Saturday 25 February 2012

JOHN WESLEY SHIPP - Actor Interview

JOHN WESLEY SHIPP is known to most international audiences for his heartwarming portrayal of Mitch Leery in the hit show 'DAWSON'S CREEK'. He has been working consistently as a screen actor for over thirty years, and when you get to know him, it's obvious to see why. The level of passion and commitment he has for his work is rare and inspiring. I hope you have the time to read the whole interview, because his views on creativity, rejection, and criticism are poignant. John's recent work includes playing 'Eddie Ford' on the show 'ONE LIFE TO LIVE', and you will soon be able to see him in the independent film 'HELL AND MR. FUDGE'. 

What advice can you give to upcoming actors, that can't be found in books and on courses?

I haven't read all of the books on acting, but for me, the only way I have managed to have any peace at all is to prize the WORK over THE BUSINESS. The business will make you crazy, and we have people who take care of that --agents and so forth-- but THE WORK is the reason to be an actor, love of the work.  Making it about that has kept me on target. And I have witnessed actors blown off target by getting it wrong.

Another bit of advice that my first acting teacher gave his class:  If you can be happy doing anything else, go do it;  the statistics are NOT in your favor. But if you have the fire in your belly, then you really have no other choice than to commit. That's why I love reading about the Impressionist's period in French art.... SO PASSIONATE about the work... the doing of which was everything.

And this is true whether you are doing a Tony Award Winning Drama on Broadway (Dancing at Lughnasa, which I was privileged to do) or soaps. I received one of the highest compliments of my career walking in LA shortly after completing my Douglas Cummings stint on 'As The World Turns':  a teacher from the Strasberg Institute stopped me and said, "We just used you, today, as an example of how The Work can be done anywhere, anytime, under any circumstances". You don't have to wait to be accommodated by atmosphere or medium to do The Work. This last gig on 'One Life To Live';  I worked as hard on that, and treated it with as much respect as any primetime or theatre piece or film I have ever done. And I have a film coming out in July, 'Hell and Mr. Fudge' -- a low budget indie, off of which I made very little money, but in which I believe will be some of my best work to date.  And I am very excited by that.

'Mitch Leery,' was the type of character who could have so easily been cheesy, or cliche; but you managed to find the perfect tone and keep him believable. What was it like playing Dawson's Dad?

I have been fortunate to work with good writers;  Douglas Marland in daytime, Kevin Williamson in Dawson's. At the time, the tone of that piece was unlike anything on TV. Later on, with so many rip-offs, etc, and this is true of anything that achieves that level of pop culture success, it became a bit of a joke for a while, didn't it?  I think we are coming through that now, and appreciation of especially the first couple of years, when we were the "critically acclaimed Dawson's Creek" is resurfacing.

You know, I have played superheros and psychopaths..  Mitch was something of an innocent in some ways, don't you think?

He was, definitely. But that's fascinating on screen, like in life, because it's so rare to come across right? It's who we wish we were and think we are, then every night we go to bed realising we are not Jimmy Stewart!

I mean, he left broadcasting to pursue his aquatic themed restaurant, loved his son, his wife, was blind-sided by her affair..... there was a degree of idealism in Mitch.

I mostly tried to find his heart, which was apparent most of the time..... all I had to do was be on set with Mary-Margaret and James --both of whom I adored-- and play the moments as simply and truthfully as I could. There was no artifice in Mitch. He was who he was. I think maybe --and this is very daring-- Mitch pretty much was who you saw. I mean by daring; critics want layers and don't trust sincerity. Well, the character was pretty damned sincere, and I tried to honor that by playing him with as much sincerity as I could muster, knowing that I was opening myself to criticism by those with a more cynical world viewpoint, the criticism of say, naivete, or over-simplification..... that Mitch's lack of artifice would somehow rub off on me, and I would be accused of one or two dimensional acting.

What I loved about Mitch was that I got to play this basically really good guy, with this good heart, making mistakes, adjustments, not immune to anger.... but who really loved his family and his life. In the penultimate episode in which Mitch and Gale are watching Dawson play with Lilly in the yard, Mitch displays  extraordinary self-understanding and acceptance which one might not think he had, but he says "I have this wonderful family" and goes on to say that he might never write a poem or make a movie that will change the world....but that that's okay with him, because he knows he has a son who 'some day WILL DO THAT." That scene for me sums up who Mitch Leery was. A disarming degree of self-awareness and acceptance of the circumstances of his life and his role in it at that moment, that I think the most complex among us wish we had.

