Both prolific and consistent, there’s a reason why Soulpepper Resident Artist Gregory Prest is among the most celebrated artists in My Theatre Award history. Nominated in multiple categories over three different years, Gregory’s already won Best Supporting Actor (Long Day’s Journey Into Night), Best New Work (Alligator Pie), and Performer of the Year (2012). Now, his performance as Philip Carey in Soulpepper’s boldly beautiful adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage has moved him for the first time into the leading category where he’s up for Best Actor in a Play.
Catch up with our first interview with Gregory (2011 Nominee Interview Series) HERE and our second (2012 Performer of the Year) HERE then read on for some quality self-deprecating comedy and plenty of insights into falling in love with Michelle Monteith, being inspired by failure, and wearing unflattering pants.
How’ve you been since we last interviewed you for your 2012 Performer of the Year award?
That feels like a million years ago. I’m a bit thicker round the middle but more comfortable with conflict. Those things aren’t necessarily related.
In your last interview you were in the process of preparing for the epic Angels in America. That production ended up doing incredibly well and was remounted this past summer. What did you take away from your year-long journey with Louis in that production?
That was truly a life-changing experience. I feel very lucky to have had the chance to do that play and I really miss it. What did I take away from it? A million things. It humbled me and inspired me. Here are three things (of many):
1. It made me a more political person. I’ve never been very political, but it triggered something on a human level inside me that I understood.
2. I made some incredible friends.
3. It made me feel very small. The play is so big and so good and Louis is such an incredible character. The play is important to many many people. We could only do what we could with it – the weight of it is so mythic and I believe it is a play that actually matters. I realized that whatever I did could never fill the size of its potential. At first I found this difficult to come to terms with – now I count it as one of the best lessons in acting I’ve ever had. Do what you can – everyday.
In 2014 you had your biggest showcase yet playing the lead character of Philip in Vern Thiessen’s adaptation of the sprawling novel Of Human Bondage (which earned you your third My Theatre Award acting nomination). How did you approach capturing 800 pages of character in only a small portion of the story?
Well I was lucky, in a way, to have never read the book before working on the play. The task was “Vern’s adaptation of Of Human Bondage”. I’ve been part of adaptions before where effort is made to, frankly, do the book – on stage. That’s a tricky thing. A book is a book and a play is a play. They’re two different things. I’ve also been guilty of holding on to things that are true to the source material or true to the real life character I’m playing, that serve zero function – and actually get in the way of the play that’s trying to happen. At first, especially when I was younger, I felt like a terrible disservice was being done to the source if it wasn’t represented faithfully. I feel that less so now. It’s a fine line. The play came first and the novel was an invaluable source for me in terms of who this guy was and how he thought. It’s a choice too, you know. You can be the guy who says, “but in the novel…” or you can knowingly take liberties and ignore it completely. It’s your choice. And you can be a different guy every show – a different kind of actor every show.
The book is narrated in the first person by Philip. As you moved through the same story beats in the more omniscient play, did you ever go back to the novel to gain some of that first-person perspective?
Of course, all the time. Most of the rehearsal was spent on the ‘how’ of storytelling – How we’d represent Philip’s paintings, how we’d make a tea shop, how we’d make…etc. Not much time was spent in room discussing ‘why’. I liked it this way. I liked the work that I had to do, privately, to tell that side of the story. I have my own thoughts as to why Philip is who he is and what it is inside him that compels him to do what he does and I’m happy to not share that. The novel was the best resource. Maugham gives you everything. He was the best acting coach I could have.
Philip’s self-destructive love for Mildred is the centerpiece of the play. Tell us about working with Michelle Monteith as Mildred and striking that balance between puppy love and self-flagellation.
Michelle is one of the best actors I have ever met, seen, or worked with. This may sound embarrassingly like I’m in love with her – and maybe I am. It was the easiest thing in the world to do. We had a tiny scene in Ghosts together and spoke nary a word to each other in the seven hours of Angels in America. I was very happy to be able to work so closely with her. We talked and talked and talked and talked – on breaks, in the corner of rehearsal while other things were going on, and all through the run. And then there were things that we never talked about – we instinctively gave each other and demanded space around certain things in order to play on stage. I hope that doesn’t sound pretentious. On a side note, I have definitely been in relationships where the line between love and hate is hard sometimes to pick out. I don’t think I’m the only one.
Other cast members who are in the interview series this year have talked about how collaborative the rehearsal process was with actors contributing to everything from the direction to the design and Albert Schultz guiding more than traditionally directing. How did that type of process work for you with such a big role to tackle? Did it add to the pressure or free you up a bit?
I had the easiest job on that stage. I had the part to play while my friends not only played their parts beautifully but were constantly creating world after world after world with precision, generosity and great skill. The pressure was just to not stink in the middle of such amazingness.
