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Photo by Colin Key, courtesy of PJ Sosko.

‘The Girls on the Bus’ Star PJ Sosko Talks Learning from Masters to Portray Icons Ernest Hemingway and Hunter S. Thompson

PJ Sosko is a consummate actor. He’s been doing it professionally for more than three decades now, working in theater, taking small TV roles, short films and indie movies, establishing a solid career in voiceover work, whatever he could do to keep chasing the dragon and doing what he loves. His story should be an inspiration to any struggling actor looking for a break because he’s an example of someone who persevered, and now it’s finally paying off.

On the MAX series The Girls on the Bus, he has been cast as the ghost of legendary gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. It’s the first major streaming role for the actor, whose work on the show is earning kudos, even among a stellar cast that includes Melissa Benoist, Carla Gugino, Griffin Dunne and plenty more.

PJ and I have known each other for more than a quarter century. We bartended together when times were tougher and have seen and read each other’s work over and over again through the years. Seeing his success now is especially gratifying, considering how many times I watched him in less than stellar Off-Off-Off Broadway fare in which he was by far the best part. He was at home in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in between acting gigs, when we spoke. It was the first time he’d been interviewed in years, and the first time I’d interviewed a good friend, so strap yourself in. We cover a lot of ground.

Do you remember how we met?

You walked into Exile, that bar on West 70th, when I was just starting.

I think it was the winter of 1998. I had made Two Ninas, my first movie, but it hadn’t hit festivals yet.

I remember you gave me a VHS tape of it.

When we started talking, I said, “Are you a good actor?” And you looked at me dead in the eye and said, “Yeah, I’m really good.” I remember thinking, “I believe this guy.” You looked at me and said, “Are you a good writer?” And I said, “I’m awesome.”

(Laughs) That was the beginning of our friendship! That we both owned it. You want to keep some humility, but knowing you can back it up and jam with anyone is the key. I think we saw that in each other. Now, I’m working with people that I’ve admired, Carla Gugino and Jackie Earle Haley, and with them, it’s instant. We’re playing.

In all of the years we’ve been friends, I don’t think I’ve ever asked you this question: how did you get into acting in the first place?

I was a nationally-ranked cross-country runner. I did the National Junior Olympics my senior year of high school, I was kicking ass, getting all the records, blah, blah, blah. I went to the University of Rochester on a scholarship. The coach turned out to be a dick, and after I missed a practice, benched me. So I quit.

 PJ Sosko in a black shirt with long neon green sleeves looking into the camera. Photo by Brette Taylor, courtesy of PJ Sosko.

You really quit?

My parents were pissed. And that happened right as a guy from the Royal Shakespeare Company named Mervyn Willis was taking over the theater program, ultimately to get his green card. I started getting cast because I was the only one who was comfortable on stage. I liked getting in front of people. I was a bit of a class clown, but I didn’t know that this would turn into a career.

One of the things I’ve always admired about you, and I think that this has always been a cornerstone of our friendship, is we’re both lifers. There was never a moment when it occurred to either of us to say, I can’t do this anymore. How did you get through the dark times?

If I didn’t have people say to me, “Hey, you have something special,” I don’t know that I would have. I put the work in. The craft is important to me. That’s always been part of it for us both. We bust our ass. There are a lot of steps along the way where you can get lazy, but for me, voiceovers happened, which was lucky. Many people enter the voiceover world and stop acting, but that allowed me to be patient. I could do the Off-Broadway show that you don’t get paid that much, but I do it because I’m the lead. I could go away for a week to do a developmental thing. It allowed me some freedom to do whatever I wanted. My side job was the job.

While most actors are losing time working on acting while they’re doing their side job, you’re only continuing to hone it?

Right. And since I was constantly working, I didn’t bring any less of what I do with a role to a short film than I do to a feature. It’s really hard work.

That was our long-running joke. I saw you in, like, a couple dozen theatrical things, and it was always, “I hated the show, but you were great in it.” The work was always stellar.

At some point, that starts to become a world that no longer satisfies you as an artist. It was something that would come out of our conversations. I was always trying to make sure that everybody was bringing their A-game because I’m going to bring a level to this. What I learned to do was to start throwing my two cents in because I’m realizing that they’re not matching what I’m bringing.

