It was an enormous pleasure to interview the ever-busy actor Tobias Segal. Tobias spoke to me about his life and career on stage, TV and film: from Equus to Sam Mendes’s The Bridge Project, from Mindhunter and Sneaky Pete to The Drop and John Wick:2, moving to New York, musical tastes, circus skills and much, much more.
DB: You were born in Pennsylvania. Where exactly were you born and can you describe what your childhood years were like?
TS: I was born in Bryn Mawr, it’s outside Philadelphia, about half an hour west, an area called the ‘Main Line’: I believe it was where all of the people who were working on the train line had their summer home when they were first building the line.
The first place we lived in was in a place called Charlestown which was a farming community; it’s a township, it’s not even really a town. When I was born my parents owned a real tiny house that was built in the 1820’s or ‘30s I think. It was for the people who worked at the mill up the street. Originally it was built for two families to live in but the square footage of the house was extremely small, it was maybe 30 feet by 40 feet the whole footprint of the house and it was only three storeys tall. By the time they got it, it had been renovated into a single-family home.
When my brother was born they bought a house outside of Phoenixville. We lived there until I was probably about 9 or so. After that we moved to another place that was close to Charlestown. We moved a lot, virtually all in this area but we moved pretty much (one or the other of my parents moved) once a year since I was in 5th grade until I left for college. We lived in some cool places.
The place we moved into when I was in 5th grade was right on some train tracks and you could walk up onto the tracks, which were elevated, and if you walked about a third of a mile along the tracks there was a huge trestle bridge (I think we only ever crossed once because we were so freaked). The trains only ran like twice a week, it was actually a freight line so there weren’t trains coming by often but they were very loud.
After that we moved to a place that was a little farmhouse which had this crazy driveway! You could drive almost a third of a mile off the side of the road (it was a private drive) and you actually had to ford a little stream in the car and you drove through the barn then you would get to this turnaround. We were only there about a year – that was when my parents ultimately split. We spent one winter there which was a little brutal; I think the power went out often. It was pretty wild. There was a pond where we hunted the frogs all summer. When we first went out there no one had touched them for so long, they would sit there and almost let you pick them up, and by the time we left, as soon as you started walking towards the pond you would see them all just dive in because (the poor things) we had terrorised them all summer – never hurting them. There was one which was like the “King of the Pond” frog that, as a kid, just seemed so enormous – I guess he was about 6 inches long. It took us all summer to finally catch him. We had these little butterfly nets with real, flimsy wire hoops to them and when we finally caught him in the net it just totally bent the whole thing out of shape. We walked him up the hill and we let him loose at the top of the hill, because we wanted to see him go down to the pond. The poor guy would just jump and land and just roll for a while and then would stop and then he’d jump again and roll.
DB: Did you stay at the same school or did you move around a fair bit?
TS: Yeah. So I guess when I first started elementary school we were in the Phoenixville School District, and I was there until 2nd grade and then 3rd and 4th grade, my brother and I both (he was just a couple of years younger than me) we went to a private school, the Montgomery School, and then when we moved in 5th grade I started at Charlestown which was part of the Great Valley school system. Our middle school was General Wayne for 6th, 7th and 8th grade and then Great Valley High School for 9th to 12th and then Temple [University].
DB: What were your parents like, are they like?
TS: They are lovely! They are so supportive. They have been incredible, really, truly champions of me going out and doing my thing. I run into people along the way who have said that it has been really tough to find support but I’ve really been very fortunate: first that I’ve had the opportunities that I’ve had but to have my family be as supportive as they have been has been is really incredible. They’ve always just said, ‘Well, as long as you’re happy and are not totally destitute, we’ll be okay.’ They have helped out when they can.
DB: You were in a marching band in high school, weren’t you?
TS: I was! I played the trumpet and I started helping the band when I was in middle school. We didn’t have many people in the marching band. We would go to events and there would be marching bands with 150 people in them so I remember we would march in and it would be a little difficult but it was lovely and was a lot of work but it was something to stay involved with in school. I was very involved in music all through. In 5th grade you were able to pick an instrument and I chose trumpet. My mother’s side of the family are very musical (her older sister Ellie is still teaching piano) she went to Temple and all of her siblings played instruments all through their lives and my uncles had both played trumpets and they had trumpets lying around and they weren’t playing them anymore so it was easy for me. It was a Stradivarius: as a kid I had no idea what that meant. It was a very nice instrument but neither of us (my uncle or myself) had taken really good care of it, but we tried. It’s a beautiful instrument – I still have it but I don’t play it anymore.
DB: I guess you had formal lessons at school, with your trumpet.
TS: Yeah, all through. I took trumpet lessons with Lou Spagnola, he taught it at Beams Music which was the local music shop back in the day. He was sweet and very patient because I was not very good at it. We had a concert band, and a jazz band and there was also an orchestra. I did jazz band I just don’t think I was very good. At certain points I worked hard at it and I was good enough to play with them but certainly, when the jazz band was playing, I just never felt I was doing a very good job of it!
DB: Apart from the bands were you involved in any other performing arts at school?
