Here is my in-depth conversation with theatre, film, and television actor KELLY AuCOIN.
Kelly plays ‘Dollar’ Bill Stearn on Billions (Showtime), and he was Pastor Tim on The Americans (FX), Gary Stamper on House of Cards (Netflix), and Benjamin Stalder on The Blacklist (NBC), among other recurring series roles.
A glance at his IMDb page gives you an idea of how busy Kelly has been on television and in the movies, but he also has an illustrious theatre career. In 2015, Kelly won a Drama Desk Award for Best Ensemble for his work in Signature Theatre’s The Wayside Motor Inn. In his Broadway debut he starred as Octavius Caesar, opposite Denzel Washington as Brutus, in Julius Caesar.
This conversation took place while The Americans was in its original run, and before Kelly was promoted to series regular on Billions.
Well, congratulations to you, Kelly!
Because it’s been, like, The Year of Kelly AuCoin. Could you possibly be any more out there right now?
Well, the next step would be, no one’s has made me a regular yet. I’ve got nice regular recurring roles that continue to build and grow, and it’s great, and the shows are pretty spectacular. The Americans was my favorite show on TV before I joined, which is so lucky, and Billions is a lot of fun. And they’re so different, so that’s really fun. I get to show off what appears to the outside world as versatility, and it’s just the wig [on The Americans]. It’s follicular acting! [laughs]
But there’s an element of fear, because it all could come to an end after someone decides the best storyline is to kill Pastor Tim – actually kill him this time! But I know, I look back five years ago, and I would have killed to be where I am right now. And I’m still learning. The roles are such that I can still grow and learn, and that’s fun.
Yeah, and I’m just so interested in the idea of being a journeyman actor, and placing yourself into different sets and situations where you have to look like you’re a native in that world…
…and to be able to just jump into that with very little preparation, I imagine, in some situations. So I thought it might be interesting for readers to get a sense, as a case study, of how you stepped into the role of Pastor Tim. I’m sure you aren’t given a lot of backstory…
…and you don’t even know where to go with the backstory because you don’t know who this guy’s going to turn out to be. And I have my own private theory about that…
Most people seem to – it’s good!
But I won’t press you on that! So, ok, you go in to read for this, and then you get the job. And this guy has to be a three-dimensional person, and you don’t know a lot about him, and you’re purposely not told a whole lot about him, I’m sure.
So how do you make his world become a three-dimensional world, as an actor, and have him actually be a person of substance, without being able to fill all of that in? What’s that like?
Well, it feels like there are probably a number of parts to this answer, but you asked about going in to read for it, so I’ll start there. I had actually auditioned twice, or at least once, for the first season. Different casting director, different showrunner and everything. And I was really bummed that I didn’t get it. But it was a one-off, it was just one big scene – it would have been a fun scene, but one big scene – and so in retrospect it was great that I didn’t get it.
This one, I don’t even think that it said “possible recurring character”, so I don’t know what they had in mind for Pastor Tim. It seems, in retrospect, that they must have had at least a few more episodes in mind, since the church seemed to matter so much to Paige in the lead-up to that, and in reading that script. But I certainly didn’t get the whole script, I just got our scenes. And to this day – even though I’ve been on three years now – to this day I don’t get scripts further than a week ahead of time. And a week is lucky.
So I don’t actually know anything about what’s going to happen to Tim, unless one of “The Js” – Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg are the showrunners – might drop me a hint, which they did at the beginning of last year, actually: “Don’t throw your collar away just yet. We’ve got plans for you.” That was it. Which to me meant, maybe a spectacular death is coming in Episode 4 – I didn’t know. [laughs]
But all I really had to go on were the two scenes I auditioned with. One was in that first episode where Philip [Jennings, played by Matthew Rhys] comes to my office late at night and threatens me, and then the other was the first sermon. And the sermon was kind of easy, in a way, because it was theatre.
I was going to say that, because Pastor Tim’s performing, doing his thing.
Yeah. That was a big episode, but then there were a lot of small things, and then one of my first big episodes in the next season was during the baptism [of Paige, played by Holly Taylor], and it was a long monologue, and it was in front of a whole church full of people, and that was kind of, again, easy is not exactly the right word, but I was immediately comfortable – maybe more than actors who hadn’t done much theatre would be.
So it was nice that two pivotal episodes included something that I’ve felt in my bones since I was in grade school. I’ve been performing in front of people for years. TV and film have become more natural to me, but it wasn’t necessarily in the DNA as much as theatre.
So for the audition, the sermon was just a matter of moderating tone. And casting people in the room – in this case it was the director and one of the executive producers – will sometimes give you adjustments just to see if you can take them. It might be something that doesn’t intuit, but do it anyway because all they’re trying to find out is if you’re easy to work with.
And then the other scene, the way Pastor Tim met the aggression of Philip was a little bit more of a give and take. It was like actually working on a scene with a director, because my take was initially that it was very defensive and protective, recognizing the danger and on his toes and trying to defuse in every way because that was what was on the page, and there was nothing specifically to indicate otherwise.
But the other two guys who knew the storyline, and maybe knew what they were interested in with the character, tried to make it more that there was something about this man that would meet aggression with openness and concern, and simplifying down to just that. Like, ok, [Philip]’s got these black gloves on, he keeps moving forward an inch every time he speaks. Or just look, look at him, take him in, see the pain, and respond in that way – it was more a simple, sort of gentle kind of response.
And then we even worked on that when we got on the set and we were shooting the scene. To the extent I was getting direction, it was about continuing that – don’t let a hint of fear show. And we even did takes where Tim was hiding the fear, like an audience can see and maybe Philip would or wouldn’t, and other takes where literally he wasn’t afraid. It was so smart, in retrospect, when I saw it. It was like, oh, of course, that’s probably the only thing that saved him. The only thing that Philip had probably never experienced before was somebody so guileless that he would respond that way.
Yet Pastor Tim had an element of menace in there, too, I thought. What I love about that scene is that there is just enough where you could read into it if you wanted to.
Uh huh, yeah.
What you carried off with that was so impressive because it was sort of like, is there? Isn’t there?
Well, the other thing that’s brilliant about it – and I’m not saying I was, I’m saying what they were pushing me to [was]. I’m not saying the execution was but the idea was brilliant, because the simpler you are, the more the audience can read things that they bring to it. And I think that’s part of why Pastor Tim is so fascinating to people. Like, most people hate Pastor Tim. Even Tony Kornheiser, the sports guy, is like, “I want Pastor Tim dead.” [laughs] And he’s been doing that since the first season.
But there’s nothing overtly threatening about anything that Tim has done, except early on in this last season when he’s all about trying to protect Paige, and so he might confront the parents. But he’s never said, “I’m turning you in.” He’s like, “Explain to me what’s going on.” He’s listening, he’s trying to trust, and he’s like, “All right, well, let’s meet again tomorrow,” or “Let’s think about this.”
So anyway, what was brilliant about their choice is that simple way of approaching it where the first time he was seen, the calm can be read as someone who’s been through this a lot – an operative might be really good at this. For the first season, everyone thought I was a pedophile, partially because of that wig, I think. [laughs]
Well, I certainly never thought that!
And also, I think a lot of secular viewers bring a certain knee-jerk reaction to their interpretations of religious characters. That’s also TV’s fault, because TV and film and entertainment outlets tend to show religious people in this manner. That’s something I thought was sort of radical about this show – that, so far anyway, Tim is just what he says he is. He doesn’t have another agenda. His agenda is just to take care of his flock.
