Before we announce the winners of the 2013 Boston My Theatre Awards, we’re proud to present our annual Nominee Interview Series.
IRNE-winning actor Victor Shopov was nominated both for Best Supporting Actor in a Play for his Anton Schindler in the Lyric Stage Company’s 33 Variations, and for Best Actor in a Play for his Ned Weeks in Zeitgeist Stage Company’s The Normal Heart. In his interview, Victor explained his interest in anti-heros, his conversations with his ten-year-old self (with Shirley Temples!), and his connection with his nominated roles.
Let’s dive into the deep end. What do you think makes a successful performer?
Performance requires an absolute lack of inhibitions, or at least as much as is possible. You have to be willing to trust yourself, you have to be willing to trust your fellow performers and crew, and you have to be willing to trust an audience. The moment that there is doubt in any of those areas, you run the risk of being distracted, and the moment you lose focus, things can (and will) absolutely go to pot.
Being free onstage simply allows you to have fun, both in the sense of enjoying yourself and in the sense of really letting loose and seeing what happens. I have found that audiences are particularly adept at sniffing out when a performer would really rather be anywhere else, and if a performer is not invested, why should the audience be invested?
Perhaps most importantly, I honestly believe that a successful performer is one who gives rather than takes. From my perspective, most—if not all—of acting is simply responding to what is being given to you in a particular moment, so, the more you give, the more you will get in return.
Oh, and a willingness to make a complete fool of yourself, and not care in the least, is a pretty helpful tool as well.
Talk to us about your performing history. What was your first role? When did you know that you wanted to act? Is acting your career? If not, how does your day job influence or inform your acting?
I can’t really pinpoint an exact moment when I knew that I wanted to act—I just know that I have always enjoyed it. Now, if we’re going to get technical about it, my first performance was as the title role in The Ugly Duckling when I was seven years-old. (I’m told it was riveting, though the source is somewhat biased, I think.) I acted a bit throughout middle/high school, and while I did not pursue a degree in acting in college (politics and journalism, baby!) I generally spent most of my time working on something theater-related.
I’ve been acting in and around Boston for around six years and I absolutely love it. I have met some tremendous people and have learned so much in that time, and while I don’t necessarily know that I want to make acting my full-time career, I’ll continue to do it so long as I am enjoying myself. Thankfully, I have a day job (Boston Children’s Hospital) that allows me the flexibility to do theater as needed but also provides me with fulfillment in its own way. My day job also has the added benefit of giving me a reality check on a daily basis, so whenever I’m wallowing in self-pity about not getting a role or about receiving a bad review, all I need do is take a quick stroll through the hospital’s main lobby and my perspective/priorities are restored in very short order.
What have been some of your favorite roles and theatre companies? Why these roles and companies? Is there any role which you wish you could play again? Why?
The father of one of my best friends once told her that “Victor is really good at playing different kinds of jerks.” I’d say that is probably a) the nicest thing anyone has ever said about my acting, and b) the most accurate assessment of my “type” I’ve ever heard.
I love playing the villain/the anti-hero and digging deep to find a moral/rational justification for immoral/irrational behavior. If you look at every great villain throughout history, both fictional and otherwise, every one of them, to one extent or another, genuinely believed that what he or she was doing was right. It is that sort of affirmation—that sort of positive objective— that makes playing such odious characters so much fun because, however terrible their actions may appear on the outside, in approaching the role, you have to absolutely believe that you are right and everyone else is wrong and/or just doesn’t understand you. To that point, without a doubt, my favorite roles have been (in no particular order): Jeff Skilling in Enron, Ned Weeks in The Normal Heart, Lord Byron in Hideous Progeny, and the title role in Macbeth.
Given the above list, it is no surprise that I have had a wonderful time working with Zeitgeist Stage Company. David Miller has repeatedly taken a chance on me by casting me in complex, challenging roles that have pushed my limits and forced me to grow, sometimes painfully, as an actor and as a person, and I am incredibly grateful to have had those opportunities. I’ve also had a wonderful time working with the folks at the Lyric Stage Company—they have consistently provided me with a warm, welcoming environment and I have learned so much by simply observing the veteran actors/actresses with whom I have been lucky enough to work. Lastly, I would be remiss if I did not mention my dear friends at the Happy Medium Theatre Company (they know who they are). They are a terrific bunch and I adore them as individuals and as a group.
What is your biggest challenge as a performer?
My biggest challenge is—like many actors/actresses, I suspect—that I tend to “get in my head” a lot. By that, I mean that I often find myself second-guessing my choices as an actor— my general approach to a role, specific decisions onstage, and whether or not I am getting through to people. I think that is partly due to the fact that I am constantly wondering what I may be leaving on the table. In other words, in making some choices, I am inherently dismissing other possibilities, and not knowing what I might be missing as a result sometimes gets me into trouble.
