by lauren smith ford
photography by randal ford and marc lemoine | January 15, 2015 | People
We paired up six men—leaders in the arts and entertainment industries—to discuss their craft, lessons along the way, and Austin as inspiration.
ON ROBERT: Jacket, Etro ($1,526). Neiman Marcus, The Domain, 512-719-1200. Dress shirt ($92), Brooks Brothers. 101 W. 6th St., 512-476-2359. Jeans and glasses, Robert’s own. ON BEN: Jacket, Bonobos ($460). By George, 524 N. Lamar Blvd., 512-472-5951. Dune shirt, Rag & Bone ($275). By George, see above. Pants, Citizens of Humanity ($208). Gatsby’s, 708 E. 6th St., 512-320-1526
When you get actor Ben McKenzie (of The O.C. and Southland) and his uncle, Tony Award–and Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Robert Schenkkan, together, witty banter on everything from Texas football to their early creative inspirations in Austin quickly ensues. These two are carrying on the Schenkkan family’s legacy in the arts—Robert’s father and Ben’s grandfather helped found KLRU-TV and KUT, and Ben’s mother is a prize-winning poet. McKenzie is currently filming Gotham, Fox’s prequel to the Batman series, in which he stars as Detective James Gordon. Schenkkan recently debuted The Great Society, the sequel to his Tony Award–winning All the Way about President Lyndon B. Johnson that starred Bryan Cranston.
With a family of lawyers, actors, and writers, what are the Schenkkan family holidays like?
Robert Schenkkan: We are a pretty intense group. There is a lot of cooking, a lot of talking, a lot of one-upmanship, and a lot of verbal jousting.
Ben McKenzie: There is always a heavy discussion about politics, the arts obviously, and Texas football.
RS: Pretty much in that order.
How have your Austin roots inspired you creatively?
RS: There is a long-standing tradition in Texas of storytelling. This is how people entertained one another, with swapping stories, the more outlandish the better. It’s at the heart of what I do and what I love—a good story. I carry that part of Austin with me in everything I do.
BM: There is a real free and easy spirit to Austin, which is hard to appreciate when you don’t have the context of being out in the rough and tumble world of LA or New York. There is a real serenity to Austin—it’s very quiet, and everyone is friendly. It is hot as hell, but it’s very peaceful.
Robert, what places inspire you when you’re back in town?
RS: I get out to the Zilker Botanical Garden. I love to get down to the Pedernales—when I was growing up, we used to go fishing with my father on those flat Texas rivers. I go back to UT, to the theater department and to see what’s happening at Zach Scott—there’s great work being done there. I love the artisan/craft scene in Austin. Austin always had this easygoing live-and-let-live attitude. Growing up here, it had a much more diverse and tolerant culture than much of Texas. That is still true to this day.
What about your current projects?
RS: My play All the Way just closed on Broadway, and we hope to bring Great Society to New York in early 2016; it got a terrific review from The New York Times. I am looking forward to that. I’m also writing the screenplay for the adaptation of All the Way as a TV event for HBO, with Steven Spielberg producing and Bryan Cranston starring. It’s a good, busy time.
BM: I worked with [executive producer] Bruno Heller last year on a pilot that didn’t go, but Bruno and I had a good time. He called me in January and said, “I have a script [for the TV show Gotham], and I wrote the part of Jim Gordon with you in mind.” It was flattering; no one has ever written a part for me. To be able to portray this guy on-screen at an age he hasn’t been seen before is exciting. It frees us up to do a lot of really spectacle-driven TV, but at the same time, there is a serialized element to this, where you are watching a man who will rise up the ranks to become commissioner after his lowly start as a detective. His ascendance while Gotham descends into chaos is a fun premise.
Robert, could you tell from early on that Ben might go down this career path?
