Clive Standen is a deep, introspective, and very chatty person. From the very beginning of our fun phone interview, we spoke about the fact that he used to live in Toronto, threw out the first pitch at a Blue Jays game, hung out with Josh Donaldson on the field, went to TIFF, and learned to love hockey.
We moved into talking about how his series, Council of Dads, is a special one. Standen plays a role unlike any that have come to define him up to this point. As Anthony, a chef, he gives one of the most immersive performances of his career. Council of Dads is an NBC/Citytv show that moved him so much upon reading the very first episode, it had him un-attach from a lead role on another series (I didn’t dare ask which one), in order to sign on to this one.
Give Council of Dads a chance. It’s hopeful, it’s optimistic, it’s quaranstreamable, and most of all, Clive Standen kicks some serious ass, but in a different way than to which we may be used.
The following is a condensed and edited version of an intense chat with the wonder that is actor Clive Standen of Council of Dads.
Brief Take: How big did you want to play this role, especially in comparison with some of your previous characters?
Clive Standen: Well I based him really, and the showrunners and writers did, on Anthony Bourdain sort of. Adding that kind of larger-than-life [chuckles] kind of, he’s a chef, he’s an aspiring Michelin star chef as well, so he has that kind of ego and that kind of presence and pull for himself. So he’s a larger than life character and he very much holds his heart on his sleeve, so when he’s angry, he shows he’s angry, when he’s happy, he shows he’s happy. He’s a bit of a whirlwind character and so that’s where the basis was. But that season, everything came from my lovely idea that you create the character in the obvious and that’s going to give you a chance to show another aspect to the character, every tattoo in most people’s lives, especially all the chefs like that, they have certain stories behind them, it’s not just: “Ohhh, I fancied having a picture of a bunch of hearts on my arm because I watched The Fast and The Furious.” [laughs] There will be a story behind the Japanese cooking place or behind the one chef with whom they worked and the experience. And also not just reading about food, sometimes it’s like: “Well this tattoo shows another broken relationship”, or it’s got something to do with his childhood or something like that. It gives it a little backstory. It may never come out to the audience, but it helps you as an actor kind of hold on to something. It’s like a little secret. It’s great as an actor to have secrets for your character because when you play into a scene, you can go: “Ahhhh, I know something you don’t know”, and it just gives that little mysticism as well, and it makes you feel a little more well-rounded as an actor and as a character.
Another thing I did, which I haven’t really talked about before in an interview and I’ve never really done with any other character, is that I did a little bit of an experiment because I wanted to kind of see, because the character was closer to me, I wanted to see if I could create some fake emotional triggers, like emotional recall, and I haven’t used it quite a lot in my acting, so I started creating a playlist, mainly of [chuckles] Mumford & Sons songs. When I listened to them, I started to create a fake story from the lyrics that was just correlated to my character. So whenever I would go to the gym, I would just play the same playlist over and over again. As I was losing myself running or cycling for 60 minutes, I would always hear the same songs and I would start to think of that story of when the songwriter sings, I would start to think about my character and I would have to put him back in that particular moment and making it his memory. So then when I was on set, I would start playing these songs and it would take me back into these different fake memories, which was a very original way for me to create a backstory because I could really pin it to an emotion, rather than writing down: “Oh, this is where he grew up and this is what happened to him and this is where he went and this is where he trained”, and it became a very visceral thing to which I could hold on. So I could hear a song and I could create a particular memory about maybe a lover that he would have at chess school, or…I don’t even know how to really tell you on the phone, but there were these really intricate moments that when this song came on, it suddenly triggered that part of me, I found that very fun and actually enabled me to create this character that doesn’t necessarily have to live through my own memories. This was really the first time that I’ve ever spoken about it out loud but I am glad that I had done it. I actually found it really, really therapeutic. It’s rather like the musical version of creating a mood board.
BT: A moment I really enjoyed in the pilot is when you took the transphobic grandmother, played by Becky Ann Baker, to task. You basically said “Not today”. I was wondering how you chose to play that particular scene.
