23 February 2020
Five years ago, I interviewed the effusive and self-effacing Sergio Di Zio for the first time. Though he’s known for his screen work (you probably know him from Flashpoint but he’s in everything), he was nominated for a brilliant, lived-in performance at Coal Mine Theatre in a play written by Stephen Adly Guirgis. In 2020, Sergio’s nominated again for a brilliant, lived-in performance at Coal Mine Theatre in a play written by Stephen Adly Guirgis- Outstanding Supporting Performance for Between Riverside and Crazy. The role, and thus the performance, was totally different but the impact was just as memorable.
I last interviewed you in 2015. Briefly, catch us up on life since then.
That was my first time back at Coal Mine.
That was for The Motherfucker with a Hat.
I guess it’s a pretty cool book-end to have that, and whatever happened in between. It was actors’ life in between.
I did a series called Rogue for two years that I was just starting on when Motherfucker finished up, and guest spots on some stuff, and I’ve done some Netflix stuff recently. Theatre-wise, this was my return to theatre. This was my first time back in theatre, aside for a couple of readings for Randy Read down in Peterborough. I’ve done a couple of those, and a couple of workshops in Toronto.
Did you miss it?
Yeah, but I’m very lucky to go right back to [Stephen Adly Guirgis, playwright], cause he’s amazing. Once again, it’s another show that we had for four weeks, which is one of the longest runs that Coal Mine ever had, and we sold out from preview to closing, which was fantastic. Just like Motherfucker, I could have done that for a year. I mean, I would’ve starved, but I could have done that for a year. It was good.
What is it about Guirgis? This is your second nomination in a row for your second theatre production in a row with the same playwright. What is it about his work that attracts you?
It’s probably a repeat of myself in the last interview, but it’s his honesty. He writes people. He writes real people. As much as the subject matter of Between Riverside and Crazy was kind of hot-button, with all of you guys sitting so close again, just like Motherfucker, it was great because people were practically onstage having to process how they feel about what these characters are saying. But as much as people could fall on all kinds of sides of who’s right and who’s wrong, it’s really sensitive topics, like race and police brutality.
He writes everybody real, so even though I’d go, “Oh, [my character] might be a problem, playing him”, I felt nothing but love for him, because I could see his point of view. It was an honest point of view, even the fact that there were contradictions that didn’t make sense from that point of view. I could see why he believed the way he believed, and why he loved his fiancé Audrey – Claire Armstrong was fantastic.
And why he initially loves Walter, or wants to love Walter. Wants him to be one of the cops. Wants him to be one of the boys, wants him to be the father figure in their lives, and then it gets tricky when people’s wants come up against other people’s wants, so that’s Guirgis, and there’s no good guys or bad guys with Guirgis. You’ve watched it; did you feel like there were bad guys?
No. But you were definitely the principal antagonist. It was interesting because there was a young man sitting next to me who felt very much straight out of theatre school, who was there with his parents, and really wanted to play that – “This is what’s going on, and this is what’s happening.” And at intermission, he was going on about how it was odd because the perspective that seemed to him to be the most reasonable was yours, and he was like, “That can’t be right.”
That’s beautiful. Oh my gosh, that’s wonderful.
Can you talk a little bit about striking that balance of not tipping the audience off necessarily to your positioning?
It was so important, and the way that Guirgis writes makes that very easy to do because everybody says pretty much what’s coming to their mouths, right at the time. They’re quick. The pace is quick. The ideas come out – sometimes it feels quicker than the thought comes out – so there’s no time to set anything up.
We’re not there to preach a point of view. We’re not there to preach about privilege, but I think Walter gives one of the best lessons about privilege that I’ve ever seen in any medium because – spoiler alert – the whole thing of taking away his ex-partner’s engagement ring at the end seems so out of left field – what are you doing?! Yet if you want to understand what privilege is, someone who never had to comprehend what privilege is, and these characters obviously never really have – I like to think that my character Dave and Claire’s character Audrey are still trying to figure out what the hell happened that night. Why did we lose that ring? Why would he do that? We still don’t get it.
But hopefully the audience is able to.
