Joining the other new and current releases at your local cinema is today’s big screen debut based on Gillian Flynn’s novel, Dark Places. Hopefully not lost among the film’s A-list cast is actor Shannon Kook. I had a chance to catch up with Shannon last week and after chatting for almost an hour, the conversation ended with me having talked to an incredibly insightful, sharp and thoughtful young actor. Shannon Kook might not be a name you’re particularly familiar with, but it will be.
We discussed bartending, working out, getting into a role and even how gender and race have – or haven’t – evolved in Hollywood. Read on as Mr. Kook lets us peek behind the curtain and see a few of those Dark Places.
onFiction: Starting with a little bit about yourself, I know you’ve progressed from theater to television to film, what’s changed for you as you moved through the different formats?
Shannon Kook: I don’t see them as that different. With film I get the material a lot earlier. Whereas TV you sometimes don’t know where you’re going with the character and you don’t know the full arc of the storyline. Things also change at the last minute and shooting is much quicker. So there’s a bit more lead up time with film which means I have more time to prep, but I approach them the same way.
oF: Is the audition process similar?
SK: The process is the same. They might cast a TV role quicker but if it’s a regular or recurring role it can be a slow process with rounds and call backs and screen tests. They’re both just as tedious and nerve wracking.
oF: Next out for you is Dark Places. The name says it all as far as the tone, what sort of things did you do to get to that place for that kind of character?
SK: Firstly, I read the book and that was my biggest resource because Gillian has such a powerful and vivid way, such an insightful way of telling the story and divulging the characters. So I have a lot of material from that and I referred to the book before we shot the scenes every day and we compared what was in the script with what was in the book and just trying to bring different layers forward. You know there’s only so much you can do without words ‘cause our power is words. We’re using just our bodies on screen but then someone else is deciding on the shot and the edit and the lighting and those little things make a big difference to the storytelling. So it’s a big collaboration process. I did a lot of working out. I was a vegetarian for eight months and was rushing to get into as crazy shape as possible and ended up going back to eating a lot of chicken. I was just sitting on YouTube all day to just figure out how to get in the best shape, the leanest shape as quick as possible and was really struggling. There wasn’t the money to hire a trainer and a dietitian so I’m sitting there researching working out and food most of the time and I’d get to the point where I’m like, I’m doing this more than mining my character right now, so I was like screw this, I’m just gonna do chicken and broccoli and working out a lot. That and try to talk to people of varying decent to try and mine that world a bit. But me being a mixed person from South Africa I definitely have my own world that I think can parallel a lot of those experiences. That’s more in the essence and not something you can literally, deliberately do. That’s part of my character, but wasn’t the purpose of the story. I was just trying to figure out what my place in the story was and what would best assist the story moving forward with my character. It was an ongoing process. I detached, I missed my friend’s wedding and was pretty detached from the world and just wanted to really sit in that dark space. I’m not the type of person who will be laughing and then just jump into their character. I really want to have to carry him around a bit.
And that was just my experience as an actor, maybe next time that’ll change. There’s no set in stone way I as an actor do things. You sort of feel it as you go and try to get it out as it happens.
oF: So when you spend all that time in that kind of self-imposed dark space, what steps do you take to return to yourself, to Shannon versus the character?
SK: That’s a tricky thing. I remember with theater shows we’d have wrap parties and get really drunk and the whole purpose was to kill your character. Whereas everything wraps up really quickly and you fly back to your city after shooting a film like that. I think there was a bit of a depression stage for me afterward. I’m there sitting in bed eating Chinese takeout and stuffing my face as much as possible. I hadn’t been drinking for a couple months and I wasn’t eating carbs and doing a lot of weights and sometimes I’d be bartending and my boss would say, “You’re on the ‘no carbs’ today aren’t you?” cause he could tell that I was getting a little bit agro with clients. People are slamming their fists on the table yelling at you to serve them, thinking you’re their slave or some sort of thing. There I am doing weights and ECA stacks of ephedrine, caffeine and aspirin, juiced up and stuff and I’m not eating carbs. There’s veins popping out of my neck [laughs]. I don’t know, coming out of it there’s a part of me that feels like every character I do now sits with me. It’s almost like sleeping with someone. Even the cast that you get to act with, it’s like you’re forever tied with that cast for all time. And there’s some sort of family thing that I feel forever connected to them. I talk to Chloë Moritz and Tye [Sheridan], and Shanley Caswell and James Wan from The Conjuring. And the Degrassi kids and people from theater shows, I feel always connected to them. Then with your characters, you get insight from being them, so as you go along the road things drop in. Like with Zane on Degrassi, I think he was a lot more advanced and enlightened than I was at the time playing him. When I look back and see how he reacted to certain situations it makes me sort of realize lessons on my own behaviors and how I react in my own personal world. So it sort of sits with you and also it makes you a bit more at peace with yourself. Like with Dark Places the book starts off saying, “I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ.” And I think a lot of us ignore the shadow side to ourselves, we sort of tell ourselves, “that isn’t us.” Because we ignore it and push it down so much it can really erupt. It builds up and you don’t acknowledge who you are, you just tell yourself you are this perfect, good person. And human beings, we’re animals, both light and dark. So being able to do roles like that lets me touch a bit more on that side of myself and gives me a bit more perspective to the fuller self that I really am.
