Giving Back

By: 

Derek Wehrwein

New Ulm native David Rysdahl is an up-and coming actor in New York. His success is based on experience, a long night on the subway, and some advice he received just before arriving in the Big Apple.

 

David Rysdahl remembers the Decision and he remembers the Chef.

The Decision was made in one night, over drinks with friends, in the dwindling summer days of 2009.

Rysdahl, who once aspired to become a doctor, had graduated months earlier with a chemistry degree from St. Olaf College. But as he wrapped up a summer apprenticeship at a Shakespeare festival in Winona, talk drifted to the plans of his fellow festival participants. One friend, Nick, announced he was intending to move to New York City. David should move there, too, he said. And amid the din and alcohol-fueled haze of the American Legion bar early that morning, Rysdahl felt the Big Apple beckon.

“In that moment, I said, ‘Yeah, I think I’m going to go to New York, too,’” he recalled. “And in that moment I felt a wave of excitement. It felt like the right thing to do.”

By autumn, Rysdahl had relocated to pursue an acting career. It was then, during his flight out to New York, that he met the Chef. Now in his 70s, the Chef was nearing retirement and preparing to move to Hawaii. But the Chef had also lived in New York for 50 some years, and he turned to Rysdahl during the flight to offer advice.

"Jump in with reckless abandon," Rysdahl recalled him saying. "The city gives back to those who give to it."

The 22-year-old Rysdahl listened.

His first years in New York were, in turn, confusing, energizing, isolating and exhilarating. To scrape by he worked odd jobs. To get acting experience he took whatever gigs he could find. There was the month he spent as a doorman for a Syrian deejay’s extravagant parties. There was a stint bussing and delivering room service at The Standard, a ritzy hotel. There were the countless hours he toiled away in theater productions, performing before audiences of only a few people.

But over seven years, Rysdahl has started carving out an increasingly noteworthy career in the world of theater and film.

The New Ulm, native, now 29, sports an ever-growing resume. His credits include appearances in scores of independent and short films; extensive experience in improv; starring roles in several feature-length films; and — most recently — a guest appearance on the CBS legal drama Bull.

The city, one might say, is giving back.

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The Decision to move to New York happened swiftly, but the love of acting had existed for years. In seventh grade a normally shy Rysdahl, with some nudging from his mother, landed the role of Cain in a school production of Children of Eden. During Act 1, his character infamously beats brother Abel to death with a rock.

The experience changed Rysdahl’s life.

“Being on stage for that first time, emoting something and having the audience respond, is a high that’s very hard to replicate,” he said. “I fell in love with being on stage and playing a character.”

Rysdahl regularly acted in theater productions from that point forward, whether at New Ulm Cathedral High School, from where he graduated in 2005, or at St. Olaf, where he majored in chemistry and English. At college, he distinguished himself through his earnestness and warmth — “a heartthrob on our campus without trying to be,” recalled long-time Artist in Residence Dona Werner Freeman, who cast Rysdahl in a St. Olaf production of The Taming of the Shrew.

Despite his affinity for acting, Rysdahl for years never seriously considered trying to do it as a career. That was a mountain, he said, that felt “just way too high to climb.” But after graduating from St. Olaf, he turned down an internship at a lab in favor of the Winona apprenticeship. There, at the Great River Shakespeare Festival, he played Laertes in Hamlet. He loved the dedication of his fellow actors and he admired their outlook on life.

“They all had a fire and a passion,” said Rysdahl, who at the time was questioning his own identity and evangelical upbringing. “I found a community of people who cared about humans and the human condition, but were putting that fire and passion and community together in a different way. I wanted to be part of that.”

And so came the move to New York City. Several actors Rysdahl worked with at the Shakespeare festival were from the city. One of them, Nicole, helped him find a one-month sublet. Rysdahl saw her the first week he moved to New York and never saw her again.

He was on his own.

Once in New York, Rysdahl’s own fire and passion were put to the test. Two years in — frustrated by a lack of money and career progression, and struggling with loneliness — he hit a near breaking point. During an almost comically bad night that included getting stiffed with the bill at a 24-hour-diner, and after a substantial dose of drinking, Rysdahl said he found himself wandering the subway tracks around 4 a.m. thinking: “This is the worst moment of my life.”

