My Theatre

09 April 2017

Nominee Interview Series: Adam Cunningham

By // Theatre (Toronto)

Before we announce the winners of the 2016 MyTheatre Awards, we’re proud to present our annual Nominee Interview Series.

Haus of Casati Collective’s site-specific one-act My Child moved a mile a minute and wrapped up in under an hour. Within that, Outstanding Actor nominee Adam Cunningham crafted one of the most complex and frustratingly human characters of the year. After George Brown theatre school, Adam’s spent years out of the country touring and doing theatre in New York so the criminally short run of My Child (seriously, six days?!) was the first time I’d ever seen him. Hopefully there’s much more to come (including the My Child remount I started pestering the company about just days after their first run ended).

Do you remember your first experience with theatre?
When I was in grade 3, my sister was in grade 4 and she was cast in Oliver! in my regional church town production. I watched her in that, and a few years later, my parents took us to see Grease at one of the theatres downtown. I remember watching my sister in Oliver! and being like “this is weird”. And then when I watched Grease, it was the first time I thought it was pretty cool.

What was it about Grease?
Just the singing, I liked. I mean, I don’t do musical theatre, but I love to watch musical theatre. We come from a family of singers, and musicians. Then I started doing comedy stuff early.

What kind of comedy stuff?
Just improvising, and then sketch comedy through high school. I did a lot of sports in high school, but I took theatre. I went to a high school in Brampton, just a public school where there would be 8 or 9 people in the drama class. Our school didn’t do plays or anything, so a couple of guys, we just started doing a thing called Theatre Night twice a semester, which was self-written work by the three of us. We wrote all of the sketches and stuff and then cast a lot of people. It became a huge hit, and it still goes on at the high school. That was late 90’s.

Do you ever go back and claim credit?
No. My theatre teacher’s still there. I saw him last year. I haven’t stepped foot back in the high school for probably 10 years, but [Theatre Night] still goes, and our pictures are still up there. We started it, and it’s the only theatre thing that’s ever been there. They still don’t do plays. It’s still self-written work, and I guess we started that, which was pretty neat.

What attracted you to the role in My Child?
First was just Jeannette [Lambermont-Morey, the director] asking me if I was interested in the role. We had done a play the year before in Stratford- not at the festival, with another smaller company- funnily enough, another British play called Eigengrau, and that went really well, so Jeannette asked if I’d be interested in this one-act. I read it, and the character was very different from anything I’d ever done. I thought it would be a good challenge, because I don’t think I would ever go in and audition for that role, for any other director, and get it. Especially if they didn’t know who I was, which a lot of people in the city don’t, because I’ve been gone for a long time. So coming back, [I’ve been] relying on people that know me to hire me, which is very important.

Why do you think you wouldn’t have gotten it if you’d just auditioned cold? Is it not your type somehow?
No, it’s certainly not. I guess, if I was coming in and auditioning, I actually maybe might have a better shot with someone who didn’t know me. Coming in with people who have preconceived notions of my previous work, or what I’ve done from theatre school or whatever- you have a certain hit, you get cast in certain things. I’m always trying to get that off-centre role, like this kind of a thing [My Child], it’s just more exciting. I always want to play the bad guy, I want to play the sidekick, that sort of thing, and in theatre school, [I’d] get cast in leading, boring stuff. I did some fun plays there, but any of my teachers were like “this is what you’re going to have to accept, because this is what you’re going to go out for.”

You were like the Jason Sudeikis straight man?
Exactly. Yeah, or the Chris Pratt. I always like going for the Chris Pratt roles.

Chris Pratt gets to do fun stuff.
Absolutely. But the idea of the leading man has changed, even in the last 10 years.

He was a sidekick until recently. 
Exactly. So it’s definitely better in that way. I’m very close with Daniel Pagett– we were in the same class together at George Brown, we were best friends- and I always envied [the roles] he would get cast in. Like, I’d be the straight guy and he’d get to play the fun roles around me. And he still does, because he’s wild, and insane, and very talented.

But getting in with [Haus of Casati] was definitely appealing, because that’s what this role felt like to me- just a slightly different departure, there’s a bit more to it, and the play in general is good. It’s one act, which is beautiful, comes in at 45 minutes. It moves fast. I love the way the scenes start right in the middle of things. And I liked all the characters, so I thought it would be a fun character study for sure.

Your character believes so strongly that he’s a good person and a good father but he makes so many irresponsible decisions. Can you talk a little bit about his psychology and how he justifies his extreme actions in the play?
Yeah, sure. So, first and foremost, I didn’t think he was a good father. Not because he’s a bad person. I don’t think his attention was brought to the fact that he might be a bad father until his wife was going to take the child away. It was kind of like being woken up to certain aspects of [himself], and what’s really happening. Because he’s a very focused, simple person. Not in a dumb way, just a very narrow task-to-task sort of person. Like, if I do this, it’s good, and this… so his spectrum isn’t very broad, in terms of the way he sees the world and how he sees people. The play felt like an awakening to who he was. Who his family is, what’s happening around him, what people need, what he needs. And then you start realizing where you fail as a human. That what your parents have set you up to believe, and how to behave, isn’t enough and doesn’t give you all the tools necessary. You think you have all these tools in your bag, but you don’t. 