Do you have a favourite moment from the production?
Yes, but I’m not telling.
Of Human Bondage is returning to the stage in May. Are there any aspects of Philip that you’re looking forward to exploring some more?
Having the chance to do Angels again was a blessing. It was liberating to throw things away – my own ideas, pressures I put on myself, directions I didn’t agree with – that haunted me, and have more confidence. I look forward to discovering what those things are and moving through them. Also, I didn’t write anything down, so, um, I guess I’m looking forward to hopefully remembering what I did.
Your final Soulpepper mainstage show of the year was László Marton’s wonderful Tartuffe. Having played Moliere’s patron and persecutor two years previous in Marton’s The Royal Comedians, did the role of Cléante feel like coming full circle somehow?
I’ve never thought of it that way. It was fun to watch Raquel and Diego play that scene again in the context of the real play. I’ve never thought of Cleante as having any connection to King Louis because the King is the most powerful character in The Royal Comedians and Cleante is, I think, the character with the least power in Tartuffe. If there is a connection, in both plays I ate food that eventually turned my stomach and wore unflattering pants.
At the Cabaret Festival in the fall, you returned to the old favourite re(Birth): ee cummings in song. Has that show changed at all between its many incarnations? (I just finally caught it for the first time in October).
Sure thing. If you watched archival videos on fast-forward of all the times we did it, you wouldn’t notice any differences. But it’s had several cast changes in its lifetime. Each person brings something new and personal because the performance style is really bare bones. There’s nothing to hide behind. It’s also a wonderful excuse for the old gang (my academy crew) to get together and play.
You kicked off 2015 in Crow’s Theatre’s star-studded production of The Seagull, a rare non-Soulpepper production for you. How was the experience of stepping outside of the Young Centre bubble to work with director Chris Abraham and that cast?
I literally was across the street. It was wonderful. I had worked with Chris at NTS ten years ago and I think he’s top drawer. I’d work with him again in a heartbeat. I think we had a great time and I’m proud of the show. I was star struck most days. I learned a lot. I met some wonderful people and worked with old friends I hadn’t worked with in years. I’m going to sound like every other actor, but Chekov is just the cat’s meow. It was good for me to shake up my surroundings. At Soulpepper I feel respected, cared for and part of a community – it was really great to be in a room where some people didn’t even know I existed. It was challenging and liberating to have to figure out who I was in the room – especially playing a character constantly dismissed and rejected by every other character in the play. I feel very lucky to have done that play with that group of actors. I thought it would be nifty to take that same company and spend two years working through all of Chekov’s plays and then run them in rep.
Soulpepper’s new concert series kicked off last month with a Maritime-themed show that you wrote. Tell us about working on that project. Can we expect to see more writing from you anytime soon?
This was a surprise. I had directed two of the concerts last year – Berlin to Broadway and Aboard the Orient Express –and had a blast. What Mike Ross is doing over here (I’m sure you know) is pretty spectacular. We had a great time and Mike wanted me to write this one (we’re both Maritimers). What I wrote was essentially a narrative that gave context to the musical numbers. I loved doing it and working with RH Thomson, who hosted, was a dream. It was a kind of vulnerability I hadn’t experienced before because I had no idea if it was bunk or not. I actually thought that this was the project that would make Albert call me up to his office and say, “it was nice while it lasted”. People seemed to like it. What gave me the courage to do it was pure coincidence. I was reading Moss Hart’s autobiography “Act One” which, among other things, has gorgeous and romantic stories of glorious failure and flops. Not only that – but the gung-ho, water-off-a-duck’s-back, old fashioned “let’s hope the next one’s better” attitude. The only way to learn is to try. You’ll learn from success but you’ll learn more from failure. One is more pleasant, of course. I forget that biting off more than you can chew and faking it till you make it are the romantic origins of careers in show business. It’s fun and liberating to roll in that muck as much as it is to pay tribute to the serious discipline of acting.
I am working on a couple of things – nothing I can talk about – and I’m enjoying it. Writing is lonely. So much of what I normally do is communal. This is by no means a new sentiment, but the reality is new to me.
What else are you up to now/ what’s next?
Well, we opened the remount of Spoon River last week. I’m in rehearsals for Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice right now. Of Human Bondage starts up next month. I’ve got two weeks off in the summer and I’m going HOME to Nova Scotia for the whole time. I start The Play’s The Thing and Marat/Sade in July and then there are some exciting projects in the fall that haven’t been announced yet. I’m riding my wave of romantic innocence and “who cares if it’s rat shit” teach me positivity and making opportunities to do the things I want to do. It’s time to transform dreams into action.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
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