Actor Chris Kerson may not yet be a household name, but with his unbelievable range and strong work ethic, he soon will be. Born in NYC, and raised in the city and Westchester, the multi-faceted performer discovered his passion acting while attending College of William and Mary. Upon graduation he worked briefly in Investment Banking, and left that lucrative but unfulfilling field to pursue what he feels is his true calling. Since beginning his journey, Kerson has been a lead in over 11 independent films in the last 3 years, and more than 20 independent shorts and features, many of which have gone to film festivals such as Cannes, Slamdance, Berlin, Cinequest, and Brooklyn. In his most recent and breathtaking performance to date, Kerson plays one of the lead characters in Sean Kirkpatrick’s feature film ‘Cost of a Soul’. A powerful and beautifully shot film, AMC and its distributor, Relativity Media, chose the picture as the winning independent film of the year in their “I am Rogue” film contest. The film is slated to open on May 20th, 2011 in 50 AMC theaters nationwide. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with this multi-faceted artist to discuss his roots in the entertainment industry, bringing his character in ‘Cost of A Soul’ from script to screen, the challenges involved and much more!
The entertainment industry is not for the faint of heart. When did you decide to pursue a career as filmmakers as opposed to going in a different direction?
Wow, that is a good question! Intuitively I felt that it was what I needed to do. There was a lot of resistance to it. I was originally enrolled in the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg , Virginia where I was a psychology major. I had a job working as an investment banker on Wall Street when I got out. I had done some theater work in my last semester at college and people told me “You are doing some of the best work that we have ever seen here. Maybe you should reconsider what you are doing.” I just felt that it was something that I had to do, that I wanted to do and it would be something that I could dedicate my life to. I was very fortunate that after that time period, I got to train with some of the best people in the world who kept reconfirming that this was something that I had to do.
If you had to cite one person as a professional influence, as you were coming up, who would it be?
Charlie Laughton, who was Al Pacino’s mentor, he was my teacher. Specifically, when I was very young, Al Pacino’s work made such a big impression on me. One of my very first memories is of watching Al Pacino going up and down, screaming “Attica, Attica!” in ‘Dog Day Afternoon’, which I saw when I was about five years old. My Mom is a big film nut and she used to tell me that the best method actors around where Robert Deniro or Dustin Hoffman, but the visceralness of Al Pacino is what appealed to me at an early age. It worked out by sycronicity that someone approached me to work with his mentor who had a huge influence on me. The reason I am an actor today is due to him and one other teacher. I also appreciated the specificity of Robert Deniro’s early work and the level of detail and commitment that it had. I have fluctuated 65 pounds in playing my parts in my career as well, so the way he would through himself into a role physically, everything about it is amazing. This one particular friend of mine, Bob Burgos, has told me that he has coached Robert Deniro, he said “Between the two of them, you probably have two of the biggest workaholics in the business,” in terms of the amount of time that they give to their work. They tried to instill that type of discipline back into me. Those are the two guys that I hold up but there are other actors like Marlon Brando or James Dean have made impressions on me as well. The reason I wanted to be an actor is to aspire to do what all of those guys do.
How did you get involved with your latest film ‘Cost of A Soul’?
A friend of mine recommended me to Sean Kirkpatrick and he looked at me reel and approached me about playing the part of “Jake,” who is the Irish gangster in the film. That was what was originally discussed. I got the script and I was blown away by it. I was especially blown away by the character of “Tommy Donahue” which I thought was one of the best characters that I had ever seen written. I asked Sean if I could audition for Tommy but he said “No, I really want you for Jake.” Basically, he had seen me to all of these very transformational character roles. So, I screen tested for Jake and when Sean saw the audition, he said “I see more humanity coming across in your audition than in anyone else’s that I have seen, how would you feel about playing Tommy?” I told him that it was something that I really wanted to do. He then came to me in New York and screen tested me for Tommy and let me know that day that I had the role. He just asked that I gain weight. I gained 25 pounds in three weeks for the role. He really wanted a physical transformation because I wasn’t necessarily Tommy’s “type” when I auditioned for the film.
As you mentioned, the script was very well written and provided a great starting point for you. What do you feel that you brought to the character that may not have been in the script originally?
I think that it was a great character as written in the script, one of the better character’s ever written for an actor to play. I learned a lot about myself playing this part and Tommy had a lot of me in him as well. I think what was unusual is that, I don’t know if he would have been likable because there is a certain sensitivity and the relationship with his daughter. I think that is something that I brought to the role. My concerns for playing Tommy where getting the level of aggressiveness, the anger and the hatred that just seemed to develop from working on the script on my own. It just came out, the level of resentment that this character had. What I brought to it that might have been unusual, people said, they were concerned on the set about what his humanity would be like. I am not saying that I am the most human person in the world but people were really pleased with the way that I made him understandable and very human. I hope! I hope that is your perception as well but that was the crew’s perception of it while it was happening.
The film was shot on location in Philly in the rough neighborhoods that it portrays. What was that experience like for you as an actor?
Fantastic! The people from those neighborhoods invited me into their homes and took me out to breakfast in the morning and gave me as much information about them as possibly could. They introduced me to their daughters and their granddaughters. The people from Kensington and Fish Town rallied around the film. Mark Borkowski who plays Jake, the Irish gangster in the film, is from Kensington and he is one of my best friends. He introduced me to all of these amazing people who were so generous and wanting to be represented well in the film and wanted me to do a good job in it, that they gave me absolutely everything to play this part. They really made me feel like I was a part of the community, probably more so than what I had felt in my own community at times. The whole film was very much a community effort and an amazing experience to be a part of.
From an acting standpoint, what was the biggest challenge in making this film?
Sean, the director, was concerned that the biggest challenge would be the emotional life that the character needed to have but that is my gift. You know, Charlie Laughton used to say that an actor is an emotional athlete. So I knew that the emotional part would come to me without issue, with either technique or just through being Tommy on set, which is what people felt that I did. I think that the difficultly with the role was getting the specificity of a Marine, of a criminal and then creating the physical character, so that people upon seeing Tommy would believe that he could be special ops, that he could be a Marine and do the type of damage that he does in this film. A lot of it was putting myself through the pain of the physical transformation and Sean getting Marines, he is a gun expert himself, to work with me on the specifics of the weapons and the Marine aspects of the role.
What is the best piece of advice that you can give to someone who would like to get involved in the entertainment industry in the capacity that you have?
Know your craft. Absolutely, positively know your craft! Work on it and develop your craft. Really, that is where I spent all of my time doing. I cut my teeth on off and off-off-Broadway stages for years playing every type of character out there. So you have to know your craft. I know there are actors that work off of personalities and looks and stuff like that but I think inevitably, the one thing that you are responsible for is the development of that craft.
Great advice. Thank you so much for taking time out to speak with us. We are really looking forward to spreading the word on ‘Cost of A Soul’ and the magnificent performance that you have put in for that project.
Check out the trailer for ‘Cost of A Soul’ below and be sure to swing by Chris Kerson’s official website at www.chriskerson.com!