TS: I did do the musicals, eventually. I had auditioned for them in middle school and I just didn’t end up doing them and then I had done the pit orchestra in my freshman year of high school and watching the kids up on stage, I was very jealous of them – I had always wanted to do that, to perform. The following year I had gone in to them and they were doing Carnival and as a kid I had really wanted to be in the circus and had taught myself to juggle and to unicycle. I had stilts. It was full on, when I grew up, I was going to be a clown, I was going to be a juggler; I would spend hours practicing. So Carnival came along and all of a sudden it was, ‘They need people who can do this stuff!’ I got to juggle and ride a unicycle and do the stilt thing in the show and it was a blast! I ended up just sticking with it, doing the musicals the next three years. They would do a Fall play. The first was an animal thing but the following year we did The Good Doctor, which was a bunch of Chekhov short stories put into one production, which was really fun.
DB: Do you keep up your circus skills now? (Both laugh)
TS: Once in a while I’ll pick up the juggling. I still have my unicycle but I haven’t ridden it in a couple of years and I have my stilts but I haven’t tried to get up on a pair of stilts in a long, long time. We had [stilts] that were just metal poles. At one point, my dad had taken them off the notch section, so we could put them up higher. I can’t believe they let me do it! I was reaching down in order to hold onto the poles still. As a kid it was great but I can’t imagine people learning how to do that now. I fell every time I got up on it! The bruises that I would end up with and my parents were just like, ‘Hey, if you’re okay and not breaking anything.’ I can’t believe I didn’t!
DB: After high school you went to Temple: what did you study there, what was it like there and what was the social scene like?
TS: I went for acting. It was interesting. I felt like I grew up in the suburbs (and it was very much the suburbs) so everything was pretty spread out and Philadelphia felt so far away. Even though we could take a train and it was fun to go in and spend the day there. My friends were all straight-edged by design. As kids you couldn’t buy yourself alcohol and there weren’t drugs around, so to all of a sudden get into college and alcohol was around, it was a real party there for a while and a shock to the system. Philadelphia is a big city. It was an amazing place and the people at Temple were great. The other kids there were awesome and it was a really interesting mix age-wise, experience-wise and I think that really got me excited to explore acting. I had chosen acting and theatre as my major because I didn’t know what else I wanted to do. I had had fun doing it in high school and figured, ‘Oh, just give it a shot and in a couple of years I’ll choose a real major and settle down and do something.’
But that first year I was doing plays right off the bat. They cast me in a production of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, playing Billy and it was a grad production and that was really incredible because they were so focussed. In high school it was exciting because there were people who had done it more than I had and people who took it very seriously but this was a whole other level! All of a sudden I was watching these kids who weren’t just kids, some of these people were a little bit older, so they had had life experience that I couldn’t even fathom but they were really driven, and everyone focussed on a completely new level to me. That whole year I just continued to work in productions and every time it was something really exciting and new. We did Corpus Christi and Disco Pigs and I got my first taste of Shakespeare, we did Twelfth Night – I was playing Valentine, some teeny, little part, but even so that was a whole new experience for me.
My sophomore year I kind of got a bit distracted. I was living off campus and I was driving into the city every day to get to class. Really, I just lost focus and my grades suffered terribly and my concentration was blown. I worked in a couple of small productions but I just wasn’t motivated much. It had to do more with me than anything else. At the end of that year, over the summer, I was really trying to get myself back to a place of gearing up to go to school and one of the young women who had graduated was working at a theatre in Philly called The Mum Puppettheater, which is closed now. Robert [Smythe] was running the theatre and Heather was working with him and Patrick who was their assistant. Robert did work with a lot of movement artists which would be a combination of puppetry and dance but they had never done a production that wasn’t specifically written for that theatre.
They had decided to do a production of Equus and a director, Bill Roudebush, was going to work with them and they were going to bring movement artists in to play the horses. They were looking for an Alan, Heather and I knew each other from school, and she said to me, ‘Oh you should come in and audition for this thing.’ And that play just blew my mind. I had never read anything like it! I knew that I could do it and I was so excited and I had worked so hard on the audition. I ended up getting the part. The production was going up at the beginning of the semester, so I had to decide between going back to school or working in the show and so I figured, ‘I’m going to school for this. I need to do this show, it’s such a wonderful thing.’ So I spoke to the school and ended up being able to do an independent study course and had to write about my experiences doing the play. It ended up being a magical experience. It was one of the, if not the greatest experience I have ever had on the stage.
It was this intimate little space, I think it could sit 60 or so people, really a tiny space. We did it in the round. They had marked off the seating, the audience were sat almost in these horse stalls, and there were four separate sections and two entrances and they put a sort of dance ring in the centre, so the ride was all created by these guys who were most of them were from Dell’Arte school I believe. They were incredible. The idea behind the horses was – rather than do the typical thing where they make the masks and put them up on stilts and everything – they would create the horses just physically. They covered themselves in rice flour and so, at certain points in the show, when I touched them, rice flour would fly off. The ride was all created by them. I would get up on this guy Sky’s shoulders and he would prance around the ring with me up, kneeling on his shoulders, and running up and down. The space was so small, I can’t imagine what the audience was seeing; it was just a lot of really incredible physical specimens just right in your face. The lights would go down and we would create a statue out of our bodies and then they would put real dark makeup on their eyes and haul my hands across their eyes and just gaze. Each of the shapes that we created were done by whoever was being blinded, so they would come up with the shape that we were supposed to be making, in the moment. It was just incredible and Bill was a great director to work with.
