The Blacklist’s Kelly AuCoin Talks Career, Movies & Music
In the last few episodes of The Blacklist Season 3, we were introduced to Energy Consortium Group executive Benjamin Stalder (Kelly AuCoin). Despite him insisting he knows nothing of Elizabeth Keen: “The fugitive? Only what I hear on the news… Whatever happened to her anyway?” However, it didn’t take long for him to be exposed in the quest to find Liz.
Kelly AuCoin may have only three episodes of The Blacklist under his belt, and we definitely hope to see him around more, especially with the spin-off coming in 2017, The Blacklist: Redemption. To try and find out more about his future on the show, his many other projects and his taste in music, our resident writer Paula Courtney had a chance to sit down with Kelly and ask him about all of the above!
Kelly AuCoin on Movies, Acting & Music
PC: You first appeared on TV in one of your father’s campaign commercials, did this give you a taste for acting? If not, was there a defining moment when you knew you wanted to be an actor?
KA: That was my first on-screen appearance but I was in college already and I’d already declared to the world that I wanted to be an actor. I caught the bug. I come from a performing family; my grandfather played the mandolin. He played a lot of old timey stuff in our restaurant which was kind of an old fashioned saloon. He would always play there with a bluegrass band he was part of. Also my Mom was a singer, she was wonderful and then my dad was a politician so there was a certain amount of acting and performance in that. I think I was doomed from the get-go, but the first spark, the first beam of a light bulb above my head was 4th grade. I was in a play the school chorus teacher had written, called ‘The Trial of Mother Goose’. I was Old King Cole and I was leading the denizens of fairy tale land in a lawsuit against Mother Goose for defamation of character. We sang all our little numbers and at some point I did something that was maybe slightly off track and the audience laughed. I remember just thinking, ‘oh my god! Fantastic!’ and I think I kind of wanted to be an actor since that moment on stage.
PC: Thinking back to the first five years as an actor how do you think you have grown?
KA: I think I’m calmer, more comfortable in my own skin and that translates through my performances I think. At least, I hope so?
PC: It does!
KA: I think there’s a level of calm. I mean I always, every actor does I think, freak out about unemployment in the future. There’s always some point in every rehearsal process where I’m convinced that I’m going to be found out as a fraud, but those moments are fewer and fewer. The other thing is I think I have a wonderful network of supportive friends in the business. I’ve worked with and collected wonderful souls along the way. Especially if you go out of town, you have this readymade family for one to three months. It behooves people to get along and usually you do and every once in awhile you meet people who stick with you for life and become lifelong friends.
PC: When you have a five minute break on set, what does a typical actor do, apart from go on Twitter?
KA: Well, it depends on the project, it depends on the day, and on how much sleep you’ve had. Also, how hard your day has been. Sometimes you’re just there, you know immediately what’s exactly right for the scene. It’s best for me to keep loose and be joking with people, depending on the nature of the scene we are about to shoot, I can almost carry over. It’s almost like you improv at the beginning, and then when you start the dialogue, the scene is already underway because you’re acting with your scene partner. Other times maybe if it’s for something more emotional it does help me to go off on my own to concentrate and focus.
PC: You’re in a few films coming out this year, with Alec Baldwin and one with Robert De Niro, is that correct?
KA: Yeah I was in a movie called ‘Drunk Parents’ with Alec Baldwin and Salma Hayek. It was the first sort of all out comedy I’ve been able to shoot, so that was fun. The HBO mini-series ‘Wizard of Lies’ which is a Barry Levinson movie about Bernie Madoff, and Robert De Niro plays Madoff.
PC: Are they being released this year?
KA: Yes, they should be. I don’t have the dates myself, but they should be. I hope they come out soon. I did them a while ago now.
PC: How does it compare being on set on a film as opposed to a TV role? What’s the difference with regards to rehearsals and time spent being on set?
KA: TV moves faster, it has to. But, it also depends on the budget of the movie. When I shot ‘The Kingdom’ years ago, the biggest budget movie I think I had a role on, it felt like we had all the time in the world. Part of that was because the director was so great at capturing so many angles at once, running three cameras at once most of the time, so we actually finished ahead of time. It felt like we could take all the time in the world. In TV you get two weeks at the most to shoot an episode and you have to get it.
