Interview: James Tupper Talks ‘Revenge’ and How He Thought He “Fumbled” the Ball on His ‘Men in Trees’ Audition
“I’m a lifer actor,” James Tupper told me. “I went to drama school and got a Master’s. I did the way of the less talented. I had to just find a way to keep it going where I could really break in.” And did he ever. He’s got a resume a mile long but really got on the map after starring in ABC’s Men in Trees. That was followed by a slew of guest starring roles, a starring role on NBC’s Mercy and now, ABC’s Revenge.
James stars as David Clarke, who had been seen in flashback the past 3 seasons because his he was presumed dead. But, as with all good prime-time shows, his character turned up alive in the last seasons finale. Now that’s he’s among the living, get ready for some tense moments between Clarke and his daughter Emily (Emily Vancamp) and ex Victoria (Madeleine Stowe).
James has some great, interesting stories about his time coming up and also has a ton of smart advice. This is definitely a must read interview! In the interview, we talk about Revenge and building David Clarke, getting help for auditions and how he thought he “fumbled” the ball on his finale Men in Trees audition.
Follow James on Twitter | Revenge airs on Sundays at 10pm on ABC
I love talking to people who’ve, like you said, had to fight their way in.
James Tupper: I was a member of Circle Repertory. I remember on a Wednesday night we’d be reading a new play, on a Thursday night we’d be reading another new play. Go out and do a piece of theatre on the weekends. We’d s shoot commercials in New York and then go do a play at night like in the Hamptons or Two Rivers Theatre Company in New Jersey or Cape Cod Playhouse. I was always just working doing theatre and then trying to make a living off of commercials. I did that for like 10 years.
And then you sort of made the big move to LA?
James Tupper: I did. I did an independent film and I thought, “Well, I’ll come out here and try to get famous.” And it didn’t really work out that way, I spent like 6 years and I was a member of the Classical Theatre Lab. We’d do Shakespeare plays and read throughs and do readings and I was a member of the Circle East and then I went over to Echo Theatre Company and it was all for my love of it. I’m one of those guys who loves acting and loves actors.
I was reading about your background, you made a film that was all improvised and filmed in one night or something like that?
James Tupper: Yeah, we did it with a terrific actor, Adam Watstein, who’d come out of the NYU program. He’s like, “Let’s get 6 cameras and we’ll just shoot this even that happens in the night.” Then we went through 3 months of rehearsal.
James Tupper: I’m not kidding. I would meet him once or twice a week and we would go through what happened before, what happened, and why it’s happening, and what my relationship is to the other characters, and what I’m expecting this night. I played an actor in it that had no career. And then during the evening – it was a Hollywood dinner party – like an actor that’s super-famous, like a Tom Cruise-y type actor comes in. And then I have to figure out this relationship with this girl that I really like and the wife of the guy that’s throwing the party has a crush on me and I know it but I know it’s not right.
It’s like we did this whole complicated thing and we moved through the evening in 3 acts. And people start drinking and stuff goes crazy. So it’s a fun movie to work on and I thought the product of it was terrific. And then when he went to go and try to sell it and stuff he was like, “Yeah, here’s my film,” and they were like, “This is a great film.” I’m like, “Dude, you have to tell them the whole film was shot in six hours.” The whole film was shot in 6 hours. It’s an amazing accomplishment. But he didn’t lead with that. And then I like the idea so much and I feel like it’s the future of filmmakers especially for people who want to break in.
And we ended up doing a second one and it was a horror flick about this guy and this girl that go out to a cabin and they’re followed there by 2 guys. And that was really fun to work on too and I thought really the product was pretty terrific considering we drove out to the country and shot it in one day.
But that’s like the stuff like the Duplass Brothers are doing. They’ll have a set story and go from there.