oF: It seems to be the case now with many dramatic roles that you have to express a duality within the character, especially if the actor wants it to play as true to how a person would act as possible. Embracing that yourself just seems to be a really smart approach.
But with something like Dark Places, which is adapted from the novel, is that preexisting characterization of your role helpful, or does it actually hold you back when you’re trying to develop your character?
SK: In this particular case I thought the book was always helpful. I’d have it on set with me and it was my safety net. It gave me a lot of material and I wished we could have brought more of the book towards the script, but you know, in an hour and a half movie there’s only so much you can fit in. There’s so much more in the book that we’re missing and I’m sad about that for the audience. There’s a lot of beauty in the story I don’t know we’ll be able to capture. It’s an hour and a half piece, right? So they have to really be selective of what they shot. That was a long process for them but when I saw it last week I was very happy with it. But I also take more in because I already know the book whereas some people might only know the movie. But the book was really, really helpful and I think Gillian Flynn is extremely gifted so I just felt really honored to be able to try filling the shoes of that character.
oF: I think it’s twenty-five years that separate the two storylines in the book, and actor J. LaRose plays the older version of Trey Treepano. Were you able to work with him at all on having a unified approach to the character?
SK: No, I wish. He actually shot before me and they told me beforehand to let them know what my character’s tattoos would be, so I sent them my visions of what I wanted and when I got there they said, “Oh no we can’t, J’s already shot and he had tattoos.” I was a little bit upset because in my version there’s a lot more about him in the book, the younger version, and then there’s sort of like a button which seals it up when my older character is confronted towards the end. So I just needed to match that, I just needed to go with what’s there and I wanted to see his speech pattern and compare it to my choices as an actor going into it. But the director didn’t want me to watch his takes. A lot of directors don’t even want you to know how wide a shot is, ‘cause you’ll ask them, “How wide’s my frame?” And they’ll say, “The shot’s on you, don’t worry about it.” In some European styles they want you to be in the moment and they don’t want you to think.
I’m a director too in a way, I have my own studio where I shoot and coach actors. So I’m very aware of shots and what to communicate because I think if it’s a tighter frame or wider frame it makes a difference. And I love watching my takes to see what’s reading because I may be feeling something but that may not communicate on screen. Sometimes you get too caught up in your feelings and not telling the story. So I like watching my takes. I find a lot of actors in my studio that hate watching themselves. That actually might help them on set, not wanting to watch them, whereas I like to. I wanted to watch J. LaRose and sort of merge our two characters but watching the movie in the end I was happy I didn’t see his version because it gave me more freedom to just do mine. And I think I would have been boxed in seeing his style. I think the old Trey is completely different than the young Trey. If you see yourself from thirty years ago you’d be completely different.
oF: I didn’t know you were doing work in your own studio, are you primarily coaching or do you plan to also develop your own projects?
