Going Viral
Brandon Hardesty discovered that in the age of YouTube, if you can make it in the family rec room, you can make it anywhere.
BY APRIL WITT    |    PHOTOS BY DUSTIN FENSTERMACHER    |    May 31, 2009
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Brandon Hardesty sat so close to his video camera that only the top three-quarters of his enormous head was in the frame. As he stared into the lens of his camera, he clasped his chubby fingers this way and that around his big cranium. He adopted an expression of amazement, as if he were seeing himself for the very first time.

"Oh! Oh, no!" Brandon said. "Look at the size of my head!"

Suddenly, Brandon pulled back and let the camera capture his hands dangling limply in front of him. He twiddled his fingers and made nonsensical sounds as if he were trying to entertain a fussy baby. "Had-i-lay, did-i-lay, had-i-lay, pood-i-lay," he intoned as he twiddled.

It was Jan. 1, 2007. Brandon, then a shy 19-year-old grocery clerk and college student who sometimes stuttered, was in his parents' basement in Baltimore goofing off. He didn't have anything better to do. So he was making another video to upload on YouTube.

Alone in the basement, Brandon hooted at the camera. He bared and snapped his teeth. He lowered his head to expand his double chin to bullfrog proportions. He yodeled mournfully like a dog with its tail stuck in a door. He croaked like actress Linda Blair possessed by the devil. He laughed until his laughter morphed into a tribal-sounding ululation.

Fifteen minutes after Brandon stopped mugging and hooting, he uploaded his newest video, which he titled: "Strange Faces and Noises I Can Make III," because this wasn't the first time he'd entertained himself with this foolishness, and it wouldn't be the last.

Brandon wasn't just entertaining himself. Anyone with Internet access, and 1 minute 39 seconds to kill, could watch his goofing. By the next morning, Brandon recalled, a few hundred people had. Within days, Brandon's video had thousands of hits. People weren't just watching his video and laughing. They were posting links to it on their Facebook pages and favorite blogs, and e-mailing it to friends.

Dozens of people Brandon had never met were inspired to video themselves similarly hollering and mugging and to upload the results on YouTube. In no time, Brandon and his fans were making faces at each other, like monkeys at the zoo. One man uploaded footage of his giggling, gap-toothed 6-year-old son, so entranced as he watched Brandon's online antics that the child seemed almost unaware when he, too, began screeching and making funny faces.

Every time Brandon logged on to YouTube, which he did three or four times daily, viewership for his video had skyrocketed: thousands, then ten thousands, then millions. Brandon's notoriety was spreading geometrically -- like the spread of a cold after a single child sneezes in a classroom infecting 10 children, who each go on to infect 10 others with the virus, who all fan out across their communities to create a spiraling infection. Brandon's video spread until, before long, more than 4.7 million people had watched Brandon all alone in his parents' basement being silly.

It looked as if Brandon might be going viral. How weird was that?

***

It wasn't any weirder, as it turns out, than a University of Minnesota graduate student named Tay Zonday casually uploading a video of himself singing a catchy little tune he wrote -- "Chocolate Rain" -- which has been viewed more than 37 million times since 2007. Or, more recently, the phenomenon of millions of people worldwide watching and listening as Susan Boyle -- an unemployed church volunteer from a village in Scotland -- sang a triumphant rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" on the reality show "Britain's Got Talent." Mothers and daughters, sisters and brothers, friends, neighbors and co-workers hurriedly e-mailed links to Boyle's soul-stirring performance, saying: You have got to watch this. So they did. Again, and again, and again -- until Boyle's performance had been viewed more than 100 million times. All at once, it seemed, the world was falling in love with a dowdy, plucky and soaringly gifted woman.

Four years after the dawn of YouTube and other online video-sharing forums, the question of which of the legions of videos uploaded daily around the planet will become, however briefly, an object of human fascination, is as mysterious as why any two people fall in love. It's also a question increasingly studied as everyone from advertising executives to politicians, and even teenagers in their parents' basements, all try to go viral.

Tay Zonday, Susan Boyle and Brandon Hardesty have more in common than finding fame on the Internet. People who watch any of their videos over and over may not be behaving all that differently from rats in a lab clicking on a bar repeatedly to release a dose of dopamine. They want a shot of feel-good.


Brandon Hardesty rides a wooden rocking horse as he videos himself in the basement of his parents' Baltimore home.