James Tupper: You could come up with things that you might say. I know when you get too much into actor’s stuff the dialogue starts to really fall apart. But I think we had a group of pretty intelligent actors in terms of… it’s a spectrum of actors and they were capable of coming up with great lines or have an idea that if we got into that situation it might be this line. It’s a whole different way to approach it, but aren’t we all just struggling for freedom. Even when you’re given a text, you’re like how do I find this freedom and the breath in this to make it my own and feel like I’m saying it for the first time? That’s the whole challenge.
I wonder with somebody like you, it looks like you’ve been working pretty steadily for a bunch of years now. With that, do you still go out and pound the pavement and pursue work. Or is it all your agents?
James Tupper: On my level, I get offered things and the things that I get offered are probably like not the hot project. You know what I mean? It might be a good project but to advance, yeah, I do auditions all the time.
I was so bad at it, that I actually took an audition class with a terrific gal, Caryn West, and her whole thing was “I’m not teaching you how to act.” She’s a real dyed in the wool actor, been doing it for 30 years. “I’m not telling you how to act, I’m telling you how to get a job and this is how you do it. And here’s an episodic, here’s a sitcom of slug lines, here’s how you approach it.” And we would actually practice just walking in a room, doing an on camera audition. And she’s like, “Use the chair, make it your bed. Turn it around, make it a friend. Lean on it. Use all the things that you need to create the reality because once you’re hired the reality is made for you. You have the best costume designer, the best set designer, the best everything and you go in and you have to be truthful, you create the behavior and it’s truthful.” So it was a chance for me to separate that out and not have it be so kind of different. You know what I mean?
One of the interesting things she also pointed out is actors, when they’re auditioning they go through almost like a test pilot. Their heart rates are up, how do you be relaxed in that environment? It was a chance to practice being relaxed. It was a bridge for me that kinda finally got me going.
I do notice that if I really don’t give a crap about the part, you know what I mean, I will most of the time either get a callback or book the part. But when I’m like, “Oh my God, I’d love to have this part,” never ever. Never ever, ever.
James Tupper: Yeah. Right. Yeah. Part of it is, that’s true, because maybe that little part of you tenses up.
I’ll tell you one thing that’s really interesting is the only time I got really, really upset was I was actually emotionally upset in my truck driving home. I was practically crying. I couldn’t believe I had blown the first audition for Men in Trees. The first one that I did. And at the same time that I was driving home I was like, “I can’t believe I fumbled that ball. This was a dream part for me, it would’ve been perfect.” The creator of the show was phoning the ABC network going, “I found the guy.”
No way, really?
James Tupper: Yeah. Isn’t that funny? But that was just the beginning of the process because then they made me audition for Warner Brothers and I was in a tiny little room with 12 executives where our knees are touching. I’m sitting there and then they said, “Ok, you made it to that, now you have to go audition for the network.” And that was like 50 people in a theatre.
And I remember James Mangold, the director of the project, came up to me right before I stepped onto stage and he just whispered to me, he goes, “James, it’s theatre.” And I was like, “Gotcha.” Because a lot of television is just like it’s in your face and it’s in your breathing and just in your moment, but in a theatre it comes from out of your center of your body, your hips. You perform. So, I did that and I got huge laughs and stuff and people liked it, I guess. And then I went home and I went, “Oh my God, I think my life just changed.” And I felt like a golden door opened and I just kinda passed through it. And I became someone that they felt, you know, that the business side of our industry felt that they could hire and depend on to deliver a role. It was a really amazing moment, but it took 20 years to get there.
What was that phone call like?
James Tupper: I feel like I did this thing where I think I went anti-gravity. I jumped up and I remember I had a 10 foot ceiling in my room, I remember my face, my cheek touching the ceiling. And I was like, “How’s that possible?” It was a moment of total levity, it felt great.
And then, of course, the challenge begins because you’re like, “Well, ok, who do I work with, how do I make this scene work?” Kind of the business of it because they can turn around and fire you just as easy as they hired you.
When you book a long running network job like Men in Trees and obviously Revenge, do they have character arc that you know something you can play? Or do you just sort of basically play it from episode to episode?
