A year before he skyrocketed to heartbreaker status and social media fame overnight as the emotionally guarded Conrad Fisher on Prime Video's hit YA series "The Summer I Turned Pretty," Christopher Briney saw his future change twice in a matter of months.
"I don't know what I did in a past life to deserve work at all," Briney, 25, says self-deprecatingly over video chat from his Brooklyn, New York, apartment, remembering a time not long ago when he'd auditioned for 70 roles trying to land his first job. Once, the Connecticut native thought he might become a pro baseball player before the acting bug bit and he fell in love with film. "I think the love of doing it, or the prospect of doing it, kept me going because I don't know what else I would do," he said.
The first door opened in the spring of 2021 when director Mary Harron ("American Psycho"), lost a key actor to another project a week into production on the indie drama "Dalíland," about Salvador Dalí's twilight years in 1970s New York City. Suddenly in search of a young star who had smarts, maturity and could hold their own against Ben Kingsley's Dalí, she combed acting-grad showreels and discovered the then-unknown Briney, casting him over Zoom in his film debut as James, an art-world neophyte. (The Magnolia Pictures release is in theaters and on demand now.)
"He had to look a certain way because the first thing that Salvador Dalí says to him is, 'You look like an angel … you look like a Renaissance painting,'" Harron told the L.A. Times. "He had to be someone who had a certain youthful innocence but also wasn't a pushover. Someone who had certain strength inside, which Chris has as a person."
The fictional James' entrance into Dalí's flashy orbit was reminiscent of Harron's own arrival in New York City's punk scene in the '70s — an Alice tumbling into an intoxicating Wonderland where "if you met the right people, you would suddenly get invited in," said Harron. "And with Chris, you had someone who you would want to invite in."
Obsessive fans of "The Summer I Turned Pretty," which premiered to critical acclaim and TikTok fervor last June, would agree. They've already memed and memorized Briney's every move, line and mannerism as the brooding Conrad, one of two brothers entangled in a love triangle with the show's teenage heroine, Isabel "Belly" Conklin (Lola Tung), in the romantic drama series adapted by Jenny Hanfrom her own novels. A highly anticipated second season airs starting July 14 on Prime Video.
Finding stars who shared an electric spark was vital to bringing the popular books to life, and creator-showrunner Han was casting under unusually challenging circumstances during the pandemic. It was shortly after Briney landed in Liverpool, England, for "Dalíland" that he got his second break of a lifetime, squeezing a virtual chemistry read with Tung into one of his first days on set.
By the time the film wrapped, he'd won the role that would shoot him to Gen Z stardom.
"There's a lot in Chris' performance as Conrad that is swimming beneath the surface — there's so much he wants to say but can't," Han told the L.A. Times via email of Briney's quietly simmering work in the role. "He doesn't have a ton of dialogue so it has to be conveyed in his eyes, and Chris was able to do that over a Zoom audition, no easy feat. And, at its heart, 'The Summer I Turned Pretty' is a love story, so finding leads with chemistry was one of my biggest priorities. Chris and Lola have an undeniable chemistry on screen. When I saw Chris with Lola, I knew he was the right Conrad."
Being catapulted into the public eye at such a meteoric speed — and garnering 1.8 million followers on Instagram, where Briney promotes his work alongside more intimate glimpses of his life and inner circle — is an ongoing adjustment. "Being a face on someone's screen is something that I'm still getting used to," the actor admits.
Maybe that's why he finds kinship in his first major roles. Both James, an aspiring curator eager to be among artists in "Dalíland," and Conrad, a teenager struggling with his own buried anxieties on "Summer," are watchful by nature, like him.
"Being an observer is something that I really enjoy as a human — being an observer, a consumer of art," he offers. "To be the filter through which people get to see Sir Ben and Dalí and his world and Mary's movie was the most exciting thing for me, to attempt to be the way into the story."
He still vividly recalls the moment he met Kingsley on set, where his nerves helped him tap into the character.
"He came up to me and was like, 'They're really throwing you into the deep end on this one,'" says Briney. "He put his fist to my chest and said, 'Good luck,' and then he walked away. And for most of the rest of it, I knew him in character as Dalí. The next time I saw him was our first table read. We had a little screen test and they had us in costume and makeup. He started saying lines from a scene that I hadn't really worked on yet, just exercising the character. And in the moment I was like, 'Oh man — am I going to not know my lines?'"
