Robert Verlaque is a professional actor, director, teacher and writer for over 35 years with extensive credits in theatre, television and film. Recent appearances include guest starring on Blacklist:Redemption; Anne of Green Gables with Martin Sheen; and, Indignation, opposite Tracy Letts, helmed by Oscar winning director-producer James Schamus. Robert has a lead role opposite Joseph Fiennes in Disney’s 2015 release The Games Maker, guest starring roles on Jessica Jones,Boardwalk Empire, Suits. New York directing credits include Labyrinth Theatre Co., Playwrights Horizons, Ensemble Studio Theatre, Acorn Theatre Co., Circle Rep East, The Shooting Gallery, and The Actors Studio, among others. In 2012, Robert directed the premiere of John Patrick Shanley’s Jealous at the Labyrinth Theatre Co. Robert is a produced playwright and screenwriter, with plays produced in NY, San Diego and Toronto. A founding member of the award winning Articulate Theatre Company, he teaches at TSchreiber Studio, and previously at The American Academy of Dramatic Arts, Ensemble Studio Theatre Institute in New York, Equity Showcase Theatre and Centennial College in Toronto.
What is most difficult about writing?
My God. All of it. Getting out of the way. Suspending judgement, whether right or wrong, good or bad. Letting the truth come through no matter how ugly or beautiful. Letting the words gone onto the page without editing them, parsing, fudging, steering them, forcing them. On the other side of that is that joy and sense of being borne along on a breeze, like sails lifting and filling with that invisible surge propelling toward an unknown destination. Oh my, that’s a bit fluffy. But I mean when we tap into something and the thing seems to write itself, and I so enjoy the world that is creating itself that when the play is over, I feel a tremendous sense of loss, as if our job is done and we have to move on, we can’t be together anymore.
Letting feedback happen without completely devastating you, or sinking your boat, letting the constructive criticism dictate changes if necessary. Standing behind your work when not.
Watching a director or actor butcher what you wrote as they ‘interpret’ your writing, even when you are still alive. I feel bad for Shakespeare-such atrocities of ‘interpretation’ at times.
What is your philosophy of failure?
Not trying. The important thing is to just do it. Everyone has opinions. And they change over time, whether five minutes, five days, five years, five centuries. Van Gogh was a failure in his lifetime. Artemisia Gentileschi. The Great Gatsby was a bust first time out. Other great failures early on: Steve Jobs, Elizabeth Blackwell, Oprah, Walt Disney, Steven Spielberg, Milton Hershey, JK Rowling, Einstein…
What is the biggest mistake you have made as a writer?
Starting! No, I think preachiness. Being obvious, pushing a theme, forcing a story, some moral preachiness rather than just telling the story. Artifice.
What is the biggest mistake you have made as a person?
Bless me Father, for I have sinned…
It’s such a long list…
Early on, blind trust and naivetè.
Later on, arrogance and judgementalism, ego.
Now, not being rich.
What is your best failure story?
It’s such a long list…
As a writer, years ago, when I first started writing, I wrote a long character monologue for an elderly woman. I sent it to Joanne Woodward. Fortunately it was read by a reader, who sent me a polite rejection letter, informing me it was not of the sort of caliber Ms. Woodward would be interested in. I found it recently, throwing out some old files…what was I thinking…it’s dreadful! I know she never saw it because she was nice to me after that anyway!
As an actor, I had to audition for a new musical based on Alice in Wonderland, and they wanted a patter song. I studiously worked on the Major General’s song from ‘Pirates of Penzance’, worked with a coach, the whole thing. Panic swallowed me in the audition. I croaked out the words, could not keep time with the accompanist. Sweat enveloped me. They tried again, they slowed it down, they slowed it down again, we stopped so I could start breathing again..until finally, mercifully they let me go with a soft and gentle “Thank you for coming in”. I vowed never again.
Then a couple years ago I auditioned for a replacement role in “Wicked”. Twenty years later, it was deja vu all over again. Identical. And now I swear to all, never again!
