2014 Best Leading Actor in a Play Nominee Interview: Marc St. Pierre as John Merrick in Salem Theatre Company's "The Elephant Man"

Before we announce the winners of the 2014 ArtsImpulse Theatre Awards, we are proud to present our Nominee Interviews. 

NOTE: If you or your production was nominated for a 2014 ArtsImpulse Theatre Award, and you would like to participate in a Nominee Interview, please email us here.

We all have those special roles, and Marc St. Pierre found one of his and made a terrific showing of it. Using his yoga training and his MFA in Acting, Marc delivered a transformative performance as John Merrick (The Elephant Man) in Salem Theatre Company's The Elephant Man.  In his Interview, John discusses his role and preparation, his challenges in this role and other roles, his Netflix queue, and his favorite childhood memory.

Photo by Jorgen Konrad

Photo by Jorgen Konrad

Marc, can you introduce yourself and tell us a little about yourself?

Surely, first, after this winter, I feel foolish telling you I returned to live in this area having left the enchanting island of Maui, my lovely home for 7 years. Gloucester is my current "island home." My parents live in Salem, they are wonderful, and I'd been gone too long. So here I am, here we are, all of us, after a record breaking winter... our minds still somewhat intact?

So Salem is where my body grew and I resided there until I left for grad school in California. Los Angeles turned out to be "spiritual boot camp," and that's where the rest of me grew up, having to rise to meet some hefty challenges. Like most of us,  I would have to navigate some detours between here and there. 

A Salem State University (then college) boy, I am fortunate and delighted to teach there now, finally employing the degree I received from UCLA:  an MFA in Acting.

Weirdly enough though, yoga, is ultimately the reason why I've been invited to this interview. The yoga practice that I have was key to managing  the physical requirements to play John Merrick.  No typical yoga brandings per say, and I do like a good filet mignon and confess a swear word is fine when the situation demands. The Yoga helped my body cope with the role's physical demands. A snow cancellation also helped, though I missed him that night.

It is quite a delight to be among such skillful  nominees, as I have only returned back to my love for acting in the past 4 years, and since I am relatively unknown to the Boston Theater scene, the nomination  is a kick!

Who was your character in The Elephant Man?  Can you describe the story?  Why do you think that this is an important story to tell? 

John Merrick was the role. He is the "Elephant Man.: Fascinating to me,  I had seen the opening scene from The Elephant Man at a theater conference that I had attended when I was quite young. I remember saying to myself, after having been astonished by the actor's transformation from a "normal man," into Merrick's contorted body, "I must do this one day!" It was a thrill for it to have become true.

The Elephant Man really belongs to Doctor Treves.  Merrick becomes his experiment, and eventually his mirror, making Treves examine his own life's choices or lack thereof.  The relevance of play takes shape with Pommerance's  depiction of how society loves a "story" some temporary attraction onto which it projects it's ideals and imaginings, both as a whole, and with it's individuals. Perhaps it's about the blinding narcissism of society and the suffering it causes.

Merrick, in this instance, becomes the mirror for the times, what society desires his presence to mean, and how the meaning reflects back to that society's ideals, it's self-inflated goodness and such. Only Treves questions it's fickleness, absurdity, and the lack of consciousness that leads to the destruction within each of society's levels from the poor to the wealthy.

Merrick survives.  That is what he does. He does so living in his faith and in humility, until he passes. Treves, though, nearly ends in despair, having awakened to the horrible disfigurement of his soul, mutilated by the society that surrounds him.

Sounds glum huh . . . Yet I do think it is actually quite up-lifting. Treves awakening, the examination of his life through Merrick's  is the beginning of his liberation. However bewildered he may feel, he has seen his entanglement.

Have you seen the Broadway production yet?  Do you like to watch other performers play roles that you are going to play or have played?  Why or why not?

Bradley Cooper is always copying me. (Yet, actually, soon though, I will be copying him soon playing a war veteran. Different war, but . . . next, his salary please!)

I haven't seen the recent revival that he did. I am thinking I would've needed a week or two more to look as good as he may have in his diaper-cloth. (One of Merrick's costumes) but he is more than competent. I did respect and enjoy his work in Silver Linings.

Strong feelings aren't something I have either way about seeing or not seeing another's performance. Yet, I should confess that I feel possessive of Merrick so, maybe I do! Merrick is a very special role to play. How many actors get to do that role? Many actors, I imagine, have unique relationships with any character they "get to inhabit," so seeing someone else do it, while informative, feels like a bit of infidelity. Wow, this is like therapy, who knew?

What was the biggest challenge of this role?  What was the biggest joy?

The biggest challenge with Merrick was delving into what (I imagined) he felt, which was terror, terror for his survival, helplessness, and incredibly deep loneliness. Merrick breaks your heart, there is so much beauty within his tortured form.

