Q: Lance, It all sounds so exciting. Just think we were both just mere villagers in Clovis East’s Beauty and the Beast production and now you are acting in Hollywood.
A: And you’re Editor of our hometown newspaper! Yes, exciting! I love that this is happening. I’d have been happy at any time with any editor, but that it’s you makes this experience extremely rich.
Q: What steps got you to this point? Refresh my memory, I know you went to college, though I’m blanking on where right now, did you major in theater?
A: Yes, I majored in theater at Chapman University in Orange, CA. I also got a degree in Psychology. I was in several productions while there but nothing Earth shattering. I was also in some student films. The most exciting thing I did was to appear in Chris Colfer’s movie “Struck By Lightning” where I was in the background in several scenes including throwing a paper at him and calling him a “dick” in the movie, which I ad libed. Chris and I were friends in school and we’re still friends.
Q: What steps did you take after getting your degree in moving to LA and struggling to work in retail/fast food as so many aspiring actors do? Tell me about that phase, did you survive on Top Ramen and Taco Bell? Did you have to share a tiny studio apartment with a roommate? Did you work grueling hours for food as an extra?
A: I moved to LA to make something happen. Something as in, I had no idea. I only knew nothing was going to happen in Orange. I moved to LA with friends from Chapman but it’s so expensive that just to survive there required me to work two jobs. I was able to do some acting here and there, mostly community musical theater, which I enjoyed because I did quite a lot of singing and dancing in college, too. My work schedule was grueling, working from 60 to 80 hours per week just to make ends meet. Pay for my car, pay for my student loans, pay rent. I lived with roommates all of that time but was mostly at my job. I worked for years at Jamba Juice. I had become an assistant manager but that’s only a title. It’s not like I was earning a lot of money there. But they were flexible so I could do some theater. I simply never had time to work as an extra or do much else but work to pay my bills. At that point, I’d pretty much abandoned all hopes of doing acting as a profession and was thinking that I could be a high-wage earning Server, because I like serving people. It’s basically an acting job without SAG benefits! I had to “act” nice and “act” like I enjoyed taking their crap! LOL! I was just in survival mode because I wanted to stay in Los Angeles. I didn’t want to come home to Clovis with my tail between my legs as someone who tried and failed.
All through school I had teachers who liked me a great deal but nobody really ever told me, “You have talent, kid, go for it!” Nobody besides my Mom, I mean. I’m pretty sure I was an average actor in school. If there was talent there, it was latent. I didn’t really unlock it until I had made other significant changes in my life that ended up bringing me to a more authentic self, close to who I really am. Like practicing veganism, getting into the older rock and roll and growing my hair. Like achieving what seems to me a deeper understanding of social things and, probably more than anything, just being more aware of what’s good in life and being grateful for it. Like the people in my life and the love in my life. All of those things brought me closer to my nature and my confidence increased and everything started seeming possible. It sounds trite, but it’s true: Having confidence and belief in one’s self leads to more opportunity and, if we do it right, greater success.
Q: And then when was, I guess, the “big break” that got you out of those food jobs?
A: Once deciding I was going to try to be a highly paid server at a fancy restaurant, I took a job as a host at a very chic Mexican restaurant in Eagle Rock, part of LA. Just a host mind you. That’s when I was working two jobs, 80 hours. One morning some man came in and started asking me questions such as, why are you working here?, what do you want to be doing?
It wasn’t so strange because when you work with the public in LA, people are going to hit on you. I never thought twice about it until a few days later when he returned and gave me his card and said he wanted me to work for his marketing company. I looked up his company and saw it was legit and went in for an interview. He said he was watching me work, cleaning tables, wiping down the coffee carafes and keeping myself busy “instead of just standing there doing nothing” when nobody was in the restaurant. He said that people who cared that much were rare and he was looking for caring people to work for him.
