To most passersby, McSorley’s could be mistaken for a hokey ersatz of an authentic Irish pub. But students of the genre know that the joint on the ground floor of a brick tenement building occupying an unremarkable block of the East Village is a fabled institution of New York’s boozing past, proudly holding the title of the oldest bar in the city with an 1854 opening. These days, though, it’s often the last blurry stop of the twentysomething set’s Saturday night bar crawl.
“Yeah, I’ve been here,” Austin Stowell chuckles, shaking his head. “Several times.”
Despite often being clogged with sloppy Murray-Hill-residing bros, McSorley’s has managed to preserve a commendable amount of its ancestry: the dust-caked bar, the cobwebbed, rickety furniture and a sawdust-carpeted floor. The walls are covered with sepia-colored memorabilia; among the artifacts is an original Wanted poster for John Wilkes Booth and an invitation to the grand opening of the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s also done little variation to its menu.
“Last night we were at a Yankee game and I was explaining what this was to my father,” Stowell says. “And I said, ‘Dad, it’s real simple: They’ve got light beer, they’ve got dark beer and they have cheese and crackers. That’s pretty much it.’”
Indeed, there are only two types of beer served at McSorley’s — a light ale and a murky dark stout, which Stowell is sipping out of a glass tankard. It’s fitting to meet him at a vestige of New York’s partying past: He’s the breakout star of “Public Morals,” the new Ed Burns-helmed show that examines another swath of the city’s days of debauchery.
Set in 1967, “Public Morals” revolves around a group of plainclothes cops in NYPD’s public morals division tasked with combating all matters of vice: gambling, prostitution, drug possession, etc. But rather than cleaning up the illegal card games and collaring the johns, they protect them in exchange for bribes, favors and payouts — real Serpico stuff. As Burns’ character puts it, rather than fight the crime, they regulate it.
“We don’t toe the line [between right and wrong], we make the line to whatever fits the needs of our situation,” Stowell says. “It’s like, ‘Oh, that’s the line? Well, guess what? I moved the f–king line, so deal with it.’”
Burns had been kicking around the idea for the show for years (his laughably lengthy title is creator-director- producer-writer-lead-actor) and finally began filming it nearly two years ago. In May, TNT greenlit 10 episodes as part of the network’s collaboration with Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Television. Spielberg has signed on an as executive producer for the project. The show makes its debut Aug. 25.
Stowell first heard of the part when he was shooting in Florida. “My agent called me and said, ‘You’ve got to put yourself on tape for this, tonight,’” Stowell relays. Back in his hotel room, the actor got resourceful — using all manner of crappy hotel furniture to perch his iPhone. “I dragged the nightstand over to put on top of a coffee table I had in there. That didn’t work. Then I got the trash can flipped over — all kinds of stuff.” A meeting in New York and a chemistry read later, he had the part of Sean O’Bannon.
Sean is impulsive and brash. He has the foolish delusions of impregnability only afforded to the young, delusions that are only magnified by the fact that he’s in a position of relative power. “Sean’s a good guy. He was a troubled kid, got sent away to boarding school and was put on the right path. He’s got a good heart, but like any young man, he screws up. He needs to learn some life lessons,” Stowell, 30, says. “At the end of the day, he wants to do the right thing. But with hormones and everything, he f–ks up sometimes.”
That is one thing Stowell is not doing. The son of a retired steelworker and a schoolteacher, he grew up the youngest of three boys in Kensington, a pretty area in central Connecticut. He studied acting in college and got his first taste of A-listerdom with a supporting role in “Whiplash,” playing the second-string drummer, a pseudo competitor to Miles Teller’s character. That role also has earned him a certain amount of celebrity weekly fascination — the magazines have recently been poring over his relationship with former “The Vampire Diaries” actress Nina Dobrev.
He should get ready for even more attention, since after “Public Morals,” Stowell has a string of big projects rolling out. First is Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies,” out in October, in which he plays Francis Gary Powers, the American pilot held by the Soviet Union during the U-2 incident. Early next year, he stars in James Franco’s next directorial effort, “In Dubious Battle,” alongside Franco, Josh Hutcherson, Selena Gomez, Bryan Cranston and Zach Braff.
Swigging on his beer in the famed McSorley’s, Stowell is suitably chilled out about all of it, though. “With [landing parts], you have to realize it’s so often not up to you,” he says. “You’ll hear, ‘They want somebody a little less tall’ or ‘He’s got blue eyes, we wanted brown eyes’ or ‘He looks a little too young.’ You can’t control a lot of it, so you have to just pray to the acting gods and let the rest go.”