David Corenswet’s first review in his hometown paper was a single line.
Corenswet, The Inquirer reported in April 2004, “is fine as the oddly named Great” in The Forgiving Harvest, a family drama at People’s Light & Theatre Company in which the then-12-year-old played a boy whose stepfather wanted to buy part of a family’s farm.
“To be described as fine, that’s pretty [good]," said Corenswet, now 26, with a laugh in a recent phone interview — one punctuated by the occasional yowls of his 17-year-old cat, Fred.
Corenswet, who grew up in Center City near 22nd and Pine, is starring in Ryan Murphy’s new 1940s-set Netflix miniseries Hollywood, alongside the likes of Patti LuPone, Holland Taylor, Jim Parsons, and Dylan McDermott. He also plays a pivotal (and mostly posthumous) role in another Murphy-produced Netflix series,The Politician.
The Shipley School grad — who went on to Juilliard — is introduced in the first of Hollywood’'s seven episodes as Jack Castello, a Missouri farm boy fresh from World War II who’s moved to Los Angeles, sure that he was born to be a star. He’s not wrong, but he eventually learns there’s more to acting than good looks.
Corenswet, brought up in a home where Broadway albums were played regularly, and where Fred, who’s a female cat, until last year had a sister named Ginger, seems to have figured that out early.
He’s been acting since the age of 9, when he made his debut in the Arden Theatre’s production of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, directed by Arden cofounder Terry Nolen. He also appeared in the Arden’s 2008 production of Our Town.
Nolen, Corenswet said, “gave me my first big acting lesson,” while rehearsing an entrance in All My Sons in which his character was supposed to have just run several blocks. “I pretended to be out of breath,” he said.
“Terry stopped me and said, ‘David, we’re not going to pretend to be out of breath because that’s … pretending. If you think that you’d be out of breath, you should do some push-ups. Do some jumping jacks and then you’ll really be out of breath. And then you can go from there.’”
Corenswet’s father, John, who died last June, was a lawyer who, before going to law school, spent several years in New York as an actor. He was a big fan of Nolen’s, and not just for giving Corenswet his start in regional theater.
“My dad always said that Terry really treated me like an adult and talked to me like I was just one of the cast,” Corenswet said.
If any of this suggests that Corenswet missed his childhood, or was always sure he’d end up in Hollywood, neither seems to be the case.
When he recounts his experience at Upper Darby Summer Stage — whose veterans include Nolen and his wife and Arden cofounder Amy Murphy as well as Tina Fey, Monica Horan (Everybody Loves Raymond), and TV writer Tom Donaghy (Star) — Corenswet makes it sound like a happy accident.
The first year he and his best friend, Ian Monaco, were “too old for our day camp," he’d thought they could just spend the summer hanging out together. “But then he told me he was going to do this musical camp, and so I signed up rather last minute, I think, just because I was hoping that we’d still be able to spend the summer together,” he said.
He ended up in a junior production of The Music Man, discovering the joys of being part of the chorus. “You really get that feeling of being a part of something bigger than yourself where you get to play around, you get to have a ton of fun, … and you can sing as loud as you want because you’re just one of you know, 15 chorus members,” he said.
“I actually didn’t end up spending any time with my best friend, Ian, because he actually got a speaking part in the show. … But the program and the other kids were so much fun that I was sold and I knew I was going to go back.”
Even the decision to apply to Juilliard’s famously selective drama program wasn’t automatic. After graduating from Shipley in 2011, Corenswet spent a year at the University of Pennsylvania.
Don’t put that on his father or on his mother, Caroline Packard, a lawyer who specializes in conflict resolution. They had “a wonderful outlook of kind of … whatever experiment I wanted to run, they were going to support me in running it, knowing that nobody really knows what to do in this world,” he said. His sister, Amy, graduated from Penn’s law school this month.
His father had told him that he believed a Juilliard education would guarantee him an acting career, if not necessarily a great living.
“Penn was my choice, basically, because even though I knew I loved acting, and wanted to keep doing it, I just had no idea what the life of an actor looks like day to day,” he said. The school was close to home, and he already knew people there. Having applied early decision, he couldn’t apply anywhere else, “but I already had decided that every year that I was at Penn, I would apply to Juilliard.”
He’s still friends with people he met at Penn, and “I loved studying there and I loved a bunch of my professors. But when I got to Juilliard, it really felt like these were my people,” he said.
Corenswet has found more of his people on the sets of Murphy’s shows, where both performers and crews tend to return, series after series. He’ll be seen again in the second season of The Politician, which premieres on Netflix on June 19.
“The really cool thing about Ryan’s crews is they can pull off the absolute miracles of scheduling and execution” because most have worked together before, he said.
Starting work on Hollywood, where Murphy directed the pilot, as he had for The Politician, “he had already accepted me as the guy who would show up on set with a lot of questions and maybe a couple suggestions or at least thoughts,” Corenswet said. “And at the same time, he knew that he could tell me to just shut up and do what he said, and I would very happily oblige.”
Corenswet shot his final scenes for the new season of The Politician in New York “just before things started to shut down,” he said. “I’m incredibly lucky that it hasn’t been particularly disruptive for me, personally,” because as an actor, he’s used to being unemployed for long stretches.
“Like many other people I’m realizing that all the lofty aspirations I had for the great use I would make of two weeks or a month with nothing to do … didn’t pan out as expected,” he said, though he’s managed to do some writing and editing, and to work on a couple of music videos for a friend.
He’s also participated in a couple of play readings on Zoom with other members of the Juilliard community, including one for a program called Mon Ami, which in non-pandemic times connects college students with senior citizens.
Corenswet is also considering doing a quarantine episode of Moe and Jerryweather, a web comedy series he created in 2014 with Juilliard classmate Adam Langdon and whose second season was directed by another friend from Juilliard, Max Woertendyke. It has been, he said, on “a temporary and lengthy hiatus."