Canadian Virtuoso: A chat with actor Nick Mancuso- An interview by Nate Hill

My first interview ever, revisited three years later. Nick is still out there making great art, and this was a fantastic chat!

Recently I had the great honour and privilege to have a chat with legendary Canadian actor, producer and writer Nick Mancuso, an accomplished man of the arts with a career spanning over forty years in film, television and theatre. He has appeared in countless films, including the Under Siege series with Steven Seagal, Rapid Fire with Brandon Lee, Black Christmas, Ticket To Heaven, Captured, Mother Lode alongside Kim Basinger and Charlton Heston, Heartbreakers, In The Mix and countless hidden gem indies. Early in his career he starred in the popular NBC series Stingray, also appearing in shows like Totall Recall 2070, Wild Palms, The Hitchhiker, Poltergeist: The Legacy, The Hunger, Call Of The Wild in which he played John Thornton, The Outer Limits, The Firm, and more. He has also served as the artistic director for the Pier One Theatre in Halifax, during his epic career. He has a wealth of knowledge and experience, some of which he was kind enough to share with me. Here is our interview:

Nate: You have a ferocious intensity and frenzy to a lot of your work, which is equal parts scary, and fascinating. How did you stumble upon that energy and rambunctious, unique vibe within yourself, and apply it to your work throughout your career?

Nick: That’s a good question. What are it’s origins? I guess I was born with it, but I suspect some of it comes from my early childhood experiences in the heart of southern Italy right after the war, in 1948. There was much suffering, much poverty and infant mortality was at 75 percent. These were terrible times, and I almost died from an intestinal infection at age 2. I remember vaguely fighting for my life,  battling to stay alive. In those days people were starving to death in my town of Mammola, and the great migrations for survival began, with almost 18000 people migrating to foreign lands like France, Luxembourg, Belgium, Canada, USA, Australia, Argentina, Brazil. We left in order to survive, in order to have a new life. My family was part of those migrations. I remember my mother, my baby sister and I came in a steerable in the belly of the troop ship the Vulcania from Naples to Halifax. I had to adjust to a whole new life, a new language and a new country. I very much sympathize with those poor people crossing the Mediterranean and dying trying to get to Italy. 7000 drowning every year, it’s a terrible plight of genocidal proportions while the world does nothing. I understand what it means to be an immigrant, to be rejected and to have to fight for everything in order to survive. I suppose those early experiences marked me with that ferocious intensity you refer to. To me the eye of the Tiger is very real. It’s ironic or somehow fitting that my town was also the birthplace of another man who gained world prominence. His name was Pepe Luca and they did a film about his struggles as a warrior in Vietnam, with Sylvester Stallone portraying him. His name was Rambo.

Nate: Thank you for sharing that Nick. You studied psychology early in lif. Did you find that helpful in your acting work, with forming characters?

Nick: I think the study of psychology is mostly a waste of time. As far as the craft and yes the art of acting goes. I refer to the work as psycho-physical labor, which is a misnomer because it implies dualism and really full engagement in the reality of the moment is all that truly matters. Acting is being nothing else. The true actor becomes and is transformed by the imagination, inspired by the vision of the writer, the screenwriter and the playwright. We all have within us the potential for all being and all states of human and yes, even non human consciousness. The actor has a duty to the truth, an impossible task ultimately. All children are natural actors. But we lose that ability as we grow up. It is as Einstein said, that he continued as a grownup to ask the same questions he asked as a child. It very much is child’s games with adult rules, as Sondra Seacat stated. Any knowledge that will fire up the imagination and cause it to manifest into Action is useful, providing it engages the imagination. This is what I’ve meant by Stanislavakian inspiration – to breathe in. Henry Irving, the great British actor of the last century, said of acting that it was a paradox. The actor is and is not himself. It’s the difference between the dry dead notes on the page and the living music of life. No, the study of behavioural psychology was of no value whatsoever as far as the art and craft of acting goes. I did however find the study of homeopathic medecine and Hahnemann’s Materia Medica to be somewhat useful, and Karl Jung very helpful. Very much it’s a child’s game with adult rules. It’s ridiculous to take any of it seriously, what is however necessary is what Constantin Stanislavsky referred to as “gladness”, a glad heart and lightness of spirit, which is easier said than done. Heart surgery is serious business, acting is not.

Nate: Black Christmas: Was that really your voice on the phone as the prowler? (which was terrifying by the way). How did that job find you?

Nick: Yes that was my voice. “Its me Billy”. I did it standing on my head to compress my thorax, but Bob Clark the director did some as well, and a Toronto theatre actress whose name escapes me (mugsy Sweeny?) sorry can’t recall, but I did a play with her by Des Macnuff (directed Jersey Boys on Broadway) at the old Toronto free theatre now, Canstage. I was a stage actor, I don’t even think I got a credit, and it’s ironic that that first little film became a cult hit. I recently did an interview and narration for the re-release by Anchor Bay. I think I made a hundred bucks and never a cent since then. Ain’t showbiz grand?

Nate: Stingray: How was it in a lead role for a television series? Did it shift things greatly in your career at the time?

