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IN FOCUS: Mark Hildreth Talks Career, Creative Exploration & ‘The Looming Tower’

Mark Hildreth – Photo by Style Militia

Mark Hildreth is one of the rare breed of actors who are able to sustain thriving careers both as a musician and actor. Undeniably talented, he continues to push himself to his creative limits and beyond. His story begins in Vancouver, Canada, where he was born and raised. With two born-deaf grandparents, Mark was an unlikely musical prodigy. He taught himself to play piano at eight years old and appeared on stage in the opera “Madame Butterfly”. His impressive talents haven’t gone unnoticed as the multi-faceted artist won the 2006 Singer-Songwriter Award and the Billboard World Song Contest. The momentum he has generated has led to performances at the world-renowned Viper Room, The Knitting Factory, and The House of Blues in Hollywood. Along the way, Hildreth has worked with Warne Livesey, the prodigious producer of 54-40 and the Matthew Good Band. His two albums, 2008’s “Complex State of Attachment” and 2012’s “Signs of Life,” continue to wow listeners around the globe.

Despite his success in the music realm, his passion for acting has never wavered. In fact, it’s continued to grow at an exponential rate. Hildreth’s big break came when he was cast as a series lead on Ion’s “Young Blades.” This was only the beginning of his acting resume, as he has had stand out recurring roles on Showtime’s “The Tudors”, ABC’s sci-drama “V”, and “Resurrection.” His history is also peppered with a slew of guest star appearances, namely on The CW’s “Supernatural”, CBC’s “Being Erica”, and SyFy’s “Eureka”. On film, he’s appeared in “Pirates of The Caribbean: At World’s End” starring Johnny Depp and Ewan McGregor’s “American Pastoral,” which is based on the novel by Phillip Roth. An accomplished theatre actor, his still finds himself at home on the stage. Having trained at the National Theatre School of Canada, Hildreth played title roles in “Hamlet” and “Richard III” in Vancouver and Montreal respectively, and he also received the best actor award playing Marchbanks in George Bernard Shaw’s “Candida”. In 2014 he starred as Lorne Hanley in the world premiere of Bernie Weinraub’s “Above the Fold” in Los Angeles, starring alongside Taraji P. Henson.

2018 is shaping up to be Mark Hildreth’s most ambitious and creatively fruitful year to date. He has recently wrapped shooting the Lifetime TV movie “Nellie Bly,” a psychological thriller inspired by the groundbreaking 19th century journalist who went undercover to expose abuses in the treatment of women at New York’s Blackwell Island Asylum. In the series, Hildreth plays Bartheloemew Driscoll, a hero and love interest of “Nellie Bly,” played by the always spellbinding Christina Ricci.

Starting February 28th, Mark Hildreth can be seen alongside an ensemble cast featuring Jeff Daniels, Alec Baldwin, Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tahar Rahim, Bill Camp, Ella Rae Peck and Wrenn Schmidt, in Hulu’s “The Looming Tower.” This emotionally gripping series traces the rising threat of Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda. Based on the events leading up to one of America’s biggest history shaping moments, “The Looming Tower” offers a controversial look at how the rivalry between the CIA and FBI inadvertently might have set the stage for the tragedy of 9/11 and the war in Iraq.

Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Mark Hildreth to discuss his journey as an artist, the challenges he has faced along the way, his upcoming role in “The Looming Tower” and what he has in store for us musically in the near future!

What drew you to the creative arts early in life?

It’s sort of an unusual story, I guess. I was born into a family where I had two deaf grandparents. My mom’s parents were both deaf so, when I was 4 or 5 years old, I learned sign language so that I could talk to them. It’s funny to say because, obviously, they never spoke a word of English, but they are probably the most expressive people I’ve ever met! That had a big influence on me because, when I was 5 years old, I landed my first role in the opera “Madame Butterfly” at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver, which is where I grew up. I’m not sure what I was thinking but, in my 5-year-old mind, being up on stage in front of 1,100 people with this amazing Italian Soprano screaming at me every night made me say, “Yeah, this is what I want to do!” [laughs] It bit me early and I feel I’m lucky to have known from the time I was 8 years old that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. It seems to be working out so far! [laughs]

It certainly does! [laughs] Let’s talk influences. What were some of the films, actors and people behind the scenes who helped shape you?

