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Ebon Moss-Bachrach: ‘I subscribe to the Paul Rudd night-time moisturiser regime’

Ebon Moss-Bachrach is The Bear’s agent of chaos. In the Disney+ drama, set in a Chicago kitchen seething with flames and dripping with sweat, he plays Richie, the “cousin” of head chef Carmy (Jeremy Allen White). The yell of “Cousin!!!” has become synonymous with Moss-Bachrach’s character, a nickname bellowed over sizzling scallops and perfect plum gelées. Richie is a guy who works his shifts with veins popping out of his neck, eyebrows knotted in frustration; everything’s top volume, no filter. But the actor himself is a marked contrast from this: gentle, quick to laugh, and selective about what he says.

“Fortunately for my wife and my children, I’m not much of a vein-popper,” he says with a chuckle. “Playing Richie gives me a nice opportunity to blow off some steam, and live in a way that’s outside of polite society. In my personal life, I’m much more concerned about taking care of the people around me.” The 47-year-old character actor, who’s also had turns in TV hits from legal series Damages and millennial drama Girls to Elizabeth Holmes biopic The Dropout, is speaking over the phone from his home in Brooklyn. He is even more softly spoken than usual; some of the pollen sweeping through the city has lodged itself in the back of his throat. Rasping his way through our conversation, he switches between throat-clearing and apologies. His camera is off, so I can’t see his icicle-blue eyes, but he tells me he’s chatting from his bedroom. “There are paintings, books, a bunch of clothes on the chair… you’re dodging a bullet from seeing the state of it.”

There’s likely an Emmy nestled in there somewhere, too. Moss-Bachrach won his first earlier this year for playing Richie, on a night that saw The Bear gobble up six awards. By the time the show won the Outstanding Comedy Series prize towards the end of the ceremony, Moss-Bachrach was so excited that, during co-star Matty Matheson’s speech on stage, he grabbed him by the cheeks and planted a passionate, eight-second kiss on his lips. Moss-Bachrach remembers the moment fondly. “He’s a dear friend and, I mean, you know what he looks like – he’s just got this incredibly kissable face. And he’s also really digressive, he can go on and on. So he took a breath and I seized my moment and just followed my heart,” he says. “It was a beautiful night for us. I don’t put a lot of stakes in these awards, but those kinds of pure, emotional celebrations are rare.”

Few people could have predicted that a shouty – and honestly quite stressful – series, set in a failing sandwich restaurant, with a cast of relative unknowns, would be such a hit. But critics adored it. Five-star reviews flew in for its first season in 2022, with The Independent calling it “electrifying”. Viewers loved it, too. They have become particularly obsessed with Allen White, who has been heralded as the internet’s “hot rodent boyfriend” for his apparent resemblance to Remy from Ratatouille. But Moss-Bachrach – more feline than rodent – is the real scene-stealer.

Richie is bold and brash, but he also has a boyish naivety and a longing for belonging – Moss-Bachrach nails the balance. And he hops comfortably between Richie’s states of frenetic energy and occasional moments of serenity. Season two saw the restaurant at the show’s centre, The Beef, transition into a fine-dining establishment named The Bear. One beautiful episode, “Forks”, zoned in on Richie’s graduation from sweatpants to suits; a quiet scene of him peeling mushrooms with Olivia Colman’s famous chef was strangely piercing. When we rejoin the gang in season three, that atmosphere of calm has evaporated, and Richie and Carmy are straight into a slinging match of “f*** you”, “get f***ed” and other variations on that theme. Carmy’s new guidelines for The Bear are, according to Richie, “f***ing demented”. In the middle of the warring pair, trying to keep the peace, is Carmy’s right-hand woman Sydney (Ayo Edebiri).

Shooting the series is intense. “The level of trust that you have to have with your scene partners is a lot,” says Moss-Bachrach. “And it’s really thrilling. Even before we get to any emotional vulnerability, there’s the physical world of knives, very sharp knives that people are cutting with, and live flames and boiling water. You gotta trust that Ayo is not actually gonna stick the knife in me.”

As frenetic front-of-house boss Richie in ‘The Bear’

As frenetic front-of-house boss Richie in ‘The Bear’ (FX/Disney)

While Moss-Bachrach has a different temperament to Richie, they share the same values. Richie has a daughter who’s about 10; Moss-Bachrach has two teenage daughters with his wife, the Ukrainian photographer Yelena Yemchuk. “Not to toot my own horn, but that is common ground for me and Richie, a devotion to our children,” he says. In “Forks”, Richie learns to love Taylor Swift because his daughter’s a dedicated Swiftie. Has he ever met the superstar? “No, never. She sounds lovely. Those friendship bracelets her fans wear are very cute.” That’s all he says on the matter of Swift – and he’s not keen to talk about her potential impact on the US election, either, or a certain Republican hopeful. “I don’t really like to talk about him,” he says. He does add, though, that the idea of Americans emigrating to avoid Donald Trump doesn’t make sense to him. “With the irresponsible climate policies all around the world, there’s nowhere you can really go. Leaving the country is sort of like sticking a finger in a faulty dam.”

The actor is more open to discussing a bug-bear for both him and Richie: gentrification. In The Bear, Richie is heartbroken to watch Chicago changing around him. Moss-Bachrach feels the same about New York. “I live in a city that reinvents itself every minute,” he says. “I mourn all the stuff that goes. I like old things – I like old neon signs and restaurants that have been around for a long time.” Like Richie, he resents the influx of “millennial, business-school chains, which are antiseptic, devoid of humanity, and completely soulless”. “I’m totally with him,” Moss-Bachrach says. “I understand that things are gonna come and go, this is the nature of life, but I do think this idea of what we call progress could use a little bit more scrutiny.”

