An Interview with Actor Julian G. Simmons | elizagalesinterviews
Julian G. Simmons Is an Oxford trained actor who appears in the film The Dinner.
Q: What made you interested in acting?
A: I think for some people, even without proper training, they have an innate ability to perform. I am not one of those people, I have had to learn how to do good work, and I’m still doing that, but that’s the interesting thing about our world now, we are a society that wants instant gratification. We see that some people become (or seem to become) overnight successes and we think we can have that too. I have been guilty of that myself, but most of us have to work at what we want to achieve, most certainly those of us involved in entertainment. I have always gone for the “challenge” and acting is certainly a challenge. I like to think I am pretty intelligent and insightful, but that doesn’t mean I can just walk in front of a camera and give that award-winning performance. Acting is like life, I think, more than most professions. It’s you that is out there, exposing yourself to the forces that be, to strangers, to casting directors that might not be having a great day when you walk in the room and audition for the role they have been seeing actors perform all day long. It’s about being consistent when life itself is anything but that, and making the performance you give feel authentic and also the same every time you do it. Beyond that I think what interested me in acting in the beginning was that I wanted to be someone else because I didn’t like myself all that much. And acting has been a kind of therapy for me, learning how to be comfortable in my own skin by probably doing the most extreme thing I could do and that’s putting myself in front of other people on camera. Anyway you look at it, you are being judged, no one is going to coddle you or hold your hand or say, “Oh that’s okay, you screwed up that scene.” You have to put your feet solidly on the ground and believe in what you’re doing, find yourself in that character and give a realistic performance. Even the most successful actors will tell you there is nothing consistent about doing that, that we all deal with stage fright, for example, but you can learn skills to help you through that and that’s what makes the difference between doing good work or okay work. All actors deal with their own fears, but often those fears can be transformed into something the actor can use to enhance the character they’re playing. Your fears don’t have to be your enemies. So I think it’s the challenge and to make myself a better person, to understand myself better that attracted me to acting and just the fun of playing different types of characters. Doing comedy and playing unusual characters bring me the most pleasure.
Q: What is The Dinner about?
A: The Dinner is about a man who has decided to end his life, but before he does brings together a group of people whom he met during his world travels or from past relationships to celebrate his birthday. For me the most fun was a scene near the end of the movie where we all enter a room in the celebrant’s home and on every table, every surface is a birthday cake with candles alight. The lead character gives a speech and I say something smart to him and he picks up a cake and smashes it into my face, which of course starts a cake and champagne war. I think it gave all of us actors a way to let loose that we wouldn’t normally on a film set. It was quite a mess to clean up I’m sure.
Q: You play the voice of Roman Polanski in “Haunting Charles Manson”; what did you do to prepare for the role?
A: I watched a lot of interviews Polanski gave over the years of his career to zero in on his accent, his inflections, his speaking voice. I also come from a Polish background and spoke Polish as a child. My parents were big on English being our first language, so as I grew up we spoke less and less Polish. Now I only remember very basic words, but the accent never left my mind. I still hear it very clearly. Polanski has a very specific way of speaking. He knows English very well, but the Polish accent still finds its way through in his pronunciation. I was honored to be able to be his voice, as I think he’s an outstanding filmmaker. I also share with him the fact that one side of his family is Christian and the other Jewish.
Q: Why do you think The Manson Family still interests people so?
A: I think we humans have a fascination with the morbid. This was not a family dispute or a robbery. It was an extraordinary crime and people are drawn to things that are out of the ordinary. Plus, Sharon Tate was quite beautiful and famous and whenever a beautiful famous person is killed in a particularly morose way, it draws our attention.
Q: .You went to Oxford where you studied Shakespeare and the classics; do you think people in the film industry are intimidated by your education?
A: That’s an interesting question. I actually don’t think Hollywood takes much notice of it. It may mean something in theatre circles like Broadway and off-Broadway, but Hollywood doesn’t seem to care about classical training. It’s not the current “trend.” I don’t know how many people realize the value of having Shakespearean training. Shakespeare was the master of theatre and his plays have such incredibly universal themes that are just as relevant today as when he wrote them. That’s why his works are still so popular. The other wonderful thing about Shakespeare is that the style of writing and language is different than today so it forces the actor to actually think about what he or she is saying and to also listen to what’s being said. That makes the difference between being an actor and not being an actor. The words are all we have to go by to tell us who we and the other characters are in a story. We of course need to read between the lines, but without the lines we have nothing. My current acting teacher, David Dean Bottrell, is a working actor in television, and is very big on teaching us to listen to what the other characters are saying, instead of just focusing on saying our lines. That is such a valuable lesson, as valuable as anything I learned in my Shakespeare training.