Greg Wood, who is a Philadelphia actor, was my Martin. I guess it was the first day that we were on our feet, and the first time we had a scene with Greg – he has those long monologues – and we got up and just did it! He was completely off-book, just did the monologue. And again I had never seen anybody walk into a rehearsal totally off-book before. It just blew my mind! It was such a magical moment. He went through the whole thing and the stage manager, when he was done said, ‘Do you want me to give you line note now or should we wait until you’re more comfortable?’ And he was like, ‘No, no. Okay.’ He said, ‘Well, you were perfect except you missed “the” on page…’ And he (Greg) said, ‘Oh yeah, page 3, right at the bottom of the page. I get it.’ It turns out that he has a photographic memory! It was incredible to see that and to have Equus be the first professional show that I was involved in.
DB: Is that one you won an award for?
TS: I did! I won a Barrymore Award. [It is for the Philadelphia area]. The cast won and I think the play won. We did very well.
DB: So when did you decide that acting was a career that you were definitely going to pursue?
TS: I ended up doing another show after that and I tried to go back to school and I thought at that point that I wanted to do it [act]. I went back to school for a semester and I realised that I definitely wanted to do it professionally and that school was not really my forte. So after that semester I ended up getting some more work and just deciding that it was time for me to leave. That’s when I dove in. I think if I had taken another year and it totally would have worked alright but I was working and I didn’t want to stop.
DB: At what stage did you move from Philadelphia to New York? And why did you make the decision to move?
TS: I had done a show in Philly called According to Goldman and my agents now had been down to see the show – their client Carmen Roman was in it and Bruce, who wrote the play, was also their client – Mary Harden had come down to see the show and she invited me to come up to New York and freelance with them. (Laughs) It’s a very odd story!
The first audition they sent me on was an audition for a Law and Order: Special Victims Unit and I ended up booking the job right away. It was a bit of a whirlwind for me, I hadn’t auditioned in New York, so I was over-excited about it. We were gearing up to do that, it was a real fast turn around. The week after I had auditioned, they called up and said, ‘We have some good news and we have some bad news. The bad news is that they’ve rewritten the part and you’re no longer going to play it as they’ve written it younger. The good news is it’s too close to shoot time for them to drop you so they’re going to pay you for the episode anyway.’ So I lost the job but I still got paid.
DB: For doing nothing.
TS: It was so strange. Also later that week, they said, ‘Okay. So we’ve got another audition for you for Special Victims Unit and a short film, in the same day.’ I went in for this short film in the morning and had a call-back right afterwards for Special Victims Unit so I had to go from the short to this next audition. In the meantime the short called up and said, ‘Oh we want to see you again. We liked what you did but we need you to read against the lead.’ That afternoon I booked the short film and right after that the Special Victims Unit hired me for the next episode of the season. So the first three auditions I went into for these agents I booked – which is mind-boggling! So when I get in to meet with them, they basically said, ‘Okay. Here, sign with us!’ It was incredible and they are lovely people and I have been with them ever since. (But, of course, after I had booked those jobs, I spent six months not getting anything).
TS: Yeah, ‘resting.’ I was reeling at that point. That was probably around 2003-4. I spent a couple of years then still living in Philadelphia but working with them and coming up to them in New York, a lot. By the end of my time in Philly I was spending a couple of days a week up here anyway. Auditioning, when pilot season got going (at the time) was a totally different thing: I mean, now, it’s spread out and you do stuff on-line but at the time you had to be in the room. I remember that there were certain weeks when I was commuting three or four days a week and it was brutal! It was at least six hours of commuting every day. I did that for a couple of years and I guess I was young enough that it didn’t totally kill me but… eventually I booked a show at Playwrights Horizons, Doris to Darlene and that was it. That was when I said, ‘I need to figure out if I can make the move.’ That same season I did a play called From Up Here, that was an incredible experience that cemented my staying here. I had sort of said at the beginning of that year, ‘If I can make it work for a year and make enough money that I don’t have to ‘work’ and I can continue to find either plays or film or TV.’
DB: It looked quite an emotive subject.
TS: Yes! It was dark and it was intense. We were dealing with a kid who had brought a weapon to school, had not used it, but who obviously had trouble with school and with socialising and he’d made a mistake – this was post-Columbine, pre-Sandy Hook. The subject matter was still fresh enough, out of Columbine but I guess we were removed enough from it to examine it in a way to say, ‘What is to be done about kids who are thinking about hurting themselves, or others, in school.’
Working with someone like Julie White (Liz Flahive, the playwright is now working on the show Glow) who is just a force of nature, just incredible and so generous with her talent, with her time. We had an incredible cast: everyone who was involved was top of the beam; it was a perfect confluence of events. First of all a whirlwind experience because I was so ‘in it’ it was hard to grasp what was happening at the time. Liz and Leigh had a really incredible rapport: they were able to, just on the fly, think of changes. Liz was really good about holding on to what she wanted but also altering as we went, to play to people’s strength. I had not worked on much new material, Doris To Darlene was a new play but I felt like Jordan [Harrison, the playwright] was pretty well-set in what he wanted and the piece itself was a little bit more heightened so it was hard to shift it too much. Les Waters, who directed it, had a very clear vision of what the play should be, so everything came together in a particular way. Then all of a sudden to work on something where it just felt that things were a little more amorphous, they were able to shift and build in a way that was really exciting. It really felt like we, as a group, were creating this ‘thing,’ and I had never experienced anything quite like it before.
DB: In 2009 you came over to the Old Vic: you were in the Bridge Project, directed by Sam Mendes. What was that like, living in England and acting on the London stage and what was he like as a director?
