A total pleasure to interview actor Steven Ogg (The Walking Dead, Westworld, GTA V) an actor in demand.
Steven Ogg is an actor in demand. He recently appeared in the final episode of season six on The Walking Dead and is currently filming season seven. He also has a role in the much anticipated HBO’s Westworld due for release later in the year. I am very fortunate to have been able to discuss with Steven, not only his music tastes but also his acting career and, of course, his involvement in GTA V.
PC: You were born and raised in Calgary, how was life for a kid growing up in 70’s Canada?
Steven: I find it interesting as we get older and look back at our childhood how our perspectives seem to shift. Something we thought or felt looks so different through that prism of age – not always distorting in a bad way, but that “growing up” certainly looks different from grown up eyes. Sometimes it could just be the romanticized version of it. I certainly had a great childhood though; family around me, house over my head, backyards and fences to run over and through, Stampede Wrestling to watch after bowling on Saturdays, Hockey Night in Canada and back alleys to pee in as I walked home from school. It really was a normal suburban-like childhood that was replete with Dad at work and Mom preparing the meals. Now that I’m a father, I’m certainly curious to see how my son will view his childhood.
PC: Your first tentative steps into acting began as a youngster, (maybe they were not tentative maybe you were as “Bold as Brass”) at what age did you realize that this was the path you wanted to skip down?
Steven: Merrily, merrily skipping down of course! I really loved being in the theatre in Calgary during those formative years, but it was probably the school assemblies in my elementary that hooked me into performing. I would dress up in drag as Betty Boop! I’d say that was “bold as brass” and certainly hooked me into performing. I enjoyed not just the rush, but the idea of making the audience believe you are someone you are not. That was confirmed by seeing a production of THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW early on that established a credo for me that applies to life as well: “Don’t get strung up by the way I look. Don’t judge a book by its cover.”
PC: For a period of time you were consumed by an interest in Volleyball, was this something you would have liked to have made a career out of, or was acting always your one and only true desire?
Steven: I started with the acting, transitioned into athletics and specifically volleyball for a period, but eventually returned to my true passion. I had teammates who played professionally in Europe and that sounded great, but I don’t think I was ever that good of a player to get signed. Don’t know. I always worked hard, but was always behind the “star” players and an injury combined with an opportunity to travel, certainly helped me in leaving volleyball behind.
PC: You travelled to and settled in various parts of Europe for a few years, was that in order for those places to act as a source of inspiration and exploration? Or was it a case of experiencing as much of life as possible in different environments and cultures?
Steven: I call those my Buster Keaton/Dostoyevsky years. I lived in Italy, England, and finally Paris for the longest time, two years. It was to experience life, different cultures, people and countries-yes. I remember thinking I did want to travel around and get that out of my system before going to a New York or a Vancouver to bear down and focus on making a career as an actor. I never had a master plan while living over there, but I sure loved seeing the different cultures, learning French, and having unbelievable experiences and stories to tell. From meeting Layne Staley and the rest of Alice in Chains to living on the world’s largest independently owned yacht – The Baboon- in Ibiza, Spain for a couple weeks to touring the Cyclades in Greece with a broken heart to spending an evening at the Ritz in Paris with Johnny Depp while his sister slept in the next room. Experiences! Experiences! Experiences – a different lifetime ago. I also used that time to read voraciously- a minimum of a book a week. Going through the classics – Russian, French, British and sprinkled (I almost said “tainted” which actually might have worked with the following authors) with Henry Miller, Anais Nin, and Bukowski. I would read the masters work and then go into their students writing and down the line. So the inspiration and exploration was certainly an enormous by-product of that time and certainly those years of doing whatever job I had to in order to continue my journey were important and defining.
PC: Eventually you touched down in NYC, with very little money and only a small number of friends to call on. Was it a struggle for a long time or did you get theatre and TV work quite quickly?
