CONVERSATIONS WITH PERFORMERS – Actor Kelly AuCoin – Part 1 of 3

Author: | Filed under: Getting On Stage, Great Performances, In The Zone, Interviews, What To Watch

Photo credit: Quentin Mare

[Photo Credit: Quentin Mare]

I’m very pleased to present my in-depth conversation with theater, film, and television actor KELLY AuCOIN.

You may be familiar with Kelly’s recurring roles as Pastor Tim on The Americans (FX), ‘Dollar’ Bill Stearn on Billions (Showtime), Gary Stamper on House of Cards (Netflix), and Benjamin Stalder on The Blacklist (NBC). 

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 theater career. In 2015, Kelly won a Drama Desk Award for his work in Signature Theatre’s The Wayside Motor Inn. He also starred as Octavius Caesar, opposite Denzel Washington as Brutus, in the Broadway revival of Julius Caesar, among numerous other roles. 

Later this year, Kelly will be seen in the Alec Baldwin/Salma Hayek film Drunk Parents, and in HBO’s upcoming The Wizard Of Lies, starring Robert DeNiro and Michelle Pfeiffer.

This conversation will be posted in three installments.

In Part 1, Kelly discusses what it’s like to be a journeyman actor; how he developed his take on Pastor Tim without being given much, if any, information about the character’s past, present, or future; and the role fear plays in his artistic choices. –VA

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Well, congratulations to you, Kelly!

Thanks!

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…

Yeah.

…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…

Right.

…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.

Yeah.

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.

Oh, man!

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 [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 theater.

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 theater 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 theater.

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…

Sometimes, yeah.

…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…

Yeah. [laughs]

…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.

Right!

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 theater, 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 theater 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 theater 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 theater, as well, but you can sort of coax things along in theater. 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’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 to readers: 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 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]

Interesting!

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 theater 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.

Sure.

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 theater. 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 other 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.

[In Part 2, which will be posted next, Kelly talks about what it’s like to watch himself act onscreen; how he experiences being in “the zone”; and how he uses music when developing a character . –VA]