TS: That was such an incredible experience. This was the first time, as an adult, that I was out of the country. To have it be with a production like that with such an incredible group of people on that show, Simon Russell Beale and Sinead Cusack and Rebecca Hall and Ethan Hawke, it was very special. It was the first time they had done something like this; ours was the first year of this three year ‘event’ that Sam and the Old Vic put together. It was really exciting because nobody knew what it was meant to be, we were just going on the fly. Originally they were going to do it, all three years, as a Shakespeare and Chekhov production and it sort of shifted – the second year they did two Shakespeare productions and just Richard lll for the final year. Sam is such a strong leader and so wonderful about bringing people into the fold and bringing out performances. I was so blown away by his presence and by his generosity. To sit in that room with someone like Simon and I feel like when you are working with someone who is as present as he is, as intelligent as he is, it really elevates the production into a completely different world.
With the Bridge Project we had sat around for two weeks doing table work – when I say ‘sat around’ we had been doing work at the table for two weeks and it was amazing to hear everyone speaking about their parts and hearing Sam tell us what he wanted to do. The first day when we got on our feet – we were doing The Cherry Orchard – Sam had put out rugs around the floor so that the performance space was in the middle of the room and he had put couches and chairs around the outside so you could sit and watch what was happening. Charlotte Parry and Simon Russell Beale got up to do the first scene of The Cherry Orchard and Simon walks on the ‘stage’ and just does that first speech of Lopakhin’s. Everyone was transfixed! You could have put an audience in front of him, that day, and it would have been a pitch perfect performance. All of a sudden it was a different level.
I had never worked on a stage as large as the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s stage so, right out of the gate, I was already blown away by the facilities we were working in. The first leg of our trip was Singapore which was like being shot out of a cannon! They treated us beautifully. It was very exciting and strange. To then go from Singapore which is very urban and very corporate, to New Zealand (we performed in Auckland for a couple of weeks) – it was total culture shock. Everyone was very sweet there, where Singapore felt extremely urban and culturally it felt conservative, to go to Auckland and be in a city which really reminded me a lot of Philadelphia.
We went from there to Europe, we performed in Madrid and Recklinghausen in their Bühnenspiele (Ruhrfestspielhaus) that was really fascinating to see the differences between audiences, especially when it came to going from Singapore where it was a huge house which sat a couple of thousand people, to Auckland where it was a smaller house but was very loose and extremely laid back. To go from there to Madrid which was so passionate! Audiences in Spain were… during talkbacks we were laughing because they were practically fighting over the microphone to ask questions and they were so excited to have us there it was really beautiful, audiences that were that passionate about it. And then to go to Germany where it felt very intellectualised: the audiences were very responsive but in a totally different way. They were reserved and critical of the whole thing and kind of expected us to do a ‘who’s best?’ curtain call and Sam would have none of it, so we were getting these really strange two or three curtain calls where the audience didn’t want us to leave the stage because they were expecting us to come out one at a time but we weren’t doing it. So one night we had like five curtain calls because they wouldn’t let us leave until they realised we weren’t going to do it! (Laughs)
To then come to London. I had such an incredible time in London: I loved the city and I loved the people and the audiences… It felt to me very similar to the audiences that we had in the States, a similar sensibility. We were there for a similar amount of time, for performing anyway, around two-and-a-half months. The Old Vic was a great place to work and a pretty unique house as far as the structure is concerned and they put us up in some very cool apartments – we had some very nice ‘digs’ while we were there. I ended up getting a bike and just riding to work which was great, having the markets near. They were by Tower Bridge a really funky, extended stay; it was an old factory (maybe) all open in the middle with skylights but the whole roof was open; If you walked out to the side you could see the [London] Eye.
DB: You first movie role was in Rocky Balboa?
TS: (Laughs) I had done a very, very small independent film called The Other America which had premiered at Slam Dance, and before that I had done a couple of student films, including a feature-length film which took years to finish and which will never be seen. Rocky Balboa was the first major feature that I had done anything on.
DB: What was that like as a newbie to feature movies?
TS: It was really exciting! I had done some TV work and that was a bit similar but Sylvester Stallone was directing so all of a sudden you are presented with this incredible human being who is a legend – he’s larger than life – when you meet someone like that it’s a bit daunting. It was a blast!
DB: What sort of director was Stallone?
TS: He was great and he was dealing with… The scenes we were in were so big, there were probably hundreds of extras in one of them and the other one was a large bar situation so he was playing director and wrangler at the same time, just trying to get everyone to be involved. It was interesting to see him go from: ‘Alright everybody, come on let’s do this! We’re in a big scene, we’ve got to be bustling, we got to keep it going,’ to, ‘Here’s what I need you to do in this moment.’ As far as the performance goes, he was very hands off with us, because we were part of the story but we were not integral to everything that was going on but he was attentive.
Now I’ve had some experience with roles like that it makes much more sense than it did at the time – at the time I felt like, ‘What is going on? Why aren’t we talking deeply about the emotions of these characters?’ After a while you realise, these are the kinds of jobs where you show up and you have prepared to just do your work, you really need to be engaged and do your work but this is what they expect on these things. As a young actor it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the whole thing and think, ‘Oh, I’m being ignored,’ or, ‘I don’t get it: why aren’t we more engaged here?’ In my experience. You have to create that for yourself and that’s why you’re there: because they trust you to make that happen.
DB: To bring your game.
TS: Yeah, bring it. The earlier you can realise that, the better off you are.
