A Conversation With Looking For Alaska Breakout Denny Love

We talked with Denny Love, who plays Chip "The Colonel" Martin in Hulu's new Looking For Alaska adaptation.

Denny Love as Chip "The Colonel" Martin in Looking For Alaska on Hulu

While John Green‘s Looking For Alaska novel was told from Miles “Pudge” Halter’s point of view, Hulu‘s limited series has adapted the story in a much more ensemble-driven context. This isn’t just Miles’ story anymore, if it ever was to begin with. This story belongs to characters like Alaska and Dr. Hyde and Takumi and Lara, too.

Perhaps most affectingly, this story belong to Chip “The Colonel” Martin. In a sea of stellar performances from young and older actors alike, Denny Love’s portrayal of Chip—a black scholarship student at Culver Creek Academy who, as Miles’ roommate, acts as his guide to this new world—is particularly exceptional. To uncouthly quote my own review on the subject:

Love delivers a layered, vulnerable performance that moves from confidently charismatic to devastatingly raw when the situation demands it. Watching his character change and unfurl is one of the most engaging draws in a series filled with reasons to keep watching. 

Den of Geek was luckily enough to chat with relative unknown Love about bringing Chip to life. Here’s what he had to tell us…

Den of Geek: What did you know about Looking for Alaska and/or John Green before you found out about this part?

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Love: I had never heard of these people or this thing. John Green is like a legend. I didn’t know who he was. I feel so bad.

Well, we all have our little bubbles, you know. He’s in his own bubble. It’s a bigger bubble than most. 

Yeah, it’s quite a big bubble. I didn’t know anything about it. I would say, prior to me getting the audition, I was in a weird space. I had just quit my job. I was very determined. I had been telling myself for months, I actually was writing it down. I’m a huge believer in manifestation, really just putting out what you want into the universe, see what you can find. So I was writing it down everyday in my journal that I was going to book a pilot. I was doing it for like three months.

I’m going to try this.

Yeah, yeah. I was just so excited and just writing it down, pumping myself up, and then closer to pilot season, which is usually in like January, February, March, I was getting so delusionally confident, to the point that I’ve started to write and pray a little bit different.

I was like, “Okay universe, I know that I’m going to book a pilot, I know this. But I just pray that it’s the right thing for me. I pray that it’s something I can sink my teeth into, a story that’s beautiful.” And I was just trying to manifest that.

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read more: How Looking For Alaska Does and Doesn’t Channel The O.C.

Then I got the audition for Looking for Alaska. And I remember they gave me the first episode, and I remember reading the first episode, and I was just thinking to myself that this project was special and I was so excited about it.

I told my friend at the time that I think I found my next project, like my big thing. And she was like, “Oh my God, what is it called?” I was like, “It’s called, like I’m Trying to Find Alaska or something like that.” She’s like, “Oh my God. Looking for Alaska. I love that book.” And I was like, “Oh shit, it’s a book?” So that’s when I ran to Barnes & Noble.

I think I read it in like a day. And then that’s when I was like, “Oh, this is like a thing.” But, at that point, I knew for a fact that I was booking this role. I had no doubt in my mind.

What was it that drew you to the story and to this role?

I just thought it was beautifully crafted. You know, we see a lot of stories and books about young people that, to me, is a little superficial and a little shallow. But this took a different spin on what it’s like growing up in adolescence.

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It just felt real to me. It felt very grounded and it was unlike anything I had read, but the character Chip Martin, aka the Colonel, I just felt like I understood this guy. I just felt like nobody could play this character as believably as me. That may sound cocky, but I really believe that… There’s certain times in your career where you get roles that are kind of meant for you to play. I just felt like it was meant for me, even though I didn’t even know that the Colonel was black when I got the audition. So I was like… I don’t necessarily know that that is even a big point to make. It never occurred to me that I couldn’t play this character.

