John Pyper-Ferguson has spent the better part of three decades carving out an impressively diverse resume of spirited characters. His dedication to his craft and unrelenting drive are truly inspiring and proof that hard work does pay off. Over an extraordinary career, he has given many provocative performances playing characters such as the most anxious deputy in the West in Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven”; a neurotic possessive narcissistic gunslinger in the cult series “Brisco County Jr.”; a shy, reclusive bassist in the mocumentary punk-rock film “Hard Core Logo”; a preppy dad in the comedy “She’s the Man”; and a quiet, driven, ruthless sheriff in “Hungry Hills.” Pyper-Ferguson has been in two movies titled “Drive,” one a kung fu classic, the other opposite Ryan Gosling. He has portrayed the occasional cameo appearance, in such movies as “Conviction,” opposite Hilary Swank in order to challenge and expand his range.
Recently, on the big screen, Piper-Ferguson played the ever effervescent, happy-go-lucky, ferocious Wild Joe in David Hayter’s directorial debut “Wolves,” and Pastor Shay, a conflicted man in search of his faith finding the courage to lead his flock, in “The Remaining.” This June, fans can catch him in the highly anticipated second season of TNT’s new critically acclaimed hit series, ’The Last Ship.’ A fan favorite, fans continue to stay glued to their sets each week to find out the fate of his prolific character. With an impressive body of work already under his belt, there is little doubt with a his powerful performances continue to turn the heads of critics and fans alike.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with John Pyper-Ferguson to discuss his unique career path, the hard work and dedication the has fueled his longevity, the challenges he has faced along the way and the people how have inspired him on his journey.
You have become a familiar face through the years with your projects in film and television. What got you started down the path of becoming an actor?
Wow! You know, that is its own virus and I caught it when I was very, very young. I started back in elementary school where I played a chimney sweep in “Mary Poppins.” I can’t even remember what silly things we did in that thing but I had a blast doing it! I was in other school plays and I found myself drawn to that as well as sports. I was a pretty good athlete and I was pretty good in the drama department. I guess they both put you on stage in their own way. I caught it there. I did in high school as well, both musical theater and drama class, along with being on the football team. When it came time to go to University, I decided to do business administration. I was nothing short of miserable! It wasn’t for me and I imagined the life I would have should I continue studying it and pushing myself in that direction. Oddly enough, I spoke to my stepmother and she said to me, “Well, you liked that acting thing in high school. Why don’t you go do that?” I said, “Well, it is so hard to have a career in it. Where would I begin?” She said, “Just go do it. You are young. See what happens!” That was the beginning of a long road of trials and tribulations. Many years later, I am still here!
To what do you attribute your longevity and what keeps you going?
I have been very fortunate. It is that old formula, you know, preparation and opportunity are what equals luck. If you are not prepared, you are not going to be ready when the opportunity shows up. I’ve worked really hard and I work really hard when I am not working, which is what I think is the big secret to having a career, rather than just being awesome when you are working. Throughout my career, I have kept myself in scene study classes. I studied at the University of Alberta for three years in a Bachelor of Fine Arts program. As a young actor, I think that is a smarter move than coming to LA or going anywhere because your real chances of getting on a TV show are so slim. It is about doing it. When you are in a program at a University and a good one, University of Alberta was exceptional, they have to cast you. You have to be in plays, get on stage and have to learn these things as part of the program. Our class was 12 actors and actresses who were in it 24/7 for three years. I think it is Malcolm Gladwell who wrote “Tipping Point” and “Outliers” and in those books he talks about your 10,000 hours before you are even good at something. You need to do your 10,000 hours! I am proud to say I have done more than my share of hours! [laughs] I think that has been really helpful!
Who influenced you as an actor and how did they impact what you do as a performer?
In terms of mentors, I had my fair share. A guy by the name of Tom Peacock was my first real acting teacher. He was the first one who broke it down and gave me tools as opposed to just getting up and doing things. He was my first teacher at the University of Alberta. As well as being an incredible man, he was a great leader to many, many actors and actresses because he was the head of the department there. He is still kicking around there in Edmonton, Alberta. He was an actor himself and was one of the actors at the forefront of creating professional theater for Canadian actors. He had a big influence on me and put a great stamp on my life in terms of discipline, practice and putting the time in to create the opportunities. He was the most influential person to me by far. Here in Los Angeles, I studied for a number of years with a pretty famous teacher, at this point, Larry Moss. He studied with all the big names in New York, Udo, Stella and so on. He is an encyclopedia of knowledge and again his basic tenant is, “Work your ass off!” “Talent will out,” was another one of his great phrases. He gave me this coaching one time and he said, “J.P., I want you to stick on your fridge … What am I actively doing to get what I want?” I took that as an acting lesson in a scene and I didn’t know he was also giving me a life lesson. At the time, I didn’t know it wasn’t just about the character in a story but it was about me and what I am doing every day to get what I want. That was huge! It probably took a couple of years before that penny dropped and I was like, “Oh my God! He gave me the secret!” [laughs] And he didn’t tell me! [laughs] Those are my two greatest mentors in terms of the business for sure!