Hopefully they do, and I think they do. But our responsibility is to tell the story. And again, all these characters – much as Walter is the hero of the story, and Alexander [Thomas] is gorgeous in it – he has faults just as much as anybody else. Anybody is an angel and a devil. We even say it; there’s that line that Allegra [Fulton]’s character says: “Devils may chase us, but always we are free.” And that’s true of everybody in that show. And we got lucky with this show again; like Motherfucker, the cast were beautiful people.
Kelli Fox [director] set up a really good room where we could be brave enough to stand up for our characters’ points of view throughout rehearsal, and that was really important to me for Dave. Again, it would be very easy to just tip the hat, going, “This guy is an asshole who doesn’t get it.” And we’re at a point in time where we know what that asshole looks like. One of those assholes is the President of the United States. When [Guirgis] wrote this, that hadn’t happened yet. But I look at that, too, and I also go, “You know what? Dave might have voted for Hillary Clinton until this happened.”
There’s a level of “Yes, he is privileged. Yes, he’s a racist without knowing it.” But that might be true of a lot of people. And our need to put people in boxes and polarize everybody and go, “Well, this person voted for Trump so I’ll never talk to them again” – obviously that’s not going to get us anywhere. He might win again! And that’s horrible. And I know I’m saying the unspeakable truth, but unless we go “Okay, how do we all get back in the room?”, I think Guirgis writes people who are stuck in a room together.
Right. But you said, before this, he might’ve voted for Hillary Clinton. Do you think this changes his perspective even to push him further down the wrong path?
Well, I mean, if you go by the script and what he’s saying out loud at the end, when you go by him losing the thing – this ring that he won in a poker game that kept his entire life as he knew it together, [that] probably he did not advance back at the police house, and actually probably lost his job, cause he probably did say “I can get this guy to sign this paper” – I think he’s gonna have some issues at the end of this play, where his life’s falling apart. And when people’s lives fall apart, they look for people to blame, and sometimes that can manifest itself in a voting booth. [laughs]
It certainly can.
And that’s the scary part, but that’s the truth of Guirgis again, right?
You mentioned that Kelli set up a room where you felt comfortable representing your character’s point of view. Were there ever any moments of tension in the room coming from the fact that you were voicing this opinion that’s maybe not the most popular opinion in the room?
She just did such an amazing job of setting it up. She set it up from the minute we started to have rehearsals, and then you put the people we had in that room, and between Alexander Thomas and Allegra Fulton – we had a room full of people who instantly liked each other, instantly were huge powerful forces, all in their own right, and instantly realized we are telling a beautiful story. So we all fell in love with the story.
So when people got the chance to say, “I’m gonna defend this guy who’s a racist. As the only white guy, I’m gonna do that,” I was actually greeted with people who totally got it, which is a lovely thing to work in, particularly [with] Alexander. I would lock eyes with Alexander from the minute I got on that stage nightly until it was over, and I loved every minute of it. And there were moments where you get out of character sometimes, and go “Shit, I don’t get to do this anymore, after we’re done this play.” The feeling was mutual, and it was wonderful to be able to trust somebody that much, to be able to hate them that much in a moment – to be able to love them that much in a moment.
And Claire, too; Claire’s a complete professional. I loved everybody in the cast, but I only got to play with half of them. There were a whole bunch of storylines; like, Nabil [Rajo]’s one of my favourite Coal Mine actors.
Holy shit, right?
Oh, my God.
When I saw he was gonna be doing the show, I was like, “Oh my God, yes! Of course I”ll do it.” Then, like, “Wait, we don’t have any scenes together. That’s not good.” But if we could take a second about Nabil – I would stand backstage during Nabil’s scene, nightly. And the dynamism of his work is like, every night, he would be hitting those goals and trying to get Walter to stop eating the pie, but finding it onstage in front of people every night. And I found that so inspiring, because that’s kind of what we’re supposed to be doing all the time. That’s what’s exciting to watch, I think. That’s what I find exciting to watch, because the actor knows what’s all gonna happen in the scene. Chances are you’re gonna tip it off for the audience, too; everyone’s gonna get ahead of the game. But if you’ve got yourself to find it onstage, that’s brave. And he does that. I hope he keeps doing that, because that’s what it is, I think – that’s what we’re supposed to do.
That speaks to the idea that it’s such a different experience doing theatre, where you’re doing the same thing every night, over and over and over again. Coming more from the world of film and TV, is that something that is an opportunity for you, or something you struggle with, doing the same thing?
