Colton from Kentucky
Lexington native Colton Ryan shines in new Hulu series
By KEVIN NANCE
If you’re the type of person who has trouble separating actors from the parts they play, you might find yourself a bit concerned about Colton Ryan. In the past year, the young Lexington native has given back-to-back performances as teenagers — in the Broadway musical and film adaptation of Dear Evan Hansen and the new Hulu miniseries The Girl from Plainville — who kill themselves.
There’s no need to worry: Ryan is alive and well. And although his last two roles have been both dramatically weighty and in some ways eerily similar, he says he feels lucky to have appeared in this pair of high-profile projects focusing on the hot-button topic of teen suicide, which has received fresh attention during the pandemic. (A Centers for Disease Control study reported by the New York Times last year indicated that emergency room visits following suspected suicide attempts by teenage girls jumped 51 percent in early 2021 compared to the same period in 2019.)
“It’s heavy, man,” says Ryan, a 26-year-old graduate of Lexington’s School for the Creative and Performing Arts (SCAPA), in a phone interview from New York City. “Thoughts of suicide are a crushing, very relevant part of growing up in our culture. But to have the privilege of playing these parts, and bring attention to suicide prevention resources, has been such an honor.”
In the big-screen adaptation of Dear Evan Hansen, Ryan played a young drug addict whose self-inflicted death sets up the title character’s main storyline. In Hulu’s well-reviewed The Girl from Plainville, set to conclude on May 3, Ryan stars as Conrad “Coco” Roy III, a real-life Massachusetts high school student who committed suicide in 2014 after his girlfriend sent him hundreds of text messages encouraging him to kill himself. The girlfriend, Michelle Carter (played by Elle Fanning), was later convicted of involuntary manslaughter and served 11 months in prison.
Hulu’s series is inspired by Jesse Barron’s 2017 Esquire article of the same name, which opens with the sentence, “Can words kill?” The case also inspired the 2019 HBO documentary I Love You, Now Die.
Ryan’s intense performance in the miniseries benefited from what he describes as a deep sympathy for Conrad, who was the same age—“We graduated from high school at the same time,” he says—and his commitment to giving a full picture of Conrad’s life, not just his death. To prepare for the role, Ryan visited Conrad’s hometown of Mattapoisett, Mass., and met with a member of the boy’s family. “He lived a very full life,” Ryan says, “full of love and light as much as the vulnerable parts of him.”
The actor declines to offer an opinion about what fundamentally motivated either of the lead characters. “I don’t want to judge,” he says. “The job was to inhabit this young man, and all my energy went into that. You’re playing it day by day, and you can’t play the ending. At first the shackle of getting it right felt like it was going to hold me down, but it evolved over time, and became less of a responsibility and more of an ultimate privilege.”
His deep dive into the character earned him strong reviews. Ryan “crafts a beautiful picture of Conrad as a boy so overwhelmed by social expectations (and the contrasting pulls of his divorced parents) that he just doesn’t want to live anymore,” writes Clint Worthington of RogerEbert.com. “Ryan is excellent as Coco, who had attempted suicide once before,” writes Matthew Gilbert of the Boston Globe. “The miniseries honors him by giving him plenty of screen time, so we can see his muted anguish in play.” The Review Geek writes, “Even while knowing how this history plays out, one can’t help but be hooked by these performances and fascinating character studies.”
Ryan’s success doesn’t surprise his one-time mentor at SCAPA, local stage actor Paul Thomas, who appeared opposite his former student in Lexington Theatre Company’s West Side Story in 2019.
“He was a remarkable actor from the start,” says Thomas, who taught him for several years and still recalls his excitement at seeing Ryan, an understudy in Dear Evan Hansen on Broadway, step in for Ben Platt to play the title role at Music Box Theatre. “When they announced that the lead would be played by an understudy that night, there was an audible sigh from the audience,” Thomas recalls. “But Colton won them over.”
Thomas had tickets to see Ryan in another Broadway musical, The Girl from the North Country, just before performances were canceled in March 2020 due to the pandemic. Since then Ryan has starred in the Apple TV+ series Little Voice and the Amazon film Uncle Frank (alongside Lexington adopted son, actor Steve Zahn).
He’s been praised for his versatility in both singing and non-singing roles such as the one in The Girl from Plainville. Though it’s the farthest thing from a musical, he and Fanning both do an impressive job in a Glee fantasy sequence of REO Speedwagon’s “I Can’t Fight This Feeling Anymore,” which is also the title of Episode 4.
Series co-creator Patrick Macmanus told Elle Magazine, “thank God Colton came into our lives. Colton, I’m so jealous of that man, of all of his talents. Not the least of which is that, if you ever went to karaoke with me, your ears would be offended. He has got the most gorgeous voice. He is rooted in an encyclopedic knowledge of Broadway shows, and that’s one of his first loves, musicals. The fact that we had this gorgeous talent coming in was just an amazing blessing.”
Ryan points out musical theater performers don’t always receive proper credit for their acting chops. “My soul says I’m a musician, and I can’t shake that,” he says. “On the other hand, people are always saying, ‘Your voice — you sounded so great!’ But did they like the other three quarters of my performance? That’s been a chip on my shoulder, wanting to be respected for my acting, too.”
Singing or no, Ryan says he wants to continue to work on both stage and screen, noting that he’s currently buying a home in New York, the epicenter of the American theater. “As much as I am so thankful for these roles in TV and movies,” he says, “my heart’s in the theater.”
Hulu begins and ends each episode of The Girl From Plainville with the following: “this program contains subject matter related to mental health and suicide. You can learn more from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention http://afsp.org. If you or a loved one is in crisis, help is always available. Please reach out to the Crisis Text Line or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1.800.273.TALK.
This article also appears on pages 10 & 11 of the May edition of Ace.