Many people will recognize you from your latest role on the series, “The Last Ship.” How did you get involved and what attracted you to the project?
I guess they had been looking for someone to play this character for a while. I hate to say it but I think they were looking for a younger, hotter guy and they couldn’t find the right guy to do it. I think that might have been because that is not who the character really was. I got pitched for the role to the casting director. The casting director responded by something in the neighborhood of, “I had never really thought of him for it and he may be too old but let’s take a look.” I was sent the sides, which are some of the scenes from the shows, to audience with. I read it and said, “I think I get this guy. I think I know what he is about and I think I can do something maybe other people won’t be doing and that will make it unique.” I read and the deal was done!
Aside from being a little bit older and bringing your own brand of good looks to the part, what do you feel you brought to the role that wasn’t on the written page?
[laughs] Well said, well said! I don’t know if it is fair to say that it wasn’t on the written page because it had to be there for me to discover it. It is just that I found the window. I think the difference was that I saw him as a real guy. What is this private contractor like? What are the things that he has possibly done in his life and how dark or awful has it been? Is he really going to be sitting around trying to be cool or is he going to be around understanding his environment, while being as light as he possibly can in it in terms of not going to the darkness of the things he has probably done. He tries to make the best of every situation he is in and that is probably how he has survived. I think that was the key to it for me. It is about making positive choices and taking positive ideas so the character is moving outward as opposed to pulling inward and not being as engaging with other characters. By making that choice, it really connected me with Chandler and really connected me with Dr. Rachel Scott. Those are the two people I really played with in the first season but it also connected me with the other players as well because there was this guy who could take a little bit of fun loving into some pretty hairy situations. I didn’t ever look at it as trying to be super cool and I think that really helped as well.
There are some great people in front of and behind the camera. What have you taken from your experiences on this show that you will carry with you moving forward?
This show, as much as it can, wants to be authentic and serve, represent and honor these people in and out of service in the Navy. It is a great concern for the show and the learning point. We have a lot of Navy and SEAL advisors on set. Harry Humphries is the main guy. I spent a lot of time talking to him and getting his perspective on scenarios and situations. I would often ask, “What would you do?” Or, “What would this be like?” Harry has lived it! I think we really want to, as best we can in the fictional world we live in, make sure we do these people right. I think that is the biggest challenge and a real sticking point for the show, which is pretty awesome!
You are about to roll into the second season of this series. If you had your wish, where would you like to see this character you play expand?
If I had my wish? I love that! I would love to see it just keep rolling out. It is so incredible to have been received publicly so well in this character after, as you pointed out, a long career and many successes along the way but often the shows haven’t continued on. You just want to be utilized as much as possible. I want to be challenged. I want Tex to be complicated and never want it to be simple nuts and bolts. At the same time, this character is a nuts and bolts guy, which is what can really make him interesting as a complex character, always taking whatever is too complicated and putting it to the side and making it work within the context of whatever situation arises. I would love to see the relationships develop further with some crew mates and with Chandler. I think it is a great opportunity because Tex isn’t Navy, he can potentially challenge the captain in ways that the enlisted are in a sense not permitted to. He can be the kind of friend that the enlisted can’t be. He can in a strange way be his equal. Obviously, they are different but because he is not in the Navy, he doesn’t have to subscribe to all of its order. He has to deal with things because he is on the ship as a civilian and he isn’t permitted to do certain things. It is kind of fascinating when I talk to Marines and SEALs who have served. Many of them have spoken to me of how they don’t like being on the ship because that is not where they are used. When they are on the ship they are waiting to get to where they are going and their time on the ship is excessively boring. In some ways, I feel that is Tex’s dilemma that he is not on the bridge, not in CIC and not in the engine room. He doesn’t have anything to do on the ship except for get into trouble with other people!
Your experience isn’t limited to the world of television. What can you tell us about your role in “Wolves” and what went into that role?
