SXSW Interview: Abigail Spencer talks ‘Kilimanjaro’, Working with Good People and Her Advice to Actors

Abigail on Acting: "You’re only as good as the people that you surround yourself with"

abigail-spencerWhen Abigail Spencer shows up on your screen, you know those moments will be interesting. She was one of the best parts about Chasing Mavericks and she made the opening segment of Oz, the Great and Powerful that much better. 

Abigail was discovered by casting director of All My Children, Judy Blye Wilson, when she was – get this – sitting in the audience of the Regis and Kathy Lee. Wilson tracked her down, had her audition for a role on the soap and she ended up doing a little more than 20 episodes. But before you get all, “What the heck?,” she already had the chops. She went to Carnegie Mellon University for acting, spent her teen years doing theater and her mentor growing up was none other than Broadway great Ann Reinking.

I talked to Abigail at SXSW where she was promoting her film, Kilimanjaro. In that film, Brian Geraghty plays Doug, a guy kind of floating through life. After his girlfriend moves out, Doug decides to embark on a more meaningful life and starts planning to climb the famous Mount Kilimanjaro. Abigail plays a woman who comes into his life and shows him that being spontaneous isn’t a bad thing.

In this interview, we talk about how she got her start – including the Regis and Kathy Lee story, giving back to young actors, working with good people and her advice to actors.

Follow Abigail on Twitter and be sure to check her out in the new Sundance Channel series, Rectify. Premieres April 22nd!

For the full interview, click the audio link above or download it from iTunes 

You seem like you’re busy doing everything and the roles you do, you aren’t typecast at all.

Abigail Spencer: Oh, that’s good to hear.

Like in Oz and then your part in Childrens Hospital and then…

Abigail Spencer: Burning Love, too.

Chasing Mavericks.

Abigail Spencer: Yeah, I don’t… you know, really it’s just about the people, the people and the opportunities. I mean, if something strikes me I’m like, “Oh yeah, I wanna be a part of that.” You know, and I don’t, you know, as far as storytelling, I don’t really have like, well I only really like to tell stories one way. I definitely love really sophisticated comedies like what David Wayne and Ken Marino and Rob Corddry are doing. So whenever they ask you to do something, you’re like, “Ok.”

The opportunity to play so many different characters, it’s a bit of a luxury. But you’re not really cognizant of it at the time. I don’t think it’s necessarily intentional. You’re just like, “Oh, well my friends are doing this,” or, “Oh, well, you know, now I get to do this. That sounds great.”

How did you get this part?

Abigail Spencer: Well, you know, you get sent a myriad of scripts and sometimes you don’t know what to focus on so you just look for things to focus on and when I got Kilimanjaro I had, Brian Geraghty and I, we had already tried to do a movie together that ended up our dates didn’t work out, but we had met through the process. We had screen tested together and I really, really liked him. I was like, “That’s an actor I wanna work with.” You know?

You two are great together.

Abigail Spencer: Yeah, I really, really enjoy not only working with him but just, you know, off camera, you know, we have a lot of mutual friends and just a similar work ethic I think. So when I saw that he was a part of it, I definitely just put more energy into the project and I was like, “Yeah, I totally wanna go in for this,” and then he and I screen tested on this and then they asked me to do it.

Do you get a ton of scripts and actually read them all? Or do you have people to do that?

Abigail Spencer: I wish I had people to do that. Kinda my policy, I do… like, right now, there’s waves of it. Sometimes you get a lot of scripts so you do kinda have to decipher with your team just say, “Which one should I focus on?” And then things that just jump out at me like if there’s a particular director I’ve wanted to work with or an actor from the piece that I’ve wanted to work with, those will kind of rise to the top of the pile. And I have a commitment that any script that I get I try to read the first 20 pages of and just really just to see if it’s a right fit if there’s a volume of things to get through. If not, you know, then sometimes my manager or agent will call me and be like, “You need to read this today.” And so then that will take precedence.

Daily Actor, is a website for actors so that’s why I’m asking you all these acting questions.

Abigail Spencer: I love it. I love actors, too. I help run a program called The Performing Arts Project where I teach young actors. It’s a summer program and it’s actually where I got my training when I was 15. It used to be called The Broadway Theatre Project, now it’s called The Performing Arts Project.

Where’s that?

Abigail Spencer: Well, it started out in Tampa, Florida but people audition from all over the country. And then this past summer we had it in North Carolina. So it kinda moves around just depending on what college campus, like, what great theatre space that we can get. But Jonathan Bernstein is the artistic director out of New York and he is amazing. He was the artistic director for Chicago when it came back to Broadway and several other avant garte pieces in New York and regular theatre pieces.

So I love actors and I love, you know, just being 15 years further into the process than people starting out is kind of a joy and an honor to come alongside people in their journey.

Are you from Tampa?

Abigail Spencer: No, I’m from Pensicola, Florida. But I auditioned. I mean, I just heard about an audition when I was 15, met Ann Reinking, then she became my mentor. She was the artistic director of the program and was working with her when she brought Chicago back to Broadway. So I started out as, you know, kind of a musical theatre focus.  I still love musical theatre, I would do it… I’m very much looking forward to the moment I get to do a movie musical. I just played a dancer in a movie called Beautiful Now, which is this really great piece that Daniella Amavia directed and Keith Kjarval produced and just wrapped that a couple of weeks ago and it’s very much like a Big Chill meets Requiem for a Dream meets All that Jazz. It was really amazing to use a lot of my different skill sets in one movie.

