Flashpoint star Sergio di Zio made a massive splash on stage in 2014 in the first major production at the new Coal Mine Theatre on the Danforth, the Canadian premiere of The Motherfucker with the Hat. As a jealous recovering addict ex-con dealing with his girlfriend’s infidelity, the Best Actor in a Play nominee delivered a knockout performance that was as funny and delicate as it was dark and bold. He may be known for TV but we’ll never forget him in theatre.
When did you know you wanted to be an actor?
At a very young age. One of those things that happens before you’re almost even aware. I liked pretend. I liked make believe and I played a lot of make believe. I played every superhero, or characters I saw in movies- Batman, Indiana Jones, Han Solo. That’s what I liked to do. And I was really shy as a kid and kind of not very good at people, but by grade 13 I worked up enough courage to do this. That’s when I auditioned for my first play and I got the lead in it so there was a lot of pent-up energy to be acting. And then from there I kind of never really looked back. So from when I was young, but I didn’t really pursue it until I was in my late teens, I guess.
What was that first play that you did?
Actually, the first play I did was at St. Mike’s College private boys’ school. I played Oscar Romero, he was a revolutionary social justice priest in El Salvador. It was way beyond my 17, 18 year old comprehension maybe, but my parents were kind of thrilled that I was in a priest garb for my first play.
Would you characterize yourself primarily as a film and television actor?
I characterize myself primarily as an actor and then when you’re lucky enough to work in as many mediums as possible, you feel good because you’re a working actor. But I wouldn’t call myself just a film and television actor at all. It’s funny, I think that people a lot of times people [in theatre] go ‘he’s from television and film’ and then people [in television and film] go ‘hey, he’s from theatre’. [laughs] So it’s whatever you want me to be, I’ll be. Kind of the same way you book roles, you know?
How do your experiences in that industry compare to your work in the theatre?
Well, it’s a lot more lucrative in film and television, there’s a lot more money to be made from an actor’s perspective. But theatre, I really do believe it changes your life on so many levels. It’s so healthy for an actor. It’s something you get to go through and work at and throw your soul into day after day. It’s the same show, night after night and you get out of it what you put into it. Film or TV you feel a bit more like you’re providing a service for whatever the film is or whatever the television show is. Like, you do your stuff and they cut a character into it. But with theatre, you go in and it’s yours and you walk out and it’s yours. It’s just moment to moment and it is all depending on the people you work with and how you work with the people you work with, but it feels a lot healthier.
Are there any theatre roles that you particularly covet?
God, I’ve been really lucky. I’ve been really lucky, particularly with theatre. The parts I get to play in theatre have really been things that I can’t believe that I got to play that part. I felt that way about Dying City, I felt that way about Scorched at the Tarragon. When an audition comes to you for a part, you go ‘oh my God, this is so rich’, and it happens so often, that’s why you wind up loving theatre as much as you do, those parts are like that.
I’m really open to film and television parts too. I’ve always thought of it as you get the part then you find the humanity in it, and that’s kind of a reflection of the actor- to embody why people do certain things.
The parts are rich, they’re all rich. I remember when I was kid, watching Glengarry Glen Ross, the film version, a bunch of times and thinking I wanted to do that. Then, at the same time, maybe I’d like to do a part in another play and create that feeling, not so much ‘I want to play this part or that part’.
You’re most known at this point in your career for your run on Flashpoint. Did the sort of fame that came with that show change the game for you?
I think it helps a lot. It does not hurt at all. It’ll lead to more adventures. It does lead to being able to spend time here and spend time in Los Angeles. It does open some doors and what’s kind of cool about Flashpoint, particularly in Toronto, is people are really attached to the show, and feel like they have a connection to it. Still people recognize me from that show and there’s almost like their own pride, they’re happy about it, because they’re like ‘oh my gosh, I love that show and it was about my city’, so they almost take an ownership of that character as well. I kind of love that, and particularly when it comes from, you know, kids on subways and stuff. People are like ‘holy shit, I watch you all the time’, it’s sweet. It’s nice. It’s not often you get that kind of reaction to work you do up here because a lot of times you don’t get a lot of people watching Canadian television. That’s starting to change, which is positive.
I have a friend like that, one of the Flashpoint fanatics, and I asked her what questions I should ask you about the show, and her response was ‘will he marry me’? Do you get that kind of thing a lot, and what’s the strangest fan encounter you’ve had because of Flashpoint?
[Laughs] That’s one of my favourite characters. On Flashpoint, he was the sweet, perfect guy on the team. He was just this young, innocent, idealistic, hopeful, wounded, ‘all those things that make people fall in love with you’ character [laughs]. So I’m lucky that way. People have sort of put all that on me now. It’s like okay, sure, why not. That’s great, and I appreciate it. [laughs] Keeps them coming to see the plays and watching movies. I think it’s sweet that your girl wants to marry me. That’s very nice. That’s healthy. If she was serious about it, that would be reason for concern.
No need to worry, she’s already married.
Okay, good, good, good. [laughs].
