Last year’s Best Actor in a Regional Production winner Eli Ham has quickly become one of our favourite Toronto actors. His emotional range, naturalistic delivery and ease with quick, difficult dialogue have created some of our favourite theatrical moments of the past two years. Many of those moments came in his thrilling performance as Jimmy, the angry young man at the centre of John Osborne’s domestic drama Look Back in Anger. Reimagined as a contemporary, physical piece by director Anita La Selva and FeverGraph Theatre Company, Look Back in Anger is one of our most-nominated productions of the year, including a return for Eli to the category he won in the 2012 awards.
We sat down with the Best Actor nominee and new father to reflect on the role of Jimmy and catch up on the crazy year he’s had since the last Nominee Interview Series.
Fill us in on the year you’ve had since your last interview.
We worked on Look Back in Anger for a long time. We started explorations for that show in April, I think. So that took a large portion of the year, artistically, in a lot of ways. I did a lot of dramaturgy this year, which was different for me because it’s not something I’m as used to.
I did some shows at the Spring Works festival in Stratford which is a beautiful festival that I helped found. It’s going into its four or fifth season now and it’s sort of nice to have it on the ground and running now because for, the first couple of years, I was really worried that it wouldn’t stick. It’s always been a dream of mine since I was a kid to have something that was Off-Stratford because, as somebody growing up there, you do realize there is such a divide between the townies and the gownies- I think that’s what they call them. And there shouldn’t be. There shouldn’t be because I have friends who are my age or older who have never been to the Stratford Festival. When I was growing up, it used to be that you could get seven dollar tickets for school trips and, whether or not theater is your thing, people come from all over the world to see it here, so wouldn’t you pay seven dollars so you can try it? But it’s not about the money, it’s more about ‘I don’t think I’ll get it’ or ‘I don’t like those kind of people’ and so Spring Works is a big coup.
Then I was at SummerWorks with Eating Pomegranates Naked and I directed a show with my own company called Warriors that was out in Saskatoon then in Toronto for a couple weeks. Then, in between that, I work for a company called “Plays that Work” which is a corporate training company. We do empathy and communications training with like CEOs and execs and things like that.
Then a little film and TV. I have a little recurring part on a new show called Reign which is about the reign of Mary Queen of Scots. I play the captain of the guard in the Tower of London.
How’d you get involved with FeverGraph?
Well, I know Kate [Gordon], one of the founding members of FeverGraph. I went to theater school with Kate years and years ago. But I also did a Soulpepper workshop with Zoe Sweet, who was one of the other founding members, probably 10 or 12 years ago. They put out the call and I submitted. And funnily enough, it was only because I saw Kate two days later and she said “So are you going to audition for FeverGraph?” because I said, “oh, I love that show. It’s a really great play”. And I said, “well, I submitted but you guys didn’t give me an audition”. And she was like, “What? That’s ridiculous.” I didn’t feel slighted at all, but if I hadn’t talked to Kate two days before their auditions, I don’t think I would have been involved with it at all.
You mentioned you were a fan of the play before getting involved with FeverGraph. How, then, did your conception of Jimmy change when the modernization and physical elements of the production were introduced?
In the initial talks for it, I was really nervous. First of all, I thought I was playing Cliff, because Jimmy is described as rail-like and thin. He has all these lines where he’s like “I’m never getting bigger”, and we would never get away with that if I was playing Jimmy; you can’t accuse me of not being a substantial human being. So it was first a surprise to be offered the part of Jimmy. And secondly, when they started to talk about the physicalization of it, again, why me? You know I’m a very text heavy actor, that’s what I do. It’s not that I don’ t move at all but I’m not what you would call particularly graceful. Like, I can do choreography if it’s given to me and I have time to work on it, that’s fine, but there was a lot back and forth with that. What I think was ultimately helpful for me as an artist was the explorations that we did. We did a lot of physical explorations with the text. And once Anita was officially at the helm- which was not right away- some of those explorations became much more focused.
