A talent for mimicry got John Alexander his first acting gig. As a 5-year-old at his mother's cocktail parties, he'd entertain the guests with impersonations of Bela Lugosi, Jimmy Cagney, Errol Flynn -- the actors he'd seen on late-night television. "I watched those shows with my mom," he says. "I think she looked at it as good quality time with me, and part of my education."
Alexander's London-born mother was a vice president and buyer for Lord & Taylor in New York City; his father was a physician. They socialized with some of the biggest fashion designers of the day. By first grade, Alexander was regaling them with his own version of "The Ed Sullivan Show" -- he played the square-shouldered host introducing the night's performers, and then played them, too. He took to the stage in school as well, performing roles from Oscar Madison to Napoleon.
Now 41 and living in Burlington, Alexander springs his voices on his own family -- sons Max and Sam and wife Alis. He says there's not a lot of call for his impersonations these days, but that's not really true: Over the past decade he's become the most sought-after actor in Vermont, with the possible exception of Rusty "The Logger" DeWees. Unques-tionably, Alexander is among the very best performers this state has to offer. In a minor role he's noticeably compelling; in a lead he's positively riveting.
Theater-goers have seen, and applauded, him in nearly every local theater company, and in an astounding variety of roles: from the Dentist in Little Shop of Horrors to Pozzo in Waiting For Godot; from a middle-aged Park Avenue matron in Sylvia to any number of edgy roles in Stephen Goldberg's noir-ish dramas. The versatility Alexander displayed in school proved portentous.
His stocky build -- 5-foot-11 and 200 pounds -- and commanding voice have earned him plenty of "authority" and "thug" roles. But Alexander's twinkly blue eyes and frequent dimpled grin hint at his capacity for comedy, whether delivered in contemporary drag or an 18th-century powdered wig.
Earlier this spring Alexander played in Champlain Theatre's production of The Cripple of Inishmaan. Two weeks ago he wrapped Lost Nation Theater's Stone, based on stories of Barre's stonecutters -- in which he had seven roles. With barely a night's rest in between, he jumped straight into rehearsals for yet another Goldberg play, The Truth Has No Heart, which opens later this month in Burlington. First produced in 1993, the show is part of the Burlington playwright's yearlong retrospective. In it, Alexander plays a bum named Harry.
"The story is about two sexy, exotic women who pick up a street vagrant and turn him into a money-making machine. They give him a 'motivation implant' surgically," says Goldberg, who calls Alexander a disciplined and "right on" actor. "John's been one of the important people who's worked with me over the years; I think he kind of identified with the work. For example, the character he's doing right now -- his instincts are all right; he just gets it."
With back-to-back shows, it's a wonder Alexander can keep track of which skin he's in. But he makes it sound easy. "You sort of get used to it," he says. "It's not that hard. It's sort of sink or swim, and, since we all want to swim, you just sort of jump in."
Alexander makes acting look easy, too -- reviews have noted his natural style and convincing depth of emotion. Critics and audiences alike have found much to love in his intense, fully inhabited portrayals, whether malevolently scary or howlingly funny. So have directors.
"I'd say he's the best local male actor I know; he's just always been the go-to guy," states Mark Nash. The artistic director of Vermont Stage Company and an actor himself, Nash performed with Alexander more than a decade ago in Northern Stage Company's No Orchids for Miss Blandish. In 1998, he directed what could be considered Alexander's breakout role in Green Candle's The Man in the Glass Booth. Make that two roles in one: the former SS officer Adolf Dorff and his impersonation, the wealthy Jewish businessman and ostensible Holocaust survivor Arthur Goldman. One critic said Alexander embraced these challenging roles "with guts, sweat and a diagnosable paranoia."
Nash deems the quality of Alexander's performances "outstanding." He's got a Meryl Streep-like gift for accents, particularly variations of English -- Cockney, Liverpudlian, King's English, Australian high and low. And, notes Nash, "He's the best 'hair actor' I know. He went bald for Godot; he did this incredibly accurate, 1930s hillbilly haircut for To Kill a Mockingbird. He shaved his head for Glass Booth. He can be a real transformational actor," Nash adds. "For him it's always playing, and he still has a good time at it."
And then there's his day job.
John Alexander is so eloquent onstage, it's not a great surprise to learn that he spends his days repairing writing -- but you don't expect it to be the turgid prose of medical journals. One of his regular clients is the American Thoracic Society, via Capital City Press in Barre. Even though Alexander is a union member with the Actors' Equity Association and Screen Actors Guild, he says, "I'm copyediting like crazy to pay the bills." Since last fall, he's also been teaching technical writing at Champlain College.
