From The Pacific to Pittsburgh with One Dollar’s Joshua Bitton

If you’ve been watching One Dollar, you’ll no doubt have noticed how CBS’s show addresses the social divide along the rust belt. Those areas that have struggled economically since the collapse of the American steel industry are generally seen as Trump strongholds, home to narrow-minded blue-collar workers who are waiting for their man to turn back time and bring back the jobs. What One Dollar does well is delve into the desperation that forces ordinary people to make disastrous decisions, whether that’s robbery, murder or voting for a deranged orange maniac.

In the two weeks between our interview with Joshua Bitton – who plays the show’s blunt cop Chewy – and this feature being published, Pittsburgh has been in the headlines for a reason that has become all too common. Even before last weekend’s shooting, Bitton spoke of how important it is for people on opposing sides to discuss, listen and show compassion and understanding, something that has never seemed more important or more out of reach. In such times, it’s hard to overstate the importance of anything, even entertainment, that preaches understanding.

Bitton has had an impressive career spanning TV, film and theater. He’s worked for Steven Spielberg in The Pacific, stolen scenes in the critically acclaimed HBO series The Night Of and now is one of the best things about CBS All Access’s foray into hard-hitting drama. We caught up with Joshua to chat about his storied career, mourning characters and working with one of this writer’s heroes, country musician Sturgill Simpson.

How did this role come about for you?
It’s really interesting. Originally, I auditioned for the role of Trask, the sheriff, and was in consideration in that for a little while and then it wound up going to Chris Denham, who was absolutely the right person for that job. I didn't get it and I was like “Okay, that happens.” They contacted me again and said, “Craig Zobel really wants you to be part of this and he’s writing in a role with you in mind. When it comes around, would you be willing to go on tape for it?” And I said “Sure.” So, I made a tape for Chewy and after thinking I wasn't going to be part of the show, I wound up having a role that I really love, so it's pretty cool.

Did you get a better feeling for Chewy as a character than Sheriff Trask?
Yeah, Chewy fit more snugly I guess. There are a lot of things about Chewy that are different than I am, but in terms of where I grew up and a lot of the people I grew up around, Chewy felt so familiar to me that I was really comfortable bringing to life. And then when I started to live in Pittsburgh, I got a real sense of what that kind of Pittsburgh blue collar experience is like. After that, living in Chewy felt even more comfortable. The environment helped me shape the character. It was really lucky that we shot where the series actually takes place.

So, you were actually on location in Pittsburgh the whole time?
Yeah, we were there for just a little over six months and we shot all over the area. Pittsburgh is this great, surprisingly beautiful city. When it was a thriving steel mill town, all these surrounding areas had their own mill. So, you had all these small little communities and then the steel mills kind of collapsed, so a lot of those communities have fallen into poverty. A lot of them are fighting to find new industry. It was a really remarkable place to shoot because you saw this meeting of people from the old world of industry and the new world of technology. You have Google and Uber and Carnegie Robotics and all these tech companies, so it’s become a little tech hub. But there's still this gap where that industrial lifestyle used to be, so being there was really, really unlike any other place in America that I've been to.

That sounds like a bizarre mix. I guess these tech start-ups are kind of attracted to areas where they can get cheaper real estate. That sounds like polar ends of the spectrum in terms of the social divide. 
Very much so and you can see it visually. There are new buildings and then there's these old buildings that are gorgeous but a lot are in massive disrepair. You couldn't build that on a lot and have that same kind of tactile realness that you have there.

Living there for six months, did that really help you to get your head around the accent? People know what a California accent sounds like, they know what Queens – where you're from – sounds like, but Pittsburgh is one of those things that if you're from Pittsburgh and it's wrong, you're going to know it's wrong.
Oh yeah. No question about it and they'll tell you. [Laughs] Being there really helped. It's interesting because a lot of the influence on the dialect is from Scottish and Irish immigrants. One thing I learnt about Pittsburgh is, if you grew up there, very few people leave and if they do leave, most of them come back. So not a lot of Pittsburghers are around America enough for people to pick up on the dialect. With Boston or New York or Georgia, we hear all these dialects and we see them on TV all the time so we're familiar with them. I don't know if it would have been possible to get that dialect down if I wasn't there. The Teamster drivers had that dialect and people at the coffee shop had it and people at the gym. So that I was constantly surrounded by it, which really definitely helped my ear.