Instead, Rysdahl said, “it ended up being a baptism.” The following week he auditioned for a part in a small film. The project never went anywhere, but Rysdahl remembers his audition nonetheless: It marks the point, he felt, that his acting became more expressive and real and less of a put-on.

Success started to follow. He began performing consistently at the People’s Improv Theatre in 2012. In 2014 he joined The Studio System, a house team at PIT, and also collaborated with a friend to form the improv duo True East. He landed a lead role in the 2015 film That’s Not Us, currently on Netflix. He wrote the short film Black Swell and co-starred in it with Richard Kind. Then, in 2016, actress Annabelle Attanasio saw his performance in the production Playing With Fire. Attanasio, who plays computer whiz Cable McCrory on CBS’s Bull, later recommended David for a part on the show.

That’s how David Rysdahl, the once quiet New Ulm kid with a chemistry degree, wound up on network television on Feb. 7, 2017. He appeared that evening in Episode 13, The Fall, playing McCrory’s ex-boyfriend Wes, a recovering gaming addict, to an audience of more than 10 million viewers.

In the penultimate scene of the episode — actually the first scene Rysdahl filmed — Wes meets McCrory for coffee but instead gets a kiss planted on him.

Rysdahl will admit it. “It was nerve-wracking,” he said.

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How effective an actor is Rysdahl? Director Jen Gerber once re-scripted a film’s main character after watching Rysdahl audition.

Gerber was looking for someone to play the lead role in The Revival, a film about a pastor wrestling with his sexuality. The character was supposed to be around age 45, and Gerber's producer had to help coax her into auditioning the youthful, 20-something Rysdahl.

“He’s much younger than the scripted character so I just wasn’t thinking of him,” Gerber said. “But when I saw him do the [audition] scene I was like, ‘Oh my goodness.’ I was moved, and excited, and also kind of terrified because he was so different than the scripted character.”

The director dutifully continued auditions. But no one matched Rysdahl’s performance. Gerber ended up re-scripting the character.

“The audition scene that he did, he’s preaching in it,” Gerber recalled. “Most actors, when they audition they’re acting like they’re preaching.”

That genuineness as an actor is also a trait Mark Berger noticed. Berger produced and co-starred in That’s Not Us; he and David play one of three couples vacationing in a beach house. Berger and Rysdahl were strangers before the eight-day shoot started but quickly became good friends.

“David wears his emotions on his sleeve in a way where you can see that there’s real vulnerability behind his eyes for me to play with,” Berger said. “Together we were able to push each other to places where we felt uneasy or where the moment was really vulnerable. But since we had created that relationship with each other off-screen, we felt safe with each other.”

Rysdahl’s St. Olaf professors also remember something remarkably genuine about David, the person. Freeman, who taught Rysdahl in an Introduction to Acting class, recalled being struck almost immediately by his openness and kindness.

“There’s a boyishness about him and almost a kind of purity in his approach to life that’s fetching,” she said. “I can see why people would want to watch him on film.”

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One of Rysdahl’s next big projects is slated for this summer. He and his girlfriend Zazie Beetz, herself a breakout star on the FX show Atlanta, are planning to shoot a film based off a script Rysdahl has written.

The two of them have a working title (Shelter), a producer (Berger), a tentative filming schedule (August), and a budget (“We’re calling in some favors,” Rysdahl said). The plot revolves around a troubled father and his 12-year-old daughter who fake her cancer for financial gain.

But this particular movie won’t be filmed in New York.

Rysdahl moved to New York City in 2009 partially to figure out who he was as a person. “Even though I loved Minnesota,” he said, “I felt like I had to leave for a while so I could better understand myself.”

And even as Rysdahl’s perspective has grown and changed over the years, the 29-year-old maintains an affection for his hometown. Now this new project involves him returning to Minnesota, almost exactly eight years after the decision to leave.

He and Zazie will be filming Shelter this summer in and around New Ulm, the normally tranquil community Rysdahl grew up in, and the place where he discovered his love for acting.

Rysdahl, one might say, is giving back.

 

Derek Wehrwein is a freelance writer in Southern Minnesota. Contact him at editor@southernminnscene.com