For me, playing the bad guy is the most exciting, says Prague-based actor Brian Caspe

Brian Caspe, photo: Šárka Ševčíková

Since moving to Prague in 2002, American actor Brian Caspe has had parts in numerous big productions, everything from featured extra to supporting or leading roles. He has appeared in films such as Wanted, Unlocked and Anthropoid, and also heads the Prague Playhouse featuring English-language theatre, where he also teaches the Meissner technique.

Brian Caspe,  photo: Šárka Ševčíková
I began first by asking Brian about his hometown, Santa Cruz, California.

“It’s a small town, a college town and it is a tourist destination. It is different for me going back now, my impressions of it, versus when I was growing up. From the time I was a little kid – it is a great town to be a kid in – versus when I was in high school and it began to feel really small.

“My parents lived two blocks from the beach – we would go down to the beach fairly regularly. But I was never a surfer or a skater: I was a drama nerd when I was growing up.

“There were kids, though, as early as junior high and in high school who would get up early in the morning when the waves are less choppy. They would wake up at 6 AM and go surfing, then ride their bikes with their surfboards under their arms to high school. In the afternoon it was already too windy for good waves. But yes, it’s a beautiful seaside town and resort in California.”

And your parents are still there, you still have a connection?

“Yeah, my parents are still in the house I was actually born in, they’ve lived there my whole life.”

You said you were a drama nerd already in high school. Then you studied at the University of California in San Diego. Like many professions in the arts, acting is very much experiential, isnt it? You learn the basics, you absorb as much as you can, then you get as much as world experience as possible and you apply what you learn. I guess the question is, is the process ever complete?

“Santa Cruz was a great place to grow up. But I wasn’t a skater or surfer in high school – I was a drama nerd.”

“No. Not really. I think because the process of acting is so based on your life experience and your understanding of human behaviour, human nature, and the world around you, it’s constantly changing because you’re always changing.

“If anyone looks back at where they were doing five years ago, the decisions they made and the work that they were doing – in any field really, not just acting – you might think ‘Oh man, I was such an idiot, I can’t believe I was doing that kind of work’. We’re constantly growing and learning new things about the world.

“I hope for myself and for the people that I talk to about acting or teach that it is a process that never stops. As long as you’re alive, there are always news opportunities. I just hosted an acting teacher from London to come over and work with the studio that I run here. It was an amazing experience, it makes me want to go and study in London.

“Even though I am at a certain point in my career, I still feel like I can improve or where I feel it’s still rough edges. I feel like there so much for me to learn and I think it’s really exciting.”

Santa Cruz,  photo: Davide D'Amico,  CC BY-SA 2.0
It’s often criticism of some actors, household names, that when they reach a certain pinnacle, they stop and begin playing a role of themselves. I think critics charged Jack Nicholson of that in the latter part of his career. In the 1980s he kind of became Jack Nicholson doing Jack Nicholson. Or in any case, he wasn’t the same actor from Five Easy Pieces or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

“I think that it depends on the actor. You could say a similar thing about actors who are here who have regular gigs with theatres. They’re in a theatre, not forced to audition for stuff and it becomes a job, a thing where you’re just going through the motions. I think it’s a trap that if work is just coming for you it could be an easy thing to fall into.

“Certainly there are actors who are constantly looking for that next challenge, asking themselves ‘how do I stretch myself, how do I improve?’ There’s also a thing that an acting teacher I used to have who used to say ‘In struggle there’s life’.

“When you’re on the edge, you know ‘I have to work to make it!’ there’s a certain energy that comes from that. But if you look at people who are really successful and who have enough money to live on, it’s reasonable that they would lose some kind of edge.”

“Successful people that I know are those who have 15 or 20 projects at the same time, with something always bubbling to the surface.”

One of the things that every actor strives for is authenticity. But there’s different ways of getting there. You are a student of and a teacher of ‘the Meissner technique’. What are the main aspects of that technique when it comes to authenticity?

“One of the thing that people know about the Meissner technique, if they know anything, is this repetition exercise, where your partner would say a sentence and you’d repeat it and they’d repeat that and you’d repeat that on and on and on. What it does in fact it’s about getting your attention off yourself and on something outside of yourself.

“Usually the most interesting thing to put your attention on is the other person because that’s the thing alive, that’s the thing you’re reacting to. You can focus your attention on a chair but it’s not going to change very much over the course of the scene. It’s still going to be that chair.

“It’s basically a technique of how you can put your attention on the other person thereby letting go of yourself, allowing your instinctive response. Then, it’s a question of how the other responds truthfully. How do you allow what the other person’s doing to come in, take that personally and respond truthfully. That’s how the technique deals with authenticity.”

When you moved to Prague in 2002 you got work relatively quickly, I guess at first as a featured extra. We talked about Hellboy recently and the death scene when you’re on the bridge Ron Perlman and Jeffrey Tambor. It must have been very exciting to come here and for things to start falling into place.

