Acting Up – A Profile on Actor, Writer & Director Jim Parrack

jimparrack.jpg - 12.66 KbIn a city like Los Angeles, you only need to pay attention to the way people drive, and it’s clear that many of us are not present during critical, everyday events.

We have limited space in big cities where we are constantly required to be in the presence of one another, yet, often times, we don’t know how to just be with one another. And with Skype, text messaging, Facebook and Twitter taking the place of real, face-to-face interaction, true connection and affinity have becoming somewhat of a lost art form. And it’s because of this that true art forms and vehicles for self-expression are so crucial to our world in 2013.

One man who is not only committed to keeping these vehicles available to anyone willing to take them on, but also committed to keeping the art forms themselves honest is actor/director Jim Parrack. “I believe that acting, when it’s a truthful expression about what in God’s name it means to be a human being on this planet, is extremely valuable,” he says. “And there are other approaches to acting that are clever or manipulative for the audience’s sake, but when I look around, I don’t see a world that needs more manipulation and self-concern. I see a world full of people who, when they come in contact with the human dilemma being expressed through other human beings, something inside them wakes up.”

Yes, something indeed wakes up. I became conscious to the power of this expression during Jim’s captivating performance in the Playhouse West production of Burn This. A play by Lanford Wilson, Burn This tells the story of the unlikely romance between the ultra-macho and emotionally-stifled Pale, played by Jim, and Anna- a sensitive dancer and choreographer- following the death of Robbie, Pale’s gay brother and Anna’s dance partner. “I think it would be a half-hearted thing to treat Pale’s dilemma like he’s some third party. There is no Pale, there’s only me. So you might call it an approach to acting that involves being really personal rather than being super skillful and relying on your acting ability. For me, I rely on my humanity.”

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Left to right, Jim Parrack, James Franco

And it’s this kind of organic performance that moves us as viewers to evaluate the roles we play in one another’s lives, and to become present to the impact. Jim has been present to the impact his life has out in the world for some time. And for the past 10 years, he’s brought his life experiences to the table, conquering television with a five-year run as Hoyt Fortenberry on the HBO mega-hit series True Blood, as well as roles in upcoming independent films As I Lay Dying, the screen adaptation of William Faulkner’s 1930 literary classic, premiering at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and Child of God– both directed by James Franco. And not only is he at the top of his game, gifting us with top-quality performances on stage and in front of the camera, but he’s also making waves in the industry as a director, finishing his second feature film this June.

You might say he’s a little busy, but even with so much on his plate, and with so many different people and projects needing his attention, Jim is still fully present during our interview, and more passionate then ever.

120 and Nothing Less

It’s no coincidence that Jim chose to name his production company 120 Productions being that he gives 120% to everything he does. Incorporated in 2007, 120 Productions is embarking on a very big year with his second feature film on the horizon. And with no interest in judging himself or the success of his company against any other entity, he’s free to create exactly what he wants without confines. “The spirit of our company is to be personal, human and expressive, and not to limit ourselves with convention, or by being fiscal people,” he comments. “We’re looking to take the creative person and give them an opportunity to make movies that add up to a movement; we’re not in it to become moguls.”

Jim first started his own movement back in 2011 during the making of his first feature film Post, staring his wife Ciera Parrack. The story of a dancer in peril after being forced to face some crucial truths about her life, Post was a direct expression of Jim’s principles, and his love of filmmaking. “Post was the perfect situation because when you put up your own money, you can put up your own values and not mess with other people’s values if you don’t want too,” he says. “And that movie was probably as personal a thing I will ever do, and I used it as an exercise.” And with the knowledge and experience from that exercise fully present for Jim, he’s now currently in the process of directing his second feature Black Curry. “One of our teachers at Playhouse West had to move to the Philadelphia area for family reasons, and he started a school out there,” Jim comments. “I went to talk to the school last October and was expecting to find hobbyist because it’s off-market from where people flock to devote themselves to acting. But I didn’t find hobbyist, I found the most interesting, capable, inspirational, beautiful group of actors I think I’ve ever encountered.”

