Adam Tran’s journey from his adolescence in Greencastle to his adulthood on the Indianapolis theater scene is captivating. But his personal journey from insecurity and frustration to inner peace and happiness proves a bit more inspirational.
by Donovan Wheeler
photos by Zed Martinez
and Zach Rosing
Adam Tran can relate. Tran is not a rock-and-roll icon (he only picked up the guitar a year ago, for that matter). But when he hangs that six-string over his shoulders and reprises his role as Elvis for this summer’s production of Quartet, he will carry inside him his own similar tug-of-war. Pulling at him from one side: the obligations and comforts of home. Yanking him the other way: a calling, a need to swim in a bigger pond and see what happens. If you ask him, he’s mostly made up his mind on the matter. And if you press him, he’ll forecast his future with a healthy dose of confidence.
This is a far cry from the insecure adolescent who grew up in Greencastle, Indiana. Granted it was a college town, offering a modicum of cultural diversity, but it wasn’t a big-school town, where real diversity is an afterthought. In this city of some 8,000 people, Tran learned to navigate life as an Asian-American surrounded on one side by a smattering of intellectuals in cardigans and wing-tips, and enveloped on the other by a plethora of good-ol’ boys gunning pickup trucks sporting Confederate Flag window decals. It seems an unlikely pot in which to concoct a professional actor, but Tran always knew on some level that his destiny lay on the stage.
“When I was kid,” Tran explains, “I watched The New Adventures of Lois and Clark, and Dean Cain played Superman. That changed my life. This is the most iconic, ‘American’ character that exists, and a dude who looks like me is playing him…and he was the only person I had ever seen on TV who actually looked like me.”
Managing small parts as a high school actor, Tran’s life after graduation followed a common pattern. Foregoing college, he signed on to work the factory floor making automobile components.
“I hated everything [about it],” Tran says. “I worked 84-hour weeks, putting in mandatory overtime for $9.50 an hour, or something like that.” Antsy and frustrated, Tran migrated north, to the sparsely populated woods along Indiana’s I-74. Landing a role for a show in Myers Dinner Theater, an obscure little operation, in the obscure little town of Hillsboro, east of the equally obscure town of Veedersburg.
“If you don’t know where Hillsboro is,” Tran quips, “neither does anybody else.” His time in Hillsboro proved short-lived, especially when his penchant for epiphany and impulse combined.
“Because my life often happens in binges—along with all of my other life problems—I decided that I was going to apply for performing arts school,” he explains. He looked online and found The School for Film and Television headquartered in New York City.
“I had no experience with the college application process,” he adds. “So, when I was accepted, I thought, ‘Now I need to buy my bus ticket and go there.’ But for some reason, it never dawned on me, or anyone around me, to take care of things such as wait for housing.”
“So I hopped on a Greyhound, went to New York, and showed up at the Registrar’s Office. I said, ‘Well, I’m here!’ and he said, ‘Who are you?’ Then he looked at me and recognized me—because he had seen my auditions—and said, ‘Well…that took balls. I guess we have to put you somewhere, now.’”
After one semester Tran—who candidly describes himself as stubborn—had his fill of the structural gamesmanship of the school, and returned home. Now age 20, Tran was working for the highway department, engaged to a local girl, and had resigned himself to a life-pattern he had watched play out around him hundreds of times.
“I kind of thought that was my life,” he explains. “You get up, get a good job, go to work, and pay for things, and blah, blah, blah… That’s it. That’s your life. Then I wrecked my car and lost my job, and my fiancée dumped me…all on my 21st birthday.” His fate would finally turn when, while cast as “a Nazi” in the Putnam County Playhouse’s 2006 production The Sound of Music, he happened upon Amy and Andrew Hayes.
“I found out they were acting teachers, so I asked Amy for help,” Tran says. “And Andrew, who was on his laptop at time watching 24, paused his show, removed his headphone, looked at me, and said, ‘You better be sure.’ Then he popped his earbud back in place and clicked ‘Play.’” Amy Hayes would take Tran under her wing and dedicate herself to honing his skills. Eventually, she placed him in the hands of her old Anderson University connection, theater instructor Ronn Johnston.
“I never got a degree, but I did get a lot of experience,” Tran says. “That’s the important thing. Because if you’re going to be a starving actor, you should be a good one.” Once his time at Anderson ended, Tran found himself back in the Circle City.
