Interview: Mark RolstonMarch 26, 2019
With 175 acting credits to his name, it’s safe to say Mark Rolston has experienced the good, bad and ugly in the acting world. Recently we had the chance to talk with Mark about his wonderful acting career. He chatted about life as an actor, how the business has changed, Aliens, The Shawshank Redemption and his new movie Blood Craft.
Was acting something you always wanted to do or did that interest develop over time?
Mark: You know it’s funny, my father was a single parent and we were a family of three kids, and each of us had to choose something to do on Saturdays because that was his day to clean the house, get chores done. My sister chose ballet, by brother chose guitar and I chose to do this kids seminar, I wouldn’t really call it an acting class, in downtown D.C. (I grew up right outside of Washington, D.C.) and it was called the Washington Theater Club. It was from my participation in that club that got me acknowledgment, recognition and then the local arena stage, which is still a professional regional company in D.C., they asked me to turn professional. My father nixed that idea but I guess I was bitten by the bug, then I took a small hiatus, I had a difficult time, I did dance/ballet as well, but I had a hard time convincing my friends that I couldn’t hang around to play basketball or other games, and I always had these excuses like doctor’s appointments or whatever. I went back and did a play in my senior year in high school and got bitten again, then pursued it when I got into college, but I was semi-professional when I was young.
So what piqued your interest in terms of doing theater?
Mark: To be honest, originally it was just the ability to assume other characters, assume other personalities and personas and then it became like a lot of things, the recognition you got, acknowledgment from people. As a kid I was always a mimic, it used to get me in a lot of trouble, but I’ve always had a facility for it. Then when I got into college, my studies got a lot more intense, it was the idea of transforming myself into another person and that’s the mark of good acting when you can transform yourself and people don’t recognize you. I was in a college in Northwestern Maryland and they had a junior year abroad program and there was literally a flyer in the student union building saying, ‘Study Abroad in England’, so I took a sticker, sent it away…they lied. They said I’d be able to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, which was a total fabrication. What it did for me is, when I got to England, at a place called Richmond College which is right outside of London, the woman who was running the program, her husband was a very prominent stage and TV actor, Anton Rogers, and he came to direct us and one day he pulled me aside and said so, what do you plan to do, once you finish this year and I said oh, I guess I’ll go back to Maryland and finish my degree, and he just said, no you’re not. (Laughs) He said, I’m going to coach you, you’re a real actor, you’re going to do one of the professional programs here in the UK, so he coached me and I got into almost everywhere except the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. He kept pushing me and pushing me, he wanted me to go to the Drama Center, and sure enough, I auditioned and got in.
The Drama Center is fairly famous, it’s produced a lot of good actors like Colin Firth, Michael Fassbender, Tom Hardy, and others. So that’s where I did my training and the really exciting bit of the training was it wasn’t just conventional actors training. They mixed method acting into the program so I kind of got a taste of everything. The training was amazing, I worked with amazing people and that really set me up for a lot of my success because when I come into a meeting people, and I’m not sure why it is, I don’t look at myself in a mirror and figure it out, but for example, when I auditioned for The Shawshank Redemption, the producer Niki Marvin who’s British, she said in the meeting, you trained in England, didn’t you? I was completely flabbergasted, I said how did you know that and she said, it’s just the way you handle yourself, the way you go about things, I can sense it. In a lot of ways I was blessed to have that kind of training, it was a Conservatory, three years, almost eighteen hours every single day, we got three weeks off in the summer but it was almost continuous for three straight years.
Theater can be a scary place for an actor, working without a net so to speak. Do you think it is something every actor should experience or is it just not for everyone?
Mark: I don’t know. You have to do theater to be a very well rounded, and grounded, actor. I think it’s difficult just to fall into doing TV and movies because doing theater, you’re on stage, live, warts and all, then the challenge becomes how to drive yourself through a performance, stay in the moment, be in character all of the time, you can’t let up. I once performed Richard II as Richard, and that’s five acts of Shakespeare and I’m on stage almost all of the time. To maintain that, film and TV become easy because you get do-overs, so yeah, I think if you’re serious you’re going to do it, I think you have to.
You have done theater, TV, film and voice work. Do you have a favorite medium to work in or do they all have their own individual charms?
