Before we announce the winners of the 2012 My Theatre Awards, we’re proud to present our annual Nominee Interview Series.
A master of timing, Juliet Bowler’s understated and terrifying turn in the Sarah Gazdowicz-directed Pillowman helped to make it one of the best in Boston all year.
The Best Supporting Actress in a Regional Production nominee took the time to answer some of our questions about taking on a classically male role in that challenging production.
When did you start performing?
My first role was in Kindergarten. I sang and danced in a musical called Sidewalks of New York. I’d always been a ham – my Mom cut the microphone off our super cool hi-fi stereo for me when I was about 3 years old and I’d stand in front of the fridge and sing for pretty much anyone who would listen!
But the acting bug bit me hard when I was 9 years old and was cast in my first lead role as Pickles in A School for Cats. I was hooked and acted in everything I could get from then on.
Did you have any influences in choosing to pursue acting?
I come from an out-going and talented family. We’re all story-tellers, sometimes the same ones, over and over. My Grandmother was a fantastic ballroom dancer. My Mom was an actress before I was born. That said, it was still something I chose to pursue. I just couldn’t (and still can’t) imagine doing anything else.
You’ve done an impressive mix of stage and screen work. Can you talk about the differences for you as a performer?
My real preference is theater, since I love the whole process, from auditioning to the excitement of that first read-thru to the stumbling through blocking, desperately trying to get those lines stuck in your head to that moment when it all seems to click. Then, of course, you end up at the dress and think “oh, if only I had X more weeks” or “why didn’t I work on this” etc. Live theater is fleeting – you create this thing and share in an experience with this limited number of people watching and then it’s gone.
Film lasts – for better or for worse. It’s smaller. It’s more intimate. The whole process of getting there is totally different. There’s no immediate feedback but you have the ability to correct along the way. You don’t get do-overs in theater. The things you need to be aware of differ totally from live theater in many ways. The fundamentals remain the same, but the execution is so different.
Are you drawn to any medium more than the others?
I enjoy performing, period. But, for me, theater is the heart of it. I’m serious when I say I’m one of those actors who in some ways prefers rehearsals over performances. I always come away learning more about myself.
Talk to us about the challenges of being a voice over artist and what drew you to this style of performing.
I actually fell into voice over work, somewhat accidentally! I’d had people comment on my voice and, obviously, I knew people recorded voice overs, but I had no idea how to actually go about doing that. My Grandmother heard an ad on the radio for a voice over class. I went, made a demo and sent it to a few casting agencies locally. A few weeks later I was asked to audition for a PSA and got the spot. And it went on from there. The industry is a bit different from other forms of acting in that you don’t audition much. You tend to be cast based on your demo or prior work. So you’re only as good as your last recording in many ways. Sometimes I go months without a job; sometimes I have three a week.
On top of that, voice overs are tricky because you’re so limited in what you can do. You can’t move much in front of the microphone and, generally, you’re in a tiny, sound-proofed room. You have to use facial expressions to get everything across in your voice. As I’ve worked more and more in the industry, I’ve gotten much better at communicating with just my voice and I think learning that control has benefited me in other areas.
You played a historically male role in Pillowman. Did you expect to ever play this role and how did you react when you saw the cast list?
If you told budding actress me at 13 I’d play a role like that I would have been shocked! When Sarah, the director, initially approached me about auditioning I was surprised. We were in a show together at the time and she told me she was directing Pillowman and would I like to audition. I immediately loved the idea that she was open to casting women in a play that was considered very masculine. When I was doing some research, I saw a few women have played the other cop in the piece, Ariel. And, given the script, that makes some sense. But I never found an instance of a female Tupolski. I’m still very happy Sarah made that decision, to consider women.
Have you played a role written for a man before?
Oddly enough, yes. I used to be part of a theater company which performed for kids, Pocket Full of Tales. And PFOT developed a musical for kids based off a children’s book The Knight Who Was Afraid of the Dark. I ended up playing the bad guy in that one, too. Melvin the Miffed. That was a lot of fun.
Did you have any challenges to face in the play’s text or with other characters because of this change?
You’d probably have to ask James and Cameron this one! One thing Sarah and I agreed to early on, was to use the male pronouns in rehearsals up until about a week before tech. It was important to us both that Tupolski be the same as on the page, regardless of the gender of the actor playing the role. James and Cam agreed as well, which made what could have been a bit strange much, much easier.
How do you think the change impacted your performance, if at all?
I truly hope it didn’t. We, as a group, felt the material didn’t need to change one bit whether Tupolski be male or female. I hope that people watching it felt like they were watching a person, not a gender. One thing that was very interesting to me – often in plays about power, which is a definite theme in Pillowman, women gain or lose power based on sexuality. It was refreshing to play a character where sexuality or gender or femininity had nothing to do with the character’s ability to have and maintain control.
The show features some heavy material. How did you get into that mindset?
[That] was hard for us all. We approached it piece by piece. The physical violence was hard to handle, but became far less difficult than the mental violence in the piece. I loved how McDonagh used language so effectively. It had a strange poetry to it but instead of pushing us from the real emotion, as stylized text often does, it really opened it up.
