Hi Fran! You’re most recognisable from Dollhouse. What was it like working on such a popular show?
It was great. It was my life for a good two years. The friends I made there are friends for life and obviously my relationship with Joss (Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dollhouse) is something I cherish. Apart from being brilliant and original he’s also a great leader. He’s inspiring and makes you want to be your best. So that being said they were a blissful two years and I was very sad to lose it. The writers were very kind to me. My character had a truly inspired arc and got to show so many colours over the life of the show; colours I would have never imagined at the beginning. That’s a wonderful thing about television – you don’t really know where the story is going because often the creators don’t either. It develops. Your character can change and evolve organically over the life of a series. It was so unexpected what became of my character Topher. Our stories got more twisted and the world got more imaginative. We were like kids playing in the corner, doing something really weird, before the parents or teachers finally see it and shut it down. The fans were great. It’s still very heartwarming to be recognized for the show -people really did love it, and I loved it too. So when I do meet a fan I genuinely feel a good connection with them. Don’t be afraid to say hi!
You’re currently starring as Bernard in Death of a Salesman on Broadway – can you tell me a little bit about your role?
Bernard is the Loman family’s neighbour. Miller describes him when he first appears as ‘earnest and loyal, a worried boy.’ Today we’d call him a nerd. Willy Loman calls him ‘an anaemic’, ‘a pest’, and a ‘worm.’ Later in the play you see Bernard as a young man and he is about to argue a case before the supreme court. Miller describes him on that entrance as ‘a quiet, earnest, but self-assured young man.’ When I first auditioned for the role I asked the director, Mike Nichols, if he had any thoughts before I started. He said, ‘With this guy it’s all about the transformation.’ What I love the most about acting is probably disappearing into a character entirely different from myself. In a word, transformation. He said the perfect thing. It was a good audition and it’s a great little part -surprisingly challenging. The scene with Willy is masterfully written, blending exposition and tragedy together. It’s two men that have been asking essentially the same question for 17 years, ‘what happened to Biff?’, and finally getting to talk about it. Willy and Bernard share the same life changing event, and they are essentially family – it’s a beautiful, heartbreaking scene.
What’s it like working with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Andrew Garfield in the production?
They are basically the best actors of their respective generations. I know they would hate me for saying that but I believe it. The entire cast is excellent though – I learn from all of them, top to bottom. But Phil and Andrew are deep wells of sensitivity with such amazing talent and understanding of human behaviour. I heard Phil refer to his work not as ‘storytelling’ but rather ‘problem solving.’ That makes a lot of sense having watched him work; he examines things in the smallest detail. It takes me a while to catch up with him but when I do I always think, ‘Oh my gosh, he’s right.’ And when he finally did get up and play Willy Loman it was a sublime work of art. He’d exhausted so much of the man and the story that you saw a fully realized human being with a lifetime of memories and heartbreak and hope. He’s awesome. And I remember thinking Andrew was going to be the best young actor when I saw the trailer for The Social Network. I know that’s weird. I have a man crush. There is something graceful and elegant about him, but on the other hand, he is as raw as any actor I’ve ever seen. But surrounding all this raw feeling he has technique sculpting it in a controlled way so that the story is never lost. Despite all the amazing people involved in Death of a Salesman, working with Andrew may mean the most to me because being a young actor myself to be around the someone like him is a great thing achieved.
Can you tell me a bit about The Cabin in the Woods and your role in the film?
I can tell you nothing about Cabin in the Woods. I would have to kill you. Seriously though, they have it under lock and key but trust me it’s better that way. What I can say is that I play a lover of herbs, Marty. He appears to be your typical stoner/slacker/wise-cracking type that occasionally philosophizes but he’s very loyal and possesses more courage than you might think. Marty and his friends take a weekend trip to a cabin in the woods. It turns out to be a very bad weekend for us and a lot of other people. There is a lot of blood. And I think more people die in this movie than in any other movie ever made. Seriously.
You’re also in the upcoming adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing. How is the film different from the Shakespearian original and how do you think audiences will respond to it?
