To an outsider, it looks like 24-year-old actor Douglas Roberts is taking a straight line to the top.
He's into his second summer at the La Jolla Playhouse, after making his talent known all over San Diego and racking up a nomination for Best Actor last year from the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle for his portrayal of Roy Caulder in "Lone Star" at the Bowery Theatre.
But it was really a dismal failure that set Roberts off on his current starry path. He flunked out of college.
The San Diego acting phenomenon said he went from straight A's in high school to total disaster his first year at UC San Diego. He even got a D in an introductory acting class.
"After I flunked out of school, I had this time where . . . I moved out and I was eating and drinking. It was just bad for my health. I weighed 230 pounds," he said, resting his now lanky, 180-pound, 6-foot-2 frame casually on the deck of the Mandell Weiss Center for the Performing Arts.
"There was something in me that had to just trash my life to put it back together. I flunked out of school, I had gained all this weight, I was borrowing money for beer and things and not being a very likable person. But then I just said, 'Well, you can do this the rest of your life, or you can decide to do something with yourself.' "
So Roberts started running, lost 35 pounds and enrolled at Mesa College. He lost another 15 pounds, cut back on the drinking and fell in love with acting.
Local audiences might remember Roberts as Billy Bishop in "Billy Bishop Goes to War" (his best work to date, he thinks); "Vikings" and "Nuts" at the North Coast Repertory Theatre; "Heat" at UCSD; "Otherwise Engaged" (his first attention-grabbing role as a drunken critic); "Lone Star"; "Father's Day," and, recently, "Vanya Works" at the Bowery.
He might not be remembered for his walk-ons last summer at the La Jolla Playhouse in "A Man's a Man" and "The Sea Gull," but actor-clown Bill Irwin and director Des McAnuff certainly kept him in mind.
Roberts was reflecting on his remarkable three-year career before a Playhouse costume fitting dragged him away. He is understandably thrilled that he, a mere undergraduate, is working at one of the most talked-about professional theaters in the country.
He also admitted to suffering temporary terror about his role as Leandro in the Playhouse production of "The Three Cuckolds," which opened Sunday at the Warren Theatre on campus.
Updated and adapted from a work by Leon Katz by its star, Irwin, and director, Michael Greif, "The Three Cuckolds" springs from commedia dell'arte, Roberts said, "but it's not a straight-forward commedia. It's a clown piece, which Bill Irwin does, and it's also a piece about fidelity or infidelity. It's also, I think, first and foremost, an entertaining comedy--hopefully.
"It's a play about being cuckolded, so (the characters) find their happiness in another man's wife," he explained. "Leandro (his character) is a guy on the outside. He's really, really mysterious. It's deceptively hard, this character. . . . I don't know whether I'm going to be successful in it or not, because a lot of it is style and movement, and some of it is straight-forward acting. You've got to combine the two and it's really delicate--it's very, very delicate."
Roberts also has a brief but flashy appearance as the Devil in "Cuckolds." Later this summer, he will work under McAnuff in Bill Hauptmann's "Gillette."
"The best acting that I do gives me so much for myself," he said. "It helps me know myself better and my soul better. The best characters that I've portrayed, I've gotten to know their souls.
"I've never been a hero, but I know what it's like to be a hero now because of Billy Bishop. There was this picture of Billy Bishop, and I looked at that every night before the show. . . . I had this trust with this guy who is dead, but I thought, 'I really hope I'm telling this story OK, that if you saw this that you wouldn't be rolling over in your grave and saying, no, it was nothing like that.' That was very, very precious to me.
"I liked the whole show, but the scene that I liked the best was at the end when he's talking about, 'Today I pinned the wings on my own son.' That made me cry--by myself. I didn't even have to think about acting or anything because the theme of war was so powerful and poignant."
Roberts thinks his tendency to take things so much to heart is the reason he plunged to such depths after he flunked out of school.
"I'm an over-achiever," he admitted, "and I become obsessed with things when I get my grasp and my hooks in them."
Proof of this tenacity is the fact that Roberts is now only one quarter short of his undergraduate degree--from UCSD. He's eager to be finished, so that he can spend more time learning about acting.
"Kim McCallum (at The Bowery) said that there will be a time when you 'touch' . . . when an actor leaves the stage as an actor and actually becomes this other person. And I thought, well, sure. Right, OK Kim.
"One night during 'Lone Star' . . . the guy playing Ray, (Roy's) brother, told me that Skeeter had wrecked my car, and I had never rehearsed it this way, but all of a sudden there was this emotion like someone had killed my mother. . . . I had left the stage and I was just, my God, my car's wrecked!
"It was like an incredible adrenaline rush. . . . I was exhausted after that show. . . . I went home and I thought, 'Oh, I did it! Whoa! Incredible!' And that's what you aim for. That's the best kind of acting."
Working with people like McCallum (his best teacher, he said) and Irwin ("incredible human being . . . very humble, very hard-working, sharp ideas, sharp mind") has certainly helped speed Roberts' hands-on education.
"I definitely have gotten a wisdom . . . and this sense of acceptance, I think, this sense of tolerance of what other people are like and how they think . . . because of these weird characters that I've (played) with these tremendous problems, to know that it's OK for that," he said. "It definitely has helped my soul--incredibly. I mean, to really live on the most focused edge of life is what I've done. . . . That's my own, self-indulgent reason for being an actor."