BWW Interviews: Mike Ross Talks Soulpepper's TRUE WEST
Mike Ross has been a highlight at Soulpepper for many years. His vast talents stretch beyond just acting: he's a musician, musical director, sound designer and composer, alongside being an incredible actor. His various skills have been showcased in many productions over the years at Soulpepper.
As the second play in their 2013 season, Soulpepper is currently staging Sam Shepard's "True West".
The play is about two estranged brothers: Austin, a screenwriter, and Lee, a drifter (who are played by Mike Ross and Stuart Hughes, respectively). The night before Austin is about to pitch his newest screenplay to a producer, Lee pays Austin a visit at their mother's home, which turns Austin's life upside down. Sam Shepard's black comedy delves into the relationship between two estranged brothers and the duality of the two characters.
Mike sat down with BWW to talk about his character in "True West", rehearsing for both "True West" and "La Ronde" at the same time, and taking on multiple roles at the Soulpepper Theatre Company:
BWW: Thank you for taking the time to do this interview with me, Mike. How does it feel to be a part of Sam Shepard's play "True West"?
MIKE: It feels like being a part of an adventure in great storytelling. It's one of the great plays of the 20th century. I think Sam Shepard is one of the great playwrights of the 20th century. He's able to tell large large stories inside the shell of smaller stories that comment on big problems in the world - big issues and themes that we all face with our families and with our lives. And so he finds these ways to tell smaller stories that can expose that, and so when you're part of plays that are really trying to see a bigger picture within themselves, it's exciting because you think: "Oh! Maybe I'm really part of something that might shift something in someone that's watching this." That's exciting to me, and not all plays are like that - not all productions are like that. You might have a play that does that but the production just falls short for whatever reason - for intangible reasons. But on this one, it feels like a pretty true production of the play and it's funny, if you read the play itself, you see that he [Shepard] has very specifically asked that the set and costumes not be something that is a stretched or magnified version of what it should be because that just takes away from the exposition of the characters. Whereas other plays like "Parfumerie" or something like that really is enhanced by a set that is somewhat not naturalistic in some way because it's helping to sort of make a certain theme clear; whereas his [Shepard] stuff very specifically asks that you don't do that, which I find very interesting because he wants you to be sucked into a real domestic situation that is very believable and sometimes those things that are unnatural can put a little bit of a barrier between the audience and the production because the audience is thinking: "Ok, this is something that is not quite in the realm of what I know to be real life so therefore maybe I'm not going to engage as much - doesn't mean I'm going to get less out of it - it just means that I can sort of observe it as opposed to fall into it." And "True West" is a play that you really want to fall into.
BWW: Tell us a bit about "True West" and about the character you play (Austin)
MIKE: Yeah! Well, "True West" is a play about two brothers who are estranged and they have sort of coincidentally arrived in their mother's house at the same time - both with pretty clear objectives of what they need in life. My guy, Austin, is a screenwriter and he's on the verge of selling a screenplay to a producer - via a producer in Hollywood. Lee, my brother - like I've said before, they both have clear objectives - I'm not sure if that's true for Lee - you'd have to ask Stu [Hughes] about that - but Lee is an animal and he's operating on sort of animal instincts. And so we are polar opposites of one another; because of the way we were brought up and the relationships we had with our parents, more specifically our father - we had decided to carve out our lives in a way that protects us from maybe facing who we really are. I [Austin] have gone the conformist route - I'm the guy who wants to fit in to what we know as "success" in the realm of writing - in the realm of Hollywood - and that is the way I'm kind of trying to carve out my life and create an identity around that - that is definitely not true to who I am. He's [Lee] the same except he has gone the other way: he's become a drifter. He lives on the desert; he's a cowboy - and these are all aspects of his life that he has created - an identity that he's created that's not true to himself. And so the word "true" comes up a lot in the description of the play and the play itself - "True West". What is the West now? We know what it was then - we have these iconic views of what the West was, and now what is it? What is it? What is a showdown in 1980? The play was written in 1980. And it really holds true for today. What is a modern day showdown? What is a modern day fight-for-your-life? It's not dust and deadwood anymore, right? It's a different set of rules, but the stakes are just as high because people are people, right? And lives are lives. So Sam Shepard, he's created a new version of the West and there's aspects of the old West in this play and aspects of the new West, and it's a pretty exciting statement of the current affairs of things in California, United States, Canada, and the world.
BWW: What's the most exciting and the most challenging part of playing Austin?
