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Actor-musician takes another leap of faith

Actor-musician likes to hurl himself into unknown territories

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When Jeremy DeCarlos was in eighth grade, he and Destiny met at the top of a 40-foot telephone pole.

The point of Project Adventure was to climb that pole, stand on the summit and leap five feet to a trapeze suspended in front of you, then be lowered to earth.

DeCarlos had already reached the last rung of the pole and frozen. The second time, he got to this paralysis point and told himself, “No! You have to keep going.” So he climbed up to the tiny radius at the top – and leapt.

That’s the story of his career.

“As an actor, I keep coming across that telephone pole,” he says. “When I don’t know if I can do something, if it breaks me out of my comfort zone, I say, ‘Yes.’ ”

Yes to college, proving to his family he could finish after quitting once to be a performer. Yes to Actors Equity Association in his early 20s, though he knew a union tie might limit local theatrical opportunities. Yes to a 2004 debut at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, with a nude scene in the baseball-themed drama “Take Me Out.”

His latest jump into the unknown opens in previews Friday. Actor’s Theatre is doing John Logan’s “Red,” the two-person, Tony-winning play of 2010. DeCarlos plays Ken, the assistant who’s trying to get famed painter Mark Rothko (played by Rob Kahn) through a tough commission.

In person, DeCarlos looks like a Beat poet 50 years after his time: slender, slightly bearded, stroking his chin in thought and murmuring “Indeed, indeed,” to convey agreement after pondering an idea.

Yet what Beat poet would have joined Air Force ROTC in high school, taught Sunday school at church and plunged into music as a classical violinist before joining a power-punk trio on guitar? DeCarlos is proof that moving waters run deep, too.

A life spent in transit

The 31-year-old actor has been in motion since boyhood. He was born in Florence, S.C., and relocated to Columbia with his mother, disc jockey Koko DeCarlos, in first grade. Yet they drove an hour every Sunday to attend an AME church in Marion.

“That was the church we had historically gone to, and we stayed there,” he recalls. “By the time I graduated from high school, I was its Sunday school superintendent. My uncle had done that for years, and when he died, the pastor came to me and said, ‘We expect you to do this now.’

“It helped with what I do today, because I’d take that (Bible) script and interpret it in a way the congregation could understand. My church and family pushed me toward seminary, but when the congregation asked what I wanted to be, I said, ‘An actor.’ And there was a confused hush.”

Drama has always won these psychic battles. DeCarlos rose to the rank of cadet colonel at Irmo High School and applied to the U.S. Air Force Academy. “I enjoyed the camaraderie and structure of ROTC,” he says. “But at the end of the day, I felt more comfortable being an individual.”

And DeCarlos has always preferred to follow his instincts. He loathed regular music class in elementary school. So when an orchestra teacher extracted kids who had signed up to play an instrument, he rose and trotted off as if he belonged.

“The teacher knew I hadn’t signed up but asked what I wanted to play. I’d heard another kid say ‘Violin’ and thought, ‘I’ll have what he’s having.’ ” He ended up in a master class and played for Colin Powell and John McCain on visits to Columbia.

Ever restless, DeCarlos taught himself guitar and helped form the short-lived trio “Good, Not Evil” in 2004. Playgoers now see him in pit bands for musicals, especially when Marty Gregory is music director.

“As a guitarist, he’s particularly sensitive to the mood of whatever we are playing,” Gregory says. “He’s an excellent improvisationalist, which I think comes from being self-taught. Rather than being an excellent technician who sight-reads well – he can do that, too – he has the ability to take whatever’s there and embellish it.

“I remember a Queen City production where I went onstage during the bows to get an award. As the musicians (struck) up the exit music, I raced back to the pit – and Jeremy was in total control, playing the keyboard and leading the band! A solo guitar line was coming up, so he eased off the end of the keyboard bench and grabbed the guitar. That was very Jeremy.”

Eyes on the prize from the start

Even before he got to Winthrop University, DeCarlos realized he was meant to be an actor. He’d found that out at Irmo High School, playing the title role in “Pippin:”

“I had to lead a 40-person cast while I was in ROTC,” he remembers. “The week before it opened, our sergeant passed away, and the family requested I deliver his eulogy. I’d lost someone who was dear to me, and at the same time, I was singing and dancing in this bouncy musical.

“On the morning after his funeral, I had another show. If this had been a hobby, I’d have stepped away from ‘Pippin.’ But as much as that soldier had to be honored, as much as the school had to be comforted, I had a responsibility to the show. That’s when I knew this was more than just fun.”

He spent his first two semesters at Winthrop “doing nothing but auditioning, as far away as New York and Montgomery, Ala.” He decided he didn’t need academic qualifications, located an agent in Columbia and joined Actor’s Equity, expecting to bolt any time for New York or Los Angeles.

He left college in 2002, moving to Charlotte for the first time to get bits in film and commercials. His family urged him back to school; after soul-searching, he says, “I decided to do it for them, if not for myself. But people at Winthrop looked on acting more as a pleasure than a craft, a way to make a living. So I had a little chip on my shoulder, though I tried to keep it civil.”

DeCarlos lucked into a production of David Mamet’s “American Buffalo” as the explosive, misanthropic Teach. (Al Pacino won a Tony in the role on Broadway.)

Dan Shoemaker and Chip Decker of Actor’s Theatre saw it and suggested he audition for a show there. DeCarlos didn’t take them seriously; so he let months pass before calling the theater on a whim.

“The stage manager asked, ‘Where have you been? You have an audition tomorrow!’ ” he says. He read cold for the part of a mixed-race player who comes out of the closet on a major league baseball team and – after saying nudity didn’t trouble him – was offered the role moments later.

A thinking man’s actor

“Red” director Decker has made good use of DeCarlos over eight seasons. “He always brings character concepts to the table and creates smart, informed characters,” says Decker. “Also, he can adapt very readily to a production’s needs. He likes to engage and challenge cast mates and directors with new ideas…and is never satisfied with ‘good enough.’ He really enjoys pushing himself and the production.”

“As a collaborative actor, I’m a talker,” he says. “I like to see the blueprints before we start building. Then, when we get onstage, the process of discovery is exciting.

“I’m kind of closet insecure, really. I like to feel a director has a good grip on the reins. Let’s try a million things, see what works, and tell me when I’m going too far.”

DeCarlos picked up his Equity card on the second round of college, when he was doing “Johnny Guitar” at Actor’s Theatre. He stayed in town, rather than heading to some Mecca of drama, “to learn more about the business side of theater and the production aspects. I understand those better now.”

Though Actor’s Theatre has a new agreement with Equity that pays higher wages, DeCarlos realizes he’ll have to leave town eventually to make a better living as an actor.

“This area hasn’t reached the same level for movies or TV as it has for theater,” he says. “You can be a day player or an extra here, and that’s about all.

“I love thinking of Charlotte as a home base I can always come back to. I’ve had a lot of fun working in this community. But there comes a time when you have to pull the trigger – or not – and go to the next level.”

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