In this month's Art of the Actor, Jonno Roberts faces the challenge of breathing life into the villainous Iago in the Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of Othello, running through April 2. With his artisic roots planted in New Zealand, Roberts shares the lessons learned during a career that spans Broadway, film, television, and a wealth of classic stage roles.
Tell me your origin story. How did you become an actor?
The sad fact is that I don’t think I ever did. Become, that is. I was born a little show-off sh*t. I did my first play at the 150-yr-old Chesil Theatre in Winchester, England, when I was maybe 6. BUT I really became an actor when I discovered it wasn’t about girls and showing off: as a 20-year-old at the Free Theatre in Christchurch, New Zealand, I was thrown into a room for six months with three other actors and a copy of the magnificent Polish director Jerzy Grotowski’s book Towards A Poor Theatre, and told to come out with something resembling a performance. That was when I discovered that acting was an art form, and I have never stopped searching to be a better artist since.
What do you enjoy the most about acting?
The connection with the other performers and the director, in the moment, on the stage or set, allowing whatever is going on in them to effect whatever is going on in you. The absolute attention required, the (ugh) ‘mindfulness’, is something I have only felt elsewhere on a speeding motorcycle, or a surf or skate board. Your complete attention is on what is right in front of you, on the zigzag filament of their soul.
Oh, and ask anyone I have worked with if I can be serious for more than a few seconds and they’ll laugh. I enjoy everything about acting. For me, it’s an eternal playtime. I’m not a serious dude.
What do you consider the most challenging thing about acting?
See above. And learning lines.
Tell us about playing Iago.
As we were beginning, I had numerous people tell me Iago was their ‘favourite’. So I went about ignoring every part of my actor-ego that wanted to be clever and charming and the sort of person who could be described as such. Iago should be no-one’s ‘favourite’. By jettisoning all that expectation, I hope I have been able to develop a role that is more truthful, more myself in all my dark impulses and hatreds. Also, to tell the truth, I don’t watch much Shakespeare. I watched a bad video of this play when I was in high school english class, and I’m pretty certain the Othello was a white guy in makeup. That’s all the prior knowledge I brought to this production. It left me just to work with Bill Shakes’ words and none of the guano that has piled up on them over the centuries.
It is easy for a performer to wink at an audience and keep reminding them of how clever he is. It’s a kind of sluttery - you pay for your ticket and I’ll leave my slime all over you - but that kind of performance is cheap and essentially boring, makes the other characters just look stupid, and in the end prohibits a deeper connection that can happen between artist and audience. Of course, actors being actors, I’m sure that’s what people have often been served up for the last 400 years, and a few of the audience at our production may be disappointed that I’m not like ‘that guy they loved that time.’ But I want my Iago to be far from anyone’s ‘favourite’
If, instead, I say “Look, here are my fears and hatreds and jealousies. Can you recognise them in yourself?” I hopefully forge a deeper bond with the audience. I don’t want them rooting for Iago because he’s funny and charming and knowing. I want them to connect with him because he’s expressing a part of their soul they try to pretend isn’t there. And that complicity, that connection with the villain, is far more interesting, and disturbing, and valuable.
What is “the art of the actor?”
The art of the actor is to live truthfully within the given circumstances of the role. That’s a bad paraphrase of Stanislavsky. But it’s that tricky notion of ‘Given Circumstances’ that is the key. ‘Given Circumstances’ is just a clever way of saying ‘what’s happening’. And you can drill down into ‘what’s happening’ forever. What am I doing? Who to? Why? What do I want? etc... all the way to the language. A great actor can hang upside-down from a trapeze in a too-small bikini, covered in elephant shit and ask a daft question like “who would fardels bear?” and still be completely present, emotionally naked, and truthful.
Other than that, Art is, to me, an elevated form of communication. The more elevated, the clearer, the more perfect the communication, the better the art. So the questions - What am I communicating? How? Can I do it better? - those are the journey of my career.
Acting is a team sport. No actor is better than the person they are acting with , the text they are given, and the director who has prodded them towards their performance. Any actor who doesn’t acknowledge this is kidding themselves. Whew. Post-awards season, I just had to get that off my chest.