The thing about Osborne is he’s so meticulous in his text and he’s so particular in terms of the prefacing, he says “Don’t touch my words. Don’t cut my stuff, don’t change my stuff, don’t move it around”. It’s not my company, it’s not my problem, not my pig, not my farm, but I don’t know how that was negotiated. But I was really nervous about it, because I thought if you take this guy [Jimmy] out of the context in which he’s written and put him in a modern context, he’s just a monster, in a way. Because part of the thing that makes him pathetic in the original text was that he goes on and on and on and walks himself off the horse and when you have to start to peel those things away, like those historic rants he makes against the old class of Brits and the whole thing about coming back from India- which obviously has to come out when you modernize it; it just has to, somebody who’s ranting about that in 2013 is crazy, right? So I was really nervous that he was going to come across [as a monster], because all we were going to keep of him was gritty, pointed, mean diatribes that miss the historical context. I’m not saying we don’t’ have more work to do as a society, but we’ve come a long way in the last 50 years in terms of the way we treat women and what is acceptable within a relationship from both a male and a female standpoint. So I was really nervous about that. I was just nervous about putting it in a modern context and I was nervous about doing it in a more physical way. I think I was the last one to get it. I was the last one to really go “ohh”.
Do you remember what pushed you over the edge to that ‘oh’ moment?
When we were finally able to clarify what exactly it was. You’ll notice I didn’t have a lot of [the physical elements] in the show. So many times in this play, characters say something and mean something else. Or they say something but want to say more and can’t. Or don’t say quite enough and for all those moments, with different reasons, we move into a more expressionistic movement of what they actually meant or what was actually going on for them. I thought that was a really profound way of looking at it, except that Jimmy says what he means all the time. You can accuse him of a lot of other things- he may be mean, and mean-spirited, blunt and all those things, but he was honest. “He’s honest, whatever else he may be”. So that’s how I ended up not doing a lot. That’s not to say that in our explorations I didn’t do it. I don’t think that I had a realization of how richly all these explorations for those months fed the character until I was on stage, halfway through opening night.
Can you give us an example of one of the explorations that was really helpful for you specifically?
Early on we did a recording of the script. So we all got together and we cut some of the stuff we knew we didn’t want in the show. Like some of the historic references and stuff like that. So we did an early recording of it and then we would get together and go scene by scene and Anita would just play the recording. Sort of move about the space or engage with someone and I think it was hearing the words over and over again that began to give me a greater context for what might be wrong with this man in a modern world. What secrets he might have that would not justify, but would predicate the kind of behavior that he has over the course of the story, the way that he treats not only his wife, but his friend, his wife’s friend. So I found those really helpful.
We also did some animal stuff, which I always find helpful. I always, always, always go back to animals. There are ways to protect yourself not only as an actor but make your performance more rich because you study animals. I can understand snippets of the emotions he has, but to go there every night would be impossible for me. I think it would have driven me crazy. [Anita] would videotape [the explorations], so sometimes we would go back and watch and you find these little moments like “oh, that’s interesting- head down, to the left”. We did a little thing with squirrels and bears and mice because [the characters] all sort of have their own inside animal in the play already. And I found out that bears, when they are angry or scared, they put their chins down and to the left because it protects the two most vulnerable parts of their body- their jugular and their heart. This psychologist in this one particular article that I had been reading online sort of intimated that human beings do perceive that and if you do that, whether they know it or not, on some level, people are going to interpret that as a defence mechanism; they’re going to see you as being defensive or predatory. So there were certain technical aspects to that performance that on the nights that I was really tired or in the moments when I didn’t know if I had it, you could almost trick not only the audience but yourself into jolting into a moment by adopting just an animalistic [position].
What would you say is the most important conversation you and Anita had in developing Jimmy?
Anita and I disagreed on a lot of things and I think that’s why we were able to create something that was a bit more meaningful and a bit more full because we were made to justify our points of view and if they were not justifiable then they were quickly thrown by the wayside. Anita proved me wrong. She would let me yack at her for twenty or thirty minutes and we would go back and forth and she would prove me wrong and I would be like, “wow, I’m such an idiot. I don’t know why I didn’t know that thirty minutes ago, I’m sorry”. But she was just so gracious. I think that’s part of the whole thing, disagreeing and then being either proven right or wrong by discussion.
I think maybe it was the conversation that we never had. There was a point where I was struggling a whole lot with judgment of [Jimmy]. Anita knew that. [I told her] “He’s gotta have something that nobody else knows. You put this guy in a modern context, it’s gotta be something. Otherwise, at face value, I don’t know that I can anchor him”. And she’s like “okay, so then have a secret. A really big secret”. We never talked about it. She never made me reveal it to her, and she never pressed, she never pried and it ended up, I think, filling areas of the character for me. So it was her openness and allowance to say “I trust you. Go ahead and have something”. Obviously Anita is sharp enough that if it didn’t work, she would have seen it.
