Adam Stephenson is an actor who can be seen on our screens on TV shows such as The Purge, Mr Mercedes, Atlanta and 13 Reasons Why. We had a great in-depth conversation about his life, teaching, career in both casting and acting, on small and big screens, working with fellow actors such as Brendan Gleeson, Amanda Warren and much more.
DB: You were born in Texas, is that correct?
AS: Yes, I was born in Baytown, Texas which is just outside of Houston.
DB: And then you moved around a lot, as a kid?
AS: Yeah, my dad worked in the natural gas and oil industry so every time that he got a promotion, or was trying to move up in the company, we would move around – mostly between suburbs of Houston and the suburbs of New Orleans.
DB: Did you live anywhere else?
AS: We lived in Kansas for a little bit when I was younger, but that was probably the furthest that we moved. The rest of it was all along the Gulf Coast because all of the plants that he worked with were along the coast.
DB: Was he a chemical engineer?
AS: He has an engineering degree but, typically, he was a project manager: so he would oversee construction of new plants and new pipelines and things like that.
DB: So what was it like, as a kid, moving around so much?
AS: When I was younger I hated it. Especially going into my teen years, it led to a lot of isolation and depression because I was like, ‘What’s the point? Why make friends? We’re just going to move again.’ It really wasn’t until high school that I actually made a friend, in Texas, who moved with us to Louisiana because his dad worked for the same company and they got transferred at the same time. We moved, my freshman year of high school, back to Louisiana and my parents basically said, ‘No matter what you’re going to finish high school here. If Dad gets transferred again then you’ll commute, we’ll figure something out.’
DB: I guess it’s quite a natural reaction to not bond with people if you know you’re going to have to go through the heartbreak of saying goodbye to them all the time.
AS: Yeah, and I was a small kid in the mid-‘90s so I was bullied, just for being an easy target, just for being tiny. I think I got a lot of pent up frustration from that too and a little bit of Napoleonic syndrome too, from my height, so I didn’t make it easy – so even to people that wanted to be my friends, I was kind of an asshole. My defence mechanisms were: a little bit of humour, but my humour was always a little volatile too; it wasn’t self-deprecating, I would make fun of people – assuming that they were about to make fun of me kind of thing.
DB: Your dad was working in the chemical industry and you were moving around a lot. What did your mum do?
AS: My mum, until I was I guess I was in second grade, she was just a stay-at-home mum, and then she went back to school and spent several years going to community colleges and different things until she got her Education degree and then she began teaching. So she, I think, has taught everything from pre-K up through 5th grade, at different places. Then my parents just moved back to Texas, again, about two years ago, and my mum decided to take early retirement at that point.
DB: It’s a tough job, teaching.
AS: Oh yeah. My degree actually is in Secondary Ed. English and I was going to be a high school English teacher: my sister is a Head Start teacher; my grandfather was a college teacher; and my dad, through his company, has taught different management skills classes and things like that – so education is just part of my family and I was going to go down that path. Until I didn’t.
DB: Do you think there’s a link between teaching and acting?
AS: Oh yeah! You are absolutely performing when you’re up in front of people when you’re teaching. You are improvising, because you have absolutely no idea what those kids are going to say or do. You sort of have a script, because you have your 90-minute block where you want to try and accomplish this, give them instructions on this. You’re trying to be engaging so that they’re listening to you and staying awake. You’re trying to do lots of different things at once. I think absolutely teachers have to be ‘in the moment’ and they have to be reading their audience which is a very theatrical thing to be doing – it’s a weird ‘presence’ thing to be doing. Teachers also have to be good at reading people: you’re trying to turn up your BS meter for when a kid is lying to you, or telling you the truth about what’s going on in their lives and why they didn’t do their homework, or what they understand or don’t understand.
DB: And it’s a sort of captive audience isn’t it.
AS: Yeah, yeah. You know, I do still teach. I teach acting workshops and I did work in an after-school programme doing theatre stuff for a while and teach on-camera classes. And I love teaching! I love coaching people and being part of their process of discovery and figuring things out. What I didn’t like was being part of the American public education system because of all the things outside of teaching that you actually have to do to be a teacher. I love a captive audience when it’s a subject that they’re excited about. If someone is signing up to do acting lesson with me, they probably already know that they want to be an actor or they want to be creative – they’re probably not being forced to do it – I want to work with people that are excited about the same things.
DB: You went into teaching: how long did you teach for?
AS: Well I didn’t make it very far into teaching. I got my degree, so I did my student teaching as part of graduating and then I started substitute teaching, after that. We moved, after graduating, up to Chicago – my wife got into grad school up there – and that was where I was trying to get a teaching position and doing a lot of substituting but at the time the economy in America (this was 2008) took a big dip. I’m going to recruitment fairs, and trying to get a job, but I’m up against people with up to five years of experience and I’m fresh out of college. Other than a couple of long-term substitutions I didn’t get very far into it. Then, about the same time, I was looking into other forms of income: had a bunch of part-time jobs and started working as a background actor in movies. Probably after that first year, I went back to teacher recruitment fairs but then I looked at my pay stubs and I was like, ‘I’m working more in movies than I am as a substitute, alright, we’ll see where this goes.’
One of my worst experiences as a substitute… and the other thing I was told at the recruitment fairs is that I don’t speak Spanish and there’s a very big Spanish or Latino population in Chicago… So I’m subbing at this school and I walk in and it’s a small classroom, there’s probably only 15 kids but the majority of them were either Hispanic or knew Spanish, and the second they figured out that I didn’t know Spanish, they all spoke in Spanish the entire time! I knew they were cutting up and saying stuff about me and I couldn’t do anything to prevent it and I was like, ‘Well, I’ve lost this room!’ And I just had to suffer through 8 hours of trying to gain control but not know what was going on. Not worth it.
DB: How did you find Chicago? You were doing background acting work, so how did that lead into doing more stuff at Second City and places like that?
