Actor Johnny Alonso has thick skin.
Again and again in the past five years, Alonso hopped into his SUV, put a classic Eartha Kitt album in his CD player and made the lonesome haul down Interstate 95 to Wilmington, N.C., to audition for producers of the WB teen drama Dawson's Creek.
He was rejected 27 times.
"It got to the point where I would just drive zombified. I had no idea where I was," Alonso said from John Steven, a favorite Fells Point tavern. "I've always wanted to entertain. I always wanted to act. I wanted to be in front of someone. I wanted to create. What drove me to driving to all of those places was the fear of not working. I was determined to book. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do this."
The brush-off from producers ended in August when Alonso received a phone call asking him to play Jimmy Franco, a slick, arrogant, 22-year-old Boston stockbroker, on the television series. Originally signed on to appear in two episodes, Alonso has had his contract extended for five more shows with the possibility of staying on the cast until the series finale in April.
Franco and his co-workers, the Brokerage Boys, provide comic relief for the drama with their relentless joking around. Alonso's second episode of Dawson's Creek will air tonight at 8 on the WB. He is to appear on the show every other week for the next several months.
It's a small part with only a handful of lines peppered throughout the show. "Hopefully Dawson's Creek can take me to the next level," Alonso said after arriving back in town last week from shooting an episode in New Orleans where the Brokerage Boys experience a night of decadence in the Big Easy, complete with gambling, hired escorts and a climatic confrontation on Bourbon Street.
It's 11 a.m. one recent morning and Alonso, saying it's too early to smoke, is fidgeting with an unopened pack of Camel Lights. Less than an hour later he's smoking like a brush fire, alternating drags of fresh cigarettes with sips of black coffee.
Looking like a hybrid between comedian Rob Schneider and actor Johnny Depp, Alonso is dressed from head to toe in a tailored black Versace suit taken from the set of Dawson's Creek. Despite playing characters in their early 20s, Alonso is approaching 30.
James Dean is his idol, and it shows. Alonso emits a retro vibe; He's a swing dancer, rides a chrome-plated Harley-Davidson, is restoring an antique juke box, and even slips Dawson's Creek set designers some cash in exchange for vintage-looking props.
While once considering himself a starving actor, Alonso now lives comfortably in Brewers Hill, four blocks from Canton Square. He anchors himself in Baltimore, appearing in local acting gigs ranging from John Waters' 1994 film Serial Mom to NBC series Homicide: Life on the Street.
After the demise of his high school band at Loyola, Alonso earned a degree in business administration and Spanish at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County before becoming a full-time actor. He has since graduated from The Actors Studio in New York City and The Academy of Dramatic Arts in Baltimore.
Alonso's first television role was playing a "punk kid giving snide remarks" in the after-school special Sexual Considerations. He then played a drug dealer named Seth opposite Susan Lucci on the ABC soap opera All My Children.
"At first, it's nice to be typecast because you get work," Alonso says of his image. "For years I was playing the rebel with a heart - the punk kid that cleans up at the end or saves the girl. I found that to be a little too shallow after a while. It wasn't really acting; it was just being a jerk."
Alonso and others are viewing his stint on Dawson's Creek as permanently breaking out of that punk mold.
"I will not be surprised to see other doors open because of his appearances on Dawson's Creek. The staff, crew and cast just love him," said Susan Beach, director of Actor's Central, the talent agency that booked Alonso on the show.
Robert Christie, Alonso's acting coach for the past seven years, helped instruct the actor for scenes on the show. He says Alonso's personality, coupled with his acting skills, is just what Hollywood is looking for.
"He's such a hustler," said Christie, 55, who teaches acting classes in Columbia. "Nobody dislikes Johnny. He's a friendly go-getter."
Although he prides himself as being a "Baltimore actor," Alonso made the pilgrimage three years ago to where all actors must eventually migrate - Los Angeles. From the end of January through June, Alonso lives in Laguna Beach, Calif., just outside of L.A., for pilot season. He has filmed eight pilots, none of which was picked up, including The Unguarded Moment for HBO.
But, from his time spent out West, Alonso has picked up small roles on various television shows, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, in addition to one of his most high-profile performances as a spitting protester in the 2000 movie Rules of Engagement, where he gets roughed up by Samuel L. Jackson.
Aside from Dawson's Creek, Alonso's other promising gig is serving as the closing host of the PBS show Destination Tomorrow, where he travels the country interviewing scientists either working for or with NASA. The hourlong show recently won a Capital Area Regional Emmy Award, and Alonso was renewed for the show's third season.
"Johnny's the man," says Kevin Krigsvold, co-producer of Destination Tomorrow. "I meet a lot of actors, and Johnny's No. 1 on my list of someone you're going to see a lot of."