The Life Advice Guide: Insights For Young Adults From Stars of Business and Beyond
Interview number six with Kelly AuCoin.
Justin Higgins: “Hi Kelly, could you tell me a little bit about your background, from the early days up through your recent work on Showtime’s ‘Billions’, Netflix’s ‘House of Cards’ and FX’s ‘The Americans’?”
Kelly AuCoin: “Hi Justin, there were various elements of performance everywhere while I was growing up. My Mom was a singer and my Grandpa played the mandolin. My dad Les was in politics and served as a Member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Oregon.
When I was a kid, my sister and I were always involved in whatever chorus they had at the various schools we attended. For whatever reason, all the plays the kids could do were cast out of those groups. I was one of only a few guys who sang, so I was always guaranteed a role. If only it still worked that way!
The first big role I got was Old King Cole in ‘The Trial of Mother Goose’. I was leading the denizens of fairy tale land in a lawsuit against Mother Goose for defamation of character. The play was written by the chorus leader. I remember the first time I made the audience laugh. I completely didn’t expect it. I think I did some ad lib or made some facial expression that the audience liked. At that moment I realized that acting was pretty cool and ever since then I have been hooked on performing. After that, everywhere I went to grade school and high school I would audition for and perform in plays.
After high school, I attended Oberlin College. I had a great college experience. I was a history major and also took philosophy classes, English classes, and any experimental courses I could take. Oberlin College was a small enough school where you could take all the acting classes you wanted and perform in any play that you were cast for. You didn’t have to be an acting major.
Following college, I wanted to be a professional actor. I decided to make my home base in Washington, D.C. and then I drove around the country in my Volkswagen Bus handing out resumes to different theatres. Eventually, I ran out of money in Portland, Oregon, which luckily was my home town. Instead of asking my parents for gas money to get me and my Volkswagen back to Washington, D.C., I got a job working in the recycling end of a steel mill. I worked there for a month over the summer making the cash I needed to drive back home. During that same month, I found some local audition notices for some plays in Portland and got a gig. The play was going to start in December. Once I had enough money, I drove back to Washington, D.C. and then 3 months later I drove back to Portland to do my first professional show.
From there, I was cast in another couple of plays in Portland and as a result of the connections I made working on those first productions, I got an audition for, and ended up being asked to join the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for two seasons.
So that initial exploratory trip around the country ended up being huge for me. I met one person, who introduced me to other people, who then introduced me to even more people. I worked hard, was easy to work with, and made good enough impressions at each stop, so that people could feel confident in recommending me to others. Luckily, I was able to take advantage of those opportunities.
After spending two seasons at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, my girlfriend at the time, Carolyn, who is now my amazing Wife, had just graduated from school and had moved back to her hometown of Los Angeles. I decided to move there to be with her. Moving to Los Angeles was a smart move personally, but professionally, I landed exactly one gig during the year and a half I lived there. My now Wife was a dancer and a physical therapist at the time and she decided to commit more of her energies to dance. She made the decision to move to New York City because if you are a modern dancer that was really the only place to be. Nothing was happening for me professionally in Los Angeles, so I figured if I was going to be a poor starving actor, slash waiter, slash caterer, I might as well do it somewhere where the woman I love happened to be.
So we started in New York City and immediately it was better for me. We didn’t expect to make a ton of money. We just knew what our nut had to be and we knew that we needed experience. We both started getting some gigs. Initially, I did a lot of theatre that didn’t really pay, but it was great learning experience. I did have survival jobs such as working as a caterer and also there was this amazingly weird and wonderful spy job that I did for a long time down in Chinatown. We were officially called ‘spotters’ and worked for a company that was hired by high end retailers such as Coach, Louis Vuitton, Oakley and Rolex to identify businesses selling potentially counterfeit goods. The company loved hiring actors who felt calm under pressure to do the job. The nice thing about the job is that I was working with other actors who were also trying to make it in show business and everyone shared information about, among other things, where auditions were, or what various agents were like to work with, or what the good headshot places were. The information was very valuable for me out of the gate in New York City.
