Q. I love your “Everyday People” column, it literally reminds me of the lyrics from the Sly & The Family Stone’s classic “Everyday People” – “I am no better and neither are you, we’re all the same, whatever we do, You love me, you hate me. You know me and then. You can’t figure out the bag I’m in”.
What inspired you to start that interview project and what have you learned through these interviews with random people?
Firstly, thanks so much for asking me to do this interview, Chin Liang. I really appreciate it. I’ve looked at many of the interviews you’ve conducted at Dave’s Travel Corner, and you have interviewed some fascinating and interesting travel-oriented people. I’m honored to be in their company.
Thanks also for reading the cbactortraveler website and your interest in Everyday People. Citing Sly and the Family Stone means we’re already best friends. Music, as you know, brings a commonality that we all share and, being an introvert, I wanted to have something to travel with that I could use as an ice breaker when meeting new people.
Travel, for me, is always about the people. I’ve been so fortunate to see so much of the world via show business. I’ve filmed projects in France, Canada, New Zealand and so many states throughout America. Most places have beautiful sights, but it’s always the people who make the biggest impression. Wherever I go, I find that people are very proud of where they live, the food they eat and have a story.
Everyone has a story. Thus, we’re all Everyday People, aren’t we? Those basic questions, some of which I must credit Mark Thompson, Radio Hall of Fame DJ of Mark and Brian, who used to ask some of them when doing interviews and the others I just came up with myself. They allow for people to think outside of their box in a positive way.
I’m always fascinated by the responses they give me, and I’ve learned that, as people, we have so much in common, despite the region of the world we grew up in. To be heard, understood, loved and a part of something are thru lines to all the interviews I’ve conducted for Everyday People.
My hope is that a young writer from Dave’s Travel Corner named Chin Liang, will be a future interview for the website? Fingers crossed.
Q. When and how did you get into traveling and how has traveling helped you professionally and changed you as a person?
Traveling with my parents from Los Angeles to Texas every summer to visit my grandparents, instigated my fascination with air travel. Although we rarely flew, when I was 10, my mother and father let me fly by myself to visit my grandmother, Momma Helen (she didn’t like being called grandma), south of Houston to a place called Bay City.
Momma Helen, who never flew on a plane her entire life, was quite upset with her daughter, my mother, for allowing “her baby to go way up in the air in that metal thing by himself.” I couldn’t get enough of it. Everyone was so nice to me. They fed me hot dogs and chips and escorted me to and from my seat. I got pilots wings and a deck of cards. It was like Christmas.
I always knew, from a young age, that I wanted to become an actor. I started taking classes and I got my first agent when I was 13. I attended the University of Southern California, USC, (Fight On! Trojans!), with a major in theatre, but, by sophomore year, wanted to study abroad.
I researched and found a theatre program in London, UK and spent my junior and senior years studying there. I didn’t know anyone when I arrived, and it became one of the best experiences of my life. Travelling solo or with friends throughout the UK and “the continent” enriched me in ways I never could have imagined.
A young man of 20, traveling to France, Italy, Austria, Scotland, Wales, Ireland etc. We went to the Edinburgh festival, Stonehenge, The Eiffel Tower, Schönbrunn Palace, Oktoberfest and countless others.
At that time the STA, or Student Travel Association, made travel affordable for students and there were a lot of breaks throughout the academic year to make short trips. I slept in a parking lot in Frankfurt, ate ‘space cakes’ in Amsterdam, got my ear pierced in Cardiff and saw the inside of countless pubs in Dublin.
Oh yeah, I also went to class sometimes. Studying and performing Shakespeare, Chekov, Brecht, Ibsen and Beckett. It was that time that solidified my desire to pursue a career in show business and did so with fervor when I returned home. The exposure that travels allow for are priceless. I learned more about myself than at any other time in my life while living in Europe and met some of my closest friends still to this day.
I’ve been blessed to return several times, including to film a television show in Paris. Getting paid to return to some of one’s old stomping grounds was one of many experiences I’ll never forget.
Q. As a traveler yourself, what are the things that you could not have experienced if you were not a traveler?
Well, not to be repetitive, Chin Liang, but, without travel, I could never have experienced meeting the many people that have enriched my life. When I was in Chile, a few years ago, I went on a hike in the Andes mountains with a small group and suffered from altitude sickness right at the start of the hike. While I lay there, praying for death, (kidding, sometimes people don’t get my humor) the driver, Manu, from Easter Island (Rapa Nui) came along and basically saved me.
He was so kind, he offered to bring me back to the same spot, 2 days later, where we would reach the glacier, this time on horseback. Chin Liang, when I tell you I hadn’t been on a horse in 30 years and was completely petrified, believe me. But I trusted Manu, having only known him one day, and I cannot possibly articulate the amazing time I spent, on horseback, with Manu, in the beautiful, breathtaking Andes mountains.
