'The Alienist' Star Douglas Smith on Making the Most of Quarantine by Graduating College, Releasing EP

Douglas Smith - Publicity - H 2020
Griffin Lipson

“What I did during the pandemic?” is a question Douglas Smith posed to himself on Instagram June 30. His answer ... an enviable amount. 

The actor — best known right now for work on a pair of high-profile cable dramas in HBO’s Big Little Lies and TNT’s The Alienist (back July 19 with season two) — released a solo EP as a singer-songwriter under the name The Julias, turned 35 on June 22, and celebrated another major accomplishment 16 years in the making. Smith graduated from Santa Monica Community College with an associate’s degree in humanities. He sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to talk about his busy summer (so far), plans to continue his education (at a public university) and the one professor who made him cry (in a good way). 

Congratulations on graduating from SMC. In the post, you wrote FINALLY in all caps. Tell me about the road it took to get here?

It's so funny. I've been a student there for an embarrassingly long time. I actually started at the Glendale Community College when I was 19 and I’m 35 now. Then I took my first Santa Monica City College class between the second and third season of Big Love, which I think was, God, maybe around 2006, so around 14 years ago.

Wow.

Yeah. I would do some classes and then work would get too stressful so I would drop my classes and pick back up later. I was doing a play in New York in 2014 and two people in the play were graduating from college while still working as actors. One graduated from Hunter and the other from Columbia. After the play finished, I had all this time because there's something about when you do a play, it's a lot more time consuming than a film or television show because you don't really sit around a lot the way you do on sets. I remember talking to my friend about how my mental health is a lot better when my brain is occupied, so I took a cue from my castmates to really apply myself.

So, for the last five years, I really started to take classes more consistently, and I got to the point where I had enough credits for an Associate’s degree. Actually, I had enough credits like a year and a half ago, but I still needed a math requirement. Being in class in my 30s, it had been 17 years since I had really taken math. They make you take an entrance test to get into a college-level math and I, of course, did not do well on that, so I worked with a tutor at Panera Bread in the Valley for 10 days. Then I went to Hungary to shoot The Alienist and I found a tutor there, a Portuguese banker working in Budapest who wanted to earn extra cash. I met him every weekend at the California Coffee Company in front of St. Stephen’s Basilica, right in the center of Budapest. We met every weekend for two hours, and I did that for the whole six months I was there filming. I came back to California and was finally able to take college-level math. I finished it in June.

 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 

 
 

 
 
 

What I did during the pandemic? FINALLY finished my associate degree!#smcgrad2020 #proudtobesmc

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Wow, what a journey this has been for you.

I mean, it's so silly. There are 18-year-olds that just like take that test and just blow right through it and, you know, there are smart kids in high school who take AP math and they don’t even have to take it in college. But for me, it was a journey.

How did the coronavirus pandemic affect classes?

I enrolled in the class before everything shut down. I started the class in February and it went all the way until June. I definitely had a lot more time to focus on this one class, but the thing that I think was different was how it again reminded me that I need to focus on something other than acting for my mental health. So, I actually took the time during the pandemic to not only do well in the class but to apply to other schools to continue my education.

I'm going to be transferring to [City University of New York] School of Professional Studies, starting on August 26 in their sociology program. I was a humanities major with my AA degree and I thought, OK, what do I want to do? It needed to be something that can be done both distant and in person because of [my acting job]. I obviously love acting and music, but I didn’t want to study acting or music because to really get a lot out of that, you want that to be in-person. It wound up being a toss-up between history, sociology or anthropology. I liked the idea of sociology because I thought it brought the history of us, you know, as a society, into the present. It acknowledges history and brings it into the present.

Then, as this movement we're living through took place and took shape, I’ve been more excited to start in August because my classes are on race, gender and the immigration movement in America. I’ve seen CUNY sociology professors being interviewed, and one particular professor has been writing a lot about police funding and I saw him on CNN. I’m very excited about [learning more].

That's amazing. At the same time, your career is going well. How do you plan to divide the two?

Some universities in America have sections of schools dedicated toward helping adults that are employed full-time, or maybe are full-time parents, continue their education. City University of New York’s is called the School for Professional Studies and it’s geared for people with full-time work or parenting so you can do it at your own pace, in person or online. I picked it because I really, really believe in public education and I like the idea of a diverse classroom — socioeconomically, gender, race, everything. It seemed like the right place to be studying sociology. I also really liked the academic advisors I spoke to, and they spent a lot of time talking to me about classes. I’m taking a full class load this fall because I don’t believe I will be on a film set in 2020. Moving forward after 2020, I may have to take one or two classes at a time. My goal is to get the undergrad degree by the time I'm 40 and I just turned 35.

One more question about SMC. Math may have been your least favorite but what was your most favorite class?

You know, there are some amazing people that work at Santa Monica College. There have been a couple [of favorites], there was a history of jazz. I had a private conversation with the teacher and she was just so encouraging and so positive and it actually brought me to tears. I just hadn't experienced that unabashed positivity from somebody that wasn't my mom or something like that. There was just such a goodness about it. Then maybe 10 years ago, my first or second SMC class was an astronomy class with a professor named Gary Fouts. You have to take a laboratory science class and I really didn’t want to take science. But Gary Fouts just made science so cool. He almost didn't let me join the class because I was late the first day and I'm really glad he let me stay.

