Meet the Artist: DISCORD Actor Armin Shimerman
AUTHOR: Erin Treat, Online Engagement Coordinator
Armin Shimerman plays Count Leo Tolstoy in ATC’s latest production, The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord. He’s best known for his work on the science-fiction series Star Trek:Deep Space Nine and the fantasy series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He’s also an accomplished voice and theatre actor and currently serves as the Associate Artistic Director of the Antaeus Theatre Company in Los Angeles.
Most of our audience is going to recognize you from your work on TV, but you actually started in theatre at the Old Globe, is that right?
Yes, that’s exactly right. I was very fortunate. I had an audition for the prestigious Old Globe towards the end of my senior year of college. There were 800 people that auditioned for eight roles, and I was lucky enough to be chosen one of the eight. I actually didn’t make my graduation ceremonies because I was performing at the Globe, where my passion for Shakespeare was even more inflamed.
Because of a horrible mistake I made at the end of the season, the actors who were from New York convinced me to go to New York instead of staying in San Diego. My career and life has often been dictated by mistakes, by will-o’-the-wisp decisions that take me left instead of right, and then all of a sudden that turns into the right thing to do. Many of my successes are in fact due to those mercurial decisions.
Did you start acting for TV when you moved to New York?
No. You’re talking to perhaps one of the luckiest actors in America. I may not be the most famous, but I am the luckiest. I moved to Connecticut, and I took the train from Connecticut to New York to audition. I imagined it was going to be a rough haul – most actors have a rough haul getting started. I auditioned for the New York Shakespeare Festival at the Public Theater just at the right moment. I did a number of scenes for the casting director in November of ‘75. In January of ‘76, they called me in for a bizarre production of Threepenny Opera, directed by a very iconoclastic director named Richard Foreman. Most Broadway productions want actors with lots of credits, lots of ability, lots of background in the theatre. Richard Foreman didn’t want any of that. He just wanted faces. He wanted interesting, unique, somewhat bizarre faces. And I have one of those faces. I auditioned, I met Foreman at the second audition, and was cast in a Broadway show at Lincoln Center.
Foreman cast me in the Chorus, which is unique since I neither sing nor dance, but none of us in the Chorus had to do that. In addition to my Chorus position, they also gave me two understudy positions, for two characters in the show. The show was abysmally attended during previews – people walked out in droves. Richard has a very bizarre concept of theatre. Not in this production, but he usually attaches actors with string, and they have to keep the string on for the whole production. Opening night came, the New York Times came, the New York Times gave us a huge rave, and our production of Threepenny Opera lasted a year and a half. During the course of that time, I took over the two understudy positions that I’d covered, and I was the only Chorus member to move up in the company. I’m a very, very lucky actor.
It wasn’t until much later that I started in TV. I’m doing a play in New York, and my agent calls and says “We have an audition for you for a pilot, in Los Angeles. Can you go?” And I said, “No, I can’t go, I’m in rehearsal and there’s no time to do that.” They said, “Can you go during your lunch break?” I said, “Okay, alright, I’ll go during my lunch break.” So I went and auditioned and hurried back to the theatre. About ten days later, the phone rang and the agent said, “They want to see you in L.A. for this pilot.” And I said, “I’m going to open soon. I can’t go.” And the agent sort of got ahold of me by the throat and said, “No, you have to go.”
So I flew to L.A., where my family was – I’m from L.A. – and I auditioned for that pilot, and lo and behold, I got it. And it was my first taste of TV, and that world – and more importantly, that money. Even though I was on Broadway, it was a pittance compared to what they were paying me for doing this pilot. About that same time, I proposed to my wife. With every penny I got from the pilot, I bought her engagement ring. After a year, I said to my then-fiancée, “I think we should try both coasts, because you sure can make a lot of money in Los Angeles.” And we left for L.A., I think in ‘83, and we never came back.
Things again were lucky. I had a year and a half of no on-camera work, in the sense of doing either TV or film. But I did do – and I was very successful in New York prior to this – doing commercials. So I did a number of commercials in L.A. to help pay the bills, but we were always having discussions about going back to New York. And then one day, I auditioned for something, and they said, “We’d like to use you.” It was a small part, but that was sort of the icebreaker. After that, I think it’s 80-plus TV shows now.
You were a Star Trek fan before you appeared on the show, is that right?
Yes, I was a Star Trek fan. Again, luck – turning right instead of left, or left instead of right. I was recurring on a wonderful science fiction show called Beauty and the Beast with Ron Perlman. That was basically my apprenticeship to TV. So I was doing that show, very happy to have a recurring role, and Star Trek called my agent and said, “We’d like for you to audition for a talking prop.” And I said, “Great! Great! I’m a big Star Trek fan, I’ll do it!”
I auditioned, and they cast me as the talking prop. Then the agent called a couple days later and said, “I know you’re booked on Star Trek, but unfortunately, Beauty and the Beast needs you the same day as Star Trek does.” And I said, “Okay. I’ll take the Star Trek.” I was a big fan. The agent said, “You can’t do this. Beauty and the Beast is your bread and butter.” And I said, “I’m going to take the Star Trek.” And they yelled at me. I said, “Listen, it’s my choice. I’m a big Star Trek fan, and I’m going to do this.” They had to accede to my wishes; I did the episode.
In TV, once you’ve done an episode, they won’t even consider you for another two or three years as another character, because you’d be too familiar. But in Star Trek, it didn’t make any difference to them. So two weeks later –again, total luck! – they were creating a new, short race, and I’m short, and they said, “Could you come in and audition for the Ferengi?” And I said, “Sure.” I auditioned for one of the first four Ferengi ever seen, and again, I was lucky. I got it. And there was no conflict with Beauty and the Beast for that one, and that first Ferengi, as I’ve been told by Rick Berman, the executive producer of Star Trek – was the initial step to my audition for my character, Quark, on Deep Space Nine.
