KINGSTON, R.I. – Oct. 24, 2019 – Erick Betancourt was again in the spotlight on the J Studio stage, where about 10 years earlier he had performed in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
It was his first time on the University of Rhode Island Kingston Campus since earning his bachelor of fine arts degree in 2012. Much had changed, especially for him.
In the seven years since, Betancourt has gone from fledgling actor to veteran, completing a master’s degree at the Actors Studio Drama School at Pace University and earning membership to the legendary Actors Studio, joining the likes of James Dean, Sally Fields, Al Pacino, and Jane Fonda. He’s appeared in numerous TV shows, including a recurring role on the CBS hit “Blue Bloods.” On stage, he’s performed off-Broadway, and is appearing at Providence’s Trinity Repertory Company in “The Prince of Providence.”
On Oct. 18, he sat in J Studio answering questions from about 50 theater students, faculty and staff, discussing his career, offering advice on such topics as hiring an agent, going on auditions in New York, finding a professional community that supports your vision, and, of course, his days at URI.
“URI was fantastic. I went in and got immersed,” Betancourt says. “I got the whole experience of the theater, not just the acting part. Because maybe I wasn’t an actor. Maybe I was a stage manager, or a lighting designer or a sound guy. I was able to go in and figure it out.”
Betancourt, who grew up in Providence and the Bronx, came to URI in 2009. He was in his mid-20s. He had just discovered his passion for theater. For Betancourt, who had served two years in prison for a felony drug conviction, it provided him with a new sense of purpose.
In prison, Betancourt was determined to change. He soon joined the nonviolence program, took college courses, and helped other inmates earn their high school equivalency diplomas. And he listened to his older brother, Fernando Betancourt, then a theater student at Brooklyn College, who supported him and encouraged him to think about theater.
After being paroled, Betancourt’s introduction to acting came unexpectedly. He was working as a youth advocate in Providence with the Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence, mediating gang violence, helping teenagers with their driver’s license, high school equivalency diploma, or job interviews. One day, as he took a young man to an interview, the door opened and there was a friend from prison, Bruce Reilly. Reilly had just written a play, “The House of Death,” about inmates dealing with a string of deaths, which was being staged at Providence’s Perishable Theatre. He convinced Betancourt he had a character for him.
“I did it with no experience, totally green,” says Betancourt. “It introduced me to a sense of community. Along with Bruce, there were several other people who had been incarcerated and others who hadn’t been. They were so welcoming and loving. We built everything from scratch. We built the set, we painted the set. It meant the world to me.”
He was hooked. Having met a security guard, Shawn Williams, at Trinity Rep, Betancourt got a job at the theater doing security and volunteering as an usher so he could watch plays. He also started taking acting lessons at Trinity and other local theaters.
The URI theater program attracted Betancourt, who was still unsure of his talents, because it didn’t require auditions, and he felt he’d get a full theater education. He worked in the costume shop, put up lights, worked as a stage manager, painted J Studio. Theater administrative assistant Bonnie Bosworth recruited him to work in the office.
“It was people who started to believe in me and trust me,” he says. “I was a big guy and I had been incarcerated, but I didn’t have to continue to play that persona of the big tough guy. I could be sensitive and it was OK.”
He also performed in numerous plays. One that sticks out was “Rocky Horror.” He had no singing or dancing experience, but URI Professor Paula McGlasson convinced him to play the role of Eddie, the character portrayed by Meatloaf in the movie. “She said to me, ‘We’re going to work with you,’” he says. “She gave me a dance choreographer, she gave me a vocal coach. Paula made me feel like I could do it.”
The Actors Studio Drama School offered a similar sense of belonging, and it taught him an important lesson.
“You learn the history of Lee Stasberg and you hear the stories of these great actors,” he says. “What I learned was how to heal my inner self. The Actors Studio was never about being an actor to be famous, to say these lines so you could be seen. It was to say these lines, to be the character so you can heal the things that hurt you as a child.”
At the Actors Studio, he focused on projects that allowed him to better understand himself and heal the trauma he had experienced since childhood – his father’s heroin addiction, the death of five friends in a car accident, being assaulted with a baseball bat so severely he needed speech and physical therapy.
For Betancourt, “The Prince of Providence,” the tale of the late charismatic and disgraced Providence Mayor Vincent A. Cianci, has provided another homecoming. He was back where he first saw theater as a streetwise teen, when he took a date to “A Christmas Carol” to impress her.
“It was very emotional because everyone welcomed me and they were like, ‘we’re so happy to have you back,’” he says. “They really knew my story. [URI alumna] Janice Duclos’ husband had helped me prepare for my graduate school auditions, and I learned how to act watching these amazing actors.”
In “Prince of Providence,” Betancourt plays Mickey Corrente, a composite character who is Cianci’s loyal right-hand man – part campaign manager, part enforcer, part poser. Working on the play, he found Cianci to be a sympathetic character, who had to deal with the death of his daughter and who longed to be accepted by Providence’s elite, he says. (“Prince of Providence” closes its sold-out run Oct. 27.)
“His story resembles a lot of my story. I thought I could connect with it. He was from Silver Lake and I’m from Manton Avenue, and Brown University is on the top of the hill. They have nice houses on the East Side. But we were from this other side of town.”
Since earning his MFA, Betancourt has found success on stage and television. Off-Broadway, he’s appeared in “Our Lady of 121st” and “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train” at the Tony Award-winning Signature Theater. He’s performed in “Julius Caesar” under the direction of former Trinity artistic director Oskar Eustis, and has become a member of the LAByrinth Theater, the home theater of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. Betancourt has also appeared on such TV shows as “New Amsterdam,” “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” and “Sneaky Pete.”
During his Trinity run, CBS aired his second appearance on “Blue Bloods.” He plays Leo Stutz, the younger brother of Anthony Abetemarco, played by “Sopranos” actor Steve Schirripa. The night it aired, Betancourt was on stage at Trinity. He had his family on Facetime in his dressing room, and during the play’s final hour and well after the final curtain, he retreated to his dressing room to watch it with them.
“I was full of joy and a feeling of accomplishment,” says Betancourt. “This career has its ups and downs but I am celebrating the small wins regardless.”
Betancourt says the role is a breakthrough for him. He had auditioned several times for “Blue Bloods,” as detectives, bad guys, bouncers, but never got the parts. In one audition, one of the writers told Betancourt he was wrong for a role, but started laughing because Betancourt reminded him of Schirripa. The writer, he says, told him he wanted to expand Schirripa’s story line, and would be in touch. Betancourt was skeptical.
“Fast forward two months, he calls my agency and says he’s writing me into the show,” says Betancourt. “Then last season, my episode airs and it’s me as Steve’s little brother. The whole episode is about me. They even mentioned me at the family dinner table—with Tom Selleck–because Steve is getting a DNA test to verify whether I’m his brother.”
As the show’s 10th season continues to be filmed, Betancourt is crossing his fingers that he’ll be back. “I read the scripts very slowly,” he says. “I’m hoping that I don’t get killed off in the process.”
While he’s been getting steady work, Betancourt still keeps his daytime job. He lives in Brooklyn and teaches acting, along with working for an outreach program that uses drama therapy for conflict resolution in some of the toughest schools in the Bronx, Staten Island and Brooklyn.
“I’ve seen that my belief in nonviolence and theater have merged,” he says. “There’s a little bit of activism, a little bit of humanitarian work.”