At first, they were hesitant to speak—likely overcome with a mix of nerves and awe.
Who could blame them?
It’s not every day that a famous television and film actor walks into your first block theatre class to take questions and discuss his career. However, Terry O’Quinn, 2007 Emmy Award winner for his work as John Locke on the television series “Lost,” visited Landstown High School Sept. 28 to do just that.
“I would have liked high school a lot better if people clapped like that every time I came into a room,” said O’Quinn to the more than 70 students gathered in the school’s schola.
Thanks to outreach by Terri Gayer, Landstown High School theatre teacher and director, O’Quinn accepted the invitation to speak to students from her cinema studies, performance theatre, studio theatre and introduction to theatre classes. A few star stuck staff members joined the audience as well.
“I thought it would be a wonderful idea to invite practitioners of film from our community to come and talk to you about what it is that they do best,” Gayer told students as she introduced O’Quinn. “We’re very thankful that he’s able to be here today to share his vast experience with you.”
Quinn, who resides in Virginia Beach between filming engagements, began with a question.
“Alright. How do we start? I haven’t done this before.”
He started with his own memories of high school and his inspiration to pursue acting.
“I was in high school in the upper peninsula of Michigan in a very small town. We didn’t have a theatre department in our school. We didn’t have acting. Before I was a senior, they had a senior play but it was an opportunity for the popular kids to put on makeup and scarves and misbehave on stage. That was pretty much our theatre experience.”
“I remember watching films when I was in high school. There is one I always reference; it was called ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ It was a movie made by Franco Zeffirelli in the 60s. It was particularly powerful for me because there was a girl named Olivia Hussey who played Juliet who was beautiful. I just wanted to keep watching that film. It occurred to me that somewhere this was happening. That somewhere people were making these films. It wasn’t happening in my town or anywhere I could see from where I was. Then I went to college. I went to Central Michigan University and I saw there were auditions for a play called ‘Henry IV, Part I.’ It was by Shakespeare as was ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ I thought I would go and audition. I had no experience and I didn’t know anything about it but I went in and I auditioned. I think because I could stand up straight and look like a guy and talk loud enough, they cast me in the play and that was it. After that, I felt like, wow, I think these are my people.”
He earned an acting scholarship to attend the University of Iowa where a New York director saw him on stage.
“He said, ‘You’re very good. Why don’t you come with me? We’re going to go Williamstown Theatre Festival,’ which I’m sure none of you have heard of; I hadn’t heard of it at the time.”
O’Quinn described how the director introduced him to an agent and he began seeking theatre work in New York and along the East coast while sleeping on the floors of friends’ apartments and trying to make ends meet.
“I won’t lie to you,” O’Quinn told the students. “It was kind of hard scrapple.”
“I got cast in my first film probably after I had been doing theatre for about five years professionally. Then I did theatre, film and television for a while and for the last 20 years I’ve done exclusively film and television,” said O’Quinn before turning it over to the students.
“That’s my short story,” he said. “I don’t know what else exactly to tell you but I wonder if we could have a discussion if anybody has any thoughts or if you have any questions.”
For the next 50 minutes, O’Quinn answered students’ questions – ranging from his favorite role to how he felt when he won his Emmy. He also granted many students’ requests for selfies at the conclusion of the interview session.
Abbreviated excerpts from his discussion with students are below.
Student: “To what or whom do you owe your success?”
O’Quinn: “To the extent that I’ve had it – I never really get much farther than now. When people say, ‘How does it feel to make it?’ I’ll say, ‘I’ve only made it to here. It feels pretty good so far.’ …I would have to say I owe my success to people who gave me roles and gave me opportunities in college, and, obviously, Olivia Hussey in ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ I’m grateful to her and to Franco Zeffirelli for making that film. The rest of it is just your friends who support you. It helps to have a community of friends, a group that can help you out. It’s tough to do it all by yourself. I love my community and I like the people who do what I do. Every time I did a play or a film, generally it feels like a big family. And then you say good-bye to that family and go on to the next one. It always a similar experience.”
Student: “When you were first coming up as an actor, what was the best advice anyone has ever given you?”
O’Quinn: “The one I already told you: Don’t ask permission. The rest of it is what I call professionalism. I got that message from a wonderful old actor when I was fairly young. He said, ‘I don’t care about a person’s personality. I don’t care too much about how they are at home. But when you come here, when you go to that workplace, be a professional.’ That involves treating others with respect. Being prepared. Be on time. And by ‘be prepared’ I don’t just mean know your lines. I mean, know who your character is. Be prepared to discuss it. Be prepared to support your other actors.”
Student: “Did anyone ever doubt your dreams when you first pursued acting?”
