Home » Cory Michael Smith | Rising Star

Cory Michael Smith | Rising Star

PASSPORT Profile

by Richard Nahem

Smith co-starred with Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore in the Oscar Nominated Film May December, as well as starring in the hit Netflix series Transatlantic.

Photo by Brian Bowen Smith

In 2023, actor Cory Michael Smith had a banner year in his steadily rising career. He co-starred with Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore in May December, which was directed by Todd Haynes

A favorite of Haynes, Smith has appeared in two other of his films including Carol and Wonderstruck. Smith’s other breakout role in 2023 was the lead in the hit Netflix series Transatlantic, where he portrayed real-life character Varian Fry, a closeted gay man who helped smuggle Jewish artists and writers, including Chagall, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, and Andre Breton, out of from France to Spain during the Nazi occupation. He also received a Critic’s Choice nomination for his role in Olive Kitteridge, starring opposite Frances McDormand. Television fans will remember Smith as the Riddler for five seasons on the popular show Gotham.

Where were you born and where did you grow up?

Columbus and Hilliard, Ohio. It was a very middle-class, suburban upbringing with two working-class parents, neither of whom were artistic in their endeavors; but I’m very grateful they moved and put us in a highly rated school district which, at the time, had robust music and theater programs. A little story: I had a brilliant drama teacher in high school named Gail Griffith, who, with the help of a few other teachers, grew this remarkable theater program with four tiers of acting classes, a directing class, and at least six productions over the course of a school year produced in two different performance spaces. It’s truly remarkable what she built. I was able to honor her years later at a convocation in front of the faculty and staff from the entire district. At that point, due to budget cuts, the district had dismantled her program, and she was teaching English literature. I was able to thank her publicly on behalf of the many students she impacted through her drama program, and her fellow teachers gave her a well-deserved standing ovation for her indelible contribution to so many students’ lives, mine included.

When did you know you wanted to be an actor? Were there other career pursuits you had in high school besides acting?

I started in community theater around sixth grade after my fifth-grade music teacher recommended to my parents that they take me for an audition. I always enjoyed it, but I initially thought I’d pursue either a career in piano performance or take a more academic route in pre-law. While in high school, I had shadowed a couple of lawyers when they would argue in court in downtown Columbus. It was late in high school when I decided to audition to study drama in college. Gail’s program had a massive impact on my growth as an actor, and I felt that it was potentially a viable career path. That said, once I was in college, I questioned whether it was the “right” direction for my life, and I came very close to dropping my drama major for philosophy to work toward going to law school.

What was it like working with Frances McDormand in the series Olive Kitteridge? 

Frances was incredibly kind to me, and very ingratiating. Frances is a master. She’s powerful, on screen and off. It was my first major job on camera, so this was the project where I felt totally overwhelmed. Getting used to the functioning of a film set; having multiple cameras on my face with different lenses labeled in size by numbers that I didn’t understand. It was such a learning curve after spending years acting with my full body in front of a stationary audience, with an energetic level high enough to fill an entire theater. In Olive Kitteridge, I was portraying a man who wanted to disappear by ending his life. He was small and quiet and secretive and in so much pain. It required a kind of realistic performance that wouldn’t work on stage. It would be way too small. I was prepared, but very intimidated playing a character who wanted to evaporate opposite Frances, a force of nature. It remains one of the most important moments of my career because I trusted my instincts about skating on the utter fragility of this character at this moment in time and trusting that the minutiae of his thoughts would be seen on my face. I was able to play all of that very honestly with Frances, and it was a turning point for me, both in understanding better my craft and trusting my instincts.

One of your first breakout roles for television was playing the Riddler in the series Gotham. Please tell us about that experience.

There was something operatic about the scale of Gotham. It was a heightened, anachronistic, surreal world with outrageous production design by Doug Kraner and Richard Berg. Of all the work I’ve done on camera, it’s the piece that is most like theater. That said, what I grew to love about working on camera was the difference in the working environment. I loved crafting a character who was able to massively evolve over five years. I loved making very bold choices day after day, take after take, and learning what worked and what didn’t without a public audience present. And this series in particular exposed me to a global audience, by which I’m continually baffled and supremely grateful.

 

Cory Michael Smith in the film 1985 (Photo by Dutch Rall)

In 2018, you starred in and produced the film 1985. Please share with us about this project and what it meant to you. 

It’s a film written and directed by Yen Tan, shot on black and white 16mm film. It’s meant to feel like a time capsule piece when you watch it. A man in his late-20s goes home to Texas for Christmas in 1985 after years of not visiting from NYC, and he spends a handful of days with his parents and much younger brother and his best friend from high school. His lived experience as a gay man in NYC at the beginning of the AIDS crisis is something that has massively changed him, but he can’t share it with his family. We watch a man, unsure of his future, trying to commune with his past, and it’s an impossible task. “AIDS” and “gay” are words never uttered in the film, but it’s a film about what’s not said. It’s about the secrets we keep from each other, and the inexplicable, often difficult love we have for our family. I’m incredibly proud of this film. It is the piece that has gifted me the most emotionally cathartic interactions with viewers afterward.

 

May December, Cory Michael Smith as Georgie Atherton (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

You worked with Todd Haynes in the film Carol in 2015, and this year on May December. What was the experience like on both films?

I’ve actually made three films with Todd Haynes: Carol, Wonderstruck, and May December. I am immensely grateful to Todd for his continued invitations into his world and his work. He’s another master with whom I’ve had the privilege and pleasure of collaborating. He forces all of us to question our world and our morality and our sense of identity. And I cannot say enough about his encyclopedic knowledge of film and filmmakers. Todd is a man who loves to reference others’ works in a tradition of homage and inspiration. He has danced with the ghosts of cinema and has crafted a menagerie of some of our greatest modern films. And I pinch myself that I’m included in some of them. I hope I have the honor of being in more.

 

Cory Michael Smith in Transatlantic (Photo by Anika Molnár)

Earlier this year you were the lead in the Netflix series Transatlantic. How did this role come to you and what was it like shooting on location in the South of France? 

I auditioned for this project because it was being created by Anna Winger, who is most known for creating Unorthodox. She’s a wildly intelligent, ambitious visionary, and I was delighted she invited me to join her in Marseille to tell this story about a real-life hero named Varian Fry. I don’t often get hired to play the hero, so I was game to try that on for a change. And it was one of the most magical periods of my life. I would wake up every day in the diverse and vibrant port city of Marseille, a city I grew to deeply love; daily witnessing the melding of French, North African, and Middle Eastern cultures; and to meditate on my admiration for the work of Varian Fry: rescuing and protecting Jewish refugees wrongfully persecuted by a fascist Nazi government. I spent half a year meditating on what we are all capable of doing when we are willing to fight for what is truly good and righteous. It has inspired my collaboration with the International Rescue Committee, an organization born from Varian Fry’s work, to learn more about and support the humanitarian work of helping those in need at a time when armed conflict, climate crises, food insecurity, and economic turmoil are all on the rise.

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