I grew up about a half-an-hour away from Michael J. Fox. When I was 8 years old, I went into my first agency and I saw Michael’s picture on the wall. I was like, “Yup! This is where I want to be!” This was right around 1985-1986, so “Back To The Future” had just come out and “Family Ties” was huge. This was a guy from my hometown! He’s been a hero of mine since I was little, so, in terms of actors, I think he’s been the biggest influence. More recently, with his current struggle and everything that he does socially, I admire him more than ever before. I really look up to him so much. He sort of paved the path. Around the same time, I was coming up, I was working in Canada with Ryan Reynolds, Ryan Gosling, Barry Pepper, Tyler Labine and a bunch of actors who’ve all gone on to have great careers. I think Michael was the first one from our town to really hit it big! Also, my family is British but I’m first generation Canadian. My mom and dad both came over and started a family, where I’m the oldest of four boys. So, it’s really the English actors that I look up to the most for their work. I love Judi Dench, Daniel Day Lewis, Anthony Hopkins, John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier and all of those people I was most taken by as a young actor!

Many people will be excited to discover you have a musical side. Tell us about that aspect of your career.

Whatever my grandparents didn’t get, I somehow got lucky and got a little extra! We had a piano in our house and nobody played it because there aren’t really any musicians in my family. I started to mess around on it and I taught myself Beethoven on it when I was about 10 years old. Of course, that wasn’t right away and it took some time! [laughs] There was some kind of ear for music that I was lucky to have. I’ve never learned how to read music, but I’ve released two full-length original albums that land somewhere between Elton John and Stevie Wonder in terms of style. I’ve played with some truly amazing musicians along the way. Coincidentally, one of those people is Jeff Daniels! A lot of people might not know this, but Jeff is actually an amazing blues guitarist and singer. He’s got a band that he tours with, along with his sons. He has a studio and his own theatre company, as well. He has a bunch of things going on where he is from in Michigan. Him and Bill Camp, who is also in “The Looming Tower,” on the days we were on set together would sit in the back and Jeff would pull out his little travel guitar, sit back and play the blues. It was one of the best parts of working on the show! Jeff is such a pro and a great leader on the set. When you are making a TV show or shooting a movie, it comes from the top down in terms of work ethic and how people treat each other. Jeff has both of those really locked up. He’s just a wonderful guy and he created such a good vibe on the set. Part of that was just us sitting in the back, playing the blues and singing songs. It was a little unexpected added bonus while working on such heavy material; it was a little respite to be able to play some music in the back with Jeff Daniels.

How did you get involved with Hulu’s “The Looming Tower” and the character you play?

This is a New York show. I was cast in New York, it’s shot in New York and it’s a New York-centric story, obviously, with it being about the lead-up to 9/11 and how the whole situation happened. I was invited to read for it by the casting director here in New York, Avy Kaufman, who has worked on practically every movie that has been shot here over the years. They asked me to come along. Basically, Jeff Daniels plays the head of the FBI Counter Terrorism Unit. At the time this series starts, around 1998, it was a relatively small unit compared to how big it has become over the years. Peter Sarsgaard plays the head of the CIA’s Counter Terrorism Unit. Jeff’s character has a team of about six or seven FBI agents and I play one of them. The character I play is named Gordon Wright, who was a former Top Gun pilot, who’s on Jeff’s team. The story gets into the history of how the FBI, CIA and the U.S. Government participated in the situation that lead up to what would end up as 9/11. I think what people will respond to is that this isn’t a series that pulls any punches about how we screwed up. It really gets into the nitty gritty of it all. For example, Jeff’s character, which he plays really wonderfully, is a flawed hero. He’s a guy who wants to do the right thing, pushes people around a little too much, is brash and audacious but is also trying to save lives. It explores the gray area between the good guys and the bad guys in a way that, I think, people will find refreshing. We can’t exactly say that we in America were blameless or our hands are completely clean. The series explores how we failed on our side in this situation and I think that will be a refreshing take on the story and history of that event.

