I believe we all have our ideas of actors and actresses, Hollywood, and the big screen. It’s the very elite that we surround our lifestyles. It’s all about style and what’s in…about the who’s-who in Hollywood and what’s the next big thing. This ideology has taken over our televisions, radios, ipods, World Wide Web, and your local grocery line. It’s almost as if it’s an unreachable feat…the idea of fame. However, we forget about the basics of acting in its true form…the art of acting. Luckily for all of us, there are actors right here in East Tennessee who have ridden the great wave of Hollywood and have some pretty amazing stories to tell. With parts in feature films, television, a slew of promotional spots, and a musical career that most of us dream about…Brian Keith has made his impact on the good side of the Hollywood cliché. As he continues to take on the world with his creative, I sat down with Keith to get the ups and downs of his experiences in the industry and how he is constantly on the lookout for new things.
I’ve finally come to the realization that it’s just a small world. You and I’ve brushed paths numerous times and have quite a few mutual friends in the industry…I’m pumped to finally sit down and talk with you. First thing’s first…tell us a little about your background, family, etc…
Oh wow! Where to start?! [Laughs] Well, I was born in Knoxville Tennessee, and have lived here my whole life. I’ve had just about every job you can think of, from installing roofs to being the MC at the Weddings Bridal Show! [Laughs] My family made the jump into their own business when I was very young and I think that’s what instilled in me the idea of being my own boss. As life would have it though, I became a Knoxville Firefighter in 1997. That was a real eye opener for me. I really “grew up” when I got that job. I have a wonderful wife and two great boys! They’ve allowed me to be the person I am today. It’s not easy living with someone like me, a dreamer that is!
When did you actually get into acting and how did that come about?
Well, I think I have always been acting in some way, but what got it all started was when my mother-in-law mentioned to me that I should be an actor. I was always very animated and she noticed it one day. But, this wasn’t the first time. I had been told that my whole life. For some odd reason, I just decided to check and see what was out there as far as becoming an actor and getting representation. So, I called a few agencies and all of them wanted money up front, but this one agency said to me, “If you make money, we make money!” So, I was amazed that there was actually an agency out there that was not just trying to rip me off. I signed with them and started working!
Do you have a personal role model that has influenced you in your acting career?
Not one in particular, but that’s not because I can’t decide, it’s more because I just enjoy seeing an actor getting into character and telling a story in a very emotional way. I can just see it when they are in “that” moment! I’ve always felt like that was the way I wanted to act…to just be in the moment and become the character and not be myself. It sounds easy, but it’s very hard to do.
Have you had any acting classes or formal training?
Not really. I took a class many years ago just because I figured if everybody else was doing it…you know how that goes? But, I honestly didn’t like it much and it just wasn’t me. I did learn a couple of tricks, most importantly that there were many things to learn and I needed to figure out how I was going to make my way in the acting world.
How often do you draw on your own experiences when you’re working on a scene?
Every time, well unless it’s like selling soap or something, then I just smile and do what I’m told. [Laughs] But, as far as really getting into a character, I have to find something inside. I unfortunately don’t have the luxury of just being a natural. I have to find the similarities of the character and myself and find a common ground. I’ve always wanted the end product to be something I’ve created, something that is me…but not me. In other words, the character is the focus not Brian Keith, so even though I’m in there somewhere, the story has to be about the character.
What is the most memorable role you’ve played and why?
Well there are two, and I can tell you if you blink you would miss me in both! But, for me, it’s about the experience and not about the amount of time I am on screen. My first feature film was “October Sky”. I was as an extra, but I got to do a few scenes with a very young Jake Gyllenhaal and Chris Cooper. Chris, you may know from The Bourne Identity and American Beauty. Chris and I had a short-lived friendship on set and was extremely fun to work with. He taught me so much just by taking me under his wing. The other film was “That Evening Sun”, starring Hal Holbrook, Dixie Carter, Ray McKinnon (O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Blindside), Walton Goggins (The Shield), Mia Wasikowska (Alice In Wonderland). This film was shot around my hometown of Knoxville, TN. It was most memorable to me due to the fact that I got to see Dixie just before she passed away. Her husband, Hal Holbrook, and I had already spoken many times on set and I had admired his personality and constant admiration and stories about Dixie. It was so obvious he was madly in love with Dixie and it showed the day she arrived on set. It’s an extremely long story, maybe we can talk about it in another interview, but they were inseparable. Their relationship was a true Hollywood romance that had withstood the test of time and the industry. I was quite impressed and humbled to witness their lives together even if for a short moment.