This project was so much fun. It came about in such a casual way that I never considered it would receive so much attention and interest. Joss often does play readings at his house but he told us this time he wanted to film one. I really believed we might just be reading a play with a camera on us, but then things began to take shape. Some production people contacted me asking for my social security number, and I was totally surprised. I asked ‘Are we getting paid for this?’ Then I was asked for costume sizes, allergies, the whole laundry list of things that happen when you make a real movie. We started having rehearsals at his house and there was a grip truck outside. It was like a real movie. But I still thought just that, ‘it’s like a movie but we’re still screwing around, right?’ I remember the first day of shooting I stopped at a Starbucks and the girl working there was a Dollhouse fan. I told her I was going to Joss’ house right now. She was like, ‘Oh my God that’s so cool.’ Then she looked confused and said, ‘What are you guys doing at six in the morning?’ And I said, equally confused, ‘I guess we’re making a movie. Much Ado About Nothing?’ I still didn’t get it. But I like to think though that this was all Joss’ master plan. He wanted to have fun as he always does but I think for the style he was going for he needed his actors to be as relaxed as possible. This is not the kind of Shakespeare on film you are used to. It is not all grand production value and epic backdrops. It is not period. It is not in colour. But there was an intimate and casual nature about the production that bled into the story we were telling. We had barely enough time to memorize the lines. Every actor seemed just as surprised and unaware of the fact that we were making an actual movie, but as each day ended we grew more and more confident. Now I walk around saying, ‘Yeah I did a movie of Much Ado About Nothing last year. We’re thinking Cannes or Venice. Something fancy.’ The final product will be a very fresh take on Shakespeare and a lot of fun. It’s a great play.
You’ve worked with Joss Whedon on several projects – do you hope this collaboration will continue in the future?
100%. I can’t imagine ever saying no to him. He’s original. That’s the best, right?
You’ve acted on stage, television and film – which is your favourite and why?
That’s too tough – I like them all! Ultimately it depends on the story you’re telling. I’ve been lucky with my two professional plays – they are both successes with great writing, a great cast and a great director. I hadn’t done a play since college when I first did Bachelorette off Broadway – it had been five years, and I couldn’t believe I had been away so long. It’s so much fun, like being back in school. The table work and rehearsal time is so stimulating it’s like taking a great class. You have so much time to figure out what you’re doing and explore the play in such detail. I feel so invigorated after a good rehearsal. Then there’s the real communal and ensemble aspect. You can become very close to people doing a play. You trust each other. There is so much pressure in live performance that all that depending on each other makes for a real deep bond. I love the people I’ve done plays with, and the shared experience is very real and unique. There’s also the tangible connection with the audience. When someone says they liked me in a movie I’m obviously happy but there is a distance there. We didn’t do it together. And the movie or television show was done so long before the person sees it that there is a time gap as well. If someone says they liked me in a play I think it’s a bond. We were both there.
Film and television are wonderful too though. Film is the culmination of all the arts. It’s infinite. The worlds we’ve seen in cinema and more and more in television are so meaningful to everyone that how could you not enjoy making them. Plays are ephemeral but film, we hope, is forever. The movie Cabin in the Woods is so great I believe that I could die tomorrow and be proud of my film career.
But I’ll try to be specific. I was always frustrated in film that you did not have a lot of rehearsal time. Often you’re lucky to get any rehearsal time at all. Especially in television. You get your script sometimes the night before and you just rehearse in order for the cameras to get an idea of what it’s going to look like. It’s more technical than creative. But eventually I realized this was something to embrace. If for no other reason than necessity but still I started to see it as an opportunity to be free with the lines and the character. It’s easier said than done but you can’t be afraid to fail. You have takes. You have time. I think it’s possible to be too knowledgable of your scene and character in film. If you go in with fixed ideas and extensive background you may miss opportunities. If you’re loose with the material you can take chances and are free to try wildly different things take after take. And that is what you want. Because ultimately as an actor once you’re done it’s out of your hands. It becomes the director’s or the editor’s or usually the producer’s. You want to leave it all out there on set so you can be comfortable that there isn’t much more you could have done. In theater it’s the reverse. It goes from the director to you. Once the show is up and running the part is yours. I like that.
