My Theatre

22 February 2012

My Theatre Nominees- Q&A with Michael Therriault

By // Theatre

Before we announce the winners of the 2011 My Theatre Awards, we’re proud to present the My Theatre Nominee Interview Series.

My first memory of The Stratford Shakespeare Festival is from their 1997 production of Camelot, in which a rebelliously elusive Mordred captured my attention. It would be years before I put a name to that performance, just as many years passed before I noticed that it was the same face that delivered the first Shakespeare performance that stayed with me- Sir. Andrew Aguecheek in 2001’s Twelfth Night. By the time he was creating the standout character from Mirvish’s massive Lord of the Rings musical, I’d put the pieces together to form the myth of one of my all-time favourite Canadian performers.

One of my childhood idols, Michael Therriault is nominated for Best Actor in Regional Division I for his performance in Acting Up Stage/Studio 180’s Parade He’s also the first interview in our 2011 My Theatre Nominee interview series.

Can you remember your first experience with theatre?
In the 80s, it was sort of like now, Fame was on TV and there was a lot of sort of musical specials. I thought “Oh, I want to do that, I think”. It was a while before I got to see live theatre but the first I got to see was probably at Sheridan College because I lived in Oakville. Then my first theatre job was when I was 15. I was in a Stage West production of Oliver– I was one of the kids. 

Who were some of the major influences throughout your early career?
Well, definitely, without a doubt, Richard Monette who was the artistic director at Stratford. And William Hutt, who was an amazing actor; he sort of mentored me a bit…quite a lot, actually. And both of them were responsible for me working when it probably looked like I wouldn’t work again. For example, I tell this story a lot but, I got into Stratford in the musical, and I had a small part in a play. Then, the following year, they gave me a lead in a classical play that was going to New York, it was a pretty heavy thing and I had no classical training so when the reviews came out, the show got slammed, but the director phones his secretaries and asked “who got slammed the worst?” and they said “Michael did”. And I’d read them and thought my life was over. I thought “well, that’s it, I’m done now, I won’t work again”. And he [Richard Monette] called me at home and offered me a job. He said “I’d love for you to come back next season, I’d love for you to play Ariel in The Tempest“, and I’d just gotten SLAMMED. But he did it to show support, to say “I believe in you despite…” and he would say to us, the younger people, “don’t beat yourselves up that you’re not William Hutt, he’s got 60 years on you”.

And often, when I did Twelfth Night for example, Bill [Hutt], asked Antoni [Cimolino, our director] “who do you have for Aguecheek?” and Antoni said “I have someone in mind” and Bill said “what about Michael?”, he goes “well, Michael’s short, the character says he’s, you know, ‘the tallest man in Illyria’,” and Bill says “but that’s the joke, he thinks he’s tall” so, actually, I got the part. And it went well.

I got to do a one man show with Bill only because Tempest had finally happened on stage and that summer Bill had decided that he didn’t want to act in the next season- the season had already been announced- and I got called into the director’s office and Richard said “Bill has approached me to say he’d like to direct next season, we’re doing an Oscar Wilde festival, and he wants to re-direct a show he directed in the 70s called Oscar Remembered, it’s a one-man show and he wants you to do it. And I was 25, 26? I couldn’t believe it. I took the play home and I didn’t like it. I thought “I don’t know what to do with it”, “I don’t think I’m right” but I could instantly think of someone in the cast I thought was right. So I saw Bill backstage the next day and he said “did you read the play” and I said “we should chat…” but he said “look, I don’t want this to affect your decision but just know that if you don’t do it, I’m not gonna do it, but don’t worry about it” and I thought “Oh my god” cause I was gonna say “I think there’s someone better…” So I went to his house and I just had pages and pages, hundreds of things of “what does this mean? Im worried about this, I’m worried about this…” and he sat for two hours while I went over everything, then he said “okay, those are all your fears, if I promise you I’m cool with that and we’re gonna have a lot of rehearsal time, will you do it?” And I said yes. But, again, it didn’t get well received, but it was an amazing experience, to work with one of the best for like 5 hours a day in a rehearsal hall for a couple of months.