Coal Mine is interesting in its own way because of the closeness. You’re terrified of it, as you hit previews, you’re like, “Why did I decide to do this again? This is too close. Why are people so close to us?” And then again, about halfway through the first preview, and then again as the weeks progress, it’s like, “I wish I had people this close to us watching us work all the time,” because you get used to it, and you just gotta do the work, and you realize it’s for everybody, not just for you. It’s not just for your performance.
You can get lost a bit more in that than film and TV, just because I think you feel the need to protect your own performance a bit more than film and TV, because it’s gonna go away anyway, and an editor’s gonna have his way with it, and a director’s gonna pick a take that maybe you didn’t want. So it’s harder to let go of that control as much, I find. But they’re similar. Because Coal Mine is so close, you have grips holding a microphone right up to your face, and you’ve gotta pretend that that grip’s not there when you’re falling in love with somebody. So that’s kind of the fun of what we do. It’s a challenge, but it’s actually the most fun part.
This is your second piece with Coal Mine in a row. There was a break in between, but what is it about that theatre that specifically brings you back, and why this piece?
Diana Bentley and Ted Dykstra [founders] have some of the greatest taste of anybody I know. They pick not only amazing stories to tell, but then they load it with amazing people to tell it. Honestly, I feel like The Motherfucker with the Hat practically saved me that year, you know? Actors: we’re living like that. This is what it is. It feels like everybody’s living like an actor now. Where’s the next job? This job’s already gone? What do I do tomorrow? Oh, you’re all like us now – great.
But you have these jobs that go, “Oh. I found it. It’s gonna go away in four weeks, but for now, I found it.” And Coal Mine does that. And I don’t know what the magic is. It’s just that, but it’s not the money, even though they can pay more than they ever have, because they’re so successful. But it’s doing it for all the right reasons, and having a bunch of people come and we know, we had a sold-out audience every night wanting a story.
It’s almost like this trust has been developed at that theatre between audience and performers and the artistic directors that we’re gonna get something when we come here, and it’s a big responsibility in a way. We felt it, even the first time – it’s a small theatre. You’re not going “Oh my God, millions of people are gonna see this.” If we’re lucky, we’ll fit 75 people in. That was the most we can get in that place, and yet the stakes were that high to serve the story right. And if you care that much about something that small, then that’s probably pretty good for yourself.
Can you talk a little bit more about working with Claire, and specifically how, coming in, you’re already engaged at the start of the piece, so you have to develop this whole backstory of a relationship that’s not actually in the text. How did you approach doing that?
It came organically throughout. We liked each other right away; we liked each other from the photoshoot that Diana set up for the season. Our times meshed by seven minutes, and we had mutuals who told us how great the other was, which is always good.
She’s one of the most professional actors around. She’s so good. I don’t think she’s capable of giving an untrue moment. It’s very easy to trust that; we’d find stuff, and we both were on the same page about how much [Audrey] and Dave love each other. And they do. They’re ridiculous, right? But they’re so made for each other. It’s a little bit heartbreaking that maybe they’re not gonna be okay after this. And again, that’s Guirgis being amazing.
Then as rehearsals went on, because it’s so tight, Kelli found soon in watching it that the smallest looks between people reads a lot. So you get pretty specific with that, and you get pretty specific with when we can have a look with each other, and when Walter’s busy with giving some money to his son, and we can exchange “what’s that about?” These little moments, and maybe it’s not caught by the whole room because of the way the room’s set up, but people will build a narrative from the little moments they see. So again, it’s a responsibility to not overplay it, to make sure everybody’s being seen, but you can’t ever not be connected to each other.
One of the things that comes with a Guirgis piece is an accent. Yours is really nuanced. How do you prepare for that sort of thing? Are you someone who walks around with the accent all day?
A little bit, as we got closer – but three words: Rae Ellen Bodie, again. She’s our dialect coach. She did Motherfucker too. A couple of Skype calls with her, we go through the whole script – she gives you a couple of words that you can latch onto.