Would you want to do a Broadway musical?

Abigail Spencer: I’d definitely consider it, you know, I mean, right now I’m helping… I’m behind a project that’s probably gonna be on its way to Broadway called Witness Uganda my friend… so I’m kind of helping that project along and I love Broadway. I mean, you know, we have so many different ways to tell stories now, we’re not bound by anything especially with our interactive media and so I just think it’s about what’s gonna be something that moves me, what’s a creative way to tell the story, what’s something fresh that I haven’t seen before, or maybe it’s bringing something back that I’ve always wanted to do. So I think it would just really depend.

Because you’re in Burning Love, what do you think of the web as opportunities for actors? Do you love that you and your friends can pop something up on the web after filming it the day before?

Abigail Spencer: I mean, yes because I don’t have to do all the work to do that because, you know, like, Ben Stiller’s company, Red Hour, Mike Rosenstein and John Stern, they’re the ones… and Ken Marino… I mean, they’re the ones that really do all the work. We just get to show up and like do whatever they tell us to do and add so much to it.

I mean, what’s so great about that is it’s so collaborative. You know, it’s a very quick pace, you know, making that. But there’s something kind of igniting about it because you don’t really have time to think, you know, you just kind of have to show up. But that’s the way, you know, there’s this whole movement of really celebrating playfulness and playing in that type of improv, you know, it’s very all about the team, it’s a very team oriented experience.

Did you get any training in improv?

Abigail Spencer: I feel like I have by route. I mean, I did everything involving theatre and I did some… my friend, Todd Stashwick, runs… it used to be called The Hot House Improv Theatre, so I did some training with them and I loved it. It’s all about… they call it organic improv. You know? Just really being able to be in the moment and not coming in with any preconceived notions that all the brilliance comes out of just being available to it.

So I’ve done some training in that and then I have so many friends that are just in UCB and Second City and I don’t know how I was so fortunate to kind of be, you know, invited into the group, but I was. I think a lot of it was through Mad Men because a lot of… like, David Wayne was a big fan of Mad Men. That’s how I got on Childrens Hospital is he watched that and then he reached out to me and asked me to play a part on the show and so that’s how it happened. And then now I get to play 2 different characters on the show.

When you were doing theatre in Tampa, how did you get to where you are now?

Abigail Spencer: Well, you know, it was kind of like a lifetime of preparation for a moment of opportunity.

You know, I was always looking for ways to do stuff and tell stories in any capacity and so I was training with Ann during the summers and, you know, high school student and I was in my drama program and I was really serious about it. When I met Ann I was like, “This is what I wanna do with my life. I really wanna be an artist. I wanna make a life out of this.”

And I come from a surf family, a professional surf family, so there wasn’t really much they could say about it because really all I learned from them was you pursue what you love and you make a whole life out of it.

So what happened for me is I was gonna go, you know, basically the very logical route which is go to a great theatre school. So I chose Carnegie Melon to kinda be my target. I had auditioned for all those schools but, like, you know, Carnegie Melon was the one that I wanted to go to. And then in that pursuit my senior year of high school I went to New York to audition at the Consortium where all the schools are basically in one hotel where you go from room to room and audition for each one. But one that trip, my first trip to New York City, I ended up sitting in the audience of the Regis and Kathy Lee show and Kathy Lee ended up talking to me on the air for, like, a minute and it just so happened that a casting director, Judy Blye Wilson of All My Children, saw the live feed, called Kathy Lee, said, “I really would like to meet that girl you were chatting with in the audience,” and then the next day I had a general meeting with her and she remembered me and she reached out to me a few months later. I had gotten into Carnegie Melon by this point and then she just pursued me to put myself on tape for the show and I was like, “Oh, Judy. I’m playing Rizzo in Grease, I’m doing a one act festival and I have no time to go into soap opera.” But she was just so great and just kind of ignored all of my whining about and said, “Well, I just can’t get you out of my head so maybe you just put yourself on tape,” so we did that and then they flew me out for a screen test, and then I… about 3 days later I got the part and I left high school early and I moved to New York and I started on All My Children.

I was on for about 3 years and that was my first… no, the big thing was, like, calling Carnegie Melon and saying, “I think… I just got a… yeah, I think… I don’t know… I think people go to school to get these jobs and I just got a series regular on a soap opera and I think maybe I should do it.” And there was like the longest pause ever and they were like, “Well, you can always come back.”

And it was really cool because I had met my class at Carnegie Melon was Josh Groban and Leslie Odom Junior and Katie Mixon and Griffin Matthews and all these amazing actors that I still got to be friends with and are still my collaborators to this day. Like, I just ran into Josh. I was in London doing some press because I have this series coming out called Back to 5 with the producers of Breaking Bad. That comes out on April 22nd on Sundance channel on AMC. And so we were over in London, I was over in London, kind of drumming up because our worldwide release was on May 8th. And so I ran into Josh and I’m like, “Oh my gosh, we’ve known each other since we were 17 and you’re Josh Groban now.” It was crazy.

What’s your advice to actors?

Abigail Spencer: My advice to actors is twofold. I think just throw yourself into it. It’s really all about people. Like, you’re only as good as the people that you surround yourself with and you always wanna be the worst person in the room because that’s the only way that you’re gonna grow. And just don’t quit.

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