I heard that William Hutt handpicked you to play his Ariel.
He did. He’d seen me in my first season in Camelot and said to Richard then that he wanted me, but at the end of that season I still didn’t know much Shakespeare, I’d studied it only a little bit at Sheridan [College, in Oakville]. There’s a director’s office at Stratford where you can just borrow plays, sign them out of the library. So I took The Tempest out and sat on Tom Patterson island reading it, and I just couldn’t put it down- “I love this play, I love this character”, it was one of the first Shakespeares where I just really wanted to see what happens. And like the next day I get called into the director’s office and Richard says “we’re doing a radio play of The Tempest, would you play Ariel?” and I was like “What?! I just read this play yesterday!” but it was months away and the season ended and I had about 3 months to prepare. So, I pretty much,- it sounds kind of OCD, but- I bought like 11 versions of it and read it all day, cover to cover- read each one, to read all the notes. And I got this amazing coach, who doesn’t coach anymore, Mark Wilson who very generously met me like 3 times a week for 3 hours; he was just like “well, we’ll keep on going”. And he coached me through that whole thing so that when we actually did the rehearsal for the reading at the CBC, I was so ready, and I knew the script, I didn’t need my book. And Mark said “Bill Hutt’s playing Prospero and it’s gonna be intimidating” because I didn’t know Bill at that point, he said “when you stand up to Prospero, just say [puffing himself up] ‘I’m not scared of you’, you know, use it”. And I remember that scene because I did it and went “I want my freedom!” and he sort of went [mimes William Hutt peering curiously over his glasses], and pushed his script away and went “Okay” and he just engaged. It was amazing, it was so exciting. I’ll never forget that smirk on his face, going “alright, let’s go”. And then two years later we did it onstage, so it was like a 3 year process.

How did you get your start with The Stratford Festival?
My first year was in ’97, again a great stroke of luck. I was called in to audition for Mordred in Camelot and the first audition went well and I got a callback. Me being there is largely because of Tim French, who’s a choreographer, he’s responsible for my having that life at the festival because he had seen me do She Loves Me [at The Drayton Festival] the season before. My audition wasn’t going particularly well, it was going okay, but they were done and had said “okay, you can leave”, then Tim stood up and said “wait a second, before you go, could you do the song again, but do it like this…” and I was in there for another 15 minutes- but it was because he stood up. He was the only person who had seen me in something, and he really thought I’d be right for it. The community’s quite fantastic, because it’s so small and you’re kind of indebted to everybody you work with.

I remember seeing that production of Camelot, it was one of the first things I ever saw at the festival. Am I crazy or did you have blue hair?
It was black with purple and blue streaks all through it.

Then my love affair with Shakespeare started in 2001 with your Andrew Aguecheek [in Twelfth Night]. How much fun was that part?
Really?! [laughs] It was really fun. Again, Bill Hutt was responsible for that. It was a great time. It was a really fun period to put it in because I could say “well, we’re in the 1930s, I’m gonna look at Chaplin films and to try to use Chaplin-ish stuff”. The director of that show was Antoni Cimolino and he gave me free reign to be creative, he’d say “I want you to explore and try your own stuff”. Like that little dance, I said “I’ve got an idea, if I could get him dancing with me” cause I knew the hat trick was a big deal, a lot of people did some great stuff with the hat trick, that was the dance move. So I had this idea of “what if Andrew forces Toby to dance with him?” And I said “Why are they friends? What if it’s because Andrew supplies the booze?… Can you make me a suitcase that opens up [swoosh] and there’s all this booze?” And they did. Antoni was really open to me throwing in ideas, which cost money. And then Bert Carriere wrote a piece of music for that moment in it, but it was really Greek and in 4/4 and I remember thinking “it’s not…”, it just wasn’t what I had in mind- to me, 4/4 isn’t necessarily very funny. So I had my piano and I went, what about “bum di di bum buh?” and I played it out and he said “great, we’ll do it”, which was cool. So it was neat to even be allowed to compose your own little piece of music that you’re gonna do the dance to. It was really fun. Mind you, when I listen to it now, I was totally ripping off The Muppets, you know the “schmorgaz bork bork bork”?

Then you left Stratford to work on The Producers. What was it like taking on a role that’s so iconically linked to another actor (aka Ferris Bueller aka Matthew Broderick)?
… and, before that, Gene Wilder. It was cool because I didn’t see any of that until after, so it felt like just doing something from scratch. Except that, when you’re doing a giant show like that, there’s more of a tendency for people to say “well, Matthew did this, so can you do this?” But it was a great experience. It was one of the most fun shows I’ve ever done.

Then you went to Broadway with Fiddler on the Roof. Was that your first time on Broadway?
Well, that play I did in ’98 went to the City Center for 3 weeks; we did The Miser and Much Ado About Nothing; that’s the one where I got bad reviews and Richard called me. Then this was my first time for a long run and officially “On Broadway”. The City Center’s like a block away, but still. It was a cool experience. We were doing a show I had done before, in Stratford, but it was such a different production. And it’s also strange to be dropped into a show that’s been running for a year and a half. There’s very little rehearsal. I was shooting The Tommy Douglas Story at the time I got cast so I went down on a hiatus to watch the show, I had a week, and I had maybe 3 or 4 rehearsals with the stage manager and the choreographer, learning bits, and I wrote it all down. Then I came back, had one rehearsal and was on. After 2 months of being away. It’s just a different machine.

