Interview with VCU Arts Student Actor Austin Seay

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I could start with, “He was the only ginger in the class.” Or I could say he was the first person in the class whose sense of quirky humor actually resonated with me. Either way, the fact remains the same: Austin Seay of Midlothian, VA and I studied together for two semesters during my second year of college. We took Professor Ron Keller’s Introduction to Dramatic Literature, parts one and two, through Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of the Arts (a.k.a. VCU Arts), the top-rated public art school in the United States. His penchant for making people laugh definitely distinguished the burgeoning, young actor and, if all goes according to plan, he’ll make people chuckle, giggle, and guffaw for the rest of his life. Here’s what Austin has to say about himself, the stage, and being nice to people:

*Tell me a little about yourself, personally and creatively/professionally.

My name is Austin Graham Seay and I am a first-year Theatre Performance major at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of the Arts. I don’t really consider myself to be an actor quite yet, as I am still learning so much. I think everyone has a dream they hold onto until there find a nice comfortable medium they can settle in. That’s not to say that they let go of their dreams, but they find something else they are talented at. As for me, I look at the opportunity I’ve been given to go to VCU, and I’m simply still trying to make my dream come to fruition.

*What sort of characters do you most enjoy playing?

I’ll take whatever I can get (laughing). I think every character presents something new. No character is really the same. I mean, sure, they may have the same tendencies or similar problems, but the motives are never the same. For me it’s all about portraying that character’s journey as accurately as possible. If I had to pick a certain role, I’d have to say I’ll take anything I can just run and have fun with.  I really love making people laugh, and it’s a good feeling to play a character that loves to smile, only for me to walk off and maintain that smile. There is a genuine joy that comes with those roles and that’s what I love best about them.

*What sort of stories appeal to you most?

I really enjoy the stories that have moments where you are laughing so hard one scene and then can successfully bring you to tears the next. As a viewer, that emotional journey is so powerful. It also helps if the viewers have the ability to decide an ending for themselves. I feel the ability to choose is essential to the audience members’ judgment of the play. I sit in a dark theatre for two hours not because I want to see a couple people show me that they have memorized a script, but to be entertained. The shows live enjoyed the most have made me think and kept me entertained for those two hours. Those are the shows I love.

*What first got you interested in theatre?

To be honest here, I’m pretty sure it was a girl. In high school I took theatre classes because, well, I thought I was funny and wanted to spend an hour and a half every day trying to make people laugh. It wasn’t until my junior year when I got this crush that I actually started to stay after school. She invited me to come to paint the set one day, and from then on out it was history. I fell in love with doing tech work such as building and painting, and at that moment I discovered I had found my place. Eventually I built up the courage to actually audition for a show and now I find myself here at VCU.

*What are some of your favorite plays? Films? Why?

I like pretty much anything that tells a good story. I really enjoy picking out themes or story points that I can relate to in my life, but also recognize as timeless themes. The ability for a show to captivate my imagination and bring me into their world is a wonderful feeling. The first play that comes to my head is August: Osage County by Tracy Letts. I remember being in New York and seeing that show with my mother and several of my theatre friends, and at one point in the show my mom and I found each other in the audience and just shared a look on both our faces. We didn’t even have to talk after the show because we knew exactly what the other was thinking at that point in the show. It’s these parallels that help build a relationship with that show. My favorite film of all time is The Godfather. The story that it tells is amazing and it always leaves me on the edge of my seat for the next scene. I don’t specifically have any genre I love, I’m simply looking to be entertained.

*How would you describe your theatre education up until this point?

I have no community theatre experience to speak of but the years I spent with theatre in high school were phenomenal. I learned so much in that environment about being professional, responsible, and pushing myself to be the best I could be. My teachers were amazing people as I owe much of the person I am today to Mr. Gallagher and Mrs. Baugher. The way that theatre was conducted was so influential to my work ethic that I feel it really prepared me for the next step.

*What advice do you have for students interested in attending the same school as you?

Come to this school (VCU) knowing who you are and that you are willing to work hard. No one is going to blow sunshine up your butt here and give you a pat on the back every single time you perform something in class. It is a very professional atmosphere and nobody wants to hear how many shows you were in last year. The program is about hard work and building that work ethic to be a professional actor. The best advice I have to give is to simply be respectful. I feel you can get much further with a handshake and a smile than you ever will on your talent alone.

*How would you describe the theatre “scene” where you live?

I feel the Richmond theatre “scene” is quite active. It’s really awesome to live in a town that is so active and offers so many opportunities.

*What advice do you have anyone interested in trying to succeed as an actor in your city?

Audition for everything and work hard. Never put yourself in doubt because you will never get far as an actor if you constantly put yourself down.

*Who or what do you cite as major inspirations for your acting?

There were these two guys in my acting classes in high school (Remy and Roman) that I just thought were mind-blowingly good. I remember just thinking, “I want to become good like those guys.” And I worked hard to impress them but ended up doing myself a favor and realizing what I was capable of. I think a lot of my inspiration comes from my family and friends. Basically, just making up stupid jokes to tell each other and cleaver one-liners. Its the creativity that stemmed from that. For me acting is simply entertaining my family and having fun, just on a bigger scale.

