We got to sit down with Soulpepper’s Mike Ross about his performance in the now playing Death of A Salesman.
September 11th 2012
Interview by: Ryan Quinn
RQ: So, how has it been working on a remount of a previous production of Death of a Salesman?
MR: Well, I wasn’t in the first cast, I suppose that’s the nature of the question. I knew how little rehearsal time we had, and I like to work off-book, as much as I can anyway, from the beginning, you know, to each his own, but I find that if I’m trying to remember lines while trying to play acting beats at the same time, I find that very difficult. So, in any situation, I try to really know my lines. In this one, I kind of knew that in order to get the whole “family” vibe going and find the flow of the thing, that I needed to hit the ground running. So, I had learned my lines before we started. That made a big big difference as far as being able to slot into an energy that already existed.
The other thing is that I did the sound and composition on the original production. When you do that, you watch the play over and over again. You watch rehearsal, then you watch tech, and then previews, and so I knew not only this play but this production intimately from having done that, and that gave me a huge advantage as far as knowing how the machine of it worked, what kind of emotional drive and landing marks and anchors that the director was after. I mean, I was in the room while he was giving notes, and so I kind of knew what the goal of it was for the most part, and then it just became a matter of making it mine. Figuring out in a very short amount of time what it is to play this character in my world. Tim Campbell [the previous Happy] is a terrific actor, he’s an amazing actor, a terrific guy, but we’re different. If I tried to do what Tim Campbell did, I don’t think that’s true, and so I think that’s why I was so vigilant about knowing my lines so that it was that kind of stuff I could concentrate on. Figuring it out for me right away. If I spent too much time with the mechanics of it all, I was going to run out of time.
I’m still working it out, I mean, I’m talking to you and we just had our first preview last night. It went pretty well but I’m still working it out, you know. I’m going through everything that happened last night. it’s such an informing thing, having an audience there. It’s amazing how many times you do it and then the secondthat audience is in the room, suddenly, you’re thinking of things you’ve never thought of before. I know that directors are the same: “Oh, that doesn’t work!” or “That works way better than I thought”, or whatever. It’s not even necessarily their reaction, it’s not because they’re laughing or whatever, it’s just seeing things through a different eye, and you can’t get that experience until there’s a true audience there, it’s so funny how informing that is.
RQ: Everything gets filtered through the audience’s energy a bit…
MR: Yeah, and they’re sensing that, and it’s a whole new thing, right? Comedies are a bit scarier on first audience nights because you really are seeing whether or not it’s funny and that’s a scary thing. A play like this, though, there are funny moments but it’s okay to keep it really onstage with your acting partner and whatever happens out in the audience happens. You open yourself up to that, but you can hang in with just your guy or your family and that’s okay. Sometimes you have to rely on this stuff out here as part of the conversation, but with this you can keep it onstage as if it were a tech dress. I mean, you are inviting the audience in and that’s okay too.
RQ: So, do you want to tell me a bit about Happy and how he fits into the Loman family dynamic?
MR: Happy is…you could write a book. Willy Loman is trying to teach his sons a certain way of life, and that that way of life will lead them to success, and that in turn will give him value. One of his sons could just never fall in line with that, he tried and tried and tried (that’s Biff), and it’s led him nowhere. His other son, Happy, who I’m playing, has always bought into this philosophy, and will live his life by it. He has actually had success from living the way Willy has taught him to live. He’s had success with women, he’s had success with jobs. He’s not going to be rich, but he’s making a go of it. But, there is something missing from his life that he may not even realize was missing in the first place. I think he’s an idealist, I think Happy is happy. He’s a positive person. He’s like a dog, in a sense, he’s happiest when everybody is together, and everybody is okay. When that starts to fracture, he snaps into action. He doesn’t get sad about it, he starts to try to affect everything around him in a positive, happy way.
He hits a wall, as everybody does in this play. I mean, that’s what this play is about is the breakdown of that familial relationship. I mean, that’s the amazing thing about this play is that everybody has such a clear thrust of what they want and how they’re going to get it. You see these forces all coming at each other and yet nobody is able to get to the solution. Nobody is able to find the release point where somebody understands them, or somebody empathizes with them, or lets them go, or whatever it is that needs to happen. Willy is the one who, in the end, makes a big decision to try to fix things. There’s a gesture at the end of this production which I doubt has ever been in any other production that speaks very largely to what has happened to the idea of success in America. Where it was when this play was written and where it is today are very similar.
