The Role He was Born to Play

“Could you do anything else?” 

This was an important question posed to Riley Shanahan ’10 in a New York City Starbucks many summers ago when he was still a student at Jesuit High School Sacramento. 

The person asking the question was a Jesuit alumnus turned Broadway actor and co-star of television’s This Is Us Chris Sullivan ’98. The question implied that life as an actor is undeniably hard and should your talents lead you elsewhere, follow it. Even though an actor’s life promised challenges, Shanahan still wanted it.    

Now, a decade since graduating Jesuit, Shanahan has earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in acting from the Cornish College of the Arts, and gone on to perform in multiple theater productions, as well as explore the world of film and television. 

Drama wasn’t what Shanahan first imagined for his life. Basketball was his first love, but as his “hoops dreams died,” Shanahan focused on the arts. It began with an old camcorder, filming movies with his older brother, Bobby Shanahan ’08.  

Shanahan first became a part of Jesuit Drama as a junior, appearing as marine Jeff Lucey in the 2008 original documentary production of Achilles in America. From that first “incredibly formative experience,” he went on to perform in FLOPS!, The Three Musketeers, and Frogs!

When asked about Shanahan’s time with Jesuit Drama, Artistic Director Mr. Ed Trafton ’84 only had esteem for his former student. 

“Riley was — and remains — an amazing talent: open, funny, thoughtful and engaged,” Mr. Trafton said. “His contribution to each of those productions was immeasurable, and I mean that. The only thing greater than his talent was his spirit.”

Shanahan also worked with Mr. Trafton with the Beyond the Black Box program, a program that looks to reach the community-at-large. With Beyond the Black Box, Shanahan performed in a touring production of Hansel and Gretel and Scooby Doo. He also taught theater at Academic Plus for a couple of summers. 

When looking back at all these early experiences, Shanahan reflected on the impact of working with Mr. Trafton and how being in those shows reinforced his belief in becoming an actor. 

“Ed Trafton is a national treasure and I’m indebted to him because he was the first professional adult-person to teach me [that] I truly had something to offer as an artist,” Shanahan said. “My experience at Jesuit Drama really taught me that my life-long dream of being an actor wasn’t a silly, frivolous thing. Rather, it was a practical, necessary, honorable profession that made me feel at home in myself.”

In college, while earning his BFA degree, Shanahan explored the different aspects of the entertainment industry: directing, playwriting, and film — experiences that he found beneficial to exposure in the arts as well as job opportunities. 

“I think learning to act and learning about the beautiful and collaborative process of making theater has boundless positive effects to many other professions and walks of life,” Shanahan said. “There’s also just a TON of good union jobs in both theater and film that are great for people who are passionate about creating things but don’t want to act. And college is a great way to get exposed to different sides of theater or film that may entice you.” 

In the years following college, Shanahan appeared in various regional theater productions. To date, his favorite part has been Irwin, a loveable and complex character in the adaption of The Brothers K at the Book-It Repertory Theatre –– a role that earned him Best Leading Actor in a Play by Broadway World, Seattle and a Gregory Award Nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a play in 2016. The show, adapted from the 645-page David James Duncan novel of the same name, takes place in two parts with a combined runtime of six hours. 

As for film, Shanahan has done both movies and television. He appeared in The Gender Card Flip — a movie that takes place in a town where everyone’s gender is switched. Currently, Shanahan appears on the DC TV show, Doom Patrol, where he physically plays Robotman. 

“I work closely with Brendan Fraser because we share the duties of bringing Cliff Steele aka Robtoman to life,” Shanahan said. “I perform all the scenes with the actors on set and then Brendan does something called ADR, which stands for audio digital recording. Through this process his voice is synced to my physical motions of the character.” 

Of all the forms of acting, Shanahan has found that theater is the most profound, allowing him to evolve as an actor with the incomparable sensation of doing a live performance. 

“There’s just something about it,” Shanahan said. “ You don’t get another take, you don’t get a mental break when the camera is doing the other actor’s coverage, you just have to serve it up to a live audience at 8 p.m. every night, no excuses … I found professional theater to be marvelous training. It’s like baptism by fire. Theater is my home.” 

From his initial thought that a career in acting was a “vow of poverty,” Shanahan has found that life as an actor isn’t confined to that, like anything it has it ebbs and flows — requiring dedication, grit, and passion. You can catch Riley Shanahan in Season two of Doom Patrol, which will be released to stream on DC Universe and HBO Max later this year. He also has an original film, Breakdown, which is set to debut in the Fear No Film festival as part of the Utah Arts Festival. The festival will hold its 2020 series either online or in 2021.