What were some of the challenges in doing the play in such an intimate setting with the audience on two sides?
The challenges, I suppose, were tripping hazards, for the most part. I think they were more for the audience than me. Because once I got in there as the sort of bearish rhinoceros that he is, better get the hell out of my way or I’m going to kick you. I had family say, “Do you want to know what night I’m there?” Oh, I will know when you’re there. “Oh, well, what row should I sit in?” There is only one. “Are you sure? I don’t want to throw you off.” I will see you. You will probably get my sweat on you. Trust me. There’s no avoiding me knowing you’re there. I know.
In terms of challenges, it really was just more physical stuff. Like when Cliff and I were trying to create our little Vaudeville routine and we were trying to have our little wrestling match, that was the most challenging thing from a technical standpoint. But in terms of the space itself, I think it ended up adding and augmenting more than being a stressor or contractor, for me, anyway.
When you’re doing a character like that, you’d think you just sort of get lost in it. Then, say you see your wife in the audience, does that pull you out? Especially when delivering such hateful rants in such close quarters.
It was also that my wife was really pregnant. That whole diatribe that [Jimmy] has- “I hope you have a kid and that it dies”- that was one that I did sort of actively avoid. I knew where she was sitting because I told her where to sit just for a vantage point. And I did actively avoid her there.
The only time that it happened really badly was when there was another very, very pregnant woman in the audience and I didn’t notice until that moment where Alison is on the far end, and I turn and make a comment to Cliff and then turn on her for the rest of the diatribe, and as I’m turning I saw this very, very pregnant woman and I lost my mind. I mean, only for a couple of seconds, but I had this moment of [panic]. During the curtain call, I ended up circling back and apologizing to the belly of this woman as I went upstage. What threw me off was, I started it and then as I got into that part, I could see her in my periphery put her hands over her belly. I mean, what a horrible thing to hear in utero. Thank god you have a really good mother, I’m sure. She’s protecting you. So that threw me. But other than that I don’t usually have a problem.
Jimmy’s big outbursts, were those things that, in rehearsal, Anita was having to pull you back or build you up further?
Both. Some areas she wanted more and some areas she wanted less. She was really trusting, I think, of our instincts as actors and it was just when the rhythm was really thrown off that she would step in and say “look, I think that needs to be a bit hotter or that bit should be a bit cooler because we’re going to get to here in a couple of pages”. She was looking forward, she was very good at looking forward, at looking for us in that way. Not that the four of us weren’t as well, but I would say it was both. It was trusting me and just sort of carving things down.
Tosha Doiron is nominated for best actress for playing your wife, Alison. Tell me a bit about working with her.
I never worked with her before. I met her, obviously, through Kate and Zoe. They all went to York together, with Anita, for the masters program a few years ago. She sort of just shows up to work, opens up her heart and just goes at it. It’s such a joy to work with somebody who’s that open and, at the same time, I found myself treading carefully with certain aspects because I think it just inevitably does bleed and get out and you do get wounded. So for personal moments outside between the two us as human beings, it was important to lean far back the other way and Tosha and I became good friends because of that. So working with her was great. And she did a lot of the choreography, as it were, for the movement. She certainly helped me out with just the tiny bits of expressionistic stuff. I’m always thanking my lucky stars for the caliber of artists I got to work with in the last couple of years. They’ve been integral to my growth as an artist and account for some of my successes; when you’re anchored on stage like that, then you don’t have the option to skip out for a second because they’re there for every moment of the scene. You’re exposed very quickly if you’re not on the train with them. [Tosha]’s a very, very sensitive, sensitive actor, and it’s such a wonderful thing.
You mentioned earlier that a standard Jimmy is usually sort of rail-like.
Yeah, that’s how he’s described in the script.
Whereas you’re built like a hockey player, but Tosha is quite small. Did you lean on the differences of physicality to further emphasize the power dynamics of the relationship? How did your physicality affect your interpretation of Jimmy?
I think it helped. I think it helped me in terms of not having to go as far emotionally or volume-wise because I already look like I could really do some damage.
