Story by Angela Lehman-Rios
Photograph by Jay Paul
Unsuspecting, I play right into his hands.
“How did you get into acting?” I ask Jim Bynum, a 32-year veteran of Richmond’s stages and screens.
“Accidentally”, he says.
There’s a pause. I raise my eyebrows.
Bynum is grinning. “It really was an accident.”
He went to Armstrong High School intending to play football, but during summer practice he stepped into a hole and broke a bone. Out of commission, he became a target of the drama teacher, who was looking for male actors. Bynum reluctantly agreed, then ended up sticking with it throughout high school, and that’s why you won’t ever bid on a championship-winning Bynum jersey.
Armstrong’s drama productions did take top state honors the entire time Bynum was in high school. He never looked back to sports, and he says, “I thought football was a key to popularity, but [as an actor] I was just as popular or more.”
After college, after a stint in Vietnam with the Army, after beginning a career in teaching, Bynum re-entered the world of acting. He got roles in local theatre productions and TV commercials even as he pursued professional goals, becoming an assistant principal, principal and spokesperson for Richmond Public Schools. Although he has filmed commercials that ran nationally, it never crossed his mind to pursue acting as a full-time career in New York or Los Angeles. “I had been so busy here, both in education and as an actor,” Bynum explains. “I was having a lot of fun.”
Also, it’s easy to find “hardworking, talented and nice” colleagues in Richmond, he says. “Unfortunately, those qualities don’t always go together. That’s had as much [as anything] to do with establishing a foundation here.”
Of course, it could be that like attracts like. Bynum’s the sort of man who takes the long way across the room, because no matter where he goes, he’s bound to run across an old friend or two. When he steps into the coffee shop for our interview, even though he’s never been here before, he sees people he knows. He stops to shake hands, leaning forward to deliver a personal greeting. He places a hand on another man’s shoulder in a gesture of familiarity and shares a quiet laugh about something. When we start our conversation, one of the first things he says is, “A lot of my acting jobs have come about from the unselfishness of producers and other actors.”
Bynum says he prepares for roles by studying the character’s specific historical, physical and social contexts. His goal is to connect with the character so he becomes real and believable in Bynum’s mind. He explains, “I ask myself: ‘How much am I like this character? How am I different?’”
This fall, Bynum is performing the role of Hoke, the driver in “Driving Miss Daisy” at Barksdale Theatre’s Hanover Tavern stage. In the case of Hoke, the similarities, at first, seem clear. “It reminds me of the era I grew up in; Hoke’s inability to even use the restroom on a long trip,” Bynum says. “I remember those things, those signs that say ‘Whites Only.’ I draw on those things, yet I have to remember that this is not me.” Bynum stops talking for a long moment. “The more I think about that [era], the more hostile I become. But Hoke reacts to Daisy rather than to societal things he’s confronting.”
Finding the sometimes-fine line between role and reality can be a challenge, but Bynum says his most difficult role was a character whose experience of reality was completely different than his own. “The Boys Next Door” is a play about four mentally disabled men living together in a group home with an assistant. Bynum played the profoundly mentally disabled Lucien, “by far the most challenging thing I’ve ever done.” Acting that role led him to realize how isolated from society people with disabilities are. “I learned more about an aspect of life I had never thought about before,” Bynum recalls. “People with disabilities have to go somewhere after they get out of school—what happens to them as adults?”
He visited homes for people with mental disabilities, even after the production finished. People who had seen the show would contact him, wanting to talk about it. “[Playing] that role stirred up emotions that brought up questions and concerns about how such people are handled,” says Bynum. “That show became a part of me for a long time.”
Jim Bynum may be many things to many audiences, but he isn’t stuck in the world of the stage. He’s an active member of the Rotary Club, and the last thing we discuss is Robikes, the Rotary Club’s annual drive to collect bicycles for Sgt. Santa.
Bynum, by the way, has never played Santa Claus. But he has given Richmond the welcome gift of his acting talent. “Driving Miss Daisy” has been playing to sold-out audiences. Accident? Certainly not.
“Driving Miss Daisy” runs Wed.–Sun. through Nov. 2 at Hanover Tavern. Tickets are $35-38 and are available by calling 282-2620 or visiting BarksdaleRichmond.org.