For me, it was easy; I had “Audrey”, and I had “Walter”, “coffee “– two or three things I kept saying over and over again. It would just be there. And then you’d take it home. You would take it home. It was sad. I have a friend of mine, a television writer friend of mine – Dan Godwin, who’s a great guy – and we walk for sanity around the neighbourhood a couple of times a week. As I got deeper into rehearsals, then the accent started showing up. He’s like, “It’s like you had a stroke”. [laughs] “What is wrong with you?” And maybe I did, I don’t know. We were getting close to opening. And it’s fun.
I was reading Robert A. Caro’s biography on Robert Moses, who was a commissioner who built all of Long Island Expressway, and all the parkways coming in and out of New York – he built New York City. When I go on a trip somewhere, or when I do a play, at least in the background of my free time, I read a book about what I’m working on, and New York City is such a beautiful, horrible place.
The first time I went to New York City, I was 30 years old, and I remember my first thought, three hours into the trip – I was just looking at people running back and forth, and seeing the tiredness, raggedness. And thinking, “If I came here 10 years ago, I would have given this a shot, but I already feel too old, because I don’t have the energy that I need to survive in this place.” It’s debatable, but you don’t have time to think. Again, that’s Guirgis again, and that’s how these characters talk. There’s no pondering. We’re kind of lucky in this city [Toronto], this country. And sometimes that doesn’t help our performances, because we can get extra thoughtful. We can get extra politically correct; that was my worry with this piece. I didn’t want us to tell anybody about what we should be like, because Canada pretty much knows what we should be like. We know better, probably than most countries.
How did I get there? I don’t know.
We were talking about accents.
That’s right, of course! Then they got nuanced with everything, we were all from all over the place. Again, everybody approached the play with such high stakes, including our dialect coach, including anybody that gets involved. And that was backstage too, downstairs in that little freaking room – again, I have to say these were powerful actors. I’m not saying difficult, because nobody’s difficult, especially in this group. But we like to take up our opinion, or our space or something, and somehow we co-existed down there. It was like a beautiful science project that this can actually work.
Backstage was just one little room? Down the stairs?
Yes. Tiny! Down the stairs, and there’s a green room that they set up, which was nice of them to do, but we never used it. We were just hanging out in maybe the size of two of these tables. It was nothing.
We’re still exchanging e-mails, trying to all get back together again – but it’s like trying to grab onto something. We miss it. We miss each other. We love each other, and the marriage is unfortunately over [laughs] unless they remount it. And you always felt like something could get a bit more life. We felt the same way about Motherfucker. It’s a great feeling when you can leave a play wanting to do it more.
That’s one of the weird things about being an actor, right? You get so close with such intimate relationships with everyone on the project, and then, by the nature of the thing, you always move on and leave behind this community that you purposely developed. It’s an odd life.
Odd people. [laughs] And then the weird thing is, you get used to it, and you love it. We see a lot of people, professionally, in this thing. But you get used to it, and you enjoy it. I was excited, my first day, walking into rehearsals, working with seven people I’d never worked with people. People I’d heard of, people I hadn’t, and then you start getting in there, and you start playing, and then you fall in love, and then it’s over.
Did you have a favourite moment in the production?
I feel like I got the part that every 30-50 year-old white actor would kill for. Two scenes. You get to do everything in both of them. Unlike for Alexander Thomas – Alexander’s out there the whole time, and it’s kind of perfect too, because it’s so dizzying. Is this real even at one point, you start wondering; the audience starts wondering, like when the church lady comes out – are we in reality anymore? What’s going on? Is he drunk? And he is maybe drunk, maybe not the whole time – so his character has that demanding part of it, but we get to come in like a couple of bullets, and do our stuff, then get out. It was all on the page. They were fully-written characters.
As we’ve talked about, you’ve done a lot of film and TV work as well. Walk us through some of the highlights of that in your recent years. You’ve got like seven things marked “in production” on your IMDB page.
Well, there’s a whole bunch of stuff. I did a short film with two friends of mine called This is Not a Drill, and it was really just to work together. That turned into a second short, and that first short wound up at Whistler Film Fest, and wound up at a couple other film festivals, and we’ve been meeting with producers about maybe turning it into a series. And it came so organically from three actors making work for themselves, and wanting to do some stuff together because we’ve always wanted to work together.