As a human being, I failed Plant Physiology in college where I was in a pre-med curriculum. Got a “D-“ in Botany, a “C-“ in Organic Chemistry. Dr Giles, my advisor, with deep raccoon eyes, a slight lisp, who was terminally unable to keep his shirttail tucked in his pants over a prominent belly, advised me perhaps this wasn’t for me. I changed majors. In retrospect, I saved so many lives by NOT becoming a doctor!
Do you think all actors share the same challenges in approaching a role, or do you think there is a large variety of challenges actors encounter when taking on a part in a script or play?
It’s very different. Every actor is unique, has their own personal issues to get past to get the part done. Every script/play/movie is different based on the material, how the director and other actors work, the role, the budget, the time—it’s all very unique to that production. If anything, actors have to be flexible and resilient and able to adapt to the demands of the piece and the talent involved. Hopefully they all come together to be an environment that supports the best work. It doesn’t always happen that way, it’s glorious when it does. But the thing to remember is it’s about the work.
On stage, once the curtain goes up, the actors are in complete command of the performance: the rehearsals are done, the director is gone, the writing is complete, so that the entire performance is in the hands of the cast feeding off the energy of the audience. In film and television, the final performance is completely out of the actor’s command: it is edited, composed, paced, directed, scored, and reassembled in a computer editing program that then gets released to a movie theatre. A great editor can make a terrible actor look amazing, a lousy editor can eviscerate a brilliant actor’s performance. Frustrating, yes, which is why, in either case, it has to be about the work, and let go of the results. Not dissimilar to writing, I believe.
What advice would you give to an aspiring actor?
If there’s any other way to make a living that you can do, do that.
If however, you must, then you have to make it about the work, and growing.
Find and keep the joy of the work, because it is the only thing that will sustain you in the long run. Acting careers are like out of control roller-coaster rides, and they are never on top all the time.
Stay in it for the long haul.
Find other ways to sustain your creativity when not acting, like writing, directing, producing, teaching, filming because it will teach you and inform your acting.
Make your own work. Don’t wait for someone to tap you on the shoulder, “It’s your turn!” Write your own stuff, film your own short film…create, now.
Find, cherish and nurture three people in your life who you will trust implicitly to tell you 1)’no’; 2) your ego’s too damn big; 3) you suck. Because most people will only tell you what you want to hear, especially when you get successful.
Have a life. It will make you a better actor. And it will give you vital perspective on what’s important.
If one day you wake up and the desire is gone, walk away, don’t look back lest you turn into a pillar of salt.
How have you navigated the biz side of acting (or writing, directing)? How do you preserve the artistry of what you are doing when faced with the business side of it all and the constant rejections that are inherent in the process?
Well, we have to keep the lights on, don’t we?
To be an actor, writer, director, you have to have the heart of a baby and the skin of a rhino. It ain’t easy.
I recently spoke with a very successful director pal who was heartbroken because there was a high profile project with A-list stars attached, and he knew, not with self-pity, but with a certain clarity and sadness there was no way he would ever be considered for it—a man with several Emmy’s, nominations, awards, and high professional esteem etc.
I’ve always tried to do the best job I could on whichever role I was fortunate to be given. I have done a lot…a lot of stuff that is…shall we shall, not top shelf stuff. But I have a family to support, bills to pay. Not every role is Hamlet. It’s nice if you get to a place where that’s all you’re offered. But the reality is, we have to keep the lights on. The good news is, once you build a reputation for doing good work, the word gets out and the opportunities and material get better. But you can see even great, celebrated, award-winning stars every now and then have to do a cringe-inducing summer blockbuster because they have to keep the lights on.
I’ve been in the business for a very long time, and every time I get a role, no matter what it is, I still feel the tingle of excitement in my belly. I’ve worked alongside many names and bigshots, who in spite of their successes complain, bitch and moan. But whenever I have that script in my hands, or I walk in to the rehearsal room on the first day, or onto a set, everything falls away and I feel deep in my gut it’s where I’m supposed to be.