Happy has fallen victim to the disease of being liked. Willy says over and over again, “be liked, that’s the key, you’ve gotta be liked”. All of us, actors especially, that’s a quest. That’s what a lot of us in the business are looking for, and that’s a dangerous thing, right? Are you working as a service? Are you an actor because it’s a service to an art, or are you working because you want to be liked? Most of the time, like it or not, the answer is because you want to be liked. That’s the thing that we all have to keep in check. All the time. I think Happy is someone who has fallen victim to that disease and will never get out of it.
So, he is carrying on the philosophy and the spirit of Willy Loman, and it’s that passing-down of this idea of what it means to be successful, what it means to become successful, how to become successful. The passing-down of that from generation to generation is a giant problem that there doesn’t seem to be a solution to until something tragic happens. Then, that’s the one thing that makes people, maybe for a second, think differently about something. But, it’s so ingrained not just in America, but in the Canadian psyche as well and today I believe it’s the same. It was the same then, it’s the same now. There is an idea of what success is that has been built into the way we all live and that may not be right. Biff is saying “I want to be outside with my shirt off where I can see the sky and I want to work hard. That’s what makes me happy but I can’t commit to that because there’s this other thing in my life that I was taught and it’s pulling me away from that all the time.” He’s constantly got this back-and-forth thing going on. We all have that.
If there were no outside influences, what would make us happy? It may not be the thing that we’re all aiming toward right now, and that’s a huge issue to address, and Arthur Miller found a way to do it. It’s the same with The Crucible, the McCarthy hearings, he found a way to address that huge issue, which is so much larger even than communism. He found a way to encapsulate that in a world that makes you think about the big picture, and that’s what he’s done with Death of a Salesman. When I feel like I have my ego in check, which is not all the time, I feel proud to be in a Miller play, because I feel like it is a service. I feel like it’s something that makes people think about their lives. The better we do it, and the more convincingly, the bigger effect it has on people. It might actually make somebody go home and pick up the phone and call their dad. Or, it might make someone stop and say “I’m going to stop striving for that second flatscreen TV in the bedroom and just be happy with what I have”.
RQ: Right, the drive to be more successful than your father. The American dream.
MR: Yeah, yeah. And you always have to keep upping that. That’s your unspoken responsibility, and if you’re not doing that, you’re not succeeding. If you’re not succeeding, you’re not happy. So, it’s the definition of success for me, you know, what is that to you? It’s like that question: if you didn’t know how old you were, what age would you say you were? If you were never taught what success was by the world, by your parents, what would make you happy? It might be planting a garden, you know? Or, who knows, maybe it would be working in an office.
RQ: It’s weird that that barometer of how successful you are is in completely the wrong place because that barometer is set by people who have already achieved that kind of economic success.
MR: And that has given them “happiness”. And maybe it’s real happiness, I’m not saying it’s not. But that’s what they believe. And that’s the thing, is that people aren’t duping each other, people aren’t saying “I know what real happiness is, but I’m going to tell you it’s this”, they believe it. “My happiness I have is because of this thing over here that I have, or that people say I have, and I fully believe that’s what gives people happiness, and so I’m passing that on to you now”. There’s no fault here. That’s why it’s such a big issue. It’s a big problem that Miller is trying to address. And, all these new age thinkers like Eckhart Tolle, you know, they’re all trying to get at it, which is such a difficult thing. It’s one thing to talk about it intellectually like we are, but when you really get down to a family it’s a lot harder. Even me, (laughs) I mean, maybe acting isn’t what makes me happy. It feels like it does. It’s best when I feel like I’m in service, but maybe there will come a time and I’ll think “you know, I need to go teach” or “I need to find a way to go be charitable and that’s what makes me happy”.
RQ: And there’s a process to becoming attuned to that, and to be receptive.
MR: That’s right! You have to clear that stuff away until finally the truth makes its way in. A lot of people never ever get to that point. Maybe I won’t. Maybe I’m there. It’s hard to know. And that’s what these plays do, they make you talk about these things. Whether or not you get anywhere, it’s about opening up that consciousness so that you might. Then it’s a year and a half from now, and something changes, but that was the first little piece of that. That’s why I think theatre is so importance, because our world is getting so individual with iPads, and iPhones, and believe me, I’ve got them all. But, you spend this time being engrossed or being entertained by yourself. But, you come to the theatre, and while it may not be like watching television, you are having a communal experience with other people. I think that’s a large part of what church has always been as well. I’m not saying going to church is like going to the theatre, but it’s community. You go, you’re with people that live in the community you do, you see them, you may not know them, but you’re there with them. Then you experience something together. That is something that I think the soul needs. That’s why ever since the beginning of whenever, there’s always been a sort of group thing that happens, whether it’s religion or cult or whatever. There is a part of the human spirit that needs the communal experience. The more we get into these electronic devices, and frankly, the way people are tending to just be more insular, the more there is a need for theatre.
