Phillip P. Keene has made quite a name for himself over the past few years. His dedication to his craft and unrelenting drive are truly inspiring. He first made an impact on the pop culture landscape when he joined the cast of TNT’s ‘The Closer’ in 2005 as Buzz Watson. The character is not only the LAPD’s Major Crimes Unit’s electronics room technician but a videographer of all crime-scene documentation for their division. In 2012, the spin-off series ‘Major Crimes’ aired and would go on to become one of the most popular crime dramas on television. Buzz, already a fan favorite, made the jump to the new series and became one of the show’s leads. Through the years, Phillip’s has continued to breathe life into this character; making it jump from the screen. His devotion to the role, coupled with some top-notch writing, has driven it forward and made Buzz Watson one of the most intriguing personalities on the series. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Phillip P. Keene to discuss his unique career, dedication to his craft and character, evolution as an actor and what the future might hold for him.
I wanted to give everyone a little background on you. How did you get started on your journey in the entertainment industry and what drew you to acting?
It is something I had always wanted to do ever since I was a kid. I never really had the chance to get my feet wet outside of doing plays and theatre in high school. By the time I graduated, I had already been working full-time in the restaurant business since I was 12 years old. My mom and dad owned a couple of different restaurants, so I was indoctrinated into the serve industry as a teenager. At that point, I had a bunch of what I call survivor jobs and it wasn’t until I was in the middle of my degree at UCLA, which I got studying history and art history, that a good friend of mine, that is now my manager, suggested that I take some commercial acting classes. I booked my first commercial and started doing stuff like that. I had some friends who were producers and kept him updated on what I was doing. I book a student film and that one and this commercial and that one. This part came up and they asked if I would like to try it. They said, “We can’t pay you very much but it will be a steady gig if you do well.” Here I am 11 years later, having done seven-and-a-half years on “The Closer” and am now beginning season 4 of “Major Crimes.”
I have to say it certainly seems to be working out for you!
I think so! [laughs] I always tell my friends, “Yeah, I decided to get into something steady … like acting!” [laughs] Very tongue-in-cheek!
As you mentioned, you went to UCLA and studied history and art history. Do you find that lends itself well to what you are doing now? Are there any parallels there?
I studied with Harold Fine, who was an advocate of Uta Hagen’s teachings. She always recommended a liberal arts education to feed the soul and the mind. I think, especially when doing period pieces, which this is not, but I think it helps the actor to have a good feeling of the period and what people’s ideas were. Everything is reflected in our history and it does help in some ways. It taught me to think differently and view things from a much more constructive viewpoint.
Who were some of the performers who had a big impact on you along the way?
I have always liked the old-time Hollywood actors. I know that style of acting is no longer in fashion and for good reason. I have always admired Paul Newman. He was such a versatile actor. No matter what you throw at him, he seemed to immerse himself in the character and, at times, I would forget that I was watching Paul Newman. It was all about the character he was bringing forward. Guys like that, who may be started in the studio system but made the transition to become more independent performers, were a real inspiration to me. Another actor I really admire is the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. I really do like his work. Bradley Cooper is another actor who has been taking on some amazingly transformative roles. Those are the types of actors who inspire me.
When “The Closer” started, the part you play was obviously a bit smaller. It has really grown through the years. What spoke to you about the character and the world he inhabits?
Like you said, it was such a small part to begin with, it was a good training ground for me for a couple of years. I was really interested in his backstory and why he chose the police department to work in because he wasn’t a cop. Although, now he is training to be a reserve officer. I was really intrigued by what drew him to that field and being on the edge of danger all the time. I wanted to know what it was that motivated him to stay there. Looking into the backstory of the character, he was a videographer in school, so he used those talents to secure a position in the police department. Having lost family members at a young age, he was also looking for that kind of family environment and that is where he ended up.
What type of research goes into a part like this one? Is it a challenge to keep up with the current technology used in the real world?
