A Great Pretender
NBC's hit series The Pretender posits that there are people who can take on the appearance and personalities of others. Though they have an uncanny talent for sliding into new characters, at the core Pretenders are actors. So it's no surprise that the part comes easily to 15-year-old Ryan Merriman.
A professional actor since the age of 10, Merriman plays title character Jarod as a child on the three-year-old series (actor Michael Weiss plays Jarod as an adult). Merriman also has three films coming out in the next couple of months, including the theatrical release The Deep End of the Ocean opposite Michelle Pfeiffer and CBS's Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation Night Ride Home with Rebecca DeMornay and Ellen Burstyn . Based out of Oklahoma, Merriman spends much of the year in L.A. or on location, and works school in between his increasing offers to act.
Merriman landed the role on The Pretender just after a hiking expedition in the High Sierras, when he arrived in L.A. without his parents and stayed with friends to go on a couple of auditions. It's unusual for him to travel without his family, so the young actor was very proud to get the part. "It was amazing," he recalls. "I think they knew what they were looking for, but they never paired me and Michael up to see what we looked like. It's pretty weird, how much we do look alike - people tell me that."
Weiss and Merriman rarely work the same days, since they never appear in the same shots. Still, they keep up with one another's work, since they are playing the same character at different stages of his life. Merriman reports that Weiss is "pretty cool, pretty smooth, he doesn't have any nervous tics or anything. He does his own thing, but sometimes he watches me, as a kid, some of the things I do. And my mom will say, 'Look what he's doing, that's something that you should do,' things like that."
Though the current storylines on The Pretender incorporate humor as Jarod slips into different personalities, the backstory is rather dark: he was kidnapped from his family and held by a secret group at "The Centre" where conniving corporate interests schemed to decide how best to nurture and use his talents. "It's serious stuff, but they're not torturing me," says Merriman, who doesn't find it that difficult to play. "Some of the stuff is a little bit dramatic, but a lot of the stuff is cool, especially the simulations."
Because he's active in a variety of sports, including horseback riding and inline skating, Merriman does most of his own stunts. "One time I was hanging from a roof, attached to a 30-foot rope with a harness on. That was cool! Right now I'm a little tired because I just got done working out. I work out a lot just for fun - we just got back from the studio, I take some classes there."
Merriman says that the hardest part of relating to young Jarod is his unhappiness. "He's kind of not too happy, and he doesn't have that great of a life. I've got a great life. It just all started to fall into place - right place, right time, I've been blessed with a lot of good things, and all my projects have been really good. When I started off, I didn't think it would ever come to this. I still do it for fun - I take it as it goes."
Starting in commercials at the age of 7 in his home state of Oklahoma, Merriman went on to national commercials and local theater, but his goal was to be on television. "I said, 'Mom, I really want to be on TV,' so we went to a local casting thing," he recalls. His first starring role was on the NBC sitcom The Mommies. Recently he appeared in a TNT original film, Everything That Rises, which starred and was directed by Dennis Quaid.
Despite his youth, Merriman has already won two prestigious accolades: the Young Artists Award of Hollywood for Outstanding Performance in a Drama Series by a Supporting Actor, and a nomination by The Hollywood Reporter Young Star Awards for Best Performance by a Young Actor in a Drama TV Series. Merriman notes, "It's really gratifying to know that people think your work is good, you know? It makes you feel good, definitely." While some might have been intimidated working with acclaimed performers like Michelle Pfeiffer or Keith Carradine, the young man takes it in stride. "If you think of them as superstars, then you kind of lose your acting abilities. It's kind of weird. They're just regular people, you know? I can keep up with them, I think."
"I look for nothing too bad - nothing with too much cussing or anything like that, something fun or lighthearted," he says of how he chooses his roles. "Dramatics are great for your career and they really show that you're flexible, but any day I would take a fun one. You have to be that person four weeks or whatever, and you've just got to think, 'Could I do this for four weeks?'" In terms of playing heroes vs. villains, Merriman would rather play the hero, because "The hero always gets the girl in the end."
Nonetheless, Merriman's two upcoming films feature him in very heavy dramatic parts. Columbia Pictures' The Deep End of the Ocean, opening February 26th, is based on a highly-regarded novel about how a missing boy and his family adjust when they are reunited ten years after his disappearance. In addition to Michelle Pfeiffer, the film features Treat Williams and Whoopi Goldberg.
"It was pretty tough, pretty dramatic, but it was a really good script so it's going to be a good movie too," reports Merriman, who runs lines with his parents but explains that they had an acting coach on the set. Night Ride Home, which will also air in February, tells the story of how a family heals after the death of a beloved child. Merriman plays the boyfriend of the lead girl.
The young actor recently finished filming Cherry Pink, an independent film directed by Jason Alexander. He plays a fourteen-year-old growing up in the 1950's who spends the summers with his aunt and uncle. "That was just awesome. It was a summer in New York, just to hang out with kids - I worked every day but it was still fun," notes Merriman, who stars with Gretchen Mol and Patti LuPone. Hanging out with kids is important to Merriman because he doesn't always get to do that. "A lot of people back home don't know what to say to me, but I've been doing this for awhile, so most of my friends are used to it. I've kept the same friends, pretty much. And I'm starting to get recognized - I think I really will when my movie comes out. I'm actually making more friends."
Merriman's next role is a historical character made famous by several other actors: Meyer Lansky. HBO Pictures is producing this biopic of Lansky, starring Richard Dreyfuss, the story the Jewish immigrant who became legendary for his life in organized crime. "I play young Meyer - that was a lot of fun," reports the actor, who says he watched Warren Beatty's Bugsy by way of preparation as well as a lot of documentary footage on Lansky himself.
Among Merriman's goals are to play a quarterback or the ringleader of a group of guys, and to work with Mel Gibson and Nicole Kidman. "She's cool. Days of Thunder, I like the way she talks in that movie. Tom Cruise too, he's cool - when I was growing up, a lot of people would say I looked like him." Among young performers who have successfully made the transition to adult roles, he says, "I think Elijah Wood has done a lot of good movies and has really taken good parts." Robin Williams is Merriman's favorite performer: "He does a lot of funny movies but he balances it out with a lot of dramatic movies too."
As for television shows he watches himself on which he'd like to make a guest appearance, "I'd like to be on Seventh Heaven, or 90210, or Party of Five - I'd like to play Lacey's boyfriend!" he laughs, adding that he has met Lacey Chabert and "she's really sweet." Asked his favorite thing about the business, he begins by mentioning the people he's met, but quickly moves on to the travel, listing the various places he's filmed on location. The teenager volunteers for Eagle Mount, an organization for disabled youth in Montana which he has visited. He also does fundraising for the Neonatal Parents Network of Oklahoma. "My little cousin was a preemie, so that's how I got involved with that. I think it's a good organization to help out."
"I'd like to be happy, hopefully rich, big house, nice car," Merriman laughs, then adds, "I'd just like to be happy whatever I do." He plans to attend a four-year college and study something other than acting: "If you think of acting as the only thing you could do, you don't have something to fall back on. I'd probably study business. It's amazing how many people are behind a movie - the production company and post-production and the camera crew. On Pretender, the camera guys let me dolly and play with the camera. A lot of people decide to direct, like Dennis Quaid and Jason Alexander, so you never know."
At the moment, Merriman is too busy as an actor - and a baseball player, skater, and pretty average teenager - to have much time to plan for that aspect of his future. After the wide exposure he'll get this winter, that's likely to continue. Meanwhile, he'll get to slip in and out of characters on The Pretender just like in his off-camera hours.