The So-and-So Profiles shines a spotlight on Michael Vaccaro, a 20-year veteran of the New York stage who now lives in Los Angeles to launch a television career.
1. When, where and how did you get hit by the acting bug?
I feel like I came out of the womb knowing that I was gay and knowing that I wanted to be an actor. It was very clear. There was never any question about it; there were never any thoughts about doing anything else. It just always was.
2. What was your first role -- professional or otherwise?
I was in theatre camp. When I was 6 or 8 I played Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. When I was in elementary school, my best friend (who is now a Broadway actress named Natalie Toro) and I formed a group together. There were about five or six of us and we performed shows for the school.
My first professional job was with Columbia Records. I got a contract with them when I was kid. They wanted a kid singer -- a Donny Osmond type. I then recorded a song on the soundtrack of a film. That’s how I got into SAG.
3. Where does your focus lie -- stage, film, TV or either?
Stage, definitely. Not anymore, but when I was growing up. That’s what I was doing for twenty years -- mostly musical theatre.
Now I want to make money, so I want a television series that lasts for seven years and then I get paid a lot of money so I don’t have to work ever again. Then they find you working in a supermarket in New Mexico somewhere. I’m good with that.
4. What is your dream role or type of role?
My favorite television series of all-time was Rhoda. I grew up in New York City surrounded by Italians and Jews. She was the epitome of the people I grew up with.
I would love to play an urbane, thirtysomething gay guy in New York City – a gay Rhoda.
Gay characters on television are still mincing queens and I hate it. And they are asexual. I want to play a gay character who’s not a mincing queen. I want to play a gay guy who’s young and attractive and loves men without a swish, a snap and all that.
5. Do you want to win an Emmy, Oscar, Tony or a Grammy?
I want to win a Tony. And an Oscar. And an Emmy. I want to win a Golden Globe and I want to win that stupid People’s Choice Award.
Because I’m a recording artist as well, I want to win a Grammy. Oh yeah, and I can do a SAG Award.
6. What would you say in your acceptance speech?
There was this one person who said to me a very long time ago to my face that I was never going to make it as an actor. I would like to call her out by name in my acceptance speech. I am not sure if I would actually do it but in my fantasy acceptance speech I would.
I would want to talk about what Sarandon talked about in her acceptance speech when she won the Oscar. There’s a bigger picture. Actors and celebrities have a duty to help the world because there’s a focus on them. I hate when people think that actors should just shut up and be actors.
An acceptance speech should be in perspective and it should be humble.
7. Who would you thank in your acceptance speech?
I would probably thank very good friends who have supported me for years and years and years. I think I would thank the people who helped make me into the person I am today. I had a husband. I would thank him. Family. My childhood idols. Bette Midler. If she were in the audience, I would totally thank her.
8. How do you approach a role?
It always depends on the role. I sorta work from the outside in. I tend to go for a look first. A wig will help me find a character. An outfit will help me find a character. An accent, some sort of way of speech or speaking helps me. I like to do all of that stuff first and then work on the emotional stuff once I have a look or way of speaking. It just helps put me in that place. It helps put me in that mindset.
It does depend on what it is. For instance, I do a lot of Shakespeare. With Shakespeare generally I would start with the words, the text. Basically figuring out what you’re saying, what the character is saying. And the Iambic Pentameter.
Everybody has a different outside. Inside, everybody’s the same. If you have a good play, then whatever your particular situation or circumstance happens to be, the emotions and the feelings are universal.
A perfect example is A Raisin in the Sun, I can’t specifically identify with that family’s exact story but I identify very much so with the feelings that come up. Once I go from the outside and then I go to the inside then I look at a character and I try to figure out how I would feel in that particular situation and what that brings up for me.
I feel like I’m always playing myself, but I’m playing myself in this situation or in that situation. I don’t think you can really play other people. It also comes back to that same thing about things being universal. I can only bring my own experience to something. It doesn’t mean that I can’t play things outside my experience. I have never been a murderer but I could play a murderer. I would bring my feelings about that to it.
9. What role has been your favorite to play and why?
I’m going to have to give you a few and for different reasons.
For many years I made a living a “Baby John” in different productions of West Side Story. I loved that so much purely because of the fact that I got to dance those dances. It was so joyous dancing that Jerome Robbins choreography. I never, ever got tired of it. It was so exhilarating.
I did an Off-Broadway play a few years ago called Competing Narratives. I loved the role in that play because it was a brand new play. We were the first ones to do it and creating a role was very exciting. Just sitting there with the author in rehearsals everyday creating this role, creating this play was really exciting for me.
I fell in love with Shakespeare later in life. Growing up as an actor, Shakespeare always scared the shit out of me. I always thought I was too stupid to figure it out. Then I decided to change that. I went and studied and it ended up being what I did for many years. Doing Shakespeare is like a whole different thing. I got to play the role of Antonio in The Merchant of Venice. It’s such a great role. It’s so interesting. I could have done that role for years and still would have found something different about the character in every performance. It was an amazing journey that never ended. It’s so rich and so deep, it’s so full. That was an amazing experience.
10. Have you ever felt pigeonholed into a particular type of role? If so, how did you combat the typecasting?
When my agents or management finds out I’m gay they only send me out for gay roles because they can’t imagine me playing a straight person. This is a huge problem in our industry in general.
Having said that, if I only played gay roles for the rest of my life, I’d be okay with that. It’s important for me nowadays to play gay characters. I’m gay and I’m out. It’s time for an out gay actor who begins his career out and becomes successful as opposed to having a career then come out when they have nothing to lose. That’s what I want to do.
