What an Actor Looks for in a Filmmaker

He’s most recognized for his menacing role as Ethan Rom on Lost, most respected for playing the cheated-on, threatening husband in In the Bedroom, and most pitied as an innocent victim in The Grudge.

Yes, William Mapother can play scary. But he can also play nice. Exhibit A: A charming scene in the light and touching comedy Moola, in which Mapother rides a child’s bike. The actor grew up in America’s heartland—Louisville, Kentucky, to be specific—went to Catholic school, and still hangs out with a group of 12 buddies he met in college. He collaborated with those buddies on A is for Ara, a children’s book that uses the history of Notre Dame football to teach the alphabet, which is being published this month by Edy Street Press.

Not that Mapother has to be nice, to play nice. He is an actor after all. But like any actor trading on his or her most known roles, he understands the benefit of gently reminding audiences (not to mention casting directors) to envision what’s possible, not what’s past. To do this, he seeks characters with complex and believable lives. And he’s found that independent filmmakers may be more willing to take a chance on casting an actor in an unexpected role.

The Independent’s Erin Trahan recently talked with Mapother about his take on acting school, how he picks roles, and what actors can gain from independent film projects.

What are your thoughts about studying acting or training to act? Is it something you do in school or is it a lifelong pursuit?

I studied at the Baron-Brown Studio, a terrific Meisner school in Santa Monica. It was a boon both personally and professionally. The Meisner technique teaches the actor to prepare by using his imagination to invent memories for the character. Then the actor reacts in the moment to other actors in the scene. Like most actors, I’ve cobbled together a variety of practices that help me perform. However, the Meisner training is the foundation of my acting. Its principles can be applied to any scene.

After that, I studied for five years with a voice teacher who emphasized vocal resonance and emotional vulnerability. I’ve also worked with teachers for both movement and speech. To understand the difference between voice and speech, think of an actor’s vocalization as a hose. Voice is the water’s quality and force, and speech is the nozzle. When I’m in town and my schedule permits, I will still go to the school to participate in a scene study class, which allows me to focus on what needs work at the moment.

Who have been some of your best teachers?

My best teachers have been at Baron-Brown, then my voice teacher, and from my father I learned a habit of working hard, or a belief that hard work succeeds or that a lack of hard work is failure. That obviously is broadly applicable. Any business—not just being a movie star—requires a healthy dose of resilience, patience, and stubbornness. I don’t know when I developed those traits, so I think they must have been inborn.

What personal experiences have most honed your acting skills?

Early on, I recognized the cyclical nature of each person’s career, and also learned the serendipity of the business. I’m reminded of the motto the Californian lottery used to use: “You can’t win if you don’t play.” You’re not going to succeed unless you are out there trying. That has helped me through some slow patches in my career that might have otherwise induced me to quit. In acting, the fact that, on any given day, you can be offered a role or opportunity that could change your career is both an exciting and frustrating addiction.

You’re also a writer, and you’re working on a screenplay. How is that going?

I’m writing a few different screenplays with partners. I haven’t had anything produced yet, which is a bit ironic to me, since it was my original interest in joining the industry. I tend to write comedies.

Comedies and not eerie thrillers?

Most people who know me are really surprised I play those roles. The industry wants to reduce any unknowns in the equation of making a film by doing what they know they can do. That’s the reason that stereotyping starts and can so easily gain momentum.

Do you feel like typecasting has affected your career?

Certainly people think of me for scary, creepy roles, because I have succeeded in a couple of them. Then people in the industry said to themselves, “That’s what he does.” It’s actually disappointing to me when directors are surprised in auditions that actors can take direction. When that happens, I think, “Who are all these idiots out there lowering [the standards for] those of us who can?”

I understand what you’re saying but, on the other hand, you’re so good at creepy.

Yes, but I’ve also been successful at non-creepy roles. And now I see it as my job is to be very, very selective in terms of what I take. I pass on roles that are only creepy. I have done several roles in the last few years in which I played a very likable or sympathetic character. That’s the way you slowly expand the industry’s impression of you.

What kind of non-creepy roles have you tackled recently?

I just shot The Lather Effect, an update of The Big Chill. In the movie, I play a married guy and old feelings arise between my character and an ex-girlfriend. It was fun to play a romantic role with two beautiful women. Tough job.

In your experience, are independent filmmakers as likely to typecast an actor?

Independent films will often, in interest of getting a recognizable face or name, offer a role an actor couldn’t get in a higher budget project or studio project. I’ve done that a lot, and I know a lot of actors do that. That’s one of the important reasons I love independent films: I get opportunities I wouldn’t otherwise get.

So how do you pick films? And who advises you?

I have an agent and a manager. Each day, they receive the breakdowns list, a list of all the TV and film projects that are currently casting, and lists of all the currently uncast characters. All the agents and managers in town get the list and then they fax, mail, or email their clients who fit that bill.

What would people outside that system need to know to attract you to a project?