Mark: Really, I love it all. As you get older, and the industry has shifted and changed quite a bit, new opportunities come and go so as of late I’ve been segueing into a lot of voice work, and I’ve doing motion capture work on games. In fact, I’m waiting here now to go for a call back for a game. I love voice over work because it’s such an easy job, I started my career, really, in dubbing. I actually dubbed Jackie Chan’s movies into American English and it was funny, when I was doing Rush Hour with Jackie, one day when there was a quiet moment on set I said hey Jackie, by the way, I used to voice your movies, mentioned a bunch of titles, and he looked at me and said ‘No, you me? Impossible’! (Laughs) Yeah, I really enjoy it all, theater becomes difficult only because, sadly, you don’t get paid well, and it would have to be a really special role for me to give up my time and sweat to do that. That’s something that, oddly enough, the guys who ran the Drama Center…the very first day, all of us convening at the school, we started off with eighty people and by the final performance we were down to sixteen, they had cuts every year. However, the man who ran the program announced to us that he was going to train us for something that probably wouldn’t exist in our lifetime, meaning the theater, and it’s sad to say that a lot of theaters have been dwindling away. Regional companies, theaters in Britain are closing but it still exists, and it’s wonderful to have governments, like in Canada, the UK and most of Europe, that actually subsidize the theater. In America, they just kind of go for the lowest common denominator and it becomes musical theater. I do dance and I can carry a tune but musical theater isn’t really my thing.
Is it often a misconception that getting a role such as Private Drake in Aliens automatically opened doors for you?
Mark: No, you know, it was crazy. I knew it was a big movie, but I was living in London and my son was young at the time, and Bill Paxton, he just kept hounding me, he’d literally call me once a week, he’d be like ‘Mark, man, you’ve got to come, dude, this movie is going to be incredible, it’s going to be huge’, and I was like yeah, yeah, I know, Bill. He was like ‘come and stay at my apartment’, and I took him up on it and within five days I was staring in a movie with Lance Henriksen, I got an agent within a week, every door was open to me because Aliens was this big, hit movie. Consequently, I got so busy that I never returned to England, which was good in some ways, sad in others. I lost my first family, I didn’t lose them, but my first wife, she tried her luck in L.A. and she was the quintessential English rose, she wasn’t Hollywood, so she couldn’t get arrested, she became despondent so she returned to the UK.
Having done big movies like Aliens, The Shawshank Redemption, The Departed, do you like switching things up and choosing smaller roles, like Sheriff Waters in Blood Craft?
Mark: Well you know, it was interesting, I did this movie called Gangsterland and played an Irish gangster and James Cullen Bressack, he was an assistant producer, and it was during that time, it was one night, super late, about 3 in the morning, and he said hey, I’ve got this movie I’m going to do, you probably won’t want to do but I’d love to send it to you, so I said sure, send it to me, let’s see and the script was great. It had overtones of the #MeToo movement which was going on and I thought oh my god, the audience will cheer this on. You’ve got this horror film with these two sisters who go and affect retribution on their father, and against men so yeah, I had no problem taking it on. There wasn’t money in it, I did James a favor, I think it was about two and a half days of work, all night, but I really liked him, I could sense he was super talented so I thought hey, what the hell, let’s do it. The material was really good and a lot of these movies, you read it and go oh man, this is awful, and the size of the movie definitely doesn’t dictate that it’s been well crafted, no pun intended. (Laughs) I haven’t seen Blood Craft yet but from what I hear it sounds like they pulled it off. James is a young guy but he’s already done seventeen, eighteen films and when I first met him I was like you know what, I’m going to do this because one day, you’re going to have a thirty million dollar budget and I hope you remember me. Make sure you put that in the article, ok? (Laughs)
Hollywood seems to be split up into either the independent films or the big blockbuster, with everything else getting washed away. Do you think the new age of streaming services on television is picking up some of slack in between the low budget and big budgets movies?
Mark: It’s such a shame and yeah, the streaming services are, they absolutely do. What really happened though was, think of it this way: the smaller films that get produced and win awards, are often time produced in Europe because like I said, they still back independent productions. However, when I first came to Hollywood it was a different story, man. There were like four hundred and fifty movies a year, anything from a one to two million dollar project, to a ten, twenty, forty, fifty million, right up to the blockbusters. Then when all the studios got taken over by corporations, they just bottom lined everything and all they wanted to do is rebrand formerly successful things, then the DC and Marvel movies came about and amongst all the studios now, they only make about twenty-five to thirty movies a year, that’s it. They have cut away everything in between and now a lot of the independent films in America have super low budgets, so I’m always wary, the material has to be good to do it.
For example, my son, who is an independent producer in Britain, and he’s now just embarking on his second independent feature and he’s got like six million pounds, a phenomenal cast but in the States, there’s this huge chasm that’s like you say, just sort of withered away. The more exciting work is in cable obviously but it’s something I bemoan, and money is just so hard to come by, especially in that middle range because once you pass the five million dollar threshold then your movie, depending on the talent that comes aboard, instantly your budget becomes ten million, twenty million or more, so it’s a real shame.
Is there a part in a cable series that you’d like to do, something long term, or are you happy with mixing things up the way you’re doing it now?