Steven: I remember arriving in NYC with $500 in my pocket and was living with a supermodel now turned actress Rebecca Romijn who had become a friend while living in Paris. She was incredibly supportive and allowed me to pay VERY little rent while living in her apartments. I actually had my first American Thanksgiving with Rebecca, her mother and sister. I remember seeing baked marshmallows on mashed yams for the first time and thinking, “You Americans are a peculiar lot.” Ha, ha!
It was tough, but certainly relatively speaking. Many have MUCH more arduous journeys than I so I don’t want to sound like it was an utter hardship. I had no working papers for the first couple years so again had to do odd jobs and whatever necessary to make some money to keep moving forward. I catered, did personal training, construction, and worked in a coffee shop in the Village where I worked alongside Shea Whigham who has obviously gone onto much bigger and better things as an actor himself! I can remember living in the West Village and in the dead of a NYC winter, walking to my first acting coach on the Upper East Side. It would take me a solid 90 minutes, but what I saved on taking the subway I could use to purchase a bagel and coffee for class, so I looked like a “serious” actor! It took maybe five or so years before I began making some money as an actor and the majority of it came in commercial work doing voice over work for many, many products. Doing all the NYC guest stars on local TV shows and my stint on a soap opera certainly were not as well-paying as the vo gigs I was landing.
PC: You have previously appeared in notable shows such as Law & Order, Unforgettable and Better Call Saul, which one did you have the most fun with and which was the most challenging?
Steven: Well, I have been very fortunate to work on some very fun productions. Better Call Saul was awesome and Jonathan Banks was amazing!! With the recent WESTWORLD on HBO, that was such an incredible experience of epic proportions and working around such esteemed actors on such incredible sets was amazeballs! Now, with THE WALKING DEAD, it’s another love fest of just amazing people with cast and crew being so inspiring to be around and work with.
PC: You opted out of inner city living for a few years to design and build a house in the country, what prompted this? How did you learn the skills to do this? Would you do it again for the next generation of Ogg’s?
Steven: I find NYC to be very exhausting sometimes and really wanted to have my own hedonistic Canadian paradise as close to that city as possible. I was in the position to give it a go and always loved the tits and lipsticks of a place; the interior design of it. The most important thing for me was to try to train my muscles to be better at problem solving and figuring things out better. I wanted to learn the structural side of a house – headers, beams, walls, and window frames. My friend was the main man on the project – I was more his assistant and gopher. I had a vision of what I wanted and tore it down to the studs all by myself, but we would sit in front of a fire drinking beer and designing ideas for the house on scraps of cardboard while a fresh made stew bubbled next to our fire. It was pretty cool. Lots learned, but none of it possible without Richard and help from Doug and Patrick. Had over 100-year-old hemlock shipped down from Canada and certainly did most of what I had envisioned. It is a VERY, VERY special place that has a view that can leave me with goosebumps and inspiration to this day.
PC: In every interview you have done since 2013 and probably for many years to come you will be asked to talk about being Trevor Phillips in the bestselling video console game ever; Grand Theft Auto V and this one is no exception… .
Steven: I’m very proud of that performance so talking about it is never a problem. I also recognize the notoriety it brought to me so I would never bite the hand that fed me. Of course I have no problem correcting people calling me Trevor sometimes as I like to explain to them that actors perform different roles -that’s their job – and they actually have REAL names. Those characters are pretend! Especially the animated ones!! Ha ha
PC: For those of us who are not completely au fait with technology, can you bring us up to speed on the finer parts of motion capture that was used to film your movements and facial expressions and then how they are processed somehow to spit out the character Trevor?
