My Theatre

30 March 2020

Nominee Interview Series: Ryan Hollyman

By // Theatre (Toronto)

Before we announce the winners of the 2019 MyEntWorld Critics’ Pick Awards, we’re proud to present our annual Nominee Interview Series.

Ryan Hollyman’s haunting and complex performance in C’Mon, Angie with Leroy Street Theatre layered everyman appeal with everyman darkness to create a troubling portrait of a clueless abuser. Ryan’s thoughtfulness in embodying his character’s hurtful actions with empathy for his humanity was the crux of an Outstanding Leading Performance in a Play-nominated turn we still can’t get out of our heads.

Can you remember your first experience with theatre?
My first experience with theatre would probably be with the church. I went to United Church when I was a kid, and I took Sunday school, and we always re-enacted little scenes from the Bible and other things – songs, and choir, and stuff like that. So that’s probably my earliest.

Also, I had an amazing Grade 2 teacher. We did a whole re-enactment of Off the Wall by Michael Jackson at the time, and we danced the whole album and presented it to the whole school. That’s deeply imprinted in my mind.

You still know the choreo?
I still do – it’s weird when you hear it. It’s like muscle memory. And my brother was a year older than me, and I remember that stepped me up in the cool books. I was like, “Hey, maybe this might work out, this performing thing!”

When did you know you wanted to do it professionally?
Probably coming out of high school. I grew up playing hockey and was somewhat of an athlete, and I was kind of getting out of that in Grade 10. My junior high school was very theatre-oriented, so a teacher there – Sue Daniel, who was amazing and became a mentor later in life – she instilled a love of [theatre] into all of us. Going into high school, I was really interested in it, but had some difficulties in high school and bounced around, got kicked out. That’s another story for another time, or a few stories. But theatre kind of saved me. I came back. She helped me. I joined this program which was put on by the Toronto Board of Schools. It was something you had to audition for, and it was a full year. We made our own show, we studied English; I think it was a 5 credit per semester program. You got English, and social science, and a phys ed credit. They worked it out to make it like a full year.

At that point when I did that, we did the show, and we toured it around southern Ontario. I thought that was cool. So at that time, I wasn’t really interested in being a TV actor or anything. It was more just theatre. And growing up playing hockey, theatre’s definitely one of the great team sports, so it seemed like an easy transition.

What’s your favourite role you’ve ever performed?
That’s tough. It switches when I look back now, many years. I’ve been lucky and have played a lot of great roles. I don’t know.

My favourite would be… we did this project called the Mill Project, years ago, at the Young Centre. That was great, because it was a repertory company, and we did four shows together. I had the same bloodline of the character which ran through four different generations. That was neat, to link that and do the historical studies for the different genres and different times. So that was really valuable experience, and I loved the people I was working with.

I’d say all of them. There hasn’t really been where I was like “yeah, I didn’t love that.” I tend to love it. That’s why I do it.

Are there any roles or people to work with on your bucket list?
Lots of people. Especially a lot of younger people I see now – quite inspiring. As far as the older ilk that I wanted to work with directors-wise, I’ve been lucky. I’ve worked with a lot of them, and I don’t want to name one person because then I feel like I’ll leave a bunch out.

What about roles?
I think I’m getting into a different time now, so there’s different roles now, interesting father roles. I’m a father now myself; I have a 7-year-old, and I can really identify, whereas before I was just faking. That tie of love that is beyond what I imagined it would be, and the obligation of it all.

I’d like to do some Chekhov. I haven’t done that since school. As far as classics like Chekhov, and Ibsen – I’ve been re-reading a lot lately.

How’d you get involved with C’mon, Angie!?
I was asked, actually. I know Amy Lee [Lavoie, writer], and my friend Dylan Trowbridge was asked about the project, and I don’t know if he was unable to do it. So thankfully it came my way, and I said no right away without reading it, because I have to pay the mortgage, and stuff. I told my agent I was gonna take a little break from theatre, which I tried to do, which is hard, and I’m never really successful at it. But then I read the play. I spoke to Amy Lee online, and it’s a fantastic play, and important. I felt a connection with the character, and I think it’s such a great conversation, so I wanted to be a part of it. Then I met Anne [van Leeuwen], and she’s dynamite. I spoke with the director and felt inspired, so I’m really happy.