So moving on into theatre, what was it like working on the Hannah Moscovitch premiere This is War?
That was fantastic. I got to work with that from an early point for some of the first readings of it. I got to travel with it to Banff for a week when they workshopped it there. Hannah writes in a way that is just how actors like; she just gets it. She just understands how people talk. I really enjoyed that character. She’s a very great playwright because what you end up doing is getting more serious yourself about the character she writes and the answers aren’t all there. They are there, but you kind of have to do the research to support it, and if you do do the research, you find that she did the research so you feel very supported in what you’re doing because she’s still on top of the story. If the actors can do our jobs fully, you’re going to get some magic happening.
Your award nomination from My Theatre this year is for your role in The Motherfucker with the Hat. How did you get involved with that production?
That was an amazing fluke, really. They asked me to play the part, kind of in a bind at that moment, and on the same day I had a couple of film auditions or TV auditions. Things were looking like they could happen with a television show, but I was kind of torn about wanting to do a TV show, and I was just kind of torn about the industry in general. I was getting kind of sick of auditioning for a lot of stuff that wasn’t very fulfilling. And then I wind up in the Coal Mine Theatre basement and there’s Layne Coleman. And there’s Ted Dykstra, and Melissa [D’Agostino], and I see these people who are all amazing, and they’re all great, and getting together to do a play for free. Well, ‘for free’. We’re not going to make a lot of money off this, but just for the love of doing it. I auditioned for them and it just felt so exactly what I needed at that point in my life. Life kind of throws you stuff sometimes and things can be hard, but a show like that… My dad was in the hospital a lot. He’s better now but I would go through these horrible days, then you have this play at night or rehearsal to go to every day where you can throw emotions into it, and all your humanity, and the show gets lifted for it. Because you really need it to stay on a level to just express and share our pain and joy and all that. And it all becomes a lot more alive when difficult things are going on in other parts of your life. Those are moments when I feel most lucky to be an actor. That was what was great about the Motherfucker and the people I was working with- they were just heroes of mine for all their own reasons and all of a sudden here I am sharing scenes with them and being directed by them and it was fantastic.
As you mentioned, it was an all-star professional cast. But you played in a very indie-feeling space literally underneath a pizza parlour for almost no money. How did that dichotomy influence the play?
It was amazing. I mean, it’s called the Coal Mine and it felt like that. It felt like we would go into a coal mine every day and we’d be sifting for jewels there. We were sifting through the coal and just doing the work. And the commitment of professional actors, professional director- Layne was so present at all times when he was directing us. And the actors, the same kind of thing, we were just pushing each other in a way that you would think you were going to be opening on Broadway. And to have that kind of intensity and commitment from everybody and then you get to share it with- I think the most you could fit in that theatre was 88 people- was kind of amazing because I think everybody winded up feeling that same commitment and energy on a very personal level. People who came out of that play a lot of times commented after the fact that they felt like they had never been through an experience like that before. They felt invested because we were so invested. And the play is so beautifully written, I mean it’s just such raw humanity, and raw truth. They’re lovely, broken people, like all of us.
Tell us about Jackie and how you prepared for the role.
Well, we had Rae Ellen Bodie for a dialect coach, which was amazing. She is another one- she goes beyond dialect coaching. You work with her on your dialect and then you start getting a visceral feel for the character too, just from what your mouth is doing. She’s helping me right now for a new television show I’m doing where I play a police officer from Chicago and I think it helped find the character sometimes by what you’re doing with your mouth, and what you’re doing when you’re talking and then once you start finding those things that relate to how it makes sense to you, you have more confidence in what you’re doing. So the dialect stuff helped so much with Rae Ellen.
And I can’t say enough about Layne Coleman for how supportive he was, day by day. He’s listening to every fucking thing you’re doing so you feel like he’s watching everything and he’s got such an open heart and rooting for you and almost feels so egoless from the actor’s perspective. It’s such a beautiful energy to create things under because it makes you get rid of your ego and just play and you just want to serve what you’re doing. So I think I gotta give a lot of credit to him for that.
And working with people like Juan [Chioran] and Ted Dykstra, they challenge the hell out of you at every rehearsal, every performance. They’re at the top of the game, and they’re pushing. Every night it would change, and it wouldn’t change just to be clever, it would just change because organically it would change and you can trust the other actors to change and then find a new level and push each other and it almost felt like a wrestling match or a boxing match. The way the theatre was set up, it was set up like a boxing ring. So it was a lot of that energy between us- even Melissa and Nicole, the girls too, it was pretty amazing.
Then again, there was so much life going on outside of Jackie’s life. Jackie’s in this really difficult place, as with any other character in that play. And my life was a bit of a mess when it came to things going on that were hard to go through with my dad being ill at the time. And you kind of just let yourself live in that- live in the joy and the pain of that and then you cracked open when it comes to the play itself or when it comes to rehearsals.
The culture of the play is so highly specific, as is the language. How did you immerse yourself in that world?
