Barnes didn't have to wait long for his first taste of the stage. His father was the drummer for the '60s band The Cascades, making baby Barnes an early road warrior: "My first two years were spent on the road, traveling to shows." The rocker lifestyle molded the future performer at a young age. "I would go to bed at 3am and get up at 11, because those were my parents' hours." Barnes even now identifies himself as a night owl. Barnes' parents eventually divorced and remarried, giving the actor a half brother and three half sisters, one of whom unintentionally propelled him into theater. "She was in a theater class and just didn't want to be on stage," he recalls. "That seemed completely weird to me! And she said, 'Well you couldn't do it.' Once the gauntlet had been thrown, there was no turning back. I made my debut a year later in The Saga of Sagebrush Sal just to prove my sister wrong. And now I'm at Second Stage so I owe it all to her."
Once Barnes tasted applause, he was hooked. "To be honest, I got a lot of approval [for acting] when I was young, so it became, 'Why shouldn't I do this?'" he says with a laugh. "I think that's how the world works for most people: You do what you get approval doing, consciously or not." Barnes followed the applause through college and graduate school, studying acting at Palomar College, U.C. San Diego and eventually at Columbia University. Along the way, he met and married choreographer Monica Bill Barnes, whom he warmly thanks in his Becky Shaw bio: "She's the smartest person I know, and I really hope you print that," he says. But after myriad amazing roles in school, including a part in director Andre Serban's acclaimed Caucasian Chalk Circle at La Mama, Barnes hit the post-graduate wall. "I'm a weird type," he says. "Casting directors would say to me, 'Come back in five years; you don't look right yet."
If the casting directors were harsh critics, Barnes was even harder on himself. "I had a two-year period after college where I just didn't work. I thought, 'Why am I doing this?'" Finally, Actors Theater of Louisville took notice of Barnes, booking him for its famed Humana Festival of New Plays. "They were the ones who said, 'You can do this,' so I owe them that belief in myself." One festival led to another, followed by eight years of regional work at theaters like ART. Though the gigs helped hone his talent, Barnes still didn't feel totally satisfied. "I couldn't decide if I wanted to direct or write or act. Finally, my wife said, 'You need to decide what you're doing.'" Barnes took her advice to heart and rededicated himself to performing. "And I've never been out of work since."
Shortly after this period of refocusing, Barnes found himself helping casting mogul Pat McCorkle as a reader during understudy auditions for the Broadway transfer of Martin McDonagh's The Lieutenant of Inishmore. "I had gone in for an audition and it went awful! But [Pat] asked me to help with auditions for a different show." As Barnes read, he felt the attention in the room shift to him but dismissed it. Visiting his agents the next day, he got a shock. "They said, 'We got a call about Inishmore.' I said, 'Oh, yeah, they're looking for understudies.' And they said, 'No, they want you to replace Brian d'Arcy James.'" Which is how Barnes unexpectedly found himself making his Broadway debut as a not-so-bright Irish gangster. "Brian's an amazing talent. The show was a good lesson in that you can never replace a good actor, but you can come in and just try to hit the mark."
With things coming full circle, Barnes soon arrived back at the Humana Festival for the first reading of Gina Gionfriddo's Becky Shaw. In this biting comedy of manners, he was tapped to read the role of Max, a blunt financial planner reluctantly drawn into the chaotic life of the title character after their blind date. Immediately, he recognized the character as something special. "After the reading, I wrote Gina an e-mail that basically said, 'I will walk through the fires of hell to originate this role for you.'" The e-mail worked, and Barnes enjoyed a full run at Humana before transferring with the play to Second Stage, where the production -- and his razor-sharp performance -- nabbed rave reviews. The experience has been the answer to many prayers. "This is the greatest role I've played in my entire life," Barnes says of the multilayered, painfully funny Max. "I think I would be overly optimistic to think I would ever play anything greater. If I only have as good a role as this for the rest of my life, I'll be satisfied. But a better part? I don't think that's possible."
David Wilson Barnes' CV:
Broadway: The Lieutenant of Inishmore.
Off-Broadway: Becky Shaw (Second Stage/ATL, Drama League Honor), Lady, St. Crispin's Day (Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre), Vengeance (stageFARM/Cherry Lane), The Attic (The Play Company), Men Without Shadows (The Flea), The Square (Ma Yi Theatre Company/The Public Theatre), Hamlet (The Public Theatre), Jail Bait, Jersey Story (The Cherry Lane), Mirandolina (The Pearl), The Caucasian Chalk Circle, The Bald Soprano (La Mama ETC.).
Regional: The A.R.T., Actor's Theatre of Louisville, Geva Theatre, The City Theatre, The Long Wharf, The Cape Playhouse, Acadia Rep.
Television: The Good Wife, The Eastmans (pilot, series regular), Sex and the City, Law and Order, Law and Order: Criminal Intent, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, Conviction, All My Children, As the World Turns.
Film: You Don't Know Jack, Love and Other Drugs, Company Men, Taking Woodstock, Seducing Charlie Barker, Capote, How to Seduce Difficult Women, Ozark Savage, Hooray For Mr. Touchdown.
Education: MFA, Columbia University.