PC: So is it longer hours on a TV series? Would you be on set longer for a TV series in any given day compared to a movie?
KA: I think more likely that you will be on set longer, and at the end of any shoot schedule you’re going to have longer days or more likely to have longer days just because things get backed up or you lose days because of weather or illness or something like that.
Drunk Parents ended up, in some ways, being a lot more like my experiences on TV, in the sense that we had very little time to get the shots they wanted. I didn’t know any of this until I arrived on set, but that morning they had lost both the venues where I was supposed to shoot. One was in a parking garage and the other was some sort of restaurant or diner. In any case, BOTH of them pulled out so they were scrambling to find replacements. They found a coffee shop that was willing to shut down for a couple of hours (I assume he was paid handsomely) and we shot the scene in a very limited amount of time. It was kind of a blast.
PC: So you’ve recently been cast in The Blacklist as Benjamin Stalder, what was the audition process? How did you come to get that role?
KA: I actually didn’t audition for it. I was fortunate enough to be offered the role and it was great! I’m guessing that they knew the other two shows and saw my reel and there were definitely things on the reel that fit at least the basic idea of what they wanted Stalder to be, I’m lucky they saw something they liked.
PC: Did the writers give you much information about the character or were you able to bring some of yourself to the role?
KA: It’s was all on the page you know, I knew who he was, I knew where he worked, I knew what his profession was, then it was just a matter of playing with the actors in the scene. The main scene was the interrogation scene. The first day on the set actually was when Nez Rowan played by Tawny Cypress, was beating the s**t out of me, which was a blast! I actually know her, we spent a few days on Elementary together, and we got along very well so it was nice to see her again.
PC: Are we going to see you in more episodes or are you going to be in the spin off, ‘Redemption’?
KA: I don’t know anything.
PC: “I know nothing”?
KA: “I know nothing”. In my final scene in the season finale when I discovered who the actor was playing my boss Alexander Kirk, and I got to act with him, I was thrilled that it was Ulrich Thomsen. He was the star of a movie called ‘The Celebration’, which was one of my favourite movies. It came out 15-20 years ago. I love that movie and I thought his performance was extraordinary. I’ve always remembered that performance so getting to act with him was a thrill.
PC: Did you get to tell him that?
KA: I did, while I was shooting with him I was like, ‘why is he so familiar?’ We became Facebook friends and I looked him up on IMDB once I got home, I nearly jumped out of my chair. I messaged him and he was like “oh thanks”. He was very, very modest. That was a wonderful thing. I knew Amir Arison before as well. He and I did a play together at the La Jolla Playhouse 4 or 5 years ago now and I had a great time with him.
PC: He is a really nice guy isn’t he?
KA: Yeah he’s a sweetheart.
PC: Did you hang out with Amir Arison when you were on The Blacklist set or did you not have time for that?
KA: No there isn’t generally, I mean on The Blacklist set I didn’t have any scenes with Amir, but I always seemed to be shooting right after he was shooting his scenes talking about me, looking at my picture. So I was always prepping for my next scene, watching him on set, talking about me and we’d be like “whattt”.
PC: With music being such a big part of the way the writers tell the story for The Blacklist, I always ask the cast I chat with about their personal music memories and what they like to listen too. What was the first record that you remember caught your attention?
KA: The first single I ever bought was “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)” by The Jacksons. I bought the 45. Then, I suppose, slightly more embarrassingly, the second one was “When You’re In Love With A Beautiful Woman” by Dr Hook. Dr Hook had apparently decided he needed to drop “The Medicine Show” and start a solo career. It wasn’t the coolest follow up purchase, I know. But it has the benefit of being obscure!
When I was growing up, Sundays were the one day we knew for sure that Dad was going to be home. And pretty much every Sunday morning I would wake up and one of three albums would be playing in the living room; Harry Belafonte Live at Carnegie Hall; Frank Sinatra, A Man and His Music, and Ella Fitzgerald – Ella Sings Gershwin. It was almost always one of those three. And I loved that stuff. It still feels like home to me. In a way that’s your musical foundation, isn’t it? The music your parents play. Then it’s a matter of rebelling against it or embracing it or some combination of the two.
PC: Yes, I think as you get older you tend to kind of go back to the music your parents were playing, at the time when you are younger you think oh God what are they listening to, lots of people have said this to me.
