One of the greatest stage performances of the year came from Damien Atkins, the young actor who formed the centre of 2013’s most lauded production- Soulpepper’s Angels in America. As Prior Walter- a young man with AIDS who may or may not be prophet of God- Damien shattered our expectations, broke our hearts and lifted our spirits. He’s thus nominated for Best Actor in this year’s awards.
When he joined our Nominee Interview Series, we immediately began “researching” old clips from his season three arc on Slings & Arrows because any excuse to watch that show works for us. Be sure to watch the brilliance that is THIS ONE (he’ll mention it in the interview). We also asked him about Angels in America, among other things.
Can you remember your first experience with theatre?
I did my first play when I was five. It was The Hobbit. I couldn’t read yet, so they had to tell me my lines. I still remember one of them: “Off to Lothlorien!”. I’m sure I was terrible.
What’s your favourite role you’ve ever performed?
That’s a hard one. Prior Walter in Angels in America is the role I always wanted to play, so he’s probably my favourite. I would also include on this list David in Unidentified Human Remains, another David in Someone Else, it was a thrill to play Mozart in Amadeus. The Emcee in Cabaret.
Do you have a dream role you’d still like to play one day?
Oooh, dream roles. I’d love to play George in Sunday in the Park with George. Someday, Richard II.
You’ve done a fair amount of TV and film work over the years. Tell us a bit about your experiences in that field.
I love doing on-camera work. It’s a very particular set of challenges. Once you get over being intimidated by all the technicians running around, and the lights and the cables and the marks you have to hit, and everyone staring at you, it can be thrilling. It’s high pressure. No rehearsal, just deliver. Feels like a sprint, whereas theatre is a marathon. It’s fun to sprint sometimes. I’ve gotten to work with some interesting people: Stockard Channing, Michelle Williams, Sarah Silverman, Ted Danson, Mercedes Ruehl. Everyone on the above list was great and friendly, except for one.
Slings & Arrows will always be one of our favourite TV shows. Do you have a standout memory from your East Hastings: The Musical days?
I remember giggling a lot. Especially when they brought out those enormous crack spoons that the dancers were waving over their enormous lighters. I remember doing a scene with Don McKellar and being terrified I would laugh. And I did laugh, and he didn’t seem happy about it. But I couldn’t help it – he was crushingly funny. I remember going to the cast and crew screening and feeling like I should apologize to William Hutt for ruining his splendid storytelling version of King Lear with my intercut, not-so-splendid storytelling version of East Hastings: The Musical.
When did you first get involved with Soulpepper?
The first show I did with Soulpepper was The Importance of Being Earnest in 2005/2006.
How did the role in Angels in America come about?
I pitched the play to Albert Schultz, because I wanted to do it, and I thought they were the perfect company to do it. It was actually the B-side of my pitch that day. I hope they do my primary pitch someday too.
Prior is not only a huge role literally (he’s the lead character in two 3 hour plays) but he’s also hugely complex and exists in a famous screen iteration. How did you approach such an undertaking?
Months and months of script work. Combing through looking for clues, establishing timelines, examining the dialectic, making personal connections to Prior’s experiences. I tried to lose some weight, too, because I thought it was important to present some illusion of illness. Long conversations with my fellow actors. Deep trust and faith in our director, Albert Schultz. I stopped watching the film version. But I kept listening to the soundtrack.
Prior’s visions float between hallucination, dreams and the physical world as he grapples with being a prophet. Is there a key to maintaining a sense of what’s real and what’s not?
That’s an interesting question! Hmm. I suppose the answer is that if you are in the middle of a hallucination, it seems real to you. So you play it all like reality.
What’s Albert Schultz like as a director?
He has an impeccable eye for storytelling. He knows how to deliver a story with grace and inventiveness and wit. He has immense trust in his actors. He’s braver than me, so he has great, bold ideas. He has a big big heart.
What would you say is the most important conversation you had with him in developing your interpretation of Prior?
I probably shouldn’t say. Without giving too much away, there was a line that he encouraged me to re-investigate. And it became a key to everything, really.
How did you approach portraying Prior’s growing illness? Did you do much research on the physical and emotional effects of AIDS?
I did tonnes of research, as much as I could. Books, movies, documentaries, articles. And The Band Played On is a life-changing book. Borrowed Time as well. I spoke with doctors, nurses, caregivers, care team members, people living with HIV. Casey House and PWA Toronto. You have a responsibility, as an actor, to know what you’re talking about. Out of respect for people for whom HIV is not play-acting.
Tell us about working with the other 7 actors.
Seven of my favourite people on Earth, seven of the best actors I’ve ever seen. All brilliant and generous and funny. Old friends like Michelle and Diego and Nancy, new friends like Mike and Raquel and Troy. And you can’t play Prior without a good Louis, and I was very blessed to have Gregory Prest. He’s magic.
What did you bring to the character that was unique from previous performers?
Oh god, I have no idea. I don’t think I can know that. I just bring myself, but that’s what we all try to do.
After Angels you were in CanStage’s production of the inventive docu-musical London Road. Tell us a bit about working on that unique show.
I thought that nothing would be as challenging as Angels in America, but London Road takes the prize. Very very very difficult music. Every day on the way to work I wished a bus would hit me so I could be replaced. But a genius piece of writing, a great director and a loving, beautiful cast.
What else have you been up to since?
I did a workshop of my new play We Are Not Alone, which opens in Montreal next season. And now I am in rehearsals for Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil at the Factory Theatre. Brilliant play. And in the fall I did The Gay Heritage Project at Buddies.
You’re coming back for the Angels re-mount in June. Are you looking forward to revisiting Prior? Do you have any specific things you’re hoping to change when you re-enter rehearsals?
I just want to keep working. Go deeper.
What are you working on now or next?
Beatrice and Virgil until the summer, playing a donkey. Then Sextet at the Tarragon, Morris Panych’s new play, gorgeous and funny and sad.
Do you have anything you’d like to add?
People have been very kind about Angels in America and it means a lot.
Also: Tony Kushner for President. Let’s make it happen.