And he’s welcoming people into his flock, he’s not necessarily proselytizing. When he’s talking with Elizabeth, even, it’s like, “Ok, you don’t even have to think about the specifics of God and everything. It doesn’t matter. Literally all that matters is how we treat each other.” Or when he’s in the travel office with Philip and he’s, like, “You should come on these [missionary trips to other countries]. We’re really light on the whole God thing, it’s more about community.” At every step, he tells people, “This is what I’m about.” And I think it’s so straightforward that no one buys it.
So anyway, that’s a long, roundabout way of saying, that first audition and that first scene, and the way I was directed and coaxed in those two sessions, informs how I’ve at least approached every scene from then on.
There are different directors for every episode so they always have their own thing. I’ve been on now longer, so I feel comfortable in saying, “Well, but remember the thing that happened three episodes ago, I think maybe…” and then we can have a discussion and tweak.
But they hire good people, and those people know what they’re doing. They go through extensive tone meetings with the executive producers, and they see all the other episodes, so they think very carefully. I had one director call me ahead of time and say, “I’m really looking forward to working with you. I wish I had a Pastor Tim in my life.” It was kind of neat, rather than the “Oh, I wish Pastor Tim would die!” kind of response. [laughs] So I knew that was going to be a fun one.
Well, it’s interesting, because you talk about having to just sort of lay back and trust. When you do a play you get the whole script. And I know you’re involved in developing scripts…
…and so everything can be manufactured and understood from the context of the whole universe of that play. And in that situation you have to trust your fellow actors, you have to trust your director, all the technical crew and all that. But in this situation there are omniscient people involved…
…and whether or not they have everything fleshed out – but I imagine showrunners would have a good deal of it fleshed out – you do have to let go and trust in the direction you’re given without maybe even understanding all of it. Can you talk about the contrast in those two different types of situations and how it affects you as a performer and the experience of preparing?
Yeah. There’s so much that’s different about doing a play and doing TV, I’ve internalized that at this point, but it’s just one element of what’s so different. In a way, just technically, time-wise, it’s probably better, or easier, in TV that you just have to trust. Otherwise, you would be doing a play’s worth of research and prep for every episode, and there just literally isn’t enough time.
However, I know it’s true, there has to be a reason – because these guys are brilliant and they know what they’re doing and everyone in TV does it – but I still can’t wrap my brain around how that is better. Wouldn’t it be better for me to know where I’m going to end up next season? Now, maybe not at the beginning of last year – maybe if I was going to die, it wouldn’t necessarily benefit me either way to know that that was coming. But if I had turned out to be an operative, a KGB agent, that would be something that you’d think I should know for the whole series.
So I don’t know why that isn’t the norm, to let people know, but for some reason it isn’t. It doesn’t bother me anymore. Early on, I think the thing I had to get over was that it led me into trying to not screw up, trying not to make wrong choices, which led me to not really making choices in a pivotal scene.
Yeah, or you’re second-guessing.
Yeah, it was too much like sussing out. A huge element of TV acting is just being natural and real, and making sure of that, because the camera’s so close anything fake will show. But then to add something on top of that, some intention – that was the thing I think I struggled with or that was harder than onstage, early on. It’s much easier now, partially because I’ve been playing the characters for so long.
With theatre, it’s like a second skin. I mean, the first read-through, the table read, the table work you do for a week, sitting around talking about possibilities – and the best table reads are with directors who make you really believe that there are no dumb questions – asking all the stupid questions, like, “What does this mean, exactly?” Not just in an intellectual way, but, “Why would I say this line right after here?”
And sometimes you answer the question, and when you get on your feet you change it. And then a week later you change it again. And you have so much time to sink in – it’s like you’re really sinking into these characters. You’re trying stuff on and just starting them, and you’ve got to be willing to kill your babies, as they say – ideas that you really love, impulses that you love, won’t necessarily work because you found three more that are more important to keep than the one that doesn’t fit.
And then you’ve got the great period of tech [technical rehearsals], where you’re not really acting, you’re sitting in the theatre and having all the technical elements being built around you. And you’re sort of away from it for a few days, and you come back, and that break is kind of essential as well. You come at it fresh, and expect to be a little wonky, but all these things have had a chance to marinate in your brain.
And then you get the first audience, and that’s the element that TV and film will never have – the jolt that you get from performing in the same space, and breathing the same air, as the people you’re performing for, people who are experiencing what you’re bringing. And to me, all the best theatre actors, you might not recognize their performance – at least energy-wise – once they get an audience. They just come alive that much more.
TV, it’s all about doing your takes until you get ‘em, and you can’t do ten of every scene, so you try to talk about it, and you just try to nail it as quickly as you can. The work of putting it together, where you memorize a performance and then put it up – that isn’t there. It’s more like jumping off a cliff. And you should in theatre, as well, but you can sort of coax things along in theatre. You have to make big choices. And I don’t mean “big” like flailing my arms around like Richard Simmons or anything [laughs], but “big” like bold, clear choices – and being bold about anything you do, even if it’s not responding for a while.
It’s harder when you only do a guest spot or a couple scenes, because at this point I have a camaraderie with people. But not feeling rushed, not thinking, “What is my line?” – you can read that in people’s eyes on TV – not thinking, “Oh, does Juliana Margulies want me to do this line faster?” You can’t think of any of that stuff. If you’re playing a dick, you’ve got to be a dick to Juliana Margulies. If you’re playing someone who is seducing her, you have to trust that what you’re doing is seducing her.
I used to have a tendency to be sort of apologetic in the way I would play certain things – not literally, but I know in myself I was, like, “Well, of course Juliana Margulies is going to think I’m hitting on her,” or whatever. No, she just wants you to play the scene the best you can! But it sometimes takes a while to be cocky enough to be bold. Or bold enough to be cocky. [laughs]
I think that’s probably the key, actually, now that I’ve done it in a roundabout way. For me, probably the thing I had to learn and the thing that has helped me, that sort of brio that you can bring to something where they’ve never met you before, they’ve been doing the series for five years, you come on and your first scene you have to dominate everybody – you’d better fucking dominate them. And that doesn’t mean as an unprofessional actor, that means as the person you’re playing. And people appreciate it, that’s the thing.
The first time I was able to do that, I think, was a show called Without a Trace, and it was an episodic procedural show – Poppy Montgomery and Anthony LaPaglia. There’s a mystery – someone goes missing – and the show deals in present time and also does flashbacks. So we had these flashback scenes, and my character was sort of one of those guys who had to dominate. I was a fashion designer, I had just gone public, I was making millions and millions of dollars, and there was this rooftop party in New York that was all for me.
So I think it was probably the first time I was cast as one of those cocky asshole wonderful characters, and it was the first time I’d been able to fully feel like I could command the set, because there were none of the regulars there. The closest thing to the two regulars were me and the woman who was the other guest star. And that kind of taught me, it was like, “Oh, it’s so much easier when I can actually not worry about stepping on anyone’s toes.” And I was able to bring that into the next number of sets even when there were stars there, and it was better. So that was a great learning experience.
There’s a sense, when you’re onstage, of expanding to fill the space. And then, of course, when you’re working on camera, everything’s got to be camera-sized, but you still have to actually inhabit the space.
Yeah. There’s a way of describing screen acting versus stage acting that follows the pattern of, take it down, don’t be too big, don’t be this, don’t be that – negative notes. And I get where that comes from, because they’re not wrong. But it led me – and I think leads a lot of people – towards neutrality.