Struggle is inherent to this business and it took me a long time to get to a place where I was successfully working with any regularity as an actor. But, it helped that I never needed to be a star. My goal was simply to continue working on my art. I had my moments of doubt and worry along the way, but I never despaired I don’t think, and that was primarily because of the growing network of generous people that my wife and I were amassing, my wife’s unwavering support and my parent’s love for me. My friends, my Wife and my parents would always ask me how things were going. I would often say some variation of, “It went well, but I didn’t get it.” For some reason, I was always able to believe that it went well when I said it. With every experience, with every rejection, I felt like I was laying the groundwork for a successful career as an actor. For aspiring actors, you need to understand that, if you are lucky, in the first year or first few years out of the gate you are going to be rejected 90% of the time, maybe even 100% of the time. Worse, you are going to know a handful of people for whom that is not the case and who will immediately be snatched up and realize quick success and that is going to feel depressing, but they are outliers. Through it all, you need to allow your failures to empower you and you have to have the willingness and maturity to understand that the rejections are all groundwork for your future successes.
About fifteen years ago, I finally started breaking through, mainly with theatre pieces, with the occasional Guest Star spot on ‘Law and Order’ and other TV shows. Around this time, I took a step back and realized that I had been making my living doing only acting for the prior two years and that was huge for me.
Things just kept growing incrementally for me. Each theatre gig that went well seemed to lead to a slightly bigger one next time and a slightly bigger one the next time and so on. There were very few giant leaps along the way except my first Broadway gig in ‘Julius Caesar’ where I performed opposite Denzel Washington. That was definitely a huge jump for my career, but notably it came out of a series of seven or eight quality auditions for other things with the same casting director before that director was finally able to push me through to my role in ‘Julius Caesar’.
After ‘Julius Caesar’, I earned my first recurring role on an NBC show called ‘Waterfront’, starring Joe Pantoliano. The series shot five episodes and I shot three out of those five. Unfortunately, the show was cancelled before it ever aired. Part of me was afraid that ‘Waterfront’ had been my one chance to push my career to the next level, and when it got cancelled, that really sucked. But after the cancellation I was still getting interesting roles in plays, and periodically booking guest star roles on TV, so I realized that I was ok. It was just all part of my slow growth. But it was another eight years before I got another recurring role.
But then things started to happen for me again in a big way. Even though I have been making my living just acting for the past fifteen years, the past three or four years I started tapping into something. Maybe I was doing the same thing and people just started to want to watch me do that. I got the recurring role of Pastor Tim on FX’s hit show ‘The Americans’. Then a month or so after that, I auditioned for the third or fourth time for Netflix’s hit show ‘House of Cards’ and I got a recurring role as Gary Stamper. For that role, I remember going in to audition for the role and the casting director, who I had just auditioned with for something else a few weeks prior, said that, “This is the one.” This was an example of somebody who has you in mind because they enjoy working with you and they like your work and as a result they actively try to find the right thing for you to prove to the producers that you should be a part of the show. The next role that happened for me soon thereafter was the pilot for Showtime’s hit show ‘Billions’. That was a situation where a casting director that had brought me in myriad times over the years, dozens of times it felt like, and who always gave me a lot of great feedback, but never a role, thought of me for the ‘Billions’. This is another example of the importance of forming and cultivating good relationships with those you meet along the way.”
JH: “What drew you to your character ‘Dollar’ Bill Stearn in ‘Billions? Will he be back in season two?”
KA: “You will definitely see ‘Dollar’ Bill back for season two. It’s interesting. I initially auditioned for a different character, another one of the traders at AXE capital. I wasn’t what the producers wanted for that part, but I must’ve done well enough in the audition because they asked me to come back in for the role of ‘Dollar’ Bill. Initially I actually passed on it because it was a tiny role, only a couple of lines. I knew the show was going to be great but I just didn’t think there would be anything for me to do. But then over the weekend I thought about the character a little more. The fact that his nickname was ‘Dollar’ and that he was described in the breakdown as ‘the cheapest man in America’ was undeniably intriguing. The writers had taken the time to create someone pretty specific. And, to me, anyway, unusual — a cheap hedge funder. That could be fun to play, and it also indicated that the writers found this guy interesting, and might therefore come up with some cool stuff for him down the line. It just felt like there was growth potential there. So I went in for the audition and ultimately booked the part. The pilot ultimately went very well and the show got picked up.
