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Steve Key Interview

Steve Key: A Few Words with Chicago’s Favorite Prosthetic Psycho. By Brian Kirst

Celebrated stage actor Steve Key has played many an emotional monster onstage and onscreen (he recently essayed the notorious Doc Barker in the Johnny Depp starrer Public Enemies) and his resonant abilities have lived with audiences long after his performances have finished. Key is also an inspired creator behind the scenes with Special Effects, set design and character make up crafting (which he analyzes quite brilliantly, below) among his many interests. Key recently took some time out from busy schedule of plumbing the depths of society’s ills to give us some really good– well, lip.

Brian: So, Steve, who were your first artistic influences n Clint Eastwood tearing up psychos with clenched jaw might  Spencer Tracy’s loving embrace of his mistress in waiting, Katherine Hepburn A drunken, Shakespeare quoting uncle?

Steve: My 7th grade teacher Harris Goldenberg was an amazing guy. To this very moment he’s the greatest influence on me as an actor. He was passionate about the pursuit of truth in acting. He never simplified things for us. Somehow he challenged us in such a way that I don’t remember fearing failure, instead he had a bunch of preteens casting aside concerns of popularity and the need to play the lead and we dove into a pursuit of the greater things that acting can achieve. His low pressure/high standard was awesome because he got us focused at such an impressionable age. It’s been an indelible influence, however it also screwed me up because no high school drama program could match it and therefore I quit acting from 8th grade until I started taking class again at 25. Weird huh?

Brian: Actually, that’s really cool (and inspiring), man! But, speaking of weird – you’ve played plenty of demented fellows on stage and screen. What is the process for you to get to those depths of anger and depravity?

Steve: Approaching all characters starts the same, for me. I read the piece several times. The first time or two through, I try to maintain objectivity, however, the more I read it, the more my curiosity, dwells on the things other people say about my character and what he says about himself. It’s not a formal process, but, through the fantasy of reading and rehearsing the piece, my empathy naturally aligns with the character and I develop a visceral connection to the desires, needs and fears that drive him until, despite what others may think of him, I feel fully invested and justified in the actions that he takes. Sometimes, when I’m having a hard time ‘feeling itî, I’ll pull out a pad and approach it in a more conscious/studied way but usually it’s not more complicated than that.

Within that approach, the difference between working on the more vile characters, which are generally hard for most of us to identify with, and the ‘normal folks’ is largely, focusing on the person’s lightness and their more positive motivators. If we can see how they are driven by love, even if it’s simply a desire to be able to love themselves or not hate themselves, or that they are driven by some higher pursuit of justice (as twisted as they may see it) it’s easier to avoid a stock clichÈ. I’ve never found integrity in a life that’s created without some sort of virtuous higher goal (no matter how misguided it may be). If the piece is well written and I believe that I’m justified, as the character, it’s possible to create someone that is uniquely disturbing because audiences will struggle through personal conflict in moments when they identify and even empathize with him.

Dan White from Execution of Justice by Emily Mann at About Face Theatre is a good example. Exploring his life was quite a challenge and a particularly painful process because the character was based on a real and terribly tortured life. His interrogation room/confession scene was an exact transcription of the real guys wailing, snot flowing confession. As despicable as he was, he was a man with outrageous moral standards and his murder of Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone caused him (as I experienced him) to despise himself with a self consuming fire which was as hot as the anger and hatred that the San Francisco community felt for him. His love of his family and concern for the purity of his community was a powerful force and his desire to fulfill the idealized, righteous mythology that he created about himself was extreme, however, nothing was capable of justifying the murders and this led to a self loathing that resulted in suicide. Living in that frame of mind as honestly as I could provided a great sense of accomplishment but the psychic price was substantial. Dealing with the inherent chemical changes that are a part of adopting his emotional state sucked. For two months, I’d walk around during the day with the residual chemistry of a person who was depressed and suicidal running through my body and that aint no picnic.

Brian: Dude, you said it! (I remember that performance. You were awesome!) – You are, also, something of a make-up guru. Any thoughts on prosthetic work or a ‘trick’ you’ve done that you’ve been especially proud of?

