Todd Stashwick teaches and performs improv in ways you’ve never seen before. In Part Two he talks about his acting influences, his Victorian-inspired improvised show, The Doubtful Guests, and why he has sympathy for the Devil.
P&C: How do you find improv has helped you as an actor?
TS: A friend of mine said, “Acting is improv where you happen to be saying what the writer wrote.” And so when I’m doing a scene with somebody, even if someone gave me the lines, I’m doing all the things: I’m listening, I’m heightening, I’m exploring, I’m pretending. So the same act is in play, it just often yields a different results or the decanter is a different shape.
I’ve done projects where I’ve been told, “This is an improvised show,” like, Curb Your Enthusiasm. Well, not an improvised show like Doubtful Guests or an improvised show like Mayfly. They already decided where the scene is going; they’re just letting me write my lines.
And then they’re saying, “Say that one again,” and “Don’t say that one,” and “Now do it again.” So we’re just scripting on our feet, that’s all we’re doing, in a quote-unquote improvised show. It’s not like they grabbed a camera and just chased a story down, and then figured it out in the editing room; that’s completely improvised…like The Neutrino Project.
The act of improvising is contained within acting, and when I’m “acting” on a scripted piece, I’m improvising. You cannot do an improvised show without acting the roles that you’re playing. If I go to a 40-seat basement and do an improvised show, I’m acting.
I think there’s some people that don’t consider… “Oh I’m not an actor, I’m an improviser.” I’ve never understood that phrase, because it’s like, “Well aren’t you on stage performing a character that people are watching in a live experience?” Then how are you not?
It goes back to, I believe it’s a shame-based art form, and so I think a lot of people don’t wanna consider it real theatre or real acting, even though it is. And I think in many ways it de-legitimizes it in a serious sense. That’s why there’s a lot of spoof and sketch attached to improv, so that we can… Even though the performers – I’m tangenting right now, I apologise.
P&C: Please do…
TS: Even though the performers are deeply committed to what they’re doing and really engaged in the moment because they have to be listening like a thief to everything that their partner is saying, somehow they don’t consider it theatre, or they don’t consider it acting. It’s an “improv” show. It’s improv, apostrophe. I never understood why people de-legitimized something they spend so much time doing.
P&C: I know some people who are very good, very seasoned and very respected, who don’t like the term “actor” applied to themselves.
TS: But what are you doing? Are you saying lines that are… you’re not having a legitimate conversation; it is a pretend conversation. It’s not My Dinner With André,
You’re playing another role and you’re saying lines and you’re telling a story through a performed act. But somehow that’s not theatre. Theatre’s for, like, fuddy-duddies? It’s pretension? I dunno.
Then they twice remove it and then attach it to something like a parlour trick or a sporting event, where it’s scored and adjudicated, and competed against… It’s very confusing to me. When I say, “I don’t understand,” I legitimately don’t understand where the line started, where people stopped thinking that improvisation was theatre. Or improvisers weren’t actors. I don’t understand when that happened, or why that happened.
P&C: Who has influenced you the most as an actor? I feel like you’re going to say Bill Murray…
TS: That all depends on when you asked me. I’m a thief. I just like what people do, and so I could not say one actor. If you wanna say “influenced,” who blew the initial wind into my sails that influenced me to go into acting? Yeah, again, I wanted to be Bill Murray. So that was the first, growing up. And Star Wars and The Muppets…
Now as I get older I look at the work that guys like Daniel Day Lewis do, even Jim Carrey does, Kevin Spacey… I dunno. I continue to be astounded and amazed by actors, individual moments and performances. Idris Elba right now is blowing my socks off.
P&C: Who is that?
TS: If you saw Prometheus, he was the ship’s captain. He was Stringer Bell on The Wire…
P&C: Oh, oh, yes!
TS: He’s a force of nature. Tom Hardy… God, I don’t know, I can’t pick one. Heath Ledger. Daniel Day Lewis. Johnny Depp. But then you go, uh, Andrew Scott who’s playing Moriarty on Sherlock. Benedict Cumberbatch, who’s played Sherlock. David Tennant…
P&C: There’s so many…
TS: It also depends on the role, who I’m gonna steal from, you know?
P&C: I’m going to jump to your non-improv stuff. You have a very varied acting career; you’ve done drama, comedy… Is there a genre you prefer, or do you enjoy playing as many different roles as possible?
TS: I like working. (laughs) Again going back to that blue collar thing. I like being employed. And the diversity allows me to be employed more often, because I can go do a half-hour sitcom and then I can go kill somebody with a hammer.
TS: I came up through comedy, and then I think because I have a deep voice and dark circles around my eyes and I have theatre training, it lends itself to villainy.
Right now if you were to ask me “What do you want to do?” I wanna do an hour-long supernatural or science fiction show. That’s what I enjoy. Like if I could be Dr Who I’d be thrilled.
P&C: I could totally see you doing that.
TS: But they’ll never hire a Yank, so I’m trying to make my own version of it. But I like anything allows me to enjoy what I’m doing.
