Smile Politely

Not just a pretty face

When I first met U of I graduate student Thom Miller, I was in the process of purchasing him a pair of bright pink pajama bottoms. He was playing the male lead in last season’s Armory Free Theatre student production of Andrew Lippa’s off-Broadway musical, The Wild Party, and a scripted moment required the ridiculous pajamas. Kendall Johnson, the student director of the piece, had asked me to costume shortly after he was given the green light to mount the production, and, since I was a very big fan of the musical’s Broadway counterpart written by Michael John LaChiusa, I thought it would be a fun project. (Both were running in New York at the same time, and Lippa’s is the better reviewed score of the two.) Upon meeting Miller, I took one look at him and thought, “This guy is too pretty to play Burrs,” a character I thought I knew well. I was familiar with Joseph Moncure March’s 1928 poem, and the 1975 film loosely based on the poem, and the infamous Fatty Arbuckle murder trial. (For you youngsters, Arbuckle was a portly silent-film comedic actor whose career was destroyed by the scandal of his own wild party, which left a teenage girl dead in the wake of a night of boozing, binge-drugging, and orgiastic sex.) Arbuckle was not a looker, nor was Mandy Patinkin in the Broadway incarnation, and yet here was Miller, a striking young man looking not unlike Kevin Kline’s rakish character in Sophie’s Choice.

Seeing Miller act in the rehearsal process, my concerns about his looks were quickly banished. Miller, a Virginia native who has an undergraduate theatre degree from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and is currently working on his graduate degree at the University of Illinois, possessed both an impudent smugness and a neurotic insecurity as Burrs, and his character’s Act II meltdown was both chilling and irresistible. This guy was the real deal! Since that first exposure, I’ve followed his acting with a good deal of interest, and he’s yet to disappoint. Recently, I was asked to interview Miller about his craft as part of Smile Politely’s BEST Arts coverage (which, in addition to the usual list of great shows and venues, will highlight a few standouts from the local arts community). Miller’s responses, characteristically, are those of a young actor in love with acting.

Smile Politely: You’ve been busy on the theatre scene this year at Krannert. For our readers, what roles have you had, and what have been the challenges of each?

Thom Miller: This year at Krannert I played Caliban in The Tempest and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing. A dream season for any actor. However, these were the first full-length Shakespeare plays I have ever been in. So, that was the common challenge, but each role presented (as any role does) its own unique challenges.

For Caliban, the challenge was in finding his humanity. He is often described as a “deformed savage” or “a monster,” but that isn’t playable for an actor. It will lead you to playing an idea or a mood, but not a person. Also, I find little of a savage in him. Many would argue he is the most well-spoken person in the whole play. He learned to speak from Prospero and Miranda and, even when he is surrounded by Trinculo and Stephano (who speak in prose), he rarely strays from verse. My job is to find what he wants and how he seeks these things. Where is the humanity in the “monster?” I found, rather than angry, he must feel hurt and unjustly punished. In his mind, he did nothing wrong. Living in a cave and being the son of a witch does suggest the necessity of some sort of physical choice, but once I found one that worked for me, it was such a way into him. I walked on all fours with my weight on my knuckles, as close as I could get to an ape or gorilla, but there is one reference to him as a “puppy-headed monster” that changed everything. Normally, it gets overlooked, but Bob Anderson (the director of The Tempest, a stellar actor, and one of the teachers who has transformed the way I work) pointed it out to me and we ran with it. We found someone who could move with strength but celebrate and love like a puppy. Any creature with emotions so varied and wild could only be described, I think, as a human.  