AS: For one, I love Chicago. Chicago is one of my favourite places on the planet, especially as I did spend so much time in Houston and New Orleans: there’s a very specific Southern culture but you’re not exposed to a whole lot of stuff. Chicago really, really embodies the idea of the American melting pot: so many cultures, so much food, so many events that you could explore that city for years and not touch everything that it has to offer. I loved being on public transit and just being able to walk everywhere, and take a train, and not have to worry about being trapped in a car.
As far as the work-side, I was doing the background work. If you’re working background on a movie set, it kind of breaks up into two different types of people that are background actors. There’s people that legitimately want to be actors, or are curious about the film industry or maybe have stars in their eyes and they just think it’s fun and so they go and do it because they’ve got nothing better to do that day. And then there’s a group of crazy people, who probably can’t hold down normal jobs and this is just a way for them to be employed.
I gravitated towards the group of actors that just had nothing else to do that day and was talking to them. A man there, Tim Kruger, was talking about a workshop that he did and they were all talking about agents, auditions and different things, so I just sat and listened, talked to them and learned a lot about the industry that way.
Before deciding, ‘Oh, I think I’ll pursue acting,’ I actually decided it would be fun to be an agent and I went and interned at a talent agency, for almost 9 months, and got to learn about that side of the industry: how auditions and contracts worked. I was about to have a conversation with the talent agent about going on full-time and a paid position with her and she’s kind of like, ‘Well, you know, I’ve noticed that you seem to get a little bitter when you tell people that they’ve booked a job. I think maybe you need to explore being a performer first, before you do this, or you’re going to burn out. You’re going to be a very bitter agent.’ I thought about it and I was like, ‘You know, she’s right.’ I wanted what they were doing.
So I started taking some small classes. I signed with a different agency. They eventually told me that to be better at commercial auditions I should look into improv and Second City is, of course, a famous name from Chicago, so I was like, ‘Well if I’m going to study anywhere I may as well study there.’ I did some of their open acting classes and then enrolled in their conservatory. I took workshops and different classes at different theatres and with different coaches throughout the city, so I have a very, I’d say, ‘non-traditional’ education as an actor: it has mostly been on-set experience and my improv experience.
DB: When you went to Second City: was it just different acting tutors or did you dip into different aspects, or was it mostly improv?
AS: Second City breaks down into: your first year is almost all improv and every about 8 weeks (two months) you’re going up a level in your experience and you may have the same teacher, you may have a different teacher so you go through a bunch of different styles by doing that. You then have to audition for your second year and, if you get accepted to the Conservatory, you start taking improv and using that to develop written material: so you’re improvising in order to create sketches which leads you to the Second City Review, which is very like a Saturday Night Live episode; you’re creating characters and scenarios, you’re writing out monologues and skits and things like that, musical numbers. Second City’s design is to basically make you a total performer and to have you feel confident enough to go and create your own thing. Your graduation there is: your class puts on a review, so (especially in the last two sessions there) every week you’re bringing in your pitching material and you’re putting it on speed and improvising and performing and trying to figure it out – your teachers, at that point, are working more like artistic directors.
DB: What about Black Box Studio? You did some stuff there as well, didn’t you?
AS: Yes, at Black Box I started exploring the Meisner technique: Sanford Meisner, who is famously known for saying that ‘acting is living truthfully under imaginary circumstances.’ A lot of his exercises in that method are also very improv-based: it’s all about putting your attention on your partner, living moment-to-moment and reacting naturally to what’s there. I found, at Second City, I would not classify myself as an extreme ‘character actor’. I’m very centred, so an analogy I like to use is, if you like to watch Arrested Development, I’m the Jason Bateman character: I’m the normal guy surrounded by all the wacky people. I found that by going to Black Box and exploring Meisner, helped me with some of my dramatic experiences.
DB: I assume now, when you’re going for a particular role, you just pick and choose tools that you have within your particular skill set? Or do you have a particular modus operandi that you have?
AS: A little bit. It’s a little different for each thing. If it’s comedy or if I feel like there’s a comedic tinge to it, I just tend to take it and go, ‘Okay, this is what it is and I’m just gonna turn up a little bit of the anxiety levels or the thing that I find funny in the moment about it,’ and probably add a little bit more erratic physical movements. But if it’s dramatic, I do try to delve a lot into the background of why I’m doing what I’m doing at this particular moment. Like: what does this scene have to happen; why am I going after this objective right now? So each role is a little bit different and it depends how close it is to me versus how far away from me it is.
DB: Have you done a lot of work on stage?
AS: The majority of my stage experience has been improv and sketch. I did that for years throughout Chicago, not just at Second City but with some independent teams. When I moved down to New Orleans I did some short-form improv at a theatre down there which is a lot like the show Whose Line is it Anyway? Game-centric things, very audience interactive. I’ve only done maybe a half-dozen straight plays. A lot of times because I’ve been grateful enough to be steadily working in TV and film, that it’s hard to commit to three months of rehearsals and performances to a theatre project which, depending upon where you are – Chicago has a lot of really great theatres that you can make a living doing that but New Orleans is not as supportive of theatre, so you can’t make a living doing that – so I couldn’t justify not auditioning for TV and film in order to do a play for very long down there.
DB: What was your first ever professional acting role?
AS: The first time that I was paid and got credit and was considered a principal, was on a weather channel TV show that was called When Weather Changed History and it was a semi-re-enactment show about the D-Day Landings. There was a group of men in a room basically debating about when the tides were going to be best for the landing ships and some weather that was supposed to be coming in. The landing was supposed to be June 4th and because of weather and stuff they decided to push it back to June 6th. It was all about that and some spies that stole information about where the German Army believed we were. I come running in, the young GI with maps, and throw them on a table. It was a lot of fun but it was also very goofy because it’s a re-enactment with like Richard Attenborough doing like a voiceover.