But switching from stage to science isn't new for him. Not that long ago, Alexander was a biological research technician for the University of Vermont and the USDA Forest Service. In the '90s he was turning out botany-journal articles with such titles as "Photosynthetic and transpirational responses of red spruce understory trees to light and temperature." When traces of lead were discovered in Vermont's maple syrup, Alexander and his supervisor designed a study to determine the source of the heavy metal. (Though problems were found with old evaporators, he deems the issue "much ado about nothing -- I mean, how much maple syrup does a person eat?")
In a way, it was trees that lured Alexander from Manhattan's Upper East Side to Burlington. At his family's summer place in Gardiner, New York, he'd loved roaming the woods and became interested in ecology. And his family, Alexander says, "didn't consider acting a stable method of bringing home the bacon." So when he arrived as a freshman at UVM, he recalls, "Some senior asked me my major and I blurted out, 'Forestry.' I thought I was then locked in, though I wasn't."
Nevertheless, Alexander remained true to trees, earning a B.S. in Forest Biology and Management in 1986. After a brief stint as an "urban forester" in New York City, he returned to UVM to earn a Master's degree in Forest Physiology in 1992.
One day during his last year of graduate school, Alexander was walking past UVM's Royall Tyler Theatre and saw a sign soliciting auditions for Oedipus Rex. He'd played Creon in high school, but hadn't been onstage in nearly a decade. Spontaneously, he decided to audition. Director Robin Fawcett offered him the role of Creon again. "It was the perfect re-introduction for me," says Alexander. "I think the production went well. I got a really nice review."
That was the beginning of his double identity: academic by day, actor by night. Several more UVM productions followed. Alexander credits them with "re-igniting my skills." Local community and professional theater groups took notice. He was handling multiple roles in the same show by the time Nash directed him in Our Country's Good for North-ern Stage in the mid-'90s. "I played one of the most dangerous convicts in Australia in the 1790s, as well as the judge advocate of the colonies," he says.
And in that play Alexander demonstrated yet again his ear for speech. "He's really got a command of dialects," says friend and fellow actor Paul Schnabel. "I've actually gone to him for different projects where I needed help." Though based in Burlington, Schnabel performs primarily in Europe these days with Adriano Shaplin and the Riot Group. Back in 1997, he acted with Alexander in New York City in a pair of Goldberg plays produced by Green Candle. Though few came out to watch, Schnabel says it was an "amazing experience" for the troupe. "It was good for us as actors, a lot of fun being together, and I got to know John better. I think he's really grown as an actor ... He's a very dedicated guy, and it really shows."
As Alexander's stage life heated up, though, the appeal of research was cooling. "In 1999 I decided the lab setting was not why I'd gotten into forestry," he says. "I left and became head of security at Red Square," a Burlington bar. In the same period, he earned his SAG card after several appearances in films by Rutland director David Giancola. And he had extra or stand-in roles in a couple of Hollywood productions that came to town -- What Lies Beneath and Me, Myself & Irene. "In both movies, the casting director asked me to read for a speaking part as an EMT playing opposite the lead," Alexander notes wryly. "But in both cases, he cast a friend in the part."
Back at Red Square, he got to practice his "menacing bouncer" look, augmented by an army field jacket or a long, black, leather overcoat. None of the military headgear or antique weapons decorating his walls at home ever made it to the bar, however. Unpredictably, the job also led to his second marriage.
"He said he was looking to hire someone for Red Square and I gave him Alis' number," says her mother, Joanne Farrell. "I knew something was going to happen." Farrell is director of the professional writing program at Champlain College as well as the artistic director of its theater. She met Alexander six years ago when she produced her first play, Lovers, at Burlington City Hall. Two years later she cast Alexan-der as BabbyBobby in The Cripple of Inishmaan, performed at the FlynnSpace. This spring for Champlain's production, she cast him as Johnnypateenmike.
"John helped make sure the accents were uniform. It was wonderful for the students to be working with a professional," Farrell says. As his director, she notes three things she loves about working with him: "One, John has a great respect for directors; he will do anything, try anything. Two, he's an incredible team player. And three, he loves the audience. He really gives to them, and cares about telling a good story."
And as Alexander's mother-in-law, Farrell tells a story of her own, which she says illustrates "the quintessential John." On St. Patrick's Day, they were at Club Metronome listening to a band. Alexander was wearing a black kilt for the occasion. "Suddenly he disappeared, and I saw the swish of his kilt moving through the crowd," says Farrell. "He strides onstage and asks the musicians if he can sing a song. He belts out this song, standing there straight-backed and proud, and he had this kind of funny accent." The audience hooted and applauded when he was done. When Alexander returned to the table, Farrell asked him what the song was. "With a great laugh -- John loves to laugh -- he said, 'That was an English song celebrating their victory over the Irish.' It sounded so patriotic, everyone was fooled."