Nick: Well yeah…it did.. I was starring in my own tv series for NBC…short lived as it was. Two years after it was cancelled they realized they had a hit and tried to reorder it, but I was starring in another short lived series called Matrix, weirdly enough with Carrie Anne Moss, who went on to do the hit movie The Matrix.  The two had nothing to do with each other, but my career had been filled with such oddities. By the way Stingray was based on a pilot I wrote, or at least improvised with Stephen J Cannell called Shack. Steve,  who was truly a great soul, let me write it with him when I was first put under option for ABC in 77. I will always miss Stephen J Cannell who was the Shakespeare of TV in the 70s and 80s, from Rockford Files, A-Team, to Hunter, Baa Baa Black Sheep, Wise Guy and 21 Jump St. A truly amazing creative force and it was an honor to have worked with him. He died young and is very much missed. …

Nate: You have an astounding background in theatre, including the Vancouver Playhouse. How does it compare to film for you, does your passion lie with one more than the other, or have both been equally good to you?

Nick: Theatre is sculpture, film is painting, it takes art and craft. In both cases but they are different mediums and demand different techniques. Brando was a great film actor, the greatest. So was Marilyn Monroe. Olivier was a great stage actor. It’s rare you find both in one artist like Michelangelo, who could both sculpt and paint. I use the analogy of the jet fighter and the astronaut. The stage actor is a jet fighter. He’s in charge. He’s flying the plane, and the film actor is the astronaut, he’s flying higher, he’s flying faster,  every one knows his name but he ain’t flying the pod. The editor, the director and the cinematographer are. It’s not necessary to be an actor to be a star, but it helps. Of the two mediums I like both. Neither have been particularly good to me, but to my mind acting is a vocation, not a profession. Like the priesthood, the true actor is called to it. He or she had no choice but to act…but it is as Brando stated in the end: “a mugs racket”. Would I have done anything else in a career that now spans almost 45 years? Nope. It’s been a great run. Actors are born, not made.

Nate: I’ve heard that you were considered for the role of Indiana Jones. Is there a story behind that?

Nick: Yes, I met with Stephen Spielberg 4 times for the role of Indiana Jones. He screen tested me alone, just him and a camera. One day I walked into his office, and there was a blowup of a check for 80 million dollars, his cut of Star Wars. When he and lucas were students they made a deal that they would share in each others successes and the check was his share. I was told years later that I was the top contender for Indiana Jones. Harrison Ford was a much better choice in my mind, and obviously in the mind of the world. It became one of the highest grossing movies of all time, catapulting Harrison Ford into the celestial heights of film. It’s like all our destinies turn on a dime. Had I gotten the role, my life would have been radically different, but then on the other hand I might not be here typing these words on an Android. Who knew Steve Jobs would create Apple, and that Facebook and Twitter would revolutionize the world we live in? How many steve jobs are out there who just happened to miss one tiny bit of the equation?

Nate: Do you have any upcoming films that you are excited about and would like to mention?

Nick: Yes I’m excited about a film I did called The Performance, beautifully written and directed by Stephen Wallis. It deals with an old stage actor (me) who returns to the theatre he began his career in 40 years ago. I don’t want to give the plot away but it’s the best work I’ve done since Ticket to Heaven, where I was submitted by MGM/UA for a Golden Globe and Oscar nomination. I’m also excited by a film I wrote and star in entitled Born Dead, a neorealustic feature shot on the cold wintry streets of Toronto, about an actor who decides to end it all …powerful performances by local Canadian actors Sean Mcann and Tony  Rosati, as well as a host of street lunatics, alcoholics and drug addicts. It’s in post, and directed by a very talented Armenian Canadian named Robert Gulassarian who to my mind has a real future in the business. On Sept 13 in Toronto at the Toronto Indie Film Festival my film on the life of the beat American poet Gregory Corso will screen at the Carlton Cinemas. I star and cowrote it, and it was shot in Rome, Los Angeles and Calabria, directed by very able and talented young Italian director Matteo Scarfo. I’m hoping to start rehearsals on my Play, Sinatra American Faust, on the life of Frank Sinatra, at the national theatre of Romania which has staged one of my first plays, Dumneu es unMafiot (God is a gangster). As usual I have a lot of irons in the fire and hope to continue doing this work as long as I am able.

Nate: Your work has been an immense inspiration to me in my own process as an actor. Do you have any advice for aspiring students in the craft? Not as far as making it, or finances or anything, more along the lines of honing the craft, creating the characters, and your process.

Nick: At the root of it all is inspiration …The act of creation has only two mortal enemies: seriousness and fear. These two qualities flatten the life force and the artists ability to leap and play. Don’t listen to naysayers and critics, because if they knew what they were talking about, they would be doing it, instead of sitting in the sidelines. Acting has one word in it: Act. Action, Motion, Movement. It’s all about getting off your ass and doing, with the sure knowledge that 9 out of 10 times that bull is going to throw you. I admire bull riders, because they have the qualities an actors needs. Flexibility, resiliency and the ability to brush yourself off with your hat and get back on. They also have two other necessary qualities: The ability to have extensive courage, and the ability to withstand great pain. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Nate: Wow. You have answered my questions and then some, Nick. I am profoundly grateful for this, it’s a wealth of information, and I feel honoured to have spoken with you, even over the cyber causeways of the Internet. Thank you so much for your time and words, it means a lot.

Nick: You’re welcome, Nate.

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