He’s one of these guys who knows everything and does everything well. He said he had watched a bunch of my short films on YouTube and said they were all terrible but one. He’s also the most honest person I’ve ever met! He said the one that was good was the one that was most hard to play and that he thought I had talent and should go into acting again. Part of the package he offered to work for his company was flexibility to pursue acting again. I took the job.
A few months later I was still being trained and adjusting to an office job when we were talking about prisons and prison reform. He showed me a video about the Actors’ Gang Prison Project that had recently been in the news. It showed this acting company – and Tim Robbins – teaching acting skills to incarcerated prisoners. The prisoners were dressed in costumes, with makeup and using their bodies in interesting ways. I was struck both as an aspiring actor AND as a psychology student. I could see that deep things were happening. It looked like rehabilitation. It looked healthy. It looked humane. And it looked fun!
That day, without telling anyone, I signed up to audition for the first round of classes. I wasn’t that aware of Tim Robbins as an actor and hadn’t seen any of his movies. He was off my radar so his being involved meant little. They required us to attend a two-hour audition to determine if we were the right fit. It was difficult and different from anything I’d done acting-wise ever. I made the audition and received a letter later inviting me to the first round of classes.
The training is very specialized and different from, say, method acting or Meisner method. It’s based on the theory that there are 4 main human states including happy, sad, afraid and angry. The company explores those states within the context of Commedia Dell’arte, a form of theater dating back to ancient Rome with characters based on several different human archetypes. Tim Robbins calls this approach “The Style”.
I studied and trained for about a year and a quarter before I was accepted in as an Associate Company Member. I was the only male and one of six who progressed that far from a number of about 50 actors and actresses who started training around the same time as me. Many of these were incredibly talented people. But the way The Gang is set up – they’ve done this for so long – there are several ways one can fall by the wayside at several junctures. Having talent and ability isn’t enough. For instance, if you’re sensitive to criticism, you’re not going to last there long. I’d say that’s the thing that undermines most people. You hear that saying, “Don’t take anything personally” and it sounds like a platitude and it IS a platitude until it becomes truth through the active practice of it. You know, the doing of it makes it true.
You can be up there bearing your soul, dancing, singing, improvising, trying to be soulful within The Style and someone, Tim or the main teacher Cynthia, will be there challenging you for more honesty, more depth, more substance. It isn’t for the feint hearted. For me, I have to constantly be aware that these people are helping me. They want you to be better. They aren’t there to make you feel good or stroke your ego, they are there to make you a better, more substantive actor and that’s it. When you do good honest work, when you push yourself, then you can feel good. The approach demands taking chances and really pushing the envelope. They have a motto that’s sort of their credo: “Fail big.” That’s what it takes. Do it big. Good or bad, do it big.
It’s funny they’re called “The Gang” because that is what they are. It demands loyalty and commitment and understanding the group over the individual. Everyone has to do their part. It’s communal creativity or cooperative creativity and caring. If someone doesn’t understand those approaches to working that closely with other people, it’s going to be hard to pull off. There’s so much vulnerability involved in acting in front of other people even though they are sort of like your family. Everyone has to work together each time there’s workshop or class or rehearsal to create and try to maintain an environment conducive to trusting and caring and being creative together. There has to be trust.
When I started out I didn’t know what it was going to require of me in terms of practicing what I call “spiritual” things in order to get through it. But that’s what it’s become. It’s all about surrender and being present and being compassionate and being vulnerable and all the things that Buddhism and Christianity talk about. Becoming a gang member has done much more than make me a better actor. It’s made me a better, more honest person.
Q: How have things progressed since that “big break” and how have you grown as an actor?
A: I don’t think I was “an actor” before Actors’ Gang. I acted and I enjoyed acting but what brought me to the cusp of the AG was my ability to be very outgoing and wanting to perform. That’s cool, but it isn’t acting in the sense that Tim Robbins or Brando or Viola Davis acts. Acting requires insight into what it means to be human in human situations, in both good and bad ways. The Style forces one to consider depth of human emotion and to understand it so that it can be successfully represented on stage. Expressed on stage. And by “successful” I mean, authentically. That’s everything.