***

Brandon grew up in Baltimore, the youngest child of a family with a sense of whimsy. Brandon's stay-at-home mom collected silly hats from costume shops and kept a suit of armor in the dining room just for fun. His father, a pianist, music teacher and church choir director, ran a side business writing advertising jingles that helped pay the bills but never brought fame.

Brandon, 10 years younger than his sister, was imaginative, sweet-natured, instinctively funny and a bit of a loner. "When he was 3, he went through a period where he carried around a pair of OshKosh pants with suspenders on a hanger," his mother, Susan Hardesty, recalled. "They were his 'friend,' he called them. When he had lunch, he would put them on a chair next to him."

When Brandon felt nervous, he had a faintly detectable stutter. Brandon's parents pulled him out of second grade in the middle of the year when they feared the small Christian elementary school he was attending was too rigid. "I didn't want them to break his spirit," said his mother, who home-schooled Brandon until middle school. "We had a blast," Brandon's mother recalled. The arrangement suited Brandon's natural introversion. When his schoolwork was done, he liked to spend time in his playroom in the basement watching Nickelodeon, practicing piano or quietly putting together puzzles.

"I was really, really, really shy," recalled Brandon, who didn't date until college. "I still am. I like spending time with myself. I like the quiet and solitude. I think I am a nerd. But that's nothing to be ashamed of. I'm proud of being a nerd."

At his small Christian high school, a teacher talked Brandon into acting in school plays. Though he was too self-conscious to allow his family to see most of his public performances, that shyness vanished when Brandon felt comfortable, around friends or at home with family, especially down in his basement. His inner goofball would burst forth, and he'd parade around with a traffic cone on his head or stay up all night playing video games and making movies with his video camera. After school and on weekends, Brandon bagged groceries at a Weis Market a few minutes from home. He liked it when supervisors asked him to work the customer service desk, because he could practice talking to strangers. He quickly learned that some strangers turned ill-tempered if they thought a cashier forgot to give them the sale price on American cheese or they had to wait too long to buy cartons of cigarettes. Brandon never talked back. "I can't be mean to somebody," he said. "It's just not in me. It makes me nervous to even think about being mean to anybody. I try to make everybody happy, which is a good thing and a bad thing."

Fighting boredom in the summer of 2005, Brandon shot five videos reenacting scenes from some of his favorite movies, including "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory," "The Breakfast Club," "As Good As It Gets" and "Star Trek: First Contact." Brandon made the videos alone in his basement. He played every character in each chosen scene. He took care to mimic the vocal inflections and facial expressions of the original movie actors, talents he turned out to have in surprising abundance. His mom taped lint from the clothes dryer to Brandon's face so his version of Grandpa Joe would have a mustache when he screamed at Willy Wonka for denying little Charlie his promised lifetime supply of chocolate because the boy had violated their contract by, among other things, stealing fizzy lemon drinks and bouncing off the ceiling.

Brandon thought about uploading his movie tributes on the Internet, but he had no idea how or where to do that until early 2006, when a friend told him about the new video-sharing forum called YouTube. By then Brandon was a community college freshman studying film. He was still living at home, working part time at the grocery store and hanging out in the basement.

Over four days in March 2006, Brandon uploaded his five movie reenactments. He created a screen name in honor of one of his favorite childhood Nickelodeon characters: Artie, the Strongest Man in the World. Each morning, Brandon, a.k.a. ArtieTSMITW, logged onto YouTube to see if anyone had stumbled over his videos yet. A few people had watched at least one of them, and Brandon thought that was pretty cool.

Then one of Brandon's new fans posted a link to his "Star Trek" homage on a popular Internet forum, SomethingAwful.com. The link went up on a message board. "It said something like 'Chunky guy reenacts Star Trek, Home Alone and More,' " Brandon recalled. SomethingAwful attracts a lot of young people who like "Star Trek" and spend a lot of time surfing the Internet. So they checked Brandon out.

Suddenly, each of Brandon's YouTube videos had been viewed 5,000 times. Dozens of viewers posted messages telling Brandon that he was really funny and should keep making videos. Encouraged, Brandon shot and uploaded a new video. It was a scene from the film "The Shining," in which a deranged writer played by Jack Nicholson goes off on his wife, played by Shelley Duvall, for interrupting him when he is trying to work. Brandon lodged two halves of a peanut shell under his front lip to suggest Duvall's crooked overbite. "I learned quickly that a lot of people thought it was funny when I used ridiculous props," he said.