*Who are some of your favorite stage and screen actors?

I’d have to say hands down Phillip Seymore Hoffman. As far as the rest of my favorites go, just off the top of my head I would say the rest would entail John C. Reily, Michael Cain, Al Pacino, Tom Hanks, Denzell Washington, and Natalie Portman to name a few. I could sit here and reel off names all day.

*What do you admire about their acting? Do you try to emulate them in any way? How so?

Phillip Seymore Hoffman has this ability to be the toughest S.O.B one minute, then have you rolling on the floor laughing the next. It’s that ability to seamlessly do anything that I admire. One thing that I really strive for is that many of my favorite actors blend in with there characters. To explain it further, the performance is good enough so that I don’t wonder what Hoffman is gonna say next, but rather what his character will say next. Does that make sense? A problem for me is when I see Tom Cruise on the screen, I’m realizing it’s Tom Cruise as [insert movie role here]. As far as emulating goes, I try to bring the audience into my world in a new way each time.

*How would you describe your acting process? Do you subscribe to any particular method(s)?

I consider myself to be a very raw actor. I don’t know much about the techniques that are out there, but that is part of the reason why I am here at VCU, to learn those techniques and become a better actor. I am in no rush to learn everything at once. I like to think that as I continue my training I’ll slowly add on bits and pieces into something that works for me. I just try and do whatever feels “right”…that and whatever doesn’t butcher the play. I feel the playwright took the time to carefully craft the script, so I should do my best to bring those words to life.

*What experience do you have in other art forms?

I sadly only have a love for other art forms. I really enjoy drawing and still do but nothing outside of my own amusement. Growing up I never played an instrument, rather I spent my days on the baseball field.

*What distinguishes theatre from other art forms?

It’s living and breathing. I can’t think of anything better than a dark room filled with people just wanting to be told a story. Theatre can take the ugliest situation in life, but make it beautiful. So much goes into it, and at the end of the day all that is separating it from an audience is an imaginary fourth wall.

*How does theatre unite different types of art and media?

I think when you look at the whole of a show you realize how many people help out. You have your actors, of course, but then there are the set designers, the scenic designers, costumers, light and sound designers, and at the end of the day, you have a culmination of everyone’s ability into this living piece of art.

*What do you consider some of the main differences between cinema and theatre?

I think the biggest difference between the two is the connection to the audience. No matter how well the scene is shot, I believe it can never match the intimacy a theatre has. With theatre, the actors don’t get another chance at the scene, their emotions have to be at the heat of the moment. I think it’s that intensity that brings the audience in to the piece in a way that is very hard to do with cinema.

*What do you consider the elements of a good stage performance? A good screen performance?

A key part to performances is believability. When I see a show I like to think I’m seeing the characters live and not just some actor spitting lines at me. Subtleties are always great because it adds an aspect of the character that is enjoyable to watch. I think it all goes back to being the character and not just playing emotions. So whether it is screen or stage, I feel that I want to watch the character, not Tom Cruise play a renegade Nazi.

  *What sort of things do you study and consider when watching a play?

I focus on blocking a lot of the time. Awkward blocking always irks me and takes me out of a moment, I know I am being picky but it is those small things that I pick up on. I also look for consistency in movements. If you are gonna make an external adjustment for a character, it doesn’t help if you forget about those changes for 2 scenes then go back to what you had. These are all just really minor things though, as I first and foremost just watch a show to be entertained. I’m not one to sit in the audience and recognize every technique the person is using, or analyze the running themes in the show. I go to a show to watch actors bring a story to life. It’s only when the stories get boring that I start to recognize the flaws.

*What sort of internships/jobs have you had that relate to your field? What advice do you have for students interested in gaining the same types of opportunities?

I have zero experience with internships. Most of my acting opportunities have come in high school and college. But just like with any show/shows you want to be a part of, always be a pleasant person. Every person you meet could potentially decide a role for you later, or in this case a job, so don’t burn bridges down. Audition for everything, it won’t hurt you and it will get your face out there.

*What are your post-graduation plans? Why did you choose them?

In an ideal situation, I’m hoping to make a move to Chicago. I love the urban feel and it doesn’t have all the fluff of Broadway and it’s not nearly as overcrowded as L.A. But of course, I am only a freshman and who knows where the road I am on is going to lead me. I have quite a ways to go before I even decide on potential cities I could make a move to.

*Where do you hope to see yourself in ten years?

Getting consistent acting jobs, maybe doing some work in film. Just the idea of me having a career in this business ten years from now is aspiring enough.

*What advice do you have for anyone interested in pursuing an acting career?

Keep at it. It is incredibly easy to get discouraged in this business and its crucial to remember that you are still good, and more than capable of performing in roles. Always, always, always, ALWAYS work hard. It may be cliché but hard work really does pay off. Once again, be nice to everyone you meet. Someone will always be better than you, but the important thing to remember is that the director might choose you because you have a reputation of being great to work with, whereas the other guy is a total jerk. Finally, don’t get wrapped up in trying to learn everything the world of acting has to offer, let it all come to you naturally and you’ll develop your own techniques for acting.

*Any last words?

“I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.” – Oscar Wilde

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