I like the cerebral gymnastics and dexterity of half-hour sitcom, because all that is just math and music, and finding where the joke lands and double-flips and stops and starts. I love doing that. But then I also love being covered in mud at 2 o’clock in the morning while my father is dying in front of me in the middle of the woods as a sociopathic hillbilly.
I don’t know, I don’t wanna pick one because then I’d miss the other one.
P&C: That was actually one of my questions. You’ve played a sociopathic hillbilly, a replicating carny, the editor of an alternative newspaper… Do you have a dream role? You probably don’t want to limit yourself, I just wondered if there was one specific role?
TS: I’m getting too old now for it, [but] the role that I would love to do and develop the script for… Well, two of them. Because I write a comic called Devil Inside where I’m the Devil, and it’s about the Devil having a crisis of conscience and going on the lam in the Southwest desert. Our joke is it’s Breaking Good.
TS: It’s that kind of show; it’d be a Breaking Bad show with a supernatural element. That is a thing that I created with Dennis Calero; [it’s his] amazing artwork. We met when he was illustrating the Heroes online comic. He’s my collaborator, he’s drawn for DC and Marvel. He’s the best.
UCP, Universal Cable Productions, has optioned it to pitch as a TV series. So that would be a dream role.
And then the other role, that I’m probably getting too old for, is George Tilyou, the guy that started Steeplechase Park in New York, Coney Island in 1897. That’d be a dream role to play.
P&C: Why that particular role?
TS: I’m fascinated with turn-of-the-century Coney Island. I’m fascinated with the people that worked very hard to… they worked very hard to create entertainment. To alter one’s experience in a whimsical way. I find those people fascinating. P.T. Barnum…
And he in particular, he fought corruption and then became corrupted, and then finds his way back. There’s a lot in his story, and I also love that era. I love Coney Island at the turn of the century. I just find that a wonderland. I’m sure it smelled awful, but in the fog of nostalgia it holds a very high place in my heart.
And then Jack Springheel, which is the Devil; just the ultimate crisis of conscience. Having the Devil not wanting to, you know… We have a line in Devil Inside where he says, “Evil isn’t a force, it’s a choice. I’m just weighing my options.”
I like that kind of conflicted… y’know, I always play villains, and villains always wind up with a bullet in their head at the end of the episode. And so I thought how do I create a character who lives with that conflict, is the ultimate villain, in a supernatural setting, but doesn’t die at the end of the episode – in fact, is the protaganist?
So that was the genesis, no pun intended, of the idea of Jack Springheel in Devil Inside. So I would like to play that in a TV series.
P&C: I was gonna say, he looks an awful lot like you, so did you have a movie planned?
TS: I would see it as a series, like an FX-type, AMC-type series where we could be poetic and beautiful, as well as brutal and dangerous. We quote Kerouac an awful lot in the series, so we wanted to have that kind of Americana road thing and then at the same time have a crow-headed demon shove his beak through someone’s face.
I love walking that line. Like Stephen Moffat, Neil Gaiman, and those guys, they’re onto something.
P&C: Devil Inside has fantastic artwork, it’s extremely tight writing, and one of the things I love about it that it has in common with Sandman and Hellblazer for me, is a sense of humour. You have the dark and then you have this very dry sort of…
TS: For me, obviously I’m a comic book kid from the late ‘80s, early ‘90s. I was weaned on Sandman, I was weaned on Hellblazer, and Alan Moore and all of those existential comic books. And Batman and Frank Miller.
And so given the chance to write a story… but it’s an American version, and it’s funny because you read Preacher and you’re like, “Oh well that’s a Brit interpreting America.” And so it’s interesting for me to go, well, here’s how I see the American Southwest.
But the lineage is there and the DNA is there. And at the same time – and I reference Moffat and Davies – there’s a Dr Who thing going on, too. So you have this extraordinary eternal guy who has a smartmouth sidekick. And he’s on the run. I’m mixing all my influences in one place.
So I think if you can wring terror and comedy out of the same second, there’s something there. And I think when you’re dealing with mythic structures like Biblical characters and you’re reducing them into human shapes, and limiting them to human language, the jokes write themselves.
And then you have a character like Sophie who the safest person in the universe that she trusts is the Devil. And to me there’s something so wonderful about that, and the idea that, Hell, if the Devil can seek redemption – self-redemption – then we all can. Then anyone can.
Because I don’t believe this idea that “the Devil made you do it,” and I state this overtly in the strip. That he doesn’t make anybody do anything. Everybody makes a choice.
He can make it harder. I would say it’s like throwing the drunk his car keys. He can cloud your judgement, but still there’s a voice in your head that says, “Maybe I should give my keys to my sober buddy.” Or you go, “Screw it, I’m getting in the car and I’m gonna wreck it.”
I still have that choice because it’s all about choice. People choose to behave poorly to each other; they choose to behave kind to each other. And on a daily basis, a moment-to-moment basis, we have to make that choice: to make the world better or worse. In a microscopic and a macroscopic way.