RS: Besides being ridiculously good-looking, Ben is thoughtful and engaging. So much of the actor resides in that aura of intelligence and emotional accessibility. There is this quality that is hard to describe, but you know it when you are in the presence of it. Ben has always had it. He’s interesting with a terrific sense of humor, but there’s a lot more…. He was a political science major [at University of Virginia], spent time in South America, and today remains politically active. That makes for a long and distinguished career—the complete package, someone who is engaged in the world in different ways. That’s always been true about Ben.
BM: Wow. It’s interesting to hear this because in our family… we don’t talk about each other publicly in this way, so thank you! It means a lot.
Vest, Shades of Grey ($95). Service Menswear, 1400 S. Congress Ave., 512-447-7600. Shirt, Universal Works ($194). Stag, 1423 S. Congress Ave., 512-373-7824. Jeans, Naked & Famous ($150). Service Menswear, see above. Hat, bracelet, rings, and trumpet, Ephraim’s own
Horn player Ephraim Owens’s sound has resonated with Austin audiences since he first moved here in 1994. He’s toured with the likes of Mumford & Sons and Sheryl Crow, and consistently packs the house, playing to loyal fans around the city as often as five nights a week. Artist Bale Creek Allen, the featured Austin artist at October’s first Pop International Art Show, has shown his work around the world. These two seriously cool cats needed no introduction to each other and were quickly musing on the old Austin—and their favorite local music venue of them all.
Bale, your dad is an artist, your mother an actress, and your brother a musician. Was creative freedom always encouraged from the beginning?
Bale Creek Allen: Basically our entire childhood was a revolving door of artists of all disciplines coming in and out of the house. I knew early on how unique and special my environment was, and I always felt different. It was pretty incredible and remains to be. Our family is really close, and we still do projects together. Our earliest collaboration was a play we wrote and performed together at the Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Aspen when I was in the sixth grade.
Ephraim, when did you start playing music?
Ephraim Owens: I turned to music in the third grade. I was bullied in school, and the horn was my way to deal with it. At first I tried the drums, but I was pretty bad. The horn was natural. I had tone right out the gate, which is key. No one wants to listen to a trumpet player with no tone!
Bale, you saw Ephraim play at Lamberts just the other night, and you two often run into each other at the Continental Club. Do you like how small Austin’s creative community is? What else makes it unique?
BCA: The thing that strikes me most is the generosity and the openness. You can put together an amazing band for a six-pack. You look around and realize you are surrounded by the best players in the world. It’s pretty easy to do that in this town. There are very few walls. Anyone who has walls will find out fast it’s not the way you are going to get places in Austin. People share ideas and inspire each other directly, rather than be guarded or isolated. Everyone is in it together, and a lot of great things can come out of that.
EO: It’s a beautiful relationship with Austin that I have. I am tearing up thinking about all the people who come to all the shows, the “reliables,” as I like to call them. There is one couple who has come to almost every gig I have ever played here. It’s an honor that people feel that way.
You guys have seen or played a show at just about every venue in town. What’s your favorite?
BCA: When I moved to Austin in 1991, my brother Bukka and I lived on Eva Street behind Magnolia Cafe. We hung out at Stacy Pool, the Boys Club courts, Fran’s burger joint, and we went to the Continental Club to listen to music, play music, or play pool every night. To this day, the Continental is my favorite bar and venue in the city. For me, those were the good old days in Austin. I still love the Continental because it’s a time capsule, and Steve Wertheimer has always been so gracious to all musicians.
EO: Although I love the Elephant Room, I would have to say the Gallery [upstairs] at the Continental Club. Whenever you have a stage that is lifted, there is a separation from the people to the band. At the Gallery, you play on the same floor, and the vibrations and energy are flowing. You have to feel the crowd. Sometimes it’s rowdy, and sometimes it’s quiet. You have to find the right tune. If I see heads bopping, then I know it’s working.