Mark: Yeah, I would love a role, be on a series for a while, that would be fun. It’s a different world though, it’s all skewed, very young, and I’ve become very aware that I’m now one of the elder statesmen. (Laughs) It’s odd but it’s the nature of the beast, you know? Interestingly enough, talking about independent films, I was filming in Montreal last year on probably the biggest independent film ever, that being Midway, with Roland Emmerich directing, a 275 million dollar indie. Roland had to turn the studios away, all the studios wanted to be involved, and he just knew if he took on the studios it wouldn’t be the film that he necessarily wanted to do, so he raised money all over the world, he even got the Chinese to put in seventy million dollars. It’s a phenomenal cast, with Dennis Quaid, Woody Harrelson, who I worked with, Mandy Moore, and the attention to detail in this film, it was really like the Titanic, but an indie. Now I’m sure he’ll get a studio or large distributor to take on the distribution of the film. Ultimately I’m a film guy, that’s what I love doing, it’s just that the way they cast these days, they just offer out shit. My strength used to be, let me go in, get in front of people, and let me create a character, I’ll duke it out with anybody, seriously.
When I won the role for Shawshank, man, that was a huge fight. Initially, Rob Reiner didn’t want me, he kept saying to Frank Darabont, why do you want this guy, I’ve never seen him before and Frank was like no, this is the guy. Reiner made him go to New York and audition all these big names, and I’d thought I’d lost it because it had been three months since I heard anything, then one morning Frank actually called me at home to congratulate me, to tell me I got the role. He didn’t tell me who, but he told me about the fight he had to go through to get me and he said you know, you beat out some really huge people, I knew you were the right guy for the role. He told me how it happened, they had a final screening in a theater at Castle Rock with Reiner and everybody else, and for every role they put up their top five choices, they’d watched each of the auditions on tape. Frank slipped my audition in at the end and apparently when my audition ended he stood up and shouted at Rob Reiner, if you don’t think that’s the right fucking guy for this movie, you’re full of shit! Finally, Reiner said alright, alright, hire this guy. In fact, Reiner originally wanted Tom Cruise as Andy Dufresne and Gene Hackman as Red. Hackman I could see but if Tom Cruise was Andy in Shawshank Redemption it never would have worked. It’s funny, you need angels in this world, people to back you up, stand up for you, but when you can’t actually audition it puts you out of work because the powers that be, the money guys, they just want to know about people’s worth in the marketplace and it doesn’t necessarily translate into the best performer.
For example, when I saw the cast list for The Departed I thought oh fuck, this could either be a really good film or total shit because they’ve got too many fucking names in it and unless everyone comes with their game, this could be horrible. Luckily, most everyone came with really great performances and it did what it did. If you can’t audition, I mean that’s why I’m segueing into more voice work, and I’ve got great representation and casting director friends who corroborate this, who say they get a list and are told to just go down the list, see who wants to do it. That’s the way they do it, so there’s no artistry, there’s no competition, there’s no search any more because they figured they’d cut costs by not having to go through the audition process.
You work in a tough business.
Mark: (Laughs) It is, it is a tough business. I’m grateful my son went to the right side of the camera and then my two daughters have decided to do something other than acting. Sometimes I get asked by young people for advice and I just say hey, you’re perfectly positioned by your age to give it a shot, but the biggest thing is just don’t quit. If you quit, Hollywood doesn’t give a fuck, they really don’t, but if you hang around long enough, work it enough then yeah, you should do ok. Who the hell knows, you could win the lotto.
So what projects do you have coming up next?
Mark: Well, I’m returning for the sixth season of Bosch, which is on Amazon, superbly written, Michael Connelly is a hands-on creator, he’s the real deal, he was an LAPD detective and it’s real cop lingo, not this fake cop lingo. Also, Titus Welliver and Amy Aquino are great people to work with, I’ve really been enjoying that. The biggest thing is Midway, it has a huge release in November and it really should be fantastic, the script was just great, it touched on every point, albeit a war movie, it just has everything. It was a lot of fun to be back on the set of a massive film like this. I’ve also got other games that I do, that sort of reappear but that’s it for the moment. Right now I’m in the auditioning phase, I just went this morning for Westworld, a great show but yeah, I’d love to get on a series, have that steady work. A few years back I was within a hair of getting The Blacklist. You only really regret not getting it because now my buddy is on the show, banking millions and after all the time I’ve put in, slogging it out, with three kids and now a grandson, a little money in the bank would be nice. But then I talk to my buddy and they’re just beating the shit out of him, he’s working his butt off, freezing his ass off in New York City…I’d like to do that too but something will come up.
I want to thank Mark for taking the time to talk with us