SK: I would like to develop my own projects. I’m always buying more equipment and trying to figure out how I could use it in my own gorilla studio in the future. I want to start shooting some shorts. I’ve been speaking to other actors about shooting our own short pieces together. It’s just tricky knowing what you want to do and what you want to say with your time. Some people make a lot of YouTube videos that are funny and they do their own thing. I want my voice to have a more real world impact, I’ve just been trying to figure out what topic I want to address first. It would probably have to be something masculine and feminine and the dichotomy of those two worlds. I think feminism is growing and men are trying to find their own place by creating room for feminism to grow but then also try to find what it means to be a man in this evolving society. I find men quite silent about where they are with things and afraid to speak up. I sometimes feel like masculinity is quite lost and misguided. More conversations need to happen and with feminism and this sort of thing people can get angry really quickly so you have to be careful. It’s just a really interesting dichotomy for me and being an Asian man who’s mixed and dealing with the stereotypes of that in the media industry, trying to find my own niche as an actor and being fortunate enough to play Trey, who is misguided as a masculine character and very aggressive, but also oppressed like my character Zane in Degrassi, who’s gay. Trey is ethnic in a white town and lashes out and will not be held down. He’ll destroy you before you could scratch him. Where Zane has a lot of this inside him but, with understanding, he can look at both sides people are coming from and is much more diplomatic and ok with himself. He’s hurt, but I guess he’s more evolved. I really learned from them both.
oF: That’s a really great point about those topics and how masculinity, feminism and even the huge changes in gay rights are important, but not focused on, despite their impact on pretty much everyone.
SK: Yeah, everyone’s trying to fight themselves. People have patriotism of their country or their race. Some people think their race is better or their team is better and that your gender should mean this or your gender should mean that, but a lot of the time I’ve found it really shouldn’t be about gender, things should just be about equality. But people can get attached to notions and ideas, people go to war for notions and ideas. It’s turbulent territory to discuss these things and I feel like males are afraid to discuss these things and that’s why I love Emma Watson’s speech and that she really welcomed men into the sphere of feminism. But at the same time it should be about equality for everybody.
oF: We touched on your range of experience and some of the heavier or darker aspects to some of your more recent characters, is that tone a direction you prefer in your work right now or is there another direction you really want to see yourself go in?
SK: I’d love to be in a romantic comedy. And I’d also like to do some action and to take up more leading roles. At this point I’ve done main characters but quite on the side. I’m still finding my own spotlight I guess, the advantage to that is you get to play more characters like in the Conjuring and Dark Places, they look like two totally different people. So I’m scheduled to be the lead in a comedy, an indie film later this year. We’re still waiting for that to come through and right now I’m in the final three for a movie with a very big character that will be an amazing, crazy role to play, but nothing’s locked in yet. We’re still waiting for a screen test so I can’t say too much about that yet. I’d just really love to take on more leading parts. Those parts rewire your image. And it’s not even about being Asian, I’m mixed, but it’s not even about being that. It’s about being able to be on the screen-being that but not making it about that. We’re pretty invisible in media, you don’t really see my type of face around. Unless you’re playing some guy with a small dick jumping out of a car [laughs]. And it’s the same joke and stereotype every time. They don’t know what to do with me sometimes, they want me to play a geek and then they’re like, “Wait, he’s not geeky enough.” Or I’m in line for a big network show and they come back and literally have said to my agent, “He’s too good looking.” When the breakdown for the character has said the character was good looking. But because he’s Asian, he now can’t be good looking. I don’t want to make it about being Asian, I just want to be playing lead parts and playing characters at the same time. There’s an article right now, it’s a letter to Asian Americans, talking about the amount of money Asians spend in America, the wealth they have and how much bigger consumers they are and yet somehow we’re not represented by the faces you see on screen. I don’t really want to be represented as an Asian guy. When I grew up I didn’t have many Asian role models. When I think about it, I’m like, “Who’s the last Asian guy I saw kissing a girl on screen?” And people will bring up “that guy” from Walking Dead, I’m like ok, cool, one guy. How many are in all of cinema and TV? We’re still really far behind and I’d like to evolve that a bit and that was part of my inspiration playing a gay character on Degrassi-I didn’t want to make him gay, he dresses well and he takes care of himself but I just wanted him to be another guy. He was only supposed to be in one episode and somehow it clicked and they kept bringing him back. I added my own ethnic experience and just because he was gay he wasn’t less masculine or less of a man, even though he’s a teenager in high school.
oF: I’m from and live near Chicago, but because of my father’s job I grew up in Japan. That experience and talking to people in the entertainment industry has helped me see so many occasions where a part or a role should be about the character or the story and it’s just not. We should be farther along than we are and it is a little disappointing.
