NEW YORK — Kelly AuCoin grew up in Cleveland Park, the son of nine-term Oregon congressman Les AuCoin. He campaigned for his father, appearing in a political ad washing the family car (actually a rental, as it was filmed out West) to show that his father was thrifty and not one of those big-spending Democratic liberals.
Perfect, as all the younger AuCoin wanted to do was act. He admits, “I didn’t have a Plan B.”
This is not the easiest news for parents to absorb, even ones working in the job-security-challenged world of politics.
“I swallowed my heart really hard. I may have gasped,” recalls his father, who retired from politics in 1992 at age 50, after losing in a bruising Senate race to Bob Packwood (R). “I remember telling Kelly how much airline pilots made, and get to travel the world. It didn’t do a damn bit of good.”
His parents should have known. In elementary school, Kelly — named for Robert Culp’s character in “I Spy” — portrayed Captain Corcoran in John Eaton’s production of “H.M.S. Pinafore.” At Georgetown Day School, he appeared in “The King and I.” Naturally, as the king. “He was good actor, but lots of young people are good actors,” says his drama teacher, Laura Rosberg, the head of the school’s performing arts department. “What was special about Kelly is how charismatic he is. He was stage-worthy because he was confident.”
AuCoin kept at it, through Oberlin College and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, even during 18 thoroughly lousy months in Los Angeles when he auditioned for part after television part and landed precisely none.
Instead, AuCoin proved to be an adept bartender, a temp, a cater waiter. He did IBM trade shows in Orlando, portraying a version of Morpheus from “The Matrix,” duster and all. AuCoin loved it.
“I never needed to be a star. It wasn’t the goal. I just wanted to always be working,” says AuCoin, sitting in a Park Slope tavern near his apartment, where he lives with his wife, Carolyn Hall, a dancer and — here’s a Brooklyn hyphenate — historical marine ecologist. “My ideal would be that I would be a sort of ‘go-to guy,’ someone all the people with casting power would know and say, “Oh, yeah, good idea!’ ”
In his 40s, at an age when many actors have thrown in the head shot, AuCoin is becoming that go-to guy, with supporting, recurring roles in acclaimed television series, two of them based in Washington.
AuCoin is in his second season on FX’s “The Americans,” which Washington Post television critic Hank Stuever named the best show on TV, playing Pastor Tim, the social activist minister battling for the adolescent soul of Paige Jennings, daughter of 1980s Soviet spies and masters of wiggery Elizabeth and Philip. On the show, set in the decade when Les AuCoin served in Congress, his son earned his own wig for the role, a creepy style that fortunately has been given a haircut.
AuCoin also appears in the third season of “House of Cards,” the Kevin Spacey Netflix addiction available for binge-watching Feb. 27.
He plays . . . wait, the show’s publicist pleads via e-mail, “Due to the nature of spoilers this season, we would like to ask that you please do NOT disclose his character name in the piece,” though a quick visit to IMDB.com offers a clue. AuCoin volunteers only that he appears in five episodes and “I have a good story line, and an interesting relationship with major characters.” Also that Robin Wright, who plays nefarious new first lady Claire Underwood, directed one of his episodes.
AuCoin portrays a State Department correspondent in an upcoming episode of CBS’s “Madame Secretary,” a third Washington-based show. So far, he appears only once but would be thrilled to appear again. Curiously, not one of these programs is filmed in his former home town. Still in production, “The Americans” is shot a short walk from AuCoin’s apartment in a neighborhood now gentrifically known as Gowanus (where, during a quick visit, star Keri Russell is spotted running from trailer to set without one of her many wigs or oversized glasses.) AuCoin’s church scenes are shot on Staten Island. “House of Cards” is filmed in Baltimore, and “Madame Secretary” in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn.
These days on television, every place can be made to look like Washington. Except Washington.
AuCoin’s current work is definitely an improvement over his part in “The Sopranos” as an FBI agent with all of one line — “Was this man with him?” — addressed to Drea de Matteo’s Adriana. The actor who always wanted to be working is working. He appears in two episodes of the NBC miniseries “The Slap.” He has filmed the “Billions” pilot for Showtime about the hedge-fund industry starring Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti, which appears a strong contender to be picked up for production. AuCoin plays one of Lewis’s analysts, “Dollar” Bill Stearn, known as “the cheapest man in America.”
He just landed a role in the Manhattan Theatre Club’s June premiere, “Of Good Stock,” theater being his first love. In 2012, AuCoin appeared as the lead as a CIA operative in J.T. Rogers’s “Blood and Gifts” at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego. A decade ago, he appeared on Broadway in a modern-day production of “Julius Caesar.” AuCoin portrayed Octavius, sparring with Denzel Washington’s Brutus. The New York Times noted that AuCoin portrayed Caesar’s great nephew “with the blithe cockiness of the lead singer in a boy band.”
His parents, who live in Bozeman, Mont., try to see AuCoin in every play at least twice. (“The first time, I watch Kelly,” says his mother, Sue, who worked as a receptionist for the Wilderness Society when they lived in Washington. “The second time, I watch the whole play.”) Les AuCoin recalls, “Denzel, the quintessential alpha male, and Kelly were standing there, face to face, six inches apart, yelling at each other, the spittle just flying, and we were just in awe of him.”
The only time AuCoin played a politician was for NPR’s “Planet Money” as the 2012 character known as Fake Presidential Candidate. Like many New York-based actors, he has done various “Law and Order” incarnations. In AuCoin’s case, five times. This current run of roles may be AuCoin’s best yet. “I have an actor’s well-defined sense of not wanting to jinx something, but this is definitely a good stretch,” AuCoin says over a pint and a salad. “I am absolutely thrilled. I would be an idiot not to recognize some of these shows are the best shows on TV.”
Ben Mankiewicz, a Turner Classic Movies host and son of the late political and media insider Frank Mankiewicz, says of his good friend since their days at Georgetown Day. “It’s a hard life, yet I’ve never heard him express real disappointment. Kelly doesn’t have a huge ego,” Mankiewicz says. “All of sudden, these shows that matter to people are looking at him. These really killer supporting roles.”
Says Les AuCoin: “His star is still rising. I think when Kelly began buzz-cutting his hair, that’s when he was ready to take off. There are a lot of ingenues around. There are not a lot of guys like Kelly.”
And, as his son notes, those weren’t always great parts. “When I had hair, I was often cast as an earnest young guy who had a dark secret and would blow up when you didn’t expect it.” His teacher Rosberg, who directed AuCoin as a preacher in a play in high school (foreshadowing his current role as Pastor Tim), says: “Kelly’s very, very versatile. You can watch him move from role to role. You have to have the right personality for this career. I know so many kids who cannot make it in the New York scene.”
AuCoin no longer waits tables or tends bar. He waits for better parts, and supporting roles in television series suit him fine. “On one level, there’s no bad job because you’re working,” the actor says, and he’s working.