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Former Blue Devil Carnes takes leading role

Ryan Carnes stars in The Phantom, a four-hour movie event on the SyFy channel based around a superhero first created in 1936.  Depending on viewership, The Phantom could be poised to become an ongoing series.
Ryan Carnes stars in The Phantom, a four-hour movie event on the SyFy channel based around a superhero first created in 1936. Depending on viewership, The Phantom could be poised to become an ongoing series.

Ryan Carnes has come a long way from feeding the pigs on his family farm.

Carnes plays the title character in SyFy’s new movie The Phantom¸ which premiered June 20 and is the latest iteration of a comic book character that has been around since 1936. His profile and Los Angeles zip code are a far cry from what he had envisioned for himself when he left the Midwest for Duke. Though he spent only two years in Durham, his days as a Blue Devil and bass drummer for the Duke University Marching Band have been influential in landing him where he is today.

Although Carnes did dabble in community theater as a child, it wasn’t until Duke that the art began to resonate with him. Undecided on the concentration of his Public Policy major, Ryan thought he would fulfill some graduation requirements and enrolled in an introductory performance class with Jay O’Berski, a lecturing fellow in Theater Studies.

“O’Berski was my first real introduction to acting,” Carnes said. “I just had a great time, all the crazy things we did in that class. I just had a lot of fun.”

The following spring Carnes enrolled in two more acting classes and decided to minor in Theater Studies. Noticing his interest in acting, a few friends encouraged him to audition for Pieces of Eight¸ a Duke student production. Carnes said he was initially reluctant to make such a time-consuming commitment, having done so his freshman year as a member of the band. But the friends persevered and, eventually, he auditioned and received a part.

Carnes enjoyed the experience so much that he began considering acting as more than an extracurricular. Following his sophomore year, he attended an open call in Chicago where he met John Simmons of Simmons and Scott Entertainment. Simmons saw potential and offered to sign him if he moved out to Los Angeles to train as an actor. Three weeks later, Ryan left his summer job working at a restaurant on the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri and moved out west.

Though he left Duke after his sophomore year, Carnes remains a student. As an actor, he said, it’s necessary to explore oneself and push against limits, boundaries and prejudices. This intensive method isn’t lost on his friend and manager, Chris Anderson.

“He’s thorough and really breaks down the material,” Anderson said. “He intellectualizes the script, always looking for the arc.”

In fact, Carnes recently re-enrolled in academics, this time as part of a master’s program at the University of Santa Monica, pursuing a Masters degree in Spiritual Psychology.

Ryan’s extensive efforts have landed him guest parts on long-running shows like General Hospital and Desperate Housewives, culminating with The Phantom—his first leading role.

As a character, the Phantom preceded Superman, Batman and most other contemporary heroes with flagship franchises. He doesn’t have superpowers. His alter ego isn’t a billionaire playboy. The marketplace seems to crave special effects and fast cars and explosions, but The Phantom is about a man navigating the mortal battlegrounds that come with heroic altruism. The daunting challenge of being that man and personalizing the character fell squarely on Carnes’ shoulders.

“It was definitely my biggest role to date,” Carnes said. “To be the third guy ever to play the Phantom was really cool. It challenged me artistically to really find this character and to track his journey.”

Carnes embraced his role as lead not only on set but off as well. And there he thrived, proving to himself and others what he said he already knew—that he had what it took to make it to Hollywood.

“It’s an incredible experience watching him,” Anderson says. “To be able to see him in this part that we always knew he could do.”

Although Carnes remembers being tired of small-town America and, feeling claustrophobic, looking for somewhere bigger and brighter, he said he’ll always be a Midwesterner.

“That restlessness that I felt as a young guy that made me want to leave is what makes me love going back to Pittsfield now,” Carnes said.

For all the success that Ryan has experienced, he said that someday he’ll be ready to go back to school, and when he does, his first choice will be the same as what it was his senior year of high school: Duke. Even now, he fondly remembers the basketball games, the Dillo, Ninth Street and PubPol 116.

“I still talk about [Assistant Professor of Public Policy] Evan Charney’s ethics class to this day,” says Ryan. “That is what made me want to be a Public Policy major and it has helped me as an actor. To turn things on their heads.”


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