Probably your most famous role was in the Toronto and London productions of The Lord of the Rings: The Musical [as Gollum]. What was it like to create such a unique stage character?
Again, really cool that the creative team just said “we want your creative input on everything” and they really sort of just left me alone. They said “we like where it’s going, do what you do”. I got a say in what he looked like, and everything. It was very collaborative.

How did you come up with your interpretation?
It was a long process. I realized really quickly that it wasn’t gonna be the voice. Everyone would say “do the voice!” and I just thought “I’m done, I can’t do that voice”. So, the same thing I did with The Tempest, if it’s something really physical, often I’ll go through dance magazines and find as many images that I think are beautiful pictures that say something emotional and could be an interesting picture on stage. So I lay them all out and use them as a jumping point. But it was long, I tried a bunch of different things. Eventually, that whole idea was that, Peter Darling, who choreographed it, sent me an email the summer before we started saying that he’d had some thoughts about “what if, because Gollum spent hundreds of years (he’s described in the books as) looking under things- inside caves and under roofs- and if he spent all this time doing that, maybe the muscles in his neck atrophied, so it would take a lot of effort to hold his head up. Then that became key- how to move yourself forward is to move your head in front of your body, you throw your head forward then your body falls behind and you desperately try to keep it under. And that gave it a nice vocabulary. So that was the jumping off point.

Was it intimidating taking on a major literary character that everyone already has a picture of in their heads?
Yeah, sure, because everyone would say “do the voice” and I’d say “I can’t”. The movies had happened so everyone was just expecting Andy Serkis and I was like “I can’t do that”. I was pretty scared because I thought it was the one part that could really go wrong. But I was very fortunate that it was a great creative team and there was a lot of support.

Then in 2010 you came back to Stratford to do Peter Pan.
That was really fun. I really love doing shows that are for families, hearing little kids out there. It was an amazing director, Tim Carroll was so much fun and so inspiring. It was an unforgettable experience. I was really scared about doing that because I felt too old. I worried that people would be like “what’s that old guy doing up there? Just get a twenty year old” but it ended up being incredibly creative and really really fun. A great experience.

In between that I was really fortunate to get to go back to New York and do a show at the Roundabout about Irving Berlin, which was terrifying in its own way because I was playing Irving Berlin. I was the only Canadian in the cast, I’m not Jewish, playing a New York Jewish icon. But it was an amazing experience. Stafford Arima, who’s Canadian, directed it and it was terrific. It was nice to go back to New York for a third time but in something we were creating from the ground up. It was a premiere, it had never been produced before and it was a really cool cast.

Then you played another New York Jew when you did Parade, for which you’re nominated for a My Theatre Award this year. That’s a pretty heavy story to take on, was it tough playing [accused murderer] Leo [Frank] every night?
You know, I loved doing it. It’s funny, it’s an emotional show but I never felt heavy after. I think when I was younger I used to think that if you’re doing a heavy show you have to live in this horrible place; it’s like you have to torture yourself in a way. And Janine Pearson, who’s an amazing voice coach at Stratford, would say “don’t spend your pennies before you have to”. It’s a good point- you use that stuff on stage but don’t waste it before and after. I’m learning too that if you find joy in what you’re doing, even if it’s tragic, there’s much more of link between you and the audience. I don’t know if that makes sense, it makes sense to me… loved doing that show. I was really fortunate because when I was in New York the first time, back in ’98, we were invited to the dress rehearsal of the original Parade, so I got to see that. Then, when I was working in London, the Donmar warehouse produced an amazing production of it, which then got put up in LA- a really amazing production, that one blew my mind. It’s funny when you see a show that has a big effect on you then you get to do it, it’s really hard. You go “okay, that’s the ticket, I’m gonna try and take that angle”. Problem is, that doesn’t always work on someone else. Parade is a show I’d really like to go back and do again. I’m really proud of the show but you always have “oh, right, I could have done it with a bit of a lighter touch…”. It’s so interesting.

