A Talent for Deception
When Joey Hood is onstage, you want to buy whatever he's selling
Joey Hood is backstage at Hyde Park Theatre, doing those last-minute things that actors do before a performance, preparing to submerge himself in the character of Bill, the twentysomething dress designer and is-he-or-isn't-he adulterer in Harold Pinter's The Collection, when he hears his director and co-star Ken Webster, in the midst of his curtain speech to that night's house, outlining the forthcoming productions at the theatre and informing the crowd that in February they can see Ronan Noone's The Atheist, a one-man show starring Joey Hood.
This is news to Hood.
He and Webster have had a few conversations about him doing the piece – in fact, Webster had been prodding Hood to do a one-man show for him for more than three years by then – but no real discussions about it, certainly not anything with hard details like production teams or salary or, I don't know, run dates. And now, Webster has told an audience – which for the HPT artistic director is the equivalent of blasting the news onto stone tablets – that the show is happening and in just five months. This is more than a little unnerving for the actor, who not only has never done a solo show in his life but is still adjusting to being back onstage after a 2½-year hiatus from acting. Is he ready to shoulder that much of a burden yet? Will he be able to hold 85 minutes of text in his head? Will he be able to hold an audience's attention for that long? Will he be able to keep a show going through who knows what with no one to rely on but himself?
Hood was definitely caught off guard, but though he wasn't given a say in the timing, the actor insists that he's glad Webster announced the scheduling of the show the way he did. After three years of hedging on the matter, of not being willing to cross what he calls "one of the final frontiers for me as an actor," the decision was taken out of his hands. And with it went the anxiety and the waffling and the excuses for not meeting the challenge. "It's on," Hood told himself. "There's no backing out now. It's sink or swim."
Hood shares this story immediately after a run-through of the first act of The Atheist. To see him, still 18 days away from opening, off-book for only a few days, one would never guess that he had any qualms whatsoever about taking the stage alone. His performance is confident and compelling and effortlessly fresh in all the ways his fans have come to expect. He's fused with the play's narrator, Augustine Early, and gives an engagingly full-bodied portrait of this perversely ambitious, slick, manipulative, and unscrupulous tabloid journalist – this despite it being a Monday afternoon, despite his having been laid low by allergies of late and being nearly hoarse, and, possibly worst of all, despite his only audience being the director with whom he's been working on this script for upward of 65 rehearsals already and a journalist. None of that appears to affect him. Hood is as deeply invested in the character as if it were opening night and a packed house was roaring its approval. And that's something that for him seems to be as natural as breathing.
It's certainly a quality that's been commented on since Hood first stepped on a stage in Austin 12 years ago. That was in Different Stages' production of the Tom Stoppard play Arcadia, which he auditioned for and was cast in just two weeks after moving to town. As he tells the story, he was weary of college and his mother had thrown him out of the house, so he called an old friend who had recently relocated to Austin and asked if he could come get him in Mississippi and help him move there. That loyal pal, Robert Fisher, fetched him, and Hood arrived in his new home eight days after his 21st birthday. It was, he says, "one of those moments of serendipity, I guess. I struggled for a little while, because I came here with nothing, but everything felt right." His performance in his very first show in town prompted Chronicle reviewer Adrienne Martini to write: "Joey Hood confidently plays the lusty-in-a-pre-Victorian-way teacher Septimus Hodge and is, quite simply, charming and magnificent."
Other members of the press were similarly effusive in their praise of Hood, and they had plenty of opportunities to extol his virtues. In his first five years, the actor leaped from show to show, averaging three to five productions a year, working for companies as diverse as the State Theater Company, Refraction Arts, Pro Arts Collective, and Webster's predecessor to HPT, Subterranean Theatre Company. No matter the role, he showed a level of commitment that provoked commentary. Rob Curran noted that as an adolescent in Raised by Lesbians, "Joey Hood plunges himself into Joe's basketball shoes. He speaks teenage-ese fluently, with questioning intonation and clipped words – he has even mastered the teenage grunt – and he shares the agony of a boy beset by bullies." Of Hood's turn as the man-turned-giant-cockroach in Kafka's The Metamorphosis, Wayne Alan Brenner wrote: "He scales walls and pillars, frenetically scuttles and leaps around the confines of his bedroom, horrifying his parents and sister, generally carrying on like a less effects-reliant version of Dr. Brundle in Cronenberg's The Fly."
When they weren't noting the intensity of his work, reviewers were citing the impressive naturalism of his performances. Writing about the 2003 premiere of Dan Dietz's tempOdyssey, Barry Pineo said: "Joey Hood's first act as Jim, a permanent male temp, is so relaxed and natural, it looks more like life than acting." Hannah Kenah was on the same wavelength in her review of last year's Hyde Park Theatre production Bombs in Your Mouth: "Hood has a magnetic presence and preternatural calm. He's one of those awesome actors who doesn't feel the need to be busy on stage. He can simply sit and stare, and his haggard eyes are enough to keep you engaged."
