Actor Terry O'Quinn talked with Illinois Wesleyan students
March 4, 2008
BLOOMINGTON, Ill. – Actor Terry O’Quinn is in an elite circle. Not just because millions of people tune in each week to see him on the hit ABC television series LOST, but because he can call himself that rare honor – a working actor.
“Work. Work when you can, any way you can,” said O’Quinn, sharing his insights on the acting profession to a room full of theatre students at Illinois Wesleyan University on Tuesday. The actor addressed three classes and an open forum Monday and Tuesday before returning to Hawaii to resume filming of the television show.
O’Quinn is the older brother of Illinois Wesleyan’s Visiting Assistant Professor of Theatre Arts Thomas Quinn, and offered to speak to his brother’s theatre classes during a visit. “His wife’s family lives on the East Coast, so he’s flying back and forth all the time,” said Quinn. “The trick was just getting him to land.”
Sitting in a circle with nearly two dozen students in the E. Melba Johnson Kirkpatrick Laboratory Theatre, O’Quinn fielded questions and gave honest answers about everything from entering the acting profession, to working for television verses theatre, and being recognized.
“You know you are getting more famous when people say your name or even your character, ‘Are you Terry O’Quinn?’ or ‘Are you John Locke?’” said O’Quinn, who had to change his name because another actor already has his name, Terrance Quinn, registered with Actors Equity. “I used to get people coming up to me and saying, ‘You look familiar. Do you shop at Wal Mart?’” For O’Quinn, the recognition is not the reward of acting. “Really, I think of fame as distracting, it’s something you have to get around,” he said.
Every actor looks at working on a hit show with a wary eye, said O’Quinn. “I’ve been acting for more than 30 years and this has never happened to me. And it will not happen again, I can almost guarantee it,” he said, though he joked he and fellow LOST actor Michael Emerson, who plays Ben Linus – the nemesis of O’Quinn’s character – could always spin off a show. “We could be detectives and solve really creepy crimes,” he said, alluding to the suggested supernatural elements of LOST.
A theatre actor for more than a decade before he started taking roles in television and film, O’Quinn said he loves the intimacy and immediacy of the stage. “Working in television can be fun, but theatre is so colorful and alive, with the audience reacting right there,” he said. “In theatre, you have one shot to get it right, that performance, that night.”
Stage actors can make great transitions to working in front of the camera because they understand that immediacy, said O’Quinn. “In television, hundreds of people set up a shot, you are pulled in and the director says go. Then, of course, you do the scene eight different times for camera angles. The benefit of stage training is that you are ready to go each time. There are a few actors who might think that film means you are more free to make mistakes, but mistakes just waste the time of hundreds of people.”
O’Quinn advised students to go into acting with full dedication. “Acting has to be your only alternative. You can’t go into it and have a fall-back profession waiting. If you only try halfway, you are going to fail,” he said, noting auditions have to be the same way. “If you are jumping from one building to the next, do not slow down before you jump. Jump. Jump hard.”
Along with dedication, actors also need to be practical, according to O’Quinn. “We talk about making it, but what is that? Getting the cover of TV Guide?” he said. “Most actors judge success on whether or not they can make a living.” He told students to take acting jobs as often as they could. “Make sure you are working, then you can talk about aesthetics and the dynamics of a scene. You have to eat if you are going to get to rehearsal.”
O’Quinn considers himself lucky, getting breaks in an industry that can be brutal. The best thing an actor can do is to be ready for those breaks, he said. “You have to be persistent and keep acting. Then you will have those muscles ready for when the door opens for you.” O’Quinn also advised students it was all right to have fun, but to stay healthy. “These are our tools – our bodies, our minds, our brains. If you abuse those too much, you can lose out when the time comes for your break.”
Along with keeping in shape, maintaining a professional demeanor is key to success for an actor, said O’Quinn. “Over the years, I’ve seen actors approach characters from different ways. They may say, ‘My character doesn’t like your character, so I can’t like you.’ Or they might remain in character all day. Now that doesn’t work for me, but you have to respect what someone needs to make it work,” said O’ Quinn, who noted he always takes on supporting roles as being just that – a way to support the cast. “My role in the TV show Alias was that of a guy who gave the audience information,” O’Quinn said of his part as Assistant CIA Director Kendall. “My aim was to be prepared, to go in and give the other actors a feeling of confidence. That gains you respect and you’re considered a professional.” Alias was produced by J.J. Abrams, who asked O’Quinn to join his upcoming show LOST without an audition. “There is a saying that Emmys and Oscars don’t get you jobs. It’s what you do to get the awards that gets you the next job, ” said O’Quinn.
Unlike the many fans of LOST, O’Quinn says he doesn’t have any theories about the ongoing mysteries of the show. “I don’t know what will happen, and I try not to guess because it may color what I do with the character,” said O’Quinn. “There’s a great freedom in not knowing what will happen. My character John Locke doesn’t know, and neither do I.”
Contact: Rachel Hatch (309) 556-3960