I can imagine it does. Are you somebody who can drop in and out of it or do you pick it up and stick with it for the whole time you're shooting?
I can pick it up and put it down. I don't know if it's because I grew up in New York and I grew up with immigrant parents that I've had an ear for that but I can definitely pick it up and put it down. However, living in it for that long, it became a joke amongst members of the cast. I touched down back home at LA and I was speaking to a group of friends of mine and I called them yinz. I was like “Yinz want to go?” [Laughs]

Does that happen a lot with accents? Looking at the list of roles you've done, it runs from Pittsburgh all the way down to Kentucky for Justified. Do you find you start picking up little bits and it's hard to let go of them afterwards?
Yeah, dialect helps me create character. Living in Chewy and in that dialect for six months became part of my natural rhythm. Letting go of it is also, in a way, letting go of the character. This may sound like some crazy actor speak, but when I've gotten the opportunity to live in a character for that long, it is almost a mourning process that happens when I kind of have to say goodbye to him. I know that probably sounds weird as shit but it becomes personal.

That makes sense. I think it's the same for people watching at home. Like, my wife and I got really into The Leftovers and saying goodbye to Kevin Garvey, Justin Theroux's character, was like saying goodbye to… not a friend, that sounds weird… but I get what you mean…
They feel like family.

Yeah.
You get really connected to their journey and really connected to their workings and stuff. I don't know what I'm going to do when Game of Thrones ends but I’ll really feel lost without knowing that I can go back to them.

Yeah, it's so true. When you think about how much time you spend watching a TV show, it’s inevitable that you’ll connect to characters. For you, who's essentially creating this person, that feeling must be even more intense.
Oh yeah, and it's the same thing that happens with casts. Not always, but the One Dollar group really was family. We spent so much time together, got dinner together, we did everything together. You live within those characters and those connections, and then you're done shooting and you go back to your lives and your families and your homes and some people you see and some people you don't. It really has that familial feel and I think to do the work of an actor – at least in the way that I process doing the work – has to come from a personal place. So, if you build Chewy, or whatever character, from that personal place, then saying goodbye to it is a really personal experience.

I'd imagine so. Speaking of the cast, one person that I'm incredibly jealous that you got to work with is Sturgill Simpson. I'm a huge fan of his music, and you guys seem to have a really, really nice chemistry together in your scenes.
Sturgill is like my BFF. We bonded immediately. We sat next to each other at the original table read. He was reading Walmart and I was reading Chewy and we looked at each other and we just kinda went, “These two guys are sort of the same guy.” One became a cop to get the good paycheck and benefits, and one tried for something else and became a criminal, but also with a heart. It was just one of those things that happened in a look, and then we started to spend time together and realized that we were boys. It was really interesting because Sturgill never acted before this. One of his first really big days where we had a big day shooting was with myself, Níke Kadri – who plays my partner – and Ashlie Atkinson. Sturgill said to me, “Hey, do you think this went so well because we're friends?” I was like, “Absolutely.” Because we had a personal connection. Just to say something about Sturgill: you would never know that guy's never acted before. He is so easy and relaxed. He's an artist. You hear it in his music, the personal way he approaches it, and then you experience it on set with him. There's no separation. So, your jealousy of me getting to hang with Sturgill, I get it because just knowing him, I'd be jealous if I were you. He's as good a dude as you want him to be, I promise.

That's very good to hear, because his records are special to me. Was there an element of mentorship in your relationship?
I think Sturgill's a curious creature and he asked a lot of questions of everyone in the cast. He used to go to set on days he wasn't working so he could get a better sense of how it was gonna operate, and then he was just really playful and ready to play. I definitely wouldn't consider it a mentor relationship. We're peers, more than anything, friends and colleagues. To his credit, he came in egoless and just said, “Hey, y'all. I've never done this before, so help me out if you can.” That openness, really reflected his work. He wasn't trying to be cool or trying to do it right, he was just being honest.

You mentioned Sturgill coming in and watching other people work. With a show that has so many intersecting storylines, do you have a way of keeping abreast of what's happening wherever you're not, or is it more just a case of focusing on Chewy's story?
Obviously, I read the whole script, so I have an overall idea of the story, and because we were so close I would hear lots of information about how scenes went. But when it came down to it, Chewy's a guy with blinders on. Whatever's right in front of him is what he does. So, I kept it simple in the way that I felt like Chewy would. He's got a job to do, he checks the boxes, he goes home, and that's pretty much the way he operates. A lot of the things that his partner is trying to investigate, for him it’s, “What are you doing? This is the job we were sent to do. Do that job and do that job only.”

Like, “This is what it is and that’s what I'm gonna take it as”?
Yeah, the no bullshit guy. He's a ball buster and he sees no boundaries. Sometimes that could be a real problem. I think that a lot of the things that Chewy says are a bit ignorant of what's going on in the world, like his comments about affirmative action and how it was unfair. I don't think he's ever tried to put himself in the shoes of anyone else. It's not like he has all the advantages. He's a middle or lower-middle class guy at best, so he finds himself in a struggle and he's like, “Well, that's the way the world is and everybody's struggling.” There was a real beauty in playing that. One of the other things that was really fun about playing Chewy is the more I played him, the more I realized that Chewy always lost. I come in so often blustering or like, “I'm the authority figure and I'm gonna tell you what's what.” And by the end of the scene, I found myself often eating crow. It's what happened when I did scenes with Ashlie Atkinson and this weird flirtation started to happen between our two characters. She's a remarkable actress so she gives you so much, and I found this weird coyness in Chewy. It was so clear that he was uncomfortable dealing with this really strong woman. I mean, he was turned on, but he didn't know how to handle it. I love Chewy. I think his heart is in the right place and I think that the things that he says that I personally don't agree with don't come from a place of hatred; they come from a real place of ignorance and hopefully Chewy will learn something. I don't know, but he might, you know?

