Striking a commanding pose atop a dimly lit balcony overlooking his newest nightlife venture, Wass Stevens keeps a critical eye on the imaginary crowd that will fill Avenue later tonight. Soon enough, the empty stage will be overrun with a new cast of characters hand-picked by the discerning doorman himself. “It’s kind of an innate skill,” Stevens says of his work at the door. “I read people to know is they are going to add or take away from the vibe once inside. Like acting, people are all about facade once the sun goes down.” Though he orchestrates atmosphere at Avenue and the landmark club Marquee, by day he studies lines and tries his luck at movie auditions (and he’s still mum about his recent spot of trouble with the law.)
Stevens is earning his keep as an actor (he recently appeared in The Wrestler alongside Mickey Rourke and on ABC’s Ugly Betty), but has no intention of trading one life for another. “When I could support myself as an actor, what I loved became my primary source of income — and being a doorman became a love again too, not just a job. That’s what renewed my interest in this whole business.”
Some people are saying now that the current state of our economy is helping the nightlife industry. The one good thing about bars and nightclubs is that people always need a release. And essentially, going out for a couple of drinks is a relatively inexpensive way to forget about your life for a couple of hours — depending on how many drinks.
Does that have anything to do with the size of one’s pocketbook? I think what has happened is that people save up the big blow-out days for the weekend. So instead of going out every day of the week, and especially in the summertime, the early days of the week are very popular … people are blowing it out on Friday and Saturday, and in the city on Thursday. The concept of bottle service has taken a bit of a beating.
You once said that you hated the direction bottle service was taking the club industry. Yes, and so for me, Avenue is a step back to a time in the nightclub industry — nightlife industry, lets not say nightclub — that I loved and which is kind of representative here. It’s a step back to the lounge times.
You wouldn’t say this is a club? This is not a club, it’s a lounge. I mean, I think inherently the definition of a club is dancing, and we don’t have dancing. It doesn’t mean people aren’t having an insane, great time, but there’s not a specific set dance floor, and the music is a little different, and the vibe is a little different, and we are a restaurant.
I’m not sure if many people know that Avenue is a restaurant. I think the term we’ve been using is gastrolounge. We have a full menu, and it’s kind of smaller portions. I’m very pleased that we were able to step back into that kind of time where it was not specifically about how much you could spend in a place and that gets you entry … but more about what you brought to the overall vibe of the room. You know you don’t have to be a black-card-toting person to really create or help a room — most of the time those people don’t anyways. It’s good to have a place for people who are just artists and may be struggling and just really cool people. And so it’s easier when you’re not as focused on generating bottle service to have that type of mélange.
But this is going to be quite a bottle service-type place, no? Well, you know one of my specialties, as I’ve said before, is I kind of adjust as the business adjusts, to perfect what is necessary. I am very good at generating table and bottle sales; I don’t mind that it’s not the main purpose of this place. And there are still plenty of people who are appropriate for a room like this, which is very, very difficult. The door policy’s very difficult.
What do you mean by “difficult”? It means that it’s very difficult to get in. This is not an “I’m buying two bottles, let me get in” kind of place. This is a place where if you can get in then maybe you can get a table. But it’s not about how much you’re going to spend first; it’s about how much we want you in the place. At Marquee we kept the door policy very rigid as well … it still is … I mean, I’m still there two days a week, as well as here. But a lot of places had a door policy that was solely, you buy two bottles, then you’re in. I would never be affiliated with that … that’s not what I would want to have anything to do with.
In what capacity are you involved in this place? Well I’m part of the team which is run by Noah Tepperberg and Jason Strauss. Every place that we do, we do together. And the degree of involvement varies according to the place, and my involvement in this place is greater than it was in the last, and it will be increasing. I think I’m gonna leave it at that … I kinda think I have to keep it that way. But I’m their main guy.
Avenue seems to be opening during a change in New York nightlife. There’s a paradigm shift in which people are finding out what patrons want, and they are trying to recreate that. Take Beatrice — everyone is hoping to fill that void. Yeah, this shift happens every ten years or so. Having a couple of decades worth of experience, it feels that way to me. Now, we’re going back to the lounge vibe, which is great because the rooms are not as big, which means the overheads are not as big. And you can keep the clientele very high end. And in order to do that properly, you need to have the experience. And to know decades worth of nightlifers. And what’s great about this phase is that we are drawing people who have not gone out for ten years. Some of the people who used to hang and go out often in the 80s and early 90s kinda disappeared from the scene, and because of what we’re doing here, they’re coming back. And it’s very exciting and very cool.
So it’s going to be the cross section of generations. It’s a cross section of generations, genres, socioeconomic types … it’s a cross section of everything. And it’s an exciting time and an exciting place to be a part of it. When it’s a smaller room, it becomes a much more family-type feeling.
