“I got this.”
—Harry “Opie” Winston on Sons Of Anarchy Season 5 Episode 3
I can’t imagine that it would be easy to share the screen with actors like Denzel Washington, Tom Hanks, Robin Williams, Matt Damon, Mel Gibson, Hugh Laurie, Kevin Costner, Samuel L. Jackson, Tommy Lee Jones, Sam Elliot, Charlie Hunnam, J.K. Simmons and Ben Kingsley. The thought of being directed by the likes of William Friedkin, Joel and Ethan Coen, Randall Wallace, Kurt Sutter and Steven Spielberg sounds just as daunting. For most actors, the idea of being noticed or memorable in a crowd like that would be nearly impossible, but that is not the case for Ryan Hurst.
It is not that he stands nearly 6’5” or has one of the greatest beards in television history (which he absolutely does), but it is his unmistakable presence that keeps him in the mind of the viewer long after the film or episode has ended. Part of the reason that he has such a natural ability in front of the camera may be because it runs in his family.
“My whole family is in the business. My mom is an acting coach, my step-dad is a writer and my dad is an actor,” he says.
You may remember his dad as Deputy Cletus Hogg on The Dukes of Hazzard, as well was nearly every other television show worth watching throughout the 1970’s and 80’s.
Ryan’s ability to excel in such wide ranging roles from Remember the Titans, We Were Soldiers, The Ladykillers and Sons of Anarchy has made him one of the more popular character actors today.
“All of my roles impact me. Every role that I do is like a tool to learn something new about myself. Some tools you kind of recognize and it is easy to learn to use and then other times it stretches you,” he says.
“I tend to find myself doing roles, that for whatever reason, other actors can’t do. If it’s a role that is just awkward, strange or different, I love taking those roles. I love the challenge.”
The role that has had the biggest impact on his career was his five season run as Harry “Opie” Winston on the FX network’s massive hit, Sons of Anarchy. Although originally written as just a recurring character, the immediate fan reaction and popularity led to Hurst being turned not only into a main cast member, but the best friend and moral compass of the show’s star, Charlie Hunnam.
“With Opie it was fun for me to have a character that doesn’t have a lot of lines and one that didn’t have a real formed storyline. It was interesting for me to form a presence without really saying something,” Hurst says.
That incredible presence is what made the character’s (SPOILER ALERT) death one of the most shocking and heartbreaking in the history of television. All it took were the three, simple words, “I got this,” to put an end to one of the most beloved characters of this generation.
After the death of his character, an incredibly emotional behind the scenes moment came to life in a video of costars Mark Boone Junior and Charlie Hunnam using a samurai sword to cut the beard off of Ryan.
“It was sort of relinquishing this role. While doing Sons of Anarchy there was a lot of this warrior thing going on and I was very comfortable being in that,” he says.
“It is part of the old Samurai Bushido code that when a samurai relinquishes his sword, there is a ceremony and everyone who has contributed to their career comes and snips off a little bit of (the topknot and beard) it. That is what we decided to do with me leaving the show.”
The tight-knit group was able to tearfully say good bye to “Opie” in a manner that felt appropriate.
The real turning point of the interview that led me from knowing Ryan Hurst the actor, to understanding Ryan Hurst the individual, was when the topic of his beard and hair was discussed. Like a lot of people, I assumed that this was a guy who grew a beard for a television role and then decided to keep it, but that could not have been further from the truth.
“It is one of those things that many people don’t know about me and you would never expect it, but I am also a yoga teacher, as well as a Sikh in training. One of the principles of Sikhism, which is the fifth largest religion in the world, is to never cut your hair and to never cut your beard,” Hurst says.
“One of the reasons you see a lot of people in the religion with a topknot or a long beard is because they believe the chin and the top of the head are these energy centers and they are two of the most emotional spots of the body. They believe that women are emotionally stronger, so they don’t need any sort of insulation, but we (men) do. This really resonated with me because when I have a beard, I do feel more protected and stronger. I hold myself a little prouder.”