“Wolves” was a trip, man! In the past, I had done some prosthetics on some television shows but I had never done the full piece. For a guy like me, it is a nightmare sitting in that chair for four hours while they paste stuff on you. You have to remain calm as they stick stuff up your nose and jamming things here and there. They stick those contacts in that completely cover your eyes and it is really intrusive! I salute the actors who do that type of work as their calling card. It was a fun and exciting journey to do but I would be very careful for when I sign up for that! It really had to be something inspiring for me, which Wild Joe was. It was a great character for me to play and it was super fun. I was in makeup for both my human and wolf form. I was in pretty heavy makeup for both! What is fun about it was that it basically goes back to mask work. That mask gives you a place to express yourself to find new and exciting ways of performing that maybe got stuck in the background for a little while. The director of “Wolves,” David Hayter, also wrote “X-Men” and “Watchmen” and he was awesome. He is one of my favorite types of directors, which is one that really understands that the word yes is the most creative world in the English language and the word no is the least creative word. By that I mean, you come to him with a suggestion or something within a scene and he just says, “Yes.” He trusts that he has hired you to do a job and trusts you are going to step forward and do it but also be able to discern after it happens if it really works or not. I often like to speak out loud to myself and that can be when the camera is rolling. He wasn’t afraid of that and understood I was getting myself into a mode, an environment and into the character so that I could execute better. Some of that stuff ended up in the film because it was about the character. That was pretty cool! Although they are completely different films, “Wolves” and “Unforgiven” reminded me of each other. I worked with Clint Eastwood as a young guy on “Unforgiven” and that was a great example of people and projects having a huge impact on you. When I worked with Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman and RIchard Harris on “Unforgiven,” I went to set every day and sat in the quietest corners I could find and watched these guys work. Because I wasn’t a young actor bugging them and talking to them the entire time, I was permitted to stay on set and get myself in corners. I would watch these guys talk to each other and see how they elevated scenes with one another. Any actor I have talked to who has worked with Clint Eastwood says the same thing. He hires you to do a job, so you show up and you do your job. He doesn’t get in the way of your process. You are expected to show up and do your work. You present that work before he gets in and messes with it. For the most part, he just leaves it alone. He trusts you to bring what you are supposed to bring to the role and he has hired you for that. I really respect those guys!
That leads me to my next question. What do you consider your biggest evolution as an actor?
I read a book years and years ago and it talked about a quantum leap, meaning that you eventually get to a spot where you are very David Byrne — “How did I get here?” [laughs] When you ask me that question, I can think of certain spots along the way where I have had those moments.
I think, as an artist, regardless of what you choose as your occupation or hobbies, you race to a certain ability where you feel your progress happening. You say to yourself, “Oh my gosh, I am improving so greatly.” I golf now and that is a great example. When I first started golfing a few years ago, I couldn’t break 100. Then I quickly broke 100 and was able to quickly golf into the 80s. Now I play into the low 80s but I can rarely break into the 70s. It is this passage of time where the ability to improve is just small increments and when you add them all up over time, for me it is decades, you suddenly look back and say, “Oh my gosh, I made this giant leap and I wasn’t even aware of it!” Those improvements have been so small along the way. It is a big part of my process.
When I look at favorite characters along the way, Peter Hutter from “Brisco County, Jr.” is always the first guy on my mind. There was a recent performance and a great example of the quantum leap with a role I had on a show called “Motive.” I played a regular guy whose son gets killed in a car accident and he turns into a monster from it. I don’t often pat my own back but I saw that one and I was like, “Wow, man! You came a long way and you didn’t know it!” That is the example from playing a balls-out comic nutcase on “Brisco” to what I felt was a really strong authentic and honest performance on “Motive.” Who’d of thought a scenery chewing character actor could pull that off, right?! [laughs]
With all of the characters you played, is there a role that eluded you?
Thank you for that question. It is a bit like reaching for that brass ring in the merry-go-round. I have always longed for that complicated leading man role. It wouldn’t quite be the leading guy because you have too many things that are going on in your life that are obstacles or challenges, yet somehow you carry through and keep moving forward. When I look at roles I thought were great recently are shows like “Breaking Bad.” Of course, everyone wants that Walter White role. I guess that is what I am talking about. It is not specifically Walter White but it is that role where you really take charge, make an imprint and have an effect. Tony Soprano is another example of one of those roles. You can see where I am going. It is someone who is doing something with the idea of good and yet there is something really disturbing on the other side of that. That fascinates me in the human psychology. I think that is something we all have. There is good selfishness and bad selfishness and we all have it in varying degrees. I have been watching “The Americans” recently and I love what Matthew Rhys is doing on that show. Here you are dealing with spies and whatnot but really you are just dealing with the American family. I think that is fantastic! Walter White is just a guy who is trying to make ends meet for his family before it rolls out of control. Tony Soprano is that same guy or you can go back to “The Unforgiven” and Gene Hackman’s character, Little Bill. Little Bill is just a guy who is just trying to protect his town. These men are doing these simple acts but it rolls out of control. I am really attracted to that.