Table-hopping, and seeing some of the same faces … Exactly. And people are kind of in it together. Everybody indirectly knows each other, whether it be artists at this table and socialites a this table and models at this table… you know there’s a certain group in New York city that kinda frequents similar places, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a struggling painter, you may know this multimillionaire model who had 47 contracts. They all kind of meet each other, so it’s very interesting. And the more restrictive the door, the more friendly people are inside because they all feel like, “OK, they’re sitting next to me, they must deserve to be here.” It’s not like they’ve bought their way in. And so it creates kind of a less stressful environment than, say, a nightclub.
Would you say that there was or is a golden age of nightlife, and if so, when would that be? There’s never a time when everything is good about anything in this world. And like any other industry or business or fad or fashion, it’s cyclical. So there are peaks and troughs. People don’t want to hang out in a place that’s not fun and not good and not comfortable. It’s like anything else. I don’t care how great the crowd is … if it’s disgusting, it’s going to get tired.
You’ve come from this industry and made an acting career. Did you have a goal set before you started acting? Was getting involved in the nightlife industry part of your plan? No I actually got into the nightclub business as a bouncer so that I could pay my way through law school. I needed a gig that didn’t conflict with classes and with my afternoon law job, but I still needed to pay the bills.
So, the idea you had growing up was you wanted to be a lawyer? Well, actually I don’t know if that was my goal growing up; I wanted to be a professional hockey player. After college, I didn’t really want to go to Wall Street like everybody I knew. Palladium was my first New York City gig. Growing up in the disco era and that whole thing, there was a glamour to it that I really liked, and I always liked the bouncers because I was an athlete and worked out and I was big, and those guys seemed to get all the girls, so it was a glorified position, you know? To be able to meet women and fight and get paid for it and be in that atmosphere, it seemed like a perfect gig.
Would you say that doing the door is a talent? As a doorman, reading people is probably the most important thing. Remembering is very important, knowing everyone is very important, but being able to read someone who is a potential regular or someone who deserves to be in the place, someone who is not gonna cause a problem, even though you’ve never seen him before, is incredibly important. I think it’s kind of an innate skill, as well as being an actor. So I’m able to see through and read people and understand what’s going on underneath the façade and really see what things are grounded in. People are all about façade once the sun goes down.
What acting projects have you been able to put this particular skill to use? I was in The Wrestler, with Mickey Rourke, and that was a great project to be involved in. And I have several movies coming out soon, one of which is called Brooklyn’s Finest, which was directed by Antoine Fuqua, with Richard Gere, Ethan Hawke, Ellen Barkin, and Don Cheadle. Antoine is a director who likes improvisation and realness, so he hires people who live the life of the characters that they’re playing. I’ve never been a cop, but I kind of understand that underbelly, and that side of New York society. And I now have a reoccurring role on Ugly Betty as “Mystery Man.”
What was your first big acting break? The first big break was probably Nixon with Oliver Stone.
When, between law school and Palladium, was the point in time where you said, “Well, I think I’ll try this acting thing.” I gave up practicing law to open up a place in Miami. When I came back, a woman that I was seeing kind of suggested that I start acting. She introduced me to her coach, and it became a major focal point for my life. I mean, the club business was still my primary business, but my love was the acting. And it finally got to the point where I was able to make the acting the primary focus. When nightlife became not necessary, it actually became more fun and took on a different light. When I could support myself as an actor, that just changed everything. What I loved became my primary source of income, and this became a love again, not just a job, and that’s what renewed my interest in this whole business.
You’ve become known as having impeccable taste. Is this sort of costuming for your job, or is your sense of fashion apparent all of the time? There are certain sides. There are certain things that I think a man should do as far as personal style, and so I live by those rules that I have set for myself. There’s a consistency to the different genres. For instance, I’ll never leave the house without a pocket square if I’m wearing a sport coat. I like very high collars on my shirts, so I have them all made. I like French cuffs, and I like monograms. Every shirt I own has a monogram, and every shirt has French cuffs.
What are some brands that you like? Where do you shop? I like YSL suits, and Paul Smith all of the sudden is a newfound love of mine, which I’ve been buying up like crazy. I love Brioni sport coats.
Let’s talk about your toys. This is what you’ve been spending your paychecks on. Cars, motorcycles, espresso machines, and watches.
What is your watch? I love Panerai.
What is with this Espresso obsession? It’s such a cool thing. There’s a subculture. It’s absurd! There are like 200,000 websites with blogs about people who are obsessed with espresso. Notice how I say “espresso” and not “expresso,” which annoys the shit out of me. It’s really fun, it takes a really long time to perfect and pull the perfect shot, but I think I’ve got it down. I’ve got it down to a science.
What kind of bike do you have?
A BMW Cruiser. Yeah, the James Bond bike. I ride everywhere. I ride in suits and loafers. I ride in leather. I’m not one of those weekend warriors who has to wear the garb to get on the bike. I use my bike every day, rain or shine. Though I also have a little Italian convertible; an Alfa Romeo. I mean I could have bought a Prius and been green. But why would I want to do that when I could drive a little hot red Italian sports car? You still get from A to B, but I’d rather do it with style.
What can you say that you’re most proud of? That I never conformed. That I did it my way. Cue Frank.