Finish-born actor Alex Luukkonen has acted in high profile theater productions, films and television shows across continents. In film, Luukkonen recently acted in Pastry, Outsider, Perception of Art, One Night, Cindy, The Adventrues of Sally's Inner Demons, as well as many more. He also recently appeared in the series Chronicles of the Dead, which was shot in Los Angeles. In our interview I got the opportunity to pick Alex Luukkonen's brain about the difference between acting for the theater and the screen, as well as some of the unique roles that he's played in the theatrical productions of the "Waiting For Lefty," "Ravenscroft," and "Slavs!"
PLM: So I know you've been working on A LOT of upcoming films over the past year, but you've also starred in several theater productions over the course of your career; can you tell me a little bit about the differences between working as an actor on stage as opposed to on film?
AL: I worked with an actress named Rayanna (Dibs) on a film called The Adventures of Sally’s Inner Demons and we had this conversation on set. She is primarily a film actress but has done stage stuff as well. I am primarily a theater actor so far, but have transitioned to film and look forward to doing more of it. We both agreed that the two are very different beasts. She joked that you can tell on a film who is a theater actor based on how many times the director has to ask them to tone it down when doing takes. Film is a much more controlled medium, the camera magnifies everything; the stage on the other hand does not.
To oversimplify it to a criminal extent, theater is about having a ton of energy and sending it out in the world in an explosion, and film is about having that same amount of energy but sending it out in a contained and more toned down way. It wouldn’t be fair to say theater is “big” and film is “small,” and certainly that’s not a way I would discuss it with fellow actors, but to non-actors I guess that’s the easiest way to show the difference.
PLM: Which do you prefer and why?
AL: Depends on the role, the location, the cast, and many factors and variables that make it impossible for me to really say. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. Honestly, I would ideally like to do a mix of both. Theater has the more direct audience connection and that sheer hype and energy you get from doing a show live. It’s a real rush. But film allows for much more travel and diversity in locations. Theater is amazing as any show can theoretically be done anywhere where there is a stage and that means some very professional productions can be done with a small budget, and whilst film doesn’t lend itself as much to that I don’t have to worry about that as the actor, and if some producer happens to find the money to take me to a location and they want me for a role I am always pleased to travel. So film has more on location stuff and that’s enjoyable.
Major theatrical productions also do tours around the world from Broadway to West End and all the places in between, but I haven’t been apart of a production like that yet, but would love to.
PLM: As a theater actor, who has been your favorite director to work with and why?
AL: I can’t say. I have so far been fortunate to have only worked with great directors (in theater that is) so I can’t decide between them. Every director brings their own style and approach to a production and as an actor you just have to roll with the punches and learn when to chime in with input and when to just trust the director's vision and go with their pointers.
PLM: In the play "Ravenscroft," did you face any challenges getting into your character Inspector Ruffing?
AL: Many. The play and the character of Ruffing is a daunting ordeal to take on but, once overcome, to whatever extent an actor can, it is incredibly satisfying.
The first major breakthrough for me about working on the play was realizing it wasn’t a standalone piece and, in fact, was an entry in a long list of mysteries, farces and dark comedies and occasionally just plain dark short stories that are mind twisting and tear jerking (see Creatures lurking in the Churchyard, a short by Don Nigro. I won’t spoil it, but its dark and very, very sad). It's such an interesting series and whilst each piece is fully enjoyable and understandable on its own, as an actor its really helpful to be able to delve into the background and find out the specific history of the character and everything he has gone through to get to the place he is at. So I was fortunate to have this catalogue of works to go through and that meant a lot of study time, note taking and analysis. Not so much unlike the inspector so doubly useful in that way I suppose.
Another mountain I had to overcome was just the sheer volume of dialogue. Ruffing is never off stage and has dialogue on every single page and, as the driving force of the play and usually the second party to every bit of dialogue, there was never a quite moment on stage for me. As such, not only did I have to memorize about 95 pages of dialogue including five monologues, but I had to deliver it word for word, night after night and hope I missed nothing as dropping a line could mean making my costars lose their place and to cause the play to derail.
Finally, I got knocked in the head by a vase every night of the performance. The vases were made out of sugar glass so they shatter without causing harm but, even so, a vase the same size as my head being swung at the back of my skull every night does eventually start to hurt. So that was also a challenge.
PLM: What was it like working with director May Quigley Goodman on "Ravenscroft"?
AL: An absolute delight. I love May. She is the kind of person who can see the potential in people and won’t let them settle for less than their best, but also won’t push people too hard in an attempt to force it out of them. Instead she tries to encourage and supportively nudge the performance out. And this was, without a doubt, one of the main reasons I was able to overcome the sheer scale of a play like "Ravenscroft" in the relatively short period of time we had to put on the play. The amount of lines, preparation, rehearsal, memorization, and just plain stress involved with being integral to every scene and knowing that if I am not on it every day then my partner in the scene will also have lower energy and the play as a whole will struggle was a great burden but having a director like May was paramount to overcoming it.
PLM: You also played Miller in "Waiting for Lefty," can you tell me about the play and why Miller is important to the story?
