The Mask, the Body and the Mirror:
Interview with Actor Michael Riley
Here is a long version of the interview I did with actor Michael Riley – who currently plays Dr Tom in Being Erica. Because of the ephemeral nature of thought and speech it’s difficult to capture an actor’s spirit via letters on a page. It’d be good if someone could act out the part of Michael as effectively as Michael acts out the parts of others. Anyhoo, here’s Mr Riley’s thoughts on his acting career and on - well - life, the universe and everything, really.
BK: How much do you add to your character’s mannerisms and how much of it is written into the script? I was watching PowerPlay recently and the way you play Brett Parker is humourous. You really encapsulate his arrogance down to the minutiae of how he holds his shoulders. But you make him really funny to watch. Was that your interpretation of the character?
MR: I think all that was down to the writing. It was written in the script that he was one of those characters who was blind to who he was, you know. I always have to know way more about a character than a character knows about herself. Brett didn’t know he was funny – like Ricky Gervais’ character in The Office. He’s no idea he’s pathetically and hysterically funny to watch – it’s all written into the character. All the ingredients are from the cookbook. If it’s good writing it enables you to really understand what the character is about and you play them the best you can. I’ve never really added my own ingredients if it’s a good recipe.
I’m a very physical actor. My first instinct is to find the centre of gravity for a character whether it’s from the inside out or the outside in – I use both. I always thought of Brett as a shark; if he stopped moving he would die. Brett used to move all over the room. We used to laugh on set when I played Brett as I was very kinetic with my movements. The focus puller said I stumped him as Brett because he never stayed in the place he was supposed to be standing and he couldn’t tell where he was going to go next. The focus puller then had to learn to get into the same rhythm as Brett Parker in order to know where to focus. And I find this element of collaboration to be the beauty of the medium. All of these varied artists from all of these varied disciplines, having to somehow come together and discover the “rhythm”of the piece as an ensemble.
BK: I really like the film To Catch a Killer as it’s intense but kind of understated.
MR: I was actually too young to play that part but I learnt a lot from working on it. I had just moved to LA as I had reached a threshold in Canada after Perfectly Normal. I told them I was too young for the part but then the actor who was cast dropped out just four days before filming, so I took it. The only way I could do it though was to meet the Detective himself. I got to spend time with Joe Kosenzak who brought down John Wayne Gacy, the serial killer. I had breakfast, lunch and dinner with the detective for four days whilst I took notes and recorded him on a dictaphone. I wanted to find out how he experienced every minute of the case, like what he felt when he visited Gacey’s house for the first time. It was great, although watching it now, I look about twelve but with a moustache. There’s something about emotional weight which comes with age and I would have liked to have played it with that emotional weight as an older actor.
BK: I like the way the detective you play is a bit of a dweeby character that doesn’t care what the other more macho detectives think of him because he’s earnest and totally focused on his work. He’s a character who can’t be defined in three words.
MR: Yeah, you see it in series television with characters where there’s ‘the doctor’ or ‘the cop’. It’s so like there’s this universal ‘male’. I find it impervious – the tough cop thing. When you meet real people they are never like that – 8 by 10, square jaw men with the stethoscope. There is always a human vulnerability which goes beyond their job description. When I met Joe even though he was larger than life for his achievement of bringing down this notorious serial killer, you would have passed him in the room and not noticed. And he was formidable but not in the way you’d imagine. You can never pin anyone down or describe them in three words. People are like fractals. The deeper into them you peer, the more infinitely complex they become. It’s like they say that “great film acting is an endless series of tiny surprises” . I like that description. When I see Daniel Day Lewis or Anthony Hopkins play a character in a film I like it because they are always a mass of contradictions and you can’t tell what they are going to do next. Ultimately the reason I go to see a Daniel Day Lewis film is because I know that I will not be seeing Daniel Day Lewis. That’s his job.
BK: Is there anything you wouldn’t do as an actor?
MR: I won’t do material I don’t believe in. It has to say something interesting about the human condition – however pretentious that sounds (laughs) but it’s true.
BK: How about stunts? And method acting?