Steven: It was a great experience! A solid cast and crew and those 3 1/2 years of filming was such a special time. That character was so much fun and to work in that medium – motion capture – was challenging in the best sense of the word. Because it was essentially an animated performance, but with a spandex onesy covered in balls, a helmet with a light and camera staring right at your face, and a set that was comprised of bars, apple boxes and tape – it took full commitment to the performance and loads of imagination to create these settings and environments in our heads
PC: Rockstar Games created a character in Trevor that was in so many ways despicable, with strong psychopathic leanings, although he did appear to have a softer side to him for the people closest to him. Was there ever a point where you thought they had crossed the line with regards to what might be acceptable in a video game played by some impressionable young individuals, or do you think its fair game since a video game is just a game in the same way a horror movie is just that?
Steven: I enjoyed trying to add those dimensions- the humor, the vulnerability, the loyalty he had- to that character. It’s boring to watch a psychopath be just that. I like to explore the grey and try to stuff as many layers into that sandwich as possible. Sure, there were some crazy, questionable things I did and I certainly added to them – ha, ha! Some of the things I ended up adding to the end of a scene or sometimes during the scene were NOT included in the game so that is saying A LOT about how far I liked to try to push it. It’s entertainment. Just like movies, music, television or a good ol book! Can it have an influence? Sure. Is it the cause of problems that generally blame these violent games/TV/movies? Absolutely not! I always like to chat with kids or adults about the good old idea of parenting. Parents TALKING to their kids about what they watch, what they are playing, listening to and what have you. Then discuss WHY they like the violence or what it does to them. Everyone is so different and of course have very different reactions to that type of stimuli. I shall now step down of my podium in Hyde Park. Ha, ha.
PC: Do you agree that there is a little bit of Trevor Phillips in most of us, the difference being we moan and threaten and think grrr, but have no intention of hurting or accosting someone, whereas he most definitely goes in headfirst and guns blazing (pardon the pun)?
Steven: He was definitely the id of the game I believed and yes, he does things that we only think about doing. Again, part of the escape and ideally the ENTERTAINMENT of that game was just that.
PC: Final GTA V question, you surely couldn’t have envisaged how popular the game would become, what did it feel like to have your face plastered everywhere on fleets of buses, whole buildings, in shopping malls and more. There must have been a point where you got recognized constantly, how was that for you?
Steven: I still get people shouting “Trevor!” or recognizing me, be it from how I’m looking that day or from hearing my voice. It’s all good. It was surreal for a little bit to see the global exposure of that game and the image plastered around the world! Certainly at the time around NYC, there were entire walls covered and posters/billboards everywhere. It was cool, but I also don’t look at that and say “That’s me!! Look at me.” It’s almost like I’m looking at someone else if that makes any sense? If not, make it up and make it make sense for yourself. hee hee.
The Walking Dead
PC: You recently made quite an impact on the final episode of season 6 of the highly acclaimed TV show The Walking Dead as the Saviors leader Negan’s, right hand man, were you a fan of the show before your audition?
Steven: I had watched some of the first season, but stopped watching for some reason. When I landed the gig I immediately called my son who is a HUGE fan of the show and asked him questions about the world and what was happening. My Walking Dead-ucation came from him and also Andrew Lincoln in the makeup trailer during our very first meeting. He generously spent over an hour with me as we discussed the show and the world I was entering. I continue to learn new things and find different levels to this world that the brilliant writers and creators have developed.
PC: What was it about the role that attracted you to audition for the part?
Steven: Well, like most of these huge shows – same experience with WESTWORLD, the actor is given “secret sides” which contain no real names and is often completely made up. So no context, script, or history to the character. You make a strong choice, do your best at the audition and then the cards fall where they may.
PC: You are close to Xander Berkeley who plays Gregory on the show (it was Xander who kindly introduced me to Steven) had you worked with him or any of the other cast members before? When you join an established cast, do the regulars take the newbie’s under their wing, or are you just expected to get on with it?
