Best known for his role on the TBS series My Boys, Michael Bunin is one of the few actors Las Vegas can call its own. Bunin was born in Virginia, but spent most of his life in Las Vegas and attended UNLV. After graduating with a theater arts degree, he performed in improv troupes in Chicago and Los Angeles. Bunin, who occasionally teaches at the UNLV theater department, splits his time between Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Hear his take on cheating in “The Tell” at the El Cortez on Oct. 22.
How do people react when they hear you grew up in Las Vegas?
Outside of Vegas, people are always like, “What do you mean you grew up there? No one grew up there.” I’m like, “Yeah, you’re right. No one ever grew up here. This town only has people who moved here in the ’40s, that’s right.” People from New York say it like, “Do you just hang out on the Strip?” And I ask, “Do you just hang out in Times Square?” It’s a real city, and I always tell people it’s the greatest city, period. I love Vegas. I enjoyed growing up there and I spend as much time there as I can. I still have a house there. There are two things you get. You either get shocked or you get, “Vegas. Oh, I hate Vegas.”
What do you love about Las Vegas?
One of the things I like about Vegas is sort of its all-around freedom. Vegas isn’t for everyone, and I’m OK with that. Yes, we gamble here. Yes, we’re a 24-hour town, but if this is something that doesn’t interest you, go home. You don’t have to come here, but everyone in this country is very uppity about things. What I kind of like about Vegas is we’ll test you. If you really don’t like certain things, if you really want to find out who you are, go to Vegas. See if you past the test.
Do you miss “Old Vegas”?
I do, I really do. And listen, it’s not one of these things where the older you get the more conservative you become. I’m just as liberal politically as I have ever been. There was something about Vegas that I liked. When you went to a show, people made an effort to put on a suit or a tie or a jacket or whatever. There was still some level of etiquette or respect, but I feel like a lot of times now you walk through the casino and, I hate to say it, but a lot times you’re like, “Am I in Vegas or is this an episode of Jersey Shore?”
You’re a poker player. What do you think of the game’s new popularity?
When I was younger—I’m 40 now—there weren’t as many games, the games were limited, and now you can always find a nice juicy game. The aspect I don’t like is the new poker player. There’s not much etiquette at the table. When I first started playing, if you won a pot from someone and then chastised the way they just played the hand, the old guys at Bally’s might get up and punch you in the face. Nowadays that’s become very much a part of the game, because it’s so popular and because it’s on TV, producers want to make it exciting. People sort of calling each other names and trying to get each other’s goat at the table is part of the game. Not that I’m that old of a man, but it’s not the era of poker in Vegas that I grew up with. The poker table was very quiet when I was first playing. You have to deal with the new poker player and the new-poker-player uniform: big muscle guy, barbed-wire tattoo around his bicep and sunglasses.
Your story for “The Tell,” about cheating, is supposed to be true. Have you picked one yet?
I grew up around a couple of different pool halls, so I’ll probably talk about those characters. I’ll probably talk about poker, but then I might talk a little bit about the idea that being an actor, for me anyway, is sort of like cheating the system. I’m not smart enough to go to law school but I’m a decent enough actor to play one on TV. I get to play all these professions that maybe I’m not smart enough to be.
What is your dream acting job?
Coming out of UNLV, I always had a simple mindset: “I’m just an actor.” If I’m doing something comedic, I still have to be able to play an action that’s interesting, the same if I’m doing something dramatic. The simple financial answer is I would love to be on a TV show that goes for 100 episodes and is in syndication for the next 20 years. Every actor would love that. But My Boys was a really fun set and everyone got along. We weren’t reinventing the wheel; we were just trying to do a comedy that everyone liked. But I would like to do more film, and I would like to do more stage.
Why do you like this kind of performance?
I have always liked the stage. I went to UNLV and was fortunate to do a lot of theater, and then when I moved to Los Angeles, I had also gone back and forth to Chicago and done some improv with the Second City Players Workshop. So when I moved to Los Angeles, I immediately got involved in an improv theater out here and we had a long-form troupe. The first show was two years and the second show was 10 years on Saturday nights where we would take a suggestion from the audience and then we would do a 45-minute show with no script. There’s no net. You get one stab at it; hopefully it’s going to be good. Even though I love that what you do on film is forever, I like that what you do in front of a live audience … is forever for those people who were there that night. That’s a little bit, I guess, of how Vegas shaped me.