Having trained at and graduated from NYU's prestigious Tisch drama school and with appearances in shows including Rosewood, The Mentalist and Law & Order: Criminal Intent already under his belt, Jeff Ward's CV is pretty impressive.
However, on February 6, viewers on Lifetime will see him take on his biggest and most challenging role to date as the infamous Charles Manson in Manson's Lost Girls and ahead of the films' premiere, Ward kindly agreed to this interview to chat movies, Shakespeare and great advice.
PW: When did you first realize that you wanted to be an actor?
Jeff Ward: I obsessively watched movies when I was young. Before I could read, I remember having a VCR with stickers on it; a red square was stop, a yellow circle was rewind and green arrow was play. I really loved films, even from a young age and I constantly had ET, Burton’s Batman, Ferris Bueller’s Day off, and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves on repeat.
But I didn’t know that I wanted to be an actor until later. My grandma asked me if I wanted to go to an acting camp called Stagedoor, since ‘the other kids would like movies as much as me’, or, 'you won’t be the only weirdo quoting movies every five minutes'.
I went for a few years, and when I was 16, I got to play Romeo in a big outdoor theatre for something like 500 people. It was during that performance that I knew that this had to be my job.
PW: Who were your acting influences growing up and have they changed much over the years?
JW: So many. When I was younger-- Star Wars, Back to the Future, Indiana Jones, Ghostbusters, The Simpsons, anything Bill Murray, Jim Carrey, Mike Meyers. I saw American Beauty when I was fourteen and was transfixed by it. I’d never seen a movie like that. When I was eighteen, I saw The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh on Broadway, and it blew my mind.
My influences now… I think the Coen brothers might be the best filmmakers around. Tarantino, Alexander Payne, Cuaron, Inaritu, Charlie Kauffman, Larry David, Six Feet Under, Arrested Development… I think Louie is brilliant. Louis CK is another one of the best filmmakers doing it. Leonardo DiCaprio, Josh Brolin, Pacino, Hoffman, Cillian Murphy, Jon Hamm. There are too many to list, but they’re all heroes.
PW: What was it like training with Kathleen Turner and Sam Shepard?
JW: Working with Sam Shepard was surreal. In class our teacher told us Sam was going to help some of the seniors workshop our thesis projects. Mine was a one-man show where I played a middle-aged guy, a teenage boy with aspirations of being a rapper, and an elderly woman. I was insanely nervous because he was working with people one on one, and when I met him, he asked me to run the show for him. I performed in front of Sam Shepard and the head of Tisch drama and no one else, so I was terrified. But at the end he shot up from his seat and started enthusiastically running all over the studio, trying to figure out how to make the show more exciting. He was pretending to be the old woman, or teenage boy, and was having a blast doing it. He was the most effortlessly cool person I’ve ever met.
Kathleen Turner was also really fun. They picked a group to work with her, and I did my monologue first. Before I started she said, “Are you sure you want to go? I’m really hard on the first person.” I nodded and did my monologue, and then she said, “You’re pretty good… but come on that was fucking terrible.” as she rolled her eyes and continued to make fun of me. It was cracking me up because she was being so mean to me. She also taught me a lot. She told me not to be afraid of being an asshole if the character is an asshole… not to make everyone a good person, which I still think about a lot. It was an incredible group too. Miles Teller was in it, Anna Konkle, Maya Erskine. They’re all crazy talented.
PW: You've gone on to guest star on a number of shows. Out of all the guest spots you've done, could you pick a favourite?
JW: I recently got to do a guest spot on Rosewood, which was great. One of my best friends, Anna Konkle, is on the show so it was super fun to work with such a close friend. I also had a scene with Dominic Lombardozzi, and I am a crazy fan of The Wire so that was a bucket list scene partner.
PW: Have those you've worked with given you any really good advice that you've taken to heart?
JW: I did a play in LA at the Taper last year, Marjorie Prime, and I got to play opposite Lois Smith. Lois is a legend. I tried to pay attention to everything she did, because she is basically the actor equivalent of a Jedi – a nerdy reference, but I stand by it. She is the best listener I have ever worked with. We talked a lot about that. We agreed that listening is the dance of it. Anything can happen on stage or in front of the camera, and when you have someone you trust implicitly it gives your imagination permission to run wild.
There was one night when Lois forgot a line, and there were only two of us in the scene. We were in front of 800 people, and she looked at me and her face said ‘help! So I launched into one of my monologues, only to realize that we had skipped almost ten pages, and those pages contained the information that made sense of the play. So we started stitching together different lines and exchanges, following Lois’ lead, until we got all the information back into the scene, and then we had the same idea simultaneously of where to end it.
