On May 15, 2014, Arrow star Stephen Amell took the stage at Manhattan's New York City Center to reveal the first look at his show's spinoff The Flash at The CW's 2014-2015 upfront presentation. After the trailer rolled, the actor who would take on the eponymous role — Grant Gustin — stepped onto the stage in a suit and tie and waved to the crowd. Flanked by his co-stars Jesse L. Martin, Tom Cavanagh, Candice Patton, Rick Cosnett, Danielle Panabaker, and Carlos Valdes, Gustin visibly vibrated with excitement — The Flash after all marked not only his first time as a series regular, but more significantly, his first time as the lead of a series.
On May 14, 2015, Gustin returned to the City Center stage for The CW's 2015–2016 upfront presentation, this time standing beside Amell. And, in addition to his relaxed untucked button-down shirt and blazer, Gustin was wearing the confidence of a star whose show produced the network's highest-rated premiere ever and became The CW's most-watched show of all time.
In fact, the combined power of The Flash and Arrow led The CW to its most-watched season in seven years, prompting the network to embrace the potential of this franchise and greenlight another spinoff, DC's Legends of Tomorrow, which is what brought Gustin back to the City Center stage. Only this time, Gustin, at just 25, was an internationally recognized star of The CW's most popular show and tasked with introducing what could become the network's next wave of superstars. In one year's time, he had gone from recipient to bestower in this de facto passing of the baton — a fact that's still hard for him to grasp.
"When you're doing 23 episodes, every single day feels like the longest day in the world. But being here today — in that exact same room — it does feel like that was just a month ago," he told BuzzFeed News, tucked into a corner booth inside the bar at The London Hotel shortly after this year's upfront presentation. "I mean, I feel the same in almost every way possible to be honest, except that I'm more tired. It's been a crazy year; it's been a crazy year for sure."
Left to right: Gustin (center) with The Flash cast at The CW's 2014-2015 upfront presentation on May 15, 2014, Amell and Gustin at The CW's 2015-2016 upfront presentation on May 14, 2015.
It was announced in September 2013 that Gustin had been cast as Barry Allen for the second season of Arrow. The three-episode arc was designed as an introduction to the character, who had long been eyed as potential for his own spinoff.
"It was scary," Gustin said of landing the coveted role. "That immediate feeling of being so, so happy to — maybe not even five seconds later — feeling so much fear. My stomach dropped and I wondered if they'd made the biggest mistake ever, making me a superhero. Those fears creep in and I felt like, 'This is The Flash. If it fails, that's my fault.'"
But Gustin found himself surrounded by people who instantly put him at ease while working on The Flash pilot, which filmed in March 2014. He cited producers Greg Berlanti, Andrew Kreisberg, and Geoff Johns; the pilot's director, David Nutter; and co-stars Jesse L. Martin and Tom Cavanagh as grounding influences in those anxiety-filled early days. "I met David, I met Jesse, I met Tom, and suddenly I felt less pressure," Gustin said as he removed his blazer and laid it across his lap. "I immediately realized I was surrounded by people who knew what they were doing and were going to take care of me and we would have fun."
Relaxing into the role also allowed Gustin to recognize the opportunities The Flash afforded him. "I felt myself grow in every episode," he said. "I think I became a professional actor in the last year as opposed to just a guy that was hoping to get jobs. Now I feel confident that this is what I do and I'm good at it and I'll continue to grow and get better. The show pushes me and I love it."
Despite his young age, Gustin had been the "guy that was hoping to get jobs" for nearly two decades, and the success of The Flash is the direct — if unexpected — result of those years of hard work. "It is surreal that I get paid to be an actor on a superhero television show. I thought, for sure, that right now I would be a waiter, living in New York, and I'd be working in theater," said Gustin, who began taking tap lessons at 8 years old before attending a performing arts high school in his home state of Virginia and majoring in musical theater at Elon University in North Carolina. "My friends and I used to joke, 'Let's go be movie stars first and then get a lead in a Broadway show that way.' What's funny is that's more likely as far as my Broadway career is now concerned."
Gustin said the career he has is "very different" from the one he thought he'd have. "I knew I would be pretending to be somebody else for entertainment, and that's about the only thing that's turned out the way I thought it would," he said.
While the actor still dreams of a career on stage, it's a goal that — given the time commitment live theater requires — will likely have to wait until his time on The Flash ends. And that reality that doesn't bother Gustin. "I have pinch-myself moments every single day on set," he said. "I feel so lucky to be on a show that has some of — if not the — best special effects that have ever been on television, really smart writing, and really good characters. We make people cry and then have them laughing one second later. As an actor, you can't ask for a better show. … I want to continue making sure I'm doing the best job possible on the job I already have before I'm worried too much about something else."
Putting his initial passions on the professional backburner has been made even easier now that producers have told Gustin about Barry Allen's arc in Season 2. "The finale doesn't reset things, but it is a little bit of a new show next year," he teased of the Season 1 finale, which airs May 19. "There are no scripts yet, but [the producers have] broken the second season to me and it's going to amazing. It's going to be even more comic book-y, which is fun, and it's going to go in the direction I want to go with Barry, which is a little more confident and cocky with his powers. Tonally, I think we'll have even more of a brighter show."
Then there's DC's Legends of Tomorrow, which Gustin said will feel less like a spinoff and more like the third hour of a single, interconnected story. "It's all one show in some ways," he said of Arrow, Flash, and Legends, which has yet to be scheduled for The CW's 2015–2016 season. "Like, I'm on Flash, but as far as a lot of those other characters are concerned, they're just on three TV shows at one time, which is really cool. Wentworth [Miller, who plays Captain Cold] and Dominic [Purcell, who plays Heat Wave] are on Legends, but they'll be on Arrow and Flash, too. It's like a revolving door for all three shows."
To some — including Gustin, a year ago — that might sound exhausting. But now, he has a plan.
"When I was doing the Arrow crossover for the first time, I thought, I'm going to die at some point this season," he recalled. "But we pushed through to Christmas and that was the moment I was like, Oh good, I'm not going to die. And now I know for next season what it's going to take, I know how to pace myself, and I don't have to come out of the gate so strong. I put a lot of pressure on myself this time last year, and I'm not doing that to myself now because I trust Andrew, Greg, Geoff, and my cast. We all do it together."
That wasn't something Gustin realized this time last year. "I felt like it was my job to carry the show, and now I know it's not," he said. "If I could talk to myself one year ago, I would say, 'You're going to live, you're not going to sleep much, but you're going to have the most fun you will ever have at work and meet the most amazing people you've ever met,' and not to be so anxious."
"I'm an anxiety-driven person," he continued. "But I think this year has made me less anxious because I proved a lot to myself. … I think that's the biggest change in me, for sure: I feel proud of myself and I've never really felt that way before."