“You know that Willie Nelson song, ‘If You’ve Got the Money, Honey, I’ve Got the Time…?’ I sort of lived that for a couple years after college,” Tran says. “I had lost my motivation to do much other than drink. And that’s when I happened [again] upon Amy Hayes, who was in Indy casting a show called Jason and Medea. A year before the production began she told me to put on some muscle. I had quit drinking by this time and the combination of working out [for this part] and sobriety created this weird effect on me.” One of those effects altered his personal life significantly, namely in the form of the on-stage chemistry Tran and fellow actor, Kelsey Miller, struck playing opposite of each other.
“When we kissed each other, I thought, ‘Well…shit…now I have break up with my girlfriend, because there’s something weird happening here,’” he says. “She had been my best friend [in and after college] for seven years. We turned to each other for everything. Not long after that we each broke up with our significant-others…then tried to keep our distance from each other for while…then we got married,” he adds laughing.
In a biography loaded with significant turning-points, Tran’s casting as Jason has proven the most significant. Besides falling in love, he also discovered a more “kinesthetic” style of performance.
“It was the first time I ever worked out for a role. I changed my diet and exercised, and that had a huge impact on the way the part was played,” he says. “By the time that year had passed, I had put on 45-pounds of muscle. I would set my alarm for 3:30, get up and eat six eggs, and go back to sleep. And then, a couple months before the production, Amy saw me and said, ‘Hey, you really beefed up.’ After telling her how hard I worked she then said, ‘Yeah, I think I liked you thinner.’ So I promptly shaved off 25 of those pounds.”
When Tran and National Road Magazine’s Donovan Wheeler spoke for this piece the conversation started with acting and quickly moved to bigger, and more far-reaching topics. The interview below has been edited for length and clairity:
Donovan Wheeler: What’s the acting community like in Indy? How does it compare to your experiences in other cities?
Adam Tran: “The theater community here is really tight. It’s tight in that weird, dysfunctional family way. Everybody is really supportive of each other, but everybody also knows everything about everyone. It’s the same sort of small-town intimacy, but it’s punctuated by an extreme level of emotional availability, because everyone’s an artist. [That sense of community is] part of what keeps people here. Many people here have found a place where they belong, and I think that is frankly tempting. Because once you know where you fit in, you don’t want to go anywhere.”
Wheeler: So, are you comfortable being specific about your future?
Tran: “My wife and I are not long for this pond, quite frankly. Because we’re both looking for the next thing. What’s the next thing? How can I take what I’m doing and amplify it, make more money from it, or find something more artistically challenging?”
Wheeler: Are seeking challenges and seeking validation the same thing?
Tran: “I [already] get validation in ways I never thought I would get. My grandfather, who has a ninth-grade education and spent his life busting his ass in that cool, hard-ass, blue-collar way and worked his way through the carpenters union. He was in charge of people who went to lots of years of college, because there was nobody who could do what he could do the way he did it. Always, always, always, when I talked about acting…I know that he thought about it as me playing pretend.”
Tran: “But then he went to the showing of Mud Lotus at DePauw, and right before I have to walk to the stage and give a talk-back, this dude reaches over and says, ‘Hey! I’m proud of you.’ I thought, ‘Oh, cool! My Clint Eastwood grandfather just told me he was proud of me before I have to walk up and speak to a bunch of people. I’m not going to have a hard time keeping my shit together.’”
Wheeler: Any of us with father-figures of that sort knows exactly what you’re talking about. That is significant.
Tran: “Now he’s often outraged, in the same way that family members of actors are. He’ll call me and say, ‘I’m watching a show on TV, and this son-of-a-bitch is not even as close to being as good an actor as you. I can’t figure out why in the hell he got the job and you didn’t.’ [Laughs]. You are preaching to the choir, Grandpa…preaching to the choir.”
Wheeler: Is it fair to ask what kind of an actor you are?
Tran: “Yes. That’s totally fair, and I also think that if you don’t know the answer to that question then you’re not really an actor…”
Here, Tran groans, and mimics a self-stabbing motion.
Tran: “That’s too big of a thing to say…you can’t say that. Robert De Niro’s going to track me down. [Laughs]. I believe that I am a character-actor, and what I mean by that is that I think the stereotypical leading man-leading lady are playing variations of themselves.”