James Tupper: It’s really interesting you say that because I created… I worked on this character of David Clark who’d been incarcerated for 20 years. So it’s really fun for me because he’s a financial analyst at the beginning of the series, he’s really optimistic, and then he dies in prison and then he comes back. So as I’m shooting him as this broken man, this Robinson Crusoe guy who’s unable to connection emotionally with people, I also see flashbacks of him with my daughter on the beach. What can ever go wrong in my life? It’s awesome.
Anyway, it’s really fun for me to be in that dichotomy, but they do not tell me anything. I said, “I think the guy has a beard,” and I walked in with it and they’re like, “No, no. No beard. Actually, we like the beard.” And I wanted to create the separation between what he used to be and what he’s become, and in doing that… this is very technical actor-talk. But I think, yeah, I think that you go ahead and do it and they might direct you a little bit, but you have three takes. You go and do three takes and you’re done and you really have to deliver in the time that… it’s a high pressure thing, but you have to deliver in the time that they’re asking.
While you’re shooting one the next director is prepping the next one. You don’t really have… you have more of a creative discussion around specific things, but no when you’re shooting it’s your job to bring it in. I’ve never talked character arc in the 12 years I’ve been doing television. Ever.
I wonder with Revenge, if the writers just loved what you were doing so much, I wonder if they’re like, “You know what? We’ve gotta get this guy back from the dead. ”
James Tupper: I kind of called them and pitched the idea to them. It’s the truth.
Did you really?
James Tupper: I did. I thought we’d been talking about this character for 3 years. I turned it on in the middle of the 3rd season, I’d come in in flashbacks and it was the longest introduction of any character in the history of television. I was like, “Just bring me back.” And they said that’s a fantastic idea. I actually had a call with the show runner. And my idea was that maybe I was the younger brother who was a twin or something and they said, “No, no. We’ve got a better idea.” So it was their idea to do the story, but I helped mention it along and bring it back.
I’m sure you’re a couple episodes deep in filming now, are you just loving where your character is at right now?
James Tupper: We’re shooting the 21st episode next week. We’re doing 23 this season, we started in July. And it’s super, super long season. Like a marathon. But I’ve enjoyed every day of it, I can’t lie. The cast is fabulous and it’s just super fun to go to work and do it. My wife tells me I’m not allowed to bring it home. She’s like, “Don’t bring that character to my house.”
What’s a big nightmare audition that you’ve had?
James Tupper: With the first one from Men in Trees I was like, “I can’t believe…” But I’ve had so many bad ones. I mean, I feel like in a way, our job is just to do a good audition and forget about it. So I have a strategy where right after I’m done the audition I plan something really fun to do. I’m gonna go to a waterpark or just go to a chip and putt, I’m gonna go bowling, I’m gonna take the kids out for a movie at The Grove. Whatever, something fun. And then that levity guides me through the audition experience. The audition is a tremendously difficult thing to master. It’s a Zen art if you ask me. And getting jobs is difficult because there’s a lot of people that practice it really well.
When you audition, do you have the sides memorized?
James Tupper: Yes. But I hold the script. I never go un-memorized, you can’t. I mean, I have, I’ve blown them. I”ve blown it by having to look down at the script. But it’s a rhythm thing and you have to have the rhythm of the words in your mouth.
It’s hilarious when they send you 17 pages and it’s like 5pm. They’re like, “Ok, your audition is at 9.” I’m like, “How am I gonna memorize 17 pages?” But you have to.
So are you just staying up the whole night and just going over it a thousand times?
James Tupper: Yeah, it’s different in the beginning because you’re creating a character. You’re trying to figure out what the story is and how to fit into it. I think one of the big mistakes that people make or that I made anyway is that you think that the character is… it’s you and your experience that you’re sharing, when in fact you’re trying to fit into the story and make the story function. You’re trying to be the director’s answer to making his story function and if you can key into that energy then it’s really helpful.
I mean, you’ve given almost a clinic right now, but what’s your advice to actors?
James Tupper: Take a course with Caryn West. I’m not kidding. If you have been trained and you know what you’re doing, she’ll get you a job.