And with Hood, you always want to stay engaged. Not so much because he's easy on the eyes – which he is, a fact noted by many an audience member, female and male, to the point that it's almost a joke – but because he has that innate appeal, that charm, that makes confidence men so fatal. Whatever he's selling, you want to buy it. Whatever he's saying, you want to believe it. "Trust me," he says, and you feel you can, even as every cell in your body screams at you that you shouldn't. In The Atheist, the character of Augustine states, "I realized I had this talent for deception," and that seems apt for Hood as well. Acting is about pulling an audience into a fiction, persuading them to believe that something is what it is not and what they know it is not. The best in the field, the ones who can overcome that knowledge of the lie, are the ones for whom deception is second nature, and that describes Joey Hood.
And yet. Though Hood possesses this gift, though with it he had built a string of theatrical credits, not to mention critical accolades and acting award nominations, that would be the envy of almost any thespian; though he performed regularly with two of the city's leading stage companies, Hyde Park Theatre and the Rude Mechanicals; and though he could work onstage pretty much whenever he wanted and just about as often as he wanted, nine years and nearly two dozen shows in, Hood walked away from the stage. After appearing in the Rude Mechs premiere of Have You Ever Been Assassinated? in November 2006, Hood stopped acting. For more than two years, he didn't do any plays or even go to plays. He says he was burned out – reasonable enough given the number of roles he crammed into his first decade here – but adds that his decision to drop out was also born of economic necessity. As he sardonically points out about theatre, "There ain't no money in this gig." Since a job tending bar at Club de Ville was bringing in the green, Hood took what he thought was his final bow. Working 9pm to 4am most nights made it impossible for him to do theatre or even see it. Still, he did keep up with what was going on in the stage scene through reviews and admits to reading them "with envy and jealousy."
It was a conversation in which he was told that he was wasting his talent – something he felt himself but needed to hear – that prompted Hood to get back in the game. In February 2009, he called his old pal at Hyde Park and asked if Webster had anything he might play a part in. "The next day, he calls me back with Bombs in Your Mouth," says Hood. "I was literally in rehearsals two weeks after that. It was that fast."
The speed with which he returned to the stage has given Hood a new appreciation for all the theatrical opportunities he's had and the good fortune he's known in Austin. "That's just an example of how absolutely blessed I've been," he says, "not only to have a friend like Ken but to have a producer, a director, someone that I can pick up the phone and ask: 'I have an itch. I want to do something. Do you have anything I can audition for, read for, down the line?'"
As when he arrived in Austin, Hood took a leap, jumping into the deep end of the theatre scene, in this case with a two-person show and the largest line load he had carried to date. "And it was an incredible experience," he says. "I had so much fun every night showing up and making that play brand new. Shiny and new every night."
But before he came to that joy, Hood had to release something that had been pent up inside him, something holding him back from being the actor he believes he should be. This is the story he tells: "The playwright came on the Friday we opened, and I was so riddled with anxiety at that prospect that I was pacing backstage. At the time, I was still smoking cigarettes, just one after the other, one after the other. And I threw up so hardcore backstage. I've heard of people having anxiety like that and getting sick, but I had never done anything like that, and that was a moment when, believe it or not, it felt that what I was doing was right. I was taking it all in in the proper way. Finally, at 32 years of age, I was letting what I was doing hit me where it was supposed to hit me. I was taking it seriously. We did the first scene of the play on the corner of Guadalupe and 43rd, and while we were waiting for the audience to come out, I told Liz [Fisher, his co-star in the play], 'I threw up.' And she said, 'Are you okay?' And I said, 'Honey, I'm just fine.' And that night we had, I think, the best show of the whole run. Because it was like I purged, I cast out so many demons and cares and baggage in that one little moment. And it's been off and running ever since.
"[Taking time off] gave me some perspective on the variety of things that I had done over the years. Even though I turned in some good work, I don't think that I ever took it as seriously as I should have. And there's a certain amount of regret with that. I had a bit of a wake-up call. I don't think I had as much enthusiasm for acting when I first moved here as I did after doing Bombs in Your Mouth. It's like a new lease. It's a crystal clear perspective on why I got into this in the first place."
So here he is, back at full speed. In the 12 months that he's been back on the boards, Hood has acted in not only Bombs in Your Mouth and The Collection for Hyde Park but Killer Joe for Capital T Theatre (playing a drug dealer who hires a hit man to kill his mother for the money and pimps out his sister to the hit man for collateral). And now he's crossing the final frontier of the one-man show, playing another less than upstanding character, someone not above using sex and blackmail as stepping stones to fame and fortune. Which is just peachy with Hood, actually. "I enjoy roles like this one," he says, "where there's a character that has flaws, is in some way despicable, maybe even horrendous, but you have to make those qualities sympathetic. That to me is a litmus for ability."
But be warned about asking Hood to buy into the notion that he has, as Augustine puts it, "a talent for deception." "Acting is always truth. It's not about deception," he insists. "Through the years, I've gotten – and it pisses me off when I get it – people who are not in the theatre and do not understand acting saying, 'You must be a good liar.' I'm, in fact, the worst freakin' liar on the planet. If I'm telling a lie, if I'm deliberately trying to deceive you, my body language changes, I can't look you in the eye. But if there's a script wherein that character believes he's telling the truth, then that's what Joey as an actor has to do. I guess in some ways I have this talent for truth. Through taking that time off, I realized that [acting] was something I was meant to do."
The Atheist runs Feb. 18-March 13, Thursday-Saturday, 8pm, at Hyde Park Theatre, 511 W. 43rd. For more information, call 479-7529 or visit www.hydeparktheatre.org.