Blood and Guts and Dirt and Joy
Michael Miller's Willingness to Get Messy Is What Makes Him One of Austin's Best Actors
"What makes an actor good is ... " Michael Miller pauses for a long look out the coffee shop window, musing over the answer. Then he responds with assuredness: "Not being afraid to get dirty." Truly, this sums up an actor who has never been afraid of getting into his characters in a way that is more immersion than artifice. Yet, even as he seems to cover himself in the muck and gristle of the characters he portrays, Miller never disappears into them, never hides behind their make-up or costumes, mannerisms or emotions: Miller is absolutely present onstage. Other actors will tell you that it's energizing to catch his eye during a performance and know, for all the complexities of his character, he's right there with them, ready for anything.
Eschewing praise and disinterested in publicity, Miller often appears at first meeting to be withdrawn, but he's as present and immediate about what motivates him as an actor and a person as he is unafraid to "get dirty" with his characters. Get to know him a little, and you'll discover his ribald, if not raunchy, sense of humor, his extraordinary generosity, and his fearless approach to acting. Miller throws down a gauntlet for himself every time he steps into a rehearsal room or onto the stage, often throwing it into places that others dare not tread. Above all, his passion for the theatre and continuous challenge to himself to be better make this seemingly reserved actor one of Austin's best.
I've known Miller for almost 10 years, frequently enjoying close-up views of his range and desire to explore, which seem limitless. We attended the University of Texas in the early 1990s, and I've worked on at least a half-dozen plays with him, in addition to leading workshops in which he was a participant, sharing a class or two with him, and just sitting in the audience to see him act. My first experience directing Miller was at UT, where I staged a couple of scenes from The Beaux' Stratagem for a Department of Theatre & Dance class. I had it in my head to place the scene in some redneck Texas outpost. Miller played the local innkeeper (and sheriff) who confronts two city slickers who have descended on his town to work a con. Miller turned the innkeeper, Bonniface, into a gut-bucket of a man, drawling and sweating and not so much peering at the two men as looking right through them. That they'd best keep their fronts toward the enormous innkeeper, whose interest in the two handsome men might be somewhere south of polite, brought a sexual tension to a comic scene already tense with whip-cracking, pistol-firing, and the uncertainty of just who was conning whom.
Sure, it was over the top, but Miller's immersion in the gleeful, scheming, podunk-yet-predatory Bonniface was also hilarious -- and a snapshot of Miller's bold sense of humor and equally bold willingness to get dirty with a character in order to push boundaries. "I have a very crass sense of humor," Miller admits. "Being hyper-P.C. is death. You can't be afraid to rattle cages and scare people and shock people.
"It's kind of an outlet, I guess. In real life, I don't necessarily tend to do that. I do love characters, especially evil characters, [who] have no boundaries. And that's what makes them evil. Like Richard III: He can do whatever he wants. Whereas the good guys have a certain set of standards they have to follow, otherwise they're not good. So it's liberating to play someone like Richard III who has no boundaries, because I personally have a lot of boundaries."
"He is my favorite actor," says actor David Stahl. "I've known Michael for 12 years. We've done four shows together during that time. From the get-go I have had nothing but the highest respect and awe of his artistry. I've always been fascinated by his renderings of characters. One of the things that I think makes his characterizations so rich [is that] Michael has the most wonderful, twisted sense of humor. He honestly laughs at the dark side of life. And his laughter is genuine. It's like he truly laughs at death, which means that he has victory over it. Somehow this part of him is infused into the characters he plays and makes them fabulous!"
Perhaps it is not so ironic that an actor who embraces the psychological muck and social indignities of his characters on the stage -- who laughs at death, as it were -- should be so self-effacing and shy off it. It is ironic that Miller's initial concept of being an actor included the glam and glitz, given his rejection of those things now. "I remember in first or second grade, we had a school project," Miller recalls, "and we had to say what we wanted to be when we grew up. We cut out a little photograph of our head, then put it on a body that would indicate what we wanted to be, and I wanted to be an actor. That's what I did. But my conception of it at the time was glitzy, show-biz kind of stuff, because I pictured myself in a tuxedo, with little stage lights running up and down like a little border around the [picture]. So it was a weird concept, and a concept that I wouldn't go with now.