He took me on a route where we didn’t see any other humans for the entire day. Only the sounds of the wind and the clomping of the horses’ hooves on those volcanic rocks that I can hear in my head as if it were yesterday.
I’m lucky to speak a couple of languages, Spanish being one, making the experience even richer. It’s the beauty of travel, where you have your itinerary set, but are flexible enough to know that, if the opportunity comes up for a detour, and you say yes, can avail you to memories and experiences that are irreplaceable.
Manu and I still communicate to this day.
In Varanasi, India, a friend of mine and I met this young man who we had hired to help us navigate through the small, complicated lanes of the old city. He took us to watch the sunrise on the Ganges River, via a small boat, and then on a ‘detour’ to his mother’s home to meet his family and be treated to one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten.
I wanted to line my body with the Naan she made us and bring it back home with me. Don’t get me started on the food in Tokyo. Most days I was there the itinerary would be shot to pieces by the ‘detours’ of delicious smells that permeate the city beckoning one to stop everything and investigate.
I guess you can tell, I’m very into food. If you do nothing else in life but travel there to eat the fried chicken, (Karaage) it will be a life fulfilled. I guess I should shut up and go on to the next question, but I’ll just say one more word. Mexico! OMG!
Q. What are some unforgettable moments in your travels?
Wow. So many to choose from. I can remember, as a youngster, making fun of my parents whenever they would return home from a trip, which was often, and asking them how it was. Their first response, “Oh! The Food!” and they would go on for hours raving about a meal they ate. Now, I’m the same way. I rave about the food every time I return from a trip.
You said ‘unforgettable moments’ and what immediately comes to mind is the food. But, as far as moments go, I’ll pick the moment I got lost running (I used to be an avid runner), through a park in Singapore, just off Orchard Road, and didn’t know how to find my way back. This young man, I don’t remember his name, was so kind, he walked me to the bus stop, waited with me until the bus came and paid the driver my fare as I didn’t have any money with me, only my hotel key.
The moment my friend, Brad, and I walked into a pub in Carmarthen, Wales, in the 1980s, and everything stopped. Being an African American traveler, everything comes with a heightened sense of awareness as you are often the only one. I should write a book about those stories they are so numerous.
There are still some places on this planet where there are people who have never seen someone who looks like me, in person. I could go on and on about that subject, but to make a long story short, within minutes, I was the toast of Ye Olde Pub in Carmarthen, singing Welsh songs and trying not to pass out with pints of lager constantly being brought to me and paid for by one of the many patrons.
Imagine having Instagram back then and vlogging that for a story! It was straight out of a movie. The moment I was jogging early in the morning in Auckland, New Zealand, and a bird attacked my cap. This lasted at least 5 kilometers until, exhausted, I threw the cap in the ocean and screamed at the bird. Clearly approving that gesture, the bird escorted me back to my hotel, flying about 2 meters above me as if to say “I just didn’t like your cap. You’re fine.”
If I didn’t travel, would I have had those memorable moments? I think not. I make a great dinner party guest, don’t you think?
Q. Tell us about your career switch from an actor to a tour guide?
When my career in show business slowed down, in the early 2000’s, I took a travel class and learned the business of tour directing. I started doing meet and greets and then became an over-the-road tour guide, with various groups of travelers on 7 to 14-day trips across America.
I spent 12 years traveling upwards of 35 weeks a year, directing tours of the West, (LA, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Grand Canyon), Hawaii, and the East (Washington DC, Philadelphia, New York City, Boston). Corporate, Family, Private and Student travel groups I covered. It’s very rewarding seeing places through someone else’s eyes, many of whom are seeing them for the first time.
It’s an all-encompassing job. Many hats must be worn. Parent, psychologist, security guard, doctor, baby-sitter, nutritionist, personal assistant, wrangler, you name it. That is why I say on my website that most of my travels have been through tour guiding. That’s slightly misleading. I also feel it’s a little pretentious to say that many of my travels have been courtesy of some television or movie studio that paid the bill.
However, I could go on and on about the contrast between being flown first class to some exotic location, picked up and taken care of by many people and staying at a 5-star hotel, versus, being on a bus all night trying to reach the Grand Canyon by sunrise, with 75 students, only to find it snowing so hard you can’t see anything and 5 people on your bus suffering from altitude sickness with no relief until you reach the motel that doesn’t have enough rooms to match your confirmation. So, you end up solo sleeping on the bus in the parking lot. Kind of a theme.