What has been your most challenging role to date?
Well, I would like to say it has been in acting or music, but I can honestly say it was the role of a Knoxville Firefighter. The training and the experiences changed me forever. I thought I had my life in some sort of order until I became a firefighter and they taught me so much more. I’m no longer a firefighter professionally, but you can’t change who you are after going through everything a firefighter goes through everyday just to keep our communities safe. I’ll always be a firefighter.
Have you had any theater experience? If not, do you plan to explore theater?
I’ve never done theater, but it’s always intrigued me! I’ve done live stage work as a musician and it’s extremely cool knowing that all the late nights of practicing and planning come down to that one moment when you hit the stage and you have to turn it on and there’s no net under you if you mess up! That’s a great feeling.
Commercial work really seems to be keeping you busy, tell us about what you’ve done?
Well I’m best known for doing a ton of HGTV work. HGTV came to town many years ago and created a lot of acting work in this area. I’ve done a few shows for them and a ton of commercials spots promoting HGTV.
What is the most difficult part of being on set working with a director and how do you personally get through it?
Most of the time it’s obvious how the day will go as soon as I arrive on set just by noticing what crew is working the job. After doing this all these years, I’ve made some great friends that are the same people on every set. So, when I show up and see some of them, it puts my mind at ease that I’m going to be working with a great crew. If I don’t already know who is directing, I’ll ask the crew. The crew always knows the “skinny” on everything; from the director to the craft services…the crew knows all. But, if it’s a director I’ve worked with before and we get along well, I know I’m going to be driven to do my best by that director. In my mind, that’s what a good director does, he or she helps you be your best and they know how to help you get what they need for the scene. The director is like a babysitter! [Laughs] They hold your hand and are constantly telling you what you are doing right and wrong, but always in a positive way that makes you feel comfortable.
How are you working with Knoxville to continue to support the art of acting and making it your own in East Tennessee?
I work with some great actors and production friends. We write and create short films and help each other out. All of these guys are multi-talented, and it makes us all work harder with such a strong support structure. Anytime I need something, either a taped audition, or whatever, I know I can make a phone call and these guys will be there and bring twenty other people to help out. That’s how great they are. We are all in it together and if one makes it, we all make it!
What’s next for you as an actor?
I really have no idea! I wish there was a better answer, but in my life, music and acting have never co-existed greatly. I mean, at any given moment I can be playing the drums for a group, writing my own music and just enjoying it to the fullest. Then, all of a sudden, things will start to slow down, ideas won’t come as easy, and I can tell that music is slipping away. In my younger years, this use to make me so mad and I had no idea how to cope with it. Now, many years later, I just see it for what it is, kind of like an old friend coming back and I know that acting will take its place. It just happens that way for me.
Like I said before…we actually met through a mutual friend. I had heard of your drumming skills before…but I didn’t put two and two together until I actually heard you play live at a venue in Knoxville, TN. When did you start playing percussion and take a role as a drummer?
When I was four years old! [Laughs] Yea, I knew at a very young age that I loved the drums. There’s always just been something about playing the drums that came natural to me. I slept and even ate on my snare drum when I was little! [Laughs] I just loved everything about them.
I read some pretty cool stuff in your bio on your website about knowing Con Hunley…tell our readers about your childhood story and relationship with Con…
Yea, it’s weird looking back on all of that, but I had no idea that someone I saw everyday was famous. I seriously just wanted to see my best friend’s dad play the drums and try and find a way when they took a break to play his drums. In the seventies, my friend’s dad was the drummer for Con Hunley. At the time, Con was an up and coming country singer with national exposure. I would sit for hours and watch these guys practice in my friend’s living room in amazement of the sounds that they were able to make with their instruments. I noticed everything! Plus, the neighborhood kids would play in Con’s limo while he was inside practicing! Not a bad playhouse!
When you started playing, did you have an influence or a personal role model that inspired you as a percussionist?