"I've thought a lot about that recently, about fame. It is totally antithetical to my personality. I am an incredibly private person. Very private. I don't even like ..."
"Interviews?" I interject as Miller pauses to consider what he doesn't like. (He doesn't want to insult anyone in his revelation.)
"I hate interviews, and I hate people who do interviews," he jokes, then admits, "Yeah, I am very nervous about doing this [interview]." The subject sends Miller back to a recent production in which he felt unusually unnerved onstage. In playing the title role in the Rude Mechanicals' Requiem for Tesla this spring, Miller was subjected to a brief interview before every performance. "[Playwright] Kirk Lynn had written that [actor] Barry Miller ask me a few questions every night as Michael Miller -- not as [Tesla], just as the actor," he says. "And he would always ask me new questions every night. And I was so nervous. Not because of what he was going to ask me -- I knew he wouldn't ask anything vicious, because that's not him -- still, just being open like that, as myself, really made me nervous. I couldn't make eye contact with any of the audience members. But then," Miller snaps his finger, "the lights went down and came right back up and I was in character, and I was looking right at them. I was full of confidence.
"I don't go for glory or fame or that kind of thing. And I don't crave attention; I don't like to be the center of attention. I'd always assumed that I would want the fame and want the notoriety because that came as a part of it. But it's been the past couple of years that I've come to the realization that if that were me, I'd be like Robert Downey Jr.; I'd be coked out of my head or something, dealing with the fame."
Offers Paul Norton, who played opposite Miller in last summer's Zachary Scott Theatre Center production of Closer, "I've rarely met a less demonstrative actor who can achieve so much in performance. There are far too many actors who do most of their greatest performing in the bar afterward. Michael is not one of those actors."
Still, performing is a powerful drug. "It feels amazing, especially if the audience is there with you. It feels like a great sense of power. You have their attention. It's this weird dichotomy," Miller admits. "I don't want to be the center of attention, yet, you know, I love it when I get it, in that context. And I'm usually so caught up in what I'm supposed to be doing -- where the character is at that moment. I don't know if there's a general feeling that I feel, other than the power if things are going well. If they're not, if I feel [the audience] is distracted, then I get really self-conscious, you know: What the fuck am I doing wrong?"
I ask if Miller is his harshest critic. "Oh yeah," he says, then pointedly looks at me, a critic, and laughs. "Maybe not: You tell me! I am pretty harsh on myself," he acknowledges. "But in a way that can be good, because that pushes me to be better. I keep re-evaluating; I don't think I get lazy. I don't think I'm a lazy actor."
Hardly. Miller is renowned for his pre-show warm-up routine, usually done in private in some out of the way spot around the theatre (although when asked, he will lead the entire ensemble in a warm-up). Actress Janelle Buchanan recalls Miller's discipline and craft in the 1998 staging of The Last Night of Ballyhoo at Zach: "Michael played Peachy, a character that could so easily have been overplayed, caricatured, or otherwise screwed-up in less capable hands. Peachy didn't appear until the very end of the first act, but Michael was here before I arrived every night at 7 o'clock, in his dressing room, and getting ready to go. With so much down time before his approximately 9 o'clock appearance, you could have forgiven an actor for having less than top-flight energy. It was never a problem for Michael. He hit that stage like he'd been looking forward to it all day. He gave unfailingly hilarious performances and got exit applause every night." Miller won the 1999 Austin Critics Table Award for Supporting Actor in a Comedy for that performance.