Tell us about building out a character and what you brought that wasn’t on the written page.

In this case, we are representing some characters that are based on real-life people. In certain cases, there are amalgamations of characters and in other cases, like Jeff’s character, it’s based on a real guy who you can research. In a case like this, it’s kind of cool because you can go back and find out what the real person was like and that helps you build the character. On the other hand, you have the added responsibility to represent that person accurately and fairly because they aren’t a fictional character. In terms of building this team, we actually had some of the guys who were actually there, working for the FBI and CIA, on set with us! That was really unusual and pretty cool to be able to, in the middle of our process as we are creating a scene and figuring out how we should play it, have somebody who was actually there in that room at that time to consult with. That allowed us to ask, “How would this have gone?” They were able to tell you the history of it and give you the tone and feeling of what it was like in that meeting. That’s something I think that “The Looming Tower” has that other shows don’t have!

Each project has different challenges. What are the biggest challenges on this project?

It was definitely the nature of the material itself. It’s what we are dealing with and trying to handle. I’d say the biggest challenge was telling this story in a way that was respectful, thoughtful and passionate. Obviously, 9/11 is one of the most divisive and profound in both American and world history. When you are dealing with subject material like that, you need to be very thoughtful about how people will experience the story you’re telling because it hits so close to home and it’s so meaningful for so many people already, it comes preloaded with emotion and pain. It wouldn’t be right to play loose with an event like that. I hope that we told this story in a way that builds compassion and helps people see all the human sides of that horrible event in a way they feel is respectful of their experience.

I imagine “The Looming Tower” stands out as one of your creative milestones as an actor.

Yeah. This is one of the best casts I’ve ever worked with — Jeff Daniels, Peter Sarsgaard, Alec Baldwin, Michael Stuhlbarg and Tahar Rahim, just to name a few. We ended up with some of the best actors in New York, which is saying something because New York has some of the best actors in the world. As an actor, you’re just waiting for a great script. That’s like water in the desert for actors! And we have one! We have a series that has great scripts and that’s what attracts all of these great actors to the project. It’s an important subject and it’s explored in a really beautiful way. That is such a privilege to get to speak words and build a character around a script that has substance!

Being paired with the seasoned actors you mentioned speaks volumes to your talent. Your resume shows unique projects. Looking back on your accomplishments, how have you evolved as an actor?

I will be totally honest, man. There is a veneer of fame and stardom that acting has and all actors feel it. Being an actor is sort of marketed as having a certain amount of fame and fortune; there’s sort of a promise of all that is always there. [laughs] I call it a veneer because it’s something that wears off. I think it’s the sort of thing that takes time. I’m still young but I’ve been in the business for a long time, over 30 years now. For me, that as a goal in itself becomes less meaningful. What becomes more meaningful is the question of, “What are we teaching each other with the projects that we make? What’s the purpose of the projects that we’re making. Are we making it just to sell the idea of fame and fortune or are we actually exploring the question of ‘How do we live together as a society in a better way’ as the Greeks and Shakespeare did.” That’s what has changed for me as an actor. Now, I’m like, “It would be nice to make more money, have better opportunities and all of those things but having a purpose as a person and as an artist is so much more important than everybody knowing who you are.” This type of project is really in line with that, ya know.

Mark Hildreth – Photo by Style Militia

Definitely! Thirty years is quite an achievement. What are the keys to longevity as an actor?