But even with Adriano [Sobretodo Jr, who played Cliff] . I’m like 70 pounds heavier than Adriano is, which is interesting because that was another argument for me. Part of the dynamic in the script between Jimmy and Cliff is that Jimmy rips Cliff apart verbally and emotionally and then, for my interpretation anyway, in the original text, the only time that that stops is when they rough house and Cliff says “I’ve had enough” and dominates Jimmy physically. Because in all of the scuffles, Cliff wins; not in ours, but in the original script. Cliff wins all of them because he’s bigger and he’s stronger. So that dynamic was really shifted when you put the two actors that you had in those roles, Adriano and I. So I don’t think it was something that we purposefully leaned on, but it was something that we were aware of for sure and you see it in the explorations, things that I don’t even remember doing. Somebody would go, “do you remember this” and at one point I have Tosha wrapped around my waist and carrying Adriano over my shoulder, grappling with her and throwing her in a circle something like that. But you realize that was what did it, it did help us. I have wide shoulders.
How do you reconcile, for the power dynamic between Jimmy and Cliff, the fact that Adriano probably couldn’t realistically beat you in a fight?
Martial arts training? Adriano I think did a such a great job of being that fly on the wall and sort of the duck with water on its back. I don’t I think that his Cliff was the standard Cliff. He was a lot smarter- not that Cliff is dumb or inherently unperceptive- but he had this knowing sort of look that he would get from time to time and that would cut Jimmy. When someone is looking at you like you’re being an asshole and you know you’re being an asshole and you know that I know you’re being an asshole. I’m not going to say anything, so you can continue to spin like a top, but it’s going to make you feel worse and worse and worse and worse. That was really great to have that dynamic, mentally, because it does make you feel pathetic and I think I needed that to happen to Jimmy for me to be able to anchor into him, to know that he is, you know, quite pathetic.
Do you have a favorite moment in the production?
Oh I did. I selfishly liked the vaudeville thing because it was so different, an opportunity for me to really play. As you so rightly pointed out and noted [referring to my review, which you can read HERE], that moment at the end between Alison and Jimmy was sort of no-acting-required because Tosha would unleash this thing on me and if I just stood there and reacted honestly, that was more than enough to fill that stage. So that, I think, was a favorite moment for me. I really liked the confrontation between Helena and Jimmy because, Zoe and I, we’re good friends, we get along really well, but we also like to argue and bring up contentious issues. So that was really special for me. When Helena goes out to iron Cliff’s shirt and Jimmy has this real moment with Cliff when he reaches out and says “why do we let the women do this to us?” It might be misguided and incorrect of Jimmy to say so but he’s speaking what he believes to be true, and it’s his truth and Adriano had such a moment. That for me was the beginning of the end of Jimmy, because Jimmy was able to see himself through Cliff’s eyes. It was a really powerful moment for the character.
Can you tell us a bit about Warriors?
Sure. That one’s been on my radar for years and years and years. I read in 2001 or 2002 and immediately fell in love with it. His language is so poetic. There’ no punctuation, no capital letters, nothing. There’s a couple of exclamation points, but there’s no question marks, no periods or commas. As a matter of fact, in some cases it’s written exactly like a poem wherein it is like one or two words per line. So at one point someone’s got a monologue but it’s like “I/feel/no/rage”, it’s not a linear line of text. So it’s really open to you as an actor and director to navigate and I think it could give so many more options that each production of that would be so different because of that specifically.
But it’s an important dialogue to open up for me because, when I first read it, that was when they had just come out with the ads, that made war look like video games- guys parachuting out of a helicopter or fighting somebody like Call of Duty, saving these damsels in distress or saving these orphan children or whatever. Growing up in a rural community, you know people who went over there and that’s not all their story is. That’s not all the reality they talk about when they come back. And then when you start to do research about them and you start to go down that rabbit hole you start to realize how insidious it is not just the money spent on the hardware of war, it’s about the millions of hours that go to selling us the idea that it is necessary. For example, Listerine didn’t invent mouthwash. They invented the idea that bad breath was socially unacceptable. On a macro level that’s what Warriors is about. It wasn’t necessarily about people selling war, it’s about people selling the necessity of it and then the micro is that you know we’re just not honest with each other anymore. People aren’t candid, they don’t tell the truth about stuff because they’re afraid they’ll get into trouble or they’re afraid what other people are going to think of them and that play is just such a shining example of what happens when you don’t tell the truth. We should all tell the truth. If we can’t do that on a personal level with friends and coworkers, the larger issues that countries and sovereign entities as nations trying to negotiate things in good faith, we’re screwed. We’re screwed.