I guess it sounds like I like theater more. I don’t know. To do a good movie and a good play every year would be a sweet life.
What made you first decide to get into acting?
I’d act out in class so often and cause so many disturbances that they thought I might be able to direct a lot of that energy in a more positive way through theatre. I was eventually told to audition for the school play. I definitely remember a teacher always being annoyed with me and once instead of snapping at me asked ‘have you ever thought about auditioning for the play?’ There was another class I had in middle school called Communications where we would have to give speeches on different topics. Instead of just being myself and talking about whatever it was I had to talk about I would create these bizarre characters doing the lecture instead. I remember doing something on orthodontists or dentists and I played this crazy imbecile who ruined his patient’s teeth. I brought in a mask for the patient and used fake blood and everything. That teacher definitely suggested I should do theatre. When I started it was mostly fun because I liked theatre kids and I got good roles. I wasn’t fully in love with it yet. And this will sound bad but I didn’t fully respect it yet. I didn’t see it as a real art form or something that you could be truly passionate about and not just do for the perks of the job. I grew up in LA and I honestly saw acting as movie stardom. But one night when I was rehearsing The Merchant of Venice, the theatre teacher and director at my school, Ted Walch, was trying to get something out of my performance as Shylock. I remember then thinking what I was doing was okay for High School but it wasn’t great. I knew it. And he knew it. I had hit a wall. It was in the evening and I think it was just the two of us. I’ll never forget it though. He finally searched through his extensive Laser Disc collection, yes Laser Disc, and pulled out Oliver. He showed me a scene of Alec Guinness playing Fagin – I only knew him as Obi Wan Kenobi – and it was an epiphany. He was two different people entirely, down to the finger tips. After that I got it, the bug or whatever it is. I fell in love. It wasn’t even a question of respect and worth it was all answered and I knew I’d be doing it for the rest of my life or die trying. It was a beautiful thing. It’s been my greatest love ever since.
What did you study at Yale and what was your experience of being a student there like?
I was a humanities major – I realize that’s not a common major and I always quick to qualify it with ‘I know that sounds like bullshit, but it was actually pretty cool.’ It’s essentially the oldest major at Yale and it’s basically a broad liberal arts education: you get a lot of everything. I think when the school first started there was a more standard curriculum and students would find focuses within it. But the important thing was to have a good knowledge of the classics, the renaissance, art history, literature, philosophy, etc. I knew I wanted to be an actor but I didn’t want to major in it or feel like I was in a conservatory, so this was the perfect major for me. I did many plays in school – maybe too many. And I did do some acting classes. But I loved my major because I wanted that kind of education. I love art history and literature, and there’s plenty of food for acting there too. It also gave easy access to the great tenured professors; I took classes with Harold Bloom, John Gaddis, Donal Kagan and Christopher Wood to name a few. I really loved Yale and the people I met there. I wish I was still there – I may not have used my time as productively as I could have. I like to have fun. So I think I will always have lingering regrets to be back there and studying. It’s a really special place.
What advice would you give to aspiring actors hoping to break into the industry?
I think you’ve got to give 200%, and do as much work as possible because you never know who might see your work. Do online videos, do sketch comedy, improv, take classes, go to open auditions, do plays at your local black box, put on stuff yourself, whatever. Just do as much as possible, because it’s true that it can take just one thing. But hard work is key – you’ll never forgive yourself if you didn’t give it your all. The competition is insane and you have to know there is always someone working harder, so don’t take the easy route.
What are your future career ambitions?
I want to write and direct one day. Yup, I said it. Just like everyone else. I really do though – I’ve been very fortunate as an actor so far and I hope that continues but I do really want to make my own stories one day.
Do you have any hidden talents that your fans don’t know about?
Molly Price, an actress in Death of a Salesman, told her son that I play the piano beautifully. I don’t know what she’s talking about but at one point in my life I was pretty good. Maybe I can find that again. I wish I could cook really well. And I wish I played for the Los Angeles Lakers, though that wouldn’t be much of a ‘hidden’ talent.
What is your favourite film of all time?
Star Wars. Need I say more?
This interview was originally published here