Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Miles Away from Ancestors - it takes a Cossack to play a Fenian - interview with actor Graham Miles

He was born to wear fake blood on his forehead. The moment I saw his head shot, I knew I found my Celtic titan, my Fenian martyr, my sacrificial lamb whose young life would end abruptly on the altar of the Irish Republic. I really cannot say I have a complicated casting story. (Thank God for Backstage!) Having reviewed about ten profiles, I did not need to look any further. I've seen those eyes, that bone structure and the hairline in my dreams. The impeccably delivered audition confirmed my initial impression. I had my Dylan Malone, the main character's firstborn, a physically developed though psychologically juvenile youth, as determined to win his father's approval as he is to indulge his own carnal impulses. Handsome and agile, Dylan does not want for attention from the fair sex. More than that, his efforts to protect his sickly and awkward younger brother make him all the more attractive.  Like most of his 20-something peers, Dylan is interested in girls, drink and cars. Yet it's not domestic bliss or even professional success that his father is grooming him for - it's ideological martyrdom.  Dylan is in no danger of devolving into a bureaucratic rat or a bored family man, not as long as his adored Daddy is whispering the words of the Fenian prayer into his ear. "Call to thine aid, oh most liberty loving O'Toole ..."

With the precise mixture of intensity, tenderness and naivety, Graham Miles suits the role perfectly. Behind the clean, terse Anglo-Saxon sounding name you will find a feverish Slavic soul. That's right. The strapping 6'2" Canadian traces his roots to Ukraine. I imagine, Graham's ancestors had more syllables in their family name. To me, it was a pleasant discovery, as I harbor an affinity for the Celto-Slavic connection. It's no secret that in recent decades Ireland has been a home to many adventurers of Eastern European extraction. The link goes farther back in history.  Though geographically apart, Celts and Slavs used to share territory several thousand years ago, the grassy steppes of what is now Southern Russia.  There are certain things that Cossacks and Fenians have in common, including their fondness for grain alcohol and high pain threshold.

Today Graham joins us to talk about his artistic adventures in New York. 

MJN: How did you end up in the New School for Drama?  I believe you mentioned that you had a free ride to Yale?  What made you choose the New School?  Was it the NYC location?

GM: I actually have to correct this question. I was never offered a free ride to Yale, although they were my first choice for grad school. My only choice at first, if I'm going to be perfectly honest. So in February of 2013 I flew down to San Fransisco to do my Yale audition, but naturally I had put myself under a lot of pressure to do well, and I came out of it feeling like I tried a little too hard--I got in my own way, so to speak. Any actor reading this will probably know what I'm talking about.

Anyway, I had this post-audition sense that I hadn't quite done my best work, and to have come all that way to do anything less than my best felt truly unacceptable. But then I noticed that a lot of other schools were also holding auditions in the same building that day, and so I decided I was going to make the most of the time I had left before my flight home. I started knocking on doors and asking if anybody would see me at the last minute, and I think because I didn't have time to over-prepare or worry myself to death about how well I was going to do, I did much better in my auditions for those schools, because they all called me back to offer me positions. In particular, though, I remember that I was able to relax most in my audition for The New School, and feeling like I had that kind of permission to be myself was a major factor in choosing them, because I think it's crucial for actors to feel comfortable in their own skin before they can hope to feel comfortable in someone else's.

Of course, I haven't always felt that comfortable since I actually started the program, especially because New York can be a pretty overwhelming place--and actually, if I'd known what I was in for to begin with, I might have thought twice about coming. But I also think a big part of my training has been about rediscovering the sense of relaxation I found in my initial audition, and learning how to tap into it at will. My feeling is that if I can manage to do that here, I'll be able to do it anywhere, so in that sense cutting my teeth in this city has been a major advantage. And if the biggest lesson I learn while earning this degree is how to stay grounded and do my best work even in the midst of total chaos, then I will consider my time here a success.

MJN: You are currently pursuing an MFA in acting.  I know many actors who stopped at BFA.  What kind of edge/insight does an MFA provide?
GM: That's debatable, actually. I think there are good reasons to pursue this level of training, and then there are not-so-good reasons. I get the impression that for some people it's just about networking, or giving themselves more time before they enter an industry that, deep-down, they might not feel quite ready to jump into yet. And those are both valid reasons, but I don't think either of them should be the main reason to do something like this, because the truth is that this kind of education costs way too much time and energy for anyone to be here unless they really feel like they have something to learn. For me, that's largely been about learning to trust myself and my instincts, and developing a process of my own for working on roles, which I think has made me a much more consistent actor. But on the other hand, I also don't think anyone should be getting a graduate-level degree unless they're willing and able to think critically about what they're learning, because we're going to be qualified to teach at a post-secondary level when we finish this program, and I like to think that those of us who do will be bringing new ideas to the table that help grow the art form, instead of just parroting the lessons we've learned to the next generation. The bottom line, I guess, is that you get out what you put in. So I would offer a serious warning to anyone who thinks that simply going through the motions of getting an MFA is going to give their career an automatic boost.