DB: TV versus film: do you have a preference?
AS: Not really. I like that film can take longer and be a little bit more precise – TV it’s very much, ‘We’ve gotta get the shot. We gotta move on.’ Film I feel, as an actor, is a little more collaborative whereas TV (especially at my level) in a six- or seven-month shoot to do the whole season, I may only work a couple of weeks or a day here and then nothing for a month and then a day there so, just for when my character pops up, so you can feel a little bit like a cog in a machine. Whereas, with film, you tend to be able to be a little bit more involved and you’re probably doing your scenes continuously and are there for a little bit longer. But, honestly, whoever wants to pay me to do my job! (Both laugh)
DB: You also do quite a lot of short films: what is it that you enjoy about making short films?
AS: When I wanted to be a teacher it was also so that I could have my summer off to write the next great American novel. I’m not a novelist but I am a good writer I believe, and I started pursuing screenwriting, over novelisation, so producing shorts is a way to get some of my work on screen and to write roles that I want to be in. I love being part of short films because a lot of times I find short films through college programmes, so it’s student films. Short films tend to be a way that people in lower positions on a feature film or on a TV show, go off on a weekend and get to do the job they want to do. I’ve continued, every year, to do a short film with someone and now I’ve reached a point, in the last four or five years, where I tend to be the person on set with more experience. So I can come in and say, ‘Well I can see you’re trying to do this. Have you thought about this?’ I get to experiment in a way where I’m like, ‘Honestly, no one’s probably going to see this so if I do some terrible acting whilst trying to do something different, it’s fine,’ because there’s no stakes. I’m getting paid in a sandwich. It’s an on-camera scene study class for me at that point.
DB: Do you watch yourself on screen?
AS: Yeah. There’s a lot of people that don’t and I started off being that way and I realised that that’s because for the first couple of years I didn’t know what I was doing so it wasn’t good to watch myself, but the last couple of years I’m very proud of my work and so when I do see I kind of go, ‘Okay, cool. Some of what I wanted to do happened and some of what I didn’t want to do happened but I like it and it’s all good.’ I also like to watch and see how, because I’m very collaborative, so if I’ve worked on a film, if I’ve worked on a TV show I want to see the end product: to see how it was edited, how it came together.
DB: You were stand-in for Nick Thurston on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. How was that as an experience? Because that’s such a big movie!
AS: That was my first time on a 7- or 8-figure movie on its budget. It was right after me and my wife had moved back down to the New Orleans area. At that point I really wasn’t doing any background work anymore, I was mostly focusing on speaking roles and stuff but I didn’t know anything about the New Orleans acting community and I was like, ‘Well, this is an opportunity to work and I can go in, being a stand in is a higher position than background acting so I can be employed longer, be paid better and work directly with the actors.’ I was on set everyday with Nick Thurston and Andy Serkis – who is amazing! Amazing! Essentially a stand-in (if you’re not familiar) they go in and stand in place of the actor while they go off to do makeup or preparation or whatever, I’m recreating the scenes so that the camera, the lights and all the crew can go and get all set up. I was on set probably 30 of the 45 days that they shot down in the New Orleans area and again got to see the entire process of the movie. Probably spending $200,000-300,000 a day on the size of the sets, the number crew, special effects, explosions – everything was insane. Getting to watch Gary Oldman work. Fantastic actors! Whether you like those movies or not, those are actors who are going to show up and do good work, they’re not phoning it in. That was an amazing experience, for me, educationally and, you know, it gave me something else to take back to those smaller roles.
DB: Do you have any favourite actors?
AS: Gary Oldman is definitely up there. I think he is fantastic! I love, a Second City alum, Bob Odenkirk, who’s on Better Call Saul now. Bryan Cranston is, I think, one of the best actors we have out there right now. The younger generation Nat Wolff, who’s in Hereditary, I think he’s great. Timothée Chalamet is great. I realise I’m naming all men but, of course, Meryl Streep is fantastic! Toni Collette: her show United States of Terror, she does fantastic stuff on that, playing multiple personalities and anyone who can do that well, I think is just amazing. I am a big fan of the Harry Potter series, so I love Brendan Gleeson, Maggie Smith, Gary Oldman. Emma Watson I think is a fantastic actress. I am constantly watching stuff and am trying to figure out, ‘Oh that was interesting. How did they do that? How did they do that believably?’ I have bookshelves that are full of autobiographies of people I love, I’m very much an actors actor and I love the industry too. I was telling somebody the other day that if someone came along like the union police and they were like, ‘You know what Adam, you’re not good at this, you should stop,’ I would be like, ‘Alright, fine,’ and I would still work in the film industry, somehow, because I find the industry fascinating!
DB: I don’t know about you but sometimes I have to ‘turn it off’ so that I can enjoy a film for what it is rather than being drawn into the analysis or spotting the effects etc.
AS: That’s also how it’s become. I know it’s a really good film or a really good TV show if I feel like I am just 100% just an audience member. If I start wondering about the special effects or start noticing the camera movement or start being able to really judge the acting, something’s ‘off’ or not quite at the highest level that it could be.
I just binged the second season of the TV show Ozark. I love that show, I think it’s a really great show. But unfortunately there’s also moments about halfway through, because Ozark is filmed down near my area where there were a couple of actors that I know who are on the show, and when they came on it completely threw me, because I was like, ‘You’re talking in a weird way. That’s not how you talk. Why are you doing that?’ I was getting pulled out, only because I had gone out to eat with these people so I know what they are normally like. But it’s still a fantastic show and the majority of the time I’m not thinking about that anything apart from like, ‘Where is this going?’ That, to me, is the sign of a great show. I find that I, because I am such a movie buff and I love knowing, (especially if I’m watching a movie), ‘Oh who is that person? I recognise that person.’ If I find myself wanting to pull the IMDb app on my phone and research while the movie’s on, then there’s also something, my desire to know what else this person has done is distracting from my desire for what they’re doing right now. I’m doing that a lot right now because now that it’s October I always watch a lot of horror movies during Halloween – and they’re not good movies! (Both laugh)
DB: I suppose also that, if you watch more than the average, you tend to notice the same actors appearing. Some actors though do have the ability to look utterly different. They keep you in the moment because they look so different or sound so different. On British TV you tend to see a lot of the same actors in TV shows.