Q: What has been your greatest professional triumph?
A: I’m still working on that one, but I would say being selected to study at Oxford. I began acting professionally later in life than most. I started in the entertainment business as an assistant to Merv Griffin, then went on to work for an Italian Count, who at the time owned a small PR company, where I eventually became director of the company before starting my own PR business. I had met a lot of celebrities, many were clients, and I quickly got over being star struck. By the time I reached Oxford I was ready for a new challenge. The hardest part for me was the huge reduction to my income because I was starting over. While I was at Oxford I studied under some amazing teachers. Probably the one that impressed me most was William Gaskill, who is a British theatre director. Bill was one of the Founding Directors of the National Theatre and worked alongside Laurence Olivier. He was the artistic director of the Royal Court Theatre and also a Director at the Royal Shakespeare Company. He is a brilliant man. Mostly I studied other classic theatre under him, including Samuel Beckett’s work. I most remember working on “Endgame,” and since Beckett’s work is about absurdist theatre, you really, really have to think about what is happening otherwise you will be completely lost. Bill didn’t make it easier, but that’s the point. He made the learning process difficult, but if you could feel you came out on top of it, understanding it, that in itself is a triumph. The one other thing I have to mention even though it’s not what you might think of as a “triumph,” is this: I didn’t grow up in a wealthy household, actually probably quite the opposite. There weren’t a lot of opportunities laid out for me so I had to find those opportunities and make them my own. I went to a private high school (another story in itself) and I was able to because it had a sliding tuition, so I went to school alongside a lot of kids from wealthy families and that opened up a different world to me because I saw how money bought freedom that those without money don’t have. And I also realized that what a person like me needed more than these other kids, was a will to succeed. Willful thinking can be very powerful and actually help you accomplish your goals when the avenues for the less fortunate are narrow. And when I say ‘willful thinking’ I am talking about holding the intention in your mind’s eye, so that you hold the vision of the future you want to create. So when I was 18 I took a year off school and went and lived in Europe. I did it with very little money and picking up work here and there and eventually landed in London where I got my first modeling job. One day a British musician friend of mine asked me if I wanted to take a drive to Oxford and I jumped at the chance. It was like being asked to visit a city made of gold for me! I remember walking around the various colleges, and I stopped in front a large old wooden door, the entrance to one of the colleges, and expressed to my friend how much I would love to go to school there. Fast forward to my 40s and getting accepted into the Shakespeare program at Oxford and when I arrived at the gate to Balliol College (Oxford is made up of many colleges), I found myself at the very same gate I stood at when I was 18. It was a triumph of the sort that really is unimaginable. Something I dreamed years before, and thought unattainable, had become reality.
I would also say my ‘triumph’ is also the last piece of work I’ve done, if I feel I did a good job. I recently narrated an audiobook (“Threshold,” by Jordan L. Hawk), that was released on Audible.com at Thanksgiving. I love the author’s work, and I’m thrilled she asked me to read “Threshold.” It is the second book I have narrated for her. The stories are incredible and the characters so original they jumped off the page at me when I first read them. Finding who each of those characters are and giving each of them a voice, is to me a real accomplishment. It’s not just playing one character, but many, and that’s a real challenge.
Q: What was your biggest disappointment?
A: I would say my biggest disappointment, in retrospect, is that I didn’t start acting professionally when I was younger. When I first moved to Los Angeles from back east my then wife and I were invited to a type of gala in Beverly Hills. A woman at the party kept staring at me and finally approached me. She was an agent at one of the better-known talent agencies and asked me if I was an actor. I told her I had done some acting and had been a model, but no, I wasn’t a professional actor. She said she could get me work as an actor just on my look alone and so I signed with her. The thing is I didn’t really take it seriously and I constantly missed auditions and finally she dropped me. I can’t explain why I didn’t take it seriously other than I was not mature enough to understand the opportunity she was giving me or I just wasn’t in the right place in my life to take that on. I don’t like using the word ‘regret,” but I think I could have been much father ahead in my career. One never knows. Acting opportunities, roles, grow scarcer as one gets older. I know that’s even more true for female actors. We are a youth-oriented society that unfortunately doesn’t see the value in maturity, and that’s unfortunate because with age comes experience and wisdom. I believe a big part of how good an actor is or how deep he or she can go depends on that actor’s life experiences and what you can take from those experiences and apply to your acting craft. That’s why, when we see a young actor give a powerful performance in an emotionally demanding role, we are in awe. It’s not common for a young actor to do that unless they already have a lot of life experience to draw from.
Q: What advice would you give to an aspiring actor who is looking to secure professional representation?
