Tom Stokes plays Sam in HUNGER. We talked to him about how he went about learning the monologue, working with Steve’s concept of the piece, and the differences between film and stage.
Tom, tell us about your career to date.
I graduated from WAAPA (Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts) in Western Australia about 4 years ago. Since then I’ve worked in a few films: Wasted On The Young, a film called The Railway Man which is being released later this year and I’ve done a lot of theater with companies like Sydney Theatre Company, Griffin Theatre and Tamarama Rock Sufers in the last couple of years. I grew up in WA before I went to WAPA where I did a theatre course and I got into acting because my mother thought it would be a good way for me to stop being such a pussy. And To make some new friends. So I got into acting classes when I was 6 or 7 years old and it was fun being different people.
How did you get involved with The Voices Project?
Steve and I had worked on Wasted On The Young, and we’ve kept in contact since then and a couple of months ago I bumped into Steve. We got chatting and he said: Wait a second there’s a project that’s come up that I think you might be right for. I read the script, we met a couple of times to talk about it and it turned out we were very much on the same page about how we read it, how we saw it, and we went from there.
Tell us about Sam.
Sam is a young apprentice chef working in a very high stress environment, in a kitchen, pretty much at the bottom of the pecking order of that hierarchy. He’s young, he’s nervous, he’s inexperienced to the extent that he knows that to mess up could be possible and could get him into a lot of trouble but also that’s he’s skilled enough to belong there. He’s very eager to impress a boss he’s torn between hating and wanting to respect.
When I first read the script, what struck me the most were the images that Brooke creates, like she gives you a kitchen and this character, then the world she creates between the character and what happens to his arm in the immediate space he’s in is so intense that the major relationship for me in the script was not between the character of Sam and this chef who keeps berating him, but the relationship between him and his arm and then his entire body, which becomes quite violent , quite visceral. The way that Brooke writes is quite in your face, with the graphic nature of the text and I think that’s what got my interest initially, it’s quite ballsy.
As a writer Brooke’s way of writing is interesting. As an actor, it doesn’t your job any easier ! But it makes it a lot more exciting. It’s not poetry, for me it read more like a consciousness of prose, a stream of consciousness but the way that she writes, flashing from literal images to more kind of ethereal images is where the job really lies for the actor, to create when you are present in the monologue in the literal environment and when he’s in his own head . Brooke’s beats are so specific, so short and sharp, that you have to have a lot of dexterity to perform a monologue like that. It can be really taxing but, at the same time, it’s very satisfying when you find those beats as it’s then when you figure out that you are on the same page.
How did you go about learning the monologue? It’s quite a challenging text.
It was a really tough piece to just get down, apart from understanding it which is a huge amount of the work just to have it in your brain in a way that you can be confident in performing it. Steve did me a big favour by breaking it down into beats, into about 12 beats, which we shot in sequence, which means that you can approach each with one with a tone and a theme and an attack. When it comes to actually learning it, the more you understand it, the more easily lines come, which is a lesson I think actors, especially actors who’ve been to drama school like myself, learn when they doing works like Shakespeare. When you are young and you don’t understand what you are saying, you can’t get lines in your head. You need to understand, every moment, what you are saying and why you are saying it and until you do that there’s just no way you can carry that much text in your head.
I got the script a couple of weeks before the shoot, and since that point there was work that had to be done every day on getting it down and in the last week, it was intensely working out, going from shifting from learning blocks into making sure you had the fitness to do it, because initially Steve and I thought we were just going to do it one shot, which we backed away from, although it was a great way to learn it, following the passage through, learning the arc of the piece. And learning the shifts between when he’s in the world when he’s floating, looking over the restaurant, over the kitchen in his out of body experience, as opposed to being there in the kitchen , present and working. There’s kind of two monologues in there, and to make sure you’ve learnt one of learnt those pieces, where he’s in the kitchen and one in his head, then you can put them together.
How is performing before a camera different from performing on stage?
The difference lies in that you’ve kind of got to stop looking at it as performance when you are doing it for camera. When you’re in a theatre, you’ve got to a huge range of people, who are all in front of you, and very immediate, which can be a huge aiding tool, but when it’s the camera you’re just talking to one person, and you have to think about bringing that person to you. It’s a question that actors talk about a lot and there’s a lot of debate about if there are actors who can only do stage and if there are actors who can only do screen. A lot of actors think that you are only a good actor if you can do both, but I think it’s more about communicating the same thing in a different way, in that you just narrow down your performance, don’t lose anything but reduce it as you reduce a sauce, reduce it to the point where you are keeping all the information in a amore specific line between the two parties concerned: the camera and yourself. When it’s theatre, you’re communicating with other actors on stage, the audience and in the space as well but the only space that exists when you’re talking on film is the line between you and the camera.