Buddy Rich and Neil Peart…they may not be the most popular, they may not be on every radio chart, but if you go back and watch footage of Buddy Rich doing a one handed drum roll on one of the smallest drum set-ups, you will be hooked. Neil Peart…well all I have to say is Neil Peart. He has a personality of someone that completely has no idea how good he is. When he plays, he obviously has a great amount of skill, but he doesn’t talk or act like it. I noticed that first thing. I guess I’m kind of like that. I love to be told that I am good at something, but it’s just not me to boast about myself and be pretentious. Watching both of them play over the years inspired me to be a better drummer everyday, but more importantly, inspired me to be a better person and a role model for other young drummers.
Did you take lessons or have any formal training?
Once! I took lessons on Broadway in Knoxville at Lynn’s Guitars, which is now Broadway Sound. Marty Luewellen was my teacher and he taught me so much. He helped me with sight-reading and the fundamentals of drumming. I still use what he taught me today, believe it or not. He was a great friend to me and an inspiration. I always hoped I could play like him when I got older. He had the qualities of Buddy Rich and Neil Peart as well. That kept the fire burning inside for me, and even when I taught students over the years, I used Marty as my example in teaching them.
Do you remember the first official band that you drummed for?
It was a few of my friends, with a girl lead singer. She was Con Hunley’s drummer’s daughter! We played the Oak Grove Bar on Asheville Highway in Knoxville, TN. I think we were all something like 11 years old. The lead singer’s dad coached us and helped us with song placement and would tell us when to take a break and network! The guitar player’s grandfather owned the club and gave out free drinks to everybody. We packed the place, with family of course! [Laughs]
How often do you spend time behind the kit…apart from the stage?
Well lately, it’s not been a lot. I spend a ton of time at my business keeping everything running. Plus, I have two wonderful boys that take up most of my time after that. It’s never a problem though. If and when I get a call for a gig, I dive straight in with cd’s, dvd’s and whatever else I can find on the artist. This way, I have everything with me at all times. I will make multiple copies of the music and put them in all my cars, on every computer, even on my phone! Yea, I can be at a PTA meeting and still going over the tunes with my iphone and headphones! [Laughs] It may sound lazy, but honestly it’s how most people do it. There’s never a set amount of time in any given day to practice un-interrupted, so I find a few holes and fill them. When it gets down to crunch time, I will block out a few days of just one-on-one with my drum set and totally tear the songs apart. It’s like I’ve had the fun of listening to the music for a day or so, and now that I have it memorized, it’s time to take the “test” and sit down and play it all out! I will literally write out breaks and changes. For me, I think if you see what you are listening too, its just a better way for more of your natural senses to be involved, rather than just one.
Being a drummer requires not only a lot of energy and charisma, but a lot of focus too…what’s your secret to keeping the groove in lock and leading a band from the back?
That’s not an easy one to answer! Reason being, you never know how all of the members interact with each other if your just doing a “one-off”, where you come in and practice it all once and play the show. If I’ve had time to get to know the artist or group, I can get a better feel for their styles and all the little things that make the group tight. If I do have time to get to know the group, I usually find one or two guys in the group that I click with and we work out little details. It’s the best thing to be able just know when the guitarist or the singer is going to do something before they do it! When you are really tight, you can be blind folded and still feel these things before they happen…it’s like a sixth sense. So, really a good group of professionals can make my job so much easier just by being themselves and allowing me to lead them. I always use to tell the guys I played with to never stop playing, never look like you made a mistake, and to always watch me for the changes if they get into a difficult situation. A good drummer, or any instrumentalist for that matter, can bring it back together and lead into a nice ending. You have to pay attention! [Laughs]
Let’s be honest…there are a lot of amazing drummers out there. How have you expanded from the everyday drummer and made the drum-kit your own?