KA: Harry Belafonte has stayed with me for my whole life, in fact they all did, but he’s always been a particular favorite of mine. I got to see him in concert twice; he was great, just an amazing singer and performer, and, oh my god, what a great man he is. Music aside.
When I was in Junior high I started listening to more music from outside the confines of the house, and I started developing my own taste. Friends were bringing in all this stuff to school that I’d never heard of, and they’d all play their cassettes on their boom boxes during recess. All across the playground there were all these little islands of kids, sitting around someone’s box, playing different stuff. Like little fiefdoms…
At the same time, every weekend my friend, Steve Twelker, and I would listen to Casey Kasem on The American Top 40 countdown and we’d track the movement of the songs. We would call each other ahead of time and try to guess what’s going to be number 1 or what’s going to drop, and we would place friendly bets. Then we’d call in the middle of the countdown and be like “oh I can’t believe this guy is in the top 10!”
I really didn’t buy albums early on, just singles.
Bruce Springsteen… I remember in Gym class in junior high our teacher, Mr. Carew, was playing The River album. “Hungry Heart” came on and I was like “Who. Is. This?” It was one of the first times I felt like I discovered music that didn’t find from the radio or from my parents, that was big. It felt like my own. I still love Springsteen. Just saw him in concert, actually.
PC: Was It the River Tour you saw or the one before that?
KA: Yes, it was The River Tour, and it was really good. And it was the first time my wife has seen him live. She’s liked him well enough. She had always liked “I’m On Fire,” and at Oberlin I introduced her to “Wild Bill’s Circus Story”, which she really liked. But, during the show she turned to me and said, “Okay, now I get it”.
PC: I have been to lots of concerts but when I recently saw Springsteen in Glasgow, he still just blew us all away. For me, sometimes concerts at Wembley Stadium (London) have the most amazing props, costume and set changes but Springsteen, he doesn’t do any of that, he doesn’t change his clothes, doesn’t change his props. He just sings, and he is full of energy.
KA: It is amazing what he does. And you know, with him, there were so many albums that dropped at very specific, important stages of my life. I kind of grew up with him.
PC: So who else have you liked on a par with Springsteen?
KA: Oh well, Prince! I was actually chuckling when you called me, because here we were, about to talk about music, and my ringtone is this little clip of “Housequake.” So when anyone calls me my phone shouts “Shut up already. Damn!”
I’d say there’s probably no other artist that meant more to me in my formative years, in High school, than Prince. There was just something subversive about him, like some forbidden thing he was hinting at, you know? Something slightly dangerous. It was irresistible. And, of course, the music is brilliant.
It seemed like there were two camps, the Prince camp and the Michael Jackson camp. It always sort of felt to me like the Stones vs Beatles debate our parents might’ve argued. I was never a huge Michael Jackson fan (but I recently saw a terrific documentary on him) but I knew he was obviously really talented, and plenty of people who know a lot more about music than I do say he was a genius. I get it and nothing against him, but his music never really SENT me anywhere (Shake Your Body aside). Prince was always my guy.
PC: I think a lot of people jumped on the bandwagon when Prince died; everybody was all about him again.
KA: It’s probably partly because of the way he controlled his music, that a lot of younger people didn’t really understand how great he was, you know?
I came to other artists later than I should have. My wife has always been a gigantic Bowie fan. I liked him, but I had some history with him. My first girlfriend in college was a Bowie fanatic, and after she broke up with me, and for a long time afterwards I kind of equated him with BAD BREAK UP. When I started dating the lovely woman who eventually became my wife, and I learned that she was also a Bowie fan, I chose to ignore that red flag. And thank god I did! Turned out she was awesome and so was Bowie! Win-win! Years later she took me to his 50th anniversary concert in Madison Square Garden. Great show. Bob Dylan was another artist I came to later. I’d always appreciated him but when he came out with Time Out of Mind I became obsessed. What a great album. Then my interest grew and I listened to more of his back catalogue and the bootlegs. My buddy, Dave who’s an obsessive. He probably contributed to my Dylan-awakening.
PC: I’m not sure what his voice is like live nowadays, I’ve spoken to a few people who said his voice like a lot of older artists is not what it once was, but I’d still like to see him.