It was a steep learning curve, he says. "I remember all the really rough days where I was dealing with anxiety and insecurity," he says of his first two days filming a long Steadicam shot on a beach in Wales standing in for Spain. "I felt like I was learning how to ride a bike with no wheels. My memory of it is feeling like I was going to either die or get fired before I f— finish this movie."
A day later, things just clicked. "I had this scene in a car — simply pretending to drive a car — and everything just felt possible again. I was like, 'I can do this.'"
Serving as "Dalíland's" audience surrogate was a major task, and one Harron admits was a risky bet to place on a new actor. But in Briney's steady gaze, Harron found oceans of depth and a rare luminosity. "A lot of it is him watching, taking us into these different worlds. You want someone with really good eyes, that are expressive and almost reflective." I said to ["Dalíland" writer and Harron's husband] John [C. Walsh], 'It's like he has a ring light in his eyes' — they light up. And eyes are everything in screen acting."
The son of actors who met in New York in the '80s before moving to Connecticut to raise their kids, Briney traces his creative life to seeing theater and film at a young age. He was also keenly aware of his parents' acting endeavors and the odds against finding success in the industry. "I always knew that they had tried to act, and that they loved it but I wanted to do something different. — I wanted to be a little bit of a rebel," he says with a smile. "I'm not, really."
Trading pitching dreams for acting courses (the best baseball movies ever made? "Bull Durham," "The Natural," "A League of Their Own," he rattles off), Briney found friends and collaborators at Pace University, writing and directing his own short films along the way. And as much as his star exploded in the last year thanks to "Summer," earning him the kind of stature Harron predicts could help secure financing for the kinds of indie films he hopes to make, Briney remains grounded by certain passions.
For one: His enduring love for art cinema. "I have my own set of Criterion DVDs and I enjoy capital 'M' movies in an annoying way," he laughs. "I'll still go see my favorite movies at Metrograph even if I've seen them a few times, because there's nothing like seeing them in the theaters." Yes, he has a sparsely updated Letterboxd account, although "if somebody found it," he says, "they wouldn't be very interested."
Among his favorite films: Leos Carax's "Mauvais Sang," Paul Schrader's "First Reformed," Richard Linklater's "Before" trilogy, and Céline Sciamma's "Portrait of a Lady on Fire," which reminds him of the time he crossed paths with Sciamma at NYC's Angelika Film Center but didn't introduce himself. "Now I'm like, 'I'm a fool! I'm a total fool for not going up to her,'" he admits, his inner fanboy showing.
Mulling the Schrader-influenced short film "Paix" he directed in film school — which enterprising fans can still hunt down online — he considers his future goals of stepping behind the camera. At the same time, he's in no rush. "I don't trust myself quite as a writer. Not that I won't at some point in my life, but I think I see images better than I see words," he says.
For the immediate future, he's trying new things. On the film front, he recently wrapped Paramount's Tina Fey-produced "Mean Girls" musical adaptation, exercising untested comedy chops. "I don't think I'm much of a tell-jokes kind of a guy," he says. "It was a new muscle to explore, but I had a great time doing it."
When "Summer" returns for its second season next month with a storyline that expands on the second book in Han's bestselling trilogy, audiences will see Briney unlock new dimensions in his Conrad character. "He's walking through life with a new lens and being affected by factors that didn't exist in the first season," he teases.
To Han, it's the emotions Briney can convey with just a glance that bring the beloved character so fully to life. "As an actor, Chris conveys so much longing and intensity in just a look or a gesture," she said. I'm continually impressed by how he captures Conrad's seriousness and is so judicious about lighthearted moments from Conrad, because when he grants the audience a rare smile, it's like the sun peeking through the clouds," she wrote.
With his first feature finally out in the world, Briney is feeling grateful for the opportunities that have opened up in the last two life-changing years. "When we were making this show I was like, 'I just hope one person watches and is really affected by it,'" he says. "That's really all that matters to me. I hope it reaches someone."