He’s only 25, but American actor Chris Carmack has learnt many lessons in his career so far. In overcoming the stereotype that has dogged him, side-stepping the pitfalls of small-screen stardom and turning down lucrative TV jobs, he’s remained focused on his aim to be a respected film and stage actor. As part of his mission, he’s now making his West End debut as the considerably less-focused John in Tennessee Williams’s Summer And Smoke. Caroline Bishop caught up with him at the Apollo…
In the glamorous US teen drama The OC, actor Chris Carmack played Luke, the pre-Ryan boyfriend of Mischa Barton’s Marissa. Popular, but a bit of a bully with a nasty jealous streak, Luke started off in the first series as frankly, not a very nice boy. To be less English about it, he was a jackass. Which is something that the actor who played him certainly is not. I know this, because Adrian Noble, director of Summer And Smoke, made sure of the fact before hiring him for the part of John Buchanan in the revival of this Tennessee Williams play in the West End.
“They didn’t immediately offer it to me,” says Carmack. “I had to call Adrian. They had to get me on the phone and make sure I wasn’t a jackass first, ‘cause they didn’t know me, they didn’t meet me, they only saw my audition on tape. I managed to convince them, I fooled them all!” he laughs evilly.
But he didn’t fool them actually, because Carmack, unlike Luke, seems a genuinely lovely guy – warm, intelligent and a diligent professional. I admit, this was not quite how I expected him to be. On paper, he’s a classically good-looking 25-year-old American who has modelled in major ad campaigns for labels such as Guess and Abercrombie & Fitch, acted in a high-profile yet hardly highbrow US teen drama and has limited professional stage experience. In short, I bought into the stereotype of the all-American jock turned model for whom acting was more of an afterthought.
"I’ve managed to say no to a few things and stick to my guns and it’s working out for me"
Carmack is well used to this. “I never saw myself as a model and I never really was that interested in doing it, so when people stereotyped me as that I was not happy,” he says, explaining that he only did modelling as a way of making a quick buck to fund his acting studies at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. “It took me a while to learn how to deal with that, because people of course still stereotype me on certain things and you have to realise well, they stereotyped me because that’s what they’ve seen me in, it’s not their fault. So all I have to do is prove myself in another realm.”
In the past two years that’s exactly what he has done – after The OC he made a decision to quit TV for a while and concentrate on film and theatre. In the former field, he appears in The Girls’ Guide To Hunting And Fishing (based on the book by Melissa Bank), released next year; in the latter, he made his off-Broadway stage debut earlier this year in Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane with Alec Baldwin, before coming to the UK for Summer And Smoke. In order to achieve his aims, Carmack has had to be pretty single minded about it and avoid certain temptations. “Once you’re established in TV, all of a sudden they know who you are, they offer you the job and they offer you good money to do it, so the trap is that you want to keep doing it. It’s easier to do that than it is to break into one of the other realms of entertainment, so I’ve managed to say no to a few things and stick to my guns and it’s working out for me. I’ve got goals that I’m working towards, and if a project isn’t a step in the right direction for me I don’t involve myself with it.”
Carmack’s determined pursuit of his goals is in direct contrast to the confused state of mind of the character he plays in Summer And Smoke. John is an angry young man frustrated about his small-town life in the American Deep South in 1916. Aimless, he spirals into self-destruction as his young spinster neighbour, Miss Alma (Rosamund Pike), who is madly in love with him, tries to help him get back on the right path. Though this doesn’t appear to reflect Carmack’s self-assured demeanour, the actor identifies with the feeling of not quite knowing where you’re going. “I get John on a lot of levels. I understand him,” he says. “The difference [between us] being, he is returning to a small town where he feels suffocated by life and by the career his father has chosen for him. I don’t have those circumstances in my life. But certainly I know what it’s like to be a young man trying to find my way in the world and trying to find something meaningful to hold on to.”
"The fact of the matter is I think an actor is only going to be as good as that actor can be"
Reared on Tennessee Williams during high school and university, Carmack is a big fan of the playwright and is enjoying deconstructing the character of John. “It changes as the show progresses and you get deeper into it. I find out new things about John, and I find out things I thought about John aren’t true, I find out I’ve been misled sometimes,” he says. “Right now, I’m kind of working with John as a bit of a lost boy who doesn’t know what he wants. He’s a danger to himself and others because he knows that there is a huge void in his life and he’s trying to fill it, trying to suck experience from the world, and he’s doing it with booze and women and more negative things. He doesn’t know how to fill it with positive things. He’s a young child who is lonely and scared and going about it all the wrong way.”
