks. What I really learned is to not be afraid to fail up there.
For Our Class, I’m just trying to be fearless. I told myself that I didn’t want to be held back by the weight of being afraid to fail or be silly. Igor really wants us to have this childlike freedom, and it’s a beautiful experience. He’s an unending spout of creativity, and he’s trying to put that onto all of us. I’m trying to tap into that side of myself.
Did you go to your parents for advice? Were they helpful in your figuring it out?
Yeah. I lived with them throughout the whole run — I only moved out over the summer, which feels a little late in the game.
Thank you. Also, New York is expensive. But anyway, they saw the ebbs and flows and the highs and the lows of the run. The best advice they gave me was to take care of myself as a human being first. Going up onstage when you mentally don’t feel like it is hard. It’s such a funny thing; in TV, you’re sitting around for so long, but in theater, you have to go up there in front of all these people every night. I mean, I’m saying the obvious, but I don’t think I understood what doing a six-month run of something was like, where my life is happening alongside the play. One day, you feel like crap, but you’re like, “Oh, I still have to go up there and kill myself at the end of this play.” I will forever be so thankful for my family having my back throughout that and giving me the support and care I needed.