I can play straight people. I’d like to play straight characters, but only playing gay characters doesn’t make me feel pigeonholed.
11. What was your struggle in pursuing acting full-time? What is your struggle now?
It’s such an interesting thing. You look at other countries – look at Europe, Germany and England. When people are actors, that’s what they do for a living. The government helps these people live when they’re not working or they’re pursuing employment. Our government does not do that so it’s always difficult for actors to survive.
I just got to a point in my life where I realized that generally you wouldn’t ask people to do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do. If a plumber couldn’t find work, you wouldn’t say to him “you should go be a banker”. You’re just a plumber going out looking for plumbing work and no one would say anything about it.
But actors are expected to give up what it is they want just because it’s not easy to get. Nobody is supportive of it. Even your families with their best intentions are not supportive. They don’t get it.
So then I decided at some point in my life that I was going to need to be supportive of me. I just needed to make a decision that this was my life, this is what I was going to be and this is what I was going to pursue. I’m not a waiter. I’m not taxi cab driver. I’m not an office temp. All of those things are fine but that is not what I want to do. So I’m not doing them anymore. If that means I have to make less money, that’s fine. If that means I can’t go out to dinner, that’s also fine.
Making that decision on a deep level actually changed my career. It enabled me to have a career.
Life is all about risk and most people don’t take risks and that’s fine. But risk-taking to people who don’t take risk versus people who do take risks is threatening. We’re trained to accept less and I just won’t do it anymore.
12. What kept you from giving up?
What kept me from giving up is the fact that I can’t really do anything else. I’m not skilled at anything else. When I’ve had other jobs, survival jobs, I get so miserable. It’s hard for me to go through everyday being miserable. I’ve done it.
13. How do you describe your style of acting?
My favorite actors are all what I consider to be very natural and it goes back to what I was saying earlier about feeling like I’m playing myself in different situations in each role. It’s just me. I have to bring myself. I have to bring my body. I have to bring my mind.
All the people who I tend to like and one of the things I try to have in myself is vulnerability. I think that the most important thing for an actor to have is vulnerability.
14. What has been your greatest acting experience?
Shakespeare was really the first time in my life that I actually saw something that I was afraid of and decided to change that. And finding out that not only was I smart enough to actually understand it and to read it and to learn it but then to actually perform it and then fall in love with it, to actually fall in love with it…that’s the greatest thing to happen to me as an actor – the experience of that, the conquering of that fear.
15. What has been your worst acting experience?
Being in the chorus of Annie in a summer stock theatre in New Hampshire with screaming bratty girls and a really old dog – I felt so sorry for her. Living in a barn, basically, and spending the entire summer being bitten by mosquitos. That was a real shit job.
16. Who are your professional inspirations?
I love Susan Sarandon. To me she’s just a very natural actor. I love Geena Davis.
When I saw Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon, I remember seeing that and knowing for sure that’s what I wanted to be like. That’s pretty much the greatest performance ever in a film. He is constantly working and stretching as an actor and doing Shakespeare. He does a lot of Shakespeare now and he always gets terrible reviews and people hate it but he seems to me like a person who’s interested in stretching and learning even in his 60s or 70s.
People who inspire me are just people who work, people who are constantly growing and changing and evolving and learning -- people who are willing to step outside the box and again, take risks.
Kal Penn is really inspiring to me because he’s an actor and he works. I think he’s a good actor and then he’s also an adjunct professor at some college in Pennsylvania, which I think is fascinating. And he took two years off from his career to go work in the Obama Administration. That to me seems like an interesting, well-rounded, smart person. That’s a really inspiring life.
17. What do you draw upon to find your character?
My life experience. I feel like it’s impossible to draw upon anyone else’s life experience. There are certain things, certain memories, certain events that happened in my life that are the epitome of a certain feeling or emotion. If I need to pull that particular feeling or emotion out, I tend to go to certain things, to certain benchmarks in my life.
18. If a production was casting for a "Michael Vaccaro" type, what would they be looking for?
All that stuff that I want in my television series – a mid 30s, intelligent, urbane, witty, good looking, New Yorker with a huge personality.
19. What is your ultimate goal -- if you haven't already achieved it?
If I were to be a celebrity, I think would like to be able to do something with that – to use that to better society in some way or, some people might say, to push my agenda. I think that’s important and I think that’s my right.
I’m specifically interested in gay issues, gay health issues, gay teen suicide and bullying.
I'm almost done working on my 2nd CD, "Wait For Him," which should be out sometime around the end of the year. Also, in February of 2012, an indie film that I'm in will be released called The Endless Possibility of Sky, directed by Todd Verow.
Samples of Michael’s work can be found on his website www.michaelvaccaro.com
Background: I recently met a guy who was in the process of transitioning from NY to LA. When asked what he was doing out here, he said that he was an actor. A guy nearby responded, "so what restaurant do you work at?"
That actor took exception to that response, so I asked Michael what he thought of such a response and how he would have reacted.
What I think of that is that other people have small minds and I would feel sorry for that person. My reaction would be, “you’re an asshole”.
It’s insulting. It’s demeaning. It just has to do with the lack of respect that people have for actors in general. We have this weird thing in this country with actors and celebrities. We’re desperate to make celebrities and then once they are celebrities then we love to tear them down.
It’s also an attempt at humor and an attempt at being clever. And it’s neither funny nor clever.
It has to do with so many people don’t pursue their dreams. The people that do pursue their dreams become a threat to those who don’t.
I think that anybody who doesn’t want to do this so incredibly desperately just shouldn’t do it. There’s a part when you get an asshole like that who says some stupid comment like that, you want to prove people wrong -- not only to other people, but you want to prove it to yourself.
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