I was listening to Ethan Hawke, who was on Marc Maron’s podcast, and he said he can’t approach a role now not like a filmmaker, and that’s me, too. I’ve done too much, and seen too many things go wrong. Now, I approach every job as a producer, because I’ve done all those things. This HBO show was the first time for me to work with a huge machine, so it was a new experience about how to collaborate.

PJ Sosko in a blazer and hat at an event. Photo courtesy of PJ Sosko.

How did that work, then? You’re used to being a big fish in a small pond, and now it’s the opposite.

I think it’s important for them to allow the actor, when you’re working with a certain talent, to let me surprise you on the creative side, and bring ideas to the table. My point of view is worthy interesting, valid and unique, and that’s something that I don’t take away. I’ve lived a very full life. The good, the bad, the ups, the downs, I’ve gone to the extremes. But I put everything I had into this character while I was there for eight months.

Well, let’s talk about this. Because as you said, this is the first time you’re walking into a real machine. This is big time. You’ve survived in a way that 99% of actors don’t, and now you’re doing it as a character who is a well-known part of the Zeitgeist.

I’ve played real people before. Remember, I played Hemingway …

That’s where you met Marta.

That’s where I met my wife. There’s no way I should’ve been playing him. I’m about 100 pounds too light and six inches too short, but it was about technique. I know how to make myself bigger. I know those things. I learned them from masters along the way because I never stopped learning. In the film, there are lots of tools that you can use from your theater experience if you’re crafty with it and if you realize that you just gotta turn the volume down on it, but filling the frame, sometimes people don’t think about how you fill a stage is the same as the frame.

That’s a terrific answer to a question I didn’t ask.

(Laughs) Sorry. Hunter S. Thompson. HBO.

I was up for a part in the Scorsese movie, Killers of the Flower Moon, which was shooting down here. Then I got an offer for the lead in an indie film from a couple of producers I’d worked with before. I asked the Scorsese people and they hadn’t made a decision, so I took the indie. In the hiatuses, I shot some other stuff, and while I was shooting this other low-budget thing, I got the audition for an HBO show for a recurring character named Hunter S. Thompson.

I had no time to prepare this, but I found one video that I connect with, but because of working on Hemingway and these other real guys, it gave me a shorthand to how he spoke. I did one take of the self-tape and sent it in, and Marta said, “If they don’t hire you, they’re stupid.” Two days later, I’m on hold. One day after, it’s mine.

I got like, a month of prep time, which I never had in New York without my wife and kid, so I did a real deep dive and just started memorizing all these quotes of his, just beautiful stuff that wasn’t well known. I was an advocate for the character and let it fly. I would talk to the directors or Melissa about how there was room for something here or there, but it’s rarefied air.

I wonder how many actors would feel comfortable enough to go in like that.

I came in and did an episode of a popular network drama during all this as well. The season three finale was great. We banged out almost an entire episode in like a day. And then they wrote the character back into this season. I wasn’t expecting that. I thought I was just going to be a robber of the week.

I have to think part of that is because of the choices I made. The availability. The consistency that I brought. They didn’t have to write him back on, but even though I wasn’t necessarily comfortable with the process, I couldn’t stop my creativity from coming out. And now I’ve earned my spot. I know what I’m doing. Each time that I get a chance to work with these geniuses, these people who I’ve watched over the years, I’m humming along with them, and that’s it. To gain more of that experience gives me confidence.

PJ Sosko dressed as Hunter S. Thompson smoking a cigarette. Photo by Colin Key, courtesy of PJ Sosko.

A lot of actors are on this site, and I imagine a good number of them are struggling. As someone who struggled for a long time and is finally getting his shot, what advice would you give to that person reading this?

What are you doing about it? Are you sitting there and complaining? Are you happy with your auditions? If you’re not, have you taken a class recently? You’re always learning. In this career, if you think you know it all, that’s a foolish thought. There’s always someone to learn from, there’s always a moment that you can figure out from somebody else’s work, or share a director’s note that landed on you.

If you’re a lifer, you just have to keep creating. Are you doing the work? Your body is your instrument, and you have to keep making it better. You have to keep adapting. I found collaborators and they helped make me better. Find other artists and create together. Don’t sit at home and say, Why am I not getting anything? Go out and make shit. Shoot something in the park with two people. Find people you can work with and do it. You’re gonna fail sometimes but keep doing it. That’s what I did, and here I am.

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