Tell us a little bit about working with Anne and Cristina Cugliandro, the director, on the project.
It was great. It was challenging, for sure. The character itself did some things I would never do, but I can relate to his mistakes. Anne was so fun; we joked that we have this sort of brother-sister relationship, and we have a ball. Cristina was fantastic. Not in a negative way at all – measured in her way of practice, and very smart, and a lot of fun to be with in the room. We have great team all around. It was one of those experiences. Made hardly any money, but it winds up being my favourite project for sure of the year.

What were some of the challenges, and strategies for coping with those challenges, of sincerely representing Reed’s point of view within such complicated and dark, sensitive material?
That’s a good word for it. It was crazy. Other than performing at the Saidye Bronfman theatre, the Segal Centre in Montreal, I’ve never heard so much conversation during the show. And not to be generational, but that’s because they’re hard of hearing at the Seagull and talking to each other.

There were a couple of people that were letting expletives, like “Fuck off!” when I would do something. It’s always a challenge playing darker, and lately I’ve been playing a lot more darker characters, so I can differentiate the work, no problem with that.

Some characters definitely sit in my body and make me much happier while I’m doing them. This one was good just because I felt even though it does tip- without giving too much away, it tips; he’s bad- but so much of him and his intention is ignorant and good, and that’s how I wanted to approach it. Cristina was totally in favour of that, and Anne, too. I felt like we had great chemistry, so it was easy to make those mistakes and try to make up for it, because I think that’s what Reed’s essence is. If he saw a videotape of what he did, he probably would never do that again. And I think by the end of the play, he would never do these things again either.

He’s selfish by nature, which is always fun to play too. He doesn’t want to admit that he’s wrong because then also it was a legal situation that could have happened, that would have made it wrong for him to do that. But it was a good challenge. It was a great challenge to dive into that dark side, and think about how I would react, and essentially it’s me making those choices, right? Based on whatever given circumstances I have. So sometimes you do things in rehearsal, and we tipped it really well. Cristina was great at that – of not tipping it too much until we wanted to, so it was great.

You have to hold onto the audience’s sympathy, which is very difficult to do with a character like that. You just said some people were yelling at you during the show – what were some of the most interesting and strong reactions you had both in the theatre, and then leaving the theatre?
Well, we had a couple Q&A’s, and that was so informative, and scary for me too, because it’s hard when people can’t separate you as the actor from the character. There was a couple of people – albeit I have no idea what goes on in their lives, and I empathize – who were sort of unable to do that.

It was interesting; the first Q&A was a lot of males, and a lot of mansplaining, and some trying to come to Reed’s – not rescue, but cushioning him, in a way. It was a little weird, actually. And then it flipped, and then there was one night with a couple of women that were quite strongly against everything Reed did as an archetype, as opposed to a person. So I felt like maybe I did something wrong to fail that night in the storytelling. But I know I didn’t. I played my actions as I always would, and there was nothing. But it was like a hairline away from giving too much away, you know? Like if I went too dark, or she went too dark, it would tip it, and that show was such a great balancing act.

Some nights it was really challenging, because you could feel the vitriol coming, and of course. I would cringe. And I did cringe, a couple of times – that’s what compelled me to do it, to figure out how to handle those moments. It’s exciting. It’s live theatre, right? It’s a dialogue with the audience, and they’re talking as loud as you are. It’s a really lively piece of dialogue that you’re engaged in, whether you want to be or not, and you can’t ignore them. But you can’t cater to anything other than the play.