As someone who has this idea of himself as a good person, what do you think it is that pushes him over the edge?
I think he becomes very desperate. He doesn’t know how to behave in certain situations. He doesn’t know how to talk to his ex-wife as a human being. He can’t see his faults. And in that neglectful nature that he has, he doesn’t notice things like if his son is hurt, or needs that his wife would have. All of these things pile up but they don’t pile up for him, for him it’s just a very even keel. Nothing would rile him; he wouldn’t change. So it all begins when his wife takes the son away, and is basically saying “We’re not going to let you see him ever again”. And then things mount, where he doesn’t have the money for a lawyer. The stakes get highest in the play when he figures out what he can do. “All I know is I can take the kid, and I can leave, and I can go, and everything will sort itself out, and we’ll figure out our new life,” That’s as far as he can see into the future, so he’s trying to rationalize his next move the only way he knows how: what he thinks is best for his son. Which is getting away from Carl and coming with him. So that takes us up into Scotland, where he eventually has a meltdown, he doesn’t know what to do anymore. And Carl shows up as someone with power and control, and it’s almost like a welcomed thing where he lets him take control. He loses all his control, he lets his son take control, and Carl comes, and he lets Carl take control. And that’s where everything from there just erupts.

Do you think the pacing of the play has anything to do with the way it sort of spirals out of control, everything’s coming at him so fast, he doesn’t have time to stop and think?
Yes, absolutely. I think that’s definitely a device that playwrights use; it helped me get to a certain point. I know a lot of people would probably want more [full scenes]. A lot of scenes come in about halfway through and you miss all the beginning parts, and you’re right in the thick of it, so you have to jump right into there, but I feel like, the way that it’s paced, and just the actual intimate nature of the one-on-ones in those scenes allowed me to get to my desperate state a lot faster. 

How did the site-specific nature of the setting affect your performance?
It helped me because it was intimate, like it was supposed to be. Initially, the way we talked about it with Jeannette, I was thinking that it was going to be more intimate, where we were actually going to be really in between the tables, woven through. I think that was first the initial idea, but then it just played out where we sourced out and figured out a playing space within that café. But just the public nature of it really helped with how intense and intimate these scenes are. And allowed me to get to a place of vulnerability a lot faster. Acting in these scenes and losing all this so quickly with people right there. You [usually] have that divide of the safety of being able to leave the stage and regroup. Having to stay in it, so to speak, is really beneficial for a quick, fast-moving play.

You worked with puppets in War Horse but none of those puppets were playing human characters. How was that different?
It’s odd when you first work with a puppet for the first time, whether it’s a horse or human, it’s just someone puppeteering an object. You have to figure out how that works for you, and what that feels like. So coming in to work with Kaitlin [Morrow] and the puppet, I guess because I was just exposed to it for so long, I was excited to work with the puppet again. I personally knew how amazing it can be, and how more lifelike it can be than an actual human, and how much you can evoke from the puppet, and just that relationship you can actually get. How much acting you can get out of a puppet when it’s your scene partner, it’s incredible. We had some pretty intimate scenes, like when he wakes up from a nightmare, and we’re really close and talking, it’s just as real, or more real, as working with a little boy.

After spending 2 ½ years in War Horse, the British accent must have been a piece of cake.
Yeah, I did a year of it here at Princess of Wales, and then I went on a Broadway tour for a year and a half. I came home with [the accent], then did a play with Jeannette that was British, and this one that was British. In the summer, I was in London for a while. The British accent’s fun. I like to live in it, I like to think in it.

The way the vernacular rolls off the tongue, and how it’s written, it almost feels like cheating. 50% of your acting work is done because you’re immediately not yourself, and when it’s well-written like this play was, it’s not a lot of acting required. You just say these lines that are pretty awesome already. It kind of does feel like cheating sometimes. I’ve told people – “is a British accent hard to do?” “No, it feels easier to get into the character initially.” I actually thought it would be more of a challenge doing it with my own accent.

What are you doing now/next?
Not a lot. I worked with this writer and director on a short film a couple years ago that did pretty well, it went to Cannes and won some awards a bunch of places in the States. He has a new [film], and we’re gonna shoot that. Then, other than acting, my best friend owns a small development company so we build nice, beautiful homes, and we’re building a small condo building in Leslieville right now. So, during the day, I build and do that kind of stuff. Which is good, because it’s my best friend, so he allows me to leave and do a play, or shoot TV, or whatever.

What have been some of your favourite film and TV projects that you’ve done other than this short film?
Just some Canadian TV. I haven’t done a ton. I’ve done zillions of commercials and working on other Canadian TV, like Dark Matter, or Murdoch Mysteries, things like that.

After living on the road for a year and a half, how’s the transition home been?
Great. I’ve been all over. It was the road for a year and a half, then I lived in New York for a year and did some theatre there. I just wanted to live there and see what it was like, but no real intentions of living there forever. I’m an American citizen as well, so I thought, coming off tour, I hadn’t been home in a while anyway, no one was really missing me, in terms of chomping at the bit to hire me for stuff, so I thought, it’s a good time to go to New York and live in another city, and see a lot of theatre. All my friends who tour live there, so it’s like I already have a group of friends. But then coming back to Toronto was a good transition. I was getting work right away. I was flying home from New York a lot to audition and I started booking a lot of stuff, for some reason. I feel like it’s because I moved to New York, so obviously I started booking a lot of stuff in Toronto [laughs]. And I just got, not homesick, but I like living in Toronto. I just liked living in Toronto better than living anywhere else, and I’ve spent time in tons of cities. It’s my favourite. So it was time to come home, and it’s just an easy city to live in. It’s easy living. There’s lots of good stuff to do.

Do you have anything you’d like to add?
I’ll just echo everyone’s sentiments. Being happy and grateful for companies like yours seeing a lot of theatre, giving exposure to young people doing small productions, we normally wouldn’t get it. That’s good. Looking at the list of all the nominees, just chock-full of friends. It’s heartwarming.

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