You have to get through agents and managers—that’s one way it would work. Here’s another way: if you’re interested in a specific actor, a director can send the script to his agent. You can either offer the role or request that the actor come in for an audition. You can call the Screen Actors Guild to find out who an actor’s representatives are, but the bigger the star, the more difficult it is to get to them. Keep in mind, though, that agents have their own agenda about what they want their clients to be doing, and they may not want a client to do a low-budget indie.

When you’re reading a screenplay, what do you look for?

Well, it helps if, in the breakdown, the descriptions of the characters are accurate and interesting. But I have to say, I worked in script development before I was an actor, so I have read a lot of scripts. And there are a horrifying number of bad scripts out there. Wading through them is not just a waste of time, it’s disappointing. People fail to capitalize on a terrific idea or fail to capitalize on their own talent. It’s evident in the script, and you think to yourself, “It didn’t have to be so bad!”

What are some of the obvious red flags?

When it’s hard to believe in the world of the script, when a writer is wrenching characters into strange behavior in order to conform to some pre-conceived notion of what the story should be. Another one is when the secondary characters are more interesting than the leads. All of these things are so frustrating.

So what impresses you?

Realistic dialogue. Original characters. One other frequent problem I watch out for is this: Characters are often written one-dimensionally, as either a good character or bad character. They’re given no redeeming qualities or no unpleasant qualities. The best actors look for something positive when playing a villain. And when you are playing a hero, it actually makes a character seem more heroic to me when he overcomes some less-than-heroic qualities. The bottom line is that, if a character doesn’t have to fight anything internally, they’re less interesting.

That struggle is exactly what you and your fellow actors were able to portray in In the Bedroom. Can you talk about playing the part of Richard Strout, the estranged husband in that film? How did you bring depth and dimension to an odious character?

It’s a difficult process to articulate and, what I can articulate, I usually keep to myself, to avoid talking it away. But I’ll give it a brief go—and remember I’m speaking only for myself. A performance is a stew of the planned and the unplanned, the conscious and unconscious. So some of Richard results from intentional choices I made on how to play him, choices which I felt would create his character and help to tell the story. And some of Richard arises from me, unbidden as it were. Often this part of the character is invisible to me until I see the performance on screen, which I avoid if at all possible. Finally, I must have sympathy for the character and surrender to the moment. Without sympathy, the actor stays outside and above the character.

Can you talk about juggling TV appearances with film projects?

Each has its advantages. TV offers a very quick turnaround. There are more jobs in TV. Every show needs guest stars each week, so you can play a lot of different characters. TV shoots five or six pages a day. You get one, maybe two takes.

I personally enjoy exploring a scene more than TV typically allows. I also enjoy submerging myself into a character or a story over three months, the way a movie’s schedule allows for.

Like most actors nowadays, I don’t make the medium a priority in my decisions. Film still has more cachet, but TV usually reaches a wider audience, making the actor more visible and attractive to producers. Longevity requires adaptation, so I put as few restrictions as possible on myself and my career.

What are your most recent projects?

I made an independent this summer called Hurt. All four of the filmmakers involved graduated together from the American Film Institute. We shot the thing in four weeks, north of L.A. I play Darryl, a character who runs a junkyard, which is where he grew up. His brother dies at the beginning of the film, and Darryl has always carried a torch for his sister-in-law. She brings a foster child to live with him at this junkyard, and weird things happen.

After Hurt, I did a movie with Lionsgate, a western horror called The Burrowers. The story takes place in the Dakota Territory in the 1870s. We had an absolute ball making it. I’m from Kentucky and I’m being paid to ride horses! I got a gun, a horse, and a hat. It’s a fantastic script—one of my favorites—with a really good cast.

What specifically drew you to Hurt and Moola?

Moola attracted me because it’s a genre—comedy—that I don’t often have the opportunity to work in, and I was sold on Hurt after meeting with the director, Barbara Stepansky, and hearing her vision for the movie.

Did you you have any initial questions or reservations in taking these indie projects? If so, how did the filmmakers address your questions and win you over?

My only reservations were with Hurt. I was concerned that my character not become one-dimensional and used as a plot device. The director understood my concerns and agreed with them, and together we made changes that everyone believes improved the movie.

Were you paid?

I was paid over scale for those two, and for Lather Effect I was paid favored nations low-budget scale.

How do you stay current on and connected to developments in independently-produced film?

I read the trades, I also go to websites like indieWIRE and Film Threat. I have a number of friends who work in independent film. I do it the way a lot of people do, through personal connections.

Last question: how has the writer’s strike affected you?

A few films are shooting, but most didn’t get a green light on their scripts before the strike started, so it’s become a de facto work stoppage. I’ve been out on the picket line and doing what I can to support the writers and stay sane.

Related Links:

In a March 2001 article, The Independent explored the theme of collaboration between actors and filmmakers in an interview with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Todd Louiso.

In an April 1999 article, The Independent took a look at the changing fortunes of the once-lowly casting director.

Mapother’s children’s book, A is for Ara, is due out this month.

His film Moola is finalizing distribution plans and will be out on video in 2008. The Lather Effect will be released on video in the spring, and The Burrowers is set for theatrical release later in the year. For the latest information on the actor, go to Mapother’s personal website.

About :

Erin Trahan edits and publishes The Independent.