Keeping up to date, I rely on the writers, of course, and the guys in our editing bays. They are always using the latest technology for editing, sound mixing and things like that. I talk to them a lot about new things that are coming up so that I can be a little more current. However, it’s important to note that the police department doesn’t have the funds to employ the latest technology, so we still work with older stuff. When we first started, they were still using VHS tapes, so that is kind of what we had. The police department is a little slow to catch up with current technology but Buzz has his own camera, which is huge by the way! [laughs] People are using GoPros and cell phones today, so I have been lobbying for the writers to let me use those but the larger camera is a much stronger visual, so that is why I keep the giant camera with me.
Are there any elements of your personality that might show through in this character?
There is one specific thing that I asked the writers about, and they agreed with me on this, and that was I am not a great fan of profanity. I am not a prude by any means but I think there are more articulate ways to express yourself. That is one of the requests I made for the character, that he not use profanity. Being a cable show that is on at 9 o’clock, it is still the family hour, so we don’t get to use a lot of that anyhow but there are occasions where some of the other characters will. That is a decision I made and something I feel personally strong about, so I was able to use that for the character as well.
There is a huge amount of talent on this show from the people on screen to those who are behind the scenes. What have you learned from being immersed in an environment like this?
I think the main thing I have learned from working with everybody is to listen and to watch. Being pretty green in the beginning, I was terrified about making mistakes. One of the biggest mistakes I made was not asking questions. I’ve remedied that now! [laughs] I definitely learned after the first few years that if there was something going on that I didn’t understand to say, “Hey, I’m not sure where I am supposed to be during a particular scene.” I would consult with my colleagues, my acting buddies, and ask them for advice. I took the good stuff and left the bad stuff behind! Pretty much everyone who comes to work with us is vetted from the beginning, so we try to weed out the possibility of any bad apples. A lot of the people we work with come from a very strong theatre background, so that is a terrific thing in my opinion. Listening, watching and learning from the pros is the best kind of example you could have!
Looking back on your career so far, what do you consider your biggest evolution as an actor?
Yes, learning to be still! [laughs] Learning to be still and letting the emotion and the truth of the scene come through with your eyes. Words are important, of course, but it is really about living in that particular moment and letting it shine through. It is really about servicing the material and being true to the story.
As you said, you cut your teeth on “The Closer” and “Major Crimes.” What are some of the biggest challenges you encountered along the way?
Everyone has been really, really supportive from the beginning, so any hurdles that I might of had people helped me over and through. I am very grateful for that. Wanting to get to that next level, whatever it might be, is what I am focused on. For example, I just started taking voice lessons with a voice coach. That is the next thing I want to start working on. I think it is important as an artist or performer to continue to work on both your physical and mental self. All of these tools you have as an interpreter should be as sharp as possible. I am really lucky to have the job that I have and everyone I work with is so great. I love going into work. In fact, there are days when, even if I am not in a scene, I will go in and watch. I might sit with the director, the lighting guy or someone from another department just to see how things work. I did a lot of that in the beginning because I came to this so late and I wanted to learn as much as I could in a short amount of time. They can tell you things in a classroom but, until you are actually down on a set, there are things you don’t know. You don’t know how to read a call sheet, how to interact with certain people and dealing with different personalities can be a challenge.
Obviously, your character has grown during the course of the show. Do you hope to see it develop in a particular direction?
Buzz has become much more active and a much more integral part of the squad, which I think is really important, rather than him just sitting at a desk saying, “Yes, ma’am” or “No ma’am.” I think it was year three that they gave him a camera, so he was actually going out in the field. That was great for me. Now, there is another element to his character where he is joining the LAPD reserves, so he will be an on-call officer, which is a real program by the way. I have been talking to a couple of the guys and doing some research. I will be going out on a few ride-alongs with these guys who volunteer their time. In every aspect they are a true LAPD officer, except for the pay. They are doing it for, basically, $50 a month and a minimum number of hours to help out. For example, if a dignitary comes to town or an incident where they need traffic control, they lend a hand. Whatever special skills you have as an individual are put to good use. I think that is an important progression for the character. I would like to see him become a full-fledged officer and maybe accelerate the process for working with the detectives.