AS: I guess from here I see the opposite end too: someone shows up and you say, ‘Oh this is a new face. I don’t recognise this person and they’ve got a big role,’ and you start looking into them and you’re like, ‘Oh I’m not familiar with them because they’re Australian and they did lots of Australian work or they’re British and did a lot of British work and now I’m seeing them going to that next tier.’
DB: Which directors do you particularly admire?
AS: Well, Jason Bateman: I love the way he’s directed some of the episodes of Ozark and he’s kind of becoming an archetype for what I think I am as an actor: some of my skill sets and my desire. Then, when I want to do escapism stuff, I love J.J. Abrams – you know, the big sci-fi adventure. Peter Jackson: I think the worlds he can build are fantastic! Same with Guillermo del Toro: Shape of Water was one of my favourite things to watch in recent years and some of his older stuff too, like Pan’s Labyrinth, and his use of practical effects. If I’m going to be in a big sci-fi adventure thing, I would rather be in a rubber suit, like the movies I grew up with than be in front of a green screen – so I love what he does with that kind of stuff.
What’s kind of fun too is that on Mr Mercedes, I got to work with Jack Bender as the director, I didn’t know who he was, and when I look him up I’m like, ‘Oh I’ve seen so much of his stuff!’ I grew up on some of the movies that he directed, and then me and my wife were fans of the show Lost and he directed 40 episodes of Lost throughout the years. One of my favourite episodes of Game of Thrones!
I was a little star struck about Andy Serkis and Brendan Gleeson, because, again, he’s one of those guys that I don’t think the average person knows his name but they absolutely recognise him, he’s been in so many huge things because he’s been around for so long.
DB: Talking about Mr Mercedes: you play the hospital administrator with an unusual fashion sense.
AS: (Laughs) My ‘Mr Rogers’ sweaters’, that’s what I call them! (Both laugh)
DB: Was that a conscious thing from the costume department?
AS: Yeah, it was their design that this is going to be a sweater wearing guy. He’s described as a ‘young hospital administrator that dresses in a way to make his staff think that he’s hip and cool’ and I don’t think anyone on the staff is like, ‘Oh look at how sharply dressed he is!’
DB: It’s that weird ‘cuffs over the sweater’ thing.
AS: Yeah, right, like all of the sleeves are rolled back. It became kind of a running joke that when I would go in they would go, ‘Well we’ve had you in a blue sweater and we’ve had you in a red sweater, here’s seven different types of green for you. Let’s see which one of these works.’
The show was fantastic to work on. It’s interesting on horror shows and psychological shows, how laid back the sets are: you would think it may be tense because there’s so much tension in the material but they kept the set very relaxed and laid back and we would have fun with it. Because it’s not a typical episodic they shot the entire season before any of it came out so it had a slower approach to it, about really getting the moments right, as opposed to just getting it out. The actors that I worked with were all fantastic and very collaborative, which again speaks volumes to me and is the kind of stuff that I like to be involved in. So Jack Huston, Max Hernández, like I said I got to work with Brendan Gleeson for a day. He was just so lovely and wanted to talk about the process and the scene, wanted to talk to me about New Orleans, where I was from and stuff, so it was a lovely experience.
DB: Obviously you’ve got Harry Treadaway.
AS: He’s in a bunch of my scenes and I never interacted with him because he’s passed out in a bed, in a vegetative state. In those scenes, and how he does it – there’s some fantastic physical work – I don’t think people understand how difficult it must be for him to lay so still with such a vacant stare, because you’re always so aware of things around you, so to get that thousand yard stare and to go back into your brain far enough, that you appear to be in a coma is very difficult. A lot of times when I was on set, he would have the fake breathing tube and stuff taped over his mouth, so I never really got to talk to the guy. (Laughs)
DB: You worked with Brendan himself.
AS: I did get to do one scene with Brendan. Like I said, he was fantastic! He’s one of those people that I had a little bit of that, they tell you ‘never meet your idols because they’ll always disappoint you’ kind of thing, so I went in going like, ‘Okay, he’s the star, he’s been doing this forever. He’s going to have his process, my goal is just to not get in the way and to go in and still have my moments but the camera’s going to be on him, it’s going to be about him, so I’m just trying to serve that scene.’ I get there and we’re the first scene of the day and he walks over and introduces himself and asked to run through the lines and we started talking through them and then the other actor, Max [Maximilian Hernández], who I had worked together with on other episodes came in, and they had worked together so we just became this little trio, which was great. I was in episode 1 and 2 and there’s a 4-episode break before I’m back and, for an actor coming back on set, I’ve met these people, know these people but they’ve had a month of experiences that I didn’t have – so you get a little bit of this ‘new kid’ and I go into a bit of that ‘moving all the time’ PTSD – but I’m so much happier and it’s a better day at work when the other people there are like, ‘Oh my God! I’m so glad you’re here. Let’s do this!’ We were all able to input what was happening with it. Jack, being the director and the show runner and one of the writers as well, if Brendan or anyone had a suggestion, he was open to it because he had control over it.
I was talking to my agent, that night, and that became one of the days that every actor hopes for. Every actor, especially at my level: I got to go to set on a fantastic show; I had an amazing experience; got to work with an idol; got to work on Stephen King’s material. If I can get work on anything by Stephen King, J R Tolkien or J K Rowling (those would be the three novelists) I would be in Heaven. Then I was done for the day and went back to the hotel and at midnight, that night, my manager called and told me that I had booked The Purge. To be done on a great day of work and know that I’m not going to be unemployed for three months, that’s everything. Every actor lives for those moments and they happen like once in ten years!