DB: In 2012 you starred as Charlie Petunia in the comedy-drama movie, Petunia, which I loved. I thought it was really sweet and it made me laugh and it was touching. You were playing opposite Thora Birch, Michael Urie and Christine Lahti.
TS: Yeah, the cast was incredible. I totally lucked into that business: I had never done a lead in a proper feature like that before. It was independent but still large enough that it was a shock to me to be doing it and I was so excited. Ash Christian, who wrote it with Theresa [Bennett], they had an incredible script and while reading I was just blown away by the whole thing. Ash was a great director, we all met beforehand, and were rehearsing – as far as film goes, it is so rare to get to work on something where the director brings you in beforehand to work on the stuff and I got to spend some time with everyone before. It was such a lovely experience. The first scene we shot was between Michael Urie and I, and he was so wonderful. I mean this is someone I had seen and enjoyed his work and was kind of star struck being with him, just so kind, and was able to coax some performance and from then on it was great. The cast was really sweet and everyone was so excited to be working with Ash because he’s an incredible guy and we had a great time. I’m so glad you saw it.
DB: What I liked was it avoided the very predictable cheesiness that often invades that sort of film, where it becomes a bit sickly and a bit too twee. It didn’t have that, it had enough rough edges to the characters.
TS: Brittany Snow was so fun, her and Michael’s relationship was so fascinating. Christine was wonderful to work with. The scene when she and I are smoking pot! It was a fun shoot.
DB: In the movie, The Drop, you had a very brief scene with Tom Hardy and the late, great, James Gandolfini.
TS: Again, that was a really wild one to step onto. They were almost shooting it like it was an indie film: it was a really intimate set to be on, it almost felt like the cameras were set up and then they just let us go. I enjoyed it so much and the two of them were just awesome! To meet James and Tom I was blown away, again, by how generous they were and let the whole thing flow. The two of them are/were so gruff, they come across as such ‘hard men’, and Tom Hardy was a hugger – I did not expect that! He did a lot of hugging which was very surprising. He was just lovely. The day that we were with them – we were shooting for a while and then we broke for lunch, and when we broke for lunch Tom Hardy, straight off, just went out to the people who were waiting by the set (some people who had gathered to check out what was going on and get some autographs) and was meeting with people and signing stuff and saying, ‘Hey!’
DB: You’ve been in loads of TV shows from the very first ones that you landed straight away right away right through to Mindhunter, which we’ll chat about later. The Good Wife: where you played one of the, often hilarious, NSA guys?
TS: That was a trip. I really didn’t know what to expect stepping into that because that show is an institution! It was on for so long and the cast is incredible! It was funny because we didn’t really get to spend any time with them – our whole thing was meant to be observing from a distance so when people were asking, ‘How are they?’ I didn’t get to meet anybody until the end of the show. But Zach Woods was amazing to work with, that was right before he started to just do everything and anything and with Michael [Urie], getting to work with him again.
DB: It is funny, especially with the bits of paper flying across the divide.
TS: And the goats! That sort of thing is such a treat. You never know what they are going to write. I fully expected it to be two episodes and done and then have them bring us back, and though it was few and far between, it was just great!
DB: I also watched you in an episode of Fringe, playing a character called U-Gene.
TS: That was, hands down, the most bizarre television experience I have ever had! They decided that they wanted me to be invisible and they wanted the invisibility to mirror what happens in Predator, when you kind of still see the outline. So rather than digitally recreate that or do a little green screen work with me, they decided the way they would do it is to paint me green. So I spent two days of shooting with them painted shocking, fluorescent green! (Both laugh) And then one day… the whole thing is that they use UV light to reveal me… so when they did that they had this special white UV paint and they painted me with this UV paint. There were two days of shooting where I was painted two different colours and then, in between that, I went to shoot another film called Reservoir and they called me back to do some reshoots and I had cut all my hair, so they had to put a kind of Hulk green hair piece on me! It was a fun experience and I had never been to Canada before we shot the thing and it is a beautiful area to be in.
DB: Was that Vancouver?
TS: Yes it was. It was gorgeous and it was a good time of the year to be there, a really funky part of town near the Gas Town district with the cobblestones and everything.
DB: Then you were in one episode – getting murdered – in The Following.
TS: Yes, again very strange. The Following, that show is so dark, it was brutal! I hadn’t auditioned for it, they had just sort of called up and said, ‘Hey, do you want to get killed?’ ‘Sure. Why not? I guess.’ (Both laugh)
DB: What about Happyish? I know it only lasted a season, with Steve Coogan, and you played Gustaf who only ever whispers in to the other guy’s ear: what were the challenges of that? Were you actually saying anything or were you pretending to say something?
TS: Mostly just pretending to say things. That was just an incredible experience because watching Steve Coogan do his thing was… he’s brilliant and he and Bradley Whitford, together, were an awesome pair. The first day that we shot – about half-an-hour into the shooting – they started talking about Marlon Brando and specifically about The Godfather and for the rest of the day they were just exchanging Marlon Brando impressions. To watch people who have had as much experience in television and film as they have had… Bradley Whitford, to me, is just… it doesn’t get any better. He is an incredible actor – all of the West Wing is amazing – and Steve Coogan is hilarious! I feel that I was so lucky to get a chance to see them work and to be with them working.
DB: It’s a shame it didn’t get a second season because I was wondering whether Gustaf would ever actually speak, because you almost got to speak!