For Benedick, the challenge was in courting an irreverence with the text. I have a tendency, as many actors do, to be too precious with the poetry. The problem with that is I find myself serving the words as opposed to the words serving the character. Benedick speaks a lot in prose, which has some more freedom in it, but it took me some time to loosen up.  I never would’ve been able to do that if I didn’t have amazing examples of it around me daily, particularly present in Neal Moeller (a fellow MFA actor and Don Pedro in this production). He has such a way of authoring text and committing to the action of the scene in a whole-bodied, totally present, available way. Watching and learning from/with him this last year and a half helped me with Benedick a lot. I found myself going too far, being too irreverent, and Kathleen Conlin’s very skilled, unparalleled director’s eye was superb at helping me focus the energy throughout the play. She is a master of crafting moments and relationships. She is a total pro and such a joy to work with. She guided me to the romance in Benedick I never would’ve found.

SP: You’ve also worked at several summer venues. Where else have you performed, and what roles were most satisfying for you?

Miller: Well, I’m getting ready to go to the Texas Shakespeare Festival for the summer, but last year I was at the New London Barn Playhouse in New Hampshire. I played Harold Hill in The Music Man and did a world premiere of a new musical, A Legendary Romance, that I had done a reading of in New York City before coming to grad school. It was so much fun to create something new. Developing a character that no one has worked on before is just thrilling, and it feels so much more collaborative because the writing team is often involved, and you get to give a bit more input into the play as a whole. The show dealt with Hollywood during McCarthyism. It gave the actors a lot of meat to chew on. Fun stuff.

SP: As an actor, what is the first thing you do to unlock a character after being cast?

Miller: Read the play… a lot. I try to read it standing up so my body is active. I want the play to be in my body, not just my head. I keep a pad of paper near me to write down thoughts or questions. Also, I look at all of the things my character says about himself in the play and all that is said about them. That doesn’t mean I’m gonna pay too much attention to it (just because someone calls you a name doesn’t mean it’s true), but there is definitely useful information in it.

SP: What helps you find a character most effectively–the cues in the script, discussions with your director and fellow actors, or costumes and props?

Miller: Playing. Doing it. I learn my lines quickly and want to start working on my feet. Some time sitting at the table is absolutely necessary to get everyone on the same page, ask questions, and bring research to the group, but I don’t want to talk about it TOO much. For me, it is more important to find a moment and experience it than to name it, describe it, or talk about it. I think it helps to think of a play as a living thing. Dancers dance. Teachers teach. Painters paint. Actors act. We create action. Hard to do that sitting down.

SP: What is your dream role to play in the next few years, and what would the challenges be in playing it?

Miller: Henry V or Guy in Once: The Musical. The challenge would be loving it too much. I might spend too much time trying to get it right and suck all the fun and surprise out it. Wow. Glad you asked that. Now I know what to look out for!

SP: What role has been the greatest struggle for you in your acting career, and how have you overcome it?

Miller: That’s a tough one. Every role has challenges. Some have more than others. It’s tough to call any part of acting a struggle, though. It’s more of a privilege. I can’t take myself that seriously. I come from a military family and learned to keep things in perspective at a young age. I know people who have struggled. People who would be killed in other countries for being themselves, or telling the truth, struggle every day. I get to act and sing and get paid for it. That perspective is probably how I overcome any of the hard stuff. As far as my career is concerned… I suppose the hardest part was living in NYC with only $1.07 in my bank account for three weeks. That was tough. I ate a lot of Honey Nut Cheerios with water (ran out of milk), but I probably could have just asked for money though. I have great parents. I was just too proud. Any challenges I do encounter I overcome because I have great family, friends, teachers, and a very patient girlfriend (all of them much smarter than me) who support me but hold me accountable too.   

SP: If not limited by age, physical appearance or gender, what role would you love to tackle, and why does it appeal to you?

Miller: Lady Macbeth. She is a force of nature. Her energy is palpable on the page. There is something undeniably sexy about how ferocious she is. So focused, certain, and calculated. She is willing to go further than most of us (hopefully), but her goals and ambitions are so universally human. She pays for it though. I can’t wait to see Marion Cottillard (whom I love) in the movie version coming out next year!

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