KA: There’s a great podcast called ‘Sound Opinions’ where these two guys talk about all kinds of music. My favourite episodes are the “Classic Album Dissections.” They had great episodes after Bowie, Prince, and Lou Reed passed, and recently they’ve had two Bob Dylan 75th anniversary episodes. Just really good stuff.
Another favorite on my list is Tom Waits. He’s incredible. And he’s such a showman. So wonderfully weird and “Other.” A terrific actor, too. As a performer, at times, he’s almost verging into performance art. I love that crazy, weird, bastard, haha. Mule Variations is a fantastic album. Rain Dogs… So much terrific stuff to choose from. Closing Time is great, one of my absolute favourites; there are four or five songs on there that I absolutely f-ing LOVE; that I’m happy to listen to any time.
PC: Can you tell me one of them?
KA: “I Hope I Don’t Fall in Love”, “Martha”, “Old 55” and “Virginia Avenue.”
PC: Have you seen anyone live in concert lately?
KA: I saw a band called Mother Feather. Newer and SO good. They’ve got this kind of twisted, glam rock persona… The two lead women are ferocious. Just a great band. Everyone should check out their videos.
I recently saw the terrific band, Gangstagrass, this bluegrass/ rap hybrid that wrote and sang the title song to the TV show ‘Justified.’ Great music, and it was a great concert. I actually posted a couple of videos on my Facebook page.
PC: Whose is the best concert you have ever seen?
KA: I can’t choose a best concert. The Bowie concert was great, the Purple Rain show was great. Although, in retrospect, I remember thinking the Prince concert was fantastic but was a little staid. A little over choreographed I’ve heard that later Prince concert’s had a looseness to them, to the music. That they were more spontaneous. This show didn’t quite have that although it was still brilliant.
But often times I’ve been more blown away by these random smaller shows where you can have the thrill of discovery and the feeling of camaraderie that you can’t get at larger shows. ; It’s just a different kind of energy. There’s a great book that talks about this; “Your Band Sucks” by Jon Fine. It’s a memoir about this indie punk band, Bitch Magnet, that achieved some notoriety in the late 80s and early 90s. Fine writes a lot about those types of shows, and how the overwhelming need to perform outweighs the knowledge that they will never be rock stars. It just doesn’t f-ing matter. They still play. You can feel that energy in smaller shows. That creates the possibility of magic.
PC: Certain songs you just have to absolutely play at full volume, which song must you crank up?
KA: “Wake up” by Arcade Fire. “Heroes” by Bowie (my all time favourite Bowie song), “Layla” another one of my favourites, particularly around college and for the next 5 years, or so.
“Dry The Rain” by Beta Band might be the greatest play it loud song of all time. It would be a crime to listen to “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane at anything less than full volume. Grace Slick Hollering out “FEED YOUR HEEEEEEEAD!” needs to be HEARD.
PC: Are you one to get up on the dance floor? Do you have a signature dance move? Does your dancer wife appreciate your moves?
KA: My dancing has changed over the years, as I’ve got older and my knees have failed me, but I have always loved dancing.
PC: That’s good because most guys are like “no I don’t dance or only if I’m drunk”.
KA: My wife has told me that one of the things she appreciated about me early on was that I could keep up with her on the dance floor. AND that I didn’t try to keep her from dancing with whomever she pleased. At Oberlin, early on, when I was first poking around, showing interest in her, people called her the “Queen of the disco” (the place where everyone danced was called the Dionysus but for some reason they called it the DISCO, and shortened it to The SCO. So EVERYONE was telling me: “Man, she is queen of the sco, so, you know, you got to bring you’re A game.” I tried my best.
PC: Did you already have an A game or did you have to quickly develop one?
KA: I will admit I was a good dancer back in the day, but as I can’t really move down into the bent knee position so well anymore without hurting my knees, I tend to, while I’m grooving along, sort of act shit out. I always did this to a certain extent, but I do it more now, out of necessity. My wife usually finds it amusing. But I do tend to get pretty… involved. There was one wedding we went to where people didn’t know me that well and she was like “okay, tone it down a little..” but, yeah, I love that, it’s fun.
PC: So this year I began Classical Piano Lessons do you play an instrument?
KA: I doodle around on the guitar. I can only play three fingered chords. I’m not by any stretch what you would call “good.”
PC: Can you read music?
PC: Would you like to be able to master an instrument?
