You won the ACTRA Manitoba Award this year for your performance on The Pinkertons, CONGRATULATIONS! Tell us about that experience and that role.
Thank you very much! It was a thrill to be nominated alongside Ray Strachan, Arne MacPherson, Steve MacIntyre and John C. MacDonald, and to be able to celebrate many of the many amazing accomplishments of our talented artists.
The Pinkertons turned out to be an experience that I will always cherish. I actually didn’t think there was going to be much work past the first couple of episodes as I wasn’t sure they knew what they were going to do with the character. He was added to the story late as part of many changes, and I was convinced he’d be just a static character on a couple episodes. Thankfully the writers and producers seemed to like what he brought to the story and decided to incorporate him as more of a presence as the show went on. Due to the extremely short turnaround time from first draft to shooting each episode, it was necessary to make choices as we went along without knowing what was in store for him down the road. We had no series bible that could act as a guide and influence my choices with some additional information. Sometimes it can be difficult if an actor isn’t privileged to the character’s journey, but it became very exciting to me because I felt I had more of a hand in shaping his story, and because the writers were open to collaboration and discussion regarding the character. It turned out to be one of the best experiences of my career. I absolutely loved Sheriff Logan. There were so many areas to draw on, but I tried to play him as a man at odds with his fears and confidence. He was a character who felt failure whenever the Pinkertons had success but was smart enough to know that they needed each other. So he was stuck with them, and dealt with his fear of being exposed as a bluffer by leaning on his false bravado (and liquor). He was comically selfish, flawed and error-prone, but not necessarily inept. We discover he carrying around much hurt after losing the love of his life (played wonderfully by Jacqueline Guertin) and once that is revealed, the relationship between him and the Pinkertons changes forever. He was often the source of comic relief, which wonderfully set up the eventual realization that he was ultimately a tragic figure. To have the opportunity to bring him to life was extremely rewarding, and to be recognized for the work was very moving.
When did you become an ACTRA member, and what was your first union gig?
I became an ACTRA member in 1994 for a CBC Movie of the Week called “Trial at Fortitude Bay” produced by Credo here in Winnipeg. I was already an EQUITY member so I was sponsored in through a reciprocal agreement. I was quite green as I had only started studying the craft, and that showed in the final product, in my opinion. But, I had the opportunity to work with a man named Henry Czerny, who I was able to learn from and who helped me through the experience, and I was able to learn by watching him and studying his approach to each scene. He suggested we watch the rushes and in doing so I also learned how to break down my performance into moments to identify what worked and what didn’t. Now there are many film schools and courses in performing for the camera available to actors here in Winnipeg but there weren’t very many options that I knew of at the time, so for me, all the learning was on the fly. Eventually, you get to a point where you have a good idea what your face does on camera with the choices you make, and you can feel those moments as they’re going to show while you deliver your performance.
How has being a member of ACTRA benefited you?
Well, first I’m very pleased that ACTRA Manitoba is proactive in offering film training courses and mentorship programs. I think that is a very important step in building our local community and helping our actors achieve a higher standard of professionalism. You can see the rewards of the schooling in our young talents. It’s also wonderful that we can tap into the wealth of knowledge from the experienced film and television actors that we have here in the form of workshops and training sessions. But, the most important thing to me is having a strong union that will go to bat for the membership. I once shot a commercial for Bell Expressview, when satellite companies were in vogue, to air on regular cable TV. But, they began airing the spot on their own satellite station, which they felt was a free use because it was outside of the contracted obligation and not airing on regular cable. ACTRA fought for me and I was paid for the extra commercial run as well as a late fee compensation from the network. In this business, there exists a lot of fear in potentially damaging a business relationship by “rocking the boat”, so to speak. Performers deal with this fear often, whether it’s a concern with agents, managers, producers, directors, casting, etc. It is important to have a union that is willing to watch your back so you can focus on your work. After all, everyone involved in a production wants the work to be good, right? Now that I have a child who has begun a film career, it’s reassuring for me to know that ACTRA will ensure his well-being on set and off.
What has been your favorite or most memorable role thus far?
I think most actors would be content to have that one role that they could really sink their teeth into to create something no one else could, and be proud of that for the rest of their lives. I’ve been fortunate enough to have had a few, but my favorite was having the chance to play real-life serial killer Gary Ridgway in A&E’s “The Riverman” because it was the first time I knew I could play a character that was completely removed from who I am and whatever “brand” the industry wants me to have. From the moment I auditioned, I knew the role was for me and I could inhabit the skin of this character. This came with many reservations because my love for the role was tempered by the fact that this person was alive and the story was true. It was disturbing. I watched countless hours of his testimony and read as much as I could about the man. I didn’t want him to be a Hollywood type version of a bad guy, because to me the scary thing about these people in our society is that they can go unnoticed and unchecked for a long time. He needed to be evil without knowing it, and he needed to believe he was doing the right thing. What struck me was his matter-of-fact delivery, void of any remorse. I was able to use a combination of my abilities to impersonate as well as my understanding and incorporation of method acting (often misunderstood, in my opinion) to really capture his essence. It was an extremely rewarding challenge, mostly because despite the differences in our looks, I see him in the show, not me.
Sheriff Logan from “The Pinkertons” is a close second. I loved him, and enjoyed every minute of his journey. I was also extremely grateful to Larry Lalonde and Phil Bedard for writing his heartbreaking backstory in the episode “On Account of Huckleberries”. It was similar to my experience on “The Riverman” where I just felt everything the character was saying, and reacting in the moment.