The first season of the show was a great success. The set for the show is fantastic, the characters are fantastic, I love all the other traders and portfolio managers I work with and all the leads. ‘Dollar’ Bill grew into something really fun. The fake fight scene he was in with Damian Lewis’ character Bobby Axelrod was a highlight. When I read that scene on the page I actually started jumping up and down and ran into the next room where my Wife was working and said, “Look at this!” That was written by Willie Reale, one of the writers on the series, and he wrote the shit out of that scene.”
JH: “Have you completed or are you working on any new projects that you can tell us about?”
KA: “I appear in HBO’s upcoming Bernie Madoff movie ‘The Wizard of Lies’, starring Robert Di Niro. Also, I appear in ‘Drunk Parents’ which is going to be a really funny movie starring Alec Baldwin and Salma Hayek. Additionally, I just shot the last three episodes of this season, including the finale, of NBC’s “Blacklist” and just wrapped the season four episodes in March for ‘The Americans’, which are about half way through showing on FX. Coming up, I am going off to do a play for about three weeks, back mid-June, and then I start shooting season two of ‘Billions’.”
JH: “What life advice do you have for young adults?”
KA: “The first piece of advice I would give to young adults might run contrary to that given by others in the industry. I did not go to graduate school for acting and I didn’t even major in theater as an undergraduate. Some people warned me that this might look to others like I lacked focus, but screw it, I was interested in so many things. There are obviously a lot of brilliant actors who do go to grad school, and I am definitely not painting and either/or scenario. It’s just that people forget that there are many paths to a successful career in show business. When people tell you that the only route is through graduate training, they’re wrong. That is a perfectly viable route, yes, but I would say that there are tons of actors who are brilliant and successful actors because they are fascinating people who are interested in the world and have pursued their myriad interests. I want to be clear that I’m not saying that studying the craft of acting isn’t important. Definitely not, it absolutely is. But craft without life experience, it’s pretty hollow to me. Being myopic either way I think limits you.
Second, the best training is doing. Act as much as you can. If you develop a niche, something you do particularly well, sort of like a go-to move, that’s great, it can help you get cast. But always work with people who challenge you, too. Do things that scare you. If you enter a space perfectly willing to make an ass of yourself, then you are in the best possible place to start rehearsing something.
Finally, be good to work with. I don’t mean just following blindly, but say “yes” a lot. And if you don’t agree say “yes, but…”. In other words, try it. And I mean really try it. The only way you can legitimately disagree is if you’ve given an idea a fair shot. Then you can discuss changes because everyone is feeling heard and respected. I like to work with people, with directors and other actors, who are willing to hash something out and with whom I feel comfortable sounding stupid with or asking stupid questions to. Not having too much a sense of ego is of paramount importance. Don’t worry about being cool. Fuck cool. Cool is the death of good acting.”
Mr. AuCoin is an award-winning American actor best known for playing: ‘Dollar’ Bill Stearn on Showtime’s hit series ‘Billions’; Gary Stamper on Netflix’s hit series ‘House of Cards’; and, Pastor Tim on FX’s hit series ‘The Americans’. Later in 2016, Mr. AuCoin will be seen in HBO’s upcoming Bernie Madoff movie, ‘The Wizard of Lies’, starring Robert DeNiro, and also in the film ‘Drunk Parents’, starring Alec Baldwin and Salma Hayek. Also known for his theater work, in 2015 Mr. AuCoin won a ‘Drama Desk Award’ for his Signature Theatre’s ‘The Wayside Motor Inn’. Mr. AuCoin has starred as Octavius Caesar opposite Denzel Washington in the Broadway revival of ‘Julius Caesar’, and as Jim Warnock in the west coast premiere of JT Rogers’ ‘Blood and Gifts’ at La Jolla Playhouse. Mr. AuCoin has Guest Starred in dozens of television shows, including: NBC’s ‘The Slap’ and ‘The Blacklist’; CBS’ ‘Madam Secretary’, ‘Person of Interest’, ‘The Good Wife’, ‘Unforgettable’, and ‘Blue Bloods’; FOX’s ‘The Following’ and ‘Gossip Girl’; ABC’s ‘Forever’; and, USA’s ‘White Collar’.