The uptick in Brandon's popularity didn't escape notice at YouTube headquarters in San Mateo, Calif. Three former PayPal employees in their 20s had launched YouTube in February 2005. Soon afterward, 8,000 new videos were being uploaded daily to the site. YouTube was designed to make it fast and easy for anyone to share videos. People could watch what they wanted, when they wanted to watch it, without having to download a special video application. Online forums or discussion groups quickly spread the word about YouTube by posting links to funny or interesting videos. That in turn spurred the growth of both YouTube and those online forums. Newspapers published hundreds of articles about the quirky new site where people could watch anything from cute kid antics or dancing dogs to dirty-dancing music videos. By March 2006, YouTube was growing exponentially. Users were soon uploading 65,000 new videos to the site daily. There was no way YouTube's young, tech-savvy staff could watch all that video. But they developed computer programs to track which videos were rising in popularity. On March 25, Brandon uploaded what he thought was his best work thus far. He'd spent hours down in the basement watching the same scene from his "Princess Bride" DVD on his widescreen TV. It was the scene where the brainiac villain played by Wallace Shawn matches wits with his nemesis over which of two glasses of wine contains poison. Brandon was determined to get Shawn's vocal mannerisms and facial expressions just right. "Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line!" Brandon said to himself over and over before laughing maniacally and falling sideways off his chair, theatrically dead. " . . . Five minutes long . . . this is definitely the longest one. Enjoy," Brandon urged his viewers in a note he posted along with the video. They did. "Who says fat kids can't act?" wrote one of Brandon's new fans.

At YouTube's headquarters, certain employees were assigned to monitor spikes in video ratings and view counts. When new videos prompted high marks, the team selected their favorites to promote on the site's home page. "We saw it had become somewhat popular -- but not overly so -- and thought it was funny and interesting and something our users would get a kick out of," Aaron Zamost, the spokesman for YouTube, said of Brandon's "Princess Bride" video.

So the YouTube team picked Brandon's death scene to highlight. Within 24 hours of appearing on YouTube's front page, Brandon's video had been viewed 50,000 times and was on its way to more than 250,000 viewings.

In just 10 days, Brandon -- director, actor -- had found his audience. In a modern inversion of the old story of the young man leaving home to make his way in the world, Brandon had invited a quarter-million strangers into his basement.

"It was shocking," Brandon recalled. "I was a little frightened at first. I was like, Oh, my gosh, what's going to happen now? I was getting hundreds of comments. I'd never had that many people interested in anything I was doing. It was overwhelming. I didn't really know what to do except I decided to keep making videos. It was like, I have an audience. Now it was almost like an obligation."

***

Brandon wasn't just performing for his audience, he had started a conversation with audience members that was deeply personal. He chose to reenact movie scenes that were meaningful to him, such as one from the 1950 film in which a stuttering Jimmy Stewart has an invisible friend, a six-foot rabbit named Harvey.

When uploading his take on Matt Damon and Ben Affleck as angels sent to earth as punishment in the movie "Dogma," Brandon added this note to viewers: "I'm a Christian myself, and even if you don't like the movie, you have to at least appreciate the genius dialogue of Kevin Smith. He raises so many questions regarding Christianity, and has created a great movie that's both good theologically and funny as hell."

Some people who watched the "Dogma" homage wanted to argue with Brandon, posting comments calling religion a fairy tale and faith irrational. Some cynics accused Brandon of merely lip-syncing to the actual voices of the actors from the original movie soundtrack, saying his imitations were too spot-on to be legit. Most people who took time to post a comment just wanted to let Brandon know how much his blossoming talent meant to them. A 20-something from Portland, Maine, wrote in the wee hours: "Your vids are keeping me awake. Thanks man, you entertain the hell out of me."

As Brandon grew more comfortable with the conversation, he branched out from strict movie-scene reenactments. He did brief piano performances of his favorite theme songs from television and film, such as the pounding music from "Beetlejuice." "It's kind of repetitive, but it calms me down," Brandon joked as he played. "Sometimes I do this for hours. My parents will be asleep at 4 a.m., and they'll hear this. Restful, isn't it?"

Brandon found inspiration even in negative comments posted on YouTube. When picky fans pointed out that the work he'd titled "30-Second Video" was only 29 seconds long, he responded with a rap routine called "60-Second Video." Cutting between shots of himself alternately wearing a black hoodie and a cheap red velvet crown from his mom's collection of silly hats, Brandon vogued and break-danced around the basement. "You all argue over a little minute issue," he said in a rapper's cadence. "It was only 29 seconds long? ... Here's a tissue." Brandon's mom, off camera, threw a box of tissues at him.