Most of my friends have Master's degrees, and my wife's sister has a Ph.D., and here I am with an Associate’s degree but, you know, I am really proud of it, even though it’s the smallest of degrees.

I'm proud of you, too. I have to also acknowledge this other quarantine accomplishment of yours, releasing an EP. Tell me about The Julias?

The thing about the quarantine is it really makes you sort of sit and be with yourself. You don't have the distractions of just driving around the city you’re in or meeting up with friends, which is lovely. I used to be in a band in my early 20s [his Orchestra] and we put out an album, and then I was in another band [Alaskan Summer] and we put out and EP but that was over 10 years ago. I have friends that have continued to work in the music business, not as the front people, but, you know, supporting bigger acts as a keyboardist or violinist. Whenever I had the time, we would get together and record a little. We recorded a bit right before I did Percy Jackson back in 2012 but nothing ever came of it. I don't know, I either didn't have the time or money or the determination to finish, and I didn't want to put something out that I wasn't completely happy with.

So, I sat down with my friend, [Paul Jacob Cartwright], who was in both of the other bands with me. He makes his living as a violinist and has been in Father John Misty and he’s played with Kamasi Washington. He’s a really great violinist. I told Paul that I really wanted to put something out and [The Julias] is actually a finished project. I stopped trying to make a whole album because I didn’t want to keep shooting for something and not finishing it. So, I just said, let’s make a small five- or six-track EP. We recorded seven or eight but ended up putting out five with an extra found-footage track.

We were mastering it right around the time that everything shut down and I was going to sit on it and not release it because I, I don't know, I just didn’t want to be that actor who puts music out. But it is a part of who I am, so I put it out. It's not on a label. I just put it out myself on Spotify and Apple Music using TuneCore and it feels good. It’s been 10 years since I put out anything in the world, musically.

I've been really lucky, and very grateful, for success in the acting world in the last 10 years, but there have been things that I do in my private time that I just didn’t finish. It’s easy to not finish something when you get a call to work on a great TV show like Big Little Lies or The Alienist. you put everything on the shelf and focus entirely on that. The void that the quarantine filled or the void that the quarantine created gave me the space to fill it with projects that had been unfinished.

 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 

 
 

 
 
 

Pleased to share my new EP, The Julias. Hope it can bring some joy or reflection to your world. Link to listen on @spotify in bio. Huge thanks to @pjcartwright on strings, bass & production, @cassidyturbin sound engineer and drums, @grififi on additional guitars. Y’all rock

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Have you had any interest from labels or anyone in the music industry about continuing?

I definitely want to keep recording. The goal before the quarantine happened was to have a little press vinyl and then a gig somewhere in L.A. and maybe a vinyl release party to reconnect with some of my old friends who never stopped playing live shows around L.A. My main collaborator is Paul, and we've been in constant communication about recording more songs. Even though it's been 10 years since I put anything out, maybe three months have not gone by in the last decade where I haven't harassed Paul with live phone recordings of a song I wrote. I do hope that another 10 years don’t go by without another recording being put out there.

About acting, how do you feel about going back to work? Would you go back to work tomorrow if you got a job?

It’s such an interesting thing. I talk about this with my wife because we were paying Westside Los Angeles rent and we have a small home here in New Orleans that usually is rented out, but it happened to be vacant. We made the decision to give up our apartment that we've been renting for the last four years so we weren't feeling the financial burden of paying L.A. rent, which is among the highest in the nation. I didn't want to feel that financial pressure to put myself in a working position before I was truly comfortable. You can sort of lie to yourself and make yourself feel more comfortable than you are because you feel like, “Oh, I gotta earn some money. I gotta pay that rent.” So, we came back here to remove that from the equation. It's really hard though because, I think I speak for most actors, we like to act. We like to work. We spend a lot of our lives auditioning and hoping to get a job. It’s easy to say, “I won't go back to work until I feel a hundred percent confident that it will be a safe environment,” but I don't know. It’s so tantalizing when you read a really great role in an interesting project with people that you want to collaborate with. I don’t know. If I’m lucky enough to be asked to work on something I will have to decide, but I think what we’re dealing with is a threshold of a pre- and post-vaccine world. That seems what we’re trying to negotiate now.

I wanted to ask about your TV work. You’re a part of these two big fandoms with Big Little Lies and The Alienist, two shows with such different fan bases. How do you compare the two?

Interesting. The fandoms, that's hard for me to know. I know how I feel about the two shows and the experience of making them. The Alienist takes place in the year 1896 and the second season takes place in 1897. We shot it in Hungary, and when I got the job, I was not entirely clear of where it existed on the planet. I knew it was somewhere in central Eastern Europe. It’s such a different place in a different time and a completely different world than Big Little Lies. I basically am playing a version of myself in California. Even though I’m Canadian, I went to high school in a suburb of Los Angeles and I’ve known Zoe Kravitz and Shailene Woodley for a long time, long before Big Little Lies. I didn't know anybody on The Alienist; the director was Belgian and Daniel Brühl is a German actor and Luke Evans is a Welsh actor. It was almost like one job was this adventure into the unknown and the other job was much closer to home but a different kind of adventure.

 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 

 
 

 
 
 

The long wait is almost over! The Alienist: Angel of Darkness premieres in two weeks