One thing I tend to do as an actor, especially when approaching a character very different from myself, is to read the text a few times and try to figure out that character’s code. Everyone has one. It’s what you are and aren’t capable of. Yours may not be the same as mine, but you have one. So I look for hints as to the character’s code. It helps in building that person. You don’t judge the code, but you do try to know it. I realized, after reading Pillowman about 4 times, Tupolski had no code. No ethics, no moral line in the sand. Beyond a sociopath, I suppose. My first response as an actor was to sort of freak out. But eventually, it became really freeing; not needing to assign any sort of moral judgment on what Tupolski did made doing it and saying so much easier.
Now that we know that gender is not an issue for you, are there any roles you would like to play that historically have been played by male actors?
Oh good question! All of them!
Truthfully, I love a lot of the Shakespearean men….Richard III, Prospero (done very well by Helen Mirren), Lear. There’s some real meat there. And Willy Loman, which would never work, but I still love that role.
How about those pesky female roles. Do you have any roles you would like to play in the future?
Oh this list is so long, but off the top of my head today:
Auntie Mame in the drama, not the musical! Princess in Sweet Bird of Youth, Lady Macbeth (like every other actress in the world!), Agnes in A Bright Room Called Day and probably Medea, just because that’s a role that requires so very much.
Are you ever type-cast? If so, do you enjoy or avoid it?
I think I am, sometimes. I don’t play many typically female characters, in the sense that my characters tend to be in charge or in control from the outset. I have a fairly strong personality and I think that bleeds into casting. Though I do make an effort to go outside of that and play people who are, perhaps, a little less insane when I have the chance.
One great thing about working with Sarah, she thinks outside of the box when casting. Not just in terms of gender. After Pillowman, she directed me in a staged reading called Lifers, casting me as a gentler, more powerless waitress. So it’s nice to have a director I love working with also willing to see me in ways other than in how I was initially cast.
Talk to us about your audition process. How do you prepare for an audition, especially when you know the show?
This is embarrassing and probably not something I should admit but I’m awful about auditions. In my daily life, I’m not a procrastinator, but when it comes to auditions I’m terrible. I’m the last person to sign up, I decide on audition pieces at the last possible minute. I’m not sure why. Fear, most likely.
When I do know the show, I try to pick a monologue that has something in common with the piece or do a bit of research so I can make strong choices when reading. But so much of casting is dumb luck and practice that over-preparing can be dangerous. Especially if you invest too much in getting that role. I try to walk into the audition prepared, be nice to everyone involved (because I know how it feels on both sides of the table) and do the best I can. Then I try to put the audition as far out of my mind as I can so if I don’t hear anything, I’m not horribly disappointed and if I am cast, it’s a happy surprise.
I should add, this almost never works.
Do you borrow performing styles, tips, or practices from any other artists?
I steal anything and everything! I use music a lot, either associating something in a script with a song or using a song to get me pumped for performance. I’ve stolen ideas from paintings, other actors, people on the street. Everyone and everything is fodder for the mill. I’m fascinated by why people do and say the things they do…not what they actually do, but why. Just paying attention to people can give you so much to use later on.
Do you have any upcoming projects?
Yes – a made-for-HBO film shot around Boston, called Clear History with Larry David, Kate Hudson and Jon Hamm. I was in the middle of auditioning for this film when we were in tech for Pillowman. I play Lady Serena, Animal Psychic and it should be released on HBO end of this year.
If you could have lunch with your biggest fan, what would you tell him or her?
Just the thought of having a biggest fan freaks me out! That’s such a good question. I’d guess I’d ask them if they enjoyed themselves [at] shows they’ve seen; if it made them laugh or cry or think. At the end of the day, I love the idea that I might be able to evoke a real emotion in someone. That’s just plain cool.
Is there anything else that you think the readers should know?
Oh definitely yes. I am thrilled beyond belief at this nomination – totally took me by surprise. But the power in that show was the whole cast and crew. Anyone who saw it, who enjoyed it, should know so many people worked so hard to bring it to life. The people at Flat Earth were with us every step of the way, supporting some choices that many companies would have balked at, such as casting me in this role, our decision to not bow at the end and our super naturalist blocking, which meant audience members couldn’t always see everyone’s face on stage. They were just superb.
Add to that one absolutely magnificent cast – Chris Chiampa as Michael, who made me cry every night with something as simple as a tiny little wave; James Bocock as Ariel (also nominated for his work in Murph) who gave so much as an acting partner and is just so talented it’s beyond comprehension and Cameron Beaty Gosselin (also nominated for Pillowman) who, as Katurian, said so much with his face and was so in the moment you couldn’t help but be carried right along with him. And the puppets – I will never forget the puppets and puppeteers.
And finally, but certainly not least, Sarah Gazdowicz, our director, made this one of the best acting experiences I’ve ever had. As an actor, you want to feel safe and secure enough to take risks and Sarah allows you to do just that. She has a strong point of view but also created this great collaborative environment that, I think, made this production of Pillowman such an experience for all.
Thanks so much!