CONVERSATIONS WITH PERFORMERS – Actor Kelly AuCoin – Part 2 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 Part 2 of 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 is being posted in three installments. Part 1 can be found here.

In Part 2, 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

______________________________________________________________________

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 theater 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 theater. She’s run this particular theater 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 to readers: “off book” means having your lines memorized.], holding scripts still, but we didn’t plan any blocking [Note to readers: “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.

Right.

Sometimes it’s, like, “Boy, that guy’s just waiting around until it’s time to do his line.”

Yeah. [laughs]

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 theater and being onscreen is your ability to find the interaction and the reaction to the collaboration that’s actually happening in the scene. 

Oh, cool. 

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.”

Right.

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 to readers: 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.”

Right.

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 to readers: that scene can be viewed in its entirety here.]

Yeah.

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 theater. 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.

Yes. 

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 to readers: 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 [who plays Elizabeth 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 theater 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.

Yeah!

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.

Yes.

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 theater 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.

Yeah, well, 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 theater is moving away from that somewhat. Have you heard of Annie Baker, the playwright?

I have, yeah.

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 theatergoers 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 this year for the first time – he’s a brilliant actor.

For what?

He won a Tony for The Humans, for featured actor.

Oh, yes, I know who you mean.

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 theater 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 theater 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 to reader: 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 theater or dance theater, 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…

Sure!

…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.

Yep.

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!

[In Part 3, which will be posted next, Kelly talks about the importance of owning the moment in performance; the role social media plays in the life of a working actor; and what he wants to improve in himself as a performer. –VA]