Besides his incredible work ethic, Miller brings to the stage a well-honed technique that he credits with opening him up as an actor. "For the longest time, I really admired versatility, to play a variety of characters and almost be unrecognizable," he says. "And for a while I really strove for that, and my process was really external. I would come up with a new walk for a character or a new way of speaking. That was the main focus. And several years ago, probably as a result of my training at UT, especially the work I did with Jim Hancock, the focus was on you as a person, releasing any holding patterns you have in your body and becoming aware of those and what your habits are physically. So that really put the focus on me. And I became more spontaneous and less interested in focusing on externals, [instead] pursuing whatever the character's objectives were. Truly, it does work: I don't analyze and do all this paperwork on scripts, but it is important to know what the character wants and then set about trying to achieve what the character wants; so it's about what you want and the action, not the emotion. Emotion sucks, as far as I'm concerned. Emotion [bogs] everything down. That's a big misconception; you see it all the time.
"I guess back when I was more focused on the externals [of acting], I had a tendency to make every performance almost as if I was chiseling it out of stone. So then it would be set in stone. And my performances, I think, were very stiff and tense as a result. But then doing the work [with Hancock] allowed me to tap into a more spontaneous side of myself that probably, because of my own personal hang-ups, I have a tendency to keep in check. And keeping it spontaneous, I just find it's more interesting, it's more fun for me, and I have a tendency to have less of a third eye and critique myself so much if I am spontaneous -- 'in the moment.' And that comes from listening to people, reading their faces. It's almost like a game to react to every little nuance in their voice, in their face. It's much more engaging that way. And I hope, and I feel, that it's better for the audience as well."
Besides the interest to be had in his spontaneous approach, Miller seeks projects that don't have easy answers, plays that are, as he puts it, "really ballsy. Like political plays, things like Closer, which wasn't political in a Republican-Democrat kind of way. It was sexual politics, very much. But it was an incredibly gutsy script. So [I like] scripts in particular that take a strong point of view, that push audiences. Because I think that's what does motivate me: not glory or fame; it's reading literature, or communicating literature, or characters or situations that interest me and I think have something important to say about us and how we are, and I want to share that with people."
The list of gutsy roles and scripts is long and (partially) includes: Tybalt and Richard III in the Austin Shakespeare Festival productions of Romeo and Juliet and The Wars of the Roses, Stanley in First Stone Theatre's staging of A Streetcar Named Desire, and for the Public Domain, the oily Larabee in Sherlock Holmes, the title roles in Steven Dietz's Dracula and Marlowe's Edward II, and Alexander the Great in The Possibilities, where Miller not only undressed, but remained standing nude for the duration of an intense (and long) scene, played out in an empty hangar at defunct Robert Mueller Municipal Airport. "And this one," Miller adds, "that I'm working on, [Terence McNally's] Corpus Christi, is also very gutsy in the fact that it dares to make Christ -- Jesus -- into a gay figure."
In Corpus Christi, produced by Real Rain Productions and directed by Rick Fonte, Miller has the opportunity to play another character for whom there appears to be no boundaries. "I'm playing Judas Iscariot. It's set in 1950s Corpus Christi -- that's when it starts. The Jesus figure is called Joshua. It's a great play," says Miller, who quickly points out the crass humor in the play. "It is so brutally funny. It takes the Nativity and sets it in a cheap motel, and Mary and Joseph are really white trash. Then it follows Joshua -- Jesus -- as he grows up. And in high school, he's just a good little boy; there's something special people notice about him, but he's really persecuted because he's kind of effeminate. I think other people know that he's gay, although he won't admit that to himself, because he's closeted, as most of us in high school are who are gay. So Judas is in the same high school. They meet up. Judas is out, open, free with it, kind of in your face with his sexuality. He's kind of a loner kid, and all the other kids are afraid of him. And he and Joshua start having a relationship before Joshua goes into the desert -- his 40 days and 40 nights in the desert."
The background laid out, Miller moves on to explore his character's core. "I think [Judas] is a fascinating character," he says. "You know I've been reading my bible" -- "mah bah-bul," he drawls with a grin -- "picked it up, dusted it off to research this. There's so little about him. He's called 'the one who betrayed.' That's about all there is about him. There's even a discrepancy on how he died. He hanged himself, or there's another [version], which I never knew, where with his 30 pieces of silver he bought land. And one day he was walking on the land and he fell, and his intestines, it says, just burst out. It doesn't make it clear if he killed himself or just tripped. He fell and exploded.