Actually, I stole an idea from Neil Peart. Most people are used to doing the music thing a certain way, simply because the industry has determined it has to be that way. For instance, some bands won’t play without click-tracks; others will audition you and will ask you to play just like the recordings. So, one day I was watching a DVD of Neil and he just happened to mention that he liked to play his parts but that he also found little pockets to fully let it fly and be himself. Well, it hit me! I wasn’t playing anything that was me! I had always been told to play like the recording for projects in Nashville and play only to a click-track from professional road bands. I was fed up. I was a good drummer, and I wasn’t playing anything I felt worthy of calling my own. This led me to re-think my playing, my kit set-up…pretty much everything. So now, I play to the song, I feel the pockets and add myself into them and I also have re-defined my playing style. I even started tearing my stands apart and re-manufacturing them in order to fit me! I literally took a stand, chopped it up, and put it back together so that it could be placed inside my bass drum, just like they did on the old kits. It helps to have some great tools and experience with construction! [Laughs] The hardest part was chopping the $75 part of the stand I needed and then cutting a whole in a $600 bass drum! That will make you sit back and think before you do anything. I think I measured like a million times before I ever made the first cut! [Laughs]
What bands have you worked with in the past?
Wow, let’s see….over the years I’ve played with so many, but as for someone you or your readers would know, In the last few years I played with TheFineLine. I also played with a group called NORTHCREEK from 2000-2005. Before their fame I played with the Bush Brothers, Brandon Bush and Kristian Bush. Brandon is the Keyboard player for pop group Train and has played on every album imaginable for just about every artist on the radio. Kristian Bush had success with his own duo back in the 80’s called Billy Pilgrim, but is now famously known as the guitarist of the country duo Sugarland. A few years ago, I had the honor of playing with Motown’s: The Coasters, The Platters and The Shirelles. That was a fun gig! I really let loose on that one! I had grown up listening to my parents’ records of these guys and I was hangin’ with them and just in awe of the life they had lived. A great moment for me!
Who are you currently working with?
At the moment…nobody. But that can change like the East Tennessee weather at any moment!
What is in the future for you as a drummer?
Really at this point, I don’t know. It seems every time I make a change in my life and think that I am all but done with drumming, either because the industry isn’t in need of my services or I’m just too busy, all of a sudden the phone rings! It’s actually quite funny, because I’ll call my wife and say, “You’re never going to believe what just happened!” Life has been funny that way for me. Just as soon as I think I’m done with something, God throws me a header and lets me know this is where I need to be. I’ve learned to just follow His will and it will all work out fine. It always has.
Do you play any other instruments?
I play rhythm guitar, a little bass, and very little piano. [Laughs]
How have you taken what’s being done now musically within The Top 40 and applied it to what you’re doing with your music and your style?
Basically, I’ve just remembered that I always have something to learn. I got this from Neil Peart also. [Laughs] There’s always someone better out there and I’m always listening to what’s new and adding it to my style.
If you could play drums for any band on any stage…what band and where?
I can honestly say this after many years of playing the drums: I would enjoy whatever group it is as long as there’s a tour bus, a hot meal, a hotel room, and lots of people to play too! Yea, I’m a little Pre-Madonna in my older age, but I like what I like and I know what I want! [Laughs] In the past, I use to jump on board every opportunity that was thrown my way, but it always came at a cost to my wife and children. I remember I was on the phone with Billy Mason, the drummer for Tim McGraw, and he was telling me about his life and all of the heartache that comes from being without family and all of the long days. I won’t go into it because it’s a very private conversation, but Billy opened my eyes that day to what I really wanted to do. You can’t have both without someone losing their life a little, and that’s usually the family. But, you can ride the line a little. I decided to not sell my family out anymore! It was really that simple. Knowing (from Billy) what was in my future if I continued this way made it an easy decision. Sometimes you just cant do a show or join a group if it comes at the cost of the three people that define who I am: Husband, Daddy, Drummer…IN THAT ORDER! [Laughs]
On a side note…you own and operate one of the best Tanning Salons in East Tennessee, Suntan Station in West Knoxville, TN. Do you plan on any upcoming rock shows in that venue?
Well, I haven’t given it much thought, but I will never say never. We are doing so many things at the salon lately that I thought was not in our plans, but plans change and we are changing with the times by providing full salon hair and waxing services! I just roll with it, and am constantly on the lookout for new things!
Any parting words of enlightenment?
Well I’ve always had a personal favorite movie that I watch called “The Shawshank Redemption”. I don’t know why, but I really connect with this movie. There’s a comment that the main character, played by Tim Robbins, says to Morgan Freeman…“Get busy livin’, or get busy dyin’.” That’s the way I live my life now, after being a firefighter and seeing how fast it can all be lost. I try to squeeze the most out of life now. I’m glad my eyes are open and I’m on this side of the dirt!
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