Steven: Xander. Sweet, sweet Xander! An amazing, inspiring talent but an even more inspiring man! One of the biggest blessings of having the opportunity to work on THE WALKING DEAD has been meeting such amazing people such as Xander, Austin Amelio, Andrew Lincoln, Jeffery Dean Morgan, Steven Yeun, Norman Reedus, Sonequa Martin-Green, Ross Marquand…..shit! I realized I could just go down the list! It really includes each and every one of them from the cast; even those I have recently met that are no longer on the show! Everyone from the get go have been inspiring in their commitment, work ethic, generosity and spirit! Doing these Walker Stalker conventions have been such fun because meeting fans aside, it’s the opportunity to spend more time with these wonderful people! Ended up in a deep conversation in Boston, a few of us from the show in the parking lot, and went down such a beautiful worm hole until 2am! They are just good people. Andrew Lincoln sets the bar for the entire show and is truly inspiring to be around. Sorry – a lot of gushing, but it’s true.
PC: There has been a lot of chatter on various fan forums that you are the perfect fit for your character, but some have gone further than that and suggested you would be a perfect fit in a Tarantino film, (I agree). Which of today’s directors do you admire and long to work with? What about actors you would like to work with?
Steven: I love to hear these things and I sure do appreciate it, but DAMNIT – where are those opportunities for me? They ain’t knocking on my door that’s fo’ sure and I’m doing my best to get to any of these doors. Just trying to get a seat at the proverbial dinner table so that those chances will begin happening I hope because I AGREE – there are a lot of projects I think I could bring a helluva lot to!! ha, ha. There is the “ego” that lies right next door to the insecure 12 year old boy in me that never thinks he is good enough. Ahhhhh, sweet duplicitous duality!!
I don’t really have any off the top of my head, but in no particular order there are those I admire greatly! Peter Mullan certainly! Lenny Abrahamson, Noah Hawley (writer of FARGO), Matthias Schoenaerts, Tilda Swinton, Xavier Dolan, Denis Villeneuve, Martin McDonagh, Jean-Marc Vallee, Viggo Mortensen, Alejandro G. Inarritu, Elizabeth Moss, and honestly there are so many now beginning to pop up!! I greatly admire traditional indie film makers like Yorgos Lanthimos, Todd Haynes, Lars Von Trier; challenging, unique voices both actors and directors are those I am drawn to and would love to work with.
In a nutshell? When asked about my “dream gigs” I suggest two – doing Jez Butterworth’s play JERUSALEM in a St. Ann’s Warehouse (in Brooklyn, NY) type setting and the role originated by Willem DaFoe in Bob Wilson’s LIFE & DEATH OF MARINA ABRAMOVIC. From those two references you can begin to understand the types of projects that excite me, inspire me, and that I would want to be a part of! They happen to both be theatre, but those “types” of projects apply to the film and television projects, actors, and directors that I would love to work with.
PC: You are playing the character Rebus I believe in the new HBO series Westworld, can you tell us anything about that or are your lips sealed as to what we might expect?
Steven: October 2nd is the premier on HBO! He is a very fun character that guests meet within that world. Another great experience with the amazing Jonathan Nolan at the head of the ship and filled with such a talented group of cast and crew. Such a wonderful experience that I definitely want more of please!!!!
PC: Was music a big part of your life growing up or more just background noise?
Steven: Music has always been a huge influence on me. That and art are the two biggest motivators, influencers on me as an actor. I just always enjoyed it’s passion, the energy of it- the places it took me through it’s stories and the lyrical journey.
PC: Do you remember buying your first record, what was the story behind it attracting your attention?
Steven: I might have the order messed up, but I believe KISS was one of the first albums I purchased. I remember Rex Smith, REO Speedwagon, and Soft Cell in there somewhere, but KISS was my first “go to” band. I think I might have enjoyed their theatrics more than their music actually – I loved the makeup, the costumes, the spitting flames and blood- all of their individual characters. I followed them through the unmasked album and remember how excited I was to find out what they actually looked like under all that face paint. Duran Duran played a role later on which was quite the transition from KISS, but certainly the diversity of music that continues for me to this day. My Mum and Dad would play Neil Diamond and John Denver alongside some pan flutes and semi classical music, but they were never the music junkies that I certainly became. Spending summer times in England growing up, there was a lot of The Smiths, The Cure, Depeche Mode, Japan and others that I still have on rotation and enjoy listening to.