“Yeah, it was great. And it’s really cool, you do an audition or two and then you’re on a major Hollywood film set. That’s really fun to do.”

You’ve done a lot of big productions now: either as a supporting role, lead role or a featured extra alongside some very well-known names, from Cillian Murphy to John Malkovich. And I want to ask a little bit about the film ‘Unlocked’ because it was just recently released. It’s kind of a bit of a rough ride at the moment on Rotten Tomatoes. But it features some great acting talent, from Orlando Bloom to Michael Douglas, John Malkovich…

“I didn’t have scenes with some of the others. All of my scenes were with Malkovich except there’s one phone conversation that I have with Noomi Rapace. For her I was in the room reading the lines with her and from my end of it when they’re shooting my coverage of it, she wasn’t there, of course.”

Disregarding the reviews, it seems like a very timely thriller. You’ve got the terrorist aspect in it, the CIA…

“I think it is timely, and it is a topic that’s in the media a lot now, obviously. The film took a little while to come out and I think it would have been more timely if it had come out as the producers wanted it. It took about three years for it to come out and there is a sense that in a way, things have moved on. We’re now in the Trump era and in the era of Brexit and where the political discussions are. Had the film been written now it would have addressed a lot of those things.

“I am very excited by playing the bad guy, in any kind of genre. My looks support it, as well as my temperament.”

“The truth is that television has moved quite a bit in those three years. Now we have television series that are basically eight-hour long films. To go do a movie, it has to be something extra, even more than you would expect from television.

“It’s not like I’m being sent projects and don't take them. As an audition comes in, I’ll take it. It doesn’t matter to me whether it’s film or TV: I’m a jobbing actor. It’s not that I’m in a place where I can be choosy about which kind of projects I want to take.”

Every film is also a stepping stone to the next one as well and you never really know how is it going to turn out, right?

“Right. Look at ‘Unlocked’. On paper it looks like ‘Oh my god, I have these nine scenes opposite John Malkovich, this could be a game changer!’ And then it comes out differently. What things feel like they’re going on and the way they they actually end up being, is sometimes hard to predict. There’s a disconnect there sometimes. Talking about the Meissner philosophy and all that stuff: for me it comes down to enjoying each of the moments. That goes all the way down to rehearsal, to class or an audition or just preparing for an audition.

'Anthropoid',  photo: Bleeker Street Media / James Lisle
“The work is so disconnected from any kind of clear or immediately obvious career result: it’s not like I do this job and because of this job I get an award and then this person calls me… It’s just you doing work and trying to do the best work that you can.”

It is also the nature of the work: there are many different tangents. Actors juggle theatre, teaching, commercials, casting, films, etc.

“Yes, it’s just a tangled web of activities. But the successful people that I know are people who have 15 or 20 projects at some point of development and then every once in a while, something will bubble up to the surface. That’s the project that you then focus on while everything else continues to simmer until it is ready. It’s like a chef having different pots going on the stove going at once.”

I was going to ask you if you have an affinity for a certain type of movie or a period. My wife is not an actress but if she was, I know that she would never say no to anything Jane Austen. Do you have an affinity for a certain kind of film? A case of: ‘Alright! Another one of those! I want that role!’?

“I am very excited by playing the bad guy, in any kind of genre. My looks support it and my temperament to a certain extent supports it. That for me is very exciting. Being an FBI agent is okay and I’m sure there are specifics in the film that are fine. But you know acting with swords or on horseback, big costumes that you would normally never get to wear, I very much enjoy all of that. I was on the shoot for ‘Underworld’ and the costumes that they came up with were just so fun. These kind of flowing robes, I got a big kick out of that.”

You mentioned the importance of the actor’s “look”. I had a nephew who had a short stint in commercials as a boy. He had this ‘Czech little guy’ look which has a tradition in Czech cinematography, everything from ‘Closely Watched Trains’ to I don’t know what. He had a certain look which is used a lot in Czech commercials that he was perfect for this market. So when you say you have a certain look that you’d be good for the bad guy, there’s something to it.

“I think as a professional actor you have to be at least aware of what you’re bringing physically. If I was trying to go out for the heart-throb leading man, at the moment I don’t think that’s happening, my features are too sharp for it. You have to be aware otherwise you’re setting yourself up for a tough time. Unless you write roles for yourself and you produce your own stuff and then you can do whatever you want.”

And then you go against type and everybody’s surprised.

“Yeah or they go ‘Well, that was a terrible idea’. And that’s a huge thing in today’s world. Because the methods of production are so democratized, if you have an idea of what you want to do, something that really speaks to you and you can try and get it off the ground. If you feel like this is the type of project that you want to do, it's only up to you to make sure there’s nothing holding you back.”