On the plane ride home, Jim came up with an idea surrounding this community of actors and began writing the script. And with his own money, and a team behind him that includes the likes of an Oscar-winning actress, he’ll be producing and directing Black Curry, returning to Philadelphia to finish shooting the film in June after the seasons change. “I’m putting my values to the test with Black Curry the same way I did with Post,’ he says. “And I’ve learned that the most important thing someone can do when they’re going to make a movie is to be madly devoted to their vision because from the second you say out loud, ‘I’ve got this idea for a movie,’ whomever you’re speaking to is going to tell you all the things you should or shouldn’t do, and in the business, they’re going to tell you all the things you can’t do. And if you start compromising and listening to other people’s judgments you’ll get a movie made, but it won’t be special.”

You may think this courageous and unapologetic attitude comes only after much success and a bunch of credits behind your name, but in Jim’s case, he’s been this gutsy since the first time he stepped foot on a stage.

A Coming-Out Story

Born and raised in Allen, Texas, along with best friend and fellow actor Scott Haze, Jim was always a lover of acting and film. He and his entire family bonded around watching movies, and talking about movies, yet in high school- he and Haze felt it crucial to maintain the appearance that they were just like everybody else. “We wanted to be cool, play sports and chase girls,” he remembers. “And it wasn’t a cool thing to be taking to the stage at 15. And when you’re living in a field in Texas, where do you even begin?” As a result, Jim and Haze both chose to ignore their interest in the arts, and kept this awareness a secret even from one another. “There was a day I remember where Scott and I broke into a rehearsal at our high school after class,” he recalls. “And we ran up on stage, took the fencing swords from the kids, chased them off stage and started doing our own thing. And looking back on that situation, at the time, it just seemed like a wild thing to do, but it’s suggestive of where we wanted to be.”

Not long after, as high school was coming to a close, and people were beginning to think about possible futures for themselves, Jim and Scott Haze finally came clean about their desire to act. “And it felt good to have a buddy in that because I don’t think either of us had articulated it to ourselves before that point. We kept it repressed and it came up for both of us at the same time. And immediately after that conversation, we started doing scenes in his bedroom.” And with such a bold admission followed a downright audacious choice to leave Allen, Texas in the pursuit of their dreams to act, starting with the local theaters in Austin, Texas where they attended college. And where they cut their teeth on the harsh realty that is competition.

“Scott and I both had a sense that people thought we didn’t belong in this world. But we took a lot of strength in each other and said, ‘All right, side by side, let’s just do our thing,’” Jim remembers. “And when you get to a town like L.A., people might recognize that and think it’s attractive, but when you’re at the local theater level, people were offended by us; people thought we were silly. And I think the thickest skin I’ve ever had to have as an actor in my life was during those first couple of years of just asking, ‘Hey, can we play too?”  But the isolation and exclusion only served as motivation, providing them with a thick skin that would prove invaluable later on.

“For some reason we were still confident, and I think that annoyed them. We might have even been a little arrogant, but we were absolutely certain that we belonged.”

This Is It

Jim relocated to Los Angeles in 2001, and became a student of the celebrated and widely respected Playhouse West in 2003. Founded in 1981 by Robert Carnegie, Jeff Goldblum and legendary acting teacher Sanford Meisner, Playhouse West is known for cultivating some of the finest working actors or our time with James Franco, Jim Carey and Ashley Judd to name a few. And between their repertory theater, which has been a consistent space for the production of timeless plays that showcase the unlimited talents of their students, and their eclectic mix off classes offered in screenwriting, improv comedy, film production and film appreciation and analysis, it’s no wonder that Jim’s career soared soon after he landed there.