Typically, every actor has this moment, where you have this great day on-set and you leave and you have what I call the ‘adrenaline depression’. As you leave set everything kind of sinks in and you’re like, ‘I’m done. I’m wrapped. That’s it. I don’t know what’s next. I go back to auditioning for roles, to waiting for something to come up, to writing my thing at home, hoping to create my own thing. You go back to the grind but it is the grind of the complete unknown: you have no idea of what’s going to happen next. I think a lot of actors go through that, where you have this huge high from getting to do what you’ve been trained to do, you’re being paid well to do what you’ve been trained to do and then, it’s over.
DB: I also watched you in one episode of 13 Reasons Why, where you play a reporter. It’s an emotive scene although it’s fairly short. How did you get your head around that one?
AS: A lot of it had to do with the backstory. A lot of times an actor, when you’re in a scene, you’re making sure that you understand your relationship to the person. What was interesting about that scene, which was with Kate Walsh (who plays Miss Baker), is that it was a one-sided relationship: they mentioned me in multiple episodes before I show up on screen, because I have been writing articles (they’re essentially Buzzfeed-style, click bait of trying to give the raciest headline) and I’m writing from the position of, ‘Well, Hannah – her daughter who kills herself in the first season – set herself up for this stuff.’ I’m taking a negative position. They are contrary positions to the way I, Adam, think of this whole situation but I had to go, ‘Okay, so if I’m on the other side of things, I understand why I would justify that position. I also understand that my job, as a blogger, is to get people to click on the link because that’s how we get ad revenues.’ Knowing that, when I get there, I shouldn’t be surprised that Miss Baker knows who I am. Then, knowing what my objective is, that I need to get something else to get more clicks, so if I can get her to say, ‘It’s my fault,’ I can write, ‘Mother says it’s her fault that her daughter is dead. Great!’ What do I need and what’s the method by which I get it? All those reporters are looking for that sound bite, that clip and I don’t think that I may be aggressive in order to get what I want but not in a manner that’s being malicious. I’m not poking the bear just to poke the bear. It’s very much that this is my job and this is what I do.
DB: You are also in Atlanta season two. I loved that episode, which is set in an American Oktoberfest! What was it like with the costuming?
AS: That was a fun one! For that (I think they told me) it was a 100- or a 110-year-old lederhosen, that they got from the big German community down there with a historical society which had a collection of all of this stuff. We were all wearing authentic clothing, that was poor condition – it wasn’t stuff that could be displayed in a museum or anything. I ripped it every single take! The whole thing was just held together with paper clips and staples and tape and it’s falling apart as it is and then there’s me, running around, erratically. That whole [ball] game was completely improvised. Me and another couple of the day play actors along with Zazie [Beetz] and Donald [Glover] and the director, Amy Seimetz, we just sat around for a second and Donald said we had to just make up a game. He was like, ‘We want it end where I put these balls in this thing. So we’ll take these milk cartons, we’ll cut those and we’ll do that. Let’s make two circles and just have people running between the circles.’ There was a lot of running around, so for like two hours I’m running around in that lederhosen and every time that I’d get up from the chair and run, one of the straps would pop or something would come out so I was holding it up with one hand! You just see me as a blur in the final product but between every take the costume department’s coming over, trying to repair it! (Both laugh)
DB: And all the girls in their dirndls!
AS: Yeah and they had a local band that’s playing their music the entire time and they were great; in between scenes they would tell them to play and entertain them. They had all these crazy masks that they were giving out to all of the extras. They were making everyone part of the process, cheering for their team and stuff.
Donald Glover is another one of those people who writes, acts, sings, ‘Childish Gambino’, he’s the showrunner, the writer and star of this show. Part of me, going into that day, was like, ‘Okay, he’s got so many hats on, I’m not expecting to really interact with him.’ I didn’t have a ton of conversation with him as he was always doing his work and his thing, but he was still so relaxed about all of it. I think there’s something about all that, the type of person that can be that creative and then also let go of control. He’s entrusting this director with this episode, and he’s not micro-managing and he’s not involved in every tiny little thing so between stuff, he was taking care of other things: things for future episodes as opposed to worrying about what’s happening right now. Which I think speaks volumes as to why he is so successful.
DB: Moving on to The Purge TV show: had you watched the movies prior to getting the role on the show?
AS: I had watched the first one and the third. The first one was good.
DB: What was your experience like on set working with Amanda Warren, Jessica Miesel and the other actors, directors and crew?
AS: I had a fantastic time with The Purge. Amanda Warren who plays Jane, my boss, was one of the most welcoming actors I’ve worked with. It was similar to Mr Mercedes in that because we were dealing with darker themes when cameras are rolling, it was a very light and easy set in between. Anthony Hemingway directed the first two episodes I was in and runs a smooth ship. He allows the actors to discover their moments while he’s orchestrating the crew. So a lot of it was more about the choreography and timing of the camera movements with the action of a scene. That’s always fun to be trusted by a director.
Jessica Miesel who was my competitive co-worker, Allison, is one of the funniest actresses I’ve ever spent time with in set. She’s a consummate professional and so so witty. She’s a season regular on The Resident on Fox and I think is becoming known for her quirky style and voice. In The Purge I think someone described her as sounding like a Psychotic Betty Boop which seems perfect.
What’s fascinating about being a part of the TV adaptation of The Purge is you get to immerse yourself in this fictional world that the movies began. In the feature films though you really only get 90 minutes to see how a couple of people are terrorised. But with a 10-episode season we get to explore some of the psychology of variety of characters from different backgrounds. It’s fun to explore how different people answer the questions: ‘Would you Purge and if so, who?’ Which ultimately, I think, the audience begins to ask themselves too. I think they’ll identify with a character and decide if they would react in the same way they do.
