‘The Bear’ star Lionel Boyce is cooking with gas

Lionel Boyce

Lionel Boyce is still learning how to tell people what he does for a living. It’s not that he feels any shame. Far from it. It’s just that it still feels a bit weird to say it out loud. “I went through a time of kind of sheepishly telling people, ‘This is what I do’,” he says. “Like I was embarrassed.” He smiles, well, sheepishly. “It’s a gradual process.” The embarrassment was because he is still getting his head around the fact that he, who previously had close to zero acting experience, is now one of the most beloved characters on one of the best shows on TV.

For the past three years Boyce has been playing Marcus, the introverted, kind-hearted pastry chef on The Bear, the Disney+ hit about a chef who takes over a restaurant following his brother’s suicide and tries to rebuild it, along with a group of people all going through their own trauma. In a show where most characters are screaming at each other about foams and quenelles and anything but what’s really bothering them, Marcus always has the volume turned down. But if he’s not the most talkative, he has in many ways become the most emotionally literate. Marcus is, to an extent, the show’s heart.

When we first meet him, Marcus is the guy who quietly makes bread, looks after his sick mum, and doesn’t bother anyone. As the show’s progressed, he’s slowly deepened, both in his job and emotionally. In season two’s devastating final seconds it was revealed that his mother had died. In a series that is in a large sense about processing grief and exerting control over your own life, Marcus is the only one really doing that healthily. In season three he digs in deeper, notably in an episode that sees him deliver a heartfelt eulogy at his mother’s funeral. If you’ve yet to watch, bring tissues.

“I went through a time of sheepishly telling people, ‘This is what I do’… Like I was embarrassed”

“The show started with a huge loss and in season three it’s Marcus’ turn to experience that,” says Boyce. “I think Marcus is a little more resilient. He’s always been the level-headed one. He processes things differently.” For Boyce, who had only a handful of TV credits before The Bear, it’s been an incredible showcase. While many of the other characters typically express their rage/joy/heartbreak through beautifully-written monologues, Marcus is a man of minimal words. Boyce is having to match his castmates without generally being able to say what he’s feeling. “I think it’s actually a little easier for that, because I don’t have to worry about remembering lines,” he laughs. “And maybe I find it easier because I don’t really spend my own life telling people how I feel.”

Boyce is a pretty quiet guy. He’s a very big guy, probably 6’3″ or more, but restrained. Today he’s dressed in black and grey, the only colour coming from a red Chicago Bears cap (a cute nod to The Bear’s setting, not his hometown), which he fiddles with occasionally. Otherwise his hands stay mainly in his lap. He’s not someone who feels the need to grab people’s attention. He’s probably not a natural star. And that’s never what he intended to become, but here he is. And he’s not shying away from it. He never expected, or entirely intended, to be here, but in a way he’s always been preparing for it, and we’re only seeing the beginning of what he’s capable of cooking up.

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With ‘The Bear’ co-stars Ayo Edebiri and Ebon Moss-Bachrach. CREDIT: Maarten De Boer / Getty Images Entertainment

Most weeks in the late 2000s, Boyce could be found in (the now defunct) Amoeba Records on Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles. “I would go up to the DVD section and they had it broken down by director, so I’d just start working my way through alphabetically,” he says. “Like Wes Anderson, The Coen Brothers… I’d just start checking off their whole filmography.”

This has always been how he approaches things, trying to find out as much as he can. As a kid he was “always an explorer. I liked being out in the world. I would stay out from sun up to sun down”. And when he had to be inside he’d be exploring other people’s worlds, putting on movies, and going in deep. “I would watch a movie and then for the next few days I’d believe I was the main character. Like I would think, ‘I am Tom Cruise in Minority Report. This is me. I am thinking his thoughts’.” As much as he loved movies, it never really occurred to him that he might be involved in them, or any kind of entertainment.

“I met Tyler The Creator in senior year of high school… We had the right alchemy”

Boyce grew up in Inglewood, Los Angeles. “LA is like a city of bubbles,” he says. “I’ve lived in LA my entire life and there are parts I still haven’t been to. I didn’t know anyone in the entertainment industry so I didn’t go to Hollywood. It wasn’t something that felt accessible.” Sport was his thing. Well, it wasn’t really his thing, but everybody else told him it should be. “I was co-ordinated and I was fast,” he says. “So I was kind of just told I was going to go into the NFL.” And he might have, if the entertainment hadn’t claimed him first. In his final year of high school, Boyce made a friend who would change his life.