Is there a particular genre or project you have your eyes on for the future? Any bucket list items?
Yeah, I love horses and I have started taking riding lessons. I would love to be able to do a western and maybe play a villain of some sort in a period piece. A good friend of mine is starring in “Agent Carter.” I love that whole genre. I love Marvel Comics and I love period pieces, so hopefully when the show begins filming again I can get submitted! I would love to work on that show or something like that. Westerns, villains, period pieces, I am open to pretty much anything!
Do you aspire to explore the world behind the camera at some point?
I’m really intrigued by the directing aspect of the industry. I know very little about it at this point but I have started reading “Shot By Shot,” which is a director’s guide. Maybe, five or 10 years from now, if I am lucky enough to still be in the business, it would be something for me to explore. Definitely!
What advice can you pass along to those who are looking to make their career in the entertainment industry in today’s climate?
I would say dare to fail. You have to put yourself out there and learn to love hearing, “No.” You are going to hear it a lot. If this is something you really, really want to do, then you need to dream about it and really work toward it. Dare to fail because you are never going to learn unless you make mistakes.
Another interesting fact about you is that you are a Pan Am collector. What can you tell us about that aspect of your life?
Believe it or not, I actually worked for Pan Am! I worked for them during the last four years of the company’s existence. I fell in love with the history of the company and all the innovations they brought us through the decades. I found Juan Trippe, the founder of Pan Am, to be a hero of mine, in some sense. I was fascinated with their ability to market themselves before branding became this huge thing that it is now. The airline was able to do that and, in a small way, I think it brought the world a little closer together by breaking down social barriers through language and travel. It wasn’t just a way to get from Point A to Point B, there was a whole philosophy behind it, which I really appreciate. As a result of that, I started by collecting matchbooks and advertisements. Now, my collection comprises about 3,000 pieces including uniforms and cutlery dating back to the 1930s. Anything you can name, I’ve probably got it! [laughs]
What is your favorite piece and what is the piece for which you are always on the hunt?
My favorite piece at the moment is a hat that I just acquired. I know it sounds a little silly but it goes with a uniform from the late 1950s that the ladies wore. This hat is a little like hen’s teeth. First of all, most of the ladies had to return all of this stuff when they would quit, so the fact that I found one in mint condition was pretty darn cool! Then there is another uniform I am looking to get ahold of because I have almost a complete set from the 1950s up until the day they closed the doors on the business. The uniform I am looking for is the one they used on the ABC series based on Pan Am. That is the one I am after!
Are you involved with any charity work we can help shine a light on?
I am involved with some charities, three specific ones that my heart is really in. The first one is called The Sunshine Kids. What the organization does is help raise money for kids and their families to get together and take little breaks from their treatments. There is everything from ski trips to trips to Disneyland and everything in between. It is great because it allows the kids a chance to get together and network with one another from a really young age to well into their teens and early adulthood. The networking can help them figure out what works for them and what might not work for them when it comes to treatments or things to help them get through treatments. The second one is World Wings International, Inc.. That is an organization that is comprised of former Pan AM flight attendants whose primary charity is care. They are the ones who originated the care package that people from all over the world would send to needy families and children during and after World War II. The last charity would be St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, which is a hospital that takes care of children and families at no cost to them. I am going to be doing a charity golf tournament for them next month in Palm Springs. They are all very worthy charities that I am thrilled to be associated with!
Thank you so much for your time today, Philip! You have been terrific! We wish you continued success and can’t wait to see what you have in store for us in the years to come!
Thank you, Jason! I really appreciate your time! I look forward to talking to you soon!
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