Kelly AuCoin is an American actor who is currently gracing our TV screens in a number of roles: Pastor Tim on ‘The Americans’, ‘Dollar Bill’ Stearn on ‘Billions’, Gary Stamper on ‘House of Cards’ and Benjamin Stalder on ‘The Blacklist’.
I had the absolute privilege of interviewing Kelly over the course of a couple of hours of conversation. Part 1 focuses on his acting career in Film, TV and Theatre, part 2 will concentrate on his music memories and choices.
*Since first publishing the interview I have added some extra content regarding Damian Lewis from Billions and Frank Langella from The Americans that I had previously not included.
PC: You first appeared on TV in one of your father’s campaign commercials, did this give you a taste for acting? If not, was there a defining moment when you knew you wanted to be an actor?
KA: That was my first on screen appearance but I was in college already and I’d already declared to the world that I wanted to be an actor. I caught the bug. I come from a performing family; my grandfather played the mandolin. He played a lot of old timey stuff in our restaurant which was kind of an old fashioned saloon. He would always play there with a bluegrass band he was part of. Also my Mom was a singer, she was wonderful and then my dad was a politician so there was a certain amount of acting and performance in that. I think I was doomed from the get-go, but the first spark, the first beam of a light bulb above my head was 4th grade. I was in a play the school chorus teacher had written, called ‘The Trial of Mother Goose’. I was Old King Cole and I was leading the denizens of fairy tale land in a lawsuit against Mother Goose for defamation of character. We sang all our little numbers and at some point I did something that was maybe slightly off track and the audience laughed. I remember just thinking, ‘oh my god! Fantastic!’ and I think I kind of wanted to be an actor since that moment on stage.
PC: When you did that commercial for your Dad did he pay you in sweets? Or did he say you’re doing that commercial son, that’s it?
KA: That’s very funny. I did not get paid! It’s funny because the gist of the commercial was that my dad was a cheap skate, he was a liberal Democrat, they had the unfair label of being big spenders so they had me washing the family car. It’s kind of ironic I did not get paid I hadn’t even put that together.
PC: Thinking back to the first five years as an actor how do you think you have grown?
KA: I think I’m calmer, more comfortable in my own skin and that translates through my performances I think. At least, I hope so?
PC: It does!
KA: I think there’s a level of calm. I mean I always, every actor does I think, freak out about unemployment in the future. There’s always some point in every rehearsal process where I’m convinced that I’m going to be found out as a fraud, but those moments are fewer and fewer. The other thing is I think I have a wonderful network of supportive friends in the business. I’ve worked with and collected wonderful souls along the way. Especially if you go out of town, you have this readymade family for one to three months. It behooves people to get along and usually you do and every once in a while you meet people who stick with you for life and become lifelong friends.
PC: Like Jenny?
KA: Like Jenny Mudge! We have been great friends for almost 10 years but we’d never performed together, we’d done readings a number of times in the past but we’d never performed together until last summer in the Manhattan Theatre Club production of ‘Of Good Stock’ and that was a joy. I had a lot of fun, in my scenes with her.
PC: So when you moved to New York did you get to do acting straight away or was it still a kind of a hard slog?
KA: It was a hard damn slog! I was in Los Angeles before that, my wife is from LA where she was a physical therapist aid and a dancer. She reached what she could reach in LA and decided to move to New York and I moved with her. Nothing was happening for me in LA, I think I had five auditions in a year and a half.
PC: Why is that? I mean what’s the difference between Los Angeles and New York in terms of getting work?
KA: I’d just come from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival where I’d had two years and it was wonderful that rep, the rep company type of situation, is terrific and it’s great for young actors to learn. I wish we had that more in America. I feel sort of cheated that when I was younger I didn’t have the opportunity to do that for longer and to play and try to be able to fail even and learn something from failure in all the great roles.
I was with them for two seasons in Oregon, then came down to be with Carolyn. I think the problem was, I went to a school that was absolutely wonderful and even though I got what I needed out of it in so many ways, I didn’t learn much about the business itself. I was very free spirited and so I didn’t think necessarily a lot about my presentation, I didn’t know how to sell myself, which is kind of odd since I grew up in a political family.
