Louis Mustillo has had a prolific career. This actor turned playwright as been seen on TV in hit shows such as as "Man of the People" with James Garner, Steven Spielberg's "High Incident," and perhaps is best known for his re-occurring roles on the Emmy Award-winning series' "The Sopranos" and "Mike and Molly."
I had the pleasure of talking with Louis Mustillo about his play Bartenders and got the inside scoop of what prompted him to write about this often misunderstood profession.
Q: What inspired you to become a writer?
A: It wasn’t until I started auditioning in New York that I decided to start writing. I used to go to auditions where they would ask for a monologue, however, they would hear the same published monologues over and over again. The director would appear to become bored so I started writing my own monologues for auditions as a way to mix things up. When I completed the monologue, the director would ask who wrote it. I would make up a name that wasn’t me such as a friend of mine from my hone town of Buffalo, New York. After some time, I had written so many monologues that I had enough material to do my first solo show. Circumstances opened off-Broadway in 1987 at the Susan Bloch Theatre. That’s what got the ball rolling on my fascination and interest with writing one-man shows. It truly helped my career a lot.
Q: What are some of your most important influences as a writer and actor?
A: My acting and writing work are actually influenced by people I knew and experiences I encountered in Buffalo, New York City, and Los Angeles, most of which were not at all connected to the world of entertainment. I draw so much inspiration from walking around the streets of New York City or going to offbeat neighborhoods in Los Angeles such as Atwater Village where I get to observe all different types of people. It is essential to get away from the business and explore real life as that can prove to be the best acting class. Growing up in a blue-collar, Irish neighborhood in Buffalo, New York as a full-blooded Italian, I was always on the outside looking in. I grew up with an older and a younger sister but had no older brother to stick up for me. As an Italian family, we had different food, different holidays, and a whole different perspective on life than our Irish neighbors. If I told a neighborhood kid they were wrong, a fight could ensue. A bunch of Irish guys punching me in the head helped prepare me for the harshness of Hollywood.
Q: When did you decide to become a writer?
A: It was during the mid to late 80s when I decided to write on a regular basis. I started jotting down thoughts in journals and used those thoughts as a vehicle to move ahead as an actor. My writing was used as a way to create work for myself especially when acting jobs were scarce. It was difficult to get the attention of agents. If I wanted my acting career to progress, I knew I had to create my own body of work so I could position myself to stick out with agents and casting directors.
Q: What sort of training did you receive to become a writer?
A: I never had any formal training in writing. The best advice I got was from a famous playwright. He told me “Don’t worry about grammar or formalized structure. Try to write the way people actually talk in real life, whatever your interpretation of that is. You can always get someone to come in and look at the writing.” As valuable as that advice was, I started writing without thinking about grammar or sentence structure and it paid off. When someone would proof my writing, nothing would change structurally.
Q: What prompted you to write a play about Bartenders?
A: I wrote Bartenders as a tribute to my father who was a bartender for 54 years in my hometown of Buffalo, New York. It started with a monologue, which I performed in a series of one-act plays. I then went home and thought about all of the bartenders I had worked with and known that had left an impact on me. This made me want to formulate a play based on this profession, which is so under-appreciated.
Q: Bartenders posses a great deal of insider knowledge about the trade. Did you ever work as a bartender?
A: I took up bartending to financially supplement my acting career but I took bartending vey seriously. It was important to me to do the best job I could because I thought to myself, “I’m here and I have a job to do.” I never thought I was beyond being a bartender and made the very most of it. Believe it or not, bartenders who are good with their money could actually make six figures a year.
Q: Where did you work as a bartender?
A: I worked at two great places as a bartender in New York City. The first was Top of the Sixes on 5th Ave and 53rd Street. It was 33 stories up and overlooked Central Park. It was amazing. During my tenure at Top of the Sixes, I was cast in an off-Broadway show. I immediately notified management and then talked to the other bartenders to try to get my shifts covered. When the show got extended, the bar was unable to keep my shift opened so I was forced to leave. There were no hard feelings, as it is expected when working both as an actor and a bartender. Unfortunately, Top of the Sixes was sold and turned into a cigar club known as the Grand Havana Room during the 1990s cigar craze. Once my off-Broadway show closed, I took another job as a bartender at the Water Club on 33rd Street and the East River right on the water. That bar is still open to this very day. I would bartend Monday – Friday in the evening and then would audition during the day.
Q: Are the bartenders portrayed in the play based on real life bartenders?
A: The characters portrayed in Bartenders were all based on people I knew and had worked with when I was bartending.
BOBBY: The first character in the play is based on a combination of my father, a guy who trained me at Top of the Sixes and a bartender in Buffalo whom I worked with when I was a bar back. Using their personalities as well as the crazy stories I heard from each of them, I combined them into one voice.
RICHARD: Richard is based on a friend of mine, a career bartender who lost his girlfriend because he would not leave the bartending trade. She could not understand how he could do that for a living.
PATTY: Patty is based on a career bartender whom I had grown up with in Buffalo but who now works as a bartender at Smith and Wollenskys Grill in New York City. He had an incredibly distinctive speaking voice and was recently featured in a NY Times article.
BENNY: Benny is a combination of a bartender I knew who had a gambling problem and another bartender I had read about who got sued when he had served an inebriated patron. This patron eventually got behind the wheel and smashed his car into a telephone pole. The scary part is that the patron did not appear intoxicated to the bartender.
JIMMY: Jimmy is based on a guy I knew who had a drug problem, which caused him to eventually lose his bar. His drug problem eventually led him to contract AIDS in the 1980s due to a contaminated needle.
EDDIE: The last piece was based on a great friend of mine Eddie Grady who looked like the character of Haus Cartwright from "Bonanza," which was one of my favorite TV shows.
Q:What was the process like of bringing Bartenders from page to stage
A: Bartenders was written in about three weeks. I partnered with Janis Powell who would eventually go on to direct Bartenders. She was instrumental in helping me edit the script, which took about 1 month. Then, I needed to get the material on its feet so I could test it out. From here, I was able to see what worked and what didn’t work and then Janice and I would go back to the script to edit out the extra flab. This process repeated itself until all six characters were firmly cemented. Once the script was finalized, we held a backers audition and then immediately started rehearsing. The rehearsal period took about three weeks, which we rehearsed five days a week for approximately two – three hours a day.