MIKE: The most challenging thing is - I often - if you want to get specific about acting, I default to a younger energy. I find it comfortable to play a lower status, young, kind of boyish energy - maybe I forget the fact that I'm thirty seven sometimes, but I don't feel that I'm thirty seven - I feel like I'm in my twenties still. This play calls for my character, Austin, to be the adult in the room. And I have to be the adult in the room to a guy who is a very powerful man as a character and as a person - Stu Hughes has a power. And I am a younger brother - so I had to avoid falling into the trap of being kind of walked over by him, but the play is more interesting when, just like in any sort of face off or showdown, you don't know who is higher status - you don't know who is more powerful, who has stronger will. And so to find that strength - to find that will inside of a guy who is kind of a nerd, right? He's a screenwriter - no offense! But he's not a very social guy - he doesn't have that sort of - you know Lee, he'd be dead by now if it wasn't for his personality; if it wasn't for his ability to connect with people and even understand situations and play a little chess match - and that's how he survived. My skill set is different and so I had to find a way to hold my own ground and still stay within the realm of what the words on the page were dictating who I was. So yeah! That was one of the challenges and I'm still working on it - still trying to find it, and I will be after we open. Other challenges: we're on stage the whole time, and I don't know that I've done a piece where the storytelling - you're part of the storytelling 100% of the way - which is just a different level of concentration - a different level of focus; a different level of preparation going into it. You don't have those time-outs in between. Even the transitions in between scenes are fast because the thing wants to keep moving like a train, and so there's just no time to rest from the second we enter the stage to the very end. I know that was something that took some getting used to in a very exciting way - it was very cool.
BWW: What did you do to prepare for the role of Austin?
MIKE: Well, I tried to learn my lines...
BWW: That's always good!
MIKE: I poked around trying to get inside the head of screenwriters - what that world is like in Hollywood. It's a terrible world! They're really low on the totem pole - in the status of things - maybe there was a time where they weren't, but all that hierarchy has changed in Hollywood, even since 1980. Like 1980s, late 70s, there was that era where the directors were what sold a film - that it was a Martin Scorsese film, that it was a Brian De Palma or something like that - and so, that changed into the leading men and ladies, and then they [the actors] were the ones that didn't really matter in a sense who the director was - I just want to see Tom Cruise or Tom Hanks... guys named Tom - and so, lost in all of that is the guys who were writing these movies. Like who wrote "E.T."?
MIKE: I don't know. Did he? I don't think he did.
BWW: I don't know.
MIKE: See! That's the thing, right?! Who wrote "Raiders of the Lost Ark"? I mean story wise these guys had maybe a part in, but screenwriters are the guys that write what they say to each other and how does this thing move along. There's a desperation I think, especially when you're trying to start! I mean, how do you prove yourself? You've got to have something to show, but how do you ever get to that point where somebody's going to green light million dollars worth of - you know, how do you get there? So it's really tricky - that first break you get is so so important! You're desperate kind of from the beginning, whereas other professions you know there are building blocks, right? You know, I do this and I get that, whereas this one, it's one giant building block and if you can get over that, you're in; and if you can't, you just sort of scratch at the bottom for your whole life, and you kind of know that is the truth - screenwriters are smart! They can see what's going on and so they're aware of the stakes to that first one getting through. And so that's part of what "True West" is about, is that my guy - there's a lot on the line and the very next day that he's actually going to pitch this thing to somebody is the night that his brother arrives on the scene - so that's the worst thing that could possibly happen to him. So that's kind of where the play starts.
BWW: When did you decide you wanted to be an actor? What/who inspired you?
