Actor brings credibility to role as stylish shmata hustler

When Bryan Greenberg was a struggling actor a decade ago, he was caught up in the kind of New York hustle familiar to the aspiring fashionista he plays on HBO’s “How to Make It in America,” a gritty series about the American dream amid Wall Street disaster.

“I didn’t get a lot of sleep,” the 31-year-old actor said. Instead, he juggled auditions while working as a waiter, bartender, caterer and assistant to a mortgage broker.

Bryan Greenberg photo/eric liebowitz

Greenberg plays Ben Epstein, a fashion-school dropout in his late 20s who is still employed folding jeans at Barneys — to his own dismay and that of his Upper West Side Jewish parents. But this sensitive Jewish boy and his cocky Dominican buddy (Victor Rasuk) have a plan: to somehow launch a retro jeans line with a roll of exclusive Japanese denim purchased from the back of a truck.

They scrounge for funds by selling vintage T-shirts and trolling downtown parties for contacts. They connect with Ben’s childhood friend David Kaplan (Eddie Kaye Thomas), a wealthy nerd who agrees to invest, in part, because Ben can get him into a downtown club that routinely rejects him.

“Anything is still possible in America, even for some loudmouthed Jew,” the socially awkward Kaplan exclaims. It helps that Ben plays basketball with the club’s bouncer.

Greenberg, too, found connections on the basketball court. That’s where he met the HBO series’ creator, Ian Edelman, who at the time was still working as a production assistant.

Greenberg, who grew up in a Conservative home in Omaha, Neb., had enjoyed some modest success in roles on TV and in the film “Prime.”

“I had no idea that Ian was a writer, just that we had great chemistry on the court. So when I read in Variety that he had sold this show to HBO, I was stunned.”

The actor had his agent set up the formal meeting with the series producers. Edelman liked what he saw in the audition room.

“[Bryan] just felt like Ben Epstein,” Edelman said. “Ben is like a lot of kids I knew growing up in New York: cool, creative, friends with a lot of different types of people, comfortable uptown and downtown,” he said. “But we worked hard to make Ben feel real. To me his Upper West Side Jewishness is all part of that.”

“How to Make It in America” will return to HBO in summer 2011.

Naomi Pfefferman

L.A. Jewish Journal