Once, when Brandon couldn't sleep, he made a video of himself dancing gleefully around the basement with hat and cane lip-syncing to his favorite song from "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory":

"I've got a golden ticket," Brandon pretended to sing as he pranced around the basement with hat and cane -- down the stairs, past the computer in the corner, around the ironing board and the quilt hung on the wall. The tableau was becoming as familiar to Brandon's viewers as their own basements. The significance of the words weren't lost on him. "I never had a chance to shine. But suddenly half the world is mine. What an amazing thing!"

Brandon's regular viewers came to know him both as an ever-more confident actor and an irrepressible goof. Occasionally, cranky viewers made fun of Brandon for being chubby or goaded him by saying that one of his reenactments stank. Brandon never lashed back. Arguing with someone on the Internet, he decided, was a lose-lose proposition. Everyone involved was a loser.

Brandon's parents marveled at how he negotiated the strange new terrain of Internet notoriety. "We were scared to death at first," his father, Brent Hardesty, recalled. "He has such a sweet innocence about him. My first impulse was, I need to help him out with all this. Then I realized he doesn't need any help at all. He has something you can't teach: instincts. His timing was impeccable. He always managed to do the right thing at the right time."

Coming home tired from the grocery store on New Year's Day in 2007, Brandon dashed off "Strange Faces and Noises I Can Make III." When it went viral, it made Brandon nervous. That wasn't how he wanted to use his golden ticket.

"I don't want to be famous just for the sake of being famous," he said. "I didn't want to be walking down the street somewhere and have people say: 'Hey, aren't you the guy who makes those strange faces? Make a strange face.' I don't want to be one of those people. It's just not my thing. I want to be big, but big in my own way. I want to be taken seriously as an actor."

***

The average human brain weighs about three pounds. Human brains are proportionately larger -- as much as five times larger -- than those of other, similarly sized mammals. Scientists theorize that one reason humans need outsize brains is to store social information. Humans are inherently social creatures, evolutionarily wired to connect with one another and respond. Monkey see, monkey learn, monkey do.

Just a decade ago, social scientists were lamenting that Americans were becoming dangerously disconnected from family, friends, neighbors and the civic square. It seemed as if everything from democracy to human happiness was threatened by "cocooning," Americans' growing inclination to hole up at home alone watching oversize televisions and fiddling with their then-newest electronic toy: the personal computer.


Social scientist John Kelly uses graphs to map the blogosphere. Each blog or traditional source of information, such as a news site, appears on a graph like a star in a dark sky. The more influential the blog, the brighter its star. Blogs that cluster around particular ideas, share information sources and link to one another appear like galaxies.
(Graph from Morningside Analytics)


Today, the work of a social scientist named John Kelly is helping illuminate what has really happened to social networking in the age of the Internet. Blogs and other online forums have become the new bowling leagues and Rotary Clubs where humans gather and share social knowledge. Blogs -- a word that didn't enter the lexicon until the late 1990s -- are now so extraordinarily interconnected that they can spread information widely in a remarkably compressed time. For example, when Zonday uploaded his "Chocolate Rain" video on YouTube in April 2007, nobody seemed to notice for about three months. Then, in July 2007, someone posted a link to "Chocolate Rain" on Digg.com, a popular social bookmarking site. That soon led to Zonday's video becoming something of an in-joke on an even larger forum, 4chan.org. "Then it started taking off very quickly," recalled Zonday, who became one of the first YouTube contributors to get huge attention in traditional media. "I probably did about 40 radio interviews in the first week."

Tracking and illustrating how networks of blogs link to spread social knowledge has been an obsession for Kelly since he was a graduate student.

Kelly likens the techniques he developed for mapping the blogosphere to a doctor using functional magnetic resonance imaging to get a real-time picture of a patient's cerebral activity. Mapping the blogosphere, Kelly said, "is like an MRI of the social mind."