DB: Your character [Mike Cantoff] dies in the show and there’s a scene with you lying on the floor covered in blood: was that actually you?
AS: Yes, that was me, just laying on the floor for 3 hours, with my pants down, covered in blood. (Both laugh)
DB: You’ve got some projects that are in post [production] at the moment, don’t you?
AS: I’ve got a couple of things that are in post: an independent film called Rightful and a pilot for a TV show Rent-A-Ryde and I filmed them a while ago, so I don’t really know what’s happening with those. The Rightful film will be coming out, it’s a horror movie which was filmed at the beginning of last year. I have a small part in that as a bearded racist (like you do).
DB: Any mock tattoos?
AS: Yeah I had a lot of mock tattoos! I had ‘White Power’ across my knuckles and a swastika and I think it was the eagle from the Third Reich on my forearm.
DB: What would your advice be to anyone who’s thinking of taking up acting as a career?
AS: Train, train, train, train. I think (and this may be more of an American thing and especially my experience as a teacher of acting) a lot of people have stars in their eyes, misconceptions of, ‘Oh, I’ll go and I’ll just start auditioning. I’ll get discovered,’ or, ‘there will be some sort of ‘flash in the pan’ moment that will make me a star!’ I think it’s because of the social media age that we live in, there’s less of a desire for ‘craft’ and more of a desire for ‘fame’. There’s some great actors who talk about that fame is the by-product of doing good work and if you do good work and continue to work as an actor, you will probably achieve a certain level of fame – just because it’s such a public thing. But, if you’re chasing fame, the good work will never happen. When I first started I would do anything that anyone would put in front of me. I’d do all these short films which were very educational, and I had a great time with them, but they’re not the greatest quality thing in the world. I’m moving more and more into that sense of: I want to do 20 quality things rather than 200 pieces of garbage. You know actors don’t always have control over that because, if I get a script, I look at it and I read it with the greatest ideal and then you get there and they go, ‘No, we’ve not got the budget. We’ve cut that. We don’t have this. We’re going to change this.’ And all of a sudden you’re halfway through and you’re like, ‘Oh, this is now a piece of garbage.’ I think for anyone who’s interested in acting, you’ve got to have a passion for the actual craft. If you don’t have that to hold onto then the business is going to destroy you because you will end up in those periods, that we talk about, when you’re not working (or not working in a great financial sense) so you’ve got to be working yourself. Anytime that I’m not working I’m still in classes, I’m still writing, I read these books and watch Inside the Actor’s Studio, I watch interviews, I watch films – not just as an audience member but to dissect as an actor, as a writer, as a producer. If you’re not invested in those things – if you’re not going to see good plays, to see good acting – then you’re going to burn out because the success is so fleeting.
One of the best books that I have read – as far as advice-giving for young actors – is by Jenna Fischer (from the American version of The Office), she wrote a book which chronicled her path through the industry and gave very sound advice throughout. One of the most interesting chapters was her description of her life after The Office. She had spent 9 seasons playing this iconic character, Pam Beesly, you would think, you’re that successful you can segway into whatever you want – you are made now, you are a household name. She said she went out for two or three pilots on different shows after that, and she filmed them and was cast in them and then two didn’t get picked up and the other one she was fired and the show was filmed but without her. Because feedback from audiences and their test members was that they could just ‘see Pam’ with this person. So she had achieved a certain amount of recognition and that was actually detrimental to her getting more work as an actor because people couldn’t separate the actress, Jenna Fischer, from being Pam Beesly. That’s the fear that people have of being ‘typecast’. On the flip side you look at someone like Steve Carell, when he left The Office I think he did maybe one big comedy movie but then he did some dark movies and some dramas as a way to immediately shatter people’s expectations of him.
There’s tons of actors who have a successful run who then don’t work anymore or don’t work as often. I don’t know if you saw it in the news about Jeffery Owens as a great example, so you age people giving this man garbage because he’s working in a grocery store because he’s an out of work actor because he was such a huge success and that’s just people not understanding the industry. If your everyday audience member doesn’t understand the industry then you as an actor, as a writer, a director, as anyone in the industry, you have to fully understand what is going on. You have to understand that the rejection is not a rejection of your skills or your abilities. I don’t even like the idea of it being a rejection. If I go in with 100 other guys and they choose one of the other guys they aren’t taking the time to decide, ‘You 99 aren’t worth it,’ it’s just, ‘That’s the guy we want.’ They are not thinking about you, they’re not harbouring ill-will towards you and your audition.
DB: You have worked in casting. Is there any advice you can give about the casting process? Are there any hints or wrinkles?
AS: A lot of what you already think is true, in the sense of: we want you to do your best job; we have a job to do as well and we have people to answer to; we invited you in because there’s something about you that suggests you might fit this role. Sometimes actors get in their own way because they get the audition and they’re looking at the sides and they’re like, ‘Err this isn’t really me. I don’t fit the description.’ They immediately start creating all of these reasons why they aren’t going to book the job and then they’re not going to book the job, because you come in with this defeatist attitude! If you’ve been invited, trust that the casting director knows what they’re doing, so ignore all of those things and come in and just do your best work. And do your best work and not come in and do what you think we want to see. That’s the other thing, actors will fall into this trap of like, ‘Oh here’s what I think this casting director wants to happen.’ You have no idea what we want to happen so instead of trying to guess what’s in our head just do what you would do to book this role, do what you would do on the day. When you come in we almost always will have you do two takes: either to see if you can take direction or because you are a little off-base and we are going to try and get you back to like the right place of what’s going on with the scene; there may be information that has been missed; there may be information that we know we didn’t send out. You just have to trust us that we’re doing our job well and so you do your job well.
