Chris Butler’s superb performances at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival — Othello in “Othello” in 2018, and Griffin in last Season’s “How to Catch Creation” — prompted me to ask him for an interview.
Among other achievements, Butler earned his MFA in theater from the University of California at San Diego, and he played Matan Brody in 21 episodes on “The Good Wife” TV series. We visited over Cobb salads at Standing Stone Brewing Company.
EH: Tell me about your training as an actor.
CB: At UCSD, where I got most of my training, they didn’t subscribe to one particular school. They would give you a sprinkling of everything to see what resonated with you. They weren’t trying to make you a specific type of actor. They would let you bring what you had to the table and try to give you something to help you succeed. I’ve had a little taste of all of it. I approach the character from character background, character history and, “Who is everybody else in the play, and how do they interact with me?” And a little bit about, “Where did my character come from before he started the scene?” I have a personal method, but it doesn’t strictly come from this person or that person.
EH: Is there a difference in your preparation between television and theater?
CB: A lot of time in television, you’re just trying to survive, because you didn’t even get that script until a couple of days (if you’re lucky) before you have to go in for the audition. You’ll get the script at 6 o’clock at night; and you have an audition the next day at 11; and it’s five pages.
“OK. Let me just hammer these words into my brain, so I don’t make a fool of myself, and try to be truthful.” Half the time, you don’t know what’s happening in the scene. So, you try.
And then when you get hired to do the job, there are two or three more scenes that weren’t in the audition. When you show up on set, you’re just trying to survive the scene, and keep the words in your head, and say them like a human would say them. It’s a survival instinct, because when they say, “cut,” because you messed up, that costs about $5,000 right there. Which is why I like theater so much. You do get the chance to really get into the character and immerse yourself in a story. And you get to tell the whole story beginning to end. The story starts, and in two or three hours the story is going to be over. You have control over that.
They say television is the director’s and the editor’s medium. You do a performance on set, and they can cut it up any way they want. I’m watching some scene, where I give some look, “That’s not when I did that. That’s not when I gave that look. I gave that look in another moment.”
EH: What part does the audience play for you?
CB: The audience informs my performance. You just can’t do comedy without people. Something I thought was funny, is not. Or the audience found this funny, and I didn’t know it was a joke. Or the tender and sweet moments, or the dramatic moments: It’s modulating and navigating that. Do I make them feel that more? Or are they feeling it enough? It’s a case-by-case decision.
EH: What makes theater different from other mediums of art?
CB: Everybody’s involved in a momentary human experience that will come and go. You have to be there to be a part of it. It’s a happening, and we are all there for it.