Two-time My Theatre Award nominee Gray Powell is one of our favourite actors currently on the Canadian stage. He’s uniquely nuanced and endlessly captivating, pulling you irretrievably into his character’s emotional journey.
In 2013, The Shaw Festival handed Gray a role of uncharacteristic levity; the genius and detail-demanding role of Septimus Hodge in Tom Stoppard’s modern classic Arcadia. In balancing Septimus’ lively heart and tortured soul, Gray delivered what might just be his career-best performance so far, earning a Best Actor in a Play nomination along the way.
We asked him what’s difficult about playing a genius, his answer: “I am not a genius”.
Can you remember your first experience with theatre?
I can’t remember how old I was, but my mom had a subscription for the Orillia Opera House’s Kid’s series…I forget the name of the series. I remember it being a weekly or monthly ritual. That and going to community theatre in the Huronia region.
What actors and actresses have always inspired you? Are they the same today?
Getting the chance to see Tom McCamus’ Horner in The Country Wife at Stratford in the 90’s was a moment of inspiration. I also remember Steve Cumyn in Angels in America about 15 yrs ago. I have glimmers and shards of certain actors changing the tone in the room. Oliver Becker, mostly silent, and captivating in Whistle in the Dark. Ric Reid and Jim Mezon in almost anything.
There are many.
How did you get started at the Shaw Festival?
My agent was able to get me a last minute general in the fall of ’06. I’d crashed the generals before, but no dice…I wasn’t straight out of school nor had I established myself. I didn’t feel that confident. Thankfully, they were looking specifically for a role in Somerset Maugham’s The Circle, directed by Neil Munro. Much to my surprise, I received a call-back, and a month later got the offer. If I’ve learned anything from that, it’s to go after what you want. In the end, who knows how it happened, but it wouldn’t have if I hadn’t crashed in the first place.
We first saw you in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof playing Brick- a central role, surrounded by characters far louder and much more aggressive. What’s the key to playing a character whose conflict is mostly internal opposite very external people?
The most challenging part of Brick for me was finding the action in inaction. Most of the first act, he is deflecting everything. It was hard to figure out how to keep the ball up without much to say. Listening and being present. Specific physical action was all I had.
The following year you earned your first My Theatre Award nomination for your performance in Hedda Gabler. How did you approach your interpretation of Eilert Loevborg?
It is such a cool role. He is talked about for 40 pages or so. Every character shares their version of Loevborg before he enters. We meet him before and after Brack’s party. Martha (Henry )really challenged me with the physicality of the role. I even tried wearing a corset for his first entrance. It established a physical rigidity and tension; an illusion of temperance. It helped, especially for his return after Brack’s party, when he has lost control.
Last season you balanced your My Theatre Award- nominated role in Arcadia with a lovelorn turn in Lady Windermere’s Fan. Tell us a bit about working with Peter Hinton on that production and developing Lord Darlington.
Peter Hinton is a GIANT. It is exciting to have him around, in this country. I think he is one of those real theatrical geniuses. The first day in the hall feels like a call to arms for art’s sake. It is really hard not to feel inspired. He thrashed the cynic in me…for at least a week. For LWF, he read everything ever published by and about Wilde and staged a subversive, honest, playful, contemporary telling of Lady Windermere’s Fan. Peter likes to play with duality, encouraging an actor to play a couple of different things at once: What is the character’s greatest hope?; What is the character’s greatest fear? I cheated and figured that with Darlington they were one and the same: to be an outcast.
Arcadia was a huge hit with a short run and a tiny space. Did you find its popularity surprising considering the lofty intellectualism of the text?
Not at all. It is a classic. It sold out before we even began rehearsing. It’s all about that text…it has an amazing heart.
You often are cast as quiet, brooding characters and, though he certainly has his brooding moments, Septimus is a bit more jovial. Was that a welcome or challenging departure?
Especially compared to most plays at The Shaw Festival, Arcadia is still a relatively new text. Does that change your approach in terms of interpretation and making the character your own? What did you bring to Septimus that was unique to your version?
My approach doesn’t change. I still need to know what I’m saying and why I’m saying it. To be honest, I had it easy. Septimus’ story is a bit more corporeal. I was in awe of the folk in the Present day scenes like Patrick [McManus], Diana [Donnelly], and Martin [Happer] who had to make the theoretical concepts convincing and passionate. And they did! It was so playful.
Do you have a favourite moment from that production?
I loved seeing the staging of the Augustus/Gus character for the first time. It’s more in the writing than the production, but just seeing the only actor who is double cast weave his way through both past and present scenes brought the story together for me. And I thought that Eda [Holmes]’s physical storytelling of his story was bang on.
Are you returning to Arcadia for the Mirvish remount?
Do you have any dream roles you think are perfectly suited to you or something completely against type you’d love to try as a big challenge one day?
I can’t say that I have a dream role. It’s more dream plays, or dream collaborations. For instance, I would love to be a part of The Iceman Cometh with Jason Byrne if that ever happened. That’s what excites me about Cabaret at Shaw this season. It’s Peter Hinton, Denise Clark and Paul Sportelli. Designed by Michael Gianfrancesco, Judith Bowden, and Bonnie Beecher…fucking cool!
What are some of the challenges and rewards of repertory?
The challenge of working a long run is the reward. I have to remind myself of that in August/September sometimes, but I do not take it for granted.
If you could pick one definitive moment in your career up to this point, what would it be?
One definitive moment? argh…too hard. I can say that working with both Neil Munro and Gina Wilkinson shortly before they passed has really defined for me the ephemeral quality that theatre has. We work hard and open ourselves and give over to whatever/whoever we are with, either in the hall or on the deck…and then poof! Connections are made and then they are memories and that is that. And I am really thankful I had the chance to intersect with those two.
Tell us about your roles in the upcoming Shaw season.
Cliff Bradshaw in Cabaret, directed by Peter Hinton, Choreographed by Denise Clark, MD’d by Paul Sportelli
CK Dexter Haven in The Philadelphia Story, directed by Denis Garnhum
Is there anything you’d like to add?
I just want to thank my wife, actor/singer/director Molly Jane Atkinson. She is currently focussing on raising our two boys. She is the backbone of our family and an inspiration. And thank you for the nomination!