"But there is so little about him, so you've got to wonder why he betrayed [Jesus]. In this show, it's because Joshua never loves him as he wants to be loved. They're no longer lovers. They start out as lovers, [Joshua] goes off to do his ministry, and then when they get back together, [Judas] is just one of the twelve. He's loved, because Joshua loves everyone equally, but there's nothing special in that relationship. It's not the same thing. So there's this bitterness and anger that builds up because they don't have that relationship [anymore]. So it becomes a personal betrayal, because Joshua isn't reciprocating romantically.
It's fascinating. You could write tons of plays and speculate forever about Judas. Did he actually betray him? Because without that betrayal, there would be no Jesus. Without the crucifixion and all that you have to wonder ... I think it's in The Last Temptation of Christ where he's the one who pushes Jesus to be who he is. And you've got to wonder: Did he betray Jesus or did he sacrifice himself almost in the same sort of way? A second, a little bit lesser, a junior -- Jesus Jr."
The play is doubly close to Miller, who is gay and grew up in the Baptist church. "I was raised a Southern Baptist," he says. "I was very devout growing up. In fact, I accepted Jesus as my savior when I was 12 and I saw a vision of him. I saw this huge head of Jesus. I was in junior high church choir, and we were singing in the Sunday night service. I saw Jesus at the back, beckoning me to come to him. At the end of every service for the Baptists, you accept Jesus as your savior. And there he was, saying, 'Come.' So I had this vision. And I was devout, so devout growing up. But then, I would always feel these feelings. When I hit puberty, I was attracted to guys. And it scared me. And I prayed, 'Please, God, get rid of it, get rid of it.' And it never went away. And finally, I knew a couple of guys in high school -- in theatre of course -- who were out, and I liked them. So I got to the point where I could accept it philosophically in other people. Then when I went to college, toward the end of my freshman year in college it just started to happen. First I was bisexual, I called myself 'bi.' I think that is pretty common. And then I just came full-on out."
His revelation came as a shock to Miller's parents, who hail from deeply religious small-town Texas, but they proved to be as understanding about his homosexuality as they were about his desire to be an actor. "They're so open with it now. And supportive. And they've always been supportive of me as an actor, although it's not what they wanted. ... They wanted me to be a preacher or a lawyer. But they always come to see all my shows. They're great."
Miller's acting career included a brief stay in Seattle, where he thought he might "jumpstart a career that would lead to film or larger theatres. I just found it to be a very, almost segregated theatre community. I couldn't break in. ... They seem to have no interest if you didn't have your Equity card or a New York ZIP code attached to your address. Whereas here I've acted in just about every theatre. So I wanted to come back here. I love the weather, too. I love the heat, I loved being hot. And Seattle is cold and drizzly -- a weepy kind of rain -- 10 months out of the year. So I missed it here."
And what about film? "I don't want to shut the door on doing film, but theatre is ... the material is so much better, by and large, than you find in film. The film I've done seems less organized, it seems more like tech in the theatre. But that's all you do. I thought for the longest time that film was so much more real and honest. As a neophyte, I thought that. But looking at the way they'll set up a shot, where it may be that we look like we're talking on camera, but I'm looking here, and you're [looking that way]. It's really much more artificial than the stage, I find. I don't have vast amounts of film experience, but it's made me love the theatre more and more."
On the stages of Austin's theatres, Miller has found a place to do what he wants to do and to revel in the spontaneity and joy -- and dirt -- of playing all sorts of characters, without boundaries. "I've been accused so much of spitting. I mean, that's the big rap against me: 'He spits so much.' And part of me gets concerned: 'Oh, I'm grossing people out; they're going to be distracted,' but then I think, that's what these characters feel at the moment, they're not worried about how they look. And to me that just shows real passion and fire and blood and guts. I guess that would be my No. 1 thing: Don't be afraid to get dirty. Really messy."
Corpus Christi runs Aug. 10-Sept. 1 at the Hideout, 609 Congress. Call 636-1297 for information.