When Carolyn decided to move to New York, there was nothing to keep me in LA so I went with her. It was still difficult but when I was living in Los Angeles right before moving to New York, I went to the Illinois Shakespeare Festival and played Iachimo in Cymbeline and Hal in the two Henry IV’s so that was my buffer. Being in LA I got back to Shakespeare, back to my roots and then launched into New York where there was a lot of TV and film, particularly now. It was a more theatre based town, so I felt more comfortable even as the roles didn’t come in right away. However, I just felt like…
PC: …That it would happen eventually?
KA: Well, yes I hoped. There were a number of times when I worried that it wouldn’t. There was something about the vocabulary and the vibe of the people, because theatres are prominent in the town, more fundamentally jacked with my own vibe. “Jacked with my vibe” I can’t believe I just said that (laughs). It took quite a long time before I got my first off, off, off Broadway show and then it just slowly started to trickle. I had a huge break in 2005 when I got ‘Julius Caesar’ on Broadway.
PC: Was that with Denzel Washington?
KA: Yes, with Denzel Washington. He is great, by far the biggest star I’ve ever worked with. He is, in my estimation, the modern day equivalent of the old Hollywood actors such as Jimmy Stewart, Bette Davis and Cary Grant. He is absolutely in that bracket. He would be in the Green room getting coffee, saying “Hey how are you”. He was pretty much an everyday guy. He kept to himself a little bit but more probably because he was focusing on his character and what he wanted to do in rehearsals. Denzel was pretty extraordinarily cool, and available.
PC: Fans often put actors on a pedestal but in reality we are all just people, we sometimes think it’s a case of ‘us and them’ but it’s not. Everyone I’ve interviewed so far has been lovely.
KA: Well that’s great. That’s nice to hear. Acting with Denzel cured me of being star struck, you can’t get much bigger than Denzel Washington! He was cool and my character had to be pretty much an asshole to him. If I could deal with being in the same room on stage with him, I could handle…
PC: Anywhere with anyone?
KA: Yeah exactly! Then the next year I did a Terrence McNally play at Second Stage. It’s a great off-Broadway house and Terrence McNally is a great writer, so that 1-2 punch helped. It certainly didn’t solidify things, but it definitely helped to put me on the map a little bit and then you just do readings and workshops, you get to know people, a lot of these wonderful writers and directors, and different workshops. People call around and say I’m having trouble casting this person can you recommend someone, you’ve known this person for X-number of years, doing X-number of projects and the next project they might say, “Yeah Kelly AuCoin”.
PC: Yeah so it’s what you’re saying about networking and knowing people?
KA: Yeah, it’s slow, slow, slow. I know it was for me, I was not an overnight success.
PC: I have just watched the final episode of Season 1 of ‘Billions’, it’s really good and it’s very clever, I really like it. How do you find people’s reactions are to the difference between you being known as nice guy Pastor Tim in ‘The Americans’ and how you portray “Dollar Bill” Stearn? Do people love to love you or love to hate you more?
KA: The biggest difference is that everyone seems to love Dollar Bill, the sociopathic bigamist and everyone’s hating just the nicest, most misunderstood character on ‘The Americans’. Pastor Tim, as far as I’m concerned has revealed himself to be much more straightforward than people thought he was. Everyone thought initially he might be a pedophile, I think that’s to do with the wig. No one thinks that anymore thank God, then people thought that he might have some agenda. Which sometimes I think might be a knee jerk reaction to religion, we are used to seeing religious characters with some sort of ulterior motive and I think it’s kind of radical to see this portrayal, and it’s one I remember.
I don’t come from a religious family but my Dad who was a liberal Democrat was in office during these years we lived in DC, and during these years I was actually the same age as Paige, who is the teenage daughter of Soviet spies. I grew up in Washington at the same time, at the same age as Paige is, but my Dad on the campaign trail was often working with liberal progressive churches. They didn’t always agree on everything, but had lots of common ground. That’s not the story that anyone tells about religion anymore, partially because the radical right has taken over the religious conversation in America.
PC: Yeah it is a shame that we think “Oh there’s something going to happen here” instead of just accepting it for what it is.
KA: Yes and again things do change on the show. I never see scripts more than a couple of days or if I’m lucky it’s a week ahead of time so I’m not giving anything away if the J’s (Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg) were to read this, they might start snickering and say “Huh, you’ve no idea, you’re an assassin who works for the Mossad”.