The language helps so much, it’s so clear. These people may not be the most eloquent people but they are very definite about what they need and what they want and what they don’t want. And it spoke to me even on a level of beyond language. You know, it’s beyond education or schooling or class and all that other stuff. I come from a pretty middle class [family], but you they worked their way to middle class, I’d say, my parents. My mom only had a grade two education, my dad only got to grade five, but they were very wise, intelligent, motivated, strong people, just as motivated as any doctors or lawyers or whatever would be. And what they accomplished in their lives and the way they loved and the way they go through pains is exactly the same as anybody in any sort of class. So in my acting, I try to remind the audience of that- that we’re all in the same position. It doesn’t matter how much money you put out. It doesn’t matter what your affluence is. We are all a Jackie, Veronica, and Ralph and Julio. We’re these people and I think that spoke to me when I read the play and I think it speaks to people who come to watch the play. It’s a kind of play you end up loving because it shows humanity as we all are.
Working with a script that is not a world premiere but was written fairly recently, there’s a very select group of actors who have ever played that role. What did you bring to your performance of the character that was unique from the other interpretations?
Well, you bring you. I bring me. Bobby Cannavale must have brought him. I try my best not to think too much about what other actors bring to it because that’s not my job. It’s actually just going to kind of get in the way, if you try to play it from someone that’s not what’s true for you.
It’s hard for me to say; I haven’t seen any other productions. I heard they’re wonderful, I hear it’s always pretty well received, and I’m sure they’ll continue to be wonderful. But the actor’s job is always to get that feel for themselves in a way that’s so real and true that anybody watching would go, ‘oh, I know that feeling because I can see exactly what this person’s going through’ and it’s not because he’s doing the same thing Bobby Cannavale did [laughs] or what so and so did in the movie version. It’s never like that, it’s how is this going to affect me. That’s what an audience comes in wanting to feel and that’s what an actor looks at when he gets a script.
Were there any sides of Jackie that you found in the script that you really made a point of bringing to the forefront, or any major interpretation moments that you had?
I loved Jackie’s love. You know, relationships are hard. And to be that in love with somebody, to give yourself that completely to the idea of loving someone- the love he had for Veronica- the harder the love, the harder it’s going to be if things go wrong. It’s true for a lot of my characters; a lot of the characters I love the most are the ones that do believe that strongly in something. We live in a world where we try to be jaded, we try to protect ourselves, we try not to show too much of what we’re feeling. And to have that freedom, to have such abandon, it’s terrifying. It’s terrifying to let someone know that you love them that much, that they mean that much to you. It’s all there on paper for Jackie. He comes in and the world’s going to change. He’s going to make everything better, he just got the job, he loves Veronica more than anybody, they’re going to have two kids, then they’re going to live happily ever after and everything’s going to be amazing from here on out. And the more I believe that, walking into the play, the better the story’s going to be because it’s like ‘why doesn’t life work that way?’.
Do you remember any specific conversations you had with your director that were particularly insightful about Jackie and his relationships with the other characters?
What I remember the most about Layne and his direction is he would sit in just about every seat in that whole roundabout, every rehearsal, and watch. He does this thing when he’s watching, where he is rooting for the characters. That’s what he did for this show, anyway. So the conversations I would have with Layne were, the more I pursue my goal, the more I could vocally hear Layne rooting for me, that it’s all going to work out. And the further I fall, the more I could hear Layne reacting to how far I’d fallen. I find it’s just brilliant direction because he was this open hearted theatre-goer, wanting to feel from what they’re watching.
Did you have a favorite moment in the play?
God, you know, it’s one of those plays where there’s about a dozen of them. And then it would change every night. And I think the beauty of it was it goes by so fast- there’s no intermission. By the time you realize what just happened, we’re bowing. So it’s pretty intense that way.
We came up with an amazing fight, I think, Ted Dykstra and I, and Simon Fon, our fight coordinator, who was fantastic. That was kind of fun to create, but my neck started to really hurt, by the end of the run. And I had bruises at the beginning when we were making a bit too much contact [laughs]. But that’s always fun too- like, here we are, we’re two grown men play wrestling like I used to with my cousins when I was ten years old, but we’re forty something, or around there [laughs] and that’s a lot of activity that we hadn’t done in about twenty years. So it was interesting.
The ending of the play is pretty ambiguous. Do you have ideas about what happens next?
I’m rooting for all of them [laughs]. I mean, who knows what happened to them. I hope they’re happy. Jackie hopes they’re back together and you want to believe. I’d like to hope that they find a way to be together because the love is there, I think.
And what are you up to now/what’s next?
Well, I’m a fortunate actor, so working, which is great. I’m going to camera for a television series called Rogue, which is why I’m now working on my Chicago accent which is very similar to the New York accent except they kept their Rs; they don’t not say the Rs. It’s a lot of fun. I’m playing a Chicago PD and I get to do that for a few months, which is fantastic. And then we’ll see. I mean, this is the beauty of being an actor, there’s always ‘we’ll see’. Sometimes ‘we’ll see’ is really scary.