“Skill level aside, if you’re willing to show up and do the work, I will teach you. I will get down in the dirt and struggle with you. If you’re willing and present and prepared to do what it takes, I’m here for you and it’s on. Because that’s what it’s going to take to be successful out there.”
Marc-Anthony Massiah’s Credits include The A-Team, Smallville, Fringe, The Killing, and Once Upon a Time. He is currently starring in A&E’s Bates Motel.
When did you get the first inkling that you wanted to be an actor?
Growing up, I did a lot of different things, from brushing horses to pumping gas to office work to working in a shipping yard. But I was raised to be a free thinker, more of an entrepreneur than an employee. The whole nine-to-five thing never made sense to me. Then in my mid-twenties, I started doing extra work.
What prompted your start as an extra?
At first, honestly, it was the money. I was like, free money for having fun and I get to be in a movie? That was amazing to me. That, plus the freedom to not be stuck doing a desk job. It started with my car. A film being produced nearby was looking for someone who could simply drive by in a car and they wanted to pay me a hundred bucks for the car and twenty-two dollars an hour as an extra. Ten hours on set made what seemed, at the time, a fortune. So I was in and I took it super seriously.
I would create identities for my characters, give them names and backstories and families, make them real people, at least to me. I played a prisoner once on TV and I made up a card game I had to play with this other guy, I imagined the crime I had committed just to give myself a sense of who I was. I mean, it was just fun to pretend even if my character was far in the background. I hate seeing extras in scenes that don’t look like they’re “in the movie” and I didn’t want to be that guy. And that job with the car opened up a second opportunity for me. One of the extras on that project was fired for flirting with a lead and they asked me if I wanted to stay and play a cop. Turns out the lead in question was Halle Barry so now I’m nervous, not wanting to offend her or screw up. One of my first actions was to open a prison door, which ended up being lighter than it looked, so of course I swung it wide open and nailed her right in the shoulder.
How did Ms. Berry react to that?
I was mortified. I said I was sorry, that there was probably a place in hell where actors get to kill extras when they hurt them. But she said, no, it’s okay, she should watch where she’s going, too. So I asked her how I should address her if I had any questions, told her that, as an extra, I didn’t want to get fired. But she was so gracious. She said, extras are actors, too, that the film couldn’t exist without us. Her words were an affirmation of the work I’d put into being the best extra I could be, a beautiful validation for my natural process as an actor. I always thought I was the weird one, going the extra mile, not just dialing it in, staying in character because the camera could start rolling at any time. Extras matter. Because it’s all acting, and any performance worth doing is worth doing well. The following week, I was in acting classes.
So extra work was the tipping point for you?
Definitely. I said to myself, if I’m already doing this in the background, why not move into the foreground? It also spoke to me at a deeper level. I’d always been surrounded by artists and free thinkers as a kid. In school, I was the class clown. I had a lot of energy. I was terrible at math and science, but I was always good at English composition and anything where I got to use my imagination. I also liked to study people, their behavior, their emotions, what made them tick. So when the opportunity came along to get into acting, it took all of those things, brought them together, and gave them a purpose. My tendencies to act out, to analyze people, to imagine crazy situations and scenarios suddenly went from being weird to being a really powerful skill set. It’s not that those things were leading me to acting, at least consciously, but when acting came into my life, it made sense of the things that made me me. Acting felt like home. It still feels that way.
Where did you train?
The Acting Project in Montreal, which I’m not sure exists anymore. I lived in Montreal for 26 years, did my training there, then moved to Vancouver at 27.
What prompted your move to Vancouver?
While I was training, an actor friend, Elias Toufexis, had booked a feature film and I went to Toronto for the premiere. That really opened my eyes, observing the success he was enjoying. It wasn’t just the money. I thought, my God, to be rewarded in this way, to be able to make a living just playing, that was just incredible to me. Then Elias moved to Vancouver and I followed the year after. I had a one-way ticket, two bags, two thousand dollars cash, two thousand on a credit card, and no idea where I was going to work.
No auditions lined up, no prospects, nothing. You just took a leap of faith?