The only tour I was ever a passenger on was Cuba, via People-to-People, in 2017. Don’t get me started on that magical place. I’ve written about it many times on the website. It was an overwhelming experience. Cuba holds magical powers and one of the most amazing places I’ve ever been to.
Of course, I couldn’t just be a passenger though, I had to put on my tour guide hat and wrangle the group (12), shush them when needed, and make sure our amazing guide, Valeri, was well-tipped by everyone.
Q. I like the question you ask in Everyday People – “You can go anywhere in the world tomorrow, where is that place and why?” If I could ask you the same question, what would be your answer?
Yes! Finally, an answer I can make short. “Any place I’ve never been to before. Because I’ve never been there.”
Q. Of all the movies you were in, you had had the honor and pleasure of working with many A-listers such as Kevin Costner, Gene Hackman, Jack Nicholson etc. What were your most memorable moments working with these legends? What has been the best advice you have ever been given in your career?
For me, many of those moments were like through the looking glass. I knew I was the person standing there, exchanging sentences with intention opposite those legends, but it was so out-of-body as I was equally a huge fan of theirs.
Working with Kevin Costner on The Bodyguard was like an education in film making. A 4-month course for a young actor on how to make a film and how to behave while making a film set the path for me to be able to stand alongside so many others.
I will always say that playing Sidney Poitier’s son in “To Sir with Love II”, was the biggest honor of my career. As I said to him then (1997), I couldn’t have become an actor had he not become an actor and he couldn’t have been more impressive. As an actor and as a person. Such humility. The great Mel Brooks told me “Always be professional, always be polite.” I’ve never forgotten that.
Watching Gene Hackman and Jack Nicholson perform was like watching greatness up close. A master class in acting for film. Whitney Houston was hilarious and generous. Denzel Washington is like no other. I’ve never taken it for granted the fact that for a period, I got to be in the room where it happens.
Q. People say the 90s is the most thrilling decade of American pop culture. You were in many wildly successful movies and TV series in the 90s – The Bodyguard, Wolf, Crimson Tide, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Family Matters, ER etc. How was it like being an actor in that era compared to nowadays? And what are the things that you miss the most from that bygone era that you no longer see and probably never will again?
This is a tough question for me, Chin Liang. I agree with you in that it was a different time compared to now. I’m going to cheat and quote Jennifer Aniston from an interview I saw her give the other day in Variety. “I always say I feel lucky that we got a little taste of the industry before it became what it is today, which is just different – more streaming services, more people. You’re famous from TikTok. You’re famous from YouTube. You’re famous from Instagram. It’s sort of almost like it’s diluting our actor’s job.”
The 90s were a time where the internet and reality television exploded around the world. The 2000s are where social media was born and grew to now dominate society. It would have been unheard of for you and I not to meet in person to do this interview back in the day.
While I love texting and zoom and falling down the YouTube rabbit hole like everyone else, the reduction of human interaction is probably what I miss the most. The essence of acting is interacting and listening and reacting. I spoke earlier of commonalities. While I find it amazing that I can reach anywhere in the world with my phone, I’m also old enough to remember when you had no choice but to answer the phone in that there was no other way to know who was on the other end.
The entire world is hopefully coming through a commonality with the pandemic. No one alive can speak to going through a prior similar experience. Yet, it seems to have divided us and pulled us further into bubbles than ever before.
I don’t think acting has really changed much through the ages. Acting has always been a profession. One where you work hard, go on a lot of auditions, get rejected a ton, and be prepared for your opportunity when it comes. But since the 90s, there’s been a conflating between acting and fame. I think most actors would say that fame is a by-product of success in show business, but not the objective.
The creativity in collaboration to produce a palatable product is now easily achievable with no audition, no rejection, no boss or director. Just a person and their smartphone. I always encourage young actors to put themselves out there and create something you want to see yourself in. Technology is amazing in that it allows for that now. But, as Jennifer Aniston said, the ’diluting’ is what makes it different. Crème/Talent always rises to the top and I believe that word of mouth is still the best marketing. That, in my opinion, will never change.
Q. Having been an actor for 40 years, if there is one thing acting has taught you, what is it?
Always show up. Be kind to everyone. And, if you can, say Yes!
Christopher Birt has been an actor for 40 years and a traveler for life. Appearing in over 70 productions on stage and in Hollywood such as The Bodyguard (1992), Crimson Tide (1995), ER and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, working with Directors Mike Nichols, Tony Scott, Peter Bogdanovich and Mel Brooks. His love of travel began while attending drama school in London in the 1980s. Since then, traveling to over 20 countries and almost all 50 states, both as an actor and tour guide. He lives in southern California where he runs his own blog “CB Actor Traveler” where he chronicles his global travels, acting experiences and love of food.
Photographs credit: Christopher Birt (except otherwise cited)