One of my favourite things about your performance was that you let Leo be unlikable. What’s it like to walk that line and keep the audience on your side?
I think that’s what I learned after, that I could have been more likable. I didn’t want to be likable cause, when I saw it in London, that’s what struck me. I’d seen the show, I knew the show, but I thought “I don’t like this guy, and I think he did it”. Then what broke my heart about that production was that, because the wife believed in him so much, she made me believe in him- but it took the whole play. I thought that was the story. Yes, it’s about a guy and injustice, but more, it’s about this relationship, this marriage that’s trying to find its feet, and this couple teaching us to root for them. Because you’re not, you’re like “why are you together? you should just end it”. Then you go “oh, I get it, there’s something underneath there. There is a reason they should be together” but you don’t see it until the end, when it’s too late.

In doing it, did you find that  you had more sympathy for Leo himself without Lucille?
I could sympathize when being him, but in watching it it’s a different story.

Jason Robert Brown [the composer] is famous for his insanely hard vocal parts. Was that tough?
It was challenging, but not as challenging as I thought. I thought the show was really high, but it’s not actually that high. That scared me. It was a bit tricky without mics; “Come up to my office” goes from really high to really really low, and when you’re singing at the bottom of your range, especially if you have a higher timber of voice, it’s really hard to get volume, so that was a challenge. But the music itself… the patter is really hard but I think some of the other characters have harder stuff.

You’ve worked a lot with Brent Carver, who was the original Leo. Did that make it easier or more intimidating to step into those shoes?
No, because you just know it’s going to be different. Not at all. He was amazing so you know you can’t be him. I’ll never forget his “This is Not Over Yet” at the Tonys, so it’s hard not to think that when you’re doing it. He’s something else. It’s interesting, Albert Schultz was the first Leo when they workshopped it in Toronto. Then on Broadway it was supposed to be Matthew Broderick, that’s why in those posters the guy at the window actually looks like Matthew Broderick. Then when he dropped out, they got Brent. So if you look at that poster sometime, it’s Matthew Broderick.

That’s so weird. Between Albert, Brent and you, the show has a really rich Canadian history of actors playing Leo.
It does, yeah.

What are you working on now?
I’ve been doing a lot of film and TV stuff. I worked on a CBC movie of Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town. It’s a Stephen Leacock book, a classic Canadian novel. It came out on February 12th on CBC. And I worked on an independent film that comes out in May called If I Were You with Marcia Gay Harden, who’s amazing. I haven’t seen it yet but it was a lot of fun, there’s a lot of Canadians in that, Canadian director too. And little bits- like I have a little bit in the Martin Short special and Total Recall, which comes out this summer, I’ve got a tiny part in that- little bits. It’s been a fun year dabbling back in that. When we closed Parade I thought it’d be nice to dabble back in this for a little bit. I was really fortunate to have the CBC, after The Producers closed, I spent about 4 or 5 months shooting a mini-series called Prairie Giant: The Tommy Douglas Story, that was my first real taste of that. I was terrified for a while but by the end I thought I’d like to do a bit more if it and try and be a bit more relaxed. It’s such a different skill; when you see people who are really good at it, like Marcia Gay Harden or Nicholas Campbell, those people are so relaxed. So it’s fun to try that out and have a focus on that for a bit. I’ll always do theatre, it’s my favourite thing, but you kind of have to do one or the other at a time.

Do you find you have to re-adjust your skill set to be a lot smaller for the camera?
A little bit. Not tons though.

Do yo have a favourite project you ever worked on or a defining moment of your career?
I think Camelot and The Tempest were my two biggest. Because they were first. Camelot was my first show on the Festival Stage at Stratford, it just felt like a dream come true, I couldn’t believe it was happening. And The Tempest was my first big Shakespeare part, and I really love that play. It felt out of this world, like I couldn’t believe my luck.

Do you have any roles that you still want to do one day?
There are lots of roles that I’d love to do, I don’t know if I’ll ever do them. I’d love to do How to Succeed [in Business Without Really Trying], I love that show. There was a play I was in love with, I think I’m getting too old for it now, but I’d love to do Old Wicked Songs by Jon Marans, it’s a two-hander. I love it, but I’m getting soon-to-be too old.

You played Peter Pan, you can play anything until you’re 80.
[laughs]… so, those are 2. I love The Revenger’s Tragedy by Thomas Middleton. But sometimes the best experiences I’ve had have been things I didn’t like at first or that I didn’t expect. Often you’re like “I don’t like this play” and you fall in love with it as you go along. Overall, though, I’m a pretty lucky guy, I’ve had a great experience, great experiences.

Do you have anything you’d like to add?
Thank you for trying to get people interested in seeing stuff. I think it’s great. Especially since we can’t afford to do long runs here, so you have to get the word out.

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