Motor-mouthed scene stealer Jordan Pettle is one of the most consistently entertaining performers in the impressive Soulpepper stable. His immense charm and indefatigable stage presence infuse every show he’s in with enough energy to save even the dullest of productions (not that he’s been in too many of those).
Jordan followed up last year’s Best Supporting Actor nod (for Speed-the-Plow) with a Best Actor-worthy performance as Guildenstern (Rosencrantz? No, he was Guildenstern) in Tom Stoppard’s genius Hamlet riff Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead last January (also at Soulpepper).
Can you remember your first experience with theatre? When did you know you wanted to be an actor?
When I was a kid, and I don’t remember this but my mother swears it’s true, I broke down crying at one of my first experiences in theatre. The show ended and I didn’t want it to be over. My parents took us to lots of shows, especially musicals when I was young. Chorus Line, Annie, Peter Pan. I did a bunch of plays in high school, fell in love with theatre. My grandparents used to take my brother and I to see plays at Stratford, Blyth. I remember being at U of T and staying up late reading Uta Hagen, Stanislavki. Seeing everything I could in the city. I took classes at the Tarragon Theatre when I was in high school, in what was then called the Maggie Bassett Studios, and I saw actors come out of the rehearsal halls to eat their lunch and realized ‘This is what some people do every day. I want to do that too.’
What was the first production you ever did with Soulpepper?
The first production I did with Soulpepper was She Stoops To Conquer, in, I think, 2003.
You were nominated for a My Theatre Award last year as Best Supporting Actor in Speed-the-Plow. You seem to specialize in fast-paced dialogue. Would you say that’s accurate?
My brain tends to work pretty fast, too fast sometimes, so I guess I have a facility with fast-paced dialogue, sure.
Your Speed-the-Plow character Charlie Fox was incredibly physical- jumping on couches, dancing the salsa, slapping people in the face- how did that evolve? Is that something you often incorporate into your performances?
I try to explore a character’s physicality in the rehearsal hall, let how they move inform who they are. I try to tell myself to trust my body. I have a bad habit of wanting to let my head lead but when I let myself play physically, follow physical impulses where they take me, I’ll end up discovering things my conscious mind could never have come up with. A lot of those things that ended up in the performance were impulses that bubbled up in rehearsal. Others were written into the script.
How did you approach finding the humanity in a character who could easily have been pretty shallow?
There’s so much humanity written into Charlie. David Mamet has put it all in there, his frustrations, his dreams, he’s seen his contemporaries become moguls, big Hollywood players and he feels like he’s never had his chance to shine. It’s an incredibly written character, the job is to make it my own.
You also played Ben in The Sunshine Boys. What was it like playing referee in Eric Peterson and Kenneth Welsh’s fictional feud?
I had a great time doing that play with Eric and Ken. I’ve done a couple plays with both of them now and I can’t believe how lucky I am. They are so different as people, as actors, and yet they’re both animals. They love acting, they work so hard, both of them and they’re both so fucking good. I just tried to keep up.
You’re nominated again this year, for Best Actor in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. How do Stoppard and Mamet compare in performance?
There’s a similarity, as you pointed out, in the speed that they’re played at, or can be played at. They’re both big brained playwrights but Stoppard’s plays are more cerebral in performance. There are big ideas that fly by, you can’t digest it all, but he finds great joy in theatricalizing these big ideas. Mamet’s writing is more muscular, obviously, visceral and American and aggressive. Performing both of them you have to hone your listening and always fight to be in the moment.
As you said, R&G:RIP is a very heady text full of a lot of big ideas. How do you go about making that accessible to the audience and keeping the sense of playfulness?
An audience is never going to get everything that Stoppard has packed into his plays so you just have to tell the story, ask the same questions that you do of every play, fill it out imaginatively and have as much fun playing it as it seems he had writing it. And acting opposite Ted Dykstra helps.
Guildenstern in Stoppard’s play is so much savvier than Shakespeare’s version. How concerned were you with reconciling the two iterations of the character?
Not at all. R and G in Hamlet are interchangeable, that becomes the joke, they are not fully fleshed out. We know very little about them, other than they went to school with Hamlet. That’s Stoppard’s starting place. Trying to be true to Shakespeare’s version would be a pointless exercise.
That production seemed almost built to work in rep with Hamlet, using the same cast in both shows. What would have been the upside of getting to do both in one season? How would they have informed each other? Any downsides?
I’d love to do both at the same time. And I think it would be thrilling for an audience. We should talk to Albert [Schultz, Soulpepper’s Artistic Director].
Did you see any other Soulpepper shows last season? What were some of your favourites?
I loved Angels in America. I thought they did an amazing job with that play. And I really enjoyed The Norman Conquests. Stu [Hughs] and Fiona [Reid] in Entertaining Mr. Sloane, another highlight.
What have been some of your favourite roles you’ve ever played?
The Fool in King Lear, Guildenstern in R and G, Estragon in Waiting For Godot, Louis in Angels in America, Fox in Speed The Plow, Williamson in Glengarry Glen Ross, Yepichodov in The Cherry Orchard, Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet.
Do you have any dream roles you’re just itching to do?
I’d love to play Iago, but who wouldn’t. Cassius in Julius Caesar. I always wanted to play Constantin in The Seagull but I think that ship has sailed. Astrov in Vanya. Vanya in Vanya. Sonia in Vanya. I just really want to be in Uncle Vanya. I love that play.
What’s next for you?
I’m doing 12 Angry Men with Soulpepper this summer, then back to back shows at the Tarragon in the fall/winter-Morris Panych’s new play Sextet and then Diane Flack’s play The Waiting Room.