Kelly and colleagues at the company he co-founded, Morningside Analytics, illustrate their findings with three-dimensional graphs that look something like celestial charts. Each blog or traditional source of information, such as a newspaper, appears on a graph like a star in a dark sky. The more influential the blog, the brighter its star appears on Kelly's charts. Blogs that cluster together around particular ideas, link to one another and share information sources appear like galaxies. "On the map, each dot represents a blog, and the position is a function of a 'physics model' algorithm, which pulls together blogs that are connected by hyperlinks," Kelly said. "The size of the dot represents the influence of the blog in the network, based on how many other bloggers link to it."

Kelly went public with his techniques last year. Collaborating with Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, Kelly helped map the blogosphere in Iran. In addition to the predictable networks of secular reformists and conservative Islamists, the next largest cluster of bloggers in Iran focused not on religion or politics, but on romantic poetry. "What's so great about mapping the blogosphere is you feel a little bit like Magellan sailing around the world seeing strange lands for the first time," Kelly said.

For YouTube, competing video-sharing sites and other companies trying to profit from the social network of the Internet that they helped create, this brave new world arrived with paradoxes. Legions of people around the world began producing free creative content for the Internet. Almost anyone with a video camera and a computer suddenly had at least a shot at attracting a worldwide audience larger than all but the most successful artists of the past. And while this seemed like a dream business model -- free workers in a theoretically self-selecting hierarchy of success -- YouTube is losing money, according to recent reports by industry analysts. Its parent company, Google, doesn't break out its YouTube profits and losses on published earnings statements. But analysts agree that, despite revenue estimated to be anywhere from $120 million to $500 million this year, YouTube still isn't profitable.

A few years before Brandon started uploading videos on YouTube, legal scholar and author Lawrence Lessig, an expert on copyright law and the Internet, gave a talk at Google's corporate headquarters. Lessig called the interactive nature of the Internet "read-write," as opposed to the old "read-only" culture of newspapers, magazines and books. A remarkable facet of this still-emerging read-write culture, Lessig noted in that 2004 speech, was that large numbers of Internet users were willing to spend hours painstakingly creating content for sites such as Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia. They worked for free, finding satisfaction in being creative and participating in an online community. The greatest challenge for companies like Google, Lessig said, would be to find a way to harness that free labor -- and the resulting free product -- to turn a profit, without stifling the creativity and community that produced it. Years later, many companies, including The Washington Post, are still trying to understand how to thrive in that culture.

Kelly, the scientist who maps the blogosphere, tracked the spread of online information during the 2008 presidential campaign. Working with the Berkman Center's Media Republic project, Kelly found that both the galaxy of liberal blogs and Internet forums and the galaxy of conservative ones linked to a short list of primary information sources topped by The Washington Post and the New York Times. The irony was apparent. Both media companies are arguably more relevant than ever, yet find the profitability of their businesses in serious decline, dramatic evidence that just getting stuff out there, attracting millions of eyeballs, is no assurance of financial success.

In 2006 -- eight months after Brandon uploaded his first movie reenactment on YouTube -- Google bought YouTube for $1.65 billion. By then, YouTube had grown to record many more viewings than any other video-sharing site in the country, yet still wasn't profitable.

In 2007, YouTube launched a program designed to generate more ad revenue. Until then, YouTube had posted ads only on videos professionally produced by entities such as the BBC or the NBA, not on videos submitted by the site's millions of everyday users. Under the new program, YouTube invited its most consistently popular amateur video-makers to become partners. Thousands of newly minted partners authorized YouTube to place ads within and around their videos, and YouTube agreed to share the revenue. Among them: a 20-year-old college student from Towson, Md., who has attracted more than 325,000 regular viewers, called "subscribers," with lewd antics such as honking a car horn with his rump. And Michael Buckley of Connecticut, who says his one-man YouTube show featuring amusing chatter about celebrities earns him more than $100,000 annually from ads. (The Washington Post recently joined YouTube as a partner.)

David Devore of Florida became a partner after posting a video in January of his 7-year-old son groggy and disoriented following oral surgery. "Is this real life?" the boy, also named David, asked as he struggled to hold his head up. The video has been viewed more than 20 million times, generating monthly ad revenue Devore described as "four figures." To capitalize on what he suspects will be fleeting viral fame, the family is also marketing "David After the Dentist" T-shirts. "The views are not going to be there forever," he said.

Two years after recording "Chocolate Rain," Zonday has won product endorsement deals and is still earning ad revenue from YouTube. But none of his subsequent YouTube postings has been nearly as popular, and he's puzzling over how to translate his burst of Internet fame into a sustained career in the entertainment industry.

