Actor, Stunt Performer, Director, Co-founder of ACT Vancouver
1. What were the first key moments in your life where you found yourself thinking, “I love acting”?
It was weird. I think I somehow always intuitively knew that it would be a part of my life, even before I officially did it. I remember the first time, I was in Junior High, and I was actually in a dance class, so I was always into performing, dancing and martial arts. I somehow just fell out of love with dance… I got caught in the hall one day by the Principal when I was supposed to be in dance class and I said, “No- ya I left dance class because I was going to come see you”. He was like, “Oh really?”. I said, “Ya, how can I switch into drama?” Because I got caught skipping, I got put into drama class and then it just kind of took off from there. I just felt really at home.
We staged a production of a play that we wrote that was putting humanity on trial. We had this really cool acting teacher, Mr. Cohen… he was always trying to get us to use drama to say something, to express ourselves as young people. And so we had this play where we put humanity on trial and I was the prosecution and I killed it. I totally condemned humanity to death. That is kind of where I found my stride and where it took off.
2. Where did you train?
Montreal Theatre Scene
After Mr. Cohen’s Junior High acting class I didn’t train for a long time. I started just doing theatre in Montreal. That was a great training ground and I was learning by doing. I knew I was still very raw. There was still a lot I didn’t understand about acting. I knew a lot of people liked watching me act and I’d get cast in shows. Montreal has a very vibrant theatre scene so you can get along doing art and not doing technically good acting. There is a lot of movement based theatre, expressive theatre and exploratory theatre and so I did a lot of that.
I started a theatre company because I wanted to do Shakespeare. I played Hamlet and found somebody to direct it. It did really well and that’s how I got into the professional theatre scene in Montreal. By starting my own company.
I took time off school and travelled. And then I came back to university and I studied religion for about a year and a half. I realized there isn’t much of a career in religion if you’re not going to be a priest or a professor. I switched into theatre and I saw a lot of parallels between religion and theatre… there’s a text and audience, a stage… I thought, “why don’t I get back into my theatre training?”
I trained at Concordia University for a little while. Even there… we were still very exploratory. I actually got an undergraduate degree for Drama and Human Development. It wasn’t a specialization in performance. It was still using drama to build community, to build theatres in the classroom and use it for educational purposes and human development. There was a lot I didn’t know, didn’t understand about the technique of acting. I was still doing pretty good. I was still getting professional gigs, but I didn’t feel 100% confident in my abilities.
I continued doing theatre and then I got into stunt work. I started working for film and T.V. with my athletics and martial arts background doing stunts. I wanted to cross over into acting in the film and T.V. world. It’s kind of a round about way into it. I started working but I was getting very limited casting. It was all action-oriented stuff. I knew I needed to retrain myself or go further.
I started auditioning for about 3 years for graduate schools in the [United] States to work towards a Masters degree in acting- it was a long process and I failed a lot. I’d travel to New York or Chicago or California and do these massive auditions and travel from school to school and visit and having some success- people would see my potential but I wasn’t there. When I met Kyra… [Co-founder of ACT Vancouver & Patrick’s wife] she had a very strong foundation in her undergraduate degree of Acting. It wasn’t until she coached me that the gates flew open and I had my choice of graduate schools to attend. I chose the University of California at Urvine. I studied there for a Masters degree specialization in Acting.
3. What brought you into the world of stunt performance?
Stage combat. All of my work in the theatre. I started being recognized as ‘that stage combat guy’ because of my martial arts background and my physicality. I would always play the sword fighting guy in the Shakespeare plays, or even if I wasn’t I would do the stage choreography. I studied stage combat, which is a formal stage fighting techniques. There is a Federation for that and I did a lot of those workshops.
In the theatre there is no difference between the actor and a stunt performer. It’s the character. If the character is a fighter then you as the actor have to fight. I looked at the film and T.V. world and thought, “well I can do that”. I was actually on the phone with Kyra one day, and… it just clicked for me at the moment that’s what I was meant to do and so I hung up and I called the union and said, “how do you become a stunt guy?” They said, “I don’t know! I guess the stunt coordinator does the hiring.”
It turned out at that time in Montreal it had been 15 years since any new stunt guys had been hired. It had been the same old guard since the beginning of the industry and no new guys were coming into it. I started my search and tried to get in front of these guys and meet these guys. I did and one guy gave me a shot. Luckily the first stunt day, they needed one of the stunt guys to fight and shoot guns and throw out some dialogue. I did that and it earned me respect in the stunt community. Right from the very beginning in my career as a stunt guy I was recognized as this stunt guy that has the skill set, but that could also perform as he’s doing stunts.
