Climbing the ladder: Dustin Tucker shares his journey from Interlochen to Academy Award-nominated films

The actor and Arts Academy theatre alumnus chats about filming ‘The Holdovers’ and ‘American Fiction,’ appearing in two Oscar-nominated movies, and building a vibrant career one role at a time.

Dustin Tucker

In 2021, Dustin Tucker (IAA 94-98, IAC St 09) received the phone call every actor dreams about.

Tucker had auditioned for a small role in The Holdovers, a holiday comedy-drama directed by Academy Award-winning director and screenwriter Alexander Payne. The callback itself was a surreal experience for Tucker, who had admired Payne’s work before auditioning for the film. But the real excitement came a few weeks later.

“The casting director called and said, ‘Has Alexander called you?’ and I said, ‘Called me what?’” Tucker recalls. “The very next morning, Alexander Payne called me at home to offer me the job.”

Tucker’s role in The Holdovers is a particularly meaningful rung in the ladder he’s been climbing since graduating from Interlochen Arts Academy. After a thriving two-decade career in regional theatre, Tucker pivoted his focus to film and television roles. During the 2023/24 awards season, two movies he appeared in—The Holdovers and American Fiction—were among the nominees for the Academy Award for Best Picture.

“It’s a really cool, fluke thing that I got to be a part of two Oscar-nominated films, and I’m very grateful,” Tucker says. “My goal right now is to move into larger roles in TV and film, so it’s been a real boost for my career and my morale.”

Finding a foothold

Born and raised in Texas, Tucker’s passion for acting led him to Interlochen Arts Academy at age 15. He spent four formative years exploring acting, stage design, directing, and stage management in the Academy’s Theatre Division.

“Interlochen was very important for me in growing up and becoming an artist,” Tucker says. “I was there for four years, and I loved every moment of it. I miss it to this day. It just has a very special place in my heart.”

During his time at Interlochen, Tucker studied with several of the Theatre Division’s iconic instructors—several of whom he’s kept in touch with to this day.

“David Montee and his wife, Robin Ellis, were my mentors throughout my time there,” Tucker says. “Ev Corum was also an amazing instructor, who gave me so many opportunities to explore, to fail, and to learn from failure. I think that’s what I enjoyed most about my time at Interlochen: That I was able to fail safely. It was the most wonderful way to learn and to get better.”

After graduating from Interlochen, Tucker moved to New York City and immediately began pursuing a career as an actor. His choice to forgo college paid off when he landed an internship with the Williamstown Theatre Festival.

“I happened to be in a show there called The Rainmaker,” Tucker says. “It transferred to Broadway, and I got to go with it. That luck—because that’s really all I can call it—is what started my career and gave me a foothold in the industry.”

From the stage to the screen

Tucker spent the next decade performing in regional theatre productions across the nation—including the 2009 Interlochen Shakespeare Festival production of William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. His travels brought him to Maine, which felt like a better fit as his ‘home base.’ As Tucker moved to Maine, fell in love, and started a family, his on-the-road lifestyle became less realistic.

Around 2016, Tucker started looking for on-camera work in nearby Boston, Massachusetts. He subsequently booked a series of roles on both the big and small screens; his credits include Patriots Day, Chappaquiddick, Spenser Confidential, The Unholy, and several episodes of Dexter: New Blood. In 2021, he auditioned for The Holdovers.

“During my callback, I got to meet director Alexander Payne, who was just so human and wonderful to work with,” Tucker says. “He was very upfront; I would start to do my audition and he would say, ‘yep, that’s too much, do it again.’ It was sort of like having an acting lesson and an audition at the same time.”

A few weeks later, Payne personally reached out to offer Tucker the role of Mr. Rosenswieg.

“Usually, when you get a job, you’re contacted by the casting directors or even an intern,” Tucker says. “It’s not usually the director of the film who makes the phone call, but he did.”

Although Tucker appears in only a few scenes in The Holdovers, Payne invited him to be a part of the film from the beginning of the production process. Tucker even participated in the table read, during which he worked with star Paul Giamatti and fellow Interlochen alumna Da’Vine Joy Randolph (IAC 03, IAC St 05)—who received the 2024 Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her portrayal of Mary Lamb.

