We’ve been keeping it under our hats till now. But we’ve been conspiring with numerous indie film artists and professionals to bring you candid interviews with them as part of FUGITIVE. To kick off this ongoing series, we have PART 1 of our interview with one of our favorite indie actors, Theodore Bouloukos. With over 70 credits to his name, Theo knows whereof he speaks when whereof pertains to indie film. And now, without further ado, let’s pull the curtain on one of showbiz’s hardest working men….
Why do you perform?
Well, let’s see…foremost, I enjoy it. I don’t have some deep-seeded psychological explanation: that it somehow satiates an incessant need for attention or that I’m compensating for some implicit deficiency in self-esteem—though, I suppose, both of those conditions might be plausible or I wouldn’t be able to invoke them so readily…. Performance itself is very empowering…the apprehension of that moment after which ACTION is called is a very personal space; one’s own complete creative domain: one is aware of the attendant facilities in making this magic happen, of course, but the space belongs only to oneself and the other actor(s) in that given scene. Cloying as this might sound, I also think it’s something of a privilege to be a vessel for storytelling: to inhabit the lives of others, to drive a narrative and interpret the complexities of the human condition. Plus, it’s just plain fun making movies! I’m never happier than [when] being on a film set. I enjoy the process far more than I do the aftermath, which, once a film is completed and screened, belongs more to the audience. I simply loathe the screenings and Q&As that follow; they are a part of the process and I accept them; but I dread them each and every time. I know it sounds laughable, given my seeming ubiquity in so many projects, but I’m really a very private person.
What’s your favorite quote or quip about acting?
Noel Coward’s famous advice to actors: “Speak clearly, don’t bump into the furniture and if you must have motivation, think of your pay packet on Friday.” Ha! Quite!
What do you say to people who tell you to stop chasing your dream?
I tell them to go fuck themselves. Ha! No, no, I’m far too polite to say it so coarsely; but I’m tempted to ask them to kindly mind their own jealousy and to concentrate on their own unexamined lives. Most people who would tell anyone—artist, entrepreneur, inventor—such a useless maxim are those who’ve already resigned themselves to their ships having passed; if they were ever at the dock in the first place. Firstly, it’s not a dream, I am not imagining that I’ve been cast in a movie; I have the visible evidence of the experience. Secondly, I would rather have a root canal than have some godforsaken cubicle life. And I have known real poverty, trying to sustain this so-called career of mine. Even when I’m freelancing as a proofreader temp, in, say, an ad agency, I can feel the bridle’s been harnessed too tight. Gosh, I hate offices and I detest office culture—ugh!—all those ghastly people with their sacred titles and their feeble insistence on taking collections for somebody’s birthday cake, just as a ruse for relieving themselves some 15 minutes of dread servitude; those platinum handcuffs to which they’ve bound their souls, hoping to implicate you in the process. No, thank you, I simply haven’t the disposition; and proof of that is that I was usually fired from every “good job” I ever had.
How many independent films have you appeared in? What are some of the highlights (and lowlights)?
You’re sending me to IMDb, in asking this question…let’s see, I currently have a total of 76 credits, but I can think of at least five films not on there; and of those four that they have (erroneously) attributed to my playing myself, there are actually only two: both docs, rightly; the others were actual characters, including a reporter on hand to interview Gene Simmons when his Family Jewels series decamped for New York in the fourth season and he returned to his Long Island hometown to learn some safety lessons at the local firehouse. Yes, these are the plum gigs for the rising actor. IMDb’s methodology of ranking mystifies me, no end, but that’s an entirely different conversation. So let’s say, among features, I’ve done about 40, in all, of which less than 10 bear any pride of purpose. Now, I should qualify this by saying that as an actor who isn’t 25 and gorgeous, the kinds of scripts that enable me to vie for the lead role, or a strong principal part, that are, additionally, smartly written, and, to make the equation even more stringent, helmed by an equally smart director and a first-class crew, are, for a man d’un certain age, harder to come by. And that’s putting it lightly. But among principal roles—though I’ve done some cameos, like Saul in Dorian Tucker’s wonderfully subtle debut feature, everyday Saturday, and Enzo the barber, in Stefano Secchi’s forthcoming comedic feature, Shilo, that stand out among my arsenal of memorable characters—I have finally arrived at that level where my best work is just now seeing the light of day, either on the festival circuit or still in post and therefore, “forthcoming,” as we like to say. Among those titles of which I’m proudest include my lead role as Mr Hare in James Kienitz Wilkins’ Public Hearing, which premiered in Copenhagen and was subsequently shown at festivals in Pamplona and Lisbon. Last week it had its New York premiere at MoMA. It goes next to festivals in Mexico City and Seattle. I have worked with James since the inception of our careers, including a highly conceptual sitcom pilot, called Dare Double, and I value his professional acumen and our personal relationship very greatly. I loved playing one-half of the title role in