In the stunt world, the way it’s structured, you can be a lot more proactive about finding yourself work. As an actor you have to do a lot of waiting. You can put your best effort forward but it’s really up to your agent to submit you, the casting director to call you in, the director to like you, the producers to approve you, the networks to approve you. You’ve got to wait on so many people to make a decision. In the stunt world, you just train, you acquire the necessary skills, you meet the person that does the hiring and they make a decision whether they hire you or not. You can continuously upgrade your skills and put yourself out there and meet these guys and so that career kind of took off before the acting career really did.
4. You played a Spartan in the film 300, do you have tips for actors preparing for a role involving an accent?
Go For It!
Yes… on top of everything else that you have to do as an actor in terms of your research to understand the part, your personal work to be able to connect to the role, to understand the material, to understand the style of the story that you’re telling and the directors vision- to be able to suit it, and memorization. On top of all of those things, working with an accent can so easily throw you off. You hear yourself and think, “that sounds like such bullshit and if you don’t believe yourself then nobody’s going to believe you, right?”.
My number one tip for somebody working with an accent is to go all out. Go for it. You have to just throw yourself at it and it is going to sound like crap to you, but you’re not performing for you. You’re performing for someone that’s never heard you speak before. You never know what they’re going to believe or hear, so you have to trust and focus on everything else. Try the accent and just throw yourself at it and trust that it sounds believable. That’s if somebody walks in right now and said I got this role for you, do the accent right now.
On the other side of the coin, train… train. There are some very specific techniques to acquire an accent and there are a lot of paths to get there, but all of them require a lot of time and commitment because speaking is a physical activity. You have to retrain the muscles of your mouth to do what they do. It’s like when you walk, if you put your left foot forward, your right hand is going to swing forward. Then when you switch, it’s the opposite hand and leg always. It’s like all the sudden someone came and said, “well I need you to walk but when your left foot comes forward your left hand comes forward”. Now they want you to walk like this and it’s going to feel really awkward and unnatural at first. You have to just keep training at it until it feels natural because once you’re out there performing you don’t have time to think about the accent.
Be Ready to Make Adjustments
The tough thing is that you have to be so adept at working with an accent that when they come to you and ask you to make an adjustment, because often that’s what a director will do. He’ll come to you, “okay more accent, less accent, can you not roll your ‘r’ on that…” You have to be able to now adapt to the notes that are coming in.
It’s a two-fold answer: Train and spend a lot of time on it. Listen to it obsessively. Pick a technique or get a coach- someone that’s going to be an outside ear and help you get there. Then spend the time repeating it, repeating it, repeating it. Then once it’s show time go for it.
5. What inspired you to start your acting school, Vancouver Actor’s Centre for Transformation?
A couple of things. It had always been a long term goal for Kyra and I to start a school that was more than just a place to train… we wanted to have our own kind of artists community… we love working with actors and developing artists. We wanted a community centre where we could keep developing ourselves as artists and collaborate with other established artists, but also help pave the way for the next generation of artists.
…We felt that there was a need for us to offer our approach to acting, our understanding. We both taught at the highest level- at the University level in California. There’s a progression to teaching acting and there’s a technique in place for a reason…
We wanted the Actors Centre for Transformation to be a place where young artists could come and fully develop themselves as artists. To work their voice, their movement, script analysis, understanding of dramatic structure, work their ability to express themselves as a human being. Then, understand the technical aspects of the camera, film and T.V., coverage and angles, editing and all the other things that go into making a movie.
6. How have your experiences working as an actor inspired the way that you coach other actors?
A lot goes into helping an actor get to where they are going. I say this in my classes all the time: I operate in 3 capacities. Sometimes I’m teaching, sometimes I’m coaching, sometimes I’m directing. Each one of those is a very different thing.
If you’re asking specifically coaching in an audition situation- getting someone prepared for an audition or a performance, I think I’m an encourager of actors. I’m an encourager of their choices. Because I’ve had so many experiences as an actor myself, I try to learn from what works for me and then I try to provide that for the other actor. It’s not always my opinion or my take on the scene that’s going to help the actor best. As a coach, my job is to cheer them on, encourage them to live up to the choices they’ve made. Sometimes an actor will make an intellectual choice, but they’re not living it. As a coach my job is to help you get what you intend to do.
If you were in my movie and I was directing it, my job would be to encourage you to make the choices I want you to make- right? So as a coach I try to focus on what they’re doing that’s positive and encourage them to go further on that, so they neglect what they’re doing poorly or weak, so all their focus is on what they’re doing well so they go in that direction. And then I try to send them in a direction rather than bring them to a destination. I say, “Let’s see where that goes” as opposed to, “do it like this”… [which] is an end result and then you have a puppet up there, and not a living, breathing human being anymore.
I ask them questions because I find for me when I’m being coached, if I can spark my creative juices more magic happens and that’s what I try to provide for the actors that I’m coaching. Magic.