SK: It leads to the way society sees you. Girls will say things to me and I can tell it’s a direct result of what they’ve seen in media.
oF: So when you’re looking at a role and working on what you’re going to do next, is the content the leading factor, or do you look at who you could be working with as more the reason you might pursue something?
SK: It’s a mix of both. I’ve done some terrible movies with people that I loved doing the movie with. And, like I was saying, you have that connection forever. There’s something about spending time on set with people and getting to do that project with them. Then you get a little further along and there’s a battle between business and doing what your heart wants. I’ve turned down several roles because I’m trying to be a businessman and some I’ve just done because I’ve wanted to do them. It’s always a case by case judgement. Your manager might not have the same opinion as you but you really have to listen to yourself. I’ve definitely said no to roles that my team wants me to do because I felt like they were stereotypes. There’s a deliberate resistance in me to be perpetuated in certain things because that’s just what people are always doing. And I think there’s way more to us that just how people see us at that moment. There’s resistance for sure but you sort of have to play their game a little bit. One time I was doing a photo shoot and the guy told me to do a kick, and I do martial arts and stuff, but he didn’t know me and just assumed I was a Kung-Fu guy because I’m Chinese. He said, “Can you do like a kick.” He wanted me to do like a flying kick, so you got to play the game a bit. Instead of doing a flying kick, I was wearing a suit and a bowtie, so I jumped in the air and kicked my leg to one side, but then was adjusting my bowtie and checking the time at the same time. So it wasn’t me being like some Kung-Fu, Hong Kong dude, but I was still doing the kick. I just layered it with something else. You give them what they want, but not quite. There is a level of you needing to still go with the current.
oF: Based on that, is there another actor or filmmaker that helps you keep that mindset? Someone you pay attention to that’s setting an example you’d follow?
SK: For me right now it’s Bruce Lee and Shailene Woodley. Obviously Bruce isn’t alive anymore, but the period he was in and what he did. His assurance in himself and originality is mind boggling actually. If he was around today people would definitely notice him and he’d take it out of martial arts, but also as a martial artist I someone who killed people on screen that brought that much hype. And now men want to kill and be cold and not be moved but with Bruce you could tell in his eyes when he punched that guy that there was so much going on. And I don’t really see that now.
Shailene Woodley is just, she’s a child actor so she’s been in the system for a while, but she’s just very echo conscious and extremely aware and with herself, she doesn’t let media tell her who to be. I’ve noticed trying to play the game in this business media can have an influence on you. She’s a minimalist, she has a few sets of clothes and looks very natural with the products she uses. She hugs people instead of giving them handshakes. She seems like a very evolved human being, not a stereotype of Hollywood at all. I think those are two people who are very much themselves. It’s funny, as an actor you’re trying to be true to yourself but a lot of the time you’re trying not to be yourself. That’s the hardest part, is learning how to inject your voice into the universe, really.
oF: Dark Places is obviously the big thing on everyone’s radar. Beyond that, what else can we look for you in?
SK: There’s a movie with William Shatner, A Christmas Horror Story. It’s an anthology you could say is a twisted tale of the nativity story. It’s based on a town called Baily Downs where something seems to happen every year during Christmas. I’m in high school and I go to investigate a grisly murder that had happened exactly a year ago in the school basement. I’m sort of playing a jock-y character in that one. It’s really funny and each story is directed by a different director so the cinematography, the colors and style of story, they’re all different. So that was interesting to watch. I think with Christmas movies, a lot of them are all happy and fluffy, and when you have marathons with your family during Christmastime you get sick of watching Elf over and over again. This one’ll sort of switch it up.
Otherwise I’m just waiting to hear on that screen-test and this comedy I’ll be playing the lead in. And I’m just back working at the bar, really. People see posts and things and then they see me here and they’re really confused to see me working.
oF: With all the recent press you’ve had to do, is there anything you haven’t had a chance to talk about? Something the fans might want to hear?
SK: I think my fans have been a huge blessing to me and I try as much as I can to give back and be present. It’s tough to know how much gravity you have with fans. I try to be as giving as possible and am very grateful for the support that’s been given to me, because sometimes fans are happier with me than my friends are. We’ll post things, like on Facebook, and your friends might not even comment but the fans are always there. I’m just very grateful for their support and believing in me. They’re really the ones that are pushing me forward.