"There is all this pressure," he recalled of the weeks after "Chocolate Rain" went viral. "What if this moment never happens again? What if I blink, and two months later it is gone?"


Brandon as the Joker in a reenactment of "The Dark Knight."

***

In late 2007, someone from YouTube e-mailed Brandon asking him to telephone YouTube's home office. When he did, Brandon was invited to join the company's Partner Program and share in revenue from ads placed on his videos. Brandon agreed, but had technical problems linking to the sharing program. He e-mailed YouTube but received general answers that didn't solve his problem. Brandon didn't want to hassle anyone at YouTube. Besides, he said, he wasn't in it for the money.

He wasn't even that thrilled about reenacting movie scenes his viewers requested as opposed to scenes he selected because they were meaningful to him. But he felt an obligation to people who were nice enough to watch him, and the larger his audience, the more he felt the weight of that obligation.

Brandon made a joke of his ambivalence. He scrawled the names of requested movies on a "To Do" list, which he stuck on the refrigerator door: "Fight Club," "Clerks," "Pulp Fiction," "Full Metal Jacket" and "Reservoir Dogs." He ended each of the videos with footage of himself trudging up from the basement, crossing the scene he'd just completed off his list, then getting himself a snack. He was only half kidding. "Those movies were great, and some of the scenes were amazing," Brandon recalled. "But because I didn't choose the scenes, they were harder to do. I didn't enjoy it as much. It was like a job. I'd walk down those basement stairs, and it was like punching in.

"It's like you are a kid playing with Legos and someone says, 'Build this house for me.' And you are like, 'Oh, okay, I get it. I'm in construction now.' "

***

So he kept uploading videos for free for several more months until his mom got on him. He was earning $9.10 an hour at the grocery store, $10.10 on Sundays. Getting a little money from YouTube every time somebody viewed one of his videos would be nice for him.

Brandon made a funny video of himself jumping around the basement in his boxer shorts yelling for someone at YouTube to "HELP!"

Someone from YouTube immediately noticed Brandon's SOS and helped him fix the technical glitch in February 2008. Brandon's share of the ad revenue trickled in slowly at first: $129 one month, $143 the next. But the numbers grew as Brandon's audience did. And the monthly checks were only the first payoff for Brandon's growing fame.

A Hollywood producer searching for Joe Pesci impersonations found Brandon's reenactment of a scene from "Goodfellas" on YouTube. That led to Brandon being asked to audition for a role in a full-length independent movie that was about to start shooting in Florida, directed by Brian Hecker and starring William H. Macy and Cheryl Hines. Brandon made several audition tapes in his basement and e-mailed them to the director. He won a supporting part, playing a jaded teen.

"This Friday on October 26, 2007, I will be flying to Florida where I will stay for three weeks as I provide a supporting role in the independent film 'Bart Got a Room' . . . " Brandon told his YouTube viewers breathlessly. As if unable to contain his glee, Brandon danced around the basement to the inspirational strains of a favorite childhood song: Butterfly in the sky, I can fly twice as high. I can go anywhere . . . I can be anything.

Then, the decidedly unjaded Brandon hopped on his nephew's hobby horse and swung his jacket over his head like an imaginary lasso.

Brandon was leaving the basement, if only for a little while. He asked his manager at the grocery store if he could take three weeks off to go shoot a movie. The movie producers were only paying Brandon about $2,000. After buying his own plane ticket to Florida and paying for meals, he'd barely break even. He was too excited to care.

On Brandon's first day of filming, he didn't realize how nervous he was until someone yelled: Action! "I started talking, but I was, like, shaking," Brandon recalled. "I was uncontrollably shaking." His cool character was supposed to open his cellphone and dial a number. Brandon froze. "I overwhelmed myself thinking about it," he said. "I didn't want to get things wrong and waste everyone's time," he said. The film's young star, actor Steven Kaplan, told Brandon that the same kind of thing had happened to him at first, and assured him he would get over it. "And I did," Brandon said. "I got used to it. If you are going to be an actor you have to get used to it."

There was nothing Brandon wanted more than to be an actor. But after the film wrapped, he went back to work at the grocery store. He needed the money.

Soon, Brandon punched his golden ticket again. Early last year, producers at "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" -- who'd been aware of Brandon's work since his "Princess Bride" video landed on YouTube's front page -- invited Brandon to make videos to air on the national TV show. They asked Brandon to reenact one scene from each of the year's Best Picture nominees, so they could air them on consecutive nights leading up to the 2008 Academy Awards. The producers gave Brandon 48 hours' notice before he had to deliver the first video.