Rejection is part of the job. I look at it as bee-keeping: yes, you’ll get stung from time to time, and some hurt more than others, but in the long run, you end up with delicious, life-sustaining honey.
What role was the most thrilling for you to play and is there something you wrote that you are most proud of, and why?
On film, the character of Principal Possum in The Games Maker. Aside from being shot on location in fabulous Buenos Aires, it was a wonderful part, and I had a terrific director, Juan Pablo Buscarini, and great cast, including Joseph Fiennes, David Mazouz and Ed Asner. It was delicious fun.
On stage, two years ago as Cardinal Medeiros in The Road to Damascus by the brilliant Tom Dulack. Amazing nuanced part, it was my first time on stage in a long while, and it was incredibly invigorating being back in front a live audience. It was at 59E59 Theatre MainStage, told the story of the first African Pope trying to prevent a nuclear attack on Damascus to squelch terrorism. Tom was so prescient, he had to keep re-writing as we were rehearsing to keep pace with everything happening around the world. The play has even more relevance now with the nuclear insanity flying around the world. It was an exhilarating experience.
Writing: A short one-act play, titled “Giselle”. I wrote it for my only sister, who was suffering from MS. She was my reader for anything I wrote, one of the three people in my life I could trust for the unvarnished truth. I never showed it to her because the main character, based on her, dies at the end. She finally succumbed at the end of 2016. I miss her terribly.
Which actors or artists inspired you most?
Rembrandt: his gouache portrait of Portrait of An Elderly Man, I saw at the Frick when I went to see The Girl with the Pearl Earring. It was so alive, it looked like he was actually seeing me, could see the blush in his cheek, the secret merriment in his eyes. It showed me what genius is.
Michelangelo’s Pietà at the Vatican: Where you understand genius again, where you have to wonder if God does exist when you try to understand how a mortal being could fashion such an exquisite masterpiece where you would swear you can see the blood pulsing through Mary’s veins, sorrow dripping with her tears as she cradles her son’s inert body in her lap.
Classical composers, many of whom I am discovering later in life. I am in awe of how they hear those complicated moving melodies, how they orchestrate the different instruments, how do they do it? How do they hear it, and are then able to write it down so we can hear them?
The greats, yes, but recently, Connie Ellisor’s ‘Blackberry Winter’ suite. Sibelius’ ‘Finlandia’. Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ from the Enigma Variations, that feels like breath connected to a slender thread of gossamer, maybe like life itself.
Actors. There so many that inspire me all the time. But the ones who inspire me are the ones that use their fame and celebrity to help others.
Paul Newman, who transformed his name and fame into Newman’s Own, that funds his creation: The Whole in the Wall Gang, a summer camp devoted to giving children with cancer a chance to enjoy the fun of summer camp.
The Clooney Foundation, of George and Amal Clooney, funding schools for 3,000 Syrian refugee children.
Spencer Tracy and Kate Hepburn. In 1967, they agreed to be in the film on principle even before reading the script (it wasn’t written), based on director Stanley Kramer telling them the story was about an African American man asking permission the marry their white daughter. Tracy died two weeks after filming completed and was near death the whole time, Hepburn and Kramer put up their salaries as insurance because insurance companies wouldn’t bond Tracy. Six months after the film was released, the Supreme Court struck down the anti-miscegenation laws that were still on the books in 17 States.
What contribution would you most like to make/what legacy would you like to leave behind for others to follow?
That sounds pretty high-fallutin’….but I would hope that a moment in a script I’ve written or role I’ve done would touch someone in such a way, beyond all their defenses and biases and disappointments, would get under their armor for long enough to question themselves, or even perhaps, change them, or at least allow them to alter their point of view about life in a better way. And that after all, all we really have is each other, and that at the end of the day, what survives is love.