Actor Carlo Albán made his Broadway debut in 2017 in Lynn Nottage’s Tony-nominated Best Play Sweat, which also earned the playwright her second Pulitzer Prize. Albán originated the role of Oscar, a Latino bar back at the local watering hole in Reading, Pennsylvania. His quiet performance imbued the production with a crackling sense of anticipation and his sensitivity gave audience pause as they watched his character try to make a better life for himself in a white, working-class town.
Now Albán, who began his career in television as part of the young cast of Sesame Street and later starred as a series regular on Prison Break, makes his action film debut in Mile 22 (out August 17) alongside Mark Wahlberg. Albán plays Dougie, a member of Ground Branch, a paramilitary branch of the CIA, who joins Wahlberg's team.
In addition to Sweat, Albán has appeared in Center Theatre Group’s A Parallelogram and Lydia, Asolo Repertory Theatre’s Hurricane, the Guthrie’s Night of the Iguana, and more, and has taken to the New York stage with companies such as Ma-Yi and Theatre for a New Audience.
Here, the actor proves his theatre credentials and shares stories from acting in all three media, lessons from Mark Wahlberg, a milestone memory from Sesame Street (you won’t believe who he met), and more:
What was your first professional job?
Carlo Albán: It depends on how you define it. The first play I ever did in New York was The Trojan Women at The Pearl Theatre Company, directed by Shep Sobel, back when their theatre was on 21st Street. I played Astyanax, so I had no lines, but I got a mention in the [New York] Times review for playing dead. I got my Equity card years later at the Dallas Theater Center doing a production of Dreamlandia, Octavio Solis’s adaptation of Life Is A Dream. But my first actual paying job was Sesame Street, in 1993.
What was the stage show that has most influenced you?
I tend to think of it more in terms of playwrights than shows. John Leguizamo’s work has been a huge inspiration—Freak, Mambo Mouth; but also his TV sketch show House of Buggin’. José Rivera’s plays, particularly Cloud Tectonics. All of Stephen [Adly] Guirgis’ plays. More recently, every Richard Nelson play I’ve seen at the Public has blown me away. His writing in combination with those actors... It’s a degree of artistry I hope to achieve someday.
Is there a stage moment you witnessed (from the audience, from the wings, in rehearsal) that stays with you?
There are so many, but here are two that come to mind.
From the audience: Seeing the original production of Our Lady of 121st Street at Center Stage NY, the scenes in the confessional between Father Lux and Rooftop were staged with very little light. You could really only see their faces. Aside from the master class in acting that Mark Hammer and Ron Cephas Jones gave in their performances, there is a particular moment in the play when the characters step out of the confessional and it is revealed that Father Lux has no legs. Mark Hammer was a double amputee. Stephen Guirgis wrote that role for him. It was an incredibly powerful moment in the production, and as an audience member, having never seen an actor with a disability onstage, it was unforgettable.
From the wings: On the closing night of Lydia at the Mark Taper Forum in 2009, about three quarters of the way through the play, there was an earthquake. We had experienced several earthquakes onstage during that production, but this was by far the strongest and longest lasting. I was sitting backstage listening to the play when it started. The actors kept going as we had every other time, but after about 20 seconds the assistant stage manager stepped onstage to pause the production and pull the actors off. But the actor playing the father, Daniel Zacapa, refused to break character and leave the stage. He sat in his recliner, at one point he got up to get another “beer” from the “fridge,” all while the earth shook and without breaking character. My jaw dropped. That’s dedication. Foolish perhaps, but dedication. We did eventually finish the performance, and no one got hurt.
What’s been the most rewarding experience onstage for you?
Most recently: The night after we closed at the Public, we did a performance of Sweat in Reading, Pennsylvania, where the play takes place, for members of the community. We had no set, very few lights and minimal costumes; we used folding tables and chairs and plastic cups, and it was, I think, the most powerful performance we did of that play. To feel that audience live through that play in that place was a once in a lifetime, uniquely rewarding experience.
Who is a collaborator from theatre who has made you better?
I have had the good fortune of being a member of two different acting companies—with Labyrinth Theater Company and as a member of the acting ensemble at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival—for a couple of years. One thing I experienced with both groups was the unique dynamic that comes from the forged relationships and history that exist in a company. There’s just nothing like it. I feel like it takes the art to a whole new level. And it gives you the opportunity to continually grow not just as an individual, but as an ensemble. It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve experienced, and it’s where I have learned the most from the people around me.
