Monday, September 21, 2015

The Art of Passive Aggression - J. Scot Cahoon on playing a vengeful underdog

When you first look at J. ScotCahoon's head shot, you think of a young Jake Gyllenhaal or Toby Maguire. Then you look closer and see Cillian Murphy, who has made a name for himself playing comely psychopaths. I can see Scot heading in the same direction. Slender and outrageously photogenic, he could pass for boy band material, yet there is an air of arrogant malaise veiling his features. In his reel, there is not a single boy-next-door role. You may not even want this boy living next to you.

If he was my son, I'd probably want to strangle him. And I mean it in the most flattering possible way (this is coming from someone who is a mother in real life). Rarely do you come across an actor who manages to stir equal measures of sympathy and antagonism without as much as raising an eyebrow. While casting him for the role of Hugh in The Last Fenian, I had to tap into my maternal side. Although I'm not old enough to be Scot Cahoon's mother, I had to activate my parental instincts, because his character has a very complicated relationship with his parents and had, in a sense, contributed to their alienation from each other. Arguably, because of him, Mr. and Mrs. Malone are strangers. A sickly runt, whose birth had nearly killed his mother and rendered her barren, Hugh is both an embarrassment and an enigma to his father. In a rural patriarchal society where brawn is prized above brain, Hugh is clearly at a disadvantage. Having grown up with ridicule from his peers, exacerbated by his older brother's chivalrous attempts to defend him, he develops a peculiar outlook on life, bitter and vindictive. So I had to ask myself, "What would it feel like to be a mother to this child who had ended my reproductive career prematurely, causing my husband to lose interest in me?" Would maternal love always triumph over resentment? (For the record, you'll never hear me singing about unconditional maternal love that knows no boundaries. That's Hallmark fluff. I don't buy it. Just thought I should warn you.)

Cahoon's Hugh is not a universally sympathetic underdog that everyone automatically roots for. The last thing I wanted was to create a family dynamic with clearly outlined aggressor-victim roles. That kind of black-and-white delineation would simplify and cheapen the story. The underdog is eloquent and sophisticated. In spite of being willowy and pale, he exudes certain intellectual superiority over his brawny father. Hugh's status as a runt gives him certain carte blanche privileges. Knowing that his father, who has no qualms about hitting his physically sturdy firstborn, would not stoop to applying physical force against his sickly younger son, Hugh allows himself certain insolence. Having mastered the art of passive-aggressive retaliation, he derives considerable pleasure out of pushing his father's buttons. Scot deliver his venomous lines with precise deliberation, as if sticking pins under his stage father's fingernails.

As for Hugh's romantic experience, it's not nearly as meager as he leads the world to believe. Even though he claims to have spent his adolescence "despised by the ladies", he is no stranger to the world of carnal pleasures. Having taken a few intimate lessons from his childhood acquaintance Isabel, who nurtures hopes of turning him into a true patriot, he later applies his experience to seduce a woman from a higher social class - an English born piano prodigy named Edith (played by Elizabeth Conway) who helps him gain access into the inner circle of the academic elite. A former laughing stock among his peers, Hugh becomes somewhat of a social climber. "We are the stuff of Anglo-Irish dreams", he tells his English wife. Conway's Edith is a ticking estrogen bomb - voluptuous, moody and shockingly sincere. She has no ulterior motives, no agenda. In contrast, Cahoon's Hugh is reserved and calculating.


MJN: Acting is not the only discipline you're trained in. You're also a director. Do you find yourself putting on both hats? Have you ever been in a situation where you had to switch your inner director off when you were acting?

JSC: Well, you know how it is: You're finally in rehearsal, you're practicing your jazz-squares, and you're absolutely overjoyed to be there, but if "everyone would just—" or "maybe if that light was a skosh less—" you know, whatever, "It'd make my life easier for one, and no doubt make everyone LOOK BETTER. Just sayin'." . . . We all wanna say it. But I would never allow such insolence to part my lips! Especially not in rehearsal. Backstage to friends, yeah, of course, incessantly and with needless crass. But I've learned that other people pretty much do what they're gonna do in a creative situation. I'm not allowed to mess with that. As a director, I merely tweak what the talented actors in this city bring to the table. As an actor my efforts are much better spent directing myself, trying to bring my best to a role. My favorite directors are the ones who are open to collaboration and extend an invitation to their team to contribute ideas to the madness.

MJN: In the past few months you have done some exciting projects, including a musical intended for middle-school audiences. If I understood you correctly, you played a character who was half your biological age. How did it feel to get in touch with your inner 13-year old? Did you have any concerns about looking convincing on stage?

JSC: It was definitely an adventure getting reacquainted with the absolutes of being an adolescent. In this show especially, I found the characters absolutely loved or absolutely hated everything. At that age, you're newly acquainted to all the gray-scale feelings we as adults employ to rationalize the extremes of life. So you constantly bounce around feeling awesome one second and freaking out the next. Then society, as in your peers, as in the people you have to spend all-day-everyday with, fuel the freak-out with an endless supply of gossip, judgement, expectations, and general shawn-cockery til you feel like you're gonna explode. And then you get acne...So yeah it was a blast.

MJN: You are currently building your portfolio as a voice-over artist. One of your recent gigs was to animate a cartoon character. How much additional processing and filtering did your recording require?

JSC: Well speaking of playing young characters, the last couple of cartoon characters I voiced were prepubescent little dudes. Sometimes they'll modulate my sound up a hair, but mostly it's my job to get as high as I can in my range and energy and not let my voice crack!

MJN: In the short time that you spent filming the Fenian, you appear to have bonded with other cast members. It certainly seemed like everyone was getting along splendidly (I hope I'm right). Have you ever been in a situation when things did not go so well? What does an actor do when he/she has to spend a lot of time with people whose company causes tension and discomfort?

JSC: I've been very fortunate to work almost exclusively with casts where everyone gets along, or can at least tolerate one-another. In all other cases, I count on the director or stage-manager to read the vibes between people and make corrections when something or someone is out of sync. If the said rabble-rouser is especially obnoxious I sit back, put my sequined-spats up, and take bets on how long the kid will last.

MJN: Getting back to Hugh's character, in your opinion, what do you think is more damaging to a young person's psyche: one horrifying traumatic incident such as watching a loved one die in a violent manner or ongoing low-grade abuse in the form of verbal deprecation and social rejection? I'm asking because I've seen so many successful, attractive individuals who carry around a bundle of insecurities acquired early in life.

JSC: It's difficult to say how an early experience shapes who we become. I've met some spirited and remarkably tenacious people who come from harried backgrounds. And, as you mentioned, some of these people still carry the burden of their past everywhere they go. It seems that most of our favorite heroes emerge from adversity with far more wisdom, perspective, and empathy for the human condition than the rest of us. I love the stories that delve in to the gritty, truthful junctures where suffering begets justice.

MJN: I've already seen you play a date rapist in a short film. I can see you playing a school shooter one day. Is that on your bucket list of prospective roles?

JSC: Maybe not on the first page, but perhaps written on the back in invisible ink between Mr. Hyde and WBBC Member #3. Yes, it's true, I do get my fair share of the unhinged roles. The best I can do with these opportunities is to at least bring some humanity to these characters, no matter where their sense of justice lies; to give the audience the whole picture and allow them to form their opinions from an unbiased approach to the narrative.

No comments:

Post a Comment