With some 40 productions to his credit so far, Alexander has proven very good at "fooling people" in countless guises. After The Truth Has No Heart this month, he's looking forward to playing Pap in the St. Michael's Playhouse production of Big River this summer. Yet his days -- well, years, anyway -- in Vermont may be numbered: Eventually he wants to return to New York "to pursue my career on a more aggressive level ... I'd love to work on Broadway and movies, maybe TV. Every year I watch the SAG or Academy Awards [presentations of] 'the people we've lost this year,'" he adds, "and I think, Oh, no, I'll never get to work with him or her."
Alexander says he plans to stay in Vermont until his boys are raised -- now 12 and 14 -- but meanwhile, he's keeping an eye out for Big Apple auditions. And when he loses a role here to a "New York Equity actor," he fumes with faux indignation, "I always say, 'I am a New York actor' -- actors in New York are from Kansas."
JOHN ALEXANDER ON ACTING:
SEVEN DAYS: What do you do to prepare for a role?
JOHN ALEXANDER: It depends on how familiar I am with that type of character. For instance, when I did Man in the Glass Booth, I read a couple of books by concentration camp survivors and one book by a former SS officer. I had to play both parts. I don't usually do book research, but will on occasion, when I feel particularly at a loss for specific emotional material.
SD: How do you memorize all those lines?
JA: I'm sort of notorious for being a last-minute off-book guy, which directors hate. But they find after they work with me they have nothing to worry about. But... I just cover the page with a piece of paper and go through my lines and take it a scene at a time. I'll get the first part of a scene down, then go on to the next. In the beginning it's just rote memorization, but in rehearsal the words take on more meaning. When I've studied it enough, I like to have someone help me, reading the cue lines.
SD: In Stone, you had seven roles; was it difficult to keep your characters straight?
JA: No, not the characters, but with some of the voices it was a little difficult. With the old man, because he's been a stonecutter for so long, I decided to give him a sort of tubercular voice, contrasting with the younger Italian man.
Recently being in The Cripple of Inishmaan, my Irish accent has become stronger than my Scottish. So when I had to go from an Irishman to a Scotsman, it was hard not to let any Irish seep in.
SD: Is it because of low-budget productions that actors play several roles?
JA: In Sylvia I believe it was written that way; in the others, I'm not certain. Often it has more to do with the budget, so directors tend to seek out character actors who can play widely divergent characters.
SD: It seems like you fully inhabit your characters. Do you ever find a character's personality seeping into your offstage life?
JA: Yes. One of my favorite roles was Adolf Dorff [a former SS officer in The Man in the Glass Booth]. You don't completely drop your character during a run [of the show]. But it kind of crept into my psyche and started to creep me out. I would find myself -- at moments, not all the time -- being a little less kindly than I usually am, and with a little more cruelty creeping into my thoughts than is customary ... It was more internal than anything I actually said or did.
This character had to interrogate people who had survived the concentration camps and kind of belittle them. There's no way to approach the performance of that part unless you really immerse yourself. It's so unbelievable and cruel. You have to just not worry about how you as a person feel about this survivor. It has to be, "What is Dorff thinking?" Even though I loved the role, I was glad to let it go.
As Bob Ewell in To Kill a Mockingbird, I had to use language I would never use, with two African-American actors who I liked a lot. To be able to look a nice, sweet young girl in the face and use the "n" word while smiling is very difficult to do. That wasn't a character that stuck with me; I could let go of that one after each performance. But it's exactly the same kind of thing in terms of what you have to go through on stage. You have to lose yourself.
SD: Tell me about audience response and how it affects you on stage.
JA: Saturday audiences tend to be tired; often they've gone out to dinner and had a couple drinks. So when you don't get that feedback from the audience, there's kind of a negative feedback. There's the risk of decreasing your energy or trying to overcompensate. The best thing to do is neither of those things.
Live theater is so interactive -- little tiny things the actors sense coming off the audience can make all the difference in the way the show goes.
SD: Can you just pretend the audience isn't there?
JA: That's where the "fourth wall" comes in handy. In the world that's created on stage there are three walls -- the back wall, stage left and stage right walls. The actor has to sort of create the fourth wall where the audience is; immersing yourself in the world created by the play, you have to imagine the wall and no audience...
But when the actors are specifically interacting with the audience, in a way, the audience is part of your world. In Stone, the characters are really addressing the audience... This is unusual; most shows aren't structured that way.
SD: As an actor, you must from time to time -- or maybe all the time -- privately think a scene could be directed better than what you're being told.
JA: Yeah, it happens, but it's often not an insurmountable problem, because most directors will listen to your feedback. If the way you're feeling about the character is, he just wouldn't do what a director is suggesting, you make your case. Unless it happens to be something the director feels very strongly about... or maybe explains why and I'll see the reason for the approach later.