“Even though I had a small role, [Payne] involved everyone in a very theatrical way—we were all part of the team, which was unusual and very special to me,” Tucker says. “I got to sit and chat with Paul Giamatti, and he couldn’t have been a more down-to-earth, humble human being—which I really respected. The whole experience was just a joy.”

Tucker also met current Arts Academy violin student Jim Kaplan (IAC 16-17, 19; IO 20, IAA 21-24), who portrays Ye-Joon Park in the film.

“I saw [Jim] during the Zoom table read, and I thought, ‘Who is this? He’s fantastic!’” Tucker says. “When we were filming, we made the connection that we both went to Interlochen. I came back for a reunion last year, and I ran into him in Mr. Nadji’s class. When I saw him in the movie, I thought, ‘he’s a true talent.’”

A few months after being cast in The Holdovers, Tucker booked a small role in American Fiction.

“Unlike The Holdovers, where I knew the whole script and the whole arc, I knew almost nothing about American Fiction prior to filming,” Tucker says. “I didn’t even really know who was in it. I was overwhelmed to be in the same room as Jeffrey Wright, Sterling K. Brown, and Leslie Uggams, but they were just the kindest group.”

Tucker’s single scene in American Fiction is a memorable one: an altercation between Sterling K. Brown’s Clifford Ellison and a neighbor named Phillip—portrayed by Tucker—that opens the film’s second trailer.

The second trailer for 'American Fiction.' Note: This video contains strong language.

“I was originally supposed to be just a passerby, but throughout our time working together, I became a neighbor who had this history of not-so-great interactions with Sterling K. Brown’s character,” Tucker says. “It was all created in the moment, and it was just fun.”

”Sterling K. Brown was a delight to work with. He was like, ‘Do you mind if I mess around with you or improv a little bit?’ and I said, ‘You can do anything you want. It’s totally fine. It’s your day.’”

American Fiction and The Holdovers premiered in late 2023 and quickly became contenders for Golden Globe, Academy, and other noted film awards. Tucker had suspected The Holdovers would be well received by critics and audiences, but the success of American Fiction came as a surprise. He’s still processing the emotions of being featured in two Oscar-nominated films.

“I don’t know what it means, except that it’s really cool,” he says. “It was sort of unreal. At first I thought, ‘Yes, they’re nominated, but I’m not nominated. Then I was like, ‘Wait, no, I’m actually a part of these films. They weren’t just nice enough to include me.’”

Continuing the climb

As American Fiction and The Holdovers made the awards circuit, Tucker stepped back onto the regional stage: He recently starred as Francis Henshall in a production of One Man, Two Guvnors at the Good Theater in Portland, Maine. For Tucker, it was a chance to inhabit a role he’s been eyeing for more than a decade—and to prove he still has what it takes to command the spotlight in a comedic role.

“I’d known about [One Man, Two Guvnors] and wanted to do it for a long time,” Tucker says. “It’s a dream role because it suits me and my talent well: I’m a bit of an improvisational actor, and I can marry improvisation into a scripted comedy—which is exactly what the role of Francis requires.”

“It was just pure fun,” Tucker continues. “What was so great for me was that I was not quite sure that I could still do it. It was exhausting, but it gave me hope that I’m not too old, that I can still hang with the kids, and make them laugh.”

Although Tucker does not have any new projects currently lined up—like many actors, he’s feeling the lingering effects of the 2023 Writers Guild of America strike—he’s optimistic that adding The Holdovers and American Fiction to his résumé will yield new opportunities. When asked what advice he’d offer young artists, he stresses that there’s no one-size-fits-all path—and that success as an actor is often the result of dedicated, persistent work.

“I used to come back to Interlochen to be part of alumni panels for the Theatre Division,” Tucker says. “I was always joined by colleagues or former classmates who went off to colleges or universities. I came in proudly as a human who did not follow that exact path, and I would say, ‘I don’t think you necessarily have to follow that formula to be successful.’”

“I caution young actors not to expect everything to happen right off the bat,” Tucker adds. “Some people become overnight successes. But for most of us, it’s a climb.”

“You need to humble yourself a little bit, start small, and work your way up the ladder. There’s nothing wrong with that.”