Steve: I’m actually more of a tinkerer than a technical expert of any kind. I’ve pursued set design, special effects and makeup for various projects because I’ve been creatively turned on by the unique creative or technical challenges that they’ve provided. And having been affiliated with a few fantastic ensemble based theatre companies, particularly American Blues (ABT) and Shattered Globe Theaters (where I’m a former Artistic Director), I’ve been blessed with the chance to take on some of these thrilling challenges. Most recently I designed make up for ABT’s Tobacco Road which included the challenge of providing Gwendolyn Whiteside, the amazing actress that you interviewed earlier this month, with a cleft palate (harelip). Prior to the first day of rehearsal, using a dentist’s mold of her mouth, I built a prosthetic cleft palate out of wax and paper clips. It’s basically a retainer or mouth guard type of structure. Extending over the front teeth I added a reinforced shelf, that her upper lip rests on, which then extends up into her nostril and looks like the flesh of her gum. We fitted it to her mouth, then we took it to a dental lab and they recast it in acrylic. The owner of the lab did a fantastic job and it’s pretty damn convincing, however, he’s such a pro and so conscientious that he straightened the false teeth, which I had intentionally made crooked. Nonetheless, a bit of tooth makeup got it as realistically gruesome as we needed for the intimacy of the production and the prosthetic became a great jumping off point to talk with the cast about the level of realism that we wanted to achieve when they’d be applying their makeup every night. It was a definite thrill, however, aside from the prosthetic, the info we shared about the physical conditions that the people in this story are saddled with and a few refining suggestions that I gave during previews, the makeup of the individual characters, like their performances is all the actors own creation.

So far as tricks are concerned, I have none. I rarely do the same thing twice so I don’t have the chance to develop any, however (or maybe therefore), I can only suggest that you do your research, study the problem and every solution before you commit to anything and keep your eyes, ears and mind wide open. Other opinions and accidents along the way can be the difference between decent and exceptional.

Brian: Well, color my mouth impressed! That’s an amazing journey you took us on, man! – You’ve done some major film work and some intense stage work, as well. Have there been any projects that have meant the most to you?

Steve: These were both on stage:

Coyote On A Fence by Bruce Graham at Shattered Globe Theatre allowed me to work with some of my best friends and it challenged me to create a life in Bobby Reyburn that was outrageously complex and multilayered. This character is, at once, unconscionable yet sweet and innocent, hilarious yet tragically heartbreaking and heroic yet simpleminded. It’s weird, I remember him as one of the most humanely rich people I’ve known, who has had a most profound impact on my life and he’s not even real. When he is brought up in conversation I sometimes have to choke back tears because I miss him so much (yet another testament to the power of the psycho-chemical changes that occur when we do this kind of work).

Valentine Xavier in Orpheus Descending by Tennessee Williams at American Blues Theater introduced me to a calm low-key sexual power on a scale that kinda blew my mind. Playing Val, I had a couple of months of living in what I idealize the world of Marlon Brando, Brat Pitt or Paul Newman to be like at their hottest. Thanks to Tennessee for providing access to the most pleasurable, ego exploding epiphany that I’ve ever had.

Brian: Tennessee rocks it from the grave, man!  – Lastly, any words of advice (IE: Never try to steal the spotlight from Johnny Depp and especially when he’s wielding a Tommy Gun) or future projects you’d like to tell us about? And thanks and this has been better than assassinating a prominent politician any day of the week!

Steve: Partially because you got me thinking about Val and Dan White within the same conversation, partially because you also got me thinking about the chemical implications (off stage) of doing this work and partially because I just finished the 11 month tour of the Broadway production of August: Osage County, in which I played the introverted, psychologically beat up Little Charles 8 times a week. right about now would be a great time to be offered the part of a strong, assertive, sexy leading man. Don’t get me wrong; August: Osage County is brilliant, and, without exception, the cast and the crew and the months on the road were a blast, it’s just that I could use a bit of balance. I’m crossing fingers for the strong and sexy.

Brian: We’re crossing our fingers, too, Steve! And — Thanks, again, this has been well, strong and sexy, man! Strong and sexy!!

(Tobacco Road is running in Chicago until June 20th, 2010. For more information check out

Written by BrianK