I went all in. I moved to Broadway and Eleventh and the rent was through the roof. It was hard. I didn’t work for two months. There was a hot dog cart on the corner, so I’d have a hot dog for lunch and another for dinner, and just vary the toppings. Then I moved to South Vancouver where I got work at a shipping company and eventually a role in a local production of Hamlet with Elias. After that, I started taking classes with Vancouver Acting School in its early days and working in the office. Meanwhile, I continued to do extra work and, thanks to a switch in agents, I began going out for auditions. Only this time around, I was able to take all that experience I’d had as an extra, all the terminology I’d learned and the professionalism I’d been committed to, and really up my game. So when I started booking bigger roles, it wasn’t a radically different experience. It was just like being an extra, only on steroids and with the camera paying more attention. Like Halle Berry said, in the end we’re all actors, playing our roles and getting it done. That realization had a very calming, peaceful effect on me.
Would you recommend extra work to new actors, then?
Without question. Anyone, especially someone just getting started, should take extra work. Take it, take it, take it. Sit down, shut up, observe. And don’t waste your time engaging with people who just want to commiserate, complain about the food, that kind of stuff. If you’re anywhere near the set, always be learning. Watch the rehearsals, watch the blocking, pay attention to what the other actors are doing, ask them questions. You can’t put a price on all of that.
Besides your role as Jake on Bates Motel, what else have you got going on?
I changed agents recently. I was with the same agent for about three years and it was going well, but I’m just in a demographic where it seems I should be auditioning more often and I needed someone who would be a little more aggressive. Someone who would put me in the room for roles I know I’m suited for, who would negotiate harder. I even had actor friends who would show me their sides and ask why I wasn’t auditioning for certain roles they thought I was ideal for. In some cases, I didn’t even know these roles were up so I asked my agent, why aren’t you putting me in the room for this?
Is it difficult to change agents?
The process isn’t tough but it can be hard emotionally, almost like a break-up. I’m a loyal guy, almost to a fault. But the death of an actor is loyalty to an agent. It’s not personal, you just need an agent who’s in your corner, who’s going to fight for you.
You’ve been an instructor at Vancouver Acting School since 2013. When you walk into that classroom, what do you want to bring to your students?
Number one, total honesty. I aspire to be as honest with my students as I expect them to be with me. We’re going to explore some serious human emotions in class, so we need to free those emotions up. We need to be fully human, fully ourselves, flaws and all. I’m not afraid to let my students see my flaws and that, in turn, frees them up to be fully themselves. Some people think being an actor requires having a split personality, but that’s not the case. Acting isn’t about being two different people, it’s about digging deep and finding within yourself what’s already there and letting it out. Acting should always be an authentic extension of yourself, brought to the surface by the skills you acquire in your training. That begins by connecting in a deep way with your truest self, your history, your memories, your emotions, your triggers, all of it. Actors need a safe space to learn how to do that, and in the classroom, that begins with me. So honesty is everything.
Second, I am committed to training anyone who gets up in the morning and drags himself or herself to class on time. That alone shows potential and I’m committed to working with anyone who will do that, anyone willing to be honest and receptive.
So attitude is everything?
Skill level aside, if you’re willing to show up and do the work, I’m yours. I will get down in the dirt and struggle with you, I will fight for you, I will do everything in my power to help you succeed. Regardless of where you’re at today in terms of skill or talent. If you’re willing and present and prepared to do what it takes, I’m here for you and it’s on. And I insist on that, because that’s the attitude it’s going to take to be successful out there.
Thirdly, I try to be the best teacher I ever had, so that I can be the best teacher they ever had. Which means being non-judgmental, focusing on students as individuals, discovering how each of them learns best. Meeting them where they are, rather than just cramming information and my way of doing things down their throats.
What advice would you give someone embarking on the actor’s journey?
Stick with it. Sure, it feels scary sometimes, hard, unrewarding. But if you persevere, years from now, you’ll look back and it will all make sense, it will all be worth it. Give it everything you’ve got. Be willing to “go there”. Regardless of the success you experience on film or on stage, the things you discover about yourself in your training, rehearsals, and performances just can’t be measured. As an actor, you become less cynical, less judgmental. You understand people better, become a better listener. Being forced to climb into another person’s psyche, to understand their behavior and motivations – whether they’re a president, a criminal, a lover, a parent – inevitably makes you more empathetic and understanding toward others. Contrary to what some people think, acting is where life happens. So let it happen and enjoy the ride!
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