KA: I inherited my Grandfathers mandolin. He was wonderful and I should really learn to play it. I learned one song on when I was doing Julius Caesar on Broadway. William (Bill) Sadler, a wonderful actor, was playing Caeser, my uncle (I was Octavius). Bill’s a terrific musician, you should really get him on here to talk about music. I’m just babbling nonsense. Bill knows his shit.
PC: Oh funnily enough, I am going to be interviewing him.
KA: Oh great! He’s a wonderful musician; there is some footage of him playing on YouTube. He found out I had a mandolin that I didn’t play and told me to bring it to the theater. He took it home one weekend and cleaned it up, polished it, and found out some information about the maker. It’s a Martin, and I now know what year it was made, how many were produced that year, the approximate value of the instrument… AND then he taught me to play “I saw the light.”
PC: Can you tell me which three styles of music or three pieces you’re drawn too?
KA: I always have a hard time picking genres, but I will tell you the artists I might put into a Pandora feed for example. I like M. Ward. I love that stuff, and Calexico and Iron & Wine. They would be the feed artists I would put in. I have a Serge Gainsbourough station that I kind of adore. I’ve got a Miles Davis station, and a Solo Cello station.
I think Kind of Blue by Miles Davis might be the most perfect album ever made. I can never get enough of it. When I’m needing to un-frazzle, whether it’s on the subway or wherever, I put on the headphones and play ‘Kind of Blue.’ I’ve probably heard that album more than any other.
It’s hard to pick just three you know.
PC: It really depends on what your mood is what your feels are on a particular day doesn’t it?
KA: Yeah. Brian Eno had a period where he was creating this really atmospheric, quiet minimalistic music that I often listen to, to relax or meditate. That kind of thing is really important in New York, where everything is so jangly and aggressive. ‘Thursday Afternoon’ was the name of one of the albums and ‘Ambient/1 Music for Airports’. Don’t know how he came up with that title.
PC: Yeah, if I saw that title on a playlist I would probably skip that one.
KA: Right? I’d have assumed it was some variation of elevator music, as we used to call it. Do people still use that term? Neroli is another Eno album of that kind of stuff.
PC: You just answered my next question which was which album soothes your troubled mind or heart or in your case what you meditate to.
KA: Yeah Kind of Blue would definitely be up there. Of course it depends on my mood, and it’s changing over the years, it used to be really helpful to sort of double down on the sadness, you know? Revel in the sad stuff to help speed along the catharsis.
PC: You get to your lowest point then build yourself back up.
KA: Yeah, I think a lot of times I’d find that cool sort of jazz very soothing, very helpful when I’m down. I usually pick music that fits my mood, you know? I come home after a show, its dark out, I have this image, and I want to listen to Sketches of Spain (Miles Davis) and pour myself a whisky.
PC: Which song would you like to be played at your own funeral?
KA: My thinking off the top of my head was “Heroes.” But, I think I’d want to leave that up to the people left behind. If my wife was left behind, I would like her to choose something that reminded her of me, reminded her of us. For me ”Heroes” kind of does that. We have been together for nearly 25 years, so that captures, in a somewhat adolescent way I suppose, that feeling the song conjures up. Us against the world, that desperate longing, it feels in a way like growing up, and she and I definitely grew up together.
We are very different people from who we were back then. We have both grown and have changed, and yet we’ve been lucky enough to do so together. That feels incredibly romantic to me. And somewhat unlikely. So I guess I’d pick that song, and she’d know why. I don’t know if anyone else would understand but she would.
PC: Before we say goodbye, there are a few final questions I like to close with. The first one being, can you describe your perfect day?
KA: I would be with my wife, we would at the beach, and it would be 80 degrees not a hint of humidity, sitting on a porch with both of us reading a newspaper or a book, with no Wi-Fi or cell reception anywhere. That would be my perfect day.
PC: And for dinner?
KA: We would have seafood since we would be near the ocean, cold beer, and the sound of the ocean.
PC: I cannot possibly live without….
KA: My wife, she is my absolute best friend.
To read the interview in its entirety, you can find it, and many more great interviews on Paula’s own Absolute Music Chat website. You can follow Kelly AuCoin on Twitter, and currently find him on FX’s The Americans as Pastor Tim and Showtime’s Billions as Dollar Bill.