Ted Sod: Tell us about yourself: Where were you born and educated? When and why did you decide to be an actor? Did you have any teachers who had a profound influence on you?
Ethan Dubin: I was born and raised in Pasadena, California, a suburb in Los Angeles County. I didn’t know I wanted to be an actor from day one; it took some time. But I was always performing in some way or another. I was bad at sports (like, no-one-goes-to-lunch-until-Ethan-hits-a-baseball-during-gym, bad-at-sports) and compensated with a class clown mentality. My high school and my family were really focused on academic achievement, but I was lucky to have two phenomenal acting teachers, Tina and Cynthia, who consistently made the best high school theatre around (yeah, that’s right). They nurtured my curiosity, and they also recognized the weirdo in me. One taught me Viewpoints and Suzuki when I was sixteen, and the other sent me to go see a Robert Wilson musical my junior year, which she knew would explode my brain. It did. Theatre always gave me a place to escape to, so I guess in hindsight it makes sense that I wanted to go to school someplace where I didn’t know anyone at all. For me that was the frigid Midwest and Chicago. It didn’t take long at school to figure out that I wanted to do something in the theatre. When I graduated, I still hadn’t quite figured out what. I thought I’d start telling people I was an actor just to see how it fit. And it’s still fitting.
TS: Why did you choose to play the role of Bobbie in Bobbie Clearly? What do you find most challenging about playing this role? Does the role have personal resonance for you? If so, how?
ED: I am humbled at the opportunity to play a character as complex, beautiful, and challenging as Bobbie. I have always been attracted to playing outsiders, weirdos, people who desperately want to fit in and to be liked. I relate to them. In their efforts to try to be liked, these characters often have to be incredibly courageous, especially when their actions may be clumsy, misguided, or downright painful to witness. I’ve never played an outsider as polarizing as Bobbie. I immediately connected to how raw and vulnerable he is, and how pure his hopes are to make amends with the people of his hometown. With this horrific crime behind him, he wants so badly to do the right thing, to prove that he’s worthy of forgiveness. At best, he is the elephant in the room, and far more often he’s the target of wild and justified hatred. It’s an amazing challenge to try to imagine what that would be like—for me, and for our audiences. I found a statistic that in 2016 there were an average of five gun-related homicides of children or teens every day. I didn’t grow up in a town like the Milton, NE we see in Alex’s play. But the story of Bobbie Clearly is all too familiar and recognizable to me growing up and living in this country.
TS: In your opinion, what is the play Bobbie Clearly about?
ED: For me, this play is about the act of forgiveness and how we get along as a community in the wake of a tragedy. Far too many small American cities and families have had to grapple with a tragedy like we see in the play. How do you move on? How do you learn to feel safe again? How do you punish the criminal, and does he deserve a place back in the society he harmed? If so, would you help him? I can remember several mass shootings in recent history where the families of the victims have announced their forgiveness of the murderer hardly a day after they lost their loved ones. And I’ve wondered what this really means, what this really feels like. Could I forgive someone like that for a crime so heinous? Or even if I thought I could, what would it be like to have that forgiveness tested if and when I saw him face to face? There are so many painful complexities in how a traumatized community tries to coexist and move on. Some people feel their very identity has been changed forever and want to spend their lives memorializing the victim, while others want to get as far away from the memory as possible. One of the things I love about Alex’s play is how honestly he portrays this, and how funny and awkward it can be along the way.
TS: What is your process as an actor? What is the first thing you do? How do you research a role like Bobbie?
ED:With a few weeks to go before rehearsals, I’m gathering research and mining details from the script. Through books, movies, clips, what have you, I’m trying to spend time with people who may have similar circumstances to Bobbie or resemble some part of his life. That could be anything from a man serving a life sentence in prison for a murder he committed as a minor, to just what it’s like for a bunch of high school kids in Nebraska to pile onto a bus to go detassel corn and make some ice cream money. I want to get a sense of the textures and rhythms in the text. And I also want to figure out what facts I know from the script, and what questions I’m going to have in the rehearsal room. Especially with a play like this, I start with a timeline, trying to organize everything I know for sure about Bobbie so I can start to draw a narrative for myself of how his life has been through that chronology. I want to get to know this world so that in rehearsals I’ll be ready to meet the people inside of it.