I think by reducing the idea of evil and the Devil into a man who’s also making choices… the humour I think is what makes him relatable. So if I can relate to this mythic character of the Devil, then maybe I can tell my story and people will be willing to go along for the ride.
P&C: There’s a thread of the macabre that runs through a lot of your work. What is it about that sort of goth/steampunk/Victorian aesthetic or history that appeals to you?
TS: I don’t know. For me, I think it’s… I was very blessed. I grew up with very little darkness. Much like Tim Burton. Not saying I’m Tim Burton, but he grew up in Burbank. And so I grew up in a lovely quaint suburb of Chicago, riding my bike… There was not a lot of darkness in my life.
So because I’m a person and duality exists… I was never a goth kid. But I’ve always been tickled by dark whimsy. Like Something Wicked This Way Comes. Circuses. It always felt forbidden. And I think through literature, through film and whatnot, it was a safe way for me to explore a darker side of life.
I certainly am not a violent person; I’m a vegetarian. I’m not morose, I’m not depressed. I was the kid who listened to The Cure, but I wasn’t mopey, I’ve always been optimistic and uncynical. But I’ve gotta be honest that I have canines; we were built for ripping flesh so that has to come out somewhere. And for me it comes out playing violent video games and it comes out loving zombie movies and exploring the darkness of steampunk and Doubtful Guests.
I like that dark whimsy; Edward Gorey, Stephen King. I like the salty and the sweet.
And I think when you get to macabre, it is salty and the sweet. There’s something circuslike and playful, and at the same time it’s like It: like the clown has sharp teeth.And I think there’s something really fun about that, because it’s provocative, literally meaning “to provoke.”
I love being scared. I love that jump-out-of-your-seat stuff. I love a really good, scary horror film.
I think horror and comedy are the two things that provoke each other. Comedy elicits a response immediately, and horror elicits a response immediately. And if you talk about macabre things, like The Joker… Going back to Doubtful Guests, if I can elicit horror and comedy at the same second, well then I’m hitting you on two angles.
And those are the two biggest, most involuntary reactions as an audience: a scream or a laugh. And so I’m fascinated by both of those. I like to do both of those. I seek out things that will make me laugh hard, and things that will make me terrified.
P&C: So you do The Doubtful Guests once a year?
TS: We bring it out around October. It’s a Hallowe’en show. [It’s me and] Sabrina and Ezra Weisz, and Jason Ades.
P&C: So the inspiration for that was everything you’ve been talking about?
TS: Well, going back to what I was saying about Burn Manhattan, I had seen a show called Shockheaded Peter with a band called The Tiger Lilies. It was puppets and macabre; it was German children’s stories set to the music of The Tiger Lilies, done in this Victorian-macabre fashion. So I just said, “I wanna do an improvised show like that. How can I improvise that? What kind of stories would I tell? What would the show look like?” Bring some production value to our improvised piece. And then I pitched it to three other people and they were on board as well, and that was kind of the genesis of it, was taking that Moulin Rouge-y, turn-of-the-century thing… So that was the impetus for The Doubtful Guests.
I had come from New York having done Burn Manhattan which was really high tech: we had video, electronica, guys in black suits. And then I said, “Well, what if I went low tech? What would happen, what would it look like?”
Well, first, “What would an improvised show look like at the turn of the century?” So it limited all of our references to, nothing can be post-1888. And then what kind of storytelling that does lend itself to, and what kind of costumery and music and what does a band have to sound like, and that.
P&C: You still do Mayfly?
TS: Yep, got another one on the 7th.
P&C: Can you tell readers a little bit about it, for people who aren’t familiar with it?
TS: The genesis of Mayfly was, I had gone to an improv festival in Chicago with Doubtful Guests and some of my old Burn Manhattan cohorts were there from New York as well, and we all got onstage and played together. And everybody just sort of got the form. And so people that had never met were able to jump into this deep, physical, absurd thing.
When I got back to Los Angeles I thought, If it works and if people are willing to go along for the ride, why don’t we just throw together new people to do an improvised show with an improvised band? And it’s called Mayfly because it just lives for that 24 hours. That group will never be reassembled, and it’ll be dead, and then we’ll get another group of six people to play together.
So it’s basically the Burn Manhattan/Beast format, but with people who’ve never performed together, and never done this. We do it at Bang once a month. We get a band together, and then the show goes for an hour without suggestions and it ends when we say it’s over.
The idea was, I wanted it to feel like you’re in a pub in Ireland and everyone’s drinking, and then suddenly people just sort of stand up and grabs instruments and jam together, and when they’re done they just go back to drinking. They sit back down in the crowd at the different tables that they came from. Just this sort of pub-punk-improvised jam.
P&C: Is there anything else you’d like to mention before we go?
TS: We’re selling a printed copy of Chapter One of Devil Inside. It’ll go on sale after Comic-Con, July 11. We’ll make those available online. That’s exciting because we’ve assembled the first year’s worth of strips into one book.
P&C: I am a paper person. I think a lot of people will love that. Well, thank you so much for your time, Todd.
TS: Nice chatting with you again.
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