MIKE: I was a musician to begin with out in the East Coast in Charlottetown and had planned to just make my career being a musician - that was fine with me, I knew I'd never be rich, but it was fun, I liked it. I played in a bunch of bands out there, some of which did okay. And I was associated with the Charlottetown Festival that produces "Anne of Green Gables: The Musical" and other things, and they were bringing in a show called "Fire" that Ted Dykstra did, which was the story of Jerry Lee Lewis and his real life cousin Jimmy Swaggart - "Fire" is a fictionalized version of that story and they were brothers. They needed an acting piano player and a guy that I knew that played in the pit for the orchestra said: "Hey! They're doing this - you should audition just for the hell of it!" because I played piano, so I did! I auditioned, I played piano, and I did some acting. The acting - I didn't know what I was doing - I had no experience whatsoever, but I always felt like I could - it was one of those things: "I could do this!" And so, when the opportunity came up, it did kind of make sense to me: I auditioned and got the job. Turned out Richard Rose directed that production. Richard, who while we were rehearsing "Fire", was named Artistic Director of the Tarragon Theatre, so this was back in 2002, I guess, so I remember congratulating him and I didn't even know what the Tarragon Theatre was - I hadn't really heard of it - that's how out of touch I was with the Toronto theatre scene. Anyway, that was kind of a real quick baptism for me being directed by such a heavy director in a huge part, and it was more than enough to give me the kind of acting bug, and moved to Toronto, and didn't work for a year and you know, thinking I was going to make it, like everybody else's story. But eventually, I started picking up some traction with a couple of relationships that I had built - one of them being Richard Rose, another one being Nancy Palk. Nancy was in a play at the Tarragon that Richard had me create the music for and Nancy and I really hit it off, and I can remember saying to Nancy that I felt very strongly about my desire to be an actor above and beyond being actor-musician guy, which was what I was kind of being labeled as at that point. And so she heard that and put it in her hopper and then they had the Soulpepper Academy auditions here and she called me specifically and said "I think you should audition". I auditioned, got in and so I've had a kind of ongoing relationship with Soulpepper ever since... and the rest is history.
BWW: Which show are you most looking forward to working on this season and why?
MIKE: Well, "Angels in America" and "True West" as well! I don't know - they're kind of Apples and Oranges in a way. "Angels in America" is kind of a legendary status now as far as a play in the 20th century - I mean it's got to be top five - and I'm lucky enough to be cast in the part of Joe, so I'm really daunted by it because it's such a thing that people hold in high regard - it's such an important play, but the gang of people that are cast and the creative team are pretty amazing so the sky's the limit as far as what we could do with that production. Who knows what it'll be, but I'm really excited about that.
BWW: What was it like rehearsing for both "True West" and "La Ronde" at the same time?
MIKE: Yeah! Well, when I look back on it, at the time, there were a couple of days that were really crazy making. For example, there were days where we would run "La Ronde" at 10 o'clock in the morning, and then have a lunch break and then go over and run all of "True West", so it was exhausting as far as what kind of focus that you had to have in order not just to survive it, but to make use of it. Like sometimes we forget that rehearsal time is time to learn, time to discover things, and it's not just time to get through something or survive it or do it well - it's time to learn! But when you get to that point and it's hard to keep that level of focus and concentration by the end of the day, you don't want to miss opportunities to really explore something - so that got to be a challenge at times, was just keeping the level of focus, but at the same time, it's kind of - when you're a young guy, which I'm not anymore, but when you were - somebody describes a situation where you're running back and forth from rehearsal halls playing scenes written by Jason Sherman or Sam Shepard, and it's a dream come true. And so I would find myself reminding me to count my blessings, and this is a pretty amazing situation, as tiring as it is sometimes, it's a pretty great situation to be in. And they're also such different pieces, right? It's not like I'm going from a Shakespeare to a Marlowe where it's all kind of the same world and one feels better than the other - it's not like that - it's like going from pole-vault to speed skating.
BWW: They are totally different for sure!
BWW: You do triple duty at Soulpepper: actor, musical director, and sound designer/composer. How do you manage to tackle and divide your time between all these roles?
MIKE: Well, that's a tricky game sometimes! Part of it isn't my doing - when they program the season they have to think about where they want me, where I can best serve them. For example, this year I think I probably could have been in "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead" but it was just decided that it would be better if I just did sound and music for that show, and then I can concentrate on just that obviously. And then preparing for "True West" and "La Ronde" while the run of "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead" was going on. So it takes some scheduling on their part and some scheduling on my part. I just kind of have to set aside a couple of hours in each day to respond to certain aspects of the larger aspects of the company. Like anything else it's just a lot of scheduling, and when I get behind on scheduling, that's when things start getting loose around the edges and so I have to sort of rein it back in - like any other job. I kind of see it as one responsibility even though there's multiple responsibilities - you know lots of people have jobs where I'm this but I also do this and I do that - it's kind of like that. It is kind of just like being a member of the team here and these are my responsibilities. Like Derek Boyes sitting over there, he's sort of the Public Relations guy - he does all the talk-backs and yet he's an actor - that's one of the cool things about Soulpepper is that we're not just hired as laborers, there's other aspects of the company that most of us around here have a hand in. So it's good! It keeps us in tune with the centre of the company.
BWW: Can you talk a bit about the Creation Ensemble at Soulpepper?