“I met Tyler The Creator in senior year of high school – in drama class, funnily enough – and we just connected over having the same sense of humour and liking the same music,” says Boyce. “We had the right alchemy”. Tyler may now be one of the most important rappers in America, but back then he was just a creative kid with a lot of very creative friends. Those friends were on the brink of becoming Odd Future, the hip-hop collective that introduced the world to a raft of artists, including Frank Ocean and Earl Sweatshirt. Back then it was just some friends messing around trying things out.

Lionel Boyce
Lionel Boyce and Tyler The Creator met in high school. CREDIT: Michael Buckner / Getty Images Entertainment

“It was this really porous space,” says Boyce. “It was Syd from The Internet and Taco, who are siblings, and it was pretty much just at their house… People would feel like, ‘Oh we could just make a song. That’s fun’. It’s not serious. You’re just trying out, being expressive and being creative.” As his best friend, Tyler would encourage Boyce to try things with them. “He was the one who was always like, ‘We’re gonna do this music. We’re gonna make a show’. I was like, ‘Sure, whatever dude’.” Being part of Odd Future, albeit on the periphery gave Boyce the chance to play around with things he never planned to do. He directed videos, occasionally contributed to tracks, and got a little taste of acting. “I’m like a Swiss Army knife,” he laughs. “Sometimes I write, sometimes I act, sometimes I direct.” The more he tried, the more those NFL plans started to drift.

In 2011, Boyce, along with many other members of Odd Future, became part of Loiter Squad, an absolutely chaotic sketch comedy show, which is very evidently just kids being kids. It’s funny, but you sense it existed mostly for them to make each other laugh. It was this moment that made Boyce stop thinking of performing as something he did with his friends but as something he did because he liked it, and he was good at it. “That was when a lightbulb went off,” he says. “When you find what you’re meant to do, it doesn’t feel like a great epiphany. It feels like you forgot a thought and then just remembered it. It just made sense.”

“When you find what you’re meant to do, it doesn’t feel like a great epiphany. It feels like you forgot a thought and then just remembered it”

He began making his own stuff, producing the animated series The Jellies with Tyler, which ran for three seasons. He also produced and appeared in Jasper & Errol’s First Time, a light reality show. Then he decided to get serious and actually pursue acting. Through his good friend Jerrod Carmichael he met Christopher Storer, creator of The Bear. Boyce had met Storer a bunch of times and they got on well, hanging out and getting nerdy about their love of film. When Storer, who Boyce mainly knew as a producer of comedy specials, showed him a script, Boyce wanted to be part of it. “It was incredible,” he says. It was, of course, The Bear. He saw elements of himself in Marcus and thought there was nothing to lose in auditioning.

What he didn’t know until recently, when Storer revealed it in an interview, was that he needn’t have worried at that audition. Storer had written Marcus for him, he just didn’t tell him. “I just read that!” he says. “I’m glad I didn’t know. I probably would have just freaked out.”

The Bear has, beyond giving him a name in the industry, been a lesson for Boyce in trusting his own ability. “As the seasons go on, [Storer] will ask me to do more, and things that I might be hesitant to do,” he says. He was very apprehensive when Storer spoke to him about Honeydew, the season two episode that was entirely focused on Marcus. “But I come round to, ‘If he wrote it, then he must trust me. If he trusts me, I’ll do it’.” Perhaps even more significant than Storer’s trust is that Boyce now trusts himself.

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Marcus faces a tough loss in ‘The Bear’ season three. CREDIT: FX / Disney

Boyce has now reached a point where he doesn’t have to apologise for what he does. He knows he’s valued and has value. He’ll be back for more of The Bear although he doesn’t yet know when: “Some day they’ll just call me and say, ‘Hey, come to Chicago’”. He’s just shot his first film role, in Max Minghella’s Shell, “a really cool, weird, sci-fi thriller… like a throwback to an ’80s/’90s film.” He’s now starting to think more about a plan of what he’d like to do with the next stage of his career – more directing, more producing, working with some of those filmmakers he spent so much time studying in his Amoeba Records days.

“I like people who are world-builders,” he says, of the people who are top of his dream list. “Tarantino. Wes Anderson. The Coen Brothers.” The Bear has won just about every TV award going, so Boyce finds himself at a lot of events, within touching distance of some of those heroes he always thought were far outside his bubble. And it seems entirely possible he could be hired by any of them, if he made a move like he did with The Bear. “I’m shy,” he sighs, almost apologetically. “This is probably the most I’ve talked about who I want to work with.” The next step is actually saying it to them. It’s been a long journey to making himself believe that he deserves to be in his position, now his next step is making himself believe he deserves to be wherever he wants to be. “I do try now, to make an effort.” Like the man said, it’s a gradual process.

‘The Bear’ season three is streaming now on Disney+

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