Rachel Mason’s The Lives of Hamilton Fish (a metaphysical rock opera, entirely lip-synched to her voice and music, in which two men named Hamilton Fish—a statesman (my role) and a serial killer—die on the same day and appear on the same front page of a newspaper, whose editor re-imagines their lives intertwined). Mine is the dour half to my co-star Bill Weeden’s mercurial madness as the murderer, but we take what we can get and we learn to love it. I’m very glass-half-full in my approach to life and career. Hamilton Fish will have its world premiere next month in Hong Kong. It was an unbridled joy to work for a daring filmmaker, like Nathan Silver, in whose Soft in the Head, I play a disturbed, possibly schizophrenic, resident of a men’s shelter. It premiered at Sarasota, and has since gone on to Buenos Aires and to Boston, where the local NPR station cited my performance, thank you very much. It will have its New York premiere next month at the Brooklyn Film Festival. Silver’s films require an actor to largely improvise, based on his directives that can change at any moment, depending upon where he sees the scene going. It’s not for the faint of heart. One has to act fast and be prepared to go seamlessly with the flow. The pace can be at once exhausting and inspiriting. I had an absolute blast playing a fictively ‘famous’ art and fashion photographer in Bag Boy Lover Boy, Mexican director Andrés Torres’s debut feature, a darkly comic meditation on horror; it’s still in post, but I’m terrifically excited about it, to be sure. Also, it was a very happy set, and one should never underestimate the importance of a happy set to all involved. What else? Oh, yes, I very much enjoyed making The Way of Glass, a short feature directed by Daniel Berg, another first-time director. (I seem to work with a lot of virgins, don’t I?) He had the audacity to adapt a Salinger title to the screen—and the beloved Franny and Zooey, at that— while “modernizing” it, as he called it, by inserting me into the Glass family, as Teddy (ha!), who’s telling an interior story, by way of a home movie, while the narrative hones to the book: unlicensed, of course, and intrepid of him, no doubt. I wonder if ‘reverence’ holds up as a plea bargain in court. Ultimately, the film’s flaws are earnest ones: skewing too close to this novella in a manner that only those who teach it, or have just read it, are going to get. Um…I also loved the experience of playing Danny Ziegfeld, a Jewish atheist theatre director who adopts a foster child who turns out to be a Jesus freak, in a small feature—among the first to be shot on the Red—on location in Cape Cod for almost a month, called The Evangelist, directed by Nathaniel Chapman, and available to screen online among the selected titles of the Tribeca Film Institute’s Reframe Collection. My co-star was only 11 when we shot it, and it was that rare occasion when working with a child wasn’t a complete drag. We had a pretty good time making that film. A (non-film) role I very much enjoy playing is the scheming, wannabe recording star, Faith, in Melody Set Me Free, a video-art soap-opera web series for the artist Kalup Linzy, who voices some 20-plus characters in this serial production, including dialogue and song, for all of us to lip-synch. I do this part in a dress and a wig, no effort made to conceal any masculine, hirsute attributes; after all, it’s video art and verisimilitude is less important than suggestion. After our first season debuted at the Greater New York show at MoMA PS1, we were invited to Sundance and its inaugural New Frontier category; and I think that’s where the actor James Franco saw it, because he signed on to produce our second and third seasons. I presume a fourth is in the offing, but I’ve not heard, as yet. We roll fast and loose as actors, nothing’s ever set in stone until one arrives to the set. I have two very different features “forthcoming,” both really arduous to make and both ultimately rewarding as achievements; and I have the lead role in both. As the title character, Moreau, in Moreau—the directorial debut of Christopher James Cramer and a suspense thriller—I play a literature professor/hunter whose obsession with the classic short story, “The Most Dangerous Game,” is made manifest in a grisly survival challenge for an unsuspecting mother and daughter. And in the intimate father-son drama, Journey, directed by Malachi Roth, I play an ex-CIA operative whose disillusionment with the system has found him retreating to his sailboat and the quiet pursuit of drink while he writes a perceptibly volatile memoir. Moreau was shot over 16 or 17 days in the Cambria Mountains of Pennsylvania; and running amok with a revolver and a machete in heavy boots was no picnic. But in the end, it was gloriously exhilarating, and I learned a good deal. Journey, too, a complete and utter challenge: ever try to sail and act at the same time? No pleasure cruise, I can assure you. Yes, we shot this feature entirely under sail, and having to come about, take after take, to preserve the same light, the same vistas…oh dear. But I adore both of these roles for their challenges; and moreover, for the sense of accomplishment they provided me. This is what’s called Outward Bound for Actors. As for lowlifes…I mean, lowlights (sorry, but there is a preponderance of pond scum in this biz, so the confusion is apt), I have many, and no actor is without regret; but most notably, and I don’t say this simply to flatter you, the week you called me to play the transvestite soothsayer in Benny the Bum, I was committed to a feature I simply loathed making, on location, just outside of New York City, and that’s the closest I’ll get to identifying that dog. And I’ve made many, many dogs in my day.