Ya know what I think it is? Finding something you love so much that you’d do it for free and then every time you get paid it’s like a bonus! I started in theater and, when you work in the theater, you are practically working for free! [laughs] There’s not a lot of money in the theatre and they don’t pay you a whole lot to do those great plays! Once in a while they do but, most of the time, you’re doing it for other reasons, ya know? Not just for actors but in general — maybe you start a family, become a teacher or any other trade. If you take the thing you love the most, the thing that gets you out of bed in the morning, the type of thing you would do even if it was for free because you love it so much; then you have a reason to sustain all of the horrible, at times, ups and downs of your industry. I’ve gone ages where I didn’t get a job and I’ve also gone ages where I’ve had job after job. That’s just sorta how life is. Having a reason to do it, beyond making money or getting famous, is the key.

What does the future hold for you in regards to acting and music?

There is definitely more music on the way. I’m writing another album. I’ve also got another movie coming out pretty soon with Christina Ricci. The film is called “Nellie Bly,” which is based on the true story of a female reporter in 1890s New York City, who pretended to be crazy to go undercover in a women’s mental hospital on Blackwell Island to expose the abuses that were going on there. She wrote one of the first of its kind exposes in American history. That’s going to come out this year. Like I said, musically, I’ve got my nose to the grindstone with the writing and creating of another record.

What’s your songwriting process like? Are you the type who is always writing?

It’s interesting. Yes, I’m always writing. I think a lot of actors, musicians or artists in general are always creating. When it comes to my process, the way I think of it is that I’m always working and then I occasionally get paid for it. [laughs] With music, my biggest influence was Elton John. Elton John’s songwriting process was that he would sit down and pump out a song in less than an hour usually. He wasn’t the type of songwriter who would agonize over a song for days or weeks. I’m sure there were changes made and they adjusted things when they recorded them and things like that but the actual songwriting, he would pop out “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” “Candle In The Wind” or whatever in about an hour. That’s how I first learned to write so, usually, it’s like that. Artists are observers of people. We’re watching how people work and trying to figure them out. Eventually, I will get a sort of feeling. It’s almost like my musical water breaks and I have to get to a piano as soon as possible! Usually the song comes out fully formed in about an hour!

Mark Hildreth’s most recent album, ‘Signs of Life’

That’s amazing! We will reconnect closer to the album’s release to go further in depth!

Absolutely! Any time!

We can look to you as an inspiration with the resume and eclectic body of work you are creating. What is the best lesson we can take from your journey as an artist?

Persevere. It’s tough to be an actor. It’s not tough in the way some other jobs are tough. Manual labor is tough! My father was a teacher. He taught high school and elementary school for over 30 years. That’s a tough job. That’s a noble job. Being a parent is tough. Acting is tough in a different way. We’re trying to live with our emotions just under the surface, where most of the time people are trying to not feel or bury their emotions. We are trying to experience our lives and what it is to be human in this full, vulnerable, painful and joyful way. That’s hard. It’s not the same type of hard as having a construction job. That’s a whole different realm but acting isn’t an easy job. It’s not routine and there’s not a lot of predictability in your job as an actor. There are all of these ups and downs. So, yeah, persevere! There is a through-line and that through-line is you and your dreams. Between you and your dreams, there is a straight line and there will be lots of ups and downs you will go through. You just have to persevere and keep putting one foot in front of the other. It’s a slow race but you inevitably get closer, if you don’t give up!

That’s an awesome way to view things, Mark! Thank you for being so gracious with your time today! It’s been a pleasure and I wish you continued success moving forward!

Thank you, Jason! I really appreciate your thoughtful questions. That’s a lot more fun to answer than the fluffy questions, so I appreciate that! Thank you again for helping us get this out there. This project means a lot to all of us and it means a lot that you can lend a hand!

Anytime, my friend. I look forward to connecting with you again soon!

Awesome! Take care!

‘The Looming Tower’ premieres February 28th on Hulu. Follow the continuing adventures of Mark Hildreth on social media via Facebook and Twitter. Visit his official website at www.markhildreth.com.