Emory Cohen isn't a typical young actor reaching for the stars. "I've been to L.A. once," he says, sipping black coffee in an uptown café. He lives in an apartment nearby, and his roommate is his father. "I can't drive so I'm thinking about moving back to Philly and commuting to California for auditions. In terms of underground art and theater, Philly is cooler." The 23-year-old Cohen, who was born and raised in Manhattan, discovered the merits of Philadelphia while studying acting there at the University of the Arts. "I used to live above the biggest gay bar there," he says, running his hand through his hair. "Going home, I didn't have to worry about getting mugged—just getting hit on, which is fine."
Cohen might be most familiar as Debra Messing's son on the NBC musical dramedy Smash. In March, he appeared in Blue Valentine director Derek Cianfrance's latest film, The Place Beyond the Pines, in which he plays the thuggish and damaged son of Bradley Cooper's character, an ex-cop running for public office. "They have an intensely strained relationship," Cohen says of his and Cooper's characters in the film.
This summer, Cohen can be seen in a very different role, in first-time director Joshua Sanchez's ensemble drama Four. Cohen's character, a closeted teen, spends the majority of the film on the most awkward date ever with an older, married businessman (Wendell Pierce), whom he meets online. Cohen manages to portray a character constrained and repressed but exudes a squall underneath the silent detachment. "It was exciting more than anything," Cohen says of wrestling with his character's sexuality. "If I wanted to play it safe, I'd get a normal job with a secure paycheck."
The acting gigs, though, keep coming. He recently wrapped Blue Potato, a rough-and-tumble coming-of-age film set in Maine. "I hung out with people who dealt drugs," Cohen says of his research for the role. "I rode ATVs and shot guns. I hate guns and going fast, but ultimately, it's about how far you are willing to go. That's what separates actors—I'll take any risk for a performance." He also did his own fight scenes. "We hired a kid who let me punch him in the face for real," he says. "I was terrified. It wasn't fun punching some harmless kid in the face. But it looks good."