If you could meet anyone for a drink, who would it be? What would you discuss? And what would you drink?
I’d like to go back in time and have a drink with my 10-year-old self (a non-alcoholic drink, naturally) because, and, I am sure I am not alone in this, there is so much I wish I had known back then.
I suspect I would ask the young me what he thought I/we would be doing with our lives at this point, but (without giving away too many spoilers) I’d also tell him/me that, as cliché as it sounds, life really does move way, way too quickly, and it is far more important to embrace the positive aspects of our lives than it is to concern ourselves with the petty and insignificant.
In terms of beverage selection, I’d probably have a Shirley Temple so that young Victor could laugh at old Victor, which would have the added benefit of teaching/reminding me that it is entirely acceptable for all of us to laugh at ourselves from time to time. That’s a lesson I wish I’d learned sooner.
Talk to us about your nominated roles. How did you prepare? With what did you struggle? How was the reception from audiences and critics for these roles?
In 33 Variations, I had a wonderful opportunity to get out of my usual routine of playing charismatic jerks by diving into the role of Anton Schindler, Beethoven’s devoted assistant. Schindler was a real person, but the history around him is a bit murky, so it was hard to know what to believe and what not to believe. I instead turned my focus to what the script told me about Schindler and his relationship with Beethoven— that he was loyal, he was devoted, and, in many ways, he was also helpless.
I was lucky beyond words to be able to share the stage with two wonderful actors—James Andreassi as Beethoven and Will McGarrahan as Diabelli—who were my primary scene partners, and from whom I learned a lot over the course of two months. It was also the first time that I worked with Spiro Veloudos, which was an absolute privilege. He helped me to get a lot more specific with my choices, as they say, and really find a degree of focus that I think was lacking in my prior work. So, for a relatively small role, I would say that I got a disproportionate amount of experience from it. The show itself also generated some great responses from people and shed light on a not-often-discussed yet incredibly important subject—Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. It was educational, it was moving, and it was fun – all the things theater can/should be.
Ned Weeks in The Normal Heart was a dream role for me—he is an incredibly complex character with a wonderful arc and a nearly limitless emotional palette with which to work. While the name was changed for the play, like Schindler, Weeks is based on a real person (Larry Kramer), who also just happens to be the playwright as well. It is no secret that Ned Weeks is essentially a fictionalized doppelganger of Larry Kramer, but I was careful to make sure that Weeks was still very much his own person within the context of this play.
That said, there was plenty of research for me to do with respect to Kramer’s personal background to get a better sense of how these events came to pass and what led him to write this play. There was also a tremendous amount of information available about this particular period in history (and a huge ‘thank you’ to our wonderful dramaturge, Lydia Anderson) that I was able to access in order to get a realistic sense of the context in which this story takes place. I watched a very powerful documentary called How to Survive a Plague that paints a stark, disturbing picture of what was happening (or more to the point, what was not happening) in New York City during the AIDS crisis of the early 80s. The stories and images in that documentary were incredibly influential in my preparation for this role as they reinforced that everything referenced in this play, sadly, actually happened.
To that point, one of the biggest challenges associated with this role was that Ned is written as a very loud, very angry, very abrasive man—a man consumed by indignation and positively apoplectic at the indifference and apathy of both the political establishment as well as his own community. As such, it would have been easy to fall into the trap of simply yelling at the top of my lungs for three hours, but I imagine this would not have gone over well with, well, anyone, really, but, more to the point, it would have been a disservice to the play, the story, the rest of the cast, and the audience. So, with my director, I made a very deliberate decision at the onset of the process to balance the justified, righteous anger at Ned’s core with a tenderness and humanity from which the desperate rage was generated.
Ironically, I had two people who know Larry Kramer (and knew him during the time this play is set) give me two very different perspectives of my performance—one told me that I “wasn’t mean enough” to be Larry Kramer, while the other told me that my less-aggressive Weeks made Kramer’s story more accessible to a wider audience. This is a good example of the maddening dichotomy that can result from theater—two people who saw the same performance and walked away with two very different sentiments. Still, overall, the response to The Normal Heart was incredibly moving. The critics were very kind to us, but, more to the point, we received a lot of notes from people who lived through this crisis—who lost friends and family—and who were grateful to us for keeping this story alive. That kind of feedback is all I needed to feel fulfilled from this process, and I absolutely did.
Tell us a funny stage or audition story.