MR: Yes, I do my own stunts, insurance permitting. Method acting is often misinterpreted and presumed to be about cosmetics, like losing weight for a role – I bet Christian Bale rolls his eyes every time someone asks him about that. Method is really a means to an end for an actor. I like the approach as it was originated by Stanislavski and his work with Chekhov at the Moscow Art Theatre where he described method as his “quest for theatrical truth.” There’s no one method or way. When you begin work on a role, you’re always standing at the bottom of a proverbial mountain. I enjoy looking up that mountain and thinking – oh my god, how am I going to do this? So for To Catch a Killer it was meeting Joe Kozenzak. There’s always the nature versus nurture issue to examine as well. The method is to go back to examine all those things which make that particular human being the living printout of who he is. A character is the sum total of every single experience that he has metabolized since the first day of his life. Characters are like a never ending hallway of doors because people are always that complicated. Using this as a kind of mission statement for myself, I use whatever “method” is necessary to make me feel confident enough to play that character believably.
I think we learn more about ourselves through how people respond to us than we imagine. When I played Dody in Pale Saints – a character who had brain damage, I visited hospitals and spoke to brain damaged patients and specialists. I also took the character out to see how people would respond to Dody so that I could get a subjective feeling of the filter through which Dody saw and digested the world. Daniel Day Lewis did that for My Left Foot and he stayed in character even when he was off set for the duration of the filming.
Finding the “engine” that makes the person who they are will be predicated on the motor. You allow the guy in, and then the guy starts to tell the actor what needs to happen. I can’t predict how a character will turn out. You put on a mask and look at yourself in the mirror. And suddenly the mask begins telling the body what to do. When you try on someone else’s physicality you are essentially trying on their centre of gravity.
BK: What pressures do you feel to keep up appearances as an actor both in terms of physicality and public appearances? In the UK we have a problem with the paparazzi. They try to snap celebrities stealing ice-cream from the supermarket!
MR: That’s two questions! So, the first question, as an actor the sensibility that I’ve been steeped in at theatre school (unlike the American way of looking at the work) is that you must begin with a blank slate as it were. There is a general distinction in America where there are character actors and there are personality actors. But I was indoctrinated at theatre school to see clearly that every actor is a character actor, because every role that I will ever play is a character. A completely unique, never to be repeated creation in and of himself. It’s not you; it’s going to be someone completely unique. I’ve always made sure in my career that I play a variety of different parts and the farther someone is away from me or the character I just played, the more I gravitate towards that. When I went to LA, for example, I put a demo tape together of eight different characters I had played. After the company had viewed it, my manager rang me to say that they had asked him why he had given him a tape of eight of his different clients. My manager said, “no that’s not a bunch of my clients; that’s all Michael Riley.” Of course, as I was hearing this feedback I was thinking “Great. Mission accomplished”. But the punch line was that they didn’t want to see me because they didn’t know what to do with me. They wanted in their minds to be able to put me in a box. To delineate me as the actor who does this kind of role. They want to be able to build a whole machine around an actor in LA. I kind of put my foot down and decided for myself that what I really wanted from my career was to play a wide variety of characters – and that’s what I’ve done. To return to the question, as soon as I finished playing Dr Tom I shaved off my goatee and grew my hair. You can tell if I’m unemployed because of the length of my beard (laughs). I don’t go to the barbers and ask for a particular haircut because I always let the make-up people decide depending on what the look of the next character is going to be. For better or for worse, my art form has owned my appearance all of my professional life.
The other thing – about being recognised in public and stealing ice-cream and stuff (laughs) – I think that whether you’re stealing ice-cream or not, if you want to be seen you’ll be seen. I think you give off the pheromones of whatever you choose to project. If you want to disappear in a crowded room you can. Or you can go into a crowd and make it be known that you’re out there and that is a choice you make. My favourite actors are the ones where you never see any pictures of them. I don’t know what Meryl Streep’s children look like and I don’t know where Daniel Day Lewis shops and I don’t care because that’s so much not a part of what they do as actors. In fact I would say that the more the public knows about an actor, the more difficult it becomes to “pull off the magic trick”. I don’t think the paparazzi exists to the same extent as it is in America. There aren’t people sitting in cars outside bars waiting for you to leave like there is in LA. In Canada, I see the paparazzi where I would expect to see them at big events. I don’t think I’ve ever had my picture snapped unaware. People in the pub come up to me and say hello or they recognise me but they’re not sure whether it’s from high school or whatever. I was once out with my daughter having a meal and she said, “Dad, I think that couple over there have clocked you.” The couple waited until we had finished our dinner and then the woman came over and said: “My husband thinks he knows you from prison!” I look different on different things so people are often not sure from where they recognise me. I think people feel they can talk to you because they’ve seen you in their living rooms.