You can see how people like him are created. I'm not saying that they're in the right, but one of the things I found interesting in this series is how it's set in one of these battle zones of contemporary America, these poor regions living off these false promises of 'the good days are gonna come back'. When they hear all this talk about white privilege, they're like, “My job is a grind, even if I have one. What kinda privilege do I have?”
Well, yeah, it interested me because I think we have a tendency to judge people in those positions, to talk down to them or tell them what they should think. I have very strong beliefs; I'm very left politically. I grew up in New York City, which is a very liberal town. However, it was really interesting to be in that area and meet people that are good people who haven't been exposed or are just too tired to look outside of their own struggles and associate themselves with someone else's struggle. I think for them, it's like you said. They can’t understand how they are, quote, “privileged”. I think presenting it simply with less judgment, and hopefully presenting the other side of that as well through some of the other characters, maybe it can be the kind of show that illuminates some things for people on both sides of what has now become a remarkably divided country, when it comes to political and social thought.

It's something I've thought about a lot recently, this whole idea that we're shouting down or muting or blocking anyone who doesn't agree with us without stopping to think of them as another person, which is kind of what One Dollar is doing in a way. It's not saying that anyone's right, but it's at least asking for compassion.
Yeah, I think so. I think that is what it's doing. I think it's trying to present a real look at what people are going through. Chewy’s the kind of guy that if you called him a racist, he would be flabbergasted. He wouldn't understand that. However, to be his partner and be a young African American woman and listen to the things he says and the ways he chooses to phrase things, that makes her wildly uncomfortable.

We were just saying earlier that you're from Queens, but you live out in LA now. Is that right? Yeah.

How has that been? That seems like quite a change to have to go through.
Yeah, it took me three years to get comfortable in LA. I think a lot of New Yorkers come to LA and say, “Oh, it's not New York.” One day I woke up and thought, “Yeah, it's not New York. It's Los Angeles, and it has remarkable food and remarkable people and remarkable weather.” So, for me, it became about a simple level of acceptance of being where I was. Since that point, I fell in love with it. I mean, I still love New York, but I've definitely grown to love Los Angeles and consider it home at this point.

That's good. I know you do a lot of theater work, as well as TV and films. LA's theater scene's isn’t on the same level as New York, so was there any worry that going out there would mean sacrificing your theater career?
Absolutely. Most of the regional theaters cast out of New York, and I saw a lot of famous people, like Paul Rudd, doing off-Broadway plays. I thought, “Oh shit, I've got to go to LA and get famous enough to come back and work in New York.” I thought that that would mean I would have to give up theater for a while. What I found here is that with so many actors from all over the place, but also a lot of New York transplants, people started to realize that they could produce small theaters here on a really strong level. For instance, my theater company, Rogue Machine, helped develop a play called One Night in Miami that was up for the Olivier a couple years ago, and had a really successful run. I'm hoping for Kemp Powers, the playwright, that it goes to Broadway. Or another one of our playwrights, John Pollono, he has two plays that have gone from here to New York and have productions in New York that have sold out runs. That's just from my small theater company.

The list of the roles you've had is truly impressive. Is there any one that really stands out for you?
Yeah, it's funny. Right after we finish this talk, I'm going to sit down with my buddy James Badge Dale, who I did The Pacific with. That experience was a lot like One Dollar. We were family, and we've stayed family for 10 years. The experience shooting that in Australia with people from Ireland, Canada, all over the States, Aussie, was amazing. That's the first time that I ever realized that I had to mourn the loss of a character. The fact that we were playing real people and telling their story felt like such a responsibility, on top of the fact that we all loved each other so much and wanted to do this thing right, that that job has always held a remarkably special place for me. On top of that, really that job is the thing that started me really working in film and TV. When Tom Hanks and Spielberg give you a job, people kind of click up their ears a bit and go, “Oh, maybe we should pay a little more attention to that actor” and I definitely found that to be the case.

Yeah. They don't cast just anyone.
Yeah, I mean, I hope not. I'll take it as a good sign of some kind of ability, I suppose.

I think you can take that as a given.
Thanks, I appreciate that.

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IMAGE CREDITS:
Photography: Joe DeAngelis
Styling: Nic Adedokun
Grooming: Andrea DiSabatino