TS: That was what was so exciting about the whole thing. Shalom [Auslander] who created the show, had so many ideas as to where it was going to go and he is just a fascinating human being and I love his writing and if you ever get the chance his autobiography entitled ‘The Foreskin’s Lament’ is amazing. (Both laugh) His extremely dark sense of humour is pretty incredible and Ken Kwapis, who was running the show, he was great, so supportive. He stepped in after…
We shot the pilot with Philip Seymour Hoffman and it was a completely different show when we shot it with him. The idea behind what our character line would be, Nils and I, was through this really bizarre, heightened comedy. Ken kind of stepped in and was going to try and to make it into something a little more grounded and there was a bit of give and take and eventually things were not working out and they couldn’t work out what to do. And then, of course, it turned out that Phil was extremely unhappy and when he overdosed it was devastating! I figured, at that time, that that was over and that the show would never come back again – the fact that it did was incredible. It was strange because I looked at Philip Seymour Hoffman as just one of the greatest and it was such an honour to work with him, to see him in action and the way that he was working with Shalom. It was clear that he was not really doing well, at the time. I didn’t really know him well. We had spent some time rehearsing. It was such a blow! Thank goodness Steve could do it and I was really disappointed that it only lasted a season.
DB: I thought it was fabulous. It was different, off the wall, challenging, dark.
TS: I think that dark humour and the fact that it did sort of bend genres along the way, with the cartoons. My family watched it and they were really upset with the language. (Both laugh) My mother specifically said, ‘Do people talk like that? Do they actually talk to each other like that?’ ‘Mum.. I… yes they do.’ (Both laugh)
DB: Turning to Mindhunter: how did you land the role of Dwight Taylor?
TS: It was such a long process: I went on tape for it, I think, a year before and I booked it a couple of months after I went in and they basically put it on the back burner. Between booking the job and shooting it feels like it was almost two years, which is really unusual.
DB: You sent tapes in, so did they then do a call back?
TS: I feel like that was one where I just went on tape and they cast it off the first tape. At this point that’s not unusual: I’ve had enough work that people can look at it on-line and they can compare what I do in an audition.
DB: When you were building up for filming, how did you actually prepare for the role?
TS: It was really just looking at what was said in the scene because I really didn’t have too much more than what was in that script. Just trying to build a bit of a background for myself before we got there. I wasn’t in any communication really with anyone beforehand. They brought me in about a week before we shot, just to check in and meet Asif [Kapadia, the director of the episode] and got ready to go.
DB: And costuming as well..
TS: Yes. Which was so gross! It was one of those parts where they were like, ‘Okay, that looks gross. We’ll go with that!’ (Laughs) ‘You look slimey, just don’t shave for a couple of days and we’ll give you some spots.’
DB: I suppose it wasn’t such a deep, dark role, like some of the other serial killers, that it might potentially have a lasting effect on you.
TS: Yeah, I didn’t have to live in it for too long, which was nice, although I will say we smoked so many cigarettes when we were shooting. Oh my God, I got so sick! The first day of shooting we must have gone through two packs of cigarettes, it was just revolting!
DB: Were you smoking real cigarettes?
TS: We did… it was such a bad idea. I was, ‘You know what? Realism! Let’s just do it!’ I was so sick by the time I got back to the hotel, I just laid down on the bed and hallucinated for the rest of the evening. (Both laugh)
DB: How many days were you filming for?
TS: That was two days and it was really amazing because the scene was very long! I think it was five or eight pages, which is very unusual for a television show (even a large scene might be four pages) and this was just us speaking to each other for that long. It seemed like everything was that way, they just let you do the scenes in a way that most shows don’t. To see them take their time with it and to make sure that everything was correct and David [Fincher] was there and he was making sure that everything was running smoothly but Asif was really running it, it was his episode. I think things were going well because Fincher wasn’t stepping in and being like, ‘This is my show!’ He was joking around with everybody and seemed really happy.
He and Holt have known each other forever! Jonathan was such a sweet guy, for such dark subject matter he is such a light presence, he’s such a light touch and he’s able to remain calm and still, in a way that really draws you in, as an actor, when you speak with him. He has this magnetism about him that is very charming and it’s very disarming – so appropriate for that role – and that’s him! He just is that way. Holt was great, Peter [Murnik] and Cynthia [Mace] who played my mum: we were joking about how awful these people were and in real life she’s just a really lovely, sweet woman.
DB: Do you think Holt and Jonathan have different approaches in their acting?
TS: I do! It’s interesting to step into a set like that where they’ve been going, so when you rehearse with them it’s more about making sure they are staying on point. They’re very generous and they allowed me to step into this situation and we did spend some time talking about things but again, it’s about bringing the work you have done and just making sure that’s presented for them. I think the way that they work meshes really well: I think Holt has a very specific way that he dives into things and he is very much that character – he seems a bit brusque and focussed and hard and that’s what he’s going to do, he’s very generous at the same time and that draws you in and creates a situation where you want to be taking with him; Jonathan seemed to be able to be a bit more fluid.
DB: What was it like working with David Fincher?
TS: I was there for rehearsals with him which really just consisted of reading through the scene once and then listening to him break down all of the changes in the scene. (Laughs) He was very engaging! It was a fascinating day because I got to watch him working and doing his thing and he is very particular and he knows what it is that he is going for and he knows how to tell a story, obviously. It was all business: get it done, it’s going to happen, okay everybody’s on the same page, let’s move on. And I think it was quite the opposite from (at least from what I’ve heard) his shooting style which is, ‘Let’s live in this moment as long as we can.’