Nor is he a huge fan of fine dining. “I’m not a big Michelin guy,” he says, admitting that he’d rather not spend hours sitting through a seven-course tasting menu. “I get antsy. I get restaurant anxiety after like two hours. I gotta go.”

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Born in New York but raised in rural Massachusetts, Moss-Bachrach describes his childhood as “bucolic”, “sweet”, and full of books. His dad founded a community music school and his mum worked for the youth mentoring initiative Big Brothers Big Sisters. He spent his time getting lost in make-believe games in the woods, riding his bike, and playing piano. He and his friends formed a jazz band as teenagers. “The energy and excitement I got from that is what brought me to doing plays and making TV shows and movies,” he says.

While studying English and Music at Columbia University, he took an acting class out of curiosity. By the time he graduated, he had an agent. He has worked consistently since and prides himself on never being typecast – “the coolest thing that I’ve accomplished is not getting stuck in playing one sort of person for a long time… I have a restless soul”.

His was an auspicious start. His first play was When They Speak of Rita, directed by Pulitzer winner Horton Foote. His first screen role was the 1999 thriller film Murder in a Small Town, alongside Hollywood legend Gene Wilder. A couple of years later came a bit part as “Frederick the Bellboy” in Wes Anderson’s 2001 film The Royal Tenenbaums, and a role as the cousin of Kirsten Dunst in Mona Lisa Smile (2003), before his real breakthrough arrived in 2014, when he was 37, in Lena Dunham’s seminal study of millennial New York life, Girls.

The series, which ran for six seasons from 2012 to 2017, was trailblazing in its warts-and-all depiction of womanhood. It showed women working in post-recession America, women wrestling with OCD, talking about abortion, experiencing consent issues and sexual assault, falling in love, and forging – and breaking – friendships. Even in Moss-Bachrach’s character Desi, it was ahead of its time in depicting a “nice guy” who actually turns out to be toxic and manipulative. But in more recent years, Girls has been condemned for “whitewashing New York”, and Dunham has become a lightning rod for criticism over her comments on everything from race to body image.

Does Moss-Bachrach have complicated feelings about Girls when he thinks back on it? He answers diplomatically. “It was an important show,” he says. “It was so confessional and honest and ugly in a way that opened the door for so many others.” He believes the landscape of narrative television “would not look like how it does” without it. “That’s what I think about when I think about Girls,” he says, not wanting to dwell on the show’s complex legacy.

Disastrous couple Marnie (Allison Williams) and Desi (Moss-Bachrach) in ‘Girls’

Disastrous couple Marnie (Allison Williams) and Desi (Moss-Bachrach) in ‘Girls’ (HBO)

“When I started acting, TV was a very boring place. This is oversimplified, but there was a paradigm of actors living in New York that were interested in doing theatre and independent films, and actors in LA who were financially successful and on TV. They were doing procedurals and medical shows and multi-camera sitcoms,” he says. “But Girls really opened up people’s minds. Like, oh, actually, we can make something interesting and personal and weird, and people will watch it.”

He had a lot of fun playing Desi, the disastrous boyfriend of Allison Williams’s highly strung Marnie. In the show, the pair were also a musical duo, with painfully cringe lyrics such as “you’ll find me in a dark bar, where no gringos are” in the song “Oaxaca”. Moss-Bachrach laughs at the memory. “Jack Antonoff [who was dating Dunham at the time] wrote some of those songs. I know obviously they were silly and meant as a joke, but I had a great time recording them. They’re so guileless and earnest and I just think that we wind up so cynical so much of the time, and I get that, but it’s nice to just put all that stuff away and just sing loud from the heart without being self-critical. It’s nice to walk in those shoes for a while. I don’t allow myself to live like that too much. I have a little critic whispering in my ear most of the time.”

In the years since playing Desi, however, he’s started to see the character’s darkness and duplicity more clearly. “It’s convenient for people to be nice until things start not going their way. People can change a bit, you know?” he says. “Desi had a very considered armour, and he was a consciously put together and curated kind of man in a way that was almost menacing – disingenuous and mean and scary.”

Rewatching Girls recently, I was struck by how little Moss-Bachrach seems to have changed since then. He appears to be immune to ageing, like the forever-young-looking Paul Rudd. “Yeah, I subscribe to the Paul Rudd night-time moisturiser regime,” the actor laughs. “No, but I do think a life in something that you love can keep you young.” To prove his point, he tells a story about hanging out with then-septuagenarians Eileen Atkins and Vanessa Redgrave when he starred with them in the 2007 film Evening. “Every day, after work, we would all meet in the hotel restaurant and we’d have a martini and smoke a cigarette,” he recalls. “It was so fun to be around these two legends that were really just behaving like a couple of teenagers.”

Another key to his youth might be his frequent, bracing dips in the ocean, and the pilates he’s started doing to prepare for his role as rock-solid superhero The Thing in Fantastic Four. “I’m taking baby steps into it and it makes me feel really good,” he says. “I’m like 6’1, and I touched my toes for the first time in my life two days ago.” A breakthrough on Girls, an Emmy for The Bear, a role in Marvel, touching his toes… You can’t say he’s not versatile.

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

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