Did you worry that doing a sci-fi show might keep you from getting other work after it ended?
No, ironically. Getting a series regular is Valhalla for TV actors. And I thought – mistakenly – “I’ll have on all this makeup, nobody’ll ever recognize me. I can go on and do other things.” And, in fact, I could. I did Buffy at the same time.
I don’t think in all the Star Trek franchises, did anyone have as much luck as me. No one that I know of ever did two [scripted] shows at the same time, and I did it. And ironically, I was wrong about the makeup. The character did become iconographic, and people sort of knew who the actor was who played it; and also I did myself a disservice – if you can call it that – because Buffy also became iconographic, so for years I’d walk into an office and people would say, “Oh, I love you on your show!” and I’d have to genuinely say, “Which show?” A nice thing to be able to do!
But, those two characters, I believe, have kept me from getting other work. It is a curse when you are recognizable from a TV show. Unless you’re a leading actor, people aren’t as eager to use you because the audience will say, “Oh! That’s the guy from such-and-such!” and they’ll fall out of the program that they’re watching. So it did sort of hinder my further success, but on the other hand, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
You must’ve been very, very busy during that time, with your simultaneous TV shows. How did you find time to keep up a theatrical work as well?
I didn’t. And that is a regret. It’s part of the reason I’m here now. Through all the years I’ve worked, I’ve always thought of myself as a theatre actor first and foremost. TV is the way to pay the bills. TV can get you a lot of things, but it isn’t as satisfying as working in the theatre. Why? Because when you work on TV, you have about 20 minutes to prepare a scene, and then they send you off and light it and then you shoot it, and whatever the camera gets, whatever magic happens on the set is what your performance is. You don’t really craft it; you luck into it. Whereas, in the theatre, you have lots of time to mold, sculpt, work with the other actors.
It is a regret that in my short hiatuses for seven years when I was doing Star Trek and Buffy, that I didn’t take the time to do more theatre. But they were short – we would finish in May and go back to work in July. We did 26 episodes a season, which is four more than usual, and it is a regret that I didn’t push myself to do a play during those six to eight weeks that I had off.
You have come back to theatre now, though. How did you get involved with this project?
Well that too is luck, you know, right-turns-left-turns.
The first play I ever did – in junior high school – was Twelve Angry Men. I had been part of a radio production of it with some of the actors from the Broadway production and was playing Juror #3, and I fell in love with the play all over again. I heard the Pasadena Playhouse was going to do a production, and I told my agents to please get me an audition for it; I’d done Juror #3 recently, and I’d like to do it onstage again. I kept pushing them to get me an audition, but they kept saying they couldn’t do it, it wasn’t going to happen.
They couldn’t offer that to me, but the casting director was working on another project, Discord. And so they said, “We can’t put Armin in Twelve Angry Men, but would he be interested in doing this new play, Discord?” I read the script and fell in love with it immediately. That usually doesn’t happen. It just spoke to all the things I’m interested in. And I called them back and said yes.
That was for a 99-seat house in NoHo. And then, my luck passed on to the production. What never happens in L.A. is that one of the major regional theatres moves a production from a 99-seat to a LORT situation, and that happened. And then magic again, from there to here.
Had you known a lot about Tolstoy before you joined the cast?
Nothing. Nothing at all. I knew he wrote War and Peace, I knew he wrote Anna Karenina. He lived about 200 years past the period that I’m interested in. As I read about Tolstoy, I was flabbergasted at his accomplishments. His writing accomplishments the world knows, but his religious accomplishments, his social activism, his fight against tyranny, his fight against poverty, his fight against famine, his being excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox Church were startling to me. I’ve played him now over the course of two years, and I’m quite enamored with him. And I sometimes have problems in rehearsal when [director] Matt [August] isn’t as true to the original as I am. But that’s okay, Matt is doing the play, which is most important, and I’m just thinking about the historical character.
And because of my lack of information about Tolstoy, I have to assume that most of our audiences, whether here, or at the Geffen, or at NoHo, have the same ignorance, that all they know is War and Peace and Anna Karenina. So to me, the joy of the performance is not only performing but educating what one would assume is an educated audience to something they don’t know anything about. And perhaps it’s a little startling to them when they realize that this man did as much as he did. In fact, when he died, in Russia he was mourned by the country, but not as a writer, for his social activism. The people knew who he was, and they mourned this man who was their spokesman to the czar.
Do you have a favorite moment you’d like to share with our audience (that doesn’t give anything away)?
I think my favorite moment is the very first nanosecond I’m onstage, when I burst through the door. The audience has just recognized the first two characters. I mean, they know the title of the play, so they have to know that’s Jefferson standing there, and then Dickens comes out. So it’s “Ah, that’s Jefferson, that’s Dickens.” And then I thrust myself onstage. And they know it’s Tolstoy, but that’s all they know – that’s the writer of War and Peace. And I know the next 90 minutes is about educating these people into the accomplishments of what Tolstoy did. Scott [Carter] is either very clever or negligent – one of the two – because neither War and Peace nor Anna Karenina is ever mentioned in the play. Never. And although I say I’m a writer, I would venture to say that’s the only mention, really, of his being a writer. It’s really about his enormous investigation into religion. And the latter part of his life was solely about that. So my favorite moment is that first moment that I burst in the door, and [the audience] goes, “We know that’s Tolstoy, but…so?”