I enjoy being tasked with a greater responsibility on a show and find that that’s where I do my best work. I felt like that episode was mine to make or break, and I had to fight for a couple things that I wanted to do with the character, which isn’t easy. But, one of the most satisfying moments of my career came when Larry phoned me from Toronto to tell me he had just seen it and it was an amazing episode to him and had made him cry. I knew that he was connected to Logan’s struggles and I wanted to do it justice for both of us, so I was choking back tears on the other line because he validated that and was clearly in favor of all the choices we had made. It was just so kind to even consider calling, especially because, really, I was only doing my job. But he did, and I’ll never forget that.
How do you stay sharp? Do you have any training suggestions?
I don’t really subscribe to the idea of “staying sharp”, by simply practicing acting. I believe more in allowing yourself to be open to engaging in new ideas or experiences to give you more to draw on in your performances. Workshops and courses can be part of that, but for me it’s more about life experiences. I just started a new band because I missed the creativity of writing music and performing live. I’m writing another television pilot, and I’m helping my wife Nicole film and edit some of her research interviews. I’m also still working on editing a film I shot a few years ago, and I am still teaching high school occasionally, and that allows me to work with young people in English and Dramatic Arts. All of those keep me thinking like an artist and performer.
I already know that I can and usually will deliver a good audition because I’ll always do the work ahead of time and try to find details in the script that may not be obvious, or other information that can lead to a nuanced choice that can help portray the character.
If I had one training suggestion it would be to allow yourself to experience learning about the jobs of everyone in the crew. A film set is no different than any other workplace. If you understand what the other jobs entail, at least somewhat, then you can help make the process smoother, and you’ll have a better idea of what you have to work with when you need to feel your performance. Our crews here are amazing and I often check with the camera department to see what they are capturing and how when I’m on set. Aside from that, training and learning are constant. For me, I enjoy examining different acting approaches, experimenting with them and then incorporating what works best for me. If you do that, just be open to the idea that what works for you may change.
Do you have any advice for other actors out there?
First, never assume you know everything or have seen it all, this will only get in the way of the work. Second, you have to come to terms with the kind of actor you want to be for each opportunity. If the money is important, then you’ll make choices accordingly. If the character is important, you may have to pass on the money. Every opportunity is unique, but each opportunity can help or hinder your career. Third, try to enjoy every opportunity you have because it will make you better.
Aside from that kind of “life” advice, I don’t usually give acting advice, only suggestions that have worked for me. My suggestions may not work for someone else. After all the studying and workshopping and learning, you still have to find a process that works for you and your instrument.
For me, it was important to become fearless in the audition room. I needed to find ways to help me focus on the work and block out the external influences like nervousness, awkwardness, etc. So I studied various methods, watched actors I respected, asked many questions, and watched myself on screen to become familiar with my face (We’re used to the falsehood of the mirror). Then I began to focus on exploration and experimentation with my auditions, and after a while became more confident in my work. I discovered that there is almost always something unique that I can add to a role. Now, when I walk in to an audition, the room belongs to me. I may still get nervous, but it rarely gets in the way of my work. I will deliver the read that I want to deliver, and with conviction, because I’ve probably thought about the character more than anyone else in the room. This doesn’t mean that I’m arrogant about it – auditioning is still a collaborative process and you need to be open to direction – but I don’t try to deliver something that I think “they” want to see. Rather, I’m going to deliver what I think I would like to see and play because it will be a stronger read. Then, if there is some direction I can accommodate, but most roles I get occur because my first read contained strong choices that were either in keeping with the preconceived notions that the director or casting had of the character, or that sold them on a different idea that they hadn’t explored yet.
Having said that, there are two kinds of casting rooms: one where the actor feels comfortable and important as an artist and one where it is cold and you are not made to feel valued. It took me a long time to be able to take the room in the latter scenario, but I do now, mostly because I know that if I don’t make it mine, I’ll feel like I didn’t quite deliver what I wanted. Every actor has had the long drive or walk home rethinking their audition and beating themselves up over what they could have done. It’s so much better to know that you gave the read you wanted to give.
I did an audition once in Alberta. I came in with some strong choices but it clearly wasn’t what the casting director was looking for. However, I think that once she saw that I could take the room, she felt comfortable offering a suggestion that wasn’t in the breakdown, which was to give the character some sort of vocal awkwardness. We discussed it a bit and I tried something that resembled an uncomfortable laugh with an up-speak tone (rising intonation) after any meaningful dialogue. To date it was the most fun audition I’ve ever had and I won the role.
I discuss branding occasionally with young performers. Often a strong brand can get an actor more reads and subsequently more gigs and financial success. But I always caution about how that can sometimes limit your ability to promote yourself for other challenges character-wise, outside of the perception you’ve created. In other words, typecasting exists and is sometimes encouraged by the brand you’ve created. It’s tough, because I think you want to accept as many roles as you can when you are starting out, and sometimes being typecast is a good thing in the way that it can help you gain experience. But, like I said before, every opportunity is different and I am constantly asking myself what kind of actor am I at this moment, and where do I want to be? Sometimes it’s necessary to take a “money gig” that is not going to further your career outside of financially, but it may come with risks.
For me, I’m constantly trying to create the perception that I can play a variety of types within my range. That’s always a challenge, but if I look long-term at my career, I want to be able to reflect on my versatility, because I think that is the true measure of an actor’s worth.