They aired his scenes just as he'd shot and edited them, and paid him $4,000, enough to pay off his old broken-down car and finance a two-week trip to Hollywood.

Suddenly, agents from some big talent agencies were willing to take a meeting with Brandon. At one name-brand agency, so many slick suits crowded around an enormous conference table that Brandon felt as if he were in an episode of HBO's "Entourage." "It was in a gigantic building that looked like something out of some dystopian future novel," he recalled. "Everything was smooth." Brandon didn't sign. He went, instead, with Endeavor, a smaller agency where he felt more comfortable "instead of sitting across from Dr. Evil and his henchmen or something, where they push a button and I get knocked out of the chair into a fire pit."

Then Brandon flew home. He couldn't afford to stay in Hollywood.


From left, Brandon with fellow cast members Chad Jamian Williams and William H. Macy at a party after the release of "Bart Got a Room" at the Tribeca Film Festival in April 2008.(Astris Stawiarz/Getty Images)

In spring 2008, Brandon and his father took a train to New York City to attend the premiere of "Bart Got a Room" at the Tribeca Film Festival. Brandon was too embarrassed to bring along his video camera. He didn't want to be the jerk who annoyed the other actors. But Brandon's dad brought a camera and captured hot young actress Alia Shawkat, former star of the Fox sitcom "Arrested Development," telling Brandon that she didn't realize what a genius he was until she watched his YouTube videos. Brandon didn't post his reaction shot, but recalls being flummoxed. "I get awkward when someone compliments me like that," Brandon said. "I never know what to say or do." After the screening, Brandon and his dad went to the premiere party. But they could only stay 30 minutes. They had a train to catch back to Baltimore. Brandon had to work at the grocery store the next day.

Early this year, for the first time, Brandon began earning more each month from his YouTube ad revenue -- about $1,500 -- than he earned working at the grocery store. He saved every penny. He was trying to stash away enough money to quit the grocery store for good and move to Hollywood this summer.

Brandon waited all of January and half of February, hoping that someone from "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" would call and ask him to make videos for this year's Academy Awards. The call never came.

Brandon was philosophical about it as he stood behind the customer service desk at the grocery store one night in February, selling lottery tickets and cartons of cigarettes. "This job has taught me to be patient," he said.

On the night the Academy Awards were broadcast, Brandon uploaded a video pretending to be drunk alone in his basement, bitter that he had not been invited to the ceremony. Brandon's father was horrified when he saw the video. Brandon's acting was so good that his father didn't realize it was all a put-on. Brandon did spend Oscars night alone in his basement. But he was drinking ice tea and completing a 1,000-piece puzzle: Cinderella going to the ball.


Brandon recently quit his customer service job at Weis Market after he was cast in an "American Pie" sequel.

A few days later, Brandon was working at the grocery store when his cellphone rang. His agent was calling to let him know that he'd just landed a leading role in an "American Pie" sequel. The role would pay $10,000, enough for Brandon to finally quit the grocery store and move to Hollywood. Brandon hugged the kid working next to him. When a guy from high school wandered into the store a little while later, Brandon hugged him, too.

Brandon was in a rush to move to California before the film began shooting in Canada. Still, he gave two weeks' notice before quitting his grocery job. Anything less, he reasoned, would be rude.

Brandon kept punching his golden ticket. After he'd arrived in Canada to begin weeks of filming "American Pie: Book of Love," Hollywood called again. The makers of comedian Adam Sandler's latest movie -- "Born to Be a Star" -- needed Brandon to finagle a three-day weekend off immediately to fly back to Los Angeles and play the role of an innocent young man with a comically exaggerated Minnesota accent. "It was like William H. Macy in 'Fargo,' times five," Brandon said. "I can tell already that movie is going to be hilarious."

On April 16, Brandon posted on YouTube the last video he had made in his basement before leaving home. It was a reenactment of a scene from the "The Devil's Advocate." Brandon had borrowed his dad's tuxedo shirt and drawn on cartoonishly heavy eyebrows to portray Al Pacino as the devil ranting against God. "I'm peaking," Brandon-as-the-devil said into his video camera. "It's my time now."

***

April Witt is a staff writer for the Magazine. She can be reached at witta@washpost.com. Join her and Brandon Hardesty for an online discussion Monday, June 1 at 1 p.m. ET.

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