PC: Which song or album do you turn up the volume, close your eyes and just absorb it, forgetting the chaos around you?
Steven: It’s tough because so much of the music is a time and place thing for me. It can change based on my mood or what I want to feel. Certainly one of my favorite artists, Dallas Green AKA CITY AND COLOUR, is someone who can take me away. I never actually just lie down, close my eyes and turn up the music. I remember doing that as kid on the orange shag carpet, falling asleep between the speakers while Raffi sang to me about baby beluga’s and such. Maybe that’s what I should get back to! Get myself a chunk of shag carpet and take myself back in time! I guess right there lies the power of music for me-its ability to transport and provoke such an emotional response.
PC: GTA V had a very good and quite diverse soundtrack. Did you ever take a listen to it ?
Steven: I actually never gave that soundtrack a listen to be honest, but we did attend a performance that Tangerine Dream gave during the game’s release. That was very cool and to see GTA on a big screen behind them as they performed was something very cool.
PC: What would be your most frequently worn band t-shirt and is it an original?
Steven: I’m actually not much of a band t-shirt guy – I had a City and Colour one a few years ago, I currently wear a Catfish & The Bottlemen t-shirt that I love from their first album, and I had the KISS t-shirts growing up. Actually my favorite band t-shirt which I still have despite its ratty appearance with sleeves cut off and stains on the front was given to me after her Onyx Tour I believe -a Britney Spears concert t-shirt!! I can’t say I listen to her nor enjoy her music, but that t-shirt is great!!
PC: Are there any songs you are particularly fond of?
Steven: I have so many songs that I love and they all share one thing in common – lyrics!! I love listening to the poetry of a song and what an artist is able to describe, the way they describe it, and they journey they take me on. Elvis Costello – “Useless Beauty,” comes to mind. “The Girl,” “Sleeping Sickness,” “Friends,” “We Found Each Other in The Dark,” and almost every damn song by City and Colour. The National – from “Bloodbuzz Ohio” to “Demons” and “Apartment Story” to “Pink Rabbits” I love their lyrics and again have many more! Nick Cave, Nine Inch Nails, Johnny Cash, The Tragically Hip, David Bowie, Jack White, Great Lake Swimmers, K.D Lang – just a sampling of artists popping into my head whose songs, lyrics specifically, I really get into and love to listen to their poetic songs. Just discussing music opens up a wormhole for me that I can get lost in. So many really. They all share passion and the ability to rip open my chest, tear off my epidermis and leave me utterly vulnerable which I just love. The power to move!! My son and others have commented that I listen to “depressing” music – “Whoa is me- my life sucks-wahhh, wahhhh-music” as my son has mentioned. HA, HA! I do tend to gravitate towards that, but again it comes down to those lyrics.
PC: Which record last excited you and got you snapping your fingers? Do you ever get up on the dance floor?
Steven: I use to love dancing in the younger days. My brother from another Mother and I use to spend our evenings together just going to a nightclub and dancing our asses off. When I lived in Montreal I would enjoy warehouse rave parties where the music blared, sweat ran free, and the workout was as great as the catharsis of moving all night. That dance music I’m not that into anymore. There was some electronica I was into for a while – Apex Twin, Deadmaus and Cut Copy, but I would gravitate still towards Dead Can Dance, NIN and a little darker electronic world. It’s all about the passion!
Actually just danced around to Justin Timberlake’s song of the summer here, “Can’t Stop the Feeling” recently. I put it on in my trailer recently while working on The Walking Dead. It just put a smile on my face and made me feel like dancing, fancy, and free.
PC: Assuming you enjoy live music whose was the best concert you have seen?