Another challenging part of portraying Merrick, was confronting my past. Shortly after having gotten my masters, booking my first film audition and becoming a member of SAG, I had to quit my acting career. Like that, boom over. Passion, money, time, dreams, all that investment . . . no.   That was depressing. An illness literally "popped up" due to an auto-immune condition that arose,that was the cause for a difficult and unexpected detour. I was 28. More than 10 years ago! Haha.

The condition haunted me for too long. Like Merrick, it disfigured my face and body with edema, the episodes were unpredictable yet fortunately not permanent, but  regardless, no more acting.

That all said, being cast as Merrick, was profound in a way. I could feel it.  Having gotten the role, I became a bit apprehensive that I might trigger some trauma patterns from those very difficult times with the illness.  I had a talk, a few talks with myself as I entered Merricks terror for his own survival.  In the last, I'd felt similalry. Luckily, the process was wonderful and thanks the director and cast for that, and no past demons made their way to the present. 

The joys . . . now there were many, this nomination being one for certain. Some others, working with director John Fogle who trusted me to deliver the role. It was a gentle and easy process. I thank home for that.  And now, like all who get to work with the lovely and talented Linda Goetz (Mrs. Kendall), I am  now under her spell. I adore her. All the  actors involved were lovely, and incredibly inclusive, and supportive. 

Playing Merrick was a wonderful opportunity to play more of my range. Going there- into his fear, terror, and loneliness, his deep love for Mrs Kendall and his frustration  with Treves and his spiritual depth.  My past experiences seemed to have served the role and helped me too- to move some ghosts from the past. Merricks story is much more challenging than mine could ever be. His endurance and, though I am not religious in the way Merrick was, his  faith is to be respected. All these qualities serve as inspiration for anyone. 

Tell us about one of your favorite other roles.  Why was it one of your favorite?  What would you do differently now? 

Gosh! There are several for sure, luckily. Two years ago maybe . . . I loved playing Max in Becky Shaw. He was so manipulative and in control and obviously so terrified of being abandoned, being found out. His mind was fun to dabble in. He is really a very lost and frightened man with an incredible suit of armor. Deliciousness.

What to do differently?

Have more time to go deeper into him- Fun fun part. Max is a interesting combo of warrior/ king/boy. Very sharp writing by Gionfriddo great for all the actors. 

If you were going to watch something on Netflix, what would you choose to watch?  

Hollywood flicks, not so much, another Spiderman? Yawn. CGI, gals next Star Wars has hand-built models. I liked a film titled Poetry, Vietnamese or Korean film - forgive me. Films that helps me get caught up in,  not predictable. Something with humanity and compelling characters. And with that said, who doesn't binge watch - like House of Cards - and No way! (Spoiler ALERT!) No way would Dunbar not have had the journal in her hands first. Naughty writers.

What plays or stories resonate with you?  What about The Elephant Man inspired you?

Anyone who could be dealt the hand Merrick was dealt and still manage to  be gentle and compassionate, is an inspiration. His faith, his cunning to survive, more, his will to survive - even in his condition. Completely tough, a survivor and yet then, to build his church model, completely observant, patient, and skillful. Amazing man. It is delightful to know that his quality of life improved instead of what could have  happened.  He was a lefty, I am as well, so a little bonding there.

How do you see the Boston theatre scene changing in the next few years?  Do you have any hopes or dreams? 

To be honest, I am so new to it. I do very much like the people I have met so far. Being nominated is a lovely "green light" for me to do more. Getting to meet and work with highly skilled artists is a great privilege and joy. That is where I like to be. I hope for more and will work for more. I love that there is a good amount going on in the area, and it would be wonderful to have a another resident company- high caliber with ballsy - thought provoking, heart blasting choices!

It seems that intimate houses are likely to do best. In the direction that society is going, with most social interfacing happening on line and texting, the need for real community, I hope, will increase. Gathering, coming together as a society to share and watch and relate, in a room together with living human beings, storytelling, it is essential for our wellness.  It is tribal. Real breathing actors, great plays to make great theatre are needed. Theater provides catharsis, whether we get it through comedy or tragedy, the process of real release and connection, this is much needed in these times.

What is one of your favorite childhood memories?  Why? 

Summertime. Playing outdoors. There was an eternalness, a deep sense of ease and freedom when it was summer. That is how I feel on stage now. That is wonderful..like sitting in the plane and no one can call you!  Just what's in front of you...pure. Summertime- These were times of expansion and adventure and abandon. Even just the smells of the life, like rain after a late summer squall, ice cream shops, and the sea. Colors of the sky, being held in the warm air of a summer night. Joy. Say, can you tell it's been a long winter? 

Do you have anything else that you would like to share with our ArtsImpulse readers?

Keep going to the Theater, post and share good and great shows! Take part in the community however you may.  The arts are essential part of our spirit as individuals and as a collective. Art has these values and can bring about important social dialogues to create a more enlightened society. Thank you for reading.