RQ: We’re losing touch with nature and losing touch with ourselves at the same time.
MR: For sure. I think so. That’s why theatre may be hurting in some ways sometimes, but in the end it’s always going to be there. People will need that in their lives. It may even need to go away to the point where someone recognizes that the communal experience is something you need on a weekly basis or a monthly basis. You may not think you need it, but then you go there and you feel like you’ve experienced something with other people. If you can experience a great play with other people, I think you’re really nourishing yourself.
RQ: So, speaking of The Crucible, you were in four shows this year at Soulpepper. High Life, You Can’t Take it With You, The Crucible, and Death of a Salesman.
MR: And Alligator Pie coming up as well. It’s just been announced. We’re developing it and creating it, and it starts at the end of October.
RQ: So how has it been juggling all of these shows, all with quite different tones. I mean, the first two were comedies, I’m not sure about Alligator Pie.
MR: It’s more a creation piece of multiple disciplines.
RQ: So, completely different genres, completely different modes of working, completely different characters, how’s that been?
MR: It’s been really great. I’m very lucky that I get to try all of these things out and dive into them, and I’ve had great directors along the way: Stuart Hughes, Joseph Ziegler, and two with Albert Schultz. I’m very lucky. It’s been a challenge, though, even physically. In High Life I play a younger guy, and I had for the first time in my life a kind of…Justin Timberlake-esque haircut. It was kind of buzzed right down to nothing and I had never looked like that before so I had this kind of badass thing going on that I had never had. I still didn’t look particularly badass, but as much as I can look, you know.
Then, boom, as soon as we opened that I had to get right into building a character around this guy living in New York in the forties who played a xylophone and sold candy for a living. A totally different temperature of guy.
The Crucible was very interesting because the character I play in that has to have a story and a presence but doesn’t have a lot to say. It was an exercise in listening onstage, an exercise in being as economic as you can with as little. Joseph Ziegler says this all the time: “There is no fat anywhere in these plays. Miller backs everything up.” So, if you’ve got a beat, a one-line part in a Miller play, it’s a lot more than a one-line part in a lot of other plays. It’s a piece of the puzzle that he feels is necessary. So, attention must be paid. That was a great exercise in figuring out how to make my stake. There are twenty-four people in the show, so I had to figure out how I best fit into all that and make sure that it’s given its due.
And now, Happy, he’s been a great challenge. Not a lot of time to rehearse, but everybody in the cast was super warm and welcoming and supportive. That’s the beauty of a company like this, I’m not walking into a room with a bunch of strangers. I’ve known these people for years now, so they know what I’m going through. I can get frustrated and I don’t have to feel like I need to hide all this stuff. People know what my tendencies are as an actor and they can sort of get at that right away and stop bad habits. It’s a good thing. So, yeah, four different parts, but all of it very rewarding.
RQ: Lastly, just for kicks, what’s one role you’ve never gotten the chance to play, but you’d love to?
MR: You know, it’s funny. Biff. Biff Loman. I came from a music background, so I don’t know a lot of roles. I just don’t know them. I haven’t seen a lot of plays. I mean, there are some, Hamlet, the big Shakespeare parts, Macbeth I’d love to play. So I don’t know a lot. But I did know the Loman brothers and Death of a Salesman and Biff was the guy I wanted to play. Then they programmed it at Soulpepper and I thought “Maybe I’ll have the chance to play Biff Loman”. It’s so funny how things turn out, they went with the wonderful Ari Cohen, who is brilliant in the part, and then they do a remount, and Campbell’s not available, and so I got a chance to be Happy. And now that I’ve done it, I’m absolutely better cast as Happy than Biff. So, I guess my response to that is that I don’t think I necessarily know what’s best for me. The roles that I get that I’m surprised by, I find are often the most rewarding and satisfying. The ones I get that I really went after aren’t necessarily that. Sometimes they are but I’m getting to a point where I’m just happy to leave it in someone else’s hands and just let the chips fall where they may. I swear that all the roles I’ve gotten that surprised me were great experiences, so that’s where I’m at. I’m starting to get away from wanting to play certain parts. It’s the same with Long Day’s Journey Into Night. I’ve always wanted to play Edmund in that. They cast Gregory Prest, he’s amazing in it, so it’s kind of liberating to let that go.
RQ: Well, congratulations, and break a leg tonight.
MR: Thank you!