Steven: This year I have seen some of the best concerts in recent memory. I’m not a fan of the big stadium concerts, but Guns and Roses was a most wonderful surprise! Axl brought his voice and Slash just nailed it!!! I saw The Cure recently in Utah and Robert Smith never sounded better and played over 3 hours!! Catfish and the Bottlemen; seen them a couple times now and really enjoy their shows. The most emotional concert was one I just saw this week – The Tragically Hip. For a Canadian, this band is one of the classics and I have seen them numerous times over the years. The lead singer Gord Downie, an amazing poet whose lyrics are poignant, fun, and mostly all covered in the red Maple Leaf of the country, was diagnosed recently with terminal brain cancer. After the tumor removed, the band decided to support their latest album and do a 10 city Canadian tour which they are half way through. It was crazy emotional to watch and Gord Downie, bless him, is going out the way he wants to and doing what he knows and loves best!
PC: Are you able to concentrate on other tasks like learning a script when you are listening to music?
Steven: Nope. Never. I need silence. Music when I’m running – ALWAYS! Music when I’m cleaning or cooking or baking – hell yeah! Music when driving- a must! Music at dinner? Yes! Music hanging out? Of course!
PC: Which Movie soundtrack do you never tire of hearing?
Steven: Betty Blue. Age of Innocence. Until the End of the World (Xander and I recently re-visited this brilliant soundtrack!)
PC: Which singer or band would you say you are you a super-fan of? (As in, you own most of their releases)
Steven: City and Colour. The National. The Tragically Hip. The Avett Brothers. PJ Harvey. The The. Ughhhhh- I’m straining here under pressure. I know there are so many I forgot. Oh! TOM WAITS.
PC: I finally began classical piano lessons in January, do you play an instrument? If not would you like to make the time and put in the effort to learn one?
Steven: I have always wanted to learn the banjo! My son is an amazing and gifted percussionist and can play guitar without any training or practice. I, on the other hand, do not have that gift.
PC: Is there a certain song or poem you would like played at your funeral?
Steven: “Body in a Box” by City and Colour. There has definitely been an ongoing theme with them right? Guess it says what I am into these days! Or I’ve always thought this from Gord Downie would be fitting at a funeral, “If I die of vanity, promise me promise me, if they bury me some place I don’t want to be. You’ll dig me up and transport me, unceremoniously, away from the swollen city breeze, garbage bag trees, whispers of disease and the acts of enormity. Lower me slowly and sadly and properly and get Ry Cooder to sing my eulogy.”
PC: Three genres of music you enjoy or three songs that have a special place in your heart?
Steven:“Wheat Kings” by The Tragically Hip, “Open” by Rhye, “Apartment Story” by The National – those are in my heart, but so many more live in my soul. Shit! This is hard! This has been very Hip-centric which isn’t necessarily on my constant playlist these days, but it’s certainly in my heart and soul these past few weeks with Gord Downie’s diagnosis and the tour.
Final two questions I ask everyone.
PC: How would you describe your perfect day?
Steven: At my house in CT, breathing in that air and the view. My son at my side, or across the deck on his iPad is even acceptable these days, and my dogs at my feet or cuddling on the lounger with me. Some tunes playing softly, the sunset as spectacular as ever with colours galore. Finally, a tasty double IPA chilled to perfection in a mason jar meeting my mouth hole. In my head? Some inspiration that was found in a wonderfully crafted, creative display be it of a film medium, television, book, or theatrical production.
PC: I cannot possibly live without…
Steven: Passion, inspiration and a great double IPA! Of course my wonderful son – Bodhi – and my dogs, my friends and family, but I hesitate to say I can’t “live without” them because of the connotations to that. Make sense? I’m pretty sure you can pick up what I’m putting down.
You can find Steven on twitter
This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Any opinions or views expressed within the interview are the subject’s own and publication does not imply endorsement of any such opinions or views by Absolute Music Chat or its personnel.