BK: I suppose if you act on the screen, in a way you’re signing up to that, which leads me to my next question. Do you prefer acting on the small screen, large screen or at the theatre?
MR: I’ve done all three and I think that in the end they’re essentially the same. If I have a character I’m really excited to play and the script is really cohesive and well written then there’s an occasion to rise to. I don’t care what size screen it’s on or whether it’s on a stage between eight and ten o’clock - the preparing for and the playing of that character moment to moment is the same regardless of the medium. The preparation and the playing are always going to pass through the filter of that particular medium, but in the end the actual acting process is identical. In the end it’s about clarity of thought.
BK: To what extent do you inspire and comprise the characters you play and to what extent do they inspire and comprise you?
MR: That’s a great question. The latter – they comprise and inspire me. It goes back to what the relationship is between the actor and the character. Here’s an analogy I was given in first year theatre school by a teacher who is no longer alive but he was very instrumental in delivery. So it was a sexual analogy – he would say that the text is the male and the actor is the female. Meaning that the text must be allowed to penetrate the actor. So the actor must be receptive to the text. Then the world of the story is allowed to gestate for a time, and then eventually give birth to the character. This as opposed to me “doing things” to the script in an attempt to bring it into a zone which I am comfortable with. The question should always be “what does this part do to me?” Not what can I do to it. It’s an essential difference.
BK: If you weren’t in Being Erica, would you watch it?
MR: Yes, even though it could be described as a show which is aimed at women, it is much less predictable than that, with a broad demographic. I like the therapy and the time travel aspects of it which make it unusual and interesting.
BK: Do you think there should be more programmes – like Being Erica – which tackle the circumstances of thirty-something lifestyles in the 21st c? Most programmes are aimed at teens or twenty-somethings or middle aged people with families. I ask this as a thirty-something woman who hasn’t subscribed to the expectations of ‘must have a marriage/kids/career by this age in order to be happy.’ I liked the fact that at the end of season two Erica had lost both her boyfriend and her job but when Dr Tom asks her how she feels she replies that she feels strangely OK, reassured in herself.
MR: I liked that episode too and that’s what makes it different as a show. It considers things on a more philosophical level. Yes, I think it’s important to write about the challenges which face thirty-somethings but also to address whether fulfilling society’s expectations actually makes a person happy. There are people who appear to have perfect lifestyles: the big house, white picket fence, marriage, kids, but actually they don’t feel happy or fulfilled. Part of this is about wanting things but those things never living up to your expectations. You really want a big, fast car; you get it and you’re happy for a week and then it wears off and you have to strive for something else. That want, that lack, cannot be filled with material goods and part of the problem is in the wanting itself.
BK: Like Buddhists believe that desire causes suffering which needs to be extinguished?
MR: Yes, Buddhism addresses this - and other philosophies, including non-dualism.
BK: So how do you think we can extinguish our desires?
MR: I don’t think we need to extinguish them. Perhaps just to turn around and ask ourselves, “who is it that desires”?
BK: How do you prepare for playing Dr Tom? For example, did you find it necessary to research into psychotherapy?
MR: Psychotherapy is absolutely something which really interests me but that is perhaps a whole conversation of its own.
BK: What are your opinions on the trend for individuals (particularly in the USA) to depend on therapy in order to make themselves ‘better’?
MR: Psychotherapy is valuable but, again, it’s such a complex topic it would be hard to do it justice without a full discussion – the kind I’d have over a bottle of wine!
BK: Season 3 of Being Erica has a group therapy set-up. How do the characters know what is going on in each other’s lives? Is there a big screen or crystal ball in that group therapy room which replays their recent turns of events? Sometimes they all enter the room in the middle of the night in their pyjamas but they seem to automatically know why they are there. How – when they’ve just been asleep?! And do you think Sinyor will resolve these incongruities if there is a season 4?
MR: This was discussed with various directors on the show. It was decided that just before the characters enter the room they see a few seconds flash of what has just happened to the character in question. This may not have been included in the final cut.