That's why self-directed plays lack that "all-seeing eye" ... The con is, you're too close to the material to go with anything other than its precise meaning. The pro is, you really know what you meant in the lines and can direct to bring out that meaning.
SD: What kind of stage direction do you prefer?
JA: I prefer a style where the director is trying to bring out of you some version of what he or she wants to see on the stage, as opposed to the iron-fist approach of just saying, "This is the way I want it done"...
SD: Why have directors chosen you? And don't be modest.
JA: I think because I can let my emotional hair down on stage, and I can dive into a character deeply enough that I can transform myself fairly well, I think. I take direction well, and I think I'm pretty easygoing, for the most part.
SD: Other than the New York production of the Steve Goldberg work, have you acted outside Vermont?
JA: Yeah; I worked on an episode of "Law and Order" -- called "Execution," I think. I started acting in New York, so all my early experiences were there, but in school.
SD: When was the "Law and Order" episode, and how'd you get the part?
JA: It was about 2001; filmed in New York. I was in the casting office one day filling out forms they keep on file there, and some junior executive type walked through the waiting room. There was me and six guys with chiseled chins and Armani suits. He looked at me and asked how tall I was, was I union. He chose me. So much for chiseled cheeks -- ha!
SD: And Armani suits. What was the part?
JA: I was an extra and a stand-in in a courtroom scene and other background. Union stand-in work is pretty good. You get to work with the cast a little bit, and you get paid about $135 a day.
SD: Dare I ask what do actors get paid around here, if anything?
JA: Non-union actors -- nothing or very little. Sometimes not even enough to cover gas. But a couple of companies pay even the non-Equity actors -- usually around $500 a show.
SD: What do you think is the essence of acting? That is, what makes a person want to do it, and be suited for it?
JA: One thing is, you have to be able to bring up emotions and expose yourself, in a way -- to an audience, your director and fellow actors. If you can't go to whatever level with the character that is needed, there won't be an interesting presentation of that character on stage, and there's no way you'll be successful.
On a business level, you have to deal with rejection and not look at it as rejection. For example... I once drove to New York for an audition for a musical film version of The Producers. There was a nasty snow-sleet-ice storm; I left at 3 in the morning and got there just in time for the audition. They had us do a goosestep across the stage. Then they said, "Go stand up against wall; if you're not 6-feet-zero, thank you for coming." I'm 5-11. I got back in my car and drove home.
SD: What actors do you admire?
JA: Gene Hackman is my hero. Why? I just always felt that, no matter what movie he's in, he can do no wrong. Even if it's a crummy movie. He gives you that Everyguy sort of feeling; there's just a lot of heart to what he's doing.
Alec Guinness -- who has sadly left us. I thought he was an amazing actor... Within his body type, he could do anything -- male, female, young, old, refined or unrefined.
Locally, the guy I look up to is Paul Schnabel.
SD: Who would you love to play opposite?
JA: Clint Eastwood. I've always loved him, even back when he wasn't popular... There's also always kind of a moral behind what he's involved in.
SD: On stage you seem confident and comfortable, but, tell me the truth, don't you have any stage fright or anxiety?
JA: I do. My biggest thing, just before going on at the top of the show, is my first line. The bigger the venue, the more the nerves. Performing on the Flynn MainStage is a world of difference from performing at Pearl's
...One time, before coming on in [Lyric's] West Side Story, we had a full house. It was my first entrance and I suddenly thought, Something's wrong: I don't feel nervous. Then I panicked, because it's the nervous energy that drives you onstage. I went on and everything was fine, but I thought maybe my performance that night didn't have quite as much energy.
SD: What do you do to calm yourself before a show?
JA: To accommodate the butterflies, I'll only eat the most bland and small portions. You have to eat -- you don't want your stomach to grumble on stage.
Then I do relaxation exercises before going on -- basic, gentle stretching, gentle vocal warm-ups, enunciation, breathing. I hang down from the waist and let all the tension drop out, and I picture some place that is particularly comforting to me. Then I stand up and do a little shadow boxing to get the energy back.
SD: Besides the menacing bouncer you "played" at Red Square, do you ever use your actor skills in normal life -- say, to get through an uncomfortable social situation or something?
JA: Once, I was in New York for the opening of Gremlins -- I had a friend in it. Afterwards, I walked home through the park, even though I was wearing a double-breasted suit and dress shoes. This guy started following me. I tapped into my reservoir and decided to scare him off.
I happened to have a switchblade on me -- this was the only situation where I pulled it out. It's 3 a.m. in Central Park. I figured I had to confront him because we're the only people in the park and I can't get away. I turned around, pulled out the switchblade, got down into a wrestling stance, put on the meanest look I could muster, and said, "Come on, motherfucker, let's rock." He ran. And I got out of there as quickly as I could.
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