How do you prepare for roles?
It depends entirely on the role and its proximity to my own persona and personality. Obviously an actor infuses elements of himself, especially if there’s some connective facet—background, class, education, geography; all the elements that comprise a man and who that man has become or where that man is located in his mortal evolution by the time we meet him in the story being told on screen. But if you’re asking me whether I go into some trance and/or speak in tongues or something, no. Good Christ, no. And with all due respect to the “training” some of these actors have received, well, I simply can’t speak for it, except to say that for me, acting is intuitive. I’m not going to denigrate the performance preparations of other actors. Most of them come from theatre backgrounds, where everything is, you know, dramatic! Look, when I’m across from another actor in a scene, I’m only concerned with whether we’re going to have a true tennis game, or whether I’m going to have to masturbate. You dig?
What’s it like being a working actor in New York City?
Well, it’s not easy, certainly. But seldom is anything worth having if it’s been handed to you, no? Now, you must understand from the get-go, that I haven’t had a typical actor’s trajectory, so being a “working actor” differs for me, just as it does from one person to the next, depending upon one’s métier within the industry. I’ve known dyed-in-the-wool theater types who’d never deign to do film or television, as well as those whose careers are confined to voice-overs; it’s a broad array. My genesis as a performer was in the art world, where I continue to devote a healthy quotient of my career to making, or rather, appearing, as a performer, in the video-art projects of numerous artists. In fact, I just shot a video with Meredith Danluck, whose North of South, West of East was a show-stopper in the New Frontier category at this year’s Sundance. She’s divine. The piece will go up at a gallery in New York, in July. I’ve also been something of an artistic muse: painted, photographed, sculpted ad nauseam: a veritable paean to Narcissus. But I remain very connected to the art world, and was working primarily as a writer when I made this migration to cinema. So that’s my backstory. Neither formal nor traditional. Ironically, since one would be apt to ascribe both descriptives to me, at least personally. But the resounding theme of commonality among all performers is the need to be fearless, ambitious, assertive, you know, the usual. I am not afraid to go the distance when a role requires it. When a delicate topical matter is handled maturely, I am the first to enlist myself for taking it to the extreme. I don’t worry about how this helps or hurts me—vis-à-vis someone else’s imagined Hollywood career aspirations for me. I don’t have those aspirations. I’m an artist: as I stated, my origins as a performer come from the art world. That’s where my heart lies. I’ve migrated to a cinema that bears the elemental strains of art production, having to do more ‘commercial’ vehicles because I have to work, and because there’s artfulness in the singularity of a performance, even when the vehicle around one is a dud. I don’t do theatre, per se. I wasn’t trained at Juilliard. I studied art history. At Columbia, arguably the least collegiate and most academic of the Ivies (and I hope that doesn’t offend your Crimson sensibilities—wink, wink). But I’m an intellectual, first, as garish as it is to say such a thing. What I do, or attempt to do, is a performative extension of living a life of the mind. My aim is to work with the best international directors and the best visual artists. I want to work with the next generation of Jodorowskys and Angelopouloses, not the next James Camerons and Judd Apatows. To paraphrase Charlotte Rampling, whom I admire enormously: I’m not interested in the entertainment side of cinema. Equally, on the art-world side, I’d give my eyeteeth to work with Doug Aitken and Omer Fast…and Matthew Barney, without question.
What do you think the difference between acting in independent films and acting for TV/commercials is?
Subtlety. Purpose. Money. Real money. Lots and lots of real money. Commercial jobs are an in-and-out proposition too. Even when the day is long, the production turnaround is faster so one sees the fruits of his labor often in less than a month’s time. Of course, having to see it on the casting director’s site before a copy has been promised but never sent, so that we’re forced to play that timeworn game, known as ‘chasing the footage’, is less than ideal. This bit of tedium is more prevalent within indie film than in the commercial world, but I’m still waiting for copy of a Dr Scholl’s TV ad I did last summer for TNT—despite mentioning it, again, to the production company for whom I auditioned only recently on another commercial for Tic-Tacs. Yes, an actor’s life is filled with charming people, including commercial agents who have absolutely no idea when a print campaign will drop, so that one has to discover this from friends who read consumer magazines. Highs and lows, I suppose, like all things in life.