Actor Steve Mouszakis is one of those actors I bet you’ve seen without realizing it, more than once. But that won’t be true for much longer. In the complicated and fascinating role of Steven, he is now mesmerizing audiences with his starring role in THE SUICIDE THEORY. With a long roster of credits in television, feature films as well as short film and stage acting, this classically trained actor is currently returning to the stage in Sydney, Australia in an adaptation of Roman Polanski’s DEATH TO THE MAIDEN. Half a world away I talked about instinct, movie kismet and the glory of Ben Mendelson, and loved every minute of it.
Cinemynx: Hi Steve!
Steve Mouzakis: Hi, how are you?
C: I am well – how are you?
SM: (laughs) I am very well thank you!
C: Are you in the US or are you in Australia right now???
SM: I wish I were in the US – I have a film about to open there. But I’m working now, and it’s good to be working but it’s here in Australia.
C: It’s always good to be working…
SM: It IS good to always be working!
C: I want to start by telling you that I really wasn’t sure what to expect from the film and I am utterly blown away by THE SUICIDE THEORY. It is just a great and powerful film and I am not just trying to be nice. I was born and raised in New York, and ‘nice’ is not part of our DNA!
SM: Oh no – I’ve been to New York, that’s not true! Everyone – you stand there looking at a map – and everyone stops and asks you ‘Where you goin’? You need help?’
C: Well it’s just that we get panicky about anyone who is not in motion…
SM: (Laughs heartily)
C: Apropos of that, I wanted to tell you that in looking back over some of your previous roles, you portrayed some kind of police officer with a great police officer mustache and you do a great Bronx accent! Nice job there!
SM: Oh you liked that?! It was a lot of fun actually…a lot of fun.
C: I found THE SUICIDE THEORY to be really profound, really thought provoking, and your performance truly stuck with me because Steven is legitimately menacing but he’s also incredibly endearing and sympathetic. The scenes where you don your deceased wife’s dress could have easily gone into a kind of farce and you were so able to keep Steven from going there – you completely owned that experience as the character. I think it must have been a hard role and I was so struck by the grace and power that you gave to it.
SM: For me, when I first read the script, those things were the things which really attracted me to it because I thought it is actually quite complex. I owe a lot to Michael (Kospiah) for writing it – it’s his first feature screenplay – and it’s a very very unique voice there and if somebody doesn’t write it, it doesn’t exist. And then of course there’s Dru (Brown, director) for finding that script and then for saying I’ve seen your work. He had seen another Australian film I was in and he said,’THAT ‘S the guy…’ And initially I didn’t quite understand it – until I read the script I didn’t know what he was talking about. I thought, ‘Why me?’ You start reading it and you think “hit-man,” I’ve done films about hit-men before, but the film takes you into a very very different kind of area and there’s a lot of humanity there, even though we are talking about a very unhinged person. It’s shown so much in that monologue that he tells to Leon (Cain, his co-star) about his childhood and that’s very telling. I thought this character is vulnerable, he’s damaged, and there’s a lot of pain and a lot of loss there. So I essentially approached it from that point of view rather than the ‘blow-em-up ’cause I’m a cool guy with a gun’ kind of thing because that’s not really what the movie is about.
C: Exactly. And I think he has this humanity that so easily – you know, being a hit-man – could have easily become a very extreme one dimensional character. Like so many Hollywood blockbuster actors, say Sly Stallone, those performances tend to be less complex characters. No offense to Sly!
SM: Yes absolutely, I do know what you mean, but Sly – have you seen COPLAND? That’s good movie…
C: He has his place…
SM: He has his thing, yes. But with Dru (Brown the director) I think it was a bit of a tough sell for him as well to the producers and them saying, ‘Well…I can’t really see it.’ You know, if you think about that character, you’re probably not going to picture me in that role. So it was a great thing for Dru to go, ‘You know what? It’s not about that – I want a great performance, I want the complexity, I want all these unexpected elements to exist.’ He was very very supportive of my approach and how I wanted to do it, and he just went out and shot it. It was a very quick shoot without a lot of resources and we encountered all sorts of dramas – losing locations – the nightclub where we were supposed to shoot all these scenes burnt down a week before, so we were constantly constantly chasing…but that’s a credit to the very good crew of people that had been assembled. The AD, Darwin Brooks the executive producer, Dru the director and Dan (Macarthur, producer) all the elements ended up coming together just the way they had to and I am very thankful about that. And people like you are getting to see it on the other side of the world. I feel – I think we all feel – well, blessed really.