Holt and I were talking and Holt said, ‘Be grateful that you’re not working with David today, smoking all these cigarettes, because we would do this a hundred times!’ That’s just the way he works. You saw it in the rehearsals but ultimately Asif was directing the episode and he was really lovely. I got to meet him beforehand and he was the one who had passed me, which was awesome, and I am so grateful to him for making that effort. He was great. He knew what it was that he was looking for. He wanted to talk through everything and make sure that we were on the same page beforehand and it was just a bit of the two of us chatting through what we needed to do, so that once we got to set, we could just sort of plug that in.
DB: Have you watched the whole show yourself?
TS: I did.
DB: What did you think of it as a whole?
TS: Man it was just amazing! I was really blown away by the entire production of it and my family were making fun of me because I kept recommending people watch it. ‘Oh yeah, because you’re in it!’ (Both laugh) ‘Well, yes, I am in it but… also it’s a really good show.’
It is something I think is so unique because they let you live in this place, not just the subject matter because that is dark and it’s really difficult to watch sometimes, but it’s not difficult because it’s violent, and it’s not difficult because it’s graphic, but it’s just… you are listening to these people talk about this horror and still be human! How we deal with that. The arc of the show, to me, is really incredible! I don’t want to give any spoilers for people who end up reading this but what Jonathan [Ford] goes through is just incredible! I think it also forces you to empathise with the people who have committed these atrocities. I think I’ve had experience through acting where I’ve got to look at a part and say, ‘This person did something horrible and how can I connect with that? How can I empathise with this person even though they just disgust me?’ I think a normal person, in their everyday life, doesn’t have to look at those things, doesn’t have to be put in that position. It really makes you wonder at certain points. I had a conversation with my step-father about it and he asked me how it was that I could do these things, how I could play these roles of people who do awful, terrible things, and not drive myself crazy with it. We had a long conversation about it and I think you really do have to be careful when you’re doing this stuff because you’re thinking about horrible, terrible things that people do to each other. And I really just want to do another comedy! (Laughs)
DB: I thought what else was really good is that it deliberately challenges this idea that these people are merely ‘evil.’
TS: Right! The psychology of the whole thing is trying to do is, how are these people – and yes, some of them are obviously psychotic and psychopaths. I don’t think anyone who is doing something like that is at all ‘normal’ in their brain chemistry or their personality, to begin with. It’s not that these people are just going through this stuff, it’s said that something is triggered in you, in your life, early on, where you just lose the ability to be a normal, socialised human.
DB: Were you surprised by the enormous positive reaction that Mindhunter got?
TS: I guess so. I didn’t know what to expect. I was really intrigued by it. I thought just being there and seeing what they were doing was very exciting but I had no idea what the rest of the show was. I had no idea what they were creating. I only knew what they had shown me – which was very little. I had read the book, so I knew the gist of what they were going to be exploring and I thought maybe it would be, I don’t know what I expected… maybe more action, maybe more violence, just not what it was. I was so positively surprised by the end result and I thought it was a bit genius and I didn’t know what other people were going to think and I’m so happy that it has gotten the response it has because it’s so different, it’s so exciting! And it’s really, I think, such a unique story to be told. They’re not trying to make it an action show, they’re not trying to make it a cop show, they’re just presenting the psychology of it that to me has always been the most fascinating part of acting really, is the psychology and into the mind of someone and I’ve played some pretty awful characters in the past. But to see that presented in such a really beautiful way, it’s kind of brutally honest, and it’s really unsettling.
DB: Some actors watch their performances on screen, some rarely do and some never do: do you normally watch yourself?
TS: Ah! Somethings I’ve avoided. I’ve become more uncomfortable watching myself as I’ve got older which is odd, I guess, I don’t know. I don’t necessarily enjoy watching myself on screen. There are some things that I’ve been able to distance myself from: like I did a part in John Wick 2 and that was just so over the top and weird and I was totally bearded, did not look at all like me, so when I watch that I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, I remember that dude’s weird!’ But, God, I watched Sneaky Pete and I actually had to stop watching because I couldn’t watch myself on it. I mean, I ended up watching the whole show but when my stuff came on I had to turn it off and like go for a walk outside! (Both laugh)
DB: Are there other actors that you really admire?
TS: Wow! I have been fortunate enough to meet a couple. I’ve always loved Giovanni Ribisi’s work and to get a chance to work with him on Sneaky Pete (he directed one of the episodes) was so exciting for me. Sam Rockwell, is always exciting and Frances McDormand, I think she’s just… Then I got to meet Laurence Fishburne during John Wick and he is just one of those guys who have been doing it for so long, he was 15 when they started doing Apocalypse Now, and he’s had this life experience that is just incredible.
DB: Since you filmed Mindhunter what have you been doing?
TS: We did the second season of Sneaky Pete and I think that’ll come out in March 2018. I just did a very, very small scene in the new M Knight Shyamalan movie. He was lovely and I got to work with Sarah Paulson, who is awesome and really cool.
DB: I guess you can’t tell me anything about that because that’s cloaked in secrecy isn’t it?
TS: You know, it’s funny that you say that, I couldn’t tell you anything about it because I don’t know anything about it! I shot on it! I know nothing! I mean, I know the words that I said and the words that she said and that is about as far as I can direct you. (Laughs). Sorry. It was lovely. I was there for a day and it was just a quick scene and he was very sweet. He had actually seen the production of Equus that I did way back, so I appreciate him bringing me in. I’m excited to see it because I don’t know what to expect!
