WRITTEN by renowned American playwright Tennessee Williams in 1959, Sweet Bird of Youth tells the story of two people who have lost their way – Alexandra Del Lago, a fading Hollywood star and Chance Wayne, a young hustler. EDWIN GILSON speaks to American actor Brian J Smith about playing Chance, the pressures on actors and how he nearly “destroyed” his body.

NOBODY writes freaks and outcasts like Tennessee Williams. There’s Blanche DuBois, the unstable Southern Belle with a chequered history in the playwright’s most famous work, A Streetcar Named Desire. There’s the isolated Laura Wingfield in A Glass Menagerie who exists in her own imaginary world – aside from when she is visited by “gentleman caller” Jim O’ Connor, who has never lived up to his glorious high school days.

Brian J Smith was nominated for Olivier and Tony Awards for his portrayal of Jim on Broadway and the West End. Now, Smith is coming to Sussex to play another of Williams’ misfits, Chance Wayne, described in Sweet Bird of Youth’s blurb as a “young hustler, trying to lend his wasted, disreputable life some meaning”.

He links up with his childhood love, actress Alexandra De Lago (Marcia Gay Harden), in his hometown of St Cloud, Minnesota. Alexandra, depressed and semi-alcoholic, has fled Hollywood after the public ridicule that met her most recent movie. “Somewhere along the way he got caught up in the dark side,” says Smith, who some may recognise from TV programmes Stargate Universe and Netflix’s Sense8, of his character’s back story. “He got into hustling, doing anything to get ahead, which involves sleeping with people for money, which becomes a habit.

“Then he got involved in the Korean War, which stopped his life and gave him an awareness of his own mortality. He had a very bad nervous breakdown.” Chance’s situation is completely unenviable but it is difficult to truly empathise with him when you consider his treatment of other characters and especially Alexandra. “He keeps her drunk and drugged, hoping to blackmail her,” says Smith. “He feeds her lies about himself.” Contemplating Chance’s personality, the old adage “hurt people hurt people” comes to mind.

While Smith points out that Williams considered himself “outside of the cultural norms of the 1930s and 40s”, and “found his purpose through art”, Chance has no such outlet. His life is not only without meaning but also under threat; the townsfolk of St Cloud – a “respectable, middle-class but deeply intolerant” place – want to castrate Chance. Or “chop his nuts off” as Smith puts it. “Someone like Chance is more than just an annoyance to them; he’s a threat to their way of life,” adds the actor. “But then he’s given numerous opportunities to leave and doesn’t; it’s insanely reckless and almost suicidal.”

As for Alexandra, Smith sees her as symptomatic of the way the entertainment industry treats older women. “It’s this terrible thing we do – we want women to become parodies of themselves because we’re so uncomfortable with age. Actresses have it the absolute worst in the industry; we have a very destructive set of expectations for them.”

While Smith stresses that these pressures apply mostly to women, he says that American society in general tells people they need “go-getters and winners; the word introvert has negative connotations in the States. You’re supposed to be masculine, cool and beautiful when you cry”. The actor has a personal story that backs up his grievance. “I got into a position a few years ago where I was working out far too much. I destroyed my body because I wanted to look like a superhero. You get this ridiculous idea about what a man’s body is supposed to look like.”

Having said that, Smith is thankful that he’s not the kind of actor that prioritises fame and being in the limelight. “I never sought that kind of career where I’m going to have a big studio breathing down my neck and making sure I’m seeing a nutritionist and turning up at the red carpet with the right girl on my arm.”

The same cannot be said for his character in Sweet Bird of Youth, who “gets caught up in the idea of profile and sells himself out in the process; it’s a very common American story”. Williams’ play is a cautionary tale, although it’s not as if Smith needs telling to get this priorities straight – he’s already firmly on track in his blossoming career.

“I’m just interested in disappearing into the experience of playing a character,” he says. “I fail time after time in that but it’s a worthy pursuit.”

Sweet Bird of Youth Chichester Festival Theatre, Oaklands Park, June 2 –24