O’Quinn: “The answer is no. I had a big family. I was the seventh of 11 children. My parents didn’t have a lot of time to doubt my dreams. If we got out of the house they were happy. It can be a hard way to make a living. It’s wonderful. When you’re doing it, it’s great. It’s a fun job to have. But the truth is, 10 percent of the actors make 90 percent of the money that’s available. The other 90 percent of the actors…they’re waiting tables or driving cabs, doing other things. There are people who will tell you it’s no way to make a living. The most percentage don’t make a good living doing it, but that’s no reason not to do it or try to do it.
Student: “One of the shows you are most famous for was ‘Lost’ as John Locke. I heard you were brought on by J.J. Abrams on that show. What was it like to work with him?”
O’Quinn: “It was wonderful to work with J.J. Abrams. When ‘Lost’ started, that was 13 years ago when it first aired. How old were you guys then?”
O’Quinn: “In those 13 years, J.J. Abrams has become a lot bigger of a name, although he was pretty big then. He was wonderful because he had a lot of energy. He was receptive to actors’ ideas. I think anybody who’s a good director is receptive. If you have a lot of people working under you, you want them all to do their work well and the people I prefer to work with do this. They want actors to bring them good ideas. They want cameramen to bring them good ideas, rather than be the king and say, ‘Only do what I say.’ J.J. was open to other people’s ideas.”
Student: “What was the best part about being on the set of ‘Lost?’”
O’Quinn: “The best part was probably Hawaii. The set itself was one of the best parts. Also, everybody was cast so well that we interacted off set kind of the same we did on the set. We were all friends. There wasn’t any animosity—well, a little here and there. When you’re on a set you spend a lot of time waiting and waiting and waiting. There is a lot of time to sit under the trees and play guitar. We sat around and told stories and laughed and played guitar and looked at Hawaii.”
Student: “How did it feel to play a crazy, evil guy most of the time?”
O’Quinn: “That’s fun! It’s pretty fun because there aren’t rules. People have said it’s often more fun to play bad guys than good guys. The good guys always have rules and have to behave a certain way. You kind of know how they’re going to be. Bad guys, they don’t really have rules. They can sort of say or do or behave anyway they want to. It’s fun to be called upon to do the unexpected. If you’re playing a pyscho you have a script, but you might decide to throw a chair. You kind of get to be more creative. That being said, you can always be that creative. There’s a saying on the set an actor told me a long time ago, before you guys were even born. He said, ‘Never ask permission.’ If you have a good idea, then good acting becomes having the courage to do that.”
Student: “There are a lot of people who don’t like watching themselves. Did you watch all of ‘Lost’ or did you not like seeing yourself on screen?”
O’Quinn: “You all have heard your voice before. Aren’t you surprised? I didn’t like to watch myself because I didn’t trust myself when I first started. If there was something I did that was going to be on television, I would be in the kitchen watching around the corner. Hearing your voice is bad enough but then there’s your face. So that was tough. It was during Lost that I discovered–I thought I was doing good work. I watched every one of them and I enjoyed them thoroughly, for the most part. There are times when you watch yourself and think that was not my best. I could have done better or I wish I had done this. But in the course of a career of acting for camera, you have to go home every night and forget it because it’s there now. It’s sealed. It’s in the can. You can’t take it back. There’s nothing you can do so you have go home and accept it. In a play, in front of an audience, you can say you’re going to change it tomorrow. I can do this better.”
Student: “I was wondering what was going through your mind when you won an Emmy?”
O’Quinn: “I thought I was going to have a heart attack, which is funny because I always poo-poo awards and things like that. I was nominated for an Emmy the year before that and I was terrified that I was going to win it because I didn’t want to go up and give a speech. But I didn’t win. Then I did win and my heart was racing. I went up and made a speech and it was exciting. You’re queen for a day. From then on people can say, ‘Here’s Emmy winner, Terry O’Quinn.’ It doesn’t get you more pay or more work. The only thing that gets you more work is the work you did before.
Student: “Do you prefer theatre or film?”
O’Quinn: “It probably depends on what I’m doing at the time—I probably prefer the other one. I love doing theatre because the feedback is immediate…but I love doing both. I’ll say one thing. If any of you are interested in acting, then do it. Don’t let somebody tell you not to do it. Try it. You might love it.”
Student: “How is the scene different from when you first started acting?”
O’Quinn: In theatre it’s pretty much the way it always was. In film, one of the biggest things—well, first of all they used film. ‘Lost’ was all shot on film. I prefer the way ‘Lost’ or film looked because it’s a bit softer and there’s something about it that’s thicker and warmer. The biggest differences are in technology. And, I kind of love the days when everybody trusted each other a little bit more.
Student: “J.J. Abrams is directing episode 9 of Star Wars. Could you possibly ask him about a cameo in that?”
O’Quinn: “I wouldn’t probably ask him. I’m actually going up to Massachusetts next week because J.J. Abrams is making a series called ‘Castle Rock’ with Stephen King. He called me and asked me to be in that. Stephen King was a big fan of ‘Lost.’ I hope I get to meet him.”