I finally met the more famous Ryan Bradford
I got in touch with the LOST child actor who’s been usurping my Google rankings for over a decade
In films and literature, the doppelgänger is never a good thing. Any double—as mythologized in Freud’s essay “The Uncanny”—evokes a sense of doom and a reminder of one’s own mortality. Essentially, doppelgängers are like corporeal hauntings. Ghosts made of flesh and blood. No ectoplasm, no slime. Just think of Kim Novak in Vertigo, or the women in David Lynch’s Mullholland Drive and Lost Highway. Not exactly harbingers of joy.
Recently, a regular at the restaurant where I work told me she ran into my doppelganger at the grocery store. It’s not the first time someone in San Diego has said they’ve seen a Ryan Bradford-lookalike around town, and I wonder if I just have a certain, ubiquitous bearded-white-guy-face and stooped posture (probably), or if it’s some shadowy reaper, slowly circling, awaiting my eventual demise to take my place as, well, me.
This isn’t the first time a double has caused me discomfort.
But first, I need to paint you a picture. Close your eyes and think back to the halcyon days of May 2010. Old people were just discovering Facebook (Instagram didn’t even exist yet), Shrek Forever After was burning through the box office, and Taylor Swift...well, she was still very famous back then, too.
And then there were the final episodes of LOST.
There are few shows that I’ve loved more than LOST. I know it’s often a sore spot for people who stuck around for the end, but I cannot overstate the show’s value to me. Honestly, I don’t even remember how it ended—were they dead?—but I’ve always been more of a journey-over-destination guy anyway (this is also why I don’t really care about spoilers). To me, very few other shows have felt so revolutionary in terms of format, narrative innovations, and direction. I mean, I still remember experiencing legit brain-breakage when I realized they were doing flash-forwards (I get chills every time I think of “We have to go back”).
But on May 11, 2010, my life changed forever when LOST’s third-to-last episode “Across the Sea” aired. The episode focused on the origin stories of the opposing forces of good and evil that control the island, and by extension (I think), all of humanity: Jacob and the Man in Black (aka the smoke monster). “Across the Sea” traces these characters back to when they were children.
It’s a little strange that producers decided to tack on such a monumental episode to the very end of LOST, but what mattered more is that the actor who played the young boy in black—i.e. the fucking smoke monster!—was named Ryan Bradford.
Since then, my Google results would never be the same.
For the past decade, I’ve lived in a shadow. Despite many idiotic online shenanigans and attempts at viral fame, I’m still nowhere closer to the top result when you Google “Ryan Bradford.”
Recently, however, I received a text from a friend—a screenshot of a group chat between his housemates, who were confused that a certain Ryan Bradford would be visiting their house.
“You?” he asked.
After some detective work, we determined that it wasn’t me referenced in the group chat, but another Ryan Bradford. But not just another Ryan Bradford, the Ryan Bradford—the boy in black.
This realization was huge. The human responsible for my second-rate Googleability had gone to college at UCSD, so his San Diego ties were strong. I texted my friend back to ask Other Ryan whether he’d be interested in talking to a man living in his shadow for many years.
To my surprise, he did.
And because of these inadequacy issues that have been simmering under the surface for so long, the first thing I asked about is whether he’d heard of me.
“I've known that there was another Ryan Bradford for a few years,” Bradford said, laughing. “Various people through SD have been confused sometimes.”Whether he was joking or not, it didn’t matter. Validation washed over me. I could’ve hung up the phone at that moment and called it a day.
Although Ryan Bradford’s LOST stint disrupted my online rankings pretty much overnight, his journey onto the show was nearly a decade in the making. He began acting at the age of five, when his mom enrolled him in an acting program in Georgia.
“Looking back, l was kind of strange,” Bradford said. “They encouraged kids who were part of the program to compete in this competition in Los Angeles. And I did. We saved up money so I could fly out there with my mom, and competed in this competition. I didn't really know what was going on.”