I’ve taught a little bit and I still struggle with finding the right words, but it’s more about making bold internal choices – making bold choices, for me anyway, that lead to stillness, but stillness isn’t necessarily the stated goal. Because “I’m going to try to be still” can work, but especially if you’re just starting, it’s more about, “Why?” If I were directing, it would be like, ok, I’m going to help him find a way to end up being still, but what is it that’s going on with him that he would want to be still for?
Maybe his choice would then be, like, say, that first scene with Philip and Pastor Tim. He ends up being still, largely because he’s watching everything. It’s all about looking at the eyes. He’s watching him so intently, and listening so intently, that movement doesn’t matter. That it’s extraneous. There’s no reason for him to expend the energy, when all of his energy is about processing what he’s seeing, so that might lead to stillness, or it certainly would lead to something very small. And, in turn, that fills the space.
I think screen acting is more about eyes than anything else, and eyes lie or don’t lie. I mean, if you can fake honesty, great. I think it was Spencer Tracy who said, “Acting is all about honesty. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” And it’s true, to a certain extent. Although it’s not fake, you have to trick yourself. And you’re not insane, you know you’re doing it, so you’re not really fooling yourself.
[Note: I have since learned that the quote about faking honesty is widely attributed to George Burns. But it sure sounds like something Spencer Tracy would have said! Of course, the most famous quote about acting that’s attributed to Spencer Tracy is, “Show up on time, know your lines, and don’t bump into the furniture.”]
Sometimes what blocks people from good acting is feeling shy about making stuff up in front of people. Like, I can’t actually run scenes with my wife [dancer Carolyn Hall]. I can run lines, but I can’t run and work on scenes. Because even though she loves it, and she’s good at it, there’s a part of me that feels embarrassed and that she’s going to see the grown man playing make-believe, and that’s slightly embarrassing. And I can’t do it with my dad [former Oregon Congressman Les AuCoin]. I tried to run lines once when my dad was visiting, and I deliberately told him, “I’m not going to be acting. I’m just doing lines!” He was, like, “Ok, ok…!” [laughs]
Yeah, I don’t know what it is. I can do that in front of people I don’t know as well, or don’t know at all, which is sort of a strange thing because my wife and my dad are two of my biggest fans, my biggest supporters. But I can’t do it, there’s something in there. And I’ve often wondered if that illogical, irrational, semi-conscious fear of being discovered as a grown person “playing” might be part of what stops us from playing, and the play is what is necessary. And tied into that a little bit is the fear of someone saying [derisively], “Oh, you think that’s a good choice? Oh…that’s interesting…” I don’t know, that’s not a really fully-formed idea, but I think there’s something true in that.
One of the best things, I did a workshop with somebody that works with clowning, which I’ve never done, and he also worked with SITI Company [an ensemble-based theatre company in New York] for a long time, which is a more heightened style than I’m used to. One of the exercises was, “We’re going to sing now. Just make stuff up, sing whatever you want to sing, but do it in the style of an almost cartoonishly overblown opera singer. And we want it to be big and bad.”
And it was amazing. One thing that happened was people lost their inhibitions. The other thing was that everyone sounded great. Like, even non-singers sounded great. It was a great lesson to me to try to take and manifest in other ways – to own what you think is the ridiculousness and the play, that there’s something about that that can actually spark some pretty beautiful, wonderful stuff. And it’s sort of the antithesis of the other thing I was talking about.
When you think about that, what role does fear play in furthering your mission? Because fear can be a helpful thing sometimes, if it’s harnessed for your own good.
Are you conscious of that, of going to the fear, or challenging yourself, putting yourself out on a limb?
Yeah. Obviously, there are levels of fear. I think a certain amount of fear usually helps me in theatre. If I don’t feel the butterflies before a performance, there’s a better chance that it’s going to be a slightly more flat performance. I want a sense of ease, and everyone does to a certain extent. It’s weird to talk about yourself, but I’ve been told enough that I have a physical ease onstage that I think that’s a quality that when people cast me, that’s what they’re looking for. And I actually love that. I feel comfortable with the ease. [laughs] “I feel easy with the ease!” That sounds convoluted, but if I’m feeling too easy right before going onstage, then that might be an issue.
So a little bit of fear is good. I have enough people around me now who remind me that that’s just what I go through every time, but there are two or three times during every process where I feel I’m the worst actor – not just onstage right now, but in the history of the world – that I’ve never acted before, and I certainly never will again. And Carolyn’s always, like, “Yeah, this is about the time in the process when you tell me this. Yeah, yeah, right on schedule.” [laughs]
And I think that’s important because it reminds you that you can’t just settle on your first or second choices. It’s your third or fourth choices that end up being the ones you keep. And those may be building on your previous ones, or they may be a one-eighty, but it’s ok. You couldn’t have gotten to that if you hadn’t had the others that you reject. So that fear can spur further searching, which is great. But there’s a debilitating fear that some people get that obviously you don’t want. So it’s fear with a “small f”, not Fear with a “capital F”.
But I have yet to find that fear has ever been helpful to me onscreen. If I feel fear or the butterflies, it’s usually not as good a take. And I’m curious about that. I don’t know why that is. I suspect it’s because there’s no time. Movies, you have a little bit more time – I haven’t done as much film as I have TV. And so the ease to do the same thing over and over again, with slight variations, the ease that I need to have my mind free so that I can be spontaneous and not censor myself – fear has yet to be helpful with that. So that’s the difference for me.
Yeah, I wonder if that has something to do with, again, the sense of space. If you’re able to kind of offload, physically, differently – I wonder if you can process it through your body in a different way?
Yeah, that could be. I hadn’t thought of it in those terms, but that certainly makes sense. That rings true.
What’s your process for finding a character? Do you find yourself leaning more on intellectual processing, or sense memory, or physical manifestation? Is there one that’s more weighted than others?
There’s always an intellectual process. But I think I probably tend to feel my way into something – trying to create space for the non-intellectual impulses to come up, and then trying to follow those impulses and see how they feel. And then some of the things that make sense or don’t make sense intellectually come in sort of sideways, and then maybe later on, at the end.
There have been times when three weeks into it I realized I didn’t understand – that this had to mean something slightly different than what I was playing, because of a piece of information that I had heard but I hadn’t processed yet. And I still have this old thing of, like, every actor feels like they’re going to be discovered as a fraud at any moment. And when that type of thing happens, there’s sort of an embarrassment, or a “Dammit, this is the moment they find out I’m a fraud!”
But I keep trying to remind myself that that’s ok, because this is just my process. I get there. And other people may lead with the more intellectual stuff and then add the others, but that’s not the way I work, so it’s ok. That feeling of no stupid questions, nothing’s wrong, that exists around the table work for the first week should apply to the whole process. Sometimes it’s a big “Duuuuuhhh!” moment, like, “Oh, of course! They’re married!” [laughs] But hopefully it’s not that bad!
And the other thing about feeling my way through – the thing I love most about theatre acting, in particular – is that you can almost always be incredibly ensemble-based. And you and I working on a scene right now, the best way for me, anyway, early on to figure out the scene is to really listen to what you’re doing, and respond immediately to what you’re doing. I may not know why I responded this way, but I did because of some information, some impulse you were sending to me, and it felt great.
And then I love and rely on directors, because you then talk about, “Why did that feel good?” And most of the directors I love working with won’t talk it to death – they won’t name the thing that happened, necessarily, or make you name it, because that, to me, kills it. But there will be an idea of, “Yeah, it was great…” This is so ridiculous that I’m going to say what I’m about to say, but it’s almost like a [Jackson] Pollock, where you splash paint all over, and the director helps you find that little section…
Yes, sure. It’s the framing.