Is someone who writes bad, cheesy poetry a poet? No. A poet is someone who brings us something new and sheds light on humanity and life, something we hadn’t considered before. And not everyone who acts is an actor. Am I an actor? Well, I practice acting. It’s a craft. And when I’m present and I’m executing The Style and I’m vulnerable and authentic, I touch on acting and I’m able to connect with something that seems outside or separate than myself. And I say that because when those moments happen for me, I find I’m learning whatever it is for the first time too.
My first really close, hands on class with Tim was a class on Commedia Dell’arte masks. It was a very special class that took my understanding of acting and creativity and everything else to a new level. It was one of those, ‘We’re not in Kansas anymore’ moments. Anyway, I was working with the Harlequino mask and I felt not bewitched but “bemasked” and I was moving my body and uttering a language and communicating in a way I never had before or since. It was this perfect moment of Harlequino-ness. I touch on that every so often, a little more as I go on.
The great actors out there – and I think we’re in the golden age of acting – they can achieve that state all the time or a lot of the time. You know, they reach up into the Ethos and bring it down and show us something astonishing or make us feel or understand something we couldn’t have ever felt or understood but by going to a play or a movie and watching someone who can really do it represent it. Viola Davis won an Academy Award for Doubt by completely blowing everyone away bringing the experience of that mother whose gay son might have been being abused by the priest.
That’s what I’m looking for when I’m on the stage. I’m looking to find that dimension and grow as a person, widen my own experience while hopefully widening the perspective of an audience. And what Tim has discovered is that The Style helps that to happen. It facilitates insight.
Maybe not so coincidentally, this way of understanding the craft of acting has worked its way into my every day consciousness. I often find myself thinking, “How should I be acting right now?” Because that’s a fair question. The world is a stage, right? So I’ve found it’s a good practice to be asking myself that question. It invites greater self-awareness and encourages me to be more present.
Q: The Actors’ Gang is awesome, so many fantastic actors have come out of that and Tim Robbins is awesome (I love The Shawshank Redemption, who doesn’t?) how does it feel to work with such talented and well-known actors? Were you ever at all star struck?
A: Well, it’s not like I’m working with John Cusack or Helen Hunt or Jack Black. They’ve moved on. But there are several actors in the company now who are incredibly talented people and who should be stars. They are stars and several of them have been on TV and been in movies. I’m star struck by them. During the last several productions, I learned what a “spellbinding” performance is. I couldn’t take my eyes off of them.
Even without the big-name alumni, Actors’ Gang is big theater in Los Angeles. They perform around the world and they’re the most courageous, most progressive company in L.A.
Because I hadn’t seen any of Tim’s movies, I wasn’t star struck the way others may have been who knew and respected his body of work. And even though I’ve seen most of his films now, he’s much more of a teacher/guru-figure to me. He’s a walking example of what I can be as a man and as an artist. Not in the sense of being rich and powerful and famous. Not in that sense. But in the sense of being brave and being courageous and striving to do “good” things and expressing something substantive and transformational.
I was pretty conservative when I was living in Clovis. Back then I understood the world differently than I do today. I once believed in the death penalty. I felt very strong about it, unshakable. And soon after starting my training in the Actors’ Gang, I watched “Dead Man Walking”. Tim wrote that movie and directed it. I couldn’t believe that movie. I’d never seen anything quite like it. Sean Penn. My God. I didn’t go into watching the movie thinking it was going to change my mind. But after the movie and in the days afterward reflecting on it, I knew my mind had changed because I felt changed. It was the sort of feeling like I had put something down that needed to be put down. It was something holding me back as a person. My relationship with humanity changed and I think it was my first foray into exploring compassion. Really high quality art can do that. It can be transformational. Good movies and good books, but movies for sure. Where else can we see the life of a killer rapist and achieve an understanding of what in life forms people’s fate? Tim likes to explore that theme and so do I.