It was at this competition—which included walking down a runway and delivering a monologue—where Bradford caught the attention of the manager who signed him. Within a year, Bradford and his mom moved from Georgia to Burbank.
It would take almost a decade of work appearing in various print ads and TV shows before Bradford landed his pivotal role on LOST. By the time he landed the audition, he was increasingly channeling his anxiety, existential malaise, and disillusionment with acting—you know, normal teen stuff—into his roles.
“I actually auditioned first for the character of young Jacob,” Bradford says. “I remember sitting in the car and I had not completely memorized the lines. I went in and I was kind of moody and I guess that helped with the character [of the boy in black]. That was kind of acting for me as a kid: feeling really anxious about memorizing and kind of second-guessing myself all the time. Then that moodiness would turn into the performance.”
After getting the part for the boy in black, Bradford spent two weeks in Oahu, on a set that he describes as “beautiful” but also shrouded in secrecy. I asked him if anyone explained the significance of this character at any moment during the production.
“No,” Bradford said.
“Have you seen the show?” I asked
“I’ve seen the sixth season,” he said. “That’s it.”
One one hand, I didn’t want to come off as That Guy who gets upset when people haven’t consumed widely recognized pop-culture, but I also found it fascinating (and strangely admirable) that Bradford never had a desire to explore a zeitgeist that he helped—in some way—to create.
“I don't watch that much TV,” he said. “And when I do, it can be very obsessive. So I try to avoid things that I could be obsessed with.”
After LOST, Bradford gradually moved away from acting and the emotional turmoil that comes with it. He studied engineering at UCSD, and now focuses on filmmaking as a creative outlet and a way to focus his anxiety.
“I think that's kind of why filmmaking was appealing to me,” he said. “When you're in production, like in production mode, there's so much room for anxiety. Anxious people work on film sets. The last few years have been trying to figure out where I would fit in with that sort of life.”
Hell yeah, anxiety, I thought. Seems that Other Ryan and I share more than a name. I tried to imagine what it would be like to be a more famous, better-looking Ryan but with the same anxiety. And for a moment, I couldn’t think of anything except the existential concept of what it means to be a Ryan Bradford—both in person and on Google.
Are we more similar or different? And how do we appear to the algorithms that scan the letters in our names to decide who’s more famous?
“I wasn't recognized in person ever,” Bradford said. “No one stopped me on the street and said, ‘Hey, you're that boy from LOST.’ The attention I got was all digital and abstract to me. I remember [after LOST] my manager telling me how important it was to make a website and to create a fan page to have a place to interact with fans. I created one Facebook page, but every other fan page that exists—I think there's a Twitter for me—they're not mine. I didn't know how to manage these things that would appear online, so I blocked it out.”
Bradford pointed me to the trivia section on his IMDB profile, which lists him as 5 foot tall and a fan of the Beatles. He said he has no idea how any of that got there.
“I mean, I learned about the Beatles when I was 14,” said Bradford, Beatles superfan (jk).“But now that's just online and part of an identity. You know, it was just so bizarre to see this identity created by these accounts that didn't belong to me.”
It was hard, Bradford told me, to reconcile with the fact that these new fans were more interested in—not the real him—but a simulacra.
“It was a difficult thing to think that there are at least a few thousand people who are interested in hearing more from me. Or seeing more of my image, which is the image that was on a show, which isn't really me—just a character that was created. It was just kind of a discomfort.”
There was that word again. Discomfort. And if that’s not an effect of being haunted by a doppelgänger, I don’t know what is.
THE WEEKLY GOODS
Sorry, school’s kicking my ass again so I didn’t have much time to find cool stuff to share, but I did put Crazy Town’s song “Butterfly” over old footage of Fugazi and it’s probably the most harmful thing I’ve ever done to society.
Got a tip or wanna say hi? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow me on Twitter @theryanbradford. And if you like what you’ve just read, please hit that little heart icon at the end of the post.
Julia Dixon Evans edited this post. Thanks, Julia. Go follow her on Twitter.