7. Can you tell me a bit about the short film you recently directed, The Letter and why it’s special to you?
The process of The Letter for me was different from any other film I’ve directed because it didn’t come from me. I didn’t write it. I didn’t produce it. It was brought to me and I was asked to be a part of it so I could bring something very specific to the project. I think what I was there to bring was my vision of what that story was, but also to make sure we had the performers in place and the right team in place and for everyone to live up to their potential. In a sense I was an encourager. From a technical side, that’s why it was special to me. It was different. I was there for a very specific thing. I wasn’t there to oversee the whole project. I say I didn’t write it- I wasn’t the creator of the story, but I did help write the final draft that we ended up shooting.
The story that was in there was probably one of the most meaningful things that I’ve gotten to work on because it speaks to a very specific community. It was very specifically grounded in the Aboriginal culture. It speaks very specifically about 1 family, but in as much as it’s extremely specific and it’s unique to those characters, it also applied universally to everyone and every family and every culture.
At the base of it, at the heart of this story, the main conflict really is alcoholism, substance abuse, is a family struggling to keep it together in the face of adversity. Alcoholism has affected so many lives and particularly in the Aboriginal community here it’s a huge issue- and yes in the Aboriginal community it’s a central issue and in our story it’s a central issue, but the same is true for other Native communities, the same is true for other cultures in other countries where they feel they have a particular propensity to alcoholism, or where alcoholism is a particularly destructive force for that culture. In as much as we recognize it as a specific Native issue, it’s a specific cultural issue for a lot of Nations, not just Native nations, but around the world.
Tackling that issue, tackling what it can do to the nuclear family, and what individuals have to do to kind of overcome the effect that it has … the road to exploring that topic is at times very personal, but also very public. It’s touched everyone… It was special in that we were telling a story that’s touched everyone in a very specific way. Anytime you can be doing something that’s more than a just a piece of entertainment, more than just a piece of literature, it’s story that might hold a mirror up to your life or make a comment on a very real issue, it’s important. We were working on something that was important.
Then what was special in the shooting of it was the family that came together to shoot it. You were a part of it and everyone that was a part of it- somehow it felt like we were all a part of a family. Everyone gave so much. It was one of the most generous casts and crews that I’ve ever worked with. The cast was unbelievable and they pulled out all the stops. Those actors went as far as they could possibly go and were willing to go further. They were constantly trying to contribute more. Everybody on the crew was so generous and trying to give as much as they could. In itself it was an incredible experience just shooting it.
8. What do you find challenging about directing and how do you overcome the challenge?
The main challenge about directing is making decisions. Everybody is there to realize your vision. Everybody is trying to crack your head open to see what’s there and present it to you. In as much as you can have a very specific vision, you can see it in your head, the challenge is to then communicate it and help people materialize it- everybody from the costume designer, to the set designer to props. Then you have to communicate to your camera operators, and then to your editor and to your sound designer and to your visual effects creator- and everything rests on your vision. It’s like waking up from a dream and then somebody says, “what did you dream?” and you’re like, “Uh… I kind of know, but I think it was a mermaid, maybe it was a car…” To you that makes sense in some way, but trying to communicate that to everybody is the main challenge.
How do you overcome it? You make sure the story is being told. You know your story as best you can and in the first few meetings with the crew and the team you make sure to communicate it in as much details as possible. You hope that their understanding of the story and their vision falls in line with yours. As you get closer to go time, you have to make a lot of concessions. Maybe you’ve never seen that colour jacket before, but if it fits into telling the story then that’s your vision now and you have to internalize that. That’s how you overcome all the obstacles- is making sure, knowing the story that you want to get out there, and then making sure the story’s getting there. If what ends up happening on that day isn’t exactly what you dreamt, then it’s okay because it was part of their dream and now you’ve inspired their vision and now you’re collaborating with them to tell the story; which is really the important thing. You’re really just a guiding force for the story.
9. What do you respect in a creative collaboration?
Collaborating with artists who understand the priority. The priority is not to win an award, is not to be thought of as cool or creative, the priority is never to be commended for your great idea. The priority in the instance of a film is to tell the story. I love collaborating with filmmakers- and when I say filmmakers it could be props, the gun wrangler, the guy painting the sets all the way to the actors- I love collaborating with people who have story at heart. If they come to me as a director, or as a fellow collaborator and say, “well I think that this is what really tells the story… it started out it was about this, but really it’s about this.” As long as they’re coming from a place where they’re trying to tell that specific story, then we’re on the same page and I’m going to love the idea. If it’s something I’d never thought of or something that’s totally out of left field- if it’s coming out of left field and I think it’s ego driven… it’s tough because that’s not falling in line with the momentum of the piece.
If someone brings me a three-headed monster and tells me they think it tells the story then… awesome! Let’s shoot that then! It’s really having everybody’s common thread being in line, everybody’s motivation being in line. In the case of a film it’s always the story.