*KA: t’s interesting, on the show Alison Wright who plays Martha is English and Matthew Rhys who plays Phillip Jennings is from Wales.
PC: With a name like that he would have to be wouldn’t he? It’s funny how many Brits are on The Americans and on Billions as well.
KA: Yes, I know, I know!
PC: I can never get over, hearing Damian Lewis speaking English, I always imagine he speaks like he does in Homeland or Billions.
KA: I loved seeing him play Henry VIII in Wolf Hall, he was so great and it was the first time I’d heard him act in his native accent. The scenes with him and Mark Rylance, who is quite possibly my favourite actor, the two of them together was just amazing.
PC: Had you worked with Frank Langella before?
KA: No, he’s pretty great too. I had an audition with him once, though, about 10 years ago. He was doing A Man For All Seasons on Broadway. I had an audition for the show, and a call back, and all my scenes were going to be with Thomas More, Langella’s role, so he was in the room. I got an adjustment from the director and it went well, and I remember, as I was leaving, Langella stopped me by the arm and said “That was a very smart audition.” I was appropriately thrilled that one of my idols told me I was good, but I also knew right then that I was not getting the part! Nobody says stuff like that if you get the part. A frustrating, and kind of amusing, semi-truth…
But, I thought it was lovely that he wanted to say something nice to a young actor, and he made my year, truth be told. I coasted for months on the fact that Frank Goddamn Langella told me I was a brilliant actor! (His compliment grew in my memory)
And, you know, honestly, there are a handful of actors, and maybe directors and casting people, who I so crazy-respect, that if they see me in a play, and they make a point to tell me my work is good, it’ll sustain me for the better part of the next year. Much more than a good review. Langella did that for me.
If I ever get a scene with him in The Americans or anything I’m going to tell him “you have to know you made my year”.
PC: It was nice that he did that.
KA: It was really nice because, you know, we have so much rejection and so many “experts” giving their opinion of us. I sort of decided that there are certain people, people I admire, who I will listen to when they have something to say about me. Actually I just remembered a Prince interview I read once, where he talked about reading an interview by Stevie Wonder about ‘Journey Through the Secret Life Of Plants.’ Critics hated it, it didn’t sell that well, But he was like, I’m a musician, I don’t care what the critics say, my musician friends get it. And Prince was saying that’s how he operated. And I do too, now. Or at least that’s how I try to think. It’s much more satisfying. Last summer I was doing a show in NYC, and two of my actor idols came to see it on the same night. They both took me aside and what they said was infinitely more important to me than what any critic said.
PC: In regards to ‘Billions’, how well do you think the characters represent the real life hedge fund people? Do you think it’s a true representation of Billionaires?
KA: Well I have no first-hand knowledge, but I know once the series aired, a lot of people at the gym would come up to me and say “Hey Dollar Bill, I worked in Wall Street… oh my God”. The general consensus was “it’s not exactly like that, maybe but you captured the spirit of it and I love it”, I’m guessing. Plus, we have Andrew Ross Sorkin, he’s one of the show’s creators, he knows a lot about this world. We had consultants on set to make sure the moment to moment stuff makes sense, make sure that’s all real, so I have to think that this is all real(ish). The specifics obviously are fictional, but yeah.
PC: What has been your favourite or best line of dialogue?
KA: My favourite scene was the fake fight scene.
PC: Yeah that’s everyone’s favourite scene.
KA: God that was so much fun to shoot. I’d actually lost my voice, and had just sort of gotten it back that day, but you can tell in the very first line I say something like “Thank you” off in the distance still coming into the room. I sound like I’ve said it so many times but I sounded like a malevolent frog, creepy. For some reason when I was yelling my voice was okay.
I think I’m going to say my favourite line from that show would probably be, there’s something about lines with a lot of consonants, when he tells me “poke me back” and I say “I’ll poke you all goddamn day”, very satisfying rhythmically and consonant wise.
PC: When you have a five minute break on set, what does a typical actor do, apart from go on Twitter?
