Entertainment

Charlotte’s Gentry White climbs Hollywood’s ladder

Looks like Gentry White will have a professional career, after all: He’s finally bought himself a bed.

Until 2014, he slept mainly on a futon or friends’ furniture. Then he won a contest to become national spokesperson for Boost Mobile. He scored small roles in half a dozen films and TV series, plus a significant one on the AMC show “TURN: Washington’s Spies.”

Ask White what happened to him, and he laughs. “Life happened. Opportunity meeting preparation happened. Everything came so quickly in 2014, but that was all the past years coming together at once.”

He’s thinking about a childhood in Union County where tolerant mama Betty White made sure he got to distant rehearsals at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte. About an 18-month mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints to Ghana, where conditions were so humble that future futons would feel like feather beds. About improv classes and audition technique classes, working in restaurants or at T.J. Maxx.

Career gets a Boost

He knew he’d scored a coup when he pleased a tough audience: Online voters chose him over Ana Parsons 57 percent to 47 percent to become Boost Mobile’s spokesperson.

“At callbacks, we were improvising: They’d ask me to hop around like a frog or say lines as if I had to use the bathroom really bad or do them in a robot voice. Then we shot commercials for two days – including one where she won – and even though we were in competition, she helped me with my unemployment papers.

“The next couple of weeks consisted of us posting on Facebook and Tweeting. It was like running for student council, a popularity contest. I even taped a video in American Sign Language. With three or four days left, she found a Vine star to post for her. Then I got one called Clarity to back me. I ended up winning and going on a shoot directed by Jake Szymanski of ‘Funny or Die.’ ”

Having a regular check meant not having to exude anxiety at auditions: “Whenever you see an actor who does the job and walks out, that’s such a difference from someone who’s pretending to be comfortable and comes across as desperate. Casting directors don’t want someone who looks too thirsty.”

Coming up from obscurity

Once they didn’t want Gentry White at all. He recalls trying out in braces and glasses for the Union County Performance Ensemble’s “Beauty and the Beast” and not even making the chorus. The next year he landed a role in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” Then he played the lead, Coalhouse Walker Jr., in “Ragtime.”

Some of his polish came from the Acting Ensemble at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, which trained high schoolers. It was supposed to take 16, but the ranks swelled to 18 to admit this borderline sophomore and another promising girl.

“Gentry was in the ‘maybe’ stack,” said Jill Bloede, then a CTC instructor and a mentor dear to White’s memory. “We had a good turnout of kids ... but he was very earnest in wanting to learn, showed good manners – as opposed to diva behavior – and had enough evidence of potential. Gentry had movement experience, which we loved.

“His self-evaluation after Ensemble said, ‘I would give myself an 8 out of 10, because it was my first year, and I want to do my best all the time.’ Gentry still has that sly smile that lets you know he’s observing (constantly). There’s nothing this fella cannot do.”

He observed a lot through his mission in Africa, where “I learned how much I could deal with in life. The power would go out regularly, the water pump didn’t work – we were lucky to have water and electricity at all – and I’d walk down to a different building and fetch water, which would slosh all over my face and clothes. I was almost to the point of tears, but everyone else was living the same way, and they were happy.”

He has kept his eyes open on every set, even if playing a two-line part as a fan of Michelle Rodriguez’ character in “Furious 7” (due April 3). That watchful intelligence served him well on “TURN: Washington’s Spies.” He plays Billy Lee, a slave owned by George Washington who became the general’s confidant and stands up to him in a crucial scene. (The episode will air in the spring.)

Kimberly Peirce, who directed it, compared him to Channing Tatum and Hilary Swank, whom she directed at similar points in their careers: “They were inherent stars, at the stage when they were exploding with talent but didn’t have (a large) volume of work.

“Gentry has gentleness and warmth, a beautiful speaking voice, strength of body and endless stamina. He truly has star quality.”

What makes him unique

“His real brilliance is when the director lights the flame. He’s still taking direction but listening to something inside himself,” says Peirce. “In television, it’s unusual to rehearse for four days, but we had scenes that went over 20 pages. He was deferential in the beginning, but as he could feel confidence welling up, he’d tell me ‘I can’t do that. It’s not in the character.’ He had that privilege.

“He’s an echo of those people I found early in their careers, Hilary and Channing and Joe Gordon-Levitt. You see the light and charisma and talent, and you share them as a director.”

White acknowledges that his big breaks are still in front of him at 25. But he did feel comfortable enough to buy that bed, a TempurPedic California king.

“I have been (performing) since first grade,” he says. “I never played sports, didn’t have many hobbies. I moved to L.A. in November 2011, 3 1/2 weeks after I got back from Ghana. I gave my mother a timeline, so she knew this plan was tangible, and she told me she’d spend the money she’d saved for college on my first year’s rent.

“I didn’t know anyone, had no friends in the industry, didn’t even have a manager here. Now I ask, ‘Who did I think I was?’ But it was the right thing to do.”

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