Jacket, Lardini ($450). Burgundy cardigan, Lanvin ($995). Jeans, Simon Miller ($385). Pocket square, Engineered Garment ($43). All items available at By George, 524 N. Lamar Blvd., 512-472-5951
Now that he is finished writing the history of America through biographies of six great figures (his last, Reagan: The Life, will be released this summer), author H.W. Brands is ready for a break. But knowing the astonishingly prolific writer and University of Texas professor, we have a feeling his next project will soon be in the works. Beloved conductor of the Austin Symphony Peter Bay—who is releasing the symphony’s first CD around Christmas—and Brands share an engaging dialogue on everything from digital media to Benjamin Franklin.
How has Austin been a good place to write and to make music?
H.W. Brands: There is a great community of writers here. I have gotten to know people in town who write fiction and nonfiction. BookPeople is a wonderful bookstore. The Texas Book Festival is a terrific amenity for anyone interested in books and writing. And, simply, Austin is a pleasant place to live; writers are freer than a lot of people to choose where they live.
Peter Bay: As a musician, I am happy and relieved to be where music means something to people. The symphony itself is 104 years old, and we like to joke we were the first music in the Live Music Capital of the World, but the care people have for the arts in general is something I find appealing about Austin.
Jacket, Theory ($695). Neiman Marcus, The Domain, 512-719-1200. Shirt, Billy Reid ($185). Neiman Marcus, SEE ABOVE
H.W., you just finished your biography on President Reagan. Did you have to spend a lot of time researching at his library?
HWB: There has been an evolution in historical research. When I wrote a book about the Eisenhower administration, I spent time in Abilene, Kansas, where the Eisenhower library is located. Then I would go to Washington to the Library of Congress, where pertinent government records were, and that is still an important part of the historical research process. But more and more content is online. I used to believe I’d always have to live within a 15-minute bike ride of a major research library, but this is much less the case than it used to be, now that Google has started putting all the world’s books online. Today I can get a virtual copy of a book written in 1850 in seconds.
PB: Very interesting! So you embrace e-books, rather than physically holding it in your hands?
HWB: I know lots of people who are bibliophiles and love the physical act of holding the book. I value what’s in books, but I am the farthest thing in the world from a bibliophile. If I could reduce my entire library to a thumb drive, I would do it in a minute because it would be that much more accessible. I could carry my entire library on my phone. Books as physical objects mean less to me than they do to other people. That’s me as the consumer of these objects. As the producer of these objects, I won’t say I am scared about the coming of digital books, but I have observed what the digital revolution has done to the music business, making it much harder for working musicians to make a living recording music. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s coming to publishing as well. It might be on the way. How does that affect you, Peter?
PB: I am hopelessly old school. I was born in 1957, when stereo equipment and vinyl were new and exciting. To bring a record home and to look at the artwork on the front were an integral part of the product. But now I have friends who don’t own a CD or LP, or they have their entire library on something they can hold in their hand. It’s a concept I am having a hard time embracing. I don’t know if I will ever get around to downloading all the music I own and having it on a chip. But I may not have a choice after awhile.
H.W., the Reagan book is the last in your series. Who of your subjects inspires you most?
HWB: Benjamin Franklin, because he lived a long life and became what I consider to be a wise man. He had a lot of insight into the human condition. I find myself agreeing with a lot of what he had to say about human nature. When you write a biography, you take your subject essentially into your house and your life for an extended period.
And, whom would you not want as a houseguest?
HWB: Theodore Roosevelt is one who was very interesting as an individual, but he was an obnoxious houseguest. He always demanded to be the center of attention. That was one of the secrets to his political success. His daughter said, “If you want to understand my father, you need to know he wants to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral.”
Styling by lauren Finney; grooming by erin anderSon For ivyeleven.com uSing imperial barber productS (Schenkkan, mckenzie); Styling by lauren Smith ford; grooming by JoSeph theiS and bailey Stike for ron king Salon (owens, allens); Styling by lauren Smith ford; grooming by JoSeph theiS and bailey Stike for ron king Salon (bay, brands)