Armin Shimerman made his name in television – Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Seinfeld, Boston Legal (to name a few) – by playing unique, memorable characters. But did you know his true love is theater?
I caught up with Armin at the tail-end of his run of The Seafarer where he was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to talk about theater, how he prepares for a role and much more!
For ticket information on The Seafarer at the San Diego Repertory Theater, click here!
You’re currently starring in The Seafarer. Even though it’s a short run, how do you keep your performance fresh night after night?
How do I do that? How does any actor do that? By being inspired every night by what the other people are doing and finding new things in the play as we go along. Although it’s a rehearsed and performed piece, there’s always something new. That’s the great thing about live theater, you can always find something new and fresh each performance. The audience and the actors give you things.
How do you choose your theatre projects? Do you have a master list of shows or characters that you want to do somewhere?
I tend to prefer classical theater. That is what I’ve been trained in and what I’ve mostly done and what intrigues me the most. However, I saw this particular play in New York when I was visiting a couple years ago, and it was an incredible production directed by the playwright on Broadway. And when I saw it, after I saw it, I was just absolutely enthralled by it and there was a particular part in it that I really wanted to play. That is not the part that I’m playing, but I was really enthralled by the play. And I particularly wanted to play the Devil, but instead the theatre here, very wisely in my opinion, cast me as Richard Harkin which is the host of the party for want of a better term. And I’m just tickled pink. Without doubt it’ll always be one of my favorite character’s that I’ve ever played.
I’ve heard you’re fantastic in the show.
It’s turned out very well. We’ve had a wonderful director. Delisha [Turner Sonnenburg] did a great job directing it. The theatre has done a terrific job of producing it. And it’s an incredible ensemble of actors.
If you played the role you wanted to play originally, do you think you would appreciate the show as much?
I’m sure I would because I really liked the show when I saw it in New York and then I saw it again actually in Los Angeles as well. The show itself is incredibly uplifting – enormously uplifting. The show itself I would always appreciate. I would see the show from a different set of eyes if I were playing the devil because really there’s a tug of war for the soul of my brother, the character of my brother. Between the devil and myself. So, I’m seeing the show through very, very, very positive eyes, whereas if I were playing the Devil, I’m sure I would be seeing it through a negative pair of eyes.
And of course my character wins the chess game and the Devil loses, and again, that too would probably tint my view of the proceedings. But whatever character you play, anyone of the five characters, I think everyone would agree, it’s an audience favorite. People jump to their feet. There’s a moment towards the end of the play that almost invariably we get a gasp or a surprise or a huge applause because that’s the way the play works.
How do you go about approaching a role? What are the first things you tend to do?
Well, the first thing I suppose that I do is read it and try to find out what the arc of the character is. You know all actors look at theatre pieces through the eyes of their characters because that’s the character they’re going to play hopefully.
For me once I’ve been cast, it’s my first piece of homework is to see, “Okay, how does this character change from beginning to end?” Then of course, that sort of instructs me on what the intentions are of the character, what is it they want at the different times of the play. And then as you rehearse you fill in the gaps for that overall intention and what it is you need. And then the relationships build between you and the other actors about your characters. So it’s a building block process.
Actually, the better metaphor is a crossword puzzle. It’s a hard crossword puzzle. You get two or three or four answers right away if you’re lucky and then you struggle with the next couple of answers. But when you get those filled in it gets a little bit easier and you gradually bit by bit fill in all the blanks and that’s sort of what I do as a performer.
You’ve done everything from theater to TV to films. Do you prefer any one over the other?
Yes, I much prefer the theater. I was schooled in the theater. It has always been my hope that I would be a major regional theater actor. I started actually here in San Diego at the Globe. And because of certain events, certainly fortuitous events, I’m very happy it worked out the way it did, I was sort of seduced by TV. The dark side of the force. And luckily, for my life and for my comfort and for my ease that all worked out very well. But my heart has always been in the theatre. And I’m extremely happy to be back working on the courts.
I love how you didn’t even hesitate on that answer.
Well, there’s no hesitation whatsoever. TV pays the bills. And I’m very happy to do it, and I don’t denigrate it. It’s not any worse or better than the theater. But my heart lies in the theater.
You’ve been in two television shows that have incredible cult followings – Buffy [The Vampire Slayer] and Star Trek. It’s gotta be great just walking down the street and be just instantly loved or I guess feared in the case of Principal Snyder.
Exactly. And so there’s the dichotomy. You’ve said it very well. I can be loved or I can be despised for Snyder. And when people say, “I loved your show,” I always have to ask which show. And I have luckily also done a lot of other things as well. Sometimes they’re referring to Seinfeld or Boston Legal or something. So I can never really be sure, but certainly those two shows are the ones I’m best known for. And it’s a great treat to me, dessert actually, to hear people despise me or love me. Depends on which show they followed.
I have to ask a Star Trek question. When creating a character like Quark, did you have a lot of room to do what you wanted or was there a strict character Bible on what the writers wanted with him?
A little of both. The writers and the mythology that I stepped into as Quark. Mythology that I helped create in Next Generation but mythology that had already been established about the race, about the Ferengi, that was pretty much set in stone. What I could do primarily was to change subtle little things in the nature of the race within the confines of the scripts I had pretty wide leeway to choose what I wanted for the character. So as far as the race is concerned, it was pretty set in stone. For the character himself of course I had to do exactly what they told me to say. There’s no ad-libbing in Star Trek. But how I played the character, which is the actor’s providence, that was left to me primarily. And certainly as the years went by, I got more and more leeway to do whatever I wanted as far as character choices.
You’ve had such a long career where others don’t, what do you think has been the most important thing you’ve done for longevity?
Tried to change. One of the great things that we just talked about. Quark is one type of character, but I was more than happy to play. I could have easily said to Buffy – and sometimes I had to – sorry I’m not available – I can’t play Snyder. But I was eager to play Snyder, not only because I liked the show, but also because it was really different than Quark. And then it’s always for my own readings and talkings with other actors I’ve always seen that you have to reinvent yourself on a regular basis. So that’s what I tried to do. I tried to constantly reinvent myself, see where I am in my life at that moment and say, okay I’ve changed over the last 5, 6, 7 years, and my character should change, too. And it’s pretty pathetic if you play the same character all your life.
You’re an amazing character actor. I mean, I’ve never seen you do the same thing twice I don’t think.
Well, thank you. Thank you. It is, again, I attribute that to my theatre training, which when you’re in the theatre, you have to play different characters. You can’t get by with playing just one character.
Do you have any advice you might want to give actors, either ones starting out or ones who I guess just can’t seem to manage their breakthrough?
No. None whatsoever (laughter). Each person’s path is different. And I can only say that luck is a huge factor in every career. When a door opens, you have to be ready and prepared to go through that door if it opens. But when the door opens and when the opportunities shows itself, in my opinion, is strictly a matter of luck.
There are wonderful actors who have never succeeded. There are horrible actors who have succeeded incredibly well. It’s just a matter of luck. And taking advantage. And being prepared. I guess if I’m going to give any advice, be prepared as an actor. Work on your craft. Do what you can to make yourself a better actor and more importantly a better human being.