Colin Glazer and I go back to my beginning days in theatre when we had a theatre company, with Simon Heath. We started it in Linda Griffiths’ backyard, called Shed Theatre Company. Our first show was in her backyard in a shed, and it was a play based in the shed of a guy who can’t deal with growing up, and he locked himself in, and his mom called his best friend to come get him out. And that became a theatre company.
And Colin had a life since; I’ve had a life since, and Colin wanted to work together again. I thought, that’s a great idea. We’d love to work together. And then he found another friend of his – Ravi Steve, who is our director / writer, and we wrote this short called This is Not a Drill. It’s semi-autobiographical. It’s funny; in the six years in between, if we go into personal life again, I have a father with dementia, so that’s been a part of my life, here in Toronto, in between. This project came a little bit from needing an artistic outlet for what’s going on there. I don’t wanna give too much of it away – I’d rather other people see it, or if this turns into a series, see it.
Where can we see it?
I could send you the short. It’s been in a couple of film festivals – it’s been in the Canadian Film Festival, and it was at Whistler, and we did one up in Vaughan. It tests very well. That’s another thing, too; we do a little short, and then it turns into a test screening. We got three different groups from different parts of Canada to watch it, and they all laughed at different parts, and they all loved it.
Is there rhyme or reason to any of the geographic responses?
It’s weird, it’s like Between Riverside and Crazy, though. It just lands differently, and every time it’s a different thing; it was pretty loud in Whistler, so who knows what they’re doing in Whistler. But they really enjoyed it there. In Vaughan, they liked it, but they were like “that’s pretty twisted”. If I say too much about it –
Don’t give it away. But is there a place where people can go and watch it, or is it like, “We’re going to tell you about a great thing – you can’t see it!”
We gotta get it produced, and then it’s a thing. We may put it up on YouTube at one point. We’re still trying to figure it out. We really have been talking with a couple of different production houses who are actually interested in seeing it grow into something.
So everybody stay tuned, and we’ll get it to you eventually.
Also, we’re working on a pilot for it. It’s gone from a five-minute cathartic release to a fully mapped out pilot that looks good. Ravi’s in Thailand right now for the next couple of months – he took a kind of workcation – and he’s typing it all out, and he’ll send it back, and Colin and I will contribute, and we’ll probably have a pilot in a month and a half. Then we can shop that around. This is an actor’s life. You gotta do all this stuff.
Then I did a couple of Netflix things. One’s called Grand Army; that’ll be coming soon, I think. Netflix doesn’t usually call and say when the stuff’s coming.
You just start getting tweets, like “Hey, I saw you in a thing!”
It is that, probably – from Ecuador! Like, “Oh, good, it’s playing there!”
And I did a film with a guy named Mark Raso called Awake. He did a film with Ed Harris, Kodachrome, that got him a lot of attention so Netflix gave him a lot of money to make this film. Awake is with a bunch of really talented people, and it’s pretty cool.
I’m looking it up. Gina Rodriguez! Jason Lee! Wow. Oh hey, Martha Girvin – she’s from Toronto.
[laughs] You’ll find a couple of those in there. And it’s a cool premise. That should be coming out pretty soon too, those two.
And right before I started it, a director I worked with named Scott Frank – we did a film called The Lookout, 15 years ago – he’s shot this huge series in Germany called The Queen’s Gambit, which is coming down the Netflix path at some point. It was a small part, but he flew me to Germany just to work with me, which is lovely.
Just because he likes you?
A little bit. Isn’t that weird?
Such a compliment.
It is, it is. The Lookout was a great film, and that was a much bigger part. But this one is kind of a cameo thing. I flew to Germany, I got to work with Scott again. That’s coming down the pipe, too. Who knows what’s next? It’s always like that.
Any plans for a return to theatre, or just waiting for Diana and Ted to call?
I will be returning to theatre. I think it’ll be sooner this time. I can’t talk about what it is yet, ‘cause they’ve got to announce it and all that. But there’s something really cool.
Do you have anything you’d like to add?
I would like to say thank you to My Entertainment World for the nomination. It’s weird to get nominated doing something that you love doing more than anything else, something you would do for free, and then you get an award nomination for it. That was occurring to me on the way here. I’m grateful for that. The award is the doing of it, but wow. It’s helpful on grey January days to get these little wins in life. Gratitude’s good. That’s it.