C: It’s just a phenomenal film. I said that I felt it was one of 2015’s best films and I am not finding many I feel that way about. I do feel that it was one of those magic combinations where everything came together perfectly. Did you have a previous relationship with Dru Brown, or was this a role that came to you through your agent or some other avenue?
SM: That’s no and no there. It was a very very unexpected course of events which led to Dru getting in touch with me, me calling him back, us having a conversation, and it was at the time a gamble on my behalf because I wasn’t really sure at the time. I really liked the script, those guys all sounded great, I just thought, let’s go for it – let’s do this thing, because I think I can bring something really really unique. Although I didn’t have any big lead roles in feature films under my belt, I’ve done a lot of work over a lot of years…
C: Yes you have…quite a lot…
SM: … and with a lot of different people. And I thought, even though we haven’t seen it, I really think I can bring it. Dru had seen some of my work and he said, ‘That’s the guy.’ And, you know, the kinds of films we were referencing, the look of the film, early Michael Mann and THIEF and films like that, I really liked those. I’ve had people say to me, there’s a film starring Michael Shannon where he plays a serial killer (ICEMAN), and that my performance in this reminded them of that role and I thought, ‘that’s good, those are all good things.’ But when I first read the script I couldn’t think of another film that it reminded me of. I don’t go into playing roles or characters referencing other roles or characters. I go in and try and create my own. It’s based on instinct. My reaction or my instinct that comes out of the script, and then once we’re on the set putting all of that into motion with other people, with other actors…
C: Well, you’re creating a new life really…
SM: Yes absolutely. I remember one of the first nights we shot the scenes with Joss McWilliams, a fantastic actor who plays my handler in those bar scenes, and I was really enjoying myself working with Joss to be honest, because I had seen him when I was younger and I thought, ‘Wow, this is really cool for us to be doing this!’ I said to Dru at the end of the first scene that we shot, ‘I know who he is, I know who his (Joss’) character is…” And Dru said, ‘Who'” And I said, ‘It’s my dad.’ Which is not in the script and it’s not in the film either.
C: But you completely understand that – that was my interpretation at least. I think one of the most beautiful things about that in the finished product is that the cinematographer and the art director were able to, in those scenes in the club where you to sit opposite the table from each other, bathe Joss in this red light. It’s subtle but it’s very effective. It is spot on. You’ve done so many different things, you’ve done a tremendous amount of television, you’ve done short films, you’ve done numerous live theater roles, and you’ve done a big Hollywood-head-encased-in-makeup role in I, FRANKENSTEIN, and I watched that and I thought to myself, “dear God, bless you because it has to be so hard to act through all of that!”
SM: [Laughs heartily] That was a lot of fun! It was actually just a lot of fun. I liked all the people involved with that, Stuart Beattie the director, and going into a film with Aaron Eckhart – we had a lot of fun working together – and of course there was Bill Nighy…
C: …absolutely. You had fantastic fellow cast members. As you move forward through your career is there something that you have not yet done that you really want to do? Do you find yourself yearning to focus more on independent projects? Or going back to live stage acting?
SM: I am currently going back to the stage. That’s what’s happening for the next two months while I’m here (in Sydney Australia). I’m doing a show here at the STC (the Sydney Theatre Company), I’m doing a production of DEATH AND THE MAIDEN, I don’t know if you remember the old Roman Polanski film with Ben Kingsley, so I’m doing that at the moment. If I weren’t engaged in that I’d be over in the States promoting the release of the film. After that…I’m not sure. There are all these things that you want to do as an actor, sometimes things happen the way they are meant to happen when they are meant to happen, so you have to be patient and you have to be open to whatever it’s going to be, like for example, Dru calling me out of the blue and saying I want you to be in this film. This film was just meant to be, you know?
C: Yes…I do.
SM: I certainly want to get back to the stage later this year or early next year. I’ve been traveling back and forth – I shot a film in Alaska last year (SUGAR MOUNTAIN) with director Richard Gray. I’d certainly like to work on stuff over there more and there’s some great television that’s happening over there as well particularly on some of the cable networks in America. I’ve read some of those scripts and I thought ‘Whoah, this is amazing.’
C: I am really not into television- I am truly a film person, but I find myself succumbing lately to some of the series because they are just so well written and performed.
SM: Yes, some of the long form series on television…I watched recently, for example, Ben Mendelsohn in a series called BLOODLINE…
C: I LOVE Ben Mendelsohn!