MIKE: So that's me and Gregory Prest, Raquel Duffy, Ken Mackenzie and Ins Choi, and we are kind of a core group of actors/creators/designers that are either creating new material that we have come up with or are tasked with helping development on certain projects. And so we are kind of thrown into various situations with various people and because of our past with developing certain methods with which to create collectively, we have a short-hand with each other that we then kind of can teach to other people to help facilitate creation work, and that's the company that we work with: The Soulpepper Company, and Soulpepper still has an ongoing academy coming in June that's getting bigger and bigger and more elaborate so we will be working with them - it all kind of tumbles, all five of us are post-academy members. So we learn what we learned while being in the academy and then subsequent years after that and so now we're kind of on the other side of it and trying to just sort of filter the information and pull it through and see what it does then because then these people will take that and then they'll make it into something and then they'll teach us and then the whole thing's always getting kind of pulled through the same portal, and it's different every time it gets pulled through, so we're just as eager to learn from that as we are to teach other people what we know.
BWW: You've worked with Nancy Palk on many productions, including her directing "White Biting Dog". What's it like having Nancy as the director for "True West"?
MIKE: Nancy's got this perfect blend of knowing what she wants and yet being open to the collective imagination in the room, and that's a tough thing - like you can sometimes get too focused as a director on what it is you want that you're not listening to your actors, or sometimes you don't have vision and you're just waiting for the actors to kind of find it and then they can't on certain days and you don't have anything to help. Nancy on those days where we can't, she says: "Let's do this". On the days when we can, she waits and sees - you have to have a certain amount of humility - and that's what's so tricky about these people that are in powerful positions because a director is being a director because they have an innate ability to lead and to control, and yet you also have to have a certain amount of humility to let go, and so that's a unique being that has that. Like you think of Barack Obama - Barack Obama obviously is a great leader, but you have to have an incredible amount of ambition and desire to be in charge. The journey to being president or any leader is fraught with many things - so you have to have an incredible desire to be in charge and yet the only way to really effectively do that is to know that there is more to decision making than just what you think, so that combination of innate ambition to lead and humility is a rare being, and I think Nancy has that.
BWW: What makes this show, particularly this cast, so great to work with?
MIKE: Stu Hughes is the best thing ever. I mean, the guy's really something. He's caring, giving, fierce, loyal, gentle - he's all things, I don't know how he does it. He's as tough as he is meek - that's all those things that have worked for him, and he looks after people. On days where I'm not in it, where I'm frustrated, he can see it and he knows that I need a little bit of help in a certain way in a scene and "BAM!" All of a sudden he's giving me something that I need and he's not talking about it, he's just doing it. He's a doer and not a talker, and it's a real gift to be able to work with a guy like that. Ari Cohen - I did the remount of "Death of a Salesman" here and I played Happy Loman and he played Biff Loman. So he [Ari] and I have a great relationship - we played brothers also in another play. And then Pat Hamilton, who I've never worked with before, I'm discovering now - she's a queen of a lady; she's a terrific actor, legendary. It's so inspiring - after all these years and everything she's earned, she's still as giving as you can imagine she was on day one. It's that awareness of "not what I need, but what does it all need?" That awareness is tough to have because it's your ass on the line and she's still, after all these years - a lot of people around here have that. They have this humility to step back and look at the whole thing and say: "not what do I need, but what does this need?" and that will serve me as opposed to the other way around - so she's a perfect example of that.
BWW: Since joining the Soulpepper Theatre Company and rehearsing for "True West", have you learned anything new about yourself that you didn't know before?
MIKE: That's an interesting question. I don't know if I've learned this, but I'm starting to scratch at the surface of the key to life, [which] is being who you really are, and it's tough to do that when you're an actor because a) you're playing people who you really aren't all the time, and b) there's a certain amount of - you're exposed in a way, in newspapers, in trying to get jobs that makes you - and this is true for all professions but maybe just more magnified in the acting business - theatre, film, TV - that the business itself has an innate energy that tries to turn you into what it wants you to be, and you can get caught up in that. And it's not something that happens overnight - you just start shifting and a lot of times away from who you really are because it's working for you in some weird way, career-wise and making relationships. Joining this company and as the years have gone by and whatever troubles I've run into along the way as far as being uncomfortable with myself or my work - the little spark at the end of the tunnel I think is that when I'm most successful is when I've found a way to just be inside myself, my real self, not the self that we all tend to create that's in front of who we really are, but the real deal. And I don't always have access to that but I feel like I have more access now maybe then I did when I was a bit younger - you'd do anything to succeed in this business, right? And that's why it's such a precarious position to be a young person that wants to be in this business because there is such a desire to succeed and that desire can outweigh just being present in your own life. I think that I feel like I'm crossing back over maybe to spending more time with people, with plays, with directors, with actors, with my daughter, with my wife, as the guy who I really am. And sometimes that means I'm not making as much of an impression as I used to when I was really out to succeed - that's something that you have to accept and that'll take care of itself in the long run I think, but it's a letting go. It's a letting go of what you need to do to succeed and that is what it's going to be, and that's actually the key to whatever you call "success"; and that might not be what you think it is at the present moment, but if you let go, it will show you what it is, and if you don't, then you're moulding it into something that may not be right for you. I don't know what all that means! If anything, what I've learned is I'm starting to scratch at the surface of all that stuff.