DB: Is there any particular piece of advice you can offer anyone considering a career in acting?
TS: I think really just trusting in the work that you put in and being open, staying open. I think the biggest hurdle that I’ve ever had to get over is being too stuck in my own brain. I think if you trust in yourself and that the work you have put in is going to pay off, eventually, you can just stick with it. Everybody’s careers, the paths that take us to that place are so varied, there’s no way to know if what you’re doing is going to work until it’s done and you can look at it and say, ‘Oh yeah! That worked (or not).’ I’ve had plenty of times where I’ve looked back on something and said, ‘Well, could have done differently.’ I feel like a lot of it has to be with being a good person, being an open person.
DB: What was the first single or album that you ever bought?
TS: I don’t know what I purchased myself but the first single I remember owning was “Thriller”. We had a single of “Thriller” and it was on a cassette and we my brother and I had this tiny little Fisher Price tape deck and we would just put that in and play it over and over again – and it scared the living bejesus out of me almost every time! Then my dad had a great record player and he used to listen to The White Album – I remember “Rocky Raccoon” would make me so upset every time I listened to it because it seemed like such a devastating story that this poor man would get shot. Every time. And “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”, I remember listening to that, I actually loved that song so much I made a little comic book out of it. A lot of people getting shot I’ve just realised: two songs about people getting hit. Huh!
DB: Which genres of music do you like listening to?
TS: Anything really. I’ve been listening to, recently, my roommate turned me onto Stars of the Lid, which is very ambient, deep and strange and I’ve been doing some Tortoise but I’ve also got the new St. Vincent album which is excellent!
DB: Is there a song, or songs, that take you back to a special time in your life?
TS: Anything by Radiohead just takes me back to the first time I ever listened to it. I think that, of all the bands I ever listened to, they are in constant rotation in some form or another. I’ll never forget the first time I ever listened to “Kid A”, the whole album, Okay, Computer had been in my rotation ever since it came out and I was so excited to hear “Kid A”. A friend of mine convinced me to get tickets to listen to “Kid A” at a special screening at an I-Max movie theatre in our town, and they were going to play a 3-D film about an undersea activities while “Kid A” played and it was on this huge sound system and they just cranked it and it was just mind boggling! Besides live music I had never experienced anything quite like that before and I have never seen them live and they are a band I would just love to see them at some point. I got to see the side-project, Atoms for Peace, in Philly a while ago and that was pretty awesome.
DB: Is there a movie soundtrack or a theme that you particularly love?
TS: I really enjoyed There Will Be Blood. A decent mix. The stuff that Jonny Greenwood was doing was fascinating, when he took the Penderecki, that double album that he did, his composition. He’s done some really fascinating, very inspiring sound for film.
DB: Which concert have you been to is what you regard as the best you’ve ever been to?
TS: I got to see My Morning Jacket play in Philadelphia once and I had never heard them before, it was right when Z had come out and it was so surprising because I didn’t know their music, at all. That was a pretty magical experience.
DB: What was the most recent gig you went to?
TS: My friend, Matt and Megan, they have a band called Pants and it’s a pretty wild ride; they opened up for King Missile a little while ago and that was pretty entertaining.
DB: Is there any artist or band that you’ve not seen that you would really love to see perform live?
TS: Oh yeah! Radiohead, for sure – I would love to end up at one of theirs. I think I would love to see a St. Vincent show, she’s pretty awesome.
DB: Do you dance, if the dance music comes on?
TS: I dabble. I usually get laughed at pretty hard but it’s fun!
DB: I know that feeing but we’re good really, it’s just that other people don’t appreciate our talent.
TS: Exactly! Thank you, a great way of putting it! (Both laugh)
DB: What are your guilty music pleasures?
TS: Oh no! Something like Frightened Rabbit or something, really emotionally manipulative. The whole Ryan Adams covering Taylor Swift thing was pretty awesomely giving me pleasure. It was really fun!
DB: What was the last song or album that you heard that really excited you?
TS: You know, I hadn’t listened to Standards, the Tortoise album, in a long time and I put it on recently and I had forgotten how good it was. But as far as new album Lean Year, their stuff is just heart-rending. The new HAIM album was really interesting, kind of poppy, fun.
Three questions we ask everyone:
DB: What is your favourite word?
TS: I have thought about this and I think ‘joy.’ It’s so simple and it means so much and it’s hard to find sometimes, but when you do it’s magic!
DB: How would you describe your perfect day?
TS: Oh, I think a trip out of the city. I really have loved, recently, going down to my parents and just being able to spend some time with them and I don’t like travel but I love being home. To me that’s just a wonderful thing, just to wake up with them and to be able to spend some time, doesn’t really matter what we are doing. My mother and I just spent a day making Christmas gifts and it was just lovely.
DB: What could you not possibly live without?
TS: (Laughs) You know I’ve always had some form of graphic fiction, like comic books or graphic novels. That form of storytelling, to me, is something that just fills me with pleasure. I think at this point, I don’t think I could really centre myself (laughs) or calm things down without being put through a lovely graphic story of some kind. I’ve just picked up a old Tony Millionaire Sock Monkey book that was really entertaining and I’ve always loved Chris Wares’ work and I used to read Sam Kieth, when I was a kid, there was a series called The Maxx that was really just weird and fun. I find it both inspiring and then really a pleasant escape and I think I need that sometimes.