Patrick Heusinger is a 37-year-old actor who spent a decade in New York and the last decade in Hollywood, not becoming a household name. He has an IMDb page full of one-episode guest spots on 30 Rock and Bones. He was on four episodes of Gossip Girl that aired when George W. Bush was president. He’s played a robot in a failed pilot—twice.
He’s like hundreds of actors who bounce from TV jobs to indie films to plays like balls on a roulette wheel, hoping something will hit. When it hit for him, though—a recurring spot on Bravo’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce and a chance to become a series regular—he had auditioned for an off-Broadway revival of a play called Bent.
“One episode was going to pay more than the entire run of that play,” Heusinger tells Playboy, “and I had no money at the time.” He chose the play, a Hollywood producer saw it, put him in a movie with Tom Cruise, yada yada—he’s now starring on a terrific thriller series for Amazon called Absentia. He portrays an FBI agent whose FBI agent wife—played by Castle’s Stana Katic—shows up after being presumed dead six years prior.
Heusinger sat down with Playboy to talk about his journeyman’s career, his current hot streak and how learning to say no led to the biggest role of his career.
You grew up in Jacksonville. What’s your take on the Jaguars featuring so prominently on NBC’s The Good Place?
I had never seen the show until last fall, when I was visiting some friends who watch a lot of TV, and I saw a guy on TV wearing a Jacksonville Jaguars shirt. I was like, “What the hell?” And they told me the whole Jason Mendoza backstory. I said, “They’re gonna regret cracking on the Jaguars because we’re gonna be so good this season.” And we were.
When did you leave Jacksonville to pursue acting?
I lived there until I was 18, when I got into Juilliard and moved to New York. And after my second year there, I went to see the director of the drama division and said I wanted take a year off. Things were going great—I had just done Richard III—but I was overwhelmed with New York and didn’t know anything about myself. I wanted to get out and travel. I reapplied, and they let me back in a year later, and I was in New York for 11 years before I moved to Los Angeles.
“NBC hired me for a show called Beautiful People about robots, and another show called Tin Man about robots.”
Who was in your class at Juilliard?
You’re in a class with the same 20 people for all four years—like a theatre company—and I was in two different classes because I left and came back. My first class was Jessica Chastain; Michael Urie, who’s a big stage guy, was on Ugly Betty; Jess Weixler, who’s on The Son on AMC. And there’s other people you don’t know yet, but you’re going to. Some people get out of school, and it happens for them right away. And other people—I’ve seen it so many times—get an opportunity later and break out.
Who was in your second class?
Gillian Jacobs; Ben Walker; Nelsan Ellis, who was on True Blood and passed away recently; James Liao, who was on Prison Break. It’s hard to list people, actually, because the spirit of the program has never been about notoriety.
Your career is similar to a lot of actors who spend three or five or 10 years doing short arcs on The Good Wife, or doing pilots that never get made, before you break out. There’s guys like Jon Hamm, George Clooney, David Schwimmer, who were actors for years before their stardom.
I have done five pilots—and was the lead in two of those—that didn’t get picked up. Jon Hamm, I think, did seven pilots that didn’t get picked up before he did Mad Men. George Clooney was in a lot of shows that either didn’t get picked up or didn’t last long.
Tell me about one of those pilots.
I could tell you about all of them. [Laughs] I’ve done two robot pilots, and those were both before robots were a thing! NBC hired me for a show called Beautiful People about robots, and another show called Tin Man about robots. [Laughs] I did one for Fox that was a comedy about assassins, where Anthony LaPaglia and Felicity Huffman played my parents.
Your path out of pilot hell was actually getting onto shows like Casual and Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce, that were up and running when you got involved. Did that exposure change things for you?
In 2015, I got offered a play called Bent by Martin Sherman, and Moises Kaufman—who I’d wanted to work with for years—was going to direct it. Girlfriend’s Guide called about whether I’d be interested in coming back as a series regular for season 2. One episode was going to pay more than the entire run of that play, and I had no money at the time.
So you did the play?
I did the play. And somebody from Paramount Pictures saw it, and that led to me getting Jack Reacher: Never Go Back.
That’s pretty affirming that you choose the play because you feel strongly about it, and that leads to something bigger than what you passed up.
Absolutely, it is. It’s a scary moment when you have art and commerce staring you down like that, and I’ve tried since then to only do projects I really want to do. For the first time in my life, I was able to get scripts and say no to some of them. When I got Absentia, I immediately thought it was a great script and an interesting role. It was such an effective portrayal of post-traumatic stress. The director was going to be Oded Ruskin, so I watched his series False Flag—all eight episodes in one sitting—and said yes immediately. So I talked to the casting director, read with Stana Katic, and they offered it to me that night. Three weeks later, we were shooting in Bulgaria.
The series shot in Bulgaria? It’s set in Boston, right?
It shot in Bulgaria, and it’s an international cast. There’s actors from Mexico, Israel and a lot from the U.K.
Absentia reminds me more of films like Bourne Identity or Panic Room than anything I see on TV. Was that the idea?
One of the reasons Sony wanted Oded Ruskin, who’s an Israeli filmmaker, to shoot the series was to get that filmic sensibility. Also, Nadav Hekselman was the director of photography for all 10 episodes and shot almost all of the scenes himself, so the series has a lot of visual consistency from the same director and the same cinematographer shooting the whole thing. When you have fewer people involved at that level, you get a more specific, more focused show.
The state of technology with surveillance and mobile phones has made thrillers like this harder to pull off, and Absentia does a good job with that. There weren’t any moments where the scripts defy reality or takes shortcuts with that.
The whole cast met with the director at the beginning and went through the whole thing. We paid a lot of attention to whether the timeline made sense and whether the things that happen made sense. On paper, it’s kind of a ridiculous premise: Someone disappears for six years and then comes back. So we had to get the audience to believe that down to the details.
Absentia is available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video.