I think it's interesting to ask about the rejection you face, as an actor, along with the criticism that you get for the work you do -which you've hinted at- how do you approach and handle it? Does it get easier with more experience?

To paraphrase a great singer on singing:  Handling rejection is never easy; it becomes possible! I have had a lot of affirmation in my career. Early on, a lot of it was because of my looks, specifically my body.... you know, Guiding Light, speedos and 'You Needed Me!'. But even then, I was digging, trying to get at something honest, something pure, something that would engage and communicate the inner world of the audience.

I think this urge was implanted in me as a young musician, learning to play piano at age five, then concert organ in my early teens.  I was fortunate to have Max Smith as my teacher in my early teens. He recognized in me a desire for meaning, and he fed that with the repertoire he chose for me to study and play.... always looking for the reason behind a phrase.... WHY were THESE NOTES put together IN THIS PHRASE, AT THIS POINT in the music..... what was the composer trying to get at? Always these were the questions.

It continued as an opera theatre major at Indiana University, where I studied voice with Jean Deis and Walter Cassel (who sang Scarpia to Callas' Tosca at the Met in 1958 and was Horace Tabor in the premier recording of THE BALLAD OF BABY DOE with Beverly Sills, and Wagner with Birgit Nilsson..), with a minor in piano, which meant I was working with grad students whose focus was art. In classical music, there was this knowledge that we were studying music that was, as Maurice Boyd once put it, too great to be played, or sung. Performed in other words. And it was this indoctrination into a feeling that what we were doing as performers had social significance. I'll never forget Kate Nelligan's performance in PLENTY on Broadway.... it was a life changing experience.... I saw it three times. THIS was what we were after.... and I think I carried that into whatever I did. Naively? Certainly. But I'm not sorry.

I recently received a Google alert about a little firestorm that resulted on a blog, about me having said that LA attacks my self-esteem in an interview. Well, I was pulled into seeing what the comments were... and I even broke the rule.... I commented. Well, when you go snooping around on the Internet to find out what people are saying about you, you better gird your loins so to speak, because a lot of it is going to be complimentary, gracious and kind, and some of it will be indifferent (the worst!). And some of it will be cruel. I suppose you learn to filter out the cruel, I respond to criticism in which people I think have misunderstood my intent. Like with Eddie Ford on 'One Life To Live'. One complaint was that I was not what was expected in a soap opera villain, that I was even at times "unintentionally funny", which is about the highest praise you can get I guess, when you are playing something for humor. Well, my instinct is to engage the criticism and the conversation --surprising to fans sometimes, they don't think it's me at first.    But I usually have a very strong reason for the choices I make and I don't mind --not defending them exactly-- but explaining them.

But, yes, when you do what you think is an awesome audition and you hear nothing, that's hard.  Also, my first manager in LA --Hank McCann-- gave me a very important piece of advice when I went to tackle the role of FLASH which was so physically demanding and the hours so long and days to nights and back.....he saw that I was really working too hard, and worrying too much about every little detail of my performance...

And he said, "John, in series television, if you score in 40% of the role, you will be considered a fine actor.  So pick your moments. A season is 22 episodes long; don't wear out by episode 3."  Ha! It kind of took the pressure off.  And I was pleased to see how well received the acting was by the critics.... I mean, for a superhero/sci fi show whose bread and butter was special effects, I was singled out for some high praise in my execution of Barry Allen.  So, you hold onto that and keep going.

What's really apparent to me, especially today with your answers; is how much passion you have for TV, theater, film, music-- and for me, that is such a key thing, because people think that success as an actor just comes by luck, or by chance. But I've always believed it's about doing the groundwork, putting the hours in, surviving through the struggle. I mean, this all started when you were playing the piano at age FIVE! That's when your curiosity began for the arts. This interview is for 'Kid In The Front Row' - so I guess my question at the end of all that is, do you see a link between who you are now as an actor, and where you were as a five year old learning to play the piano?

I mean, I was five, so obviously, knew nothing.... but the reason I was given piano lessons so early was because I was drawn to it. Whatever it is that is communicated through sound, as a child I wanted to make that sound. And I had to first learn my ABC's which my piano teacher taught me, so she could teach me the keys!

She took me on with some reservation, she had never had so young a student before, but she would give it a whirl, yes?

And I demonstrated an affinity for making music. Recently someone said to me, "You live out your life  between a fierce desire for independence -- of thought, expression, and an almost desperate desire to connect, to be understood." Another friend once observed after I said something, I guess, self-revealing--"You say what you really think and feel, even when it would be in your best interest if you didn't."Ha!