It sounds so pretentious! [laughs]
No, not at all!
But I think it’s true.
I don’t think it sounds pretentious at all. I’m always talking to my clients about this when we work together – “This is just a big sandbox and we’re just throwing the sand around.”
That’s right. That’s less pretentious than, “That’s a Pollock.” [laughs]
But I think there is a generosity. And there has to be a safety zone, which is created in the work environment, but also needs to be created within yourself.
Yeah, I think that’s true. Yeah. There was a play I did last summer, and we had just a brilliant director – she’s a hero of New York theatre. She’s run this particular theatre company for 40 years, and she’s wonderful. And she can be very hands-on in working scenes, and she can go the other way. There was this one scene, the final scene between this woman who played my wife and me, that just sort of had a feel for her.
The first time through, we were relatively off book [Note: “off book” means having your lines memorized.], holding scripts still, but we didn’t plan any blocking [Note: “blocking” means deciding how and where the actors will move around the stage during a scene.], we didn’t really plan anything, and it was going to be stop/start, but we ended up getting through to the end. And the director was, like, “You know, I don’t want to fuck with this too much. Let’s leave this. There’s some shaping I’ll do, but you guys know what you’re doing in this scene, and I don’t want to kill those impulses by over-rehearsing.” And I’m saying a little bit more than what she said, but that was the gist. And so sometimes that happens, too.
It was a very emotional scene, and there was one rehearsal where I literally started crying three times during the scene. She was, like, “You know, I know that just happened, this probably just came up, but you probably want to save it for one time?” I’m like, “Yeah yeah yeah yeah, I know, I know, I know…” [laughs] Or, “The last pause works better if you cut a couple of these others.” Or, “Don’t rush that.” But little tweaks, as opposed to really getting down deep, because we just sort of inherently understood it.
Also, the actor [who played the wife] had been a friend of mine for eight or ten years, and we adore each other, and it was the first time we’d gotten to act. Part of it, I think, was literally just this joy – it was our one scene together alone, and it was just, like, “It’s you! We’re working together! Oh, cool!” So there was a natural kind of joy to it that probably helped.
That Pollock thing actually works on TV and film as well, in a different way. They want to get a scene the way they see it, but they also love some of the weird things that you might bring up spontaneously in a given take. And you never know which take they’re going to use. You don’t know what order they’re going to put it in. They might cut something, they might rearrange things in a weird way.
So there’s the editor, and the director, and the people in the editing room end up even more treating it like a Pollock, more literally – taking that chunk and moving it here. So that metaphor applies to both – that pretentious metaphor applies to both [laughs] – but just in different ways.
One thing I’ve really noticed about your screen acting is that you are really fully committed to the interaction, and reaction, of what’s going on. Not like you’re back there trying to steal the scene or something, but there’s always something going on – you’re not just passively waiting. And passive waiting can be really noticeable, when an actor does that.
Sometimes it’s, like, “Boy, that guy’s just waiting around until it’s time to do his line.”
What I find, working in music performance, is looking for those micro-moments – dynamically, or however else we want to find them. And I think something I’ve really noticed about your coming from theatre and being onscreen is your ability to find the interaction and the reaction to the collaboration that’s actually happening in the scene.
Which might be hard to manufacture in the artificiality of what’s going on in screen acting – shooting out of sequence, and “do it this way, do it that way, do it this way.”
And this is sort of an offshoot of that, but I wonder how you experience seeing yourself onscreen, and the choices that you make in reaction mode, and in principal mode. Does that affect how you do your next job? Does it hamper you in any way? Or does it encourage you?
Right. I used to hate watching myself. I had to get over it because I was putting my own reel together. [Note: a reel is a video containing a sampling of an actor’s work from a variety of roles, which casting directors and others view when considering the actor for new jobs. You can find Kelly’s reel and other video clips here.] So you have to get over being freaked out [laughs] and start to develop, well, it may not be correct, but something bordering on an objective opinion of how you did. And I still tend to think I’m pretty bad, but I have moments that I don’t dislike as much as other moments. [laughs]
What do you notice about those moments? What are the things that appeal to you?
Well, one of the things I’ve noticed is that my managers are, like, “You have to put that scene on. What do you mean, that’s bad? You’re an idiot. Put that on.” So I know that I just said you have to develop a more objective point of view. I don’t know that I’ve been successful with that. This is so silly, but I think I’ve been able to figure out what, despite what I think, is probably good. You know, like, “I feel that that’s bad, but I think it might not be. I think, based on what other people have said…” That’s slightly overstating it – I am better at it than I used to be.
I notice physical tics that I either like or don’t like on myself. I hate my mouth, and everything about my mouth, when I look at myself on film. I’d like to lose five pounds, but that’s neither here nor there. I noticed at one point, I was, like, “Oh, I have to tell the makeup people to fill in my eyebrows.” Because as a bald man – a pasty bald man – I need that. You know, stupid stuff like that, that can make me think a whole take is bad.
There’s a thing we have, as people who create things, that I like to call the True Voice, where something kind of settles in you and you go, “Oh, that’s true. Whatever that was, that is The Truth.”
When do you tend to notice that, if ever, about your own performances? What kinds of things bring that response for you?
That’s a good question. I don’t know. I honestly don’t know how to answer that, because I haven’t thought of it in exactly those terms. I’d have to go back and look, I guess. But I know that, for instance, that scene with – have you seen Billions?
Yes, all of it.
Ok, so you saw the fake fight scene.
[Note: that scene can be viewed in its entirety here.]
Like that, I loved. I was perfectly happy with that. Except there were still some things I was, like, “Oh I wish I’d mmmmm’d…” [laughs] But in retrospect, I remember, there were takes when I did mmmmm, and they chose this [instead], so that’s fine. I objectively look at that and I think, “That was good. I did well.” Partially because the scene was shot in such a way that we were never hampered by going out of sequence, maybe? No, that’s not necessarily it. That scene was all about reading each other and picking up the cues. And he was saying one thing, but acting another way, and as soon as I walked in it was, like, “We’re having a fake argument now! Come on!”
And I was trying to not show anybody, but I had to be with Damian [Lewis, who plays Kelly’s character’s boss, Bobby Axelrod] even more ferociously, I guess, because I had to show one thing to everybody else and figure out what he was doing with the other. So that was all about the connection. It was much more like theatre. So I experienced that as, “We’re just having fun. We’re really doing this. There’s not a lot of stop/start. I don’t have to gear myself up.”
You know what it reminded me of was an acting exercise.
Someone else mentioned that, too.
Yeah, where you’re given contradictory direction, you know – this is that, and you have to do it this way.
And you’re teaming up together to pull this off, to make this happen.
It was a little heist.
Yeah! And you had to totally commit to the physicality of it, and the duplicitousness of it, which is what you’d have to do with a scene partner in an acting class, right?
Yeah. And that’s one of the reasons why people – even stars, generally – stick around for the reverses. [Note: a reverse, or reverse angle shot, is a shot that views the action from the opposite angle as the previous shot, such as the shots that take place during a conversation between two characters in a scene.] Because they know, even when they’re dead tired, that that’s going to be the best take. It’s common courtesy. When you have somebody that actually sticks around and plays with you, then you can at least have a semblance of a scene partner.
It’s not going to be the same as that situation because this is your close-up and you know that to a certain level, but if that person’s there for you, then you can still play a little bit. And they might throw something slightly different, so you can react to it. So if they can still be alive when they’re not on camera, actually, and they can still be alive and throw you things, little curve balls, that’s amazing. Those are very generous actors, when they do that.