KA: Well, it depends on the project, it depends on the day, and on how much sleep you’ve had. Also, how hard your day has been. Sometimes you’re just there, you know immediately what’s exactly right for the scene. It’s best for me to keep loose and be joking with people, depending on the nature of the scene we are about to shoot, I can almost carry over. It’s almost like you improv at the beginning, and then when you start the dialogue, the scene is already underway because you’re acting with your scene partner. Other times maybe if it’s for something more emotional it does help me to go off on my own to concentrate and focus. Then sometimes, especially in a show like this where I don’t know the terminology, I don’t inherently understand the hedge fund world that I’m learning about, sometimes it’s literally getting the terminology right, cramming that in my head.
PC: So a break is not really a break when they say “Let’s break”?
KA: Yeah, but it’s the nicest thing. I mean both of these sets, are full of amazingly fun people, not just nice, but really good, funny people and that helps to keep the vibe light. It is really significant, it becomes a supportive vibe, and everyone gets excited when someone has a good take. On ‘Billions’ for instance we have the Axe Capital people, all of us who inhabit the office, we get along great. One of the actors, Dan Soder who plays Mafee, he’s a comedian. He was in Philadelphia taping his first hour long [special] for Comedy Central and five of us or more came down from New York to see him. So we were in the audience for the taping. We really like each other, we feed off each other’s energy, that’s just a pleasant place to go. It’s the same thing on ‘The Americans’, I don’t have a group around me, I’m often on set with the two people who want to kill me, but they are great. Keri and Matthew are really generous and they are both insanely funny as well, so it’s a good time. Suzy Hunt plays my wife and Holly Taylor who plays Paige, are just really nice good people who are fun to talk to, so it’s not a drag.
PC: So you’ve recently been cast in ‘The Blacklist’ as Benjamin Stalder, what was the audition process? How did you come to get that role?
KA: I actually didn’t audition for it. I was fortunate enough to be offered the role and it was great! I’m guessing that they knew the other two shows and saw my reel and there were definitely things on the reel that fit at least the basic idea of what they wanted Stalder to be, I’m lucky they saw something they liked.
PC: Did the writers give you much information about the character or were you able to bring some of yourself to the role?
KA: It’s was all on the page you know, I knew who he was, I knew where he worked, I knew what his profession was, then it was just a matter of playing with the actors in the scene. The main scene was the interrogation scene. The first day on the set actually was when Nez Rowan played by Tawny Cypress, was beating the s**t out of me, which was a blast! I actually know her, we spent a few days on Elementary together, and we got along very well so it was nice to see her again.
PC: Are we going to see you in more episodes of ‘The Blacklist’? Are you going to be in the spin off, ‘The Blacklist: Redemption’?
KA: I don’t know anything.
PC: “I know nothing”?
KA: “I know nothing”. In my final scene in the season finale when I discovered who the actor was playing my boss Alexander Kirk, and I got to act with him, I was thrilled that it was Ulrich Thomsen. He was the star of a movie called ‘The Celebration’, which was one of my favourite movies. It came out 15-20 years ago. I love that movie and I thought his performance was extraordinary. I’ve always remembered that performance so getting to act with him was a thrill.
PC: Did you get to tell him that?
KA: I did, while I was shooting with him I was like, ‘why is he so familiar?’ We became Facebook friends and I looked him up on IMDB once I got home, I nearly jumped out of my chair. I messaged him and he was like “oh thanks”. He was very, very modest. That was a wonderful thing.
I knew Amir Arison before ‘The Blacklist’ as well. He and I did a play together at the La Jolla Playhouse 4 or 5 years ago now and I had a great time with him.
PC: He is a really nice guy isn’t he?
KA: Yeah he’s a sweetheart. And then on ‘Billions’, David Costabile the guy who plays ‘Wags’, he and I were roommates, housemates (along with 2 others) in our junior year in London. We went on this program, you stay in a hostel for a few days and everyone teams up to find places and people to live with, and we lived together. Then we’d actually run into each other a few times, a handful of times in New York subsequently, but it wasn’t until the table read for the pilot of Billions, it was “oh you”, “oh you” “Cool”.
PC: Did you hang out with Amir Arison when you were on ‘The Blacklist’ set or did you not have time for that?
KA: No there isn’t generally, I mean on ‘The Blacklist’ set I didn’t have any scenes with Amir, but I always seemed to be shooting right after he was shooting his scenes talking about me, looking at my picture. So I was always prepping for my next scene, watching him on set, talking about me and we’d be like “whattt”. But on the ‘Billions’ set I do manage to chat with David and all the other cast on shoots in between takes.