TS: Can you share some of your preliminary thoughts with us about Bobbie and his relationship to the community in Nebraska that he comes from? How do you see the relationship between Bobbie and Casey? What about between Bobbie and Darla?
ED: We’re in a really small town in Nebraska, where the murder of Casey affects everyone. As Derek tells us about halfway through the play, when Bobbie walks into a store or someplace in public, 90% of the people know who he is, and the other 10% are about to find out. Bobbie has been released back into the town he’s harmed, and the ripples of his crime are felt everywhere. They’ve ripped apart his family and any comfort and security he may have once had as a boy. It takes monumental steps to regain any trust, and the little of it he comes by is tenuous. I have so many questions about Bobbie’s relationship to Casey. I think his feelings about Casey have as much or even more to do with his feelings about Eddie, a boy he once had tons of power over, and then none. In Darla, I think Bobbie finds possibly the only example of a benevolent authority figure in his life. We don’t see him interact with other authority figures, but I get the feeling Darla has always expressed some kindness even in moments of deep disappointment, and that’s been a huge exception from a lot of other adults. I’m eager to discover more about Bobbie’s relationship with his family, what his home life was like. Seeing children display deep rage isn’t all that unfamiliar to us, but when a temper tantrum goes too far into something unknown, we always want to know why; we’re hungry to be able to point to one concrete, definable event or reason in the child’s life and say “that’s where the anger comes from.” And one of the reasons I love this play is because I’m not sure it’s ever that simple.
TS: What do you look for in a director when working on a new play?
ED: I love a director who really trusts and respects actors. Someone who knows how to open the door for you and then step aside to let you walk through it. When I’m in a rehearsal process, I always want to have the time and the space to go too far and push the limits of a scene or a moment past what I think they “should” be. Working on a new play, you’re in uncharted territory and you want to stretch the text and discover the boundaries. When I’m really jamming with a director, I think she sets me free in the moment, sometimes pushing or pulling in directions I didn’t know I needed to go, while keeping a bird’s eye view of how any one scene ripples through the rest of the play. I feel free to make new choices all the time, and only afterward do I see the framework that was being built invisibly around me. And at the end of the day, I love a director who asks questions, but also knows that rehearsals are about trying on answers. There isn’t really a right one, so you just pretend there is until you figure out which ones are the strongest, the juiciest, the most essential for the story.
TS: How do you keep yourself inspired as an artist?
ED: I love theatre, and I see a ton of it. Making plays is hard, it just is. And my community of theatre artists in New York inspires me all the time. I’m also amazed by how much inspiration I find in other forms of performance. Maybe it’s music or dance or an exhibition at a museum—I’m frequently amazed by how much inspiration I’ll get in acting from other creative forms. I try to take advantage of being in New York and take in as much as I can. And I try to keep things fresh, keep myself taking risks and doing the unfamiliar. A mentor of mine in high school said that, as a working actor, you have to keep your body engaged in some kind of movement practice, no matter what that looks like. A few months ago I started doing an Israeli dance/movement form called Gaga (no, not Lady). It’s all about providing your body with a framework for discovery and going outside of what’s familiar. It’s awesome. You should try it. I think it makes me a better person, so probably a better actor, too.
TS: NYC public school kids will read this interview and want to know what it takes to be a successful actor -- what advice can you give young people who want to act?
ED: Champion each other. It’s too easy to focus on the negative in what we do. But you’ll just hold yourself and your community back. Instead, find all the chances you can to talk about who inspires you, about someone in your community who’s doing amazing work. Be a champion for them, and someone’s going to come back around and be a champion for you. And another thing. I had an acting teacher here in the city say that no matter what job you’re doing, do the best you possibly can at that job. With all the crazy side-jobs we actors do in this city, that advice really stuck with me, and I think it’s absolutely true. You’ll keep your integrity, strengthen your discipline, and nurture your curiosity. You’ll also get bored. And boredom, it turns out, can be a powerful thing for an artist.
Bobbie Clearly closes at the Roundabout Underground on May 6, 2018. For tickets and information, please visit our website.
2017-2018 Season, Bobbie Clearly, Roundabout Underground