Keri Russell [Elizabeth Jennings on The Americans] did that. She was pregnant, and she’d been working since five in the morning, and it was, like, nine at night. We had this big scene, and she was, like, “Pregnant woman! Why don’t they schedule this better?” [laughs] But she was fully there the whole time. And she shot her scenes first, so that she could relax, but then my reverses. She stuck around, and she was so there for me. It was just great.
And she constantly had to be wearing winter coats [to hide her pregnancy, because her character wasn’t pregnant]. The poor woman!
Winter coats, and giant salad bowls, and grocery bags! Did you notice how many times she came back from grocery shopping that season?
I know! I was, like, “Man, that spy does a shit-ton of grocery shopping…!”
She does. And damn, they like big salads in that house! [laughs] They were brilliant at blocking it. It was so simple, the things they chose [to conceal Russell’s pregnancy] – it was amazing.
So, one thing I’m really interested in is “the zone”, and how performers experience it. Have you noticed what kinds of conditions will most likely get you into the zone when you’re performing? What gets you there more often?
Well, that’s sort of a classic mystery. I know people lament, as do I, the lack of a clear path to the zone. I don’t know, I think for me – I’ll use theatre as the example, I guess – the zone usually happens in chunks, in moments, rather than in a whole two-hour play. When I’m experiencing it, I guess, things are moving by more quickly – it’s fast.
And that doesn’t mean it’s literally fast – we’re not delivering our lines faster, or anything like that. It’s almost like a window that you’re opening and shutting, and you can open it when it’s not on track, but you’re shoving it, and you can push it with two fingers if it’s on track and in the zone. That’s what it feels like.
Kelly, I’ve got to tell you, everybody struggles with this question. And that is the best analogy I’ve ever heard anybody say.
Well, that’s great! [laughs]
Yeah, that’s exactly it.
It’s like smoothing in. It sort of ka-chunks into something that’s greased, rather than not.
Do you notice it when it’s happening?
Yeah, I do. Because no matter what anyone tells you, ninety-nine percent of the time, you’re doing what you’re doing, you’re acting, but there’s also a part of you that’s aware. Again, we’re not insane. We don’t actually think that we are John Proctor, or a pirate [laughs]. So there’s something, but it’s muted.
The masochistic part of me has often thought – like, this happened in the last play I did, too. I was just about to come onstage, and I had lines to open it, and I was thinking, “What if I forgot my lines? What if I literally forgot my lines?” [laughs] And sometimes that comes up to, like, fifty percent of your brain, and that’s when you’re, like, “Ooookay, come on, back down there…” [laughs]
So anyway, you do have conversations with yourself on a semi-conscious level while you’re having the actual conversation. That’s there, you just hope it’s very very small. And it’s not verbal, exactly, but there’s an awareness. And that’s how you remember your blocking, that’s how you remember that you actually do have to hit a timing here, or something – technical things.
So yes, on that level, I’m aware of it. But it feels more like a tiny little bit of euphoria that you’ve got down in the corner of your brain, or your heart or wherever, that just feels like, “Yeah, this is why I do this.” Moments.
Even when my career wasn’t going very well financially. And I’ve been fine, I’ve been able to make my living for the last fifteen years doing this, but a meager living. [laughs] Even if things weren’t going spectacularly, if I had a gig that had some of those moments – and you almost always do – that’s like, yeah, that thing, that thing is what this is all about. The zone – I can’t remember right now what words I use to describe it, but “the zone” works as well as anything else – it’s like, that’s it.
So yes, I’m aware of it. And afterwards, it can feel a little spent, in a way. And also at the same time – I know this sounds silly – at the same time, you’re energized.
It’s like, “Oh, wow, what was that?” No, it’s not even “what was that”, because sometimes it’s sort of, “that came out of nowhere”, but the zone can manifest as, you’ve just never done it that way before. But it can also manifest as, it’s just never felt that smooth before.
Yeah, now I’m just trying to add stuff to it, and I don’t know why. I do stuff like this, and this is why I’m still learning as a teacher. Like, I give a good enough example, and then I try to come around to the exact thing. Like, perfect is the enemy of the good enough, or the merely good. [laughs]
Well, I was going to ask you about your teaching, because I know from personal experience, you’re constantly searching for a way to connect, understand, impart, be open – all that stuff – which is the same thing you’re doing when you’re performing.
And of course in teaching, there’s an aspect of performing. And so I wonder if your experience of teaching has taught you anything about yourself as a performer, and what insights you may have learned from that which have changed the way you approach performing.
Yeah, I wonder. Well, I didn’t go to grad school. So, the teaching I do is for this theatre in town that has more supplementary education. Most of the students have gone to grad school, and most of them in some way or another have some experience. And we only teach ten classes, or if it’s a monologue class, five classes. And we are hired as acting or directing or writing professionals, not as educators. So it’s ok that I don’t have the vocabulary that somebody would require teaching at the grad school level.
This is at Primary Stages?
This is at Primary Stages, yeah. It’s ESPA, the Einhorn School of Performing Arts. So I think I was pretty bad in my first class, because I was trying to be something I wasn’t, and I couldn’t be that, because I wasn’t. Everything I would say was mitigated with, “Now, it’s just my opinion, you know what you’re doing, and you might not agree…” [laughs]
And so finally I talked about it with the woman who runs the school, and she was, like, “Yeah, actually, we know it’s your opinion. Especially in this class. This is what you, Kelly, do. You are imparting to them how you would do a scene, how you would work this scene. If it’s convoluted, then it’s convoluted. If it’s simple, if it’s stupid, whatever it is, they don’t have to take the class again. But they are signing up to find out how you work something. So own it.” And that made it easier.
The schedule of the two shows, overall, I’ve been shooting nine months out of the year, so I can’t do it.
Aw, that’s too bad!
Yeah, it’s a good problem to have – it’s a champagne problem! [laughs] I do like it, though. I think, maybe, not having gone to grad school – less now, but for a while, probably – not having the shorthand that a lot of people have going into a process, including the directors, meant there was some time spent finding common language. Whereas if I had gone to grad school, that might have been less time.
And even if that wasn’t a problem, I sometimes perceived it as a problem, like maybe some insecurities. And sometimes that manifested, early on, as, again, talking around and around and around, and not knowing how to express what I was trying to express. And I realized, possibly, while teaching, I don’t remember an “aha” moment, but maybe going through that process with other people, almost in a directorial position because of the scene study.
So being on the other side maybe helped me come to the realization that the problem was probably just that I don’t think I was as comfortable with “I don’t know.” And if I was bringing up a question, feeling like I needed to have an answer. And you’re not an idiot, and you’re not a terrible actor, if you don’t have an answer. And if I had directors that were uncomfortable with that, and would be, like, “What are you thinking?”, I would get, maybe, a little flustered at first. Whereas now I’m, like, “I don’t know. But I know this is not working, so let’s figure it out.”
I don’t know, I’m guessing that having that experience as a teacher probably helped me, at least somewhat – that the “I don’t know” is not a bad place to be at all.
Yes, it leads to discovery. I wonder – I assume that you are into various kinds of music. Yeah?
Yes, I love music.
Do you think musically when you’re breaking down a script, or figuring out the beats of a character? Do you think of it in terms of pacing, rhythm, pitch, dynamics – all the kind of stuff that would go into music?
Yeah. I don’t think I approach it at the top that way, unless it’s Shakespeare or something classical, something in verse – then that’s an obvious thing, because the rhythm actually can inform the meaning, just structurally. But I do think that if I notice something as silly as I feel like I’m shouting too much, that’s sort of a pitch thing. And each one of those times I’m shouting could make sense in a vacuum, but let’s moderate a little bit. Kind of like the pauses that I was describing in that one scene [in The Americans] from last year. And they are sort of obvious things, but you sometimes need that outside eye.
