Actor Sean Bridgers finds his inspiration after returning to the mountains

Sean Bridgers

As a kid with a vivid imagination and a self-admitted “class clown” while attending Fairview Elementary School in Sylva, perhaps Sean Bridgers should have known he had the ingredients to become an actor.

Acting wasn’t something Bridgers ever really thought about – not until he left, then returned to Jackson County to enroll at Western Carolina University. It was at WCU that Bridgers was inspired to follow an acting path that has led to his current project, “Get Shorty,” a comedy-drama television series on EPIX, which will head into its second season.

After graduating from St. Andrew’s-Sewanee School in Tennessee, Bridgers went to college in Atlanta. “I think my major was history, but what I really majored in was Atlanta,” he said.

Following that brief collegiate encounter, Bridgers left school and lived on his own as he “slogged through as a 19-, 20-year-old.” His mother, WCU alumna Sue Ellen Bridgers, eventually convinced him to return to school. His plan was to go to summer school at WCU in 1989 and then transfer.

What transpired, however, was Bridgers staying an extra semester, taking an acting class and catching the acting bug. Bridgers was cast in the play “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” where he had a small part.

“It was fun,” Bridgers said. “I liked the people. I was going to transfer and then I got cast as Jesus in ‘Jesus Christ Superstar.’ You can’t not be Jesus if you get the chance. I did that, still thinking I might leave. By that time, I just loved it here. I loved my teachers and I loved my classmates and we were doing good shows.”

Upon his return, Bridgers realized things he took for granted while growing up.

“When you grow up some place, you don’t even think about it,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Whatever, mountains. Whatever, trees, rivers, lakes.’ When you get a little older and you live places where they don’t have those things, you start going, ‘Man, mountains, trees, lakes, rivers.’ I just stuck it out, and fortunately for me, I just found my calling.”

Bridgers switched his major to theater and immersed himself in numerous plays. That allowed him to gain valuable experience.

“I got thrown into some stuff,” Bridgers said. “We did some really great shows. How good they were or how good I was, I don’t know, but I was grateful to have the experience. If I had gone to a prestigious school, it would have been more of a pecking order. I might not have gotten some of the opportunities.”

The summer before his senior year, Bridgers did three movies and earned his union card. It was during that time that he realized he could make a living as an actor.

He also received confidence while doing a play called “When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder?” It was performed at Hoey Auditorium where the seating was close to the stage.

“I realize now, in retrospect, that was the first time I probably did what you would consider film, or television acting, where you could be subtle,” Bridgers said. “You didn’t have to project to where everybody could hear you. That was a really rewarding experience.”

Bridgers, who graduated in 1992, also remembers being selected for the lead role, Teddy, in the play although he didn’t originally audition for it. He didn’t think it was a role for he’d be good at, but the director, Stephen Ayers, felt differently.

“Teddy is a very disturbed character,” Bridgers said. “He gets violent. I didn’t know if I could do that. Steve sort of insisted that I read for it and I got the role. I was grateful for that because I got pushed into very uncomfortable territory as an actor. The show was very successful and we got great reviews.”

One of the things Bridgers enjoyed about WCU’s theater department, and something he tries to re-create professionally, was the atmosphere void of cliques or hierarchy. Instead, Bridgers said students pushed each other.

“We had a great time doing some good shows,” he said. “It didn’t matter who had what part. That’s kind of rare. I appreciate that and I still seek that out. And if it’s not there, you try to create it.”

A list of his acting roles includes the HBO series “Deadwood,” the Sundance TV series “Rectify,” as well as films “The Woman,” “Jug Face,” “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Nell.”

In addition to acting, Bridgers is a writer, director and producer. For now, he said he is happiest as an actor. Bridgers still resides in Sylva, and his wife, Rachel York-Bridgers, is an English lecturer at WCU.