It was the scariest acting moment I’ve ever had, but because we were listening so carefully to each other, it became one of the most thrilling moments of my life! We were both on stage until the end so we didn’t get to talk about it until after, but she gave me a big hug as we walked off.
PW: Tell me a little bit about Manson's Lost Girls.
JW: The timeline for the movie is a little over a month, tracking Linda Kasabian as she joins Charlie and the family. It gives a glimpse of what they were, a hippie commune with mostly peaceful intentions, but then you start to see Charlie’s love turn into violence and desperation. It’s also told from the women’s perspective, which hasn’t really been done before.
PW: What was it about the role of Manson, and the man in general, that made you get involved?
JW: It’s an actors' dream to play really complicated people. There is so much material on him, interviews and books and documentaries etc. There is an answer for almost any question you could have. He is also so complicated, a sociopath and a liar… all things that make for an awful human but a really great character.
PW: Can you remember your audition?
JW: Charlie was a musician, which I learned because I had to sing and play a 60’s ballad on guitar. I picked You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away by the Beatles. I was waiting in the room with ten other guys with guitars, and I could hear the guy right before me singing my song! I started laughing, assuming I was doomed. I was so bummed, which actually helped because I just went in and had fun with it. I was insanely lucky and only had to audition once. The next day I got the part and started researching as much as I could. I only had two weeks from when I got it to when we started shooting, so it was total immersion for two months after that.
PW: As everyone knows, Manson is, in the minds of many, a vile excuse for a human being, but now that you've worked on this movie about him, what are your own thoughts? Has working on this movie changed anything?
JW: Yes, I think in the sense that I see him as a human being, and not just a monster. Don’t get me wrong, he is most definitely a monster, but I just have more of an understanding of how that came to be. Between the ages of ten and thirty-two, he spent eighteen of his thirty-two years in prisons or reform schools. It’s stuff like that, stories of him as a boy, not having a father, being rejected by everywhere he tried to fit in… it humanizes him. I tried to approach the part without judging him, because it would be impossible to play someone that I think is a bad person. But working on the part has ended and I’ve gone back to judging him a little. I’ve come to think that Tex, Leslie, Susan, Linda, Patty… they weren’t evil people. Charlie was the rotten one, and he brought everyone down with him.
PW: You're also about to be seen in the film The Boy Downstairs. What can you tell me about your role in that?
JW: I did The Boy Downstairs this past fall. It was written and directed by the very talented Sophie Brooks. Zosia Mamet and Matthew Shear are an ex-couple who end up literally living on top of each other in New York City. It’s cynical humor, which I love. I play a very crude guy named Marcus who is kinda dating, but only having sex, with his not-girlfriend. The whole time you want her to dump him so badly. Hilarity ensues.
PW: You're also into directing, having done the play TAPE. Are there plans for you to do more of that in the future?
JW: TAPE was my first time seriously directing something and I loved it. I have aspirations to direct films, but I have a lot to learn still. In theatre, I feel a lot more comfortable because I’ve been doing it all my life. It was amazing to get to sit back and see the big picture. It was really fun to make music and set design and overall the narrative choices. It’s difficult but very satisfying to try and realize a vision for something like that.
PW: What other projects or plans do you have in the pipeline?
JW: In LA this May I am doing the play Gruesome Playground Injuries by Rajiv Joseph. It’s a beautiful and heart-breaking play about nine different meetings between one couple. It’ll be at the Hudson theatre in Hollywood for at least a couple of months.
PW: What advice would you give to anyone considering an acting career? What do you wish you'd known when you started out?
JW: I would encourage the shit out of it! But I think you have to do it because you couldn’t imagine yourself doing anything else. Get in a class and see if you really, really love the craft. If you do, you’ll be able to deal with the ocean of people who will say ‘no’ to you. Being a ‘starving artist’ is a real thing, so if you want to get rich and famous, don’t do it. It’s too heart-breaking and difficult. But if you love it, throw yourself in all the way. Learn, read and watch everything you can.
PW: Finally then, what's your ultimate ambition/dream role and where do you see yourself a few years from now?
JW: I have two answers. For film, getting to do a movie with either the Coen Brothers or Louie CK. That would be the dream. But the other one is Shakespeare in the Park. The Delacorte theatre, the home of Shakespeare in the Park in New York City is my favorite space. It’s always been an ultimate goal to play Hamlet, Iago, or Romeo there. Playing Romeo outside under the stars was what made me want to be an actor, so I feel like it would bring everything full circle.
To keep up to date with Jeff, be sure to follow him on Twitter.
Manson's Lost Girls will air on Lifetime at 8PM.