The other thing I’d like to get out is (and I don’t think casting directors will like me saying this) don’t give the casting director so much power because the casting director is not the person who is booking you – there are so many other people who weigh in on it – the casting director is there to gather options and present the best options. We may invite twenty people in and only show five people to the director, so in that sense, you need to do a good job, and the casting director does have power over whether or not you do get seen but if you’re in that group of five, the casting director may get to weigh in, but ultimately it’s the director or producer, whoever’s making the final casting decision is someone with a cheque book not the casting director.
DB: What about self-tapes? Are there any bad errors that people make?
AS: Oh I could write a book! (Both laugh) Really it’s just a pet peeve list of things not to do. We always say: good lighting, good sound. We’ve go to be able to see you and able to hear you, otherwise what’s the point? You can do the greatest acting in the world but if I can’t understand it then there’s nothing there. Past that, don’t get so caught up in the quality of the tape. You get people who invest so much money on lighting, microphones and backdrops and try and make some elaborate thing out of a self tape. Just do good work. Do good acting. Think about if you came in live: it’s a plain background, you’re lit, we can hear you, there’s a camera here on you. If you can make it look like you came in to a casting office, it’s good. My advice to actors in general is to approach a self-tape as if you’re going to a live audition: so prepare as if you only have five minutes in the room so that when you hit record you’re already at the right place and you’re already to get going. I’ve known actors that will spend hours and do 50 takes, trying to get every minute little thing absolutely perfect, I think you’re just wasting your time doing that – the acting can fall away because you are so aware of the actual taping.
DB: You are an avid reader aren’t you? What books have you got on the go at the moment?
AS: I am! I’m re-reading The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan. I love immersive worlds, fantasy worlds. Some of my favourite books, as I said, are Tolkein, the Harry Potter series. I’ve just picked up Ghostbusters’ Daughter, a biography of Harold Ramis written by his daughter about his career, and also what it’s like for her growing up with a comedy legend like that. I love those ‘80s and ‘90s comedies from that group, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Harold Ramis. I typically have five books that I’m reading at any given time. They are typically across genres so I’ll read one fiction, one fantasy, an autobiography and then maybe something ‘craft’ or ‘business’. I’ve been reading Powerhouse which is the history of CAA which is one of the largest talent agents in Hollywood. In our house we have a big bookshelf and me and my wife together we’ve up to almost 800 physical books – we are big book collectors, we have signed copies of stuff that we love. I have created a little shelf of ‘these are books that I bought because I saw them on sale and I want to read them but I was reading something else’. There’s typically something in my kindle that’s next to the bed so I can read at night after my wife’s gone to bed. There’s a book on a side table out here and I find little breaks throughout the day to read. I’m constantly reading scripts and screenplays on my phone, not necessarily for stuff that I’m auditioning for, just for films that are out there or classic scripts, just to learn more about screenwriting.
DB: Apart from reading, what other hobbies do you have?
AS: Right now I’ve just moved to a new city so I’m really just exploring. I’m a big ‘walk-around-the-neighbourhood’ kind of guy. I do play video games from time to time but again that’s almost like a storytelling thing; I like video games that have a narrative as opposed to just’ run and gun’. I play with my dogs; we have two dogs; we’ve had them both for a while and they’re getting up there in age: one’s 11 and one’s 12. The entire time that we’ve been talking it hasn’t moved! (Both laugh) It’s dead to the world – asleep. Most of my hobbies are related to my industry again because, like I said, even if I stopped acting I would still be writing and if my [screen] writing was bad I’d still help someone who wrote well to produce theirs. My career is as much my hobby as it is my career and thankfully, from time to time, I get a pay cheque for it.
I’m not meant for cubicles. I was never built to be a 9-5er. Most of my writing is at 3 in the morning! I keep weird hours because it’s what fuels and feeds me. When I do teach it’s stuff that I have control over: my students studying my material that I can craft to what they’re excited about and they’ve invested their money and free time to be there.
DB: What was the first single or album that you ever bought?
AS: (Laughs) The first thing that I remember using my own allowance money and buying (I had just gotten a Walkman) I got a cassette tape of Alvin and the Chipmunks. They were singing cover songs of hit songs, so it was like Alvin singing, I think it was mostly country songs, “Achy Breaky Heart”, and then the female chipmunk sang “These Boots Are Made For Walking”. I got two: one was Christmas songs and one was them singing country cover songs.
DB: How old would you have been then? Please don’t say 15!
AS: (Both laugh) This was last year. I was probably 6 or 7.
DB: Is there a song, or songs, that take you back to a particular time in your life?
AS: I think there’s a little bit of nostalgia effect from ‘90s music because that brings you back to high school and high school dances, hanging out with my friends. In high school and into college (before acting ever became a thing) I wanted to become a musician, so I was a guitar player, I was in a punk rock band and then I played in my church worship team. So there’s some songs from then that take me back to that. There’s a lot of hard rock, Creed, things like that. I used to want to play like Jimmie Ray Vaughan so I listened to lots of Jimmie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix. I never got that good. I was never that disciplined a guitar player.
DB: Is there a song that, when you put it on, you have to blast out really loudly at full volume?
AS: Muse “Knights of Cydonia” is such a large, orchestrated piece that, when that comes on, oh yeah, let’s let it go! “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen.
DB: Is there a movie soundtrack or theme you particularly love or do you have any particular favourite composers for film, or TV?
AS: I really like Alexandre Desplat and Marco Beltrami who did the soundtrack for the second of the Wolverine movies that takes place in Japan, so it’s got a really cool, sweeping but really feudal, very drum [drum beat noises] thing that I like. Christopher Nolan’s movies always have great soundtracks so Inception. Harry Potter, that opening chime sound, it’s one of the greatest soundtracks ever I think. I’ll often listen and put that and soundtracks of the Lord of the Rings on when I’m reading some of these fantasy books. Music is constantly playing. I play music when I write; I’ll create soundtracks or set lists on Spotify that match the mood of the movie.