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So once I read the book, I just felt like I understood the guy. There’s a passage in the book, to the readers out there, they’ll know this part, it’s the barn scene where we play Best Day/Worst Day. I know you’ve seen the show, so you know exactly what I’m talking about. I read that scene in the book and it was just so beautiful. Like it just made me cry and I never cry reading books. Not because I don’t read a lot of books, which is also true. But I think it made me cry because it was so beautiful. And I just remember thinking like… I memorized that, because I was like, “When I go through this audition I’m going to ask the casting director if I can do this.” Because I just felt like the words were so true to me that I felt like I could have wrote it myself.

I remember when I went into the audition with Patrick Rush, I did that monologue for him. And he was really taken aback that I would even randomly memorize part of the book. And to all the actors out there, I don’t recommend doing that, because it’s going to backfire in a terrible way. It ended up going really well for me, and I think that’s one of the main reasons I got the role. I actually spoke to John Green about that and he always mentioned, “I can’t believe you did that.”

Yeah. Well, it sounds like this was a project filled with people like yourself who were really connected to the source material, and to the script. That must happens a fair amount, but it’s also a job, and being able to find something where everyone really seems to love what they’re doing and loves the story is-

Rare.

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… pretty cool. And I think it comes across on screen.

Yeah. I think it felt like it was a passion project for everybody. I was one of the few people who hadn’t been trying to get this made for a long time. Obviously, Josh [Schwartz] and Stephanie [Savage] had been working on this for 15 years. John Green has been wanting to see this come alive for so long. Our DP Ramsey [Nickell], he said that he wanted to this to be the best thing he ever made.

Wow.

Charlie [Plummer, who plays Miles] had wrote a letter to John Green when he was like 15 trying to play this role. And Kristine [Froseth, who plays Alaska], it was her very first audition… Everybody just had a strong connection to this project. So it was amazing being on set with people who just really cared. And people put so much love into this project that I really feel like it’s inevitable, people are going to feel that when they watch the project. And I hope they fall in love too.

Yeah. One of the things I really loved about the story, there are many things, but I love how it really engages with class. And I like that, though Alaska obviously has privileges that Chip doesn’t because of her whiteness, we also see the ways in which their lack of financial privilege really ties them together.

Right.

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And I think that’s like pretty rare on TV, not only just to see class depicted at all, but to see it kind of cross racial lines in that way. I’m just curious if that was how you thought about that, if you did, when crafting your character, especially in relation to Chip’s friendship with Alaska.

Yeah, definitely. I think hiring an actor of color definitely changes the story a bit. But I think that, you know, Josh and Steph and everybody who wrote on the show did a really good job of kind of treading that line where race meets class. Because to me it is more of a issue with class in this show.

Obviously you mentioned Alaska also has a similar lifestyle to me. She does have some innate privileges, but me and her kind of connect on that because we’re both scholarship kids. So I think it just helped me craft my character in the sense that I do understand that there are a lot of differences that I have with the Weekday Warriors, which creates a lot of conflict. But it also just kind of gave me this little bit of innate disdain for these people, because they don’t understand their privilege.

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It’s one thing to have privilege, but to act as though it doesn’t exist, that can be infuriating. So it just gave me a lot to play with when it came to that little bit of rage that the Colonel always has. Just because he feels like it’s just unfair.

Especially when you’re dealing with like, I think it was Episode 2 or 3, with the cotillion. That was a really potent moment where you’re able to see where class and racism can kind of collide in that way. And I think it’ll leave the audience thinking like, “Wow, that’s an interesting situation right there.” Because you don’t know if [Chip’s girlfriend Sara’s] dad is racist or if he doesn’t like me because of social class. So it’s definitely worth… Yeah, I think it’ll raise some discussion.

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Yeah, for sure. And I love that we got to dive more into Chip’s relationship with Sara and just in general, this felt like so much more of an ensemble drama than I was expecting. Was that how it felt as you were making it? Was that how it was treated?