BWW: What do you want the audience to come away with after seeing "True West"?
MIKE: Kind of a similar thing to what I was just talking about - the situation that the two brothers are in eventually makes them look at who they really are, and they [are] maybe more like the other then they realize - and that's a tough thing to face, it's a tough thing to give over - to changing your whole life because you've gone too far in the direction of a manufactured life. And when you go so far into that it's so hard to say: "this isn't it" - the farther you go, the harder it is to go back - and these guys get to a point where the situation just blows apart in a way that they both have to face that while looking each other in the eye. I hope that maybe somebody, some people in the audience, will catch a little glimmer of that - and that doesn't mean that they have to change their whole life obviously - just to watch somebody believably go through a huge change in their life I think shifts people - I think if it's believable and fun and it gets inside your heart in some way, I think that can shift people, just a little bit and that's what I feel like what I do is a service and not just something that makes me look cool. "Death of a Salesman" was the same way: I felt like at the end of that thing people were thinking about their father, thinking about their wife, thinking about their brother; and "True West" doesn't have quite the same huge kind of weight that "Death of a Salesman" has, but it does have a connection to family and how important that is that I still think it can have a great effect on people that take it in - and it may not land for a couple of days, but I'm excited about that little shift that it can make in people. And "La Ronde" is going to be the same way - totally different message - but even in the rehearsing of it, there have been things that I do with my connection to electrical devices that I've been aware of because I'm in this play - like "am I that guy in this play?" that is constantly sort of having a more significant relationship with a screen than my wife, than my daughter? Am I that guy? It's those questions that you ask yourself when you're part of something like that or when you're watching something like that, that I think was why we do what we do. Without that, you don't get to see who you are from a distance - that's what plays do, that's what TV does, movies - it shows you who you are from a distance, which is the kind of perspective that you don't have from [the] inside all the time. And if you can see it and it's a believable shift in someone on screen or on stage then you're kind of looking in a bit of a mirror, and that's a bigger teaching tool as far as how life works. And that's why playwrights are so revered because they are in touch with that, and they can tell stories that show that to people and in a way that no other thing can - no lesson, no self-help book, but there's just something about getting lost in a story and then also at the same time have it reflect something back about who you are. That kind of life-teaching is only present, in some cases in theatre because plays don't work on TV - they only work live, unless you adapt them for TV in some way.
BWW: But there's still that fine line - you don't really relate as well.
MIKE: You don't, you don't! I don't really know what that is - it doesn't sink in nearly as much.
BWW: I think it's more of a visceral experience when you watch live theatre onstage.
MIKE: That's right. I totally agree! And so if these great playwrights, from Shakespeare to Albee, can do that and they know that it is that visceral experience then that's why they're such important people in the world because they have that mystical gift to be able to do that for people. We have a great theatre community, but all over the world theatre is suffering, and I don't know how you can get across what that really means - what it really does, but it is an important thing. And I think that if it were to go away entirely, there would be that much less teaching of what life is and of what life means. I think there's something about that visceral experience that is essential.
BWW: Do you have any advice for actors who want to get into professional theatre?
MIKE: My advice would be: be yourself! Walk into an audition room and try to be yourself. Don't try to put up an artifice that's what you think they want to see - just be yourself. Work hard, work fucking hard! If you have an audition, learn it, learn it! Don't kind of learn it and then go in - learn it!
BWW: Don't half-ass it.
MIKE: Don't half-ass it. Be sharp. People sense sharpness and they sense work ethic, and sometimes that's more valuable to a place like even Soulpepper. I know that Albert [Schultz] who does a lot of the hiring around here - there are other factors then just a twinkle in the eye that he responds to. And so I would definitely advise those two things: be yourself and work fucking hard.
"True West" is playing at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts now through May 4th.
Tickets can be purchased in person at the box office, by phone at 416 866 8666, or online at www.soulpepper.ca.
Photo Credit: Sandy Nicholson and Cylla von Tiedemann