CS: Yeah, she’s an incredible actress. She’d come in for like two days and the rest of us were like: “Oh! We have to raise our game”. She’s a brilliant actress and such a wonderful woman. But yeah, what’s nice about that is that it comes near the end of the episode, so it’s not even really about that, it actually does come at a moment in which it really doesn’t matter. It’s just JJ. And we shouldn’t be sitting there trying to point it out and making it a big thing in the show, it really is at the point in which he’s a boy, all the way through the show and there’s no difference. There’s no time to create this really big dramatic moment in which we are drawing too much attention to it because it really shouldn’t have. What is our objective, what is our M.O. in society is that there shouldn’t be a problem. This doesn’t need to be something that is highlighted, he is who he is and that’s the approach that we took to that scene at that point in that episode.
Anthony is basically just going: “this is no big deal”, it’s an educational moment. I think that’s the thing that we’re trying to be like, I know that it’s definitely what I wanted to be like, is we’ve got to get out of this society in which we judge people and we just fail them. We just go: “Well, we’ve judged you. Be wise”. The energy should be in the learning, Charles, so if someone messes up, if someone seems to be uneducated in that particular thing, it gives a chance to teach and a chance to educate, rather than to chastise and to persuade, because nothing ever gets achieved when you lash out at something. I think that’s where Anthony’s strength is in that particular moment. And with the children as well is that everything is a learning opportunity, that he connects with people on their level and tries to educate. I think that’s probably what we’re trying to do in that scene, in episode one as well. That’s definitely where I came from, that there’s definitely a chance to try and educate, rather than to chastise someone, especially when it comes to different generations.
BT: How seriously do you take the immersion into a character, especially that of Anthony in Council of Dads?
CS: I wanted to learn as much as I could, because in TV, you never know when the script changes, and baking a cake might turn into oyster shucking, but if you can’t shuck an oyster, then the next day, you’re going to be worrying ahead about how you would clutch in your fingers the shucking knife, rather than focusing on the character and what exactly he’s doing to the other characters in the scene and what is happening with him in the scene. So if you actually know how to do a lot of these skills, if you know how to chop with a chef’s knife like a chef does, then you can actually concentrate on knowing that your hand is going to do what it’s going to do and you can concentrate on playing the character. There’s that aspect of it as well, but it also gives you a flavour of who the person is, what they learn very quickly from doing a lot of these cookery classes, although I wasn’t great at a lot of these cookery classes. I did a Japanese cookery course and I was awful at that kind of cooking. Italian cooking with fresh pasta and pasta sauce, I took to that very quickly and I carry it on. Baking with apple pies and lemon meringue pies and things like making my own pie crusts and things and blind baking, I was quite good at.
What it taught me straight away when I start doing these cooking classes is it’s about a specificity and it’s about timing and if one thing, if one ingredient is too little or too much, if you put it into the oven too quickly before it hits the right temperature and then with the flavours, with acid and salt and fat and things and how every little thing can change a dish, you suddenly find that passion for which I was looking that I didn’t respect before I did the classes for being a chef, about how the timing is right and about how you have to be so passionate, you have to be so connected to the food and to take it so seriously, it’s not just slapdash. It’s about preparation and everything has its place, we saw that, there’s a place for everything and everything has its place. And how together you are as a chef, but sometimes what I love about my character and the choice I made is that he’s very together in the kitchen that he’s almost like a surgeon. But then outside of his life, everything else is messy and putters, because his brain is so focused on that one passion, which is very similar to an actor. I get very, very focused on my characters and I can tell you every little thing about him and all of my thoughts most of the way through the day, from when I wake up in the morning until I go to bed are on what I am working, but that almost means [chuckles] that a lot of my life is completely messy and crazy and I put things off until the last minute, but that’s where it came from. But it always comes from just immersing yourself in that life that you finally find that respect. You have to respect the character that you’re playing. You don’t have to like him. Like in Vikings, Rollo, I don’t like Rollo, but I definitely respect him. And as an actor, you need to respect the character that you’re playing, because you need to know where he comes from.