Yeah, definitely. I think that’s the beauty of having it be a limited series. You get eight episodes with these characters as opposed to a movie would be, you know, two hours maybe. It’s very hard to fit in all of these characters’ backstories in a two hour movie. So I think we are really blessed. And I think it was kind of serendipitous that we were able to make this 15 years later, because if they had made this five years ago, miniseries didn’t exist. So this new format really allowed us the space to explore the story through Alaska’s eyes at times, through the Colonel’s eyes at times, through Takumi’s eyes.

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Miles is still the primary lens that we see through, but I think you really do get to see more of these people’s story. You get to meet Alaska’s dad. You get to meet my mom in the story. You get to see what my life is like outside of the school. And it just adds texture to who I am as a person. So when people can understand where you come from, they can understand why you are the way you are. So I’m very excited for people to get to know these characters a little more thoroughly.

Yeah, I really love the Thanksgiving Day episode. Did you have a favorite?

Yeah, that was the funnest to shoot.

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Did you have a favorite episode or scene? 

I think that’s kind of a loaded question because I love different episodes for different reasons, you know what I mean?

Yup.

So that’s a tough question to ask.

Well was there a most challenging scene? Because you had a few that I can think of off the top of the head that looked exhausting.

The last, I want to say two, the last… Episode 6 and 7 were the hardest episodes to shoot. That’s what I will say [because I want to avoid spoilers]. I’m not going to say scenes. I’m going to say those were tough episodes to shoot.

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This story is set in 2005. Did it feel like a period piece to you?

I don’t know that… It didn’t feel like a period piece, because I think that it’s really an exploration of what it feels like to be young, like how complex it is. You deal with the same things whether it’s 2005 or 2019. We’re dealing with love, and trying to find yourself, and finding good friends, and dealing with tragedy.

The topics are all the same. The only difference is instead of Myspace, we got Instagram. You know what I mean? The lingo has changed. Instead of saying, “Oh that was tight.” We might say, “That’s lit.” But, ultimately, it just felt the same. It was definitely crazy to go to set and see PlayStation 2s, the different music and all that. So it definitely felt nostalgic in a way. So I think it will bring up a lot of nostalgia in people, but I just felt like the time frame didn’t really change the way we approached the work.

I think there’s a nostalgia in the story itself, just because of how John Green was writing it. Looking back on a previous period in his life. So I think that’s even in the story regardless of, he was writing it in 2005.

Definitely. John Green came to set a couple times. 

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I know it was beautiful how involved he was. Because, to me, his opinion matters the most to me out of anyone. The minute he told me that I was the guy he’d envisioned to play the Colonel, I just felt so confident to approach the work.

Obviously it’s a tough situation, because when you’re dealing with material that a lot of the fans, a lot of people know this material so well and they grew up on this book. And people have such a strong attachment to this story that it can seem extremely intimidating, which is why I was so glad that I didn’t really know a lot about the book before I auditioned. Because it didn’t add any unnecessary pressure. I was just able to approach the work as an actor and bring to life the Chip that I read in the story, as opposed to the Chip that everyone has imagined.

So I think we all had a really tough job, because these characters mean so much to people. But John Green was so gracious and so caring and supportive to all of us that we all just felt super confident to approach these characters, because in a way he kind of released them to us and allowed us to do what we could with them. And we just felt all… you just felt so supported through the whole process. But the first day, when John came out, that was crazy. The first day of shooting, John came to set. I almost had a heart attack.

That’s a big first day.

Definitely. I think some people know this story, but I think the coffee table that I make… The first thing I had to shoot was that scene, and I had to draw out “coffee table.” And I spelled “table” wrong like two times. Because was so hard to say these words, and John’s here, and then I have to think, and spell words. I think I had to bail a few times. So I was like, “Eh.”

Yeah. I mean you got there eventually.

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I did. Maybe I did. And I think they may have just put it there.

They’re like, “We’ll fix this in post.”