SM: Oh…(laughing) Ben Mendelsohn is…THE. MAN. And you know, I’m so glad that people in America ask me questions about Ben Mendelsohn, who I do not know personally, but as a kid I grew up watching Ben Mendelsohn, so I’m just glad that the rest of the world gets to enjoy that man’s very fine work, as we always have. So, the short answer is, I don’t know what’s coming but I’m in a pretty good place right now so we’ll see…We will just see what comes up in the next little while.
C: Since you are going to be engaged in the theater for the next few months, I know I’ve spoken with other actors who do stage work, and they feel it gives them…sort of…a reset button to hone their skills. Do you feel that way about doing live theater? Or does it give you something altogether different?
SM: It’s different. The challenges are different being on film than they are being on stage. This is a very challenging play, but yes, you are flexing different kinds of muscles, and you just find that when you’re on the stage there is a lot depending on you. You are more in command there, it’s more that there’s no filter on the stage. Film is a very collaborative medium, and everybody has their part… The director, the editor, but it’s really a directors medium. You are seeing it through their eyes. And when you’re on stage, yes, you have a script, you have the director, but ultimately the audience will experience the story through you and that is a different muscle to flex. Ultimately we are all just telling stories and that keeps you engaged, but once you come out of it (a live theater role) you often think, ‘Oh I’d love to go shoot something right about now.’ (Laughing)
C: (Laughing) I want to ask you – I wonder if being on stage is somehow less comfortable for you as an actor and if there’s something about that that appeals to you?
SM: Well, when you’re doing a film the audience is the camera, and of course when you do live theater you have an actual audience. We use mikes now so that affords you the ability to be more subtle on stage but in the end it’s not really that different. I was classically trained and theater was the first thing I learned to do so I feel comfortable doing it. I now feel comfortable doing films but I wasn’t initially because I wasn’t trained to do it. I learned from watching other actors, great actors, watching them and understanding, ‘Ah, I see, that’s what you have to do there,’ but again, really, it is all instinct. It’s knowing where your audience is and knowing this is how you tell the story. Sometimes on screen less is more, but you can get away with really less on-screen, and you have to be more truthful -you have to be truthful. That camera, it sees into you, the camera comes to you, you don’t go to it, and that’s the ultimate difference.
C: Did you come from a family where the arts were stressed? Were the arts an important part of life? And do you remember what it was that made you first think, that’s what I want to do – acting?
SM: The answer is no, my parents were working-class people who had a very working-class kind of life, there was no stress on art. If you asked my parents they would say that it was just always there in me. It wasn’t encouraged or discouraged it was just a part of me. My mother talks about coming home from a party, or a family gathering, and me doing impersonations of the people in the backseat of the car. My parents found it very natural, they just realized, that’s who he is. The process of becoming an actor – I was really into films as a teenager – watching people like Sean Penn, Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino, and those guys electrified me. Those films from the ’70s really set me on fire. But it wasn’t until I was in my early 20’s that I thought seriously, ‘This is what I want to do.’ So the process for me has always been a process of self realization if you like. The process of becoming an actor was not something I put on myself, it was something I was. I don’t know if that makes sense…
C: It absolutely makes sense. I do think that there are many actors for whom it comes from a place of passion and talent. But there are also actors too, perhaps, they are children of performers and they understand that world and they already know how to live that life so it’s not that they are without talent, but maybe it’s more that they know how to play the game.
SM: They understand the system that they are in. That’s all been a discovery for me as I go through my life, what it is, this industry that I’m in, how it all works. But there’s no right or wrong way, people say, ‘Oh she didn’t do this, or, he didn’t go to drama school,’ but at the end of the day if you can do it, you can do it, and if you can do it you can get better at it. That’s one thing I do know. And there are no rules and no one deserves any more than anybody else, regardless of what you did to get there. The only thing that counts for me now is what I’m going to go put on that stage. That’s it. That’s how you live. And I like it like that, to be honest I really do.
C: Well you’ve made the life work well for you and the work fit well into your life. That’s something I think most people want regardless of their industry. And it’s tough…
SM: Sometimes it’s really difficult to negotiate that but I think in the end things work out the way they are meant to work out.
C: I agree. Much like the film…!
SM: Yes… Exactly! Exactly like the film!
C: Steve, sadly our time is up but it’s been such a pleasure to speak with you and I’m so eagerly looking forward to seeing your next works of art. Thank you so much.
SM: Thank you.
Cinemynx Interviews STEVE MOUZAKIS