Was the monologue chronologically or in chunks?
We shot the piece in sequence, which was really beneficial. I don’t think it would have really worked doing it any other way just because it’s a apiece that flows in such a specific way that to have it shot in sequence meant that we knew exactly where we were coming from and where we were going and that means the new stuff you find on the day, having already broken down the text down into those 12 sections, could be accommodated and we had the time, we had the patience and the energy to approach it like that. I think breaking it up, or approaching it in larger chunks would have meant that a) it would have been exhausting and b) it would have been a little more shooting in the dark.
Talking about shooting in the dark, shall we talk about the difficult physical conditions of the shoot day itself?
Yes, we shot in this warehouse out in Marrickville on a hot day in a pretty stuffy, dirty space but in some ways that kind of stuff is difficult because its uncomfortable but then, at the same time, that discomfort can be a really useful tool. I mean, you’re dealing with a character who’s not comfortable, you’re dealing with someone who’s under pressure and as an actor, in that situation you are under pressure and that’s fine, that kind of nervousness is useful but, yes it was hard and you just needed to be careful about taking the time to let yourself relax in the moments you do get, because it just means that when you are working, when you’re shooting, you’re more inclined to breathe and react to the necessary information you’re getting from Steve, you’re getting from the crew, you’re getting from the words as opposed to panicking about how am I getting to the next moment when it’s hot and I’ve got to get these lines out and while this is our third take I really want to get it now.
Steve was really good at letting me have the time and the space to work through it at at pace. We had a whole day which seems like a really long time for one piece, but when you take into account the amount of setting up that goes into each shot, it means that you get 8 hours, 9 hours, 10 hours into something like that and everyone’s got to be taking due diligence to make sure the work you’re doing at that point in the day is consistent with the work you are doing at the start of the day. It’s difficult to maintain an energy level across something like that but I think sometimes the change in energy levels that naturally happens across a day can be an interesting tool to work with. You often find that at the start of a day your enthusiasm, your energy, your adrenaline will get you into the piece and just get you brave enough to start things that you need to be able to instigate as the actor, but at the end of the day, you might be a little bit more physically drained but what gets you through is the fact that you are more relaxed and focused because you’ve had to be focused at this same point for so many hours on end and I think that’s not just true for actors, I think everyone is professional enough but obviously the environment affects everyone in their own way so that everyone is in a different place at the end of the day than they were at the beginning.
Steve’s vision was influenced entirely by Brooke’s writing. I don’t think he could have created a literal environment of a kitchen – I don’t think that would have worked for the writing, I don’t think that’s what Brooke would have wanted. He talked to me about projections, he talked to me about lighting, he talked to me about proximity to camera, the relationship he wanted Sam to have with the camera and who it was he was talking to but at the same time, I think Steve knew that to give me a certain amount of information was going to be beneficial but to keep things as a surprise on the day was going to be useful as well.
There were times where we had effects going that I didn’t know were coming but were really great to experience for the first time while we were rolling because that meant you just hadve something new to play with but the projections and stuff, I’d seen a few of Steve’s video clips when we were in Perth when we were working together and so I had an idea of the kind of taste Steve had for colour and imagery and that he liked to work a lot with mirror imaging and obscure objects that played on loops that end up giving you a sense of environment without giving you a specific place, so in that sense I did have an idea of how Steve would approach it generally but it was really cool to see how it reached fruition, exactly, on the day. So, do you prefer working on film or or stage?
Films are great because people see them. You can reach an audience in one session at a cinema that you can reach in a couple of weeks in a theatre. And you have literal evidence of what you’ve done, it’s really nice as an actor to be able to say: I did something and here’s proof.
In theatre, the only proof is the memory and the people you become friends with but at the same time…that’s really great because it’s so immediate, its so unique in that aspect that you get to do something, there’s liberation in going : okay, if I mess this up, it’s gone, but if I nail it, it’s just that night, or that day or whenever and theatre’s great because it’s necessary that you have to be on for whatever length of show you are doing, you don’t have the option of dropping in or dropping out – you’ve got to be diligent enough to get through that performance, be there for other people, be there for the audience long enough to get through the show, whereas in film you have the option of messing up and having another crack. Gosh, it’s hard to say what I prefer. I think my heart’s always in theatre but my wallet’s in other places…
Read The Original Monologue
Writer Brooke Robinson, director Stephen McCallum and performer Tom Stokes talk about the writing and making of HUNGER below.