Yes, the answer is yes. [laughs] Those things definitely matter.
I’m not a big “louder, faster, funnier” person, and fortunately theatre is moving away from that somewhat. Have you heard of Annie Baker, the playwright?
I have, yes.
She wrote The Flick [winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama], and John, and a bunch of other stuff that’s really wonderful. And she’s certainly part of the wave, but she’s at the forefront, she’s certainly one of the most acclaimed, of letting things land and sit. And I think it’s actually really interesting and ironic that the millennial generation of theatregoers and makers, despite what people might have thought, are creating more space and breath and air, and letting things live in a more realistic or hyper-realistic way, even though that’s the generation that is supposedly losing focus. So that’s kind of wonderful, because I love the music of silence. I love living in silence. I love watching people behave when they’re not necessarily saying anything.
I don’t know if you know the actor Reed Birney? He just won a Tony for the first time – he’s a brilliant actor. He won a Tony for The Humans, for featured actor. He’s a great guy, too. But I love watching him perform because he never seems rushed. There’s music in that, to me. And there’s music in finding those places where’s there’s banter. Maybe it’s [Katharine] Hepburn and [Spencer] Tracy type of banter – I love that, too. So yes, that matters to me. And there’s not a one-size-fits-all thing, which I think is a trap that our theatre fell into for a while. I think we’re coming out of that a little bit.
Some people would disagree. Some people would say I’m an idiot, and that it should always go faster, but…
Well, it’s just your opinion, right?
“It’s just my opinion, I don’t want anyone to think…like, take it or leave it…whatever…” And then five minutes in, I haven’t given the note. [laughs]
“What is your opinion, exactly?!”
“Yeah, I’d like to hear your fucking opinion!” [laughs]
Do your characters ever have soundtracks, or theme songs?
Sometimes, but not often. The character last summer was a huge Pixies fan, and so of course I listened to a lot of The Pixies. I rode my bike to the theatre a lot, so I had at least three songs of The Pixies on my mix. I did jokingly create, like, “Superfly” was Dollar Bill’s [Kelly’s character in Billions] theme song for, like, a week. Anything badass, anything that props up his grandiose feelings about himself, works for Bill.
Big enough for two families…!
Yes! I think Pastor Tim might be Amy Grant. Because that’s like ’83, ’84. She was just crossing over – “Baby Baby”, I think, was her big hit. So he might harbor a secret crush on Amy Grant, actually, I think. I know I did, so, why not? [laughs]
So I don’t do that a lot, but I have, and it can be very helpful – not as much as I always wanted it to be, but it’s another thing you can bring in to absorb. I did a [Tom] Stoppard play years ago [The Real Thing], and I had my own dressing room, and all I did was play this sort of rapid-fire – it was almost like house music. The character [Henry] was very much into these ‘60s pop bands, so it had nothing to do with the character – it was just something that got my energy going. So it wasn’t exactly a soundtrack, as just pump-up music.
And Stoppard is incredibly musical.
Yeah, the language itself – oh yeah, totally. I love Stoppard. The Real Thing and Arcadia – I was lucky enough to do both of those plays, and it just doesn’t get any better than that. And those you do have to be a little more technical about than you think, to hit the music.
Like the same kind of thing with [David] Mamet – the same idea.
Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. You want to get the realism and everything, but there’s so much you can discover. They’re almost classical in that way. Following a rhythm, finding a good rhythm, solves problems for you. It’s not artificial. Because that’s what they were writing. And I like that other people are writing things differently now, but if someone has written that way, then it’s hard to deny it.
Has being in close proximity to Carolyn’s dance career affected you as a performer – the way you think about physicality? [Note: Kelly’s wife, Carolyn Hall, is a New York Dance & Performance “Bessie” Award winner for her body of work in modern dance.]
Probably. Actually, someone told me that I was a really physical actor recently, and I think that has to do more with that ease I’ve been told I have. This sounds so weird – I’m not patting myself on the back – does that sound…
No, not at all.
Ok, good. So, yeah, I don’t know – not in a direct correlation way. I don’t do what they would call physical theatre or dance theatre, which she’s doing a lot more of now. But maybe. I mean, there is something – I feel like I had this before that, but maybe I haven’t – there’s something about physically taking a space, planted forward, and owning an audience that is a very physical act that you have to back up in other ways, too, but at base it’s a physical act. Yeah, maybe! Maybe so. I also did a play where I played Jerome Robbins…
What was that?
It was about the blacklist. It was a play called Finks. Joe Gilford, who was Jack Gilford’s son…
…wrote about his parents, who were blacklisted. And Jerome Robbins was one of their friends. And Robbins testified [before the House Un-American Activities Committee] and gave names.
So the play was called Finks, and I played one of the “finks”. But there was a scene where at the end I had to dance while the two main characters that had just had a baby that was obviously the playwright – or I think so – they were talking about their shattered lives. And Jerome Robbins – who skated above it, got off and betrayed them – was dancing this slow but interesting dance.
And I had never danced before. It was one time in my life that I was actually in shape, so that was good [laughs], but I would come home – and this was up in Poughkeepsie, at New York Stage and Film, it was a full production but they do workshops and things like that – and I worked on that with her. She gave me some hints on where to generate the movement from, and stuff like that. And I don’t think I did it very well, but I did fake some people out! It wasn’t choreography that was so difficult that I couldn’t make it work, but it wasn’t pyrotechnic in any way.
You weren’t up there doing West Side Story…!
Yeah, no cartwheels, no fan kicks. [laughs] But it was fun to actually work with her directly on that. She definitely helped me own it – to whatever extent I owned it!
What are you most proud of, in terms of what you’re able to do in performance?
I think what I’m most proud of, I think I can own an audience. Breaking the fourth wall or not, I can stand downstage center and meet everyone in the eye and love it, and gain energy from it, and manipulate them. And I love it. “Manipulate”, “own them” – those are words, of course, that could sound negative, and I certainly don’t mean them that way. But I like that. I like that a lot. And that’s actually something that only the stage provides, and the stage is absolutely my love. So I do love that. It makes me feel like I want to play Prospero [in Shakespeare’s The Tempest] someday. [laughs]
I can see it! I can definitely see it. You need a few more years, but yeah…!
Thank you! [laughs] The other thing is, though – that scene I was talking about from last summer – I’ve never played a scene that I’ve loved more. There’ve been others that are wonderful scenes, too, but that’s the most recent example where two actors are just, like, we would do something different every night, but we were so in tune that it was always alive. Even when we would lose lines, which would happen every once in a while, it was still there, the scene was still there.
So the other thing I would say I’m proud of, the only award I’ve ever won was a Drama Desk Award for Best Ensemble [a special award in 2015 for A.R. Gurney’s The Wayside Motor Inn]. I love that that’s the only award, because that’s all I give a shit about – ensemble. And so I’m
proud that things like that scene happen with regularity – scenes where I, with another person, can create an extended series of moments that can sing, that can be in the zone, and that do so regularly – and I love that.
It’s interesting, because those are two very different things.
They’re two very different things, in a way.
And owning the stage and owning the audience, again, I think we’re talking about expanding to fill the space and also becoming larger yourself. Not just what you’re doing is filling the space, but becoming an enhanced version of yourself, and not just through the character but actually through yourself.
And I think it’s absolutely true that there are some people who get onstage and they become enhanced versions of themselves – they actually augment who they are.
