“Why is no one laughing?” the actor asks. He's sitting under stage lights, wearing a robe and a pair of pajama bottoms.
“Have you earned it?” the teacher responds, sipping from a fast-food coffee. The audience murmurs with understanding.
This is the scene Thursday night at the Beverly Hills Playhouse Acting School at the Skylight Theater. The teacher is critiquing two students' performance of a scene from Neil Simon's play I Ought to Be in Pictures. Scattered among the audience are the other students: young and old thespians working on their craft. They are actor-musicians or actor-comedians — some amalgamation of L.A. dreaming.
But sitting in the back row is Jeremy Radin, who's something different: an actor-poet. While many aspiring actors in L.A. tend bar or wait tables to survive, Radin actually acts in order to write poetry.
Physically and personally, Radin, 29, is larger than life. Not quite overweight — but burly. People often say to him, “Man, you're a big-ass dude.” His beard is trimmed, and he's wearing corduroy pants and a brown sports coat. He's not quite good-looking enough to be a leading man; he happily considers himself a character actor.
He works pretty steadily. He's made appearances on the Nickelodeon shows' Zoey 101 and Victorious. He's played “Flasher Dude” and “Security Guard.” He also has appeared on ER and in the feature films Wrestlemaniac and The New World. In one episode of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, the Paddy's Pub crew goes to the Jersey Shore, and Radin plays “Sketchy Nick,” a creepy guy wearing a dirty tank top in a van. At one point, Sketchy Nick jumps out of the van, pumps a shotgun and runs in to rob a liquor store. In the next frame, he is carted back into the van, howling and holding the bullet wound in his stomach.
But Radin also has a book of poetry, Slow Dance With Sasquatch, published in 2012 by Write Bloody — a press founded in Long Beach and the home of legendary slam poets Taylor Mali, Buddy Wakefield and Mindy Nettifee. Radin has read at Beyond Baroque and bookstores all over L.A. (He also started the Lightbulb Mouth reading series in Long Beach.)
In Slow Dance With Sasquatch, he writes about everything from family to his issues with his weight, and he does it all with humor and wonder.
Yes, he has a job at Barnes & Noble to help pay the bills. But he's getting closer to living his dream.
“Acting and poetry is how I want to make a living,” Radin explains over pasta, pizza, and beer at Palermo Ristorante in Los Feliz. “[Poets] Derrick Brown and Anis Mojgani make their livings by touring. It's hard to make a living as a poet, though. These guys should have the same notoriety as a great musician. The fact that they can leave their homes and not get swamped by photographers makes me kind of sad.
“From the outside,” he adds, “it's so hard to fathom where any money can be in poetry.”
Unlike many actors and writers chasing the California dream, L.A. was not a destination for Radin. He grew up around Northridge, Simi Valley and Woodland Hills. His father is vice president of a company that builds movie cameras; his mother recently received her master's degree in creative writing from Antioch University. When Radin was younger, she taught English and owned a dress store in Pasadena.
“He started writing when he was 16, inspired by Bob Dylan — actually that I played for him in the car,” recalls his mother, Sharie Radin Palatt. “I've always been behind him.”
Still, Radin struggled. He was a terrible student: He was put on antidepressants and Ritalin at the age of 7. In high school, he would sleep until noon and spend the nights writing. He never attended college.
He credits the Beverly Hills Playhouse Acting School, where he began taking classes at 22, for turning his life around. And, of course, poetry.
“I felt unlovable,” Radin says, “and I think a lot of people feel unlovable. And poetry has taught me that's not true. That all of those things that made me feel unlovable and lonely are actually the things, when I turned them around and created something out of them, [that] have connected me to people. … Private ugliness turned it into public beauty.”
Radin looks around Palermo, scanning the restaurant like RoboCop. “Being a poet is a degenerative brain disease,” he says. “Because everything you see, everything you experience, your brain immediately starts to process it through the poetry filter. Nothing can just be an experience. It starts to turn into a poem.
“I would love to have a serious brain illness that makes me a better poet,” he adds. “There are a lot of poems in this restaurant. You've got the way it's done up for Christmas; you've got a table full of cops. That's always a great way for me to know where to eat — where the cops are.”
Like Radin's personality, his poetry is jovial and expansive — often meandering as he riffs on images that move from the concrete minutiae of everyday insecurities to, quickly, the planetary, the Jurassic, the depths of a voracious imagination.
His work comes alive when performed. It's like watching a communist in the 1940s, standing on a soapbox in a busy square. With only a few words, Radin can transfix a crowd. That's partly thanks to his skill as an actor, but even more it's his honest voice, his raw emotion, that audiences find so enthralling.
But does anyone in Los Angeles really care — about poetry?
“For the most part, it's almost a joke,” Radin admits. “It's, like, 'God, I'm going to my girlfriend's poetry reading. It's going to be a bunch of hipsters and finger snapping.' … But when the poetry is good, the reaction is: 'I don't like poetry, but I liked that.' ”
Radin knows he has to break through some stereotypes to help Angelenos connect with poetry on a larger scale. He views the issue almost as a branding problem.
“[It's] a notion of the poet as an old, white man, sitting in big leather chairs, smoking pipes with a wolfhound at their feet,” Radin says, twirling his pasta around in its bowl. “[Poets] are people. There's nothing fancy or coded about it.”