AL: The play is in a genre known as Agitprop, aka agitation propaganda. It was written by Clifford Odets in the mid thirties as a call to action for the American people and thus every character in the play serves very clear and exaggerated for the purpose of stirring the audience into motion. The framing of the play is that of a labor dispute where a bunch of cab drivers gather to air their grievances and try to enact change through organizing. The play's scenes are individuals from the gathering telling their stories and the scenes act as the flashbacks to those scenes.
My character, Miller, was one of the little guys who gets stomped on by the system, by the powerful elite, the rich few in charge. In my case it was my boss, a chemical plant supervisor who gets a lucrative contract from the government to start manufacturing poisons for an upcoming war and, not only that, but I (Miller) am assigned the task of spying on a top level German scientist to ensure that he doesn’t leak any secrets. Miller's morals, reflecting those of the playwright and ideally of the audience as well, do not align with the boss and make him so disgusted that he goes on a tirade, quits and, in the original script, knocks the boss senseless. We didn’t do that in our version as my boss was played by a woman and the director felt it might not be viewed too kindly.
PLM: The production was directed by Oscar Award winner Milton Justice, what was it like working with him as your director in "Waiting for Lefty"?
AL: He is a passionate man for sure. The documentary he won his Academy Award for, “Down and Out in America,” is a highly political and mainly liberal film criticizing American politics and specifically Reagan and his economic policies and how those led to a homeless epidemic. Lefty is very much in the same line politically as that film and it makes sense for him to continue in this direction, and his passion for the subject matter showed in his direction. It's always a pleasure to work with people who care about what they are saying. Art is always meant to make a statement and so being lukewarm about the politics of a play like this wouldn’t go over too well, and Milton certainly is not to say the least.
PLM: You were also in the production of Tony Kushner's "Slavs!"-- What was the play about?
AL: Thematically it is about change. It's set in the Soviet Union right about the time of the collapse and when everything is about to come undone; and it explores how different people deal with that collapse.
PLM: Why was your character Yegor Tremens Rodent important to the story?
AL: Rodent is an apparachik, a yesman, a low level communist official who just follows orders and works for the burecracy. It's the only thing he knows. The people above him are superior and he serves them and the people below him, if there are any, are dirt and pathetic. His entire identity is built around the existence of the system and so when the whole thing comes undone his perecption of himself, the world and everything becomes very cynical and dark. He is central to this idea, and the theme of change.
PLM: How did you tap into this character?
AL: The primary thing to understand with a guy like Rodent is what it's like to have your full identity attached to an idea, a belief system, a political ideology. Everything he knows is built around the Soviet Union and to have it collapse has to do something to a person, and the only way for me to tap into that is for me to understand what people could see in that system and tap into it myself.
A difficult task to say the least, as I was born and raised in Finland and us Finns have a very strained and tumultuous history with the Russians so we get taught a great deal about the old USSR, so I knew a great deal of background about the Soviets already before starting this project but instead of just directly tapping into that I had to distance myself a little from the personal aspects of it and try to see it from the other side.
It's easy to see why the Soviets were bad people but to understand the Soviet mentality is a very different thing entirely. We had a woman who grew up in the Soviet system come talk to us and explain what life was like under communism and how the people justified the actions to themselves and it took me a long time and a lot of work to finally tap into that.
PLM: Out of all of your theatrical performances, which characters have been your favorites so far and why?
AL: I haven’t had a bad play so far or an uninteresting character. Each provides a unique challenge and I cannot say I have a favorite. I would say I would love to take a shot at Tennessee Williams and maybe Tom Wingfield from “A Glass Menagerie” as that’s a terrific character and one I feel I could play.
PLM: What advice would you give to other actors who want to make it in the theater industry?
AL: The modern day theater is a harsh business as there really aren’t that many opportunities, having a proper technique and training is vital. You can’t just get into theater without being properly trained in it.
If you live in the US and really only want to do theater then I would say you have to go to New York. That’s only after developing a proper technique. Now there are many places to study acting technique, and I am personally very partial to the Stella Adler technique which I studied and practice, but the Brits have an indisputable history for the theater craft and, what I have learned in my time in London, is that they don’t really just use the classical technique anymore, but a good mix of that with all the advancements made by Stanislavski and people like Adler and Meisner.
In fact, I was pleasantly surprised by how many people respected my Adler background over in London and were exited to work with me due to that training.
Honestly, in the US people really don’t care that much, having a solid technique is mostly just for your own benefit, but in the UK and especially London it is not just useful but essential to have a background in theater to do almost anything acting related. So, if you are European and specifically if you have a EU passport I would suggest getting a masters in arts (MA) or an equivalent in the UK or learning a good well rounded technique like the Adler technique in the States and then brining that back to England when trying out for the Stage.
Honestly, the undisputed king of theater chances are in London. There are so many out here and audiences actually come to see them, they pay over 100 pounds for seats (that’s over $150) and the theaters are always packed even with the capacities of 800 seats or more. And its not like productions are rare, West End is filled with theaters and shows. There’s always something happening here and so if you are European and have the chance I would say first get a great technique under your belt and then head over to London and just give it a shot. For Americans the equivalent is NY and Broadway but I haven’t been so can’t comment much.