Wheeler: And you?
Tran: “I think that I have lived a thousand different lives due the places I’ve been and the people I’ve found myself with. I also think my mother’s influence plays into that, because she raised me to be open and inclusive in nature. Some people have a hard time empathizing with others who are not like them. And for these reasons I have been able to delve into things that other people will not—or cannot—allow themselves to do.”
Wheeler: Is your work on Jason and Medea an example of that?
Tran: “To be clear, my role in that play wasn’t as a character actor. It’s a feminist play in nature, and much like what you saw in something like…say…Mad Max: Fury Road, Jason was essentially a foil to Medea. And it’s something I kind of dug, because I was falling in love with—and am now married to—a feminist who has really enlightened me a lot of ways. Ways which were not always easy to [embrace].”
Tran: “It’s easier for me to do a part that is not about me. I appreciate the element of acting that is about the other person, because the relationship—which is part of my acting training—is the most important thing. And if I can cast myself on this other person, it allows me to highlight the other person on stage with me.”
Wheeler: What other roles have been transformative for you?
Tran: “I performed in a Sam Shepherd play called Tooth of Crime, and it’s a really obscure play…even for Sam Shepherd. It’s a musical…sort of, because Sam Shepherd being Sam Shepherd, released the play, but never released an official score. So you have to hire musicians to craft a score for this play.”
Tran: “I played a character called Crow—who doesn’t even appear until the second act…it felt a little like Waiting for Gadot. He’s a sort of Loki figure. A troublemaker and trickster…and there was something about the freedom of that role that may have changed the work that I do for the rest of my life. The language in this play is like Shakespeare in the sense that it’s not common language. But unlike Shakespeare—because it’s Sam Shepherd and he was probably on lots of drugs—the play follows no rules. So some of the things Crow says are just spontaneous, weird words for the sake of being there, which meant that we spent a lot of our time on stage interpreting what it all meant. It liberated me from language, and it liberated me from expectations. So I got to craft this character.”
Wheeler: And you crafted him into what?
Tran: “There was something androgynous about him. Someone who is not grounded by any rules or set of social norms is someone who is devoid of his essence, so he doesn’t care about gender customs or supposedly expected behavior. And we kept this sort of post-apocalyptic look to the set. And then Crow was costumed as a David Bowie-Prince figure, complete with a multi-colored Mohawk and purple, heeled boots. There was something about all of that changed everything for me. There were no rules and gloves were off. I liked that. And I think that’s becoming a mantra of my life as I get older.”
Wheeler: No rules? How do you mean?
Tran: “I see people who are shitty humans, for the most part, do wonderful, selfless things—and then you see virtuous people do really shitty things—and you realize that there are no universal laws to humanity. Logic suggests that there should [also] be no universal laws to acting, so if you go about saying that there’s a prescribed path to good acting, or an established standard of what is good acting…then you’re full of shit. You’ve been standing in line drinking your own Kool-Aid.”
“When I was kid, I watched The New Adventures of Lois and Clark, and Dean Cain played Superman. That changed my life. This is the most iconic, ‘American’ character that exists, and a dude who looks like me is playing him…and he was the only person I had ever seen on TV who actually looked like me.”
Wheeler: That’s sort of a theme describing the world right now.
Tran: “That’s the strangely amazing thing about what’s happening right now. Because, as a result of all of this, all of the shit is being unearthed. Everything’s getting out in the open. No one can say, for example, that racism doesn’t exist anymore because we’re watching it happen. And for once this marginalization is not being defined by the people who are doing the marginalizing.”
Wheeler: So let’s talk about that. To what degree does your youth in a tiny city like Greencastle bleed into your identity as a person and an actor in a place like Indy?
Tran: “Where I am now is inconsequential, but my youth there has shaped everything. There’s also something innate about me that makes me okay with my singularity.”
Wheeler: You went to GHS at a time that was punctuated by racial and ethnic conflicts which, while perpetually commonplace, were uncharacteristically exposed. At the center of it: a Confederate flag blow-up which led to drawn out hallway, classroom, and office confrontations. So by “singularity” do you mean not being either black or white? Or is this something more than that?