A: First, as important as representation is it also shouldn’t necessarily be one on of your top goals if you’re starting out. Hollywood is so much about timing. If you are coming to Hollywood with lots of training and experience behind you, that will help, but if you are really inexperienced, be honest with yourself about what the realities are. I also would strongly suggest doing as much non-union work as you can to build up your resume before joining the union. Our union is incredibly important to us as actors, but once you join the union, you can only do union work and for a new actor starting out the opportunities aren’t plentiful, unless you want to do extra work. Build up your resume first, get copies of your screen work and put a reel together, then perhaps look for a reputable manager who can help you come up with a strategy for your next moves. And with any manager or agent, save yourself some grief and do your research first. Make sure they’re licensed with the state and that they don’t have complaints against them. And if they ever ask for money from you, run in the other direction. As far as older actors like myself, it’s obviously not impossible to start an acting career, but be sure what it is you want from making this new career move, figure out what roles you would be best at playing and find yourself a good acting class or acting coach. The Internet is an amazing thing. If you do your research you can find who is the best for you, whether that’s teaching or photography or representation.
Q: What do you like about Hollywood?
A: I remember many years ago when I first moved here I had been introduced to a lawyer for MGM who took me on a tour of the (now Sony) lot. They were shooting a scene from “Bram Soker’s Dracula,” that Francis Coppola was directing. It was the scene where Keanu Reeves is riding in a carriage through the dark woods on the way to the castle. I was blown away by the magic they created inside this soundstage. It was incredible to see the reality that could be created, another world, a fantasy world, and that’s what Hollywood is all about; making the unreal real. And that is exactly what acting is about; making a character that who before only lived on paper, into a living, breathing human being. And, not only that, we are given the opportunity to create who that person is beyond what the writer created, bringing quirks and idiosyncrasies to the character the writer hadn’t even thought of before. Acting is also a great way, and sometimes a painful way, to discover things about yourself and taking pieces of you and bringing them into a role. If you’re good at it, you really are creating magic. Hollywood is still a place where dreams come true. I also get really excited about being part of Hollywood when I see TV series like, Homeland, Family Tree, Ray Donovan, and House of Cards. The quality of those programs is exceptional.
Q: What don’t you like about it?
A: The things I don’t like about Hollywood? I am not crazy about the direction entertainment is going, but it may need to run its course before we can do anything about it. For one thing we are inundated with reality television dreck instead of quality programming. And with film, the studios today are mostly run by corporations and for the most part corporations are about profit, not about creativity. Of course we all want to prosper from what we do, but it’s also important to always remember that entertaining people is about touching them emotionally, making them laugh or cry, inspiring them or showing them the truth about something. Most of the big studios are focused on making blockbusters and today that mostly translates into superhero films aimed at the youth market, because young people are the ones who mostly go to movies. What’s getting lost in all that are the films that help us, young and old and anyone in between, learn about life. Films are very powerful things. They can teach us a lot about how we see the world, help us to cope with the problems in our lives, show us new ways of thinking, and teach us about injustice. The only time we get to see a lot of those films now is at the end of the year being considered for Academy and Guild awards. There is also very little support for independent films now, and that is where new actors, directors, and writers have historically been given their opportunity to prove what they can do. So now they, we, are trying to do this on the Internet, but there are so many web series (and not very effectively promoted) that most of the time we don’t even know they exist, let alone the Hollywood decision makers who could help you along in your career. On the good side, there are crowd funding websites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo that are trying to look after our creative people. It’s like the saying, when one door closes, another opens. Even with the things I don’t like about Hollywood, there are many more I do like. There is nothing like being in front of a camera for me and having the opportunity to create a character that no one has seen before. When I’m doing that and doing it well, I love Hollywood.
Julian G. Simmons lives in Los Angeles, where he has worked as an actor, writer and producer, and is also a voice-over artist (see Latest News).
Most recently he has been working in commercials for Samsung and several EurAsian print campaigns. He did the voice of Roman Polanski in a short feature,"Haunting Charles Manson," scheduled for Cannes. He played an eccentric composer in the feature film "Red Ice", and has played a doctor in the Discovery show, "Unusual Suspects."
Julian has played a variety of roles in TV, features and live theater, ranging from a Nazi soldier in "Star Trek: Voyager" to a priest.
"I love playing roles that by sight, people would not think of me for and then be amazed and pleased at the characters I can create," he says. "I don't look like the typical character actor, but then there is and never was anything typical about my life, or me, be that on screen or in real life."
Julian studied Shakespeare and Classics at the British American Drama Academy at Oxford University, England, and technique with Joanne Linville in Los Angeles.