What is your favorite part of doing TV that’s different from theatre?
Aside from the paycheck? I don’t know that I have a favorite part. They’re just different ways of telling a story. I guess the most important factor is time. With television there is a lot less of it, so you have to make decisions and run with them, and you have to come in prepared. You also have to be willing to give up control, because there’s a million more cooks in the kitchen, and trust that the end result will be positive. But there’s a certain freedom in that, too. It just depends on how you look at it.
We tend to conflate television and film as “screen work.” But what is your favorite part of working in film that’s different from TV and theatre?
I guess film lies somewhere between television and theatre in terms of time scale. There’s generally more time to explore because you’re usually not shooting at such a frantic pace. You have more time to get to know the people you’re working with, and create those bonds that you carry with you. I think that, ultimately, is the most rewarding thing about any of these experiences.
What was it like to work on an action film, particularly on set with Mark Wahlberg?
I had a blast. I love action films, I always have, and it was a dream come true to work on one. It was completely different from anything I’ve worked on to date. From the training we received beforehand (we trained for several weeks with a Navy SEAL and an Army Ranger) to the special effects team to the stunt team, it was a real learning experience. Mark was absolutely wonderful to work with, totally professional, always prepared and focused on the work. You can’t really ask for anything more.
At the same time there was something about it that felt very familiar, because of the way [director] Peter Berg shoots. He rehearses entire scenes almost like a play, he sets up four cameras at a time, sometimes you don’t even know where they are, and then he just rolls. For like 20 minutes. He doesn’t cut. And in that time you’ll run through the scene multiple times, he’ll give you direction, he’ll try new things, until he feels he’s got it. And he loves theatre actors. We spent several days filming with Emily Skeggs, Poorna Jagannathan, Kate Rigg, Ariel Felix, and Terry Kinney. It was awesome.
Though Sweat did have a massive fight scene, much of your roles in theatre have been in contemplative plays. Describe the experience of working on an action flick.
I’ve done my fair share of stage combat in theatre, but there’s no way I could have applied any of it in this context. In Mile 22 the only person that uses hand-to-hand combat is Iko Uwais, star of the Raid films. He’s incredible. Everyone else, including Ronda [Rousey], uses firearms. So that was a whole new ballgame for me. It was a big responsibility using those tools, and, I have to admit, kind of scary, especially when they first put them in your hands. But ultimately I really enjoyed the whole process. We had the best of the best training us and with us throughout the process to make sure we did everything right and safely.
You spent much of your young adulthood as a series regular on Sesame Street—which is a huge part of so many childhoods. Can you share a memory that still stays with you from you time on that set?
I mean, it was my first job, and it was an incredibly formative time for me in so many ways, so there are countless moments. But if I have to choose one… I think it was my first year on the show. My agent told my parents that I was going to be shooting a segment with the person who read the poem at President Bill Clinton’s first Inauguration. We had no idea who she was, other than that she must be someone important. Before the day my parents bought a copy of the poem, ‘On the Pulse of Morning’, and we brought it with us to the set.
When I walked into the make-up room that morning, Maya Angelou was sitting in the chair, and her face lit up when I walked into the room. Not because I was anyone special, but in the way I imagine she lit up whenever she encountered anyone. You had her full attention, and she really took you in. She saw you. I was young, but even at that age I could tell this was someone special. She had a groundedness and a light that was undeniable. But again, I was so young. I wish I could meet her now so I could take her in and just hang out, you know?
Did Sesame Street help prepare you for a life in this business?
I would say that what Sesame Street did in terms of preparing me is teach by example. My first season on the show was their 25th, so I walked into an environment with people who had been working together for years, some of them for as long as the show had existed, that were at the top of their game in every respect. It was the height of professionalism, but more than that it was a family. I never saw any egos or anyone operating out of self-interest. I saw many masters of their craft—from the writers to the directors, producers, actors, crews, and muppeteers—working hard to produce a quality show with a purpose. It was an ideal environment to learn from. Obviously nothing is perfect and things change, but the fact that the show is still around is a testament to the people that created it and the legacy they left behind.