Carmack says he loves the fact that Williams leaves his work open to interpretation, that he’s a playwright who “causes the audience to ask questions rather than provide them with answers”. Perhaps it is his identification with the character that leads Carmack to his own interpretation: “You can read it that Alma is the casualty, but I read it that John is the casualty. I read it that Alma sets herself free of the bonds that have held her down the entire story, whereas John submits to the convention of life; he marries the girl he’s supposed to marry and he gets into what I believe will be a suffocating relationship.
“It’s funny,” he adds, “sometimes you think you’re beating your head against a wall, trying to find out what this character wants, and then when you get it, it’s such a simple thing it surprises you.”
Carmack’s unstarry nature explains why, despite looking the part, he didn’t ever feel like he suited the beautiful world of The OC and the trappings of fame that came with such a sudden shift into the spotlight. “It was a media whirl,” he says. “In the States, as well as here, it was an instantaneous hit, and it was like going from unemployed actor to star in point five seconds. Fortunately, I was able to get off the ride before it screwed me up. Because an experience like that is weird, it does take you for a ride, it gets into your head a little bit; you do things that aren’t you, that don’t make sense.” Encouraged to give an example, he smiles and is tight-lipped, before producing a metaphor: “They give you this hat, it’s like the star hat and you’ve got to try it on for a little bit and see what happens, and you can get into these clubs, and you know…” he smiles. “It didn’t fit me very well, it didn’t suit me, and I’m glad things worked out the way they did – I sort of slipped back into obscurity.” If nothing else, it was something to file under Life Experience. “I got to see that world and what can happen without getting caught in the undertow, and I learned a lot of lessons,” is Carmack’s conclusion. But he’d rather be having lessons in the theatre, lessons which “are going to make me a better actor, and that’s an irreplaceable asset”.
He seems to have an insatiable thirst for learning lessons when it comes to his chosen career. He says he’d much rather stay in rehearsals or previews than face the critics, so that he can continue to eek out every morsel from the play. “That’s the bit when I feel you get closer to the play. I don’t ever feel like it’s over-rehearsed. You’ve got to have an audience, but I love previews because we rehearse during the days and perform at night, so we get to fix things in the day and try them out at night.”
"I think it’s good to have a goal but it’s foolish to stick with a direction"
Perhaps his perfectionist bent comes from the sportsman’s desire to be the best – Carmack gave up his other passion, athletics, at school in order to concentrate on acting: “The sports teams at my school were not particularly well endowed, and it’s not fun to be on a losing team, but it’s fun to be in a packed auditorium, so eventually I chose drama over the sports.” Like any sportsman, he pushes himself hard and is very self-critical when he feels a performance didn’t go as he’d have liked. “What I get sick of is the feeling that I didn’t get it right,” he says. “That’s the great thing about a run [of a show], sometimes I walk off stage and throw my hat down and go [shouts] ‘I didn’t get it today, I’m done, I don’t want to do it anymore, I’m not good enough!’ But then the next day it’s like, well I have to go and do it again. I try not to be hard on myself though,” he adds, “because it doesn’t pay to beat yourself up – I’ve learned that lesson. But it does pay to be self-critical.”
He continues talking in concise sound-bites when considering his future career plans: “I think it’s good to have a goal but it’s foolish to stick with a direction,” he says sagely. “If a project comes along and I believe it will help me achieve my goal of becoming a better actor with a bigger repertoire of work, and it’s within my grasp – it’s not some part I could never play, it’s a part I’m ready for and I can bring something special to – then I’ll do it.”
Carmack then, comes across as a mature young actor who has learnt and grown from past experiences and has a wise game plan for the future. Which is why it is surprising that when asked how he’d describe himself, he umms and ahhs, toys with “motivated” and “confused” and finally comes up with something that seems more appropriate to the character he’s playing than himself: “Lost little boy”. Really? He pauses, shifts on his chair and grins. “No!” Maybe he’s rehearsed so much he’s forgotten the difference between them.