The best thing about acting, I suppose, is that there’s no real retirement age as long as you can do it. Even if you end up in a wheelchair, or your health is low, there’s people out there like that and therefore you can play them. Acting is about mirroring nature, so as long as there’s 90-year-old people out there, you can be a 90-year-old actor. So that’s what I intend, but it’s an industry, so you have to spin as many plates to keep people interested or remind people that you’re more than just the Viking, or you’re more than just the Action Man or whatever. And so I try my best, with every new role that I take I try to wipe the slate clean and to start from scratch and to show people that there’s another string to my bow, so to speak. And that’s what I’m trying to do because I want to be in this business a long time, I love it. [laughs]
BT: Who are the actors that you think of as your favourites or those that dig deep into the element of character?
CS: Well if I was going to have any acting hero, it would be Viggo Mortensen, but on screen. I’ve never met the man and he’s probably the one person in my life that I would go all a little bit weird with if I ever meet him and get starstruck, [laughs] but that’s what would happen when you respect him to the extent that I do. But in all honesty, when I was training in drama school, I didn’t realize that I was that lucky at the time, but I just to pay the bills and to get myself through jobs for three years and to pay the fees, I worked as an usher in the National Theatre of Great Britain. The National Theatre has three different theatre spaces and there are three different repertory groups. So at any one time, they have about nine different plays going on at that theatre at the same time. And every two or three months, they change over to a different play, so there is this revolving conveyor belt of amazing plays with incredible actors coming through all the time. And I worked there for three years, selling programs, selling ice creams and taking people to their seats. But every evening after I finished drama school, I got to watch, and in the intervals in which you’re selling programs, but then you get to watch these incredible shows over and over again. And some people that worked there, they were just doing it because they were at university and they would just sit there reading their book and do their homework outside the theatre, I chose most nights to sit at the back of theatre and watch these incredible actors, and I got to watch Mark Rylance over and over again. Vanessa Redgrave, Janet McTeer, Harriet Walter, all these incredible actors, Kenneth Branagh for three years. And what’s interesting about that is that you see how you get through that performance every time, so I didn’t just watch the play, I would start watching the same actor, every night, and seeing how their performance changes and seeing how free he was that night or what choices he made that are different than the other night, and I think that the best training that I ever had as an actor and the most respect I ever had for the process, every actor works entirely differently. And for me, that was my toolbox. I think that what works for me I get from one actor and then I take a little bit from another actor, I was very malleable back then, that was when I was 19-21 years old. I think that’s from where my toolbox comes now is from actors that I have observed for so long.
In terms of working with, Gabriel Byrne was an incredible friend to me when I first got my role in Vikings. He was in season one and seeing the way that he worked… He had just come off of In Treatment for HBO. And I remember that he came in on his very first day and he didn’t know any of his lines at all. [laughs] I was like: “Oh my goodness, me!”. [laughs] And I got really worried because I really respected Gabriel and I’m like: “God, I’m doing scenes with him” but he did know his lines but he didn’t know them as well as I imagined it. I thought that he had come into the rehearsal and he’d just blown everyone away. And I was like: “Wow! this was strange!”. And we blocked the scene and it was a big scene in which Ragnor and Rollo are coming into the big Great Hall and Earl Haroldson, Gabriel’s character, was giving a big speech. And then we set up all the lights and the cameras and that after 15-20 minutes in which they were doing that, he came back down and then take one, on camera, blew everyone away. Knew his lines perfectly, his choices, his motivation, and it was an incredible masterclass. So I asked him, I said: “Look, you seemed as though you didn’t know your lines”, and he said “I didn’t”. [laughs] He said: “While I was on In Treatment, I had to learn 45 minutes to an hour’s worth of dialogue”, because in that show that he was in on HBO, it was pretty much him and another actor in a psychiatrist’s treatment small room, so it was like doing a play every week. He said that the rewrites would happen so much and they would have to change on the day in which the two actors got together, and when they would have to start the rehearsing, the dialogue would change. And he said that “I would actually have to learn to adapt.” So in those 15 minutes, he just… And then as soon as our scene was done, he’d almost forget the lines again. But it was present when he needed it.