PC: There is some great music on ‘Billions’ as well and ‘The Blacklist’ I think, the tracks they pick for both of those shows are really good.
KA: Yeah it’s pretty wonderful. The composers for ‘Billions’ and ‘The Americans’ I think do extraordinarily good work. ‘The Americans’ is pretty famous for choosing pop songs of the era, in unusual and really cool ways, it’s always fun to see what they’re going to choose.
In the pilot for ‘The Americans’, one of the main scenes right before the teaser, was a long chase scene. It was all done to an extended version of “Tusk” by Fleetwood Mac. I love that song, that’s one of the great underrated songs I think. I remember I flipped out when I first saw it. From that moment I was like this is my favourite show! It was the best use of a pop song on a TV show I think I’d ever seen.
PC: You’re in a few films coming out this year, with Alec Baldwin and one with Robert De Niro, is that correct?
KA: Yeah I was in a movie called ‘Drunk Parents’ with Alec Baldwin and Salma Hayek. It was the first sort of all out comedy I’ve been able to shoot, so that was fun. The HBO mini-series ‘Wizard of Lies’ which is a Barry Levinson movie about Bernie Madoff, and Robert De Niro plays Madoff.
PC: Are they being released this year?
KA: Yes, they should be. I don’t have the dates myself, but they should be. I hope they come out soon. I did them a while ago now.
PC: How does it compare being on set on a film as opposed to a TV role? What’s the difference with regards to rehearsals and time spent being on set?
KA: TV moves faster, it has to. But, it also depends on the budget of the movie. When I shot ‘The Kingdom’ years ago, the biggest budget movie I think I had a role on, it felt like we had all the time in the world. Part of that was because the director was so great at capturing so many angles at once, running three cameras at once most of the time, so we actually finished ahead of time. It felt like we could take all the time in the world. In TV you get two weeks at the most to shoot an episode and you have to get it.
PC: So is it longer hours on a TV series? Would you be on set longer for a TV series in any given day compared to a movie?
KA: I think more likely that you will be on set longer, and at the end of any shoot schedule you’re going to have longer days or more likely to have longer days just because things get backed up or you lose days because of weather or illness or something like that.
Drunk Parents ended up, in some ways, being a lot more like my experiences on TV, in the sense that we had very little time to get the shots they wanted. I didn’t know any of this until I arrived on set, but that morning they had lost both the venues where I was supposed to shoot. One was in a parking garage and the other was some sort of restaurant or diner. In any case, BOTH of them pulled out so they were scrambling to find replacements. They found a coffee shop that was willing to shut down for a couple of hours (I assume he was paid handsomely) and we shot the scene in a very limited amount of time. It was kind of a blast.
PC: How much can you improvise when you have a script? How much are actors able to improvise?
KA: It really depends on the moment and the production. During filming of ‘Drunk Parents’, Alec Baldwin and Salma Hayek were so funny and they were just improvising with the writers and the director, they were constantly just shifting things around. It was fun, I mean it was often hard for me to keep from laughing. I have had times where the director has said, “let’s loosen this up and let’s improvise this a little bit better”, and “don’t feel too married to the exact wording”.
PC: And does it depend on the director?
KA: Yes it depends on the director too. Often time’s directors are only there for one episode, so I suppose it’s possible that they might not feel as comfortable as one of the show creators or executive producers who are directing an episode in letting an actor go off script a bit.
So it depends on the director and it is fun when someone allows you to go off a little bit, especially if you’ve been on the show for a while and you have had a part in creating your characters arc, at that point you sometimes get more leeway. Maybe even a bit more of a say while shooting it, about whether or not you can change words here and there, or at least it’s kosher for you to suggest changes, whether or not they’re accepted.
PC: Yes, because you know the character?
KA: Yes, it’s also to do with what the directors want, what the producers want, and what the writers want. It becomes the longer you are on a show, the more you created your character, the more you have a say in it, or at least a voice in it.
At this point we ran out of time and I realised I hadn’t asked Kelly a single music question, we arranged to chat again, which we have done at great length.
Part 2 coming soon…,
To get to know Kelly AuCoin better, follow him on Twitter to keep up with his latest projects!
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.