Frank Cox-O’Connell is one of the most interesting young theatre artists in the city, a standout performer and breakout director fresh out of Soulpepper’s intensive two-year Academy. He’s nominated in both of those capacities at the MyTheatre Awards this year- Outstanding Direction for The Just, his directorial debut at Soulpepper working on a challenging Camus drama, and Outstanding Actor for his captivating turn in the title role of Hamlet in Canadian Stage’s Shakespeare in High Park production.
Do you remember your first experience with theatre?
I played Elvis Presley when I was in maybe grade 4, in a musical that my school did. I was dressed up as a late Vegas Elvis, golden Elvis, the Really embarrassing one; I was this tiny, tiny golden Elvis. And I remember we performed a few nights, and every night the karaoke track I was supposed to sing to screwed up. I never got it right. And I remember distinctly everyone laughing – seeing all the audience laughing – and I always thought that they were laughing at me bombing. And it was years later that I saw pictures and realized that at first they were laughing because I was dressed up as this tiny golden Elvis… but the trauma of that, that’s my first theatre memory, of everyone laughing at me.
Has that freed you up going into a professional career, just you being willing to bomb? Or is that a trauma that haunts you and gives you great anxiety?
Maybe both. I don’t know. I can’t tell if I’m trying to get back at them, or get back on the horse? Or if it’s that I was already so broken from my very first experience that nothing can get to me now. Probably a bit of both.
How did your experience in the Soulpepper Academy shape you as an artist and your career moving forward?
Well, I worked with a few artists who had very different approaches to telling stories, like László Marton, and Albert Schultz, and Daniel Brooks, specifically, who I sort of think of as the three- my main teachers there. And seeing the way that all three of them made work that made sense to me, and was interesting to me. I think that that, aside from obviously the stealing a lot of tricks from those smart guys, I think it helped liberate me a little bit from this idea that there was a way that you need to do things. And seeing the way that those three all were capable of telling pretty coherent stories, and all were attacking it in pretty different ways. I think it gave me a better permission to come at things my own way. And have me understand that that was okay.
You made your directorial debut this year. What attracted you to The Just?
I’d read that script many, many years ago, and I read it one way. I read it as a real call to arms for those who think we need real change in this world, and then I came back to it a few years later and I read it as a real cautionary tale, as the cost of radical dissent. And I think the way that the story changed for me- the fact that it was such a fair fight between those two approaches to thinking that something is wrong in the world- really fascinated me, and also really scared me. The fact that I could have read this thing so differently. And then of course, over the course of working on the piece, and working on the translation with Bobby Theodore, I realized it was both those things, and it was neither of those things, and the real hard questions that were in that play that I think I find really deeply lacking in a lot of 20th century canonical work. I think there’s a sort of false promise of questions in a lot of contemporary drama that I think Camus does very earnestly and very well. I don’t think that he knew the answers to the things that he was struggling with, in a way that I think Arthur Miller kind of secretly did.
Your cast was mostly Soulpepper regulars. Did you inherit them or did you have them in mind when you were reading the script?
I brought that script imagining a Soulpepper production, and imagining exactly those performers who ended up doing it. When I was imagining bringing it to Soulpepper, I was thinking of that team. And as I read the script closer, I realized my ages were probably a little bit off, but we rolled with that- I probably shouldn’t say that, Diego [Matamoros] will get mad – but yeah. I mean, it’s one of the things that’s really exciting about working in a repertory context, that there is a shared understanding, shared language around how to attack a story. And also shared history among the performers, and I think it’s exciting for an audience, as well, to see the hero trope mapped onto – that will be associated with some of those performers – you actually end up seeing the same people embodying different voices. Different versions of that same kind of voice. I think it’s part of the charm of a repertory context.
What were you hoping audiences would take away from that production?