I think that’s true.
So I think it’s great that you love that about what you do, because I spend a lot of time trying to convince my clients to do that. “Own it! Own your moment. This is what all the work is about, so you might as well!”
Yeah, and it’s the fun part, too! And that’s the thing that’s hard, that’s when fear gets in the way, I think. Because when you’re doing that, you are making it very clear that you think, or know, that what you’re doing is good. That you are good.
Or that what you’re doing is true.
Or true. But I think when the fear comes in, I think it’s that people aren’t afraid as much in this situation of being called out for having something true. I think they’re afraid of people saying, “That wasn’t good.” And maybe false comes into it, too, but ultimately then what they’re saying when they hear “That was false” is “You’re bad.”
You’re stating, “I’m worth watching, and I’m the most interesting person in this room right now, and I am good at what I do.” And I think that’s a powerful thing, because if someone doesn’t like it, then they’re saying, “Psshh, you think you’re good…” [laughs] And there’s nothing more devastating than having someone say that.
So yeah, you’re right, it’s about owning that, but there’s nothing more fun than that. That’s the fun! And to get to the fun, you’ve got to be cocky, and you have to know your shit doesn’t stink. Of course it does sometimes, but you still have to know it.
There’s actually a podcast called “The Moment”, by Brian Koppelman – he’s one of the showrunners and creators of Billions – and it’s based on a lot of conversations about things, but at least at some point in every interview he gets to the part where he asks the performer or the artist or the person, “Was there a moment…?” He’s interested in people where, there’s a moment that you can either rise to or won’t rise to, where your career can take something that launches it. If you meet it, then everything changes; if you don’t, that’s interesting, too. He had [actor] Ellen Barkin on, and she was talking about all the moments where she didn’t rise to meet it, and that was interesting.
David Costabile, who plays Wags on Billions, he had taught, and he had done clowning, a lot of theatre. I actually roomed with him in London – we barely saw each other again until the first table read of the pilot for Billions. But he talks about one of the best teachers, I think he was saying, that he had who said, “You have to assume your own brilliance.” So Koppelman said, “So you have to assume you’re brilliant.” He said, “No, you have to assume your own brilliance.”
And the slight variation to that, it’s hard to put it into words and I’m probably going to say it wrong, but what struck me about that – I wish I’d had a teacher that told me early on about that, that’s a great note – “assume it”, that means two things, you know? I am assuming in this moment that I can do it, and I am this. But also, you take it on. And that’s tied in with that opera thing, in a way, that I was talking about – be the big bombastic thing, don’t worry if it’s good enough or not. In a way, it’s tied into that. And that’s fun. And it’s fun for the audience.
And the other thing I was going to say, it does sound on one level like two different things – owning the stage and the other…
But I don’t really think they are different.
No, I don’t either, but it can in a cursory way. But I think in those moments, it’s still about connection. But the audience has become your scene partner, in those cases. And so it’s still about listening and reacting and reading, even though it’s just you up onstage.
And when you’re an ensemble, everybody’s counting on you to own it. You have to.
Yeah, they want you to. And there’s nothing like existing in the same room, you and an audience. You’re breathing the same fucking air, you know? It’s the same molecules. And what you’re doing in that room is utterly unique. It’ll never happen exactly the same way again. It’s magical. We all know this, it’s a cliché, we’ve all said this before, but it’s true. And we bring that knowledge with us when we go onstage, and when we go to see a play. And that’s one of the reasons why I don’t think live performance will ever die – because it’s an utterly unique experience.
And it’s so primal, don’t you think?
It’s so primal.
It goes back to the caves, that storytelling. At one point it was more about survival, really, but then it turned into entertainment, and passing along the stories, and the furthering of the human experience. When you go to a live performance, no one’s forcing you to do it. You’re doing it because you want that experience, and so you might as well, as a performer, meet it.
Absolutely, absolutely. Why not? [laughs]
I talk to a lot of musicians who tour all over the world, and they tend to talk about how they feel like their job is traveling, but then when they perform, that’s the play – I mean, literally, play. They’re traveling for a living, but then they get to play.
And auditioning is the work [for actors]. And obviously there’s a lot of work that can be painful and stressful and fraught and upsetting – rehearsals, and everything – but then once you’re up, yeah, that’s the play. And if you do hit those zones periodically, there’s nothing better.
You came up at a time when there wasn’t social media. And then there was social media, and now there’s this sort of faux intimacy that goes on with what do you let out there, what do you say about yourself, what do you promote intentionally, what do you maybe make sound even better than it actually is, and all that kind of stuff. What is the persona of being you, and also being the journeyman that you are, where you want to be a chameleon, but you’re still presenting a persona, but you’re not – and I’m sure management has a lot to do with that, too.
How do you experience that? It used to be that all that kind of publicity was done in a very controlled environment – how you shaped your image – and now there’s a lot you can do yourself…
You have to.
…but there’s so much going on and you can’t control everything, and people post things about you, and all that. Does that enter into the craft part of it? Do you notice that chatter? Is that shaping who you are in any way?
I don’t think so. And Facebook and Twitter serve two different functions for me. Twitter is more about the advertising. Because no one emails anymore and no one wants to receive big mass-emails about your play, I do tell people when I’m doing a play, on Facebook. If there’s a great review, I might post that. But now that I’m using Twitter, I do that much less.
Because there’s always that weird line with Facebook – you know, the “humblebrag” – which I get, it’s just hard, because how will you talk about what you’re doing? Because people say they want to come and they want to hear about it, but then how do you talk about it without sounding like a dick? [laughs]
So I advertise a lot less on Facebook, and I advertise more on Twitter. It seems more ripe for some things. Like, “So excited! Going to be shooting the next blah blah blah.” It just seems more like the business option. At least I’m using it that way, and I haven’t been accused of humblebragging on Twitter. [laughs] And I don’t even know if I was, that much, on Facebook – I’m just always afraid of it, because I see it. I don’t know, there’s something that just seems to be more off-putting on Facebook than on Twitter when you’re talking about your gigs. I don’t know what it is – maybe the brevity that you’re forced into on Twitter helps.
I think also, unless you have a “business” page on Facebook, it’s your friends, you know? At least, nominally, it’s your friends.
Right. And with Facebook, too, when people were starting to get the business pages, people were, like, [mockingly] “Oh…you think you should have a business page…?” I don’t know, there’s just something about it. And yes, it’s your friends, but we want to know what our friends are doing – it’s just hard.
And I also don’t get very political with Twitter – I get much more political with Facebook. Until recently, actually – until the Black Lives Matter stuff. I think I lost a bunch of Twitter followers since I’ve said things, and it’s fine, I don’t care. But in general I try to stay away from politics on Twitter, and make it more about business and everyday life stuff. Also, I like people who have funny Twitter feeds, so if I think something’s funny I’ll post it, and others might disagree, but I enjoy that type of banter on that platform.
But you don’t find that it informs your choices in any way.
No. I think I got a lot of followers because of the Americans connection, and a lot of people, I think, found it surprising that I was laughing about all the “kill Pastor Tim” feeds. To my mind, I was, like, “People are talking about Pastor Tim, that’s awesome!” He started off as a very marginal character, and now people are invested in whether or not he lives or dies. I don’t like the conclusion they’ve come to, but…[laughs]
So I think actually, in some ways, people – it’s so silly that I’m going to say this – but I think the fans like it. Oh god, I can’t believe I just said that – ewww! [laughs]
But I do think it’s fun to have interactions with people who like the show, and I think it’s probably fun for some people to have discovered that it’s ok if you hate the character. It’s fine, I like that you think about the character!