This connects somehow.  There is this wide-eyed boy at the piano on which he has previously only banged and made noise, submitting himself to the discipline of theory and practice, because he wants to be heard. Listen, I am suffering under no delusion that I am a GREAT actor--- I could have been, I believe, a great musician, but that is another story of how I diverged from that path (laughs)--nor am I the smartest person on the planet, but I try, as best I can, to be true to certain values of communication, what's important, why stand on a stage and expose yourself to all kinds of public judgement in the only career at which everyone is an expert haha!

John, I think you underestimate your wisdom and expertise when it comes to what you do.

I know I'm a good actor, at times even a fine actor. But GREAT is a category reserved for the very few.

I have tried to keep at the forefront the reason for doing it.... that if you are honest and do your work, you WILL in my experience sound a chord which will set up a sympathetic vibration in some others, and they respond by telling you ways in which you have influenced their lives, or given them hope, or made them understand something about themselves or their situation from an angle they hadn't previously considered, or simply made them laugh, or presented them with an object on which to vent their scorn ha!   Something... there will be a response. And I guess this is where the "almost desperate desire to connect" comes in.

You know, I appear at conventions from time to time. And it amazes me how mechanically some actors go through that process. There is this outpouring of support and gratitude and admiration..... there is even the occasional person who goes by you and says loud enough for you to hear, "I have NO idea who THAT is." Ha! In other words, there is this outpouring of human energy coming at you.  WHY would you sit there and not engage? I mean it's exhausting HAH! but sometimes it's like it's the only thing that makes sense. I don't know how to explain that.  And I don't mean just at conventions.

You know there is only ever a split second at a time of satisfaction.

Someone expresses interest in you for a role. Great. Maybe you have to audition, maybe you don't. If you do, you immediately engage the preparation with the accompanying anxiety that audition brings. Then you sweat that out, and you get the part...... there is one split second of joy, before the obligation of fulfilling the expectations of the job --mostly your own-- fill you with anxiety. Will I be good enough? Will I like what I do? You find your choices, you become invested in them. And you commit, this can bring you a lot of praise, but also cause conflict when what you've found doesn't match someone else's preconception. Then you balance the strength of your commitment to your choice against,  again, the desire to connect, to please, to win approval, and if it's important enough, you stick to your guns. Then you do it, you wait with anxiety for the reaction, your own reaction, and maybe you and others like it. A sigh of relief. And then you wonder what will be next and the process repeats itself. I know, right now, that I am being as honest in my answers to your thought-provoking questions as I can be. I also have a sense of dissatisfaction at my ability to communicate in this way what I think. I also know that some readers will read it and go, "Oh what a load of shit" or simply put it down and not read it. Others might find something to relate to. You know, it's the same in acting/singing. You show up. You do your work. You try, if you care, not to let the judgement and cynicism of others shut down your instrument, nor the praise too.

That is such an incredible answer which I relate to strongly.

I don't know how that relates to my being five, except... sophistication be damned... I choose to show up, wide open, and learn the friggin alphabet so I can play the instrument.

My wonderful voice teacher, Mahon Bishop, in NYC, we were working on a piece, Mahler I think, the first of the Kindertotenlieder.... at at one point he stopped and said the most amazing thing: "And that's why you labor and labor and labor to understand YOUR INSTRUMENT.  So that when I get to a phrase like (he sang, it could apply to the delivery of a line as well) I am free to do what I need to do.  You can like it?  Or not.  I am free to do what I need to do." That about sums it up, I think.

Care to share?


  1. wow what an awesome and inspiring interview! Tho i am not really a fan of JWS per se', i did LOVE the Flash TV show and thought he nailed the part perfectly! i also remember his outrageous turn as "Steroid Roy" on NYPD blue!

  2. John Wesley . . . as one with more than a passing interest in the quality of the movie "Hell and Mr. Fudge," I am happy to say that your representation of my father in that movie--a man who died 40 years ago and whom you never met--is superb, no, make that GREAT! Thanks, my friend! (See JWS in trailer at ) - Edward Fudge

  3. My dear Edward, I am much moved by your comment. It is a high honor to have worked beside you on HELL AND MR FUDGE, and to remain your friend. My very best to you and your lovely wife.

  4. I love the commentary. Mr. Shipp's has a long-running acting career. His experience is vast, diverse and indeed perfectly nails each role and its challenges. Bravo!

  5. Mr. Shipp, if you're reading this, I think you're a great, underrated actor. I loved the interview and I wish you the very best. Plus, I'm really looking forward to your performance on the upcoming Flash TV show, which I have high hopes for.
    Best regards,