I wanted it to be a hard night at the theatre. I wanted there to be real debate, and I think it’s hard – it was a hard thing to do because that play was written in a time when theatre, I think, sat in a different place in society. It was written in a post-war France where people were really, really trying to figure things out, and my hope was to be able to bring some of that to the Young Centre, that it would be an evening where people would be trying to figure things out. So the goal with the production was to try to keep, obviously, the drama and the stakes there so that people were engaged in the story, but to try to keep the questions as active as possible, right up until the very end. And I think we succeeded in that. I think that, because it was hard, because it was a hard script, I fear that it came across a little bit as kind of a bummer, but I think that we succeeded, and every time we gave an answer, providing five more questions, that complicated things. That was the hope.
Are you interested in directing more?
Yeah. It was something I was solely focused on, coming out of the Academy, coming out of my time as a trainee; I was there both as a director and a performer, but as I was finishing, I was really, really interested in just directing work. And then just catching myself playing a few interesting roles, right when I was kinda ready to give up on acting, I’ve realized that I do like being an actor. I think I can’t totally escape that. But having said that, I’ve had a long-time collaboration with my friend Evan Webber, who’s written- it’s called The Other Jesus, that I’m directing in the spring. After that, I have no idea what I’m doing with my life. But I imagine that I’ll try and strike some balance between performing theatre and directing theatre in Toronto. If I can pull it off, it’s a pretty great life.
Where’s that show going up?
We’re doing it at St. Matthew’s United Church, at St Clair and Christie.
It’s site-considered. About the retelling of the gospels.
You’re also nominated this year for your work with Canadian Stage in High Park. They usually do comedies in the park and Hamlet is not just a tragedy, but a wordy tragedy with not as much action as some of the others. Was it hard to keep everybody’s attention with picnics and dogs barking and planes flying over?
Yeah, but it was also a great – it gave a real structure to what I was doing. I really figured out my performance in the previews, because the feedback is so obvious. It’s really clear when the audience’s attention is waning. So the game of that does set a really clear task that you have to tell a story, and if you get at all wanky, it fails. So for a piece like Hamlet that’s supposed to be, by reputation, internal and long and boring, it just breaks. It forces you to break those expectations right away and say “how do you share it? How do you tell the story?” It gives it a structure.
How did the lens of clinical depression alter how we saw Hamlet in a different context?
I don’t know that it was something that I was particularly preoccupied with. I don’t think that I was working at all to make the reading relevant or contemporary. And I wasn’t particularly hung up in contemporary psychological understanding of depression, or mental illness. I think I got that from the text. I mean, it’s there. It’s really there, and the way that he is pushing up against… all the psychology is completely from Shakespeare. It really is. And I think that, aesthetically, certainly, the production framed things to give people access. But I was leaning on my own experience of being stuck. Facing the double of “what is it that I can do, and what is it that I can’t do?” I’m getting a bit abstract, sorry.
It’s the most famous role in the English canon. Was the weight of that hard to get out from under at all?
Yeah, it snuck up on me in funny ways. But again, being in the park was a real antidote to that, because the task of telling the story just was always so present. You just had to do it. And I did try to, especially early in the process, use that insecurity. You know, the character is struggling with the ghosts of how he is supposed to be in the world, how he’s supposed to be this hero. So thinking about versions of the same guy that I’d seen before was at times a useful obstacle to be like, “oh, people are expecting me to do it this way. I’m either failing their expectations or I’m gonna push back against their expectations.” Trying to line that up with the choices that the character makes to do those same things. To try to use it. But for sure, there’s certainly times when you hit those big speeches, and you’re like, it’s easy to start to feel that you’re playing the singles, especially when you cut it down to 90 minutes. If you’re not really, really on action, it can feel like you’re in an Eagles cover band, just doing the hits.
Which was the hardest hit to play?
The first one, because I haven’t had much time with my castmates by then. Once you’re in the thing… I had a really great cast that I really tried to play off of. And when I was losing my bearings, I would lean on them heavily. And that one, I had a short scene with Gertrude and Claudius that launches him into that, but most of that speech comes from whatever I’m doing on my own. And the difficulty of that, I think, shows how much the rest of the play is rooted in action, and that it is a dramatic story. It’s not about being stuck.