BT: What does Council of Dads mean to you?
CS: I think that for television purposes, we redefine the contemporary family a little bit. We bring everyone into the fold, it’s not about blood, it’s about love and who shows up. Family is more complex and includes a lot more people than I think for which the average tv show gives them credit. I think that we have changed somewhat. I think that I look back on when I was growing up and I didn’t really see my typical family very often. But the people that I called “Uncle Steve or Auntie…” they were Mum’s and Dad’s best friends that would come. Especially nowadays in lockdown, we’ve got people that we assume and have kept to a family, but sometimes it doesn’t work out the way that we hope, and it’s my friends that hold me up. I’m homeschooling and I’ve got the kids and the family and the wife, but I’m not very good at being on my own and I’m not very good at asking for their help, unfortunately. I’ve found homeschooling to be very, very tough at times, but I have great friends that suddenly, it’s so bizarre but they’re there for me right when I need them. It’s like: “Hey, how are you doing?” and they can’t come around, but it’s just like Zoom calls can sort your head and everything. And it’s like: “Wow! They’re there for me!” and it’s about who shows up.
And I think that the Council, it’s more than just godparents, as a lot of people have godparents who are there in the event of a tragedy, or they’re there for advice or our kids, but I don’t know, they’re almost like a Stonehenge. Like a fraternity of equal parts curiosity, kinship, and in our show, rivalry, that three very different people almost make them the memory of the father, kind of his legacy and his values. They’re like a community, it’s like having a community, like almost like Stonehenge [laughs], if you will. The family can seek relief and ask for the help and feel like they’re being judged for it. I think that is an issue that’s worth raising as well, which is that mainly single mums or mums that do it by themselves are home most of the day, having to do work with the kids without really having any other sort of adult company around, but it’s also about single dads as well and it’s about that there’s a kind of sense of that if you ask for help, you’re kind of lacking as a parent right now. And you’re not. And while it might not be what you expect, there are a bunch of good people right now that can rally in around you and can help. I think that’s what this show has at the forefront, it’s about how there’s nothing wrong with asking for help, there’s nothing wrong with having communicative people, because it does take a village sometimes. [laughs]
BT: How did you know this show was the right fit for you?
CS: Council of Dads, when I went through for the meeting with Tony (Phelan) and Joan (Rater), the writer / showrunners, I remember that I’d read the script, so I knew that I had wanted it, but then you meet the showrunners and you see what they had to do with it. I remember the moment in the room that I wanted to work with them because Tony had just mentioned the word “collaboration”. We would go into the writers’ room and we would tell our stories. And they would listen and they would work around us to create the character, which is just what you want to hear as an actor, the word “collaboration”. We’re not just going to write this, we’re going to build this character together, we’re going to build the show together. And it’s been very nice to have this process involved for all of the other actors, working with Tony and Joan and the writers’ room, because it’s very rare that you get that, especially on network tv. You sometimes get the show around the writers, it’s their way or the highway and they write it, and then you’re looking at this going: “Oh, can I change this particular bit?, or I’ve got this idea”, and they’re like: “Nope!” But Tony and Joan are very good. Every time they’re talking to you, they’re just soaking you in and soaking you up and then the next clip comes along and you’re like: “Oh my God! I’ve talked about that with them and they’re taking that part of me and put it into the show” and it’s a bit disconcerting, [chuckles] but it’s great that they’re so invested in me.
BT: I think that viewers will really respond to this show.
CS: Fingers crossed that people will like watching it and we’ll have many seasons of Council of Dads.
Council of Dads airs on Thursdays at 8/7c on NBC and Citytv