Tran: “I developed this weird sense of division, because I don’t belong to either team. As my physical appearance has set me apart from either culture, it has forced me to accept singularity. And once I acknowledge that idea, I then have to accept that I’m not special unless everyone is singular. That leads to this [isolated] world view because we really only know ourselves. Even among our family, our partners, our friends…we only know ourselves completely in every aspect.”
Tran: “That means that, when that time comes when we want to write somebody off as a shit-bag, that’s not as easy for me because I know that what we’re seeing is not the true essence of who that person is. And that’s also true whenever someone is a ‘saint.’ This made me completely skeptical of everyone and simultaneously completely inclusive in the way that I think about the world. Because I’m always on my haunches…always a little bit defensive, but I’m also always open to people and to the way that they change or experience the world differently than we expect them to.”
Tran: “This [world view] is also the result of being raised by women, and growing up around people who didn’t [share the same racial heritage] as well. My mom would get more [upset] about incidents which resembled racism than I would. Seeing the world through the eyes of someone you love is actually more personal than our own personal experience.”
Wheeler: You have always been the jokester, laughing off everything, but you’ve also always been candid calling out your racial and cultural distinctions. Is this a matter where you use humor to go along with [it] versus saying, ‘I don’t want to deal with this, so I’m going to make it a joke’?
Tran: “Both. It’s both. There’s a level of self-preservation, and there’s also a level of self-flagellation. But there’s also something about living in a small town which makes you have to live in your own imagination. You have to become a figment of your own imagination as a survival tool. Everybody who lives in a small town has to do that. My cousins, who are white, have to do the same thing. It’s part of the culture.”
Tran: “Part of this is because I see myself through my identity is a country boy as much—if not more when I was younger—than I see myself through my race. My cousins would respond differently when it came to me, because we were family. They would take up for me when they had to.”
Wheeler: Again, you’re speaking of this with a specific example in mind?
Tran: “There was a night during or shortly after school when racial tensions were still very high. Someone had thrown a dirt clod at my [African-American] friend’s house, when his mother was by herself. Her son and I had been hanging out that night, and when we learned what happened I experienced this weird, guttural sensation. I got in my car, went after these guys, and found myself surrounded a bunch of dudes. I asked…rather diplomatically…who had thrown the dirt clod. There came this point when I felt the tide turn, and I realized I was about to get my ass kicked. That’s when a set of truck doors opened, and my cousins surrounded me.”
Tran: “‘Well boys,’ they said, ‘I know we’re friends, but [Adam’s] blood, and if you hurt him we’re going to have to see yours…’” Family is the crux of everything. There really does come a point where skin color doesn’t matter.”
Wheeler: When families are blended, I can see that. What about when they aren’t?
Tran: “All of that is part of a cultural understanding that a lot of people don’t have. [I’ve encountered people who grew up in big cities who] talk about racism as if it were [their] podium. Constantly. Just pointing shit out. I would say, ‘that’s actually not racist…that’s just a thing people do.’ [When someone like that starts] carping on some small thing, I finally [say to them]: ‘Look, I grew up in [a small town] and I look like me. You grew up in the city. Do you understand the ratio difference? You see racism when someone doesn’t do a nice thing for you, and I would open my locker and find a picture of myself hanging in a noose. These are distinctly different things. I’m not trying to diminish your experience, but I am saying that maybe you should chill out for a while.’”
Wheeler: So, growing up in Greencastle proved an advantage in way.
Tran: “Because I grew up in Greencastle, I think there are things that I can let go which other people cannot. Cultural sensitivity has heightened a lot lately. And mostly that’s a good thing. And it’s also not up to me to validate whatever it is that offends someone. Whatever hurts you, hurts you. But for me, I have avoided a lot of trouble by accepting that [a racist person] doesn’t have any impact on my life and moving on. And a lot of that has to do with growing up in Greencastle.”
Tran still has work to do in the Circle City before he saddles up his gear and seeks his next challenge. Those who don’t know him will wonder how he will fare in that proverbial “bigger pond.” Those of us who do know him don’t worry about that so much. After all he’s a trained actor who has learned many of the basic truths about human nature in a little college town an hour west of Indianapolis. Whatever challenges await him are the kind he will embrace in classic Adam Tran fashion: with a smile, a nod, a smartass comment, and a strong pinch of doggedly insecure determination.