Hurst further explained why the long hair comes as a package deal with the beard.
“A lot of the people you see who have beards, and I see that you have on a hat now, keep their heads covered. That beanie I wore on Sons of Anarchy, is MY beanie. I have owned it for over twenty years,” he explains.
“Covering the head and growing the beard is one of the foundations of Sikhism. It is about holding yourself as a powerful being and that is one of the main reasons I continue to grow a beard.”
As you can imagine, Hollywood has not always been the most accepting of the unique look of the Beardsman. Although he received some pressure to shave early in his career, Ryan refused to bend at the suggestion that he shave.
“I was broke, not working and not living at home at the time and I booked my first series, a show on USA called Campus Cops and I had long hair and this weird sort of long goatee,” he says.
“So they cast me and it goes to series, but when I show up the first day the casting director takes out a pair of scissors and I ask him, ‘What are you doing with those?’ Thats when they say, ‘Well we are just going to do this and this with your hair and your beard,’ so I responded, ‘No you’re not going to touch it or I quit.’ Even though I was dead broke, I was totally serious. The executive producers came in and said ‘Well we thought…’ and I told them ‘You can think all you want, but you aren’t cutting my hair or beard.’”
In the end, Ryan kept the beard.
Ryan struck me as a person who is constantly learning from his surroundings and taking from his surroundings to improve himself. Having shared the big screen with so many iconic actors, I was curious as to who he learned the most from and it came as little surprise that he credits Tom Hanks with making the most positive impact.
“You wouldn’t think it, but a lot of actors are really introverted,” says Hurst.
“They sort of keep to themselves and it is kind of ironic because when they start to get a lot of attention, you see them punching paparazzi, because they aren’t used to it. I was even that way, because I was so put off by being approached by people and then I started watching the way Tom would interact with people. It was so different than every other star I had ever met. He was almost like a politician and genuinely assumed the role of ‘I can affect this person’s life positively just by speaking with them.’ I saw this over and over and took the mindset that I can do that. That is something that really made an impact on me.”
Just as he does with those he comes into contact with, the realization that there was a lot I could learn from Ryan Hurst was obvious immediately. He seems to understand life on levels that I have yet to figure out and I could not help but ask what advice he would give to myself and the readers who are trying to figure themselves out and find their way in this world. He responded, “Like the old saying goes, be yourself because everyone else is taken. It is one of those things, and part of the growing up and individuation process is learning who you are and who you are not. You can really get lost in thinking that you are someone that you aren’t. When it is all said and done, we are only on this planet for a very short period of time, to follow someone else’s way that isn’t yours is a waste of time. If something resonates within you or you see something in someone else that reminds you of something within yourself, then that is just a reminder for you to take that and build with it. You aren’t a body with a soul, but a soul with a body.”
This January will see the premier of Ryan’s newest show, Outsiders, on the WGN network.
“The story is really different than most. I wouldn’t say that it is fantasy, but it is a sort of heightened reality,” he says.
“It’s not just a family that lives in the woods in Appalachia, but a clan of people who are more Pagan or Druid than just a motorcycle gang. The only way I can think to describe it is Little House on the Prairie meets Mad Max.”
The show also stars David Morse, who Ryan describes as “phenomenal” and credits as being the main reason he took the role.
“Paul Giamatti is also producing this and he and David are two of my, hands down, very favorite actors.”
In the future, he hopes to follow a little closer to his original plans of being a stand-up comedian and take on roles similar to that of The Ladykillers.
“I don’t get to do enough comedy. Whenever you are making a comedy, it is just the best feeling,” he says.
“Even if you work sixteen hour days, you are just spending the entire time laughing. When you do war movies, it is just physically, emotionally and psychologically draining. But when you do a comedy, it is just like everyone on set knows it is just goofing off and getting paid to do it. Any sort of comedy is where I would be headed.”
Keep up with Ryan Hurst and the world’s greatest Twitter name, @RamboDonkeyKong
Photography by Malcolm Brown