When I talk to actors playing these iconic parts, I always ask them about their interpretation and they always just say, “I just brought me”. So I’ll rephrase the question- how did you affect the character? What did you bringing you bring to Hamlet?
I brought my insecurities. And I think that Hamlet is a fairly conservative person. He’s trying to have things be the way that they used to be. And I like to think of myself as a fairly progressive person. So reckoning with that- and realizing that, in close reading, realizing how Hamlet sees himself in a very different way than the rest of the world sees him, and that he has these contradictions and he has these hypocrisies, and he actually has the truly nasty, mean, prideful, misogynistic side- was liberating in that it meant that I could start to really sit at the table with him, and push back on him. When at first it’s easy to just really get lost in the profundity of his thinking. And seeing that psychology as a source of malevolence, that psychology is a potential source of evil, allowed me to get kind of nasty with him. And to try to explore some shame. And some self-doubt that I might have with myself. And I think that was a good double to pride that he needs to exert his power in that world.
What were some of the most interesting conversations you had with your director Birgit Schreyer Duarte when developing your performance?
Well, stylistically we needed to figure out what it is to be alone, like who it is that he’s talking to. I needed to understand who the audience was in the psychology of the performance.
Who were we? What was the answer to that?
I think it changes. What I realized with Birgit is that Hamlet is stuck because he does have choices. Because he does have free will. Because he has options. And because he’s always faced with the equal pressure of doing one thing that there is equal need to do something and to not do something in any given moment is what sort of pushes the plot forward. So the audience is there because he has nowhere else to turn. One by one, he loses the people who he can actually talk to in this world. And after the last speech, his “thoughts become bloody or nothing worth”, he has nowhere else to go. He has no more choices he really needs to make, he’s stuck on a certain path, and he doesn’t need to talk to the audience any more. I think there’s a similar path that Shakespeare lines up with in Richard III. The audience is part of the character confronting their devil, the other thing that they could do. And once there’s no more choices left, that’s when the actual revenge tragedy can play out and we’re into Act 5.
Did you have a favourite scene in the play? Favourite moment?
It’s so… fast. When I really think about it – remembering it – I think about prepping, and then I think about settling into the final swordfight scene. And the rest of it feels like a big bobsled push. The fight I remember only because I was coached to kind of drop character, a little bit, in order to stay safe, that I would just need to – you know, get 10% actor brain on in order to breathe, and check in, and make sure Kaleb [Alexander, Laertes] didn’t kill me, and that, you know, my feet were dry, and that we were gonna be all right.
I certainly remember rehearsing scenes and loving them, but it was the causality of the story as the thing that I’m most left with. How it really felt like that- we would start and next thing I knew, it was over. Not to dodge the question, but… I certainly loved doing the final speech. I remember where he sees the army, and looking out at the audience and getting to take some time there at the end, near the end, and just being with that big group of people. There’s something about the populism of that event that I got to revel in in that moment, around being with an audience that really felt like Toronto, and looked like Toronto, in a way that’s very different from a lot of the other performing that I have done elsewhere. It’s a pretty unique thing in that way.
Harkening back to your Elvis days, you’re also a multi-instrumentalist who’s in a lot of Soulpepper’s musical work. What are some of the musical experiences that stand out to you from that arena?
Well, my background is really as a drummer. And spending time with Mike Ross really encouraged me to sing, and accompany myself singing until I feel pretty comfortable being front and centre as someone singing in front of people. So Spoon River was great for that, and that music- that kind of abolition sound- is something that I’m into. But in general, my time just hanging out with Mike Ross- and being encouraged to be the frontman of the band, as opposed to the drummer- has been really fun, both musically, but also for me as a performer, and even for me as a person. I mean, singing is a crazy vulnerable thing, and maybe it was from that failed Elvis experiment that I’ve always either been singing background harmonies or joke performing. And being forced to take myself seriously whilst singing is something that I credit Mike with, and I’m very thankful for.
What are you up to next?
Well, I’m doing The Millennial Malcontent at the Tarragon Theatre. And really, that’s it. I’m not even keeping my cards close to my vest, I actually don’t have anything on, which I’m also excited about.