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Paul Lewis Interview

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Tell us a bit about your acting background? Where did it all begin?

My family moved from the North Shore to Waimauku back in 1987 when I was seventeen and, responding to a newspaper advertisement, I auditioned that same year for Waimauku Village Theatre’s production of Move Over Mrs Markham. I was very very green insofar as having any performing experience, having only previously been cast in a high school production, so in addition to the disadvantage of looking very young for my age, I had no idea what the play was about because I didn’t think to read it, nor did I know anything about the playwright, Alan Ayckbourn. So I was rather ill-equipped to handle the role I read for, that of a world weary and flamboyant gay man. I had lived a rather sheltered life up until that point – aside from being so naive as to be oblivious to the sexual inclinations of my schoolmates, I don’t think that I had even had a conversation with a gay man at that stage in my life, as my parents didn’t move in very wide social circles. So I had no real frame of reference for what I should do with the role, other than my recollections of the gay characters that I’d seen onscreen, most of whom were unfortunately caricatures, so I’m afraid that I postured and lisped my way through the reading of the script rather ineffectually – and badly. It was no surprise that I didn’t get the part. So I was a bit discouraged by that failure and put any further notions of acting aside. A year later I was called by Terry Barry, who was going to be directing Footrot Flats the Musical for WVT, and he asked if I’d pop along and audition for the role of ‘Dog’ as they were having a hard time finding someone to play the part. The reason he had phoned me out of the blue was that his wife, Prin, had been there at my failed audition the year before and she recommended he get me to read for ‘Dog’. At the time I was a massive Footrots Flats fan, had in fact been inspired to teach myself cartooning at a very young age by studying the art of cartoonists like Murray Ball, and had reached the point where I had even earned a bit of money from a few commissions here and there, which in turn led me to start entertaining the idea of becoming a professional arrest. So it was from the standpoint of being a fan of the source material that I immediately said yes to auditioning – but I had no idea, really, what I was learning myself in for when I went along. Apart from a little bit of chorus work in the high school show, my experience of singing was almost nil and here I was auditioning for the lead in a musical. So when I was taken through ‘Dog’s songs, all of which were written for a tenor, I had no clue as to vocal technique and I not only struggled to grasp the fundamentals of the mechanics of singing, but also how to produce a performance through song. It was incredibly intimidating and frustrating. But Terry, a professional opera singer, was patient and kind, and ended up taking a leap of faith by casting me as ‘Dog’ and it all worked out in the end. That role represented a very difficult learning curve for me, but I was amongst incredibly supportive people who became great friends, and it was the best thing I could have done to get started as a budding actor. And once the acting bug really took hold, that was it – goodbye to all thoughts of being an artist. You couldn’t stop me singing. After a while I stopped sounding like, in the words of Billy Connolly, a “goose farting in the fog”, and four years later I earned my first paycheck as a professional performer in the chorus of The Flying Dutchman for Opera New Zealand.

Did you always want to be an actor growing up?

I did, but I was terribly shy as a child and despite waning to learn to act, sing and dance, I kept those desires to myself and never told my parents. So I never did much more than take part in class readings of plays – I was so enthusiastic about it that I always learnt my lines off by heart, even though I didn’t have to. And I was so shy and backwards as I grew into a teenager that at Rangitoto College my drama teacher, Mr Stevens, ended up casting me in the school’s production of Bugsy Malone in my sixth form year, even though I didn’t audition. Even though I was taking drama as a subject and loving it, the thought of auditioning terrified the bejesus out of me and I never went along. He ended up casting me based upon what he’d seen me do in class, entrusting me with nine small roles. I even had a hand in designing and painting the set and props. He bawled me out a couple of times during rehearsals when he felt that I wasn’t up to snuff, but Mr Stevens was a wonderful teacher – as well as being a terrific actor – and instrumental in influencing me to go down the road to becoming an actor myself.

What do you enjoy the most about acting?

The freedom to play and explore.

What is the most challenging thing about acting?

Trusting myself to produce a performance that is honest and grounded in truth, that comes from who I am rather than playing it safe and phoning it in.

Can you tell us some of the highlights of your career to date?

Playing Titus Andronicus in a reduced down, all-male version called, appropriately enough, TITUS, that was successfully revived at Q Loft a year after its sell-out run during our Shakespeare season in our third year at Unitec. How did you get your role in Someone to Carry Me? What process or steps did you have to go through? I was contacted via Facebook and asked to audition by Samuel, but I can’t quite remember the reason why he knew my work! I think we had collaborated on a project a couple of years prior and he subsequently thought of me when casting the role of Derek, so I went in and read for him and Terry. To be honest, I tried to talk them out of casting me at the audition. I felt I was wrong for the part, that I was too lightweight and lacking in the necessary gravitas. And even later, after they offered me the role, I still tried to convince them that they had the wrong guy! But they stuck to their guns and told me to stop arguing and take the role. I’m glad they did. I had a lot of fun in the part.

Tell us a bit about your character in the film?

He’s a father who wants the best for his son, but also for his son to become what he himself is so that he can take over the family business. He will stop at nothing to ensure that happens, to the point of getting his way through violence. Like all such characters, the trick was not to play him as evil, but justified in his actions and intentions; he feels justified in his means of producing the results that he wants, to do what’s best for his son, himself and his family. Ultimately he’s a very selfish man. He isn’t a very nice guy at all and that was satisfying to play – baddies are the best roles!

What are some of the current projects you are working on?

I finished a national tour of the musical The Buddy Holly Story earlier this year and followed that by taking part in a development workshop for an original play, Not Psycho, by director Benjamin Henson for his theatre company, Fractious Tash (the company behind TITUS), although ultimately I didn’t end up being cast as they went in a completely different direction for the character – Donogh Rees is now playing the role. Next up is another tour, in Roger and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, in which I’m playing Stewpot. I’ve been returning to my musical theatre roots of late.

Do you have a dream role?

Too many to mention, but while we’re on the subject of musical theatre, I’d love to tackle Sweeney Todd. Who is your favourite actor and director? Gary Oldman comes to mind, especially in his earlier roles, and he’s so chameleonic. But I think that Daniel Day-Lewis is probably the most influential on me. He is a tremendous actor, unique in many respects in just how far he will go to craft a role. Some might say that he goes too far. He’s a dangerous actor, completely and utterly inhabiting a part and it must be incredibly intimidating working opposite him – there is a story, possibly apocryphal, that Paul Dano ended up playing two roles, that of twins, in There Will Be Blood, after the actor who had been cast to play what was originally his non-twin brother was so terrified at the thought of having to work with Day-Lewis that he quit. I also love that he doesn’t give a shit what anyone thinks and will take years off acting to go do something as disparate as learn to be a cobbler. To have even 1% of his talent would make me happy. Although I have admiration for many different directors – Fincher, Soderbergh, Herzog – Steven Spielberg is the one who informed my childhood and teenage cinema experiences, simply because he was making movies that produced a pure sense of wonder and excitement. Regardless of whether he is an artist, or just a showman who knows how to manipulate audiences (he does tend to throw out logic for the sake of creating a “moment”, such as the shark in Jaws not spitting out the scuba tank and the reappearance of the T-Rex at the end of Jurassic Park), right from the beginning of his career, he has shown a complete understanding of what cinema is capable of, hence the eclectic range of his oeuvre – it’s no coincidence that three of his most popular movies are in my top ten: Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., with Jaws being my favourite movie of all time.

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