They’re like, “Don’t worry, don’t worry. It’s very hard to walk and talk with John Green staring at the screen.

He seems very kind, but he also seems very intense.

You know, that’s not true at all. He’s actually hilarious and so lighthearted and fun and hip. He knows about 21 Savage. John Green is hilarious. If you watch interviews with him, he’s actually more like that in real life. He’s not intense at all.

What was it like to film in Louisiana?

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It was terrible. It was a… No, I’m joking. No, it was terrible, a little bit. Really it was the heat. Obviously, Louisiana is incredible. New Orleans has so much beautiful culture. The food is incredible. New Orleans is dope. But we were shooting in rural Louisiana in the middle of nowhere.

There was no cell service. It was hot as Satan’s spit. It was a struggle, because in our show it’s actually wintertime, but in the summer, in Louisiana. So I don’t know how much you know about Louisiana, but Louisiana’s notoriously on fire in July, around that time. So we were wearing two, three layers some days. It was just like, Oh my Lord Jesus.

So this was when the real acting came in.

Oh man. That’s one of the best performances you’ll ever see is us looking like we not about to die.

Do you think being kind of removed from a lot of maybe like social opportunities led to you guys hanging out more, or being more close knit than you might’ve been had you filmed somewhere more central?

I think, as an actor ,I would say yes because I kind of felt engulfed in the world and it just made me a lot more focused. But, honestly, we had the luxury of coming to Louisiana like two weeks before filming. So once me, Charlie, Kristine, Jay [Lee, who plays Takumi], once we met each other, it was kind of an immediate connection, and it really did feel like I had known these people like in a past life.

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We felt like we had known each other for years. So we were close out the gate. We would hang out all the time. We’d watch movies, listen to music. We just ended up being really close. So I think that connection and that lived in space that we occupy on screen, I think people are going to be like, “Y’all just seem like you’ve known each other for a long time.” Which it just ended up working for our characters.

Yeah, I think that’s true.

And that may be a testament to Patrick Rush, the casting director, and Josh and Steph. The casting was amazing. We was all just connected right out the gate, which I know isn’t always necessarily true. You could work with people you didn’t like at all, but we all just actually loved each other and hung out in real life.

That’s nice. This is about to be released. It’s not that far away. What are you feeling? Are you feeling nervous? Are you feeling excited? What are you hoping people find in Looking for Alaska?

I am feeling extremely proud. I think that we really just put so much love and blood and sweat and tears into this project, that I’m just so proud, and I’m so excited for people to finally see it. I think that everything that the viewers, me, and the readers have loved about this book is in the show. We stick extremely close to the vision of John Green, but there’s also some new exciting stuff that people will be shocked by, and excited by. I really felt like we really brought the book to life.

So I hope that people find that feeling of nostalgia for those who’ve read the book in the past, but I also hope that the new viewers just find this world and just dive in. I think that they would feel extremely close to these characters, and I think that they in a way will feel like they go to Culver Creek. So I hope that they get the laughs that they’ve always expected out of the material. But I think that they are going to be surprised at how much depth and how deep this story goes. And I really feel like we couldn’t have had a better task. I don’t think this story could have happened at a better time. And I’m just excited, man. I can’t wait for people to see it.

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Well, I’m excited on a much less invested level for people to see it as well. I really loved it and you should be so proud. So thank you so much for chatting with me about it.

Yeah. Thank you so much for the write-up. You all are too nice.

Do you have anything else going on right now? Like any other projects, whether it’s a TV show or something else that you’d like people to check out?

No, I want people to check out Looking for AlaskaLooking for Alaska is all I want people to see right now.

Okay. Keep them focused.

Keep you all focused. And, hopefully, after this, people will be interested in more of my work. But right now, that’s what I’m worried about.

Kayti Burt is a staff editor covering books, TV, movies, and fan culture at Den of Geek. Read more of her work here or follow her on Twitter @kaytiburt.