MJN: You have a very versatile look.  Your physique and bone structure make for a very convenient palette.  Do you notice any pattern with being typecast? Are there any comparisons or casting decisions that annoy you?
GM: The short answer (which, admittedly, is not my specialty) is "no". I don't tend to get typecast a lot, but I think that's also because I make a point of going after a wide variety of roles. I don't want to wind up doing one thing over and over again throughout the next 5 years, just to have my career grind to a halt when my body changes and I can't play those parts anymore.

MJN: I noticed on your resume that you've actually played the title role in Titus Andronicus.  I'm delighted that this play, originally deemed "apocryphal" by hardcore Shakespearean scholars, is making a comeback. It's so over the top.  The title character is manipulative and violent. Which parts of your psyche did you have to tap into in order to play Titus convincingly?  I'm asking because I only know you as Dylan, and to me you'll always be Dylan, the gorgeous lamb. But some reviewers have commented on your alpha-male confidence.
GM: Some reviewers are being overly kind, I think. Almost nobody who knows me in real life would ever call me an "alpha". I certainly wouldn't. Then again, I feel like no true "alpha" (if such a thing exists) would ever refer to themselves that way, because to seek that kind of label would make them very dependent on the validation of others, which strikes me as being totally at odds with what an "alpha" is supposed to be. So who knows? At any rate, if I am one, I'm blissfully unaware of it and that's how I want to stay.

Maybe that's something I have in common with Titus, who refuses the throne of Rome even though the people elect him Emperor. He doesn't enjoy power for its own sake. He's somebody who is willing to use force for the values that he believes in--which to me is very different from being naturally manipulative and violent. What makes him a tragic character in my mind is that when those values fail to protect him and the people he loves, he has nothing left to guide him except revenge, and that's when he turns into something much darker. Which of course is horrifying, but it's also something we can understand--I think we've all been in situations where a loss of faith or trust has temporarily destabilized us and made it hard to recognize ourselves. The biggest differences in this case are simply the specific circumstances he's in and the scope of the consequences.
That's one reason that I try to get away from labels. I feel like we all have much more in common with each other than we're willing to admit sometimes, and when we call somebody an "alpha" or a "beta" or we say they happen to be a certain way ("violent" or "manipulative" or whatever), we give ourselves permission to stop trying to look past the label we've assigned them in order to see what really makes them tick, which lots of people don't want to do anyway because they're afraid of recognizing something. And that's not a pattern I want to get into as an actor, because I think finding a character's complexities and incongruities is the only way for me to present them as a flesh-and-blood human being instead of a stereotype.

This is very important to me, because audiences who see real people in difficult situations develop empathy, whereas audiences who know exactly how they're supposed to feel about everyone on stage because the characters have been simplified and spoon-fed to them actually become comfortable with making snap-judgments, and are then less willing to give each other the benefit of the doubt in real life. And the last thing I want is to be responsible for making people more judgmental than they already are. So I try my best to approach every character I play by looking at what we have in common, rather than deciding that they have certain qualities and then trying to project those.

MJN: Interestingly, I don't see a pattern of romantic leads on your resume.  Is it that you don't pursue those roles, or you simply choose not to list them on your resume?
GM: This comes back to a couple of things I've touched on earlier. First of all, I don't want to get stuck playing those parts because I won't be able to play them forever, and so I make a point of going after other roles--character roles, villains, clowns, etc. I also think those parts grow me more as a person, because they force me to consider life in ways I might not have otherwise, and I think that expands my capacity to empathize with other people, which is good for me as an artist but also (I hope) as a person. And finally, I think that this has a tendency to make me a little less interested in romantic leads, unless they are extremely well-written, because so many of them just seem to reinforce the idea that there is a very narrow spectrum of human behavior that is desirable or even acceptable, and that's not an attitude I want to help cultivate at all. So I mostly steer clear of those parts unless they're complicated enough to make audiences think twice about some of those assumptions.

1 comment:

  1. What an awesome interview! So full of drive, character and best of all, humor! Well done, both of you!