For me I see art like Dead Man Walking or Mystic River and I don’t feel hate or judgment towards the killers and I feel more compassion than I have. I was raised in love. No fear. No violence. No verbal abuse. Nothing but love and support. Well, many people don’t have that experience. We know who they are. They’re all the angry people out there. The lonely people. The people committing crimes. The people who are addicted to drugs and alcohol. Our jails and prisons are filled with them. And we’re so harsh to judge them and want them to do 40 years in the electric chair. We hate them and resent them for not acting right according to our standards and our experience and scaring us. We expect them to be like they were raised by Mike Brady or Ozzie and Harriet Nelson and that’s not realistic.
So Actors’ Gang is an experience that is both glamorous as well as feeling like being in the trenches when it comes to their work with the prisons. And Tim is the leader, the inspiration for it all. He’s a force of nature, very passionate. I never guessed I’d be training with someone like Tim but it’s been one of life’s very nice surprises.
Q: You’ve been teaching some classes to kids too, tell me about that? Did you ever think you would be teaching others acting techniques?
A: I helped teach classes in the Actors’ Gang Kids Ensemble. Again, it is transformational and inspirational to see kids benefitting from this training. It’s the exact same training they teach us but it somehow works at the kid level, too. But at that level, you see the self-esteem building, the process of bringing kids out of their shyness, the process of convincing kids that they have something worthwhile to do and say. It’s heavy. I mean, that’s what’s done for me and it’s what is being done for the prisoners.
I get the sense that the taking away of art from schools has been an extremely not good thing. It should be mandatory and not elective and some schools don’t teach acting or music at all. It’s vital. We see kids now getting into all this strange stuff, like violent video games and depression and suicide and bullying and drugs and we wonder what we can do about it. Teach acting! Teach art. Build self-esteem by teaching leadership through creativity. That’s at least as important as teaching equations and the table of the elements. Let’s provide kids’ this guidance before we have to do it while they’re in trouble later on.
Q: How did you get involved with the Rogue Shakespeare Company?
A: I responded to a casting call for a Shakespeare-inspired verse play. I’d been wanting to explore Shakespeare so I sent my headshot and resume and made an impassioned plea for the part. I promised the director everything: That I can be deep, be funny, be insightful, and be everything he wanted. I mean, I wanted the part. So I had to prepare a verse speech like a Shakespearean soliloquy. I chose some speech from Merchant of Venice. I applied everything I learned about The Style and I landed the part of the Witch in a parody of MacBeth called “MacDeth”. It’s a great part and, like the Actors’ Gang, the writer/director Ryan Smith and his company is very progressive and his plays touch on important social themes.
Recently Ryan offered me another part in another play he’s producing later this year. So right now I’m memorizing and learning two new plays, but with really good parts. Ryan’s plays have gotten all sorts of recognition and he’s been recognized as an actor, too. So right now I’m a very happy guy.
Q: What’s next?
A: After I complete these two verse plays with Rogue Shakespeare Company, my plan is to take time off stage work and go back to focusing full time on Actors’ Gang training. The training is something I need, enough that if I’m not getting it, I don’t feel complete. AG will be putting on some great productions that I hope to work on, either acting or maybe stage-managing. I actually was Stage Manager of one of their very brilliant productions of Lysistrata.
I play bass and sing in a folk combo called “The Storytellers” and I hope to find more time to explore the bass.
Sleeping would be really great, too!
Of course, if Ryan’s plays do well – and they always have – they can end up touring the production.
After taking time off of auditioning for movie roles, I recently sent my agents new headshots of what I look like these days and instantly began getting more auditions. But because I’m not so clean-cut looking, these roles have been for troubled people and druggies and violent dudes. And that’s fine with me. I’m sort of a dirty realist like Raymond Carver. I want to explore some of the seamier areas of life and humanity.
I don’t have any expectations going forward except to keep practicing acting and trying to get better. I don’t have a need to be famous. If I just grew up within the Actors’ Gang and was doing plays there when I’m 50, I’d feel blessed and fortunate.