“It’s a place where if you want the intensity and integrity of what was being taught by the people who taught all of our favorite actors, it’s available to you,” he says. “I showed up there terrified. I had been to another school where the place was very well meaning, but they didn’t have anything to offer me in terms of process or what to do when it came time to actually act. And it took a long time for me to grasp all of that stuff.” But Jim did eventually grasp everything he needed as a direct result of the stand Meisner was for his success. And once that happened, guest roles on shows like Monk, ER, Grey’s Anatomy and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation followed. But it was his audition for the role of Hoyt Fortenberry on the pilot known as True Blood that proved to be a turning point for Jim.

“Professionally, a big moment for me was in the wake of the True Blood audition,” he says.  “Alan Ball stepping up and vouching for me, saying, ‘This guy that nobody’s heard of has something that I want to include in what I’m doing,’ that was definitely a high point.” Jim accepted the role on True Blood in 2008 and spent five seasons portraying Hoyt’s coming-of-age journey through first love, heartbreak, self-destruction and- ultimately- independence before his journey on the series came to a close. But make no mistake, Hoyt Fortenberry’s journey may have ended on a sad note, but Jim Parrack ended his time on the show just as powerfully as he began it because for Jim, money, validation and fame are not the occurrences that constitute success.

True Blood was a high moment for me, and I’ve had high moments since where people I admire have said to me that I’m somebody they want to be around, work with, etc. And they’re nice moments, but I can’t really call any of that “making it” because the second I stop hearing that, am I then unmade? No, I realized I had made it the day I stopped measuring success by way of comparison, and started looking around and asking myself what is it that I have.”

True Purpose

Today, something Jim has in true abundance, in addition to his unwavering passion for acting, is his growing passion for teaching. For the past three years, he’s been teaching one acting class a year, made up of 12 sessions, to students at Playhouse West. And where others might view teaching as an in-the-meantime practice, Jim places it firmly in his future. “I didn’t know that part of God’s purpose for my life is to be a teacher,” he comments, “and it makes sense when I look at the impact my teachers have had on me. So when my acting teacher Robert Carnegie said, ‘Mr. Parrack, I’d like you to join the staff,’ I was moved to tears because I admire him so much, and I’m so in love with this tradition of acting. And to be handed the opportunity to be an ambassador of this work, and to be trusted with his students is something I don’t take lightly.”

At first, Jim substituted classes when other instructors were absent, but he quickly went to work on designing his own course with beginning, intermediate and advance levels. And currently, his class is working together on a feature film that he’s directing, writing and staring in. “Teaching is the most important thing I’m doing right now,” he says. “And in this town, most people resort to teaching acting after they’ve thrown in the towel on their own careers. I taught my first class three hours after getting off a night shoot on a television series, so my own motivation for it is a pure one. I love acting and I have something to offer as a teacher.”

Jim also has something to offer as a board member of the noted Sherry Theatre in North Hollywood, where he will be directing the classic A Hatful of Rain, starring his wife Ciera Parrack this coming June. Founded by Scott Haze, the Sherry Theatre’s latest installment of their 120-Hour Film Festival, along with their 24-Hour Play Series, will commence May 17th-19th, adding to Jim’s responsibility as a board member, but also serving in his commitment to move people through truthful, artistic expression. “Scott and I have a vision for what we want to do with the Sherry Theatre,” he says, “and we can inspire other people to carry out that vision while having their own personal dreams realized too. And we want to create a space in the community where if you’re a dreamer and you want to do something about it, here’s a space where you have a home.”

So in the end, putting all else aside, for Jim Parrack, being an actor is one of the most authentic things a person can be. After all, acting is simply an artistic interpretation of what it means to be human; and if it’s done honestly, it can open the door for true connection.

“I have a composer friend of mine who once said, ‘If there were just 12 artists on this planet who were working absolutely free of judgment, the world would be fixed in 10 years because the power of somebody expressing life without self-condemnation would touch people, and those people would touch other people and so forth.’ I believe that, and it’s why I continue to do this work.”