It also seems necessary to explore all the group therapy patients’ lives to the same extent. We realise that Dr Tom has been through the same process with all those patients, not just Erica. These loose ends may be addressed if there is a season 4. Also, the group therapy set-up had other aspects to it; it enabled Erica to get close to Adam.
BK: To what extent do you think it is necessary to suspend disbelief in order to enjoy the show? For example, exactly how much of Erica’s life can Dr Tom see and wouldn’t this bother her?
MR: With all fiction, whatever the type, it is absolutely essential to suspend disbelief so that you can get into the story.
The issue of Dr Tom seeing a lot of Erica’s life was addressed in one particular episode where she mentioned that she had shared a lot of personal experiences with him. From the beginning there always had to be trust between them and the trust was apparent, and it grew, so she knew he would not misuse the information.
BK: I’ve come across stuff on the internet written by Being Erica fans and there’s fanfic around Erica and Dr Tom’s relationship. A regular theme – also acknowledged in interview by Jana Sinyor – is the idea that Erica and Dr Tom are romantically inclined. What are your opinions on this?
MR: Jana Sinyor, Erin Kapluk and myself have seen some of these comments on fan sites and we were tickled and intrigued that people view Dr Tom’s and Erica’s relationship in this way. However, there is definitely nothing romantic there. It is more a father/daughter kind of relationship, if anything. They do care about each other though. The relationship between them is very deep and very complex. And because of this, the chemistry between them can often become misconstrued. I have always taken it as a compliment of the truth and dimensionality of the relationship.
BK: Do you think Dr Tom will find romance and/or happiness outside of his work? And do you think it is necessary that we see more of Dr Tom’s everyday life (e.g. his abode), considering he is the second character to the protagonist?
MR: I liked the episode in season 3 where Dr Arthur suggested that Dr Tom try to redress his life outside of work, to go travelling or find a woman. It has emerged that he is probably celibate and also that he has allowed his work with his patients to take over and maybe that could change. To some extent I think he likes his level of engagement with work and that he is quite happy to sit on those inner city benches alone at night time, just thinking about things.
BK: How do you get out of character after you’ve finished for the day? Do a character’s particular, nuanced mannerisms rub off on you? Do you get home from acting Dr Tom for twelve hours and someone asks you if you want a cup of tea and you furrow your brow and give a little quotation about Confucius and the art of tea making and then think...hang on a minute, that’s Dr Tom, I’m back to being Michael now?!
MR: It’s an occupational hazard with any job. You have to take that transition to unwind, but, no, I can definitely have my tea and cookie without doing Dr Tom. However, I haven’t played Dr Tom for a couple of months now so I do have to get into the metabolism of the character. If I did him tomorrow I would be acting him. Some actors can be on set and do a credible job after they’ve just been talking about hockey. For me, I can’t do that. I need to put the blinders on. I use the metaphor of having your car in idle all day but not gunning it until that scene is being acted.
Part of the job description is steeping into a territory emotionally. You have to go there, but you have to know your system well enough. Music is good for me. I have a playlist for each character which I might play in the car on the way to work. It’s about concentration and getting out of the way to give yourself unto it.
BK: Is there some of the character’s resonance left behind?
MR: I’m left with a kind of empathy. Michael has an empathy for Tom - and I have a daughter - so I can easily relate to him. And you mentioned Brett Parker - I can still feel him in there somewhere. Resonance is a great word. The chord keeps vibrating and the chord next to it resonates too. You can’t fake plucking that chord; you have to go and feel that feeling inside you in order for it to work in the character. I aim to find that universal emotion which the character is experiencing. I’m going to be the reason why that character has a life but I’m lending myself to disbelief. To witness the conduit. When you play a fictional character you feel like you’re giving them permission to be. Is it any less real than your own life? It’s hard to say. You give those voices voice. You give the characters the best choice. Too often we stop when there’s always more to find in a character. I say to my students - why stop? Like when using google earth – when honing in on a character, why stop the search a mile above Texas, when the actual character you are searching for is in reality far below? In El Paso, in a particular bar, sitting on a particular stool, drinking a particular scotch, and thinking particular thoughts about his particular life circumstance. As actors I think we tend to hover high above and settle for a general overview instead of diving down and finding him where he lives.
