CONVERSATIONS WITH PERFORMERS – Actor Kelly AuCoin – Part 3 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 3 (the final installment) 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 has been posted in three installments. Part 1 can be found here, and Part 2 is here.

In Part 3, 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

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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.

Right, yeah.

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 theater. 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.

Well, 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.

Right.

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 to readers: 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 to readers: Kelly played Octavius Caesar opposite Denzel Washington as Brutus on Broadway in 2005.]

Yeah.

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 to readers: 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.

Good one!

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 to readers: 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 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 to readers: Kelly is referring to Actors’ Equity Association, the union representing American theater actors and stage managers, and SAG-AFTRA, the American film, television, and radio performers’ union.]

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 theater, 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.

So 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.

[Many thanks to Kelly for generously spending so much time with me in this conversation! Readers can follow Kelly on Twitter to keep up with his busy and very interesting career. –VA]