So, I did a show a while back that required me to be slapped in the face (something that made any number of people positively giddy). During every rehearsal, fight call, and the first few performances, everything was going swimmingly. Then, in one performance, my scene partner (who also happens to be a dear friend … she knows who she is) missed ever so slightly (or I leaned into it—depends who feels like taking the fall for this one) and I got cracked. I mean, really cracked. The show was in a tiny space and the sound just reverberated throughout it. I was genuinely stunned into silence, not so much because it hurt (it did), but because it was just an entirely natural reaction to being legitimately smacked in the face. Of course, my friend’s eyes went wide and I’m sure her hand hurt like hell, but we got right back into things and the remaining portion of the scene was terrific. I gave her a hard time about it after the fact, but, given the snark that she has had to tolerate from me over the years, I definitely had it coming.
What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
I love to write. When I am not acting, I find that writing gives me an artistic outlet that is just as satisfying, if not more so. Sometimes I write things and just trash them, while,
Oddly enough, I also enjoy carpentry. I’ve been working on renovating a house for the better part of a decade and have taught myself a few handy things along the way (and nearly lost digits more times than I can count).
What is one role that you want to play but never could play?
Lady Macbeth. Even in a gender-swapped rendition of the play, I’m all wrong for the part, but my, oh my, it would be fun.
You’re a very intelligent actor and artist. Have you ever thought about directing? If not, why not? If so, what works would you be interested in directing? Why these works?
I did a bit of directing in college (Oleanna and Buried Child, because those are clearly shows that someone not-yet-old-enough-to-drink should be attempting to direct), and I’ve worked on a few 10-minute pieces since then, but my heart belongs fully to acting. I think directing takes a certain eye and patience that I am not sure that I really have, so, for the moment, I’m content to let other people tell me what to do.
Talk to us about your connection with your nominated roles. How much did you relate to each of your characters? Why? Did any of your fellow actors help you? How did you establish these relationships?
For better or worse, I think I related to Ned Weeks more than I would have expected. He is a man with a short fuse who is enraged by inaction, apathy, and ignorance; who sometimes (frequently) has difficulty relating to others and allowing them to see the “real him” beyond the walls; and his lack of filters often gets him into trouble. In other words, this role was not a stretch for me.
I follow politics and world events pretty closely, but I have reached a point where I have a hard time reading the news because I get worked into a frenzy over just how ludicrous things have become. I used to give people the benefit of the doubt and espoused the idea that all opinions are to be respected, but lately, I’ve come to see the woeful naïveté of that perspective. Some opinions are not to be respected—they are simply wrong and destructive and should be opposed at every opportunity. I think this sentiment was innate in Ned’s approach to his own battles in The Normal Heart, so it was an aspect with which I was able to connect pretty easily.
I got a lot of help in finding a counterbalance to Ned’s anger and polemical personality through his relationship with Felix, his lover. Joey Pelletier is a wonderful actor and I had a terrific time working with him, and even when I was throwing groceries at his head, he still managed to bring out a softer, more human side of Ned that I think was absolutely essential to making him a three-dimensional character as opposed to a giant anger-ball. We were able to draw out a genuine, loving relationship between these two men that, if anything, only strengthened Ned’s resolve.
What is the most inspiring play, movie, or production that you have seen? Anything that you have seen recently?
I had to go back and re-answer this question in the wake of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s passing. Every time I saw that man on the screen, I was floored by what he could do with a role, particularly in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead and Charlie Wilson’s War. He was simply magnificent.
What do you recommend for beginning actors? For experienced actors?
For beginning actors: Be willing to learn.
For experienced actors: Be willing to teach.
How do you deal with “bad press”? Do you read reviews during the run of a production? Why or why not?
Genuine criticism is an essential component of art, and we as actors/actresses have to be prepared to be criticized every time we set foot on a stage—it simply goes with the territory. When I receive “bad press” (and, yes, I do read reviews of a show during the run—it is a terrible habit that I am trying desperately to break), I can pretty quickly differentiate the legitimate observations from the ones that just set out to be snide, and while I work hard not to let such commentary disrupt my performance, I do try to step back and take an objective look at the situation. Is the critique justified? Can I learn something from it? Might I have felt the same way were I in the audience?
Art is an evolving process, and seeking perfection in an environment where it does not exist is a dangerous path to walk, so I try very hard to learn something from every show I do, and that includes consideration of the observations and sentiments expressed by those viewing the work from the outside. While it is not exactly fun to read negative or critical comments about what I do, it is a choice I make because if I am able to walk out the other end having gleaned even the slightest positive experience from it, the effort will have been worth the while.
Do you have anything else that you would like to share with our readers?
A show without an audience is like a boat without water, so with that, thank you for supporting the arts! Please continue to do so!