BK: Some fans and a few of my friends asked me to ask you what your own regrets are and how you deal with them? I’d also like to ask whether you think there is such a thing as regret? The concept implies that we have clear cut choices to make when, in reality, life is just a series of moments which impact upon each other. When we think we’re making a decision, aren’t we really just dealing with a given set of circumstances the best way we can at that point in time? Also, would there be any point – in real life - in changing our decisions because we can’t be sure of the ultimate outcome? You could regret making the decision to take a job in a different city, but perhaps if you had, the train would have crashed, for instance.
MR: Yes, I’m on a similar line of thinking with regret. A re-gret happens now. There is only this moment. Right now – re-gretting. You did exactly what you did because that was the only possible response to the given circumstance. You had no choice in that moment anymore than the big bang did.
Even bad things I did in 1978 I’d probably do again because I had no choice. There are moments I’m proud of and not so proud of: a scrapbook but – Do I regret them? - no. And some of the most painful moments in my life have affected me the most positively. Our memories are fantasies and completely revisionist. Every time you look at that scrapbook it doesn’t exist how you remember it. It didn’t even exist at the time like you were imagining it did… I don’t believe we have freewill or choice. It’s an illusion. I read a brain study which said that you become conscious of a decision up to six seconds after your brain has already made the choice backstage as it were. The actual decision happens six seconds up stream. And its only a thought added after the fact that says, “ I did that”. I’ve been really interested in all this stuff – science and non duality. Vedanta, and other Eastern religions and even what the Christian mystics were pointing to. There is only reality. Just This. However this happens to be showing up. The Tao Te Ching says “whatever you can say about the Tao is not the true Tao”. And the science part of it is that what the physicists are learning about the nature of reality, the Eastern mystics and philosophers have been saying for centuries. What I’ve always liked about science is that it is in essence a kind of self-correcting religion. Asking all the same existential questions but never getting mired by it’s own dogmatic frames of reference. I go to a conference which tries to merge the world of science and spirit. Philosophy is one of my hobbies. Also, I’m fascinated with the brain. Apparently, we can only take in a billionth of the stimuli of any given experience. Which is already quite alarming if you think about it. We are only ever privy to a tiny little bit of the bandwidth available. But the truly alarming thing is, that the billionth that we do take in, is the billionth that we choose to take in…and the billionth that we choose, is the billionth that agrees with the picture of the way we have already decided the world is. It’s a question I can ask of any character I play also. What is his existing picture of the world? And what therefore is the billionth that he is choosing to take out of every moment in order to perpetuate the way he sees himself?
BK: What do you think about the way Being Erica represents: race / religion / gender / sexuality?
MR: It is a credit to the show that it represents broad aspects of racial, religious and sexual diversity and I’m proud to be a part of that.
BK: A fan on the Dr Tom twitter page would like to know which character you are most like out of Dr Tom (Being Erica), Chris Blaine (Chasing Rainbows) or Brett Parker (Powerplay)?
MR: Well, none of the above, I think. To be truthful, the hardest character would be to play myself. I think everyone has a bit of those characters like Brett Parker in them. We carry around different parts. I don’t think I’ve played anyone close to me and even if you think so at first, the gap always opens. There is lots to explore in those spaces. The danger is for the actor to say –“I’ll kind of make it me then”. I play me every day.
BK: Another fan would like to know if you have any pets. Also, what are your opinions on animal rights?
MR: I have a cat and she’s called Harmony (at this point Michael smiled a gooey smile). I believe in animal rights and I enjoy working with them on set, also.
BK: What happened to Erica’s cat? It was mentioned in season 1, episode 1, then never again.
MR: Oh yes, I forgot about that, that’s right, I don’t know. Whatever did happen to that cat?
BK: Lastly, do you think Being Erica has a message?
MR: I always think that Being Erica isn’t about being Erica. It is about being.
Regardless of whether you can or can’t take the Dr Tom out of Michael or the Michael out of Dr Tom, it’s clear that the actor is a rich source of multifarious perceptivity and receptivity, both on and off the stage.
The cast of Being Erica are waiting to hear if season 4 will be renewed. Michael is currently teaching as an actor in residence at the Norman Jewison school at the Canada Film Centre in Toronto.
Image source- video screen shot: e4.com
- ▼ February (3)