In the moment, you’re onstage, and they’re yelling through the fourth wall, how do you stay focused?
There was one night that one fellow I believe was on the spectrum – a couple of people knew him. He was quite vocal. He told me to fuck off a couple times during the show. I sort of paused. There was only one moment where he went on a little longer than that. But it was always an honest reaction, and it was perfectly timed. So in a way, you feel weirdly championed by it, and you can’t let it get in the way of your focus with your partner, and it is a fourth-wall show. The inside of me wants to turn around and be like, “It’s not me! This isn’t me!”, you know? But you can’t do that.

Like in the lobby after, you want to go “Hi, I’m Ryan!”
Yeah! My mom and dad were famous for that. For the first show I did, I played this horrible, despicable human who raped a man and a woman, and it was this bizarre weird play. This was the first show my dad and mom had seen me at school that I’m paying to go to, and this is what I’m planning to do with the rest of my life. And I came out to the lobby – I was the last actor out – and my mom and dad were, like, just accommodating everyone, like “My son is a wonderful person!” I came out – “oh, there he is now! Ryan, come and speak to one of my colleagues’ moms.” Just to make sure they knew.

And I felt that way too coming out of the lobby, making sure I was in decent look, in decent spirit. It was hard, and some nights I could tell with certain people, it wouldn’t matter what I would’ve done. They were judging the show. Which is great, in a way. It’s funny. I worked with a director years ago, and he hired me; it was this TV movie, and I played this kindhearted, bumbling kid. And he said, “Don’t ever play a pedophile or rapist. It’ll ruin your career.” Years later, I can sort of see what he means by it. But back then I used to get all ingenue and light parts and stuff, so I was like, “No, I want dark!” Since I left school I didn’t go on that trajectory. But now I seem to be, so careful what you wish for.

How do you feel about getting all those dark parts? Does it affect your life or attitude? Do you want to look for something a little bit lighter, just for peace of mind?
Yeah, I love comedy. My wife might tell me to say a different story, but I don’t think it affects me too much. It buoys you, or it weights you, and a light-hearted piece is exactly that. A deep, heavy piece tends to be that too.

ARC – Actors’ Repertory Company – has a collective that we’re part of, and we’re doing a piece which we do dark shit. It’s hard because we wanna change, and we always joke that we’re gonna do a musical, or a comedy, and we never do, and this time we’re not doing that either. I don’t know if we ever will.

I’m thankful everytime we get to work, and if this is what it is for now, then so be it. but I’ve had a good array. Even through all the dark parts, there’s a variance in them; the circumstances are always different, so I hope to never play the same guy twice in different circumstances.

Did you have a favourite moment in the production?
Maybe that “fuck off” moment. Opening it and realizing how successful it could be, because you read a play, you start rehearsing, you feel great in the room. You come out, and that dialogue with the audience isn’t what you suspected. This was more. And throughout the run, it just got better, and I think word of mouth got out.

I wish we’d sold more tickets for Anne’s company. It’s so hard, indie theatre. You don’t know why some shows sell and some don’t, and it doesn’t matter if it’s the best word of mouth, the best reviewed, the best publicized – it’s a science I can’t understand. I’m thankful, though. The way it went on an upward trajectory, and the conversation was so great. After the show was too, even if it was uncomfortable at points. Like I said, it was fantastic and important to have.

You also appeared in Betrayal at Soulpepper last year. What stands out in your memory about that experience?
Well, that was another messed-up piece in a way, and a beautiful piece of writing. That was a challenge, the production, and everything, in some ways. But I was proud to be a part of it. It was my first show with Soulpepper. I’d worked with Diego [Matamoros] on the Young Shakespeare class years ago, and I’ve always been on the periphery. Now with the change of guard and stuff, I was so happy to be a part of that, and hopefully I’ll be back again one day, and I think Weyni [Mengesha]’s doing amazing things. It’s a pleasure, and it was great.

I did three pieces last year, so it was such a great spectrum of the ARC show and C’mon, Angie!, and Betrayal. I like that varied experience.

Do you have anything you’d like to add?
Thank you so much for bringing me in. I love theatre. It’s a pleasure to be a part of that world, and I’m so proud to be a part of this community. I love how it’s changing for all the right ways, and I’m happy to be a part of that.

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