DB: We love them because our kids grew up with them and the books.
AS: I wasn’t really aware of the Harry Potter books until maybe the fifth or sixth book came out. I went and saw the first movie with my parents because my mum had read the first one to one of her classes. At that point, when the first movie came out, I was a little bit too old to be seeing that movie and it was really childish and not really for me, so I ignored it and didn’t see any of the other movies, for a while. And then at college I took, as part of my Education Programme, a young adult Lit. class and we red the first Harry Potter in there. One of my good friends, who was in my band at the time, was in that class and he lit up and freaked out and was, ‘We’re reading Harry Potter in college class!’ And I was like, ‘Okay, what is this?’ And he showed up the next day with the first four books and was like, ‘You need to read this!’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, whatever.’ I read the first one and thought it was interesting and got into the second one and the third and was like, ‘Oh my God! This is a world! This is a thing!’ And by then the fourth movie came out and then the fifth book and then I was sucked in so I consumed everything that was out probably in six months and then got on track with it.
DB: What genres of music do you like listening to?
AS: Right now I’m very much into alternative pop females so Sia or ZZ Ward. There’s new artists to me that I wasn’t aware of; PVRIS and Ruelle, they’re newer on the scene. I’ve been exploring soundtracks because there’s a screenplay I’ve been working on. I think more likely [with films] that you can connect the soundtrack with the moment. I think it’s harder to find an episode of a TV show that has that the soundtrack matches what is going on so well that I recall the song.
DB: It’s a rare thing when it works so well.
AS: A lot of times it’ll be a very populist thing like, ‘Katy Perry’s popular, let’s out that song in the background.’ I’ve found a couple of episodes of The Walking Dead and Breaking Bad and 13 Reasons Why that have these great – the entire soundtracks aren’t great – scenes that have emotional weight and then the song comes in too. If I listen to those songs… there’s a song by Lord Huronfrom the 13 Reasons Why soundtrack which sort of becomes central love song between the girl who commits suicide and the boy who’s trying to figure it all out – whenever that song comes on! Speaking to your earlier question about songs, I was in New York earlier in the summer and I had a playlist going, late at night, I’m on a subway train by myself going home, headphones on and that song came on and it just wrecked me! I got so emotional. I was just like, ‘Oh my God!’ because there’s so much weight behind it.
DB: Do you often go to watch live music at all?
AS: Yeah, I go to concerts from time to time. We just entered a raffle to go to a local symphony to hear them perform music from Game of Thrones, which is also a fantastic soundtrack – I love the opening theme song. I’m not too far from a college friend of mine and a band that we used to listen to in college is going on a reunion tour, it’s a band called Underoath, so we’re going to go see that. The group of people that I like to go see concerts with, they like to be comfortable and me, being a bit of a musician, I want to be in the pit, close to the stage; I want the kick drum to kick me in the chest and they’re not into that so I tend to not go as often as I’d like.
DB: Do you have any guilty musical pleasures?
AS: Guilty musical pleasures? No, I don’t think I feel guilty about any of those. When I was younger there was stuff I listened to that I wouldn’t tell people about, you know, Justin Timberlake or something like that. Now, I’m 34, I don’t care! If I did have a musical guilty pleasure it would be getting sucked into a YouTube rabbit hole of watching people performing on So You’ve Got Talent or any of those things. I love those ones like Susan Boyle where someone comes out real nervous and shaky and then just belts a song out and brings people to tears. Even months later on YouTube I can still feel that person’s passion and them knowing that this is the moment that can change my life!
DB: What does music mean to you?
AS: Music to me is a pure form of communication because it has a 3- to 4-minute little thing that can have so much emotion behind it and it can affect you. You can’t listen to music passively. You can certainly be on a drive and not be aware of what the music is doing to you, and not really focus on the music, but the music still affects you.
I’m even more aware of it now because, over the summer, I went to the William Esper Studio in New York and I did a summer intensive and continued to train, and one of the things I did was a movement class and a mask class where we would just put on music and it was a physical improvisation. I’m not a dancer, it’s not about dancing: it’s about how does it speak to you and what does it do to your body. It’s not even about moving on the beat or anything, it’s just expressing yourself through it. So now, with that kind of thing engrained in me, I listen to music and the temperament behind it. The way that music can change your biorhythms and everything is amazing I think.
Final three questions that we try and ask everybody:
DB: What is your favourite word?
AS: Favourite word? I don’t know. It seems like one of those things that if you asked me when I was just walking down the street I’d say ‘Oh this’ but now that you’re asking me I seem to have forgotten all words in the English language. (Laughs) Okay, I’ll show my nerd side. My favourite word is ‘Muggle’, like in Harry Potter. I use it all the time in our industry because I’ll be talking to people about acting or something and they’re saying that they’ve been trying to explain to their mum about how something works on-set and I’ll be like, ‘See she just won’t get it. She’s a muggle. She doesn’t understand the magic of film.’ I have stolen that and I use it all the time when I teach.
DB: How would you describe your perfect day?
AS: My perfect day would be a repeat of that one I described to you: getting to go to set with fantastic actors that I admire that have huge careers and then, when I wrap, getting told I get to do it again. That’s the industry perfect day.
DB: What could you not possibly live without?
AS: Literature. Some type of literature. For some people movies are escapism. When my wife was working on her psychology degree and she was working with the Homeless Veterans Society and a girls’ home, and doing some intense therapy sessions with people, her escapism was to come home and watch Star Trek or a Marvel movie – something just big, loud, colourful, explosive –and I would want to watch The Imitation Game. She was like, ‘No. I deal with traumatic, dramatic things in my daily life, movies are my escapism.’ I was like, ‘Okay, I get it.’ But for me, being in the industry, that doesn’t work for me any more so books, to me, are still like the purest form of escapism because I can completely paint it with my own imagination, and I have an extremely vibrant imagination, so books speak volumes to me.
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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.