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Riverhead grad to play Lou Reed on new HBO series ‘Vinyl’

02/15/2016 6:00 AM |

Connor playing lead guitar at Brooklyn waterfront concert on July 22.

Few get to meet their heroes. Even fewer get to portray them.

But Riverhead High School graduate Connor Hanwick, who considers The Velvet Underground “the greatest of all-time, hands down,” is set to appear as Lou Reed in future episodes of HBO’s new series “Vinyl,” which debuted Sunday night.

“Being that I’ve been completely obsessed with the guy since I was 15 years old, I was like, ‘This is kind of unreal,’” the 29-year-old musician turned actor told the News-Review. “I’ve essentially been studying the guy since I was a teenager.”

“Vinyl” chronicles a record-label president played by Bobby Cannavale as he navigates the evolving rock ‘n’ roll scene of 1970s New York, complete with sex, drugs and plenty of dancing to that fine, fine music. A number of high-profile names are behind the show, including legendary filmmaker Martin Scorsese and Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger.

Mr. Hanwick, who acknowledges that his role on the series is “not pivotal to the narrative,” first appears as the Velvet Underground singer in the series’ second episode, which airs next Sunday, Feb. 21. He explained how the iconic rocker, who exploded on the scene five decades ago and remained relevant as a solo artist until his death in 2013, gets introduced.

“Lou comes in pretty early in the series where [the main character] is kind of younger, just getting his start, becoming exposed to the [Andy] Warhol scene and the Factory,” he said. “You can’t really have a show about New York rock and roll and not include Lou Reed.”

Most of Mr. Hanwick’s screen time involves music performances, both during the legend’s solo career circa “Berlin” and in flashbacks to The Velvet Underground years.

It’s fitting that music is central to the small role Mr. Hanwick, a musician with no prior acting experience, plays in the series. Known mostly for his time as a drummer and later guitarist with Brooklyn indie rock band The Drums, Mr. Hanwick has been a working, touring musician for several years. In fact, he said he got the gig because one of the show’s producers had been following The Drums and reached out to Mr. Hanwick’s publisher one day “out of the blue.”

One of the most important aspects of Mr. Hanwick’s role was capturing Mr. Reed’s on-stage energy and swagger, though he did not perform the music used in the episodes. He met with members of the show’s crew to study clips from past performances, though he admits he was already something of an expert on the topic.

Mr. Hanwick’s knowledge shows in the way he describes the “Walk on the Wild Side” singer with energy, passion and a lingering sense of boyish amazement. He cites “Coney Island Baby” as the finest song in Mr. Reed’s massive catalogue, and argues that his work in the 1980s is underrated.

“I kind of internalized a lot of the nuances of his demeanor and his physicality just from having seen every video that exists on the Internet of the guy over the course of the past 10 or so years,” he said.

Mr. Hanwick also learned the guitar parts to songs included in his scenes. During rehearsals, Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo — another “teenage icon” of Mr. Hanwick’s — provided feedback to help ensure the show’s fidelity to its source material.

“We’d be doing a rehearsal, and we would be playing the song,” Mr. Hanwick said. “In between, Lee would come up to me and say, ‘Lou was really cocky at this period. He had his chest out. He thought he was hot stuff.’ So they were really adamant about it.”

Most of the filming and production happened in New York City, where Mr. Hanwick, who graduated from Riverhead high school in 2005, lives. He praised the show’s crew for its hard work to honor a key part of modern music history.

After viewing the first episode at a premiere last week, Mr. Hanwick offered an early review: “It’s fantastic.”

“It’s loud, it’s chaotic, it’s crazy and it’s capturing such a cool time in New York and rock history,” he said of the show. “It’s hard for it not to be incredible.”

For now, Mr. Hanwick, the son of former Riverhead High School band director Lee Hanwick, will return to his work as a musician producing records. After all, he never planned to go into acting, and even in this show, he spends most of his time performing. But if all goes well, we could see him on the screen again.

“If Lou comes back in season 2, I’m definitely up for that,” he laughed.

Caption: Connor Hanwick, left, plays guitar during a Drums show in New York City in 2011 (Credit: John Neely, Riverhead News-Review). Lou Reed, right, performing at the Conspiracy of Hope concert on June 15, 1986 in East Rutherford, NJ. (Credit: Steven Toole, Wikimedia).

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