What is coming up for you that we should be on the lookout for in the short term?
Honestly, we have two days left of filming season two of “The Last Ship.” It starts airing June 21. I have been deep into that and getting myself through the season. Right now, I just started working with a bunch of guys on some music. I have played music in my living room all of my life with my guitar. I am a living room artist! I have a bunch of songs and a bunch of friends in a few bands. Your question is timely because last night we rented a little rehearsal space and went out and started to work on a few of my songs. I think what I am pursuing at the moment is doing some stuff where I take charge of the creativity. An actor is an interpretive artist and certainly when you are in a big machine like “The Last Ship,” you are serving the greater good of the whole show. It is a cards dealt situation. You can have some input but I am not creating the greater stories. I can inspire stuff but I don’t create that stuff. That is something I am interested in, so I am giving myself a 60-day challenge where I am writing a script as well as putting some of this music together. Maybe if I feel confident we will go out and make a video, if I really love what I have done. I will have to put that out to other people because I am pretty critical of my own stuff. So, I am focusing on things more along those lines. I haven’t been able to pursue anything as the schedule with “The Last Ship” is really unpredictable. Now, the door opens to go out and chase other projects and I am really looking forward to it. I am looking forward to creating stuff and seeing what kind of heat I can take from “The Last Ship” and roll it into something else.
Are you involved with any charity work we can help shine a light on?
I am not deeply involved at the moment. I used to work with dogs. I used to train them and get them adopted but my schedule changed a lot from being able to help with that. It is a process that takes a long commitment and you have to bond with the animal, get them secure with people and then you pass it on. That lands somewhere between triumph and great agony to the heart. That is really rewarding. When I started shooting the first season of “The Last Ship,” my sister was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, stage four. She passed away during shooting this year. She was so brave and so strong, a really amazing woman. I had to walk off set to attempt to see her at the end but I was unable to get there in time, although I had seen her the week before. Pancreatic cancer research is my charity of choice. They have a walk coming up in May here in Los Angeles. That was a big part of this year, making sure I saw her. I haven’t gotten deeply involved with it yet because I haven’t been quite ready for it but I do wear purple every Sunday when I go golfing. Purple is the color for pancreatic cancer. My sister had a yearly swim on which she was the big organizer. They did have a final swim on January 1. This is how amazing she was! They did 100 100s, meaning 100 100-yard intervals for a total of 10,000 yards. They would raise money for pancreatic cancer research with that event. During her last year, she did this lake swim. She swam across a lake and back in a competition that she used to win, not only in her age group but also for women. I think the best she ever did was second overall against the men. These are competitive swimmers, so that is how truculent she was! Her team always won and she didn’t want to interfere with the ability of her team to win because she knew she wasn’t going to put up a great time with the lake swim. She swam on her own and had a couple of people, one on a surfboard and another in a canoe paddling beside her, in case she got into trouble. She still did that swim and I think that was last August. This is who she was. Since we lost my father to cancer, I think she knew she wanted to live fully every single moment before she passed. When it was time to pass, she wanted to go quickly because my dad didn’t. So many people experience this when we watch our loved ones slowly disappear and it is very painful in its own awful way. I don’t think my sister wanted to stick around for that, so she used all of her life-force in that last year to do some pretty incredible things given her physical disabilities at the time. She was an amazing woman!
That is an incredible story. Do you mind if I ask her name?
You know, they did something awesome in the show. There was a character coming up eventually that I have a strong relationship with. I asked the writers to name the character after my sister and they did that for me. Eventually, you will find it out!
That is very cool. I am sorry for your loss but I have to say it is inspiring to hear what she was able to accomplish.
You know what? It is not loss when someone lives like that and it leaves a big imprint on your life. She was my older sister and I was lucky to have her for that long.
Thanks for sharing your stories and experiences today, J.P.! I can’t wait to see where the next leg of your journey takes you!
Thanks, Jason. I really appreciate it.
Check out the amazing list of roles John Pyper-Ferguson has tackled throughout his career on IMBD. Connect with him on Twitter at twitter.com/johnny_pypes. Season 2 of ‘The Last Ship’ sets sail on June 21st on TNT.