Well, I think, Kelly, it’s safe to say that there are actual fans. I think you can say that, because it’s empirically true.
[Laughs] No, I know, but it’s weird to say it. I don’t mean to imply my fans – I would never be, like, “You know, my fans deserve it!” [laughs]
So no, I’ve never felt that it informs…no. Now, I don’t know, I can only surmise what it might be like if you have two hundred fifty thousand followers, or a million followers, or you’re the lead on a show, and maybe the PR for the network would be, like, “Oh, this is what we’re hearing…” I have no idea. For me, it’s just sort of fun to joke around with people, and if someone says something nice, I’m usually, like, “Thanks! That’s amazing! [laughs] I’ve worked in obscurity for a loooong time, so thanks for saying anything!”
“Thanks for noticing me!”
[Laughs] FX [which airs The Americans] and Showtime [which airs Billions] have, a few times, asked me to live-tweet along, and that’s fun, because you get the same group of people every week, and maybe you rehash jokes. It’s fun to interact, but no, it hasn’t informed me.
Do you have a sense of seeing yourself from across the room when you’re performing?
Oh yeah, sometimes.
What’s that like for you?
First thing, I’m usually, like, “Hhhh, lose five pounds!” [laughs] I think it’s less when I’m performing than when I’m rehearsing. Because I think it’s a helpful tool in building a performance. I think it can, for me anyway, get in the way during performance.
Like, I was describing that tiny voice that’s non-verbal, that can feel the euphoria, that can be aware that you’re in a zone. I think if you move too much towards, “Aaaah, this is what I look like!”, that becomes too conscious, for me. But I think there’s plenty of room for that while you’re rehearsing, and then hopefully you can push that aside when you’re performing.
I think that some people have that ability to do that, and some people don’t, and it’s kind of a hard thing to teach or to acquire. But do you get a sense that that perception that you have of yourself from across the room, is that accurate?
[Laughs] Good question! I mean, we have to trust that it is – just like assuming your own brilliance. Yeah, I don’t know. I think you have to believe that it is. And then you have to surround yourself, over your career, with people that you trust who can tweak that perception a bit as you go along, and hope that you never get to a position where you think you’ve learned it all and you can’t be tweaked for the better anymore.
So given that, what are you aware of wanting to improve in yourself as a performer as you go forward?
I feel like I damaged my voice at some point, and I don’t know how I did that exactly. But there was a show about five years ago, Blood and Gifts [by J.T. Rogers], a great play about America and Afghanistan in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. And it was very heightened. We had an unusual space – there wasn’t a proscenium [Note: a proscenium is what we think of as a traditional type of stage setup], and there was nothing, really, to bounce your voice off of, and the acoustics were not great.
So we were pushing our voices a lot more than we would have normally. And that was another thing about not going to grad school – I have a good voice, and I’ve had snippets of training, but I never had the same type of training that a lot of people do. So I noticed it for the first time. There’s a higher register that I can’t access anymore. And part of that is aging, but part of it feels like damage, for lack of a better word. So I’d like to figure that out – which would indicate that I would do something about it, and of course I haven’t done anything about it and it was five years ago. [laughs] So that would be one thing.
And, what else? Oh, I’m sure there are plenty – I’d just like to get better at everything! [laughs] You know, it would be fun to have time to take workshops in styles that I haven’t done in a while. I haven’t done Shakespeare in so long – it was 2005, the last Shakespeare play I did. I’d like to do more of that, because it used to be my staple. It’s like muscles – you have to work the muscles or they atrophy.
Was Julius Caesar the last Shakespeare you did? [Note: Kelly played Octavius Caesar opposite Denzel Washington as Brutus on Broadway in 2005.]
Which leads me to my next question. You’re going into all these situations with all these wonderful, storied actors. How do you deal with not being stage-struck when you have to do your job – even with people who aren’t “famous” but whom you admire tremendously for what they can do?
Right. I think Caesar helped me get over that, a bit, because there were so many stars in that show. And then there was this mega-mega-mega-star. So there was only one person to be intimidated by, if that makes any sense. [laughs] And then my character was just a complete prick to Denzel, and so you could fight against that by just doubling down on the, “Oh yeah? Well, fuck you!” Which is what I did, and I think it worked really well. And I actually think it might have irritated him – I don’t know. [laughs] But that’s good!
Yeah, that was your job anyway!
Yeah! Yeah, that is something to keep in mind, and it sort of ties in with what I was talking about, about being a guest star on a TV show. It’s hard not to worry about staying in your place and not stepping on toes, but you can’t. So Julius Caesar was one step in getting past that, and then working on Without A Trace, where I had those scenes with the other guest star, where it was my first time owning scenes, being the focus of a series of scenes where we were the highest on the call sheet, and being able to have the freedom, then, to own that the way I would in a play, and trying to maintain that type of energy even when the stars were back on set.
[Note: a call sheet is a daily production schedule given to the cast and crew which is put together based on the scenes that will be shot that day; typically, the actors are listed on the call sheet in the order of their status or importance to the production on that particular day, from highest to lowest.]
What did you learn about performing from watching your dad be a politician, if anything?
[Laughs] I know that I must have gotten stuff from him. Maybe the idea that you have to connect with people even when you’re not feeling it, performatively.
And he always wanted to connect with people, but sometimes, as people do, you’re not feeling the energy – and you can’t just not do it – finding a way to make the connection happen, to whatever extent you can on that given day.
There’s something about a work ethic, I think, that I got from watching him, too. I still, if I’m late for a call [Note: a call is the time that an actor has been told to report to work] – rehearsal or show or anything – I just, I mean, I text my stage manager at the first hint that I might be two minutes late. And eighty percent of the time I’m not. Actually, much more than that – I rarely miss calls. I’m late for so many things, but not calls! [laughs]
My stage manager over the course of any gig will probably get twenty messages from me saying, “Oh my god, I might be late! I don’t know if I will, I’m probably going to get there on time, but I might be – I just want you to know I’m on my way!” And then I’m usually five minutes early, and I’m, like, “I’m so sorry!” They’ll tease me, but they usually say, “I’d much rather you tell me than not, so it’s fine.” But I had enough [acting] teachers early on who said, “That is your job number one – show up on time.” And it’s written into the Equity rules and the SAG rules. You show up for your call on time. That’s, like, number one, with a bullet.
[Note: Kelly is referring to Actors’ Equity Association, the union representing American theatre actors and stage managers, and SAG-AFTRA, the union representing American film, television, and radio performers.]
So I know that is something that a good teacher or a director will teach you early on, but I also think I saw that in my dad. His hours were crazy, and sitting in the car with so many people who were just as tired as he was, but just schlepping all over the state and giving speech after speech. So I think that that was probably one of the big things – work ethic.
Is there anything specifically about performance that you feel is part of your credo that we haven’t talked about, in terms of being a performer or the experience of performing?
I don’t know if I have a specific credo, but I would say that, to me, the most important thing is the ensemble, and that manifests onstage and off. I love tech [rehearsals], right? Most people hate it. I love being forced to think about nothing else. And oftentimes you’re in the bowels of the theatre, where you get no WIFI and cell reception. So it’s just you and your buddies, and we’re all napping, and we’re all eating together, and then we’re falling asleep on the floor together – I love the camaraderie of the cast and the ensemble.
I don’t know what the credo would be, except listen. Always, acting-wise, listen. Because you could do almost anything onstage if you’re listening and then responding to what you literally just heard, as opposed to what you planned you might hear.