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January 2017 - Behind the Scenes: John Kapelos

John Kapelos

You are part of cult classic history. What was your time on the set of The Breakfast Club like?

John Hughes hired me after Rick Moranis had been doing the janitor part for a couple of weeks, and they didn’t come eye to eye on how the part should be played. Rick wanted to play the guy with a thick Russian accent with a mouth full of gold teeth and a wad of keys sort of dangling precipitously between his legs that he would pick up and use provocatively. And John said, “You realize the original intent of the character was supposed to be the janitor of the high school he went to—and a native of this area, not some sort of foreigner. My time on The Breakfast Club was very intense. John really had some specific ideas of how he wanted this character played. I locked horns a little bit with Paul Gleason, who had his own style of doing things. I was the last actor to come on for the show. I was sort of known as a Chicago actor, although I was and there was a little bit of pandering to me, or, at least, condescension maybe is the right word. But John never condescended. He treated me like a total professional. We shot 7 or 8 takes the way it was written and would improves after that. My time on The Breakfast Club was...wonderful in a lot of ways. I developed great relationships as much as I could with everybody. I was sad to see Paul [Gleason] pass away. I went to his funeral. I’ve seen Molly recently. I keep in touch with Michael….[I]t was a very creative place to be—very protected by John Hughes and always really kind of guarded by Hollywood. There was a feeling that a lot of good things were going on when I did that movie.

Where did your love for acting come from?

I started acting in tenth grade in...Ontario, Canada, at London Secondary School, where I did the play Guys and Dolls, and I sort of got bitten by that moment and carried on from there. I loved watching movies as a kid, and when I realized the people in the movies were acting, I thought ‘Wow, that’s kind of interesting.’ When you’re a kid, you know if it’s real or acting, but you don’t wrap your head around it until a certain age. I sort of contribute it to my mother and her love of films as one my reasons I love acting so much, and she imparted that to me, especially that golden era of Hollywood films which is always on parade on TCL every #day. I developed a really acute sense of drama, and I would read a lot of plays and went to England to see a lot of plays, so that solidified my sense for theater. When I decided I wanted to be an actor, I got involved in Second City in Chicago. So I turned what I loved into what I wanted to do.

You have been in the business for 35 years. What keeps you motivated?

What keeps you motivated is future employment. It’s never an easy job to be an actor, and it always feels like you’re in a state of job application. You never really arrive unless you get a series or you’re incredibly above the title, and even actors like that have their good days and bad days. But what keeps me motivated is the fact that I love what I do, I’m trying to outdo what I’ve done, and I try to explore parts of the human conditions that I can portray in a way that’s honest and real.

Kapelos as Carl in The Breakfast Club (1985)

What was your most challenging role?

I could be glib and say my most challenging role could be my next one. But I think that I’ve played some challenging roles. I did a part of a drug dealer in a movie The Boost with James Woods, which was a bit of a tough role. I think Internal Affairs with Mike Figgis, where I play Steven Arrocas, who asked Richard Gere to kill his parents, I think that was one of my most difficult roles to get my head into. I think that working in the theater can be very challenging. I did a play several years ago—four or five years ago—called The Prince of Atlantis where I was playing this tough guy in jail, a fishmonger from Boston who had mislabeled fish, and somebody had died in one of his restaurants, and he was thrown in jail. He was one tough American-Italian customer. You know, that’s not me, but the thing is to play parts of you that are involved in that, you use pieces of yourself. It was a pretty challenging role. I found sometimes even...smaller roles are challenging. I just did this part in a film called The Shape of Water where I played this Armenian landlord, and I didn’t want to turn him into this total cartoon or a buffoon because he did have an accent, and he was rather large in terms of his attitude. There was a way of playing him that wasn't going to be too crazy. You want to make sure these people live and are real because, as they say, there are no small parts, just small actors….[E]ven the smallest parts of the movies are memorable, because it’s necessary to continue the action and also to lend credibility to all the other work that’s in the movie….But with that said, the smaller parts can be the most challenging, because in larger parts you have a lot more area to stretch out and to show emotion range or to show various moments. My most challenging roles—fboy, I’ve done so many that I think the ones I mentioned will suffice.

Although it was a one-time stint, your appearance on The West Wing was a memorable one. How was it working with such a stellar cast?

It’s very easy to step into a limousine and feel like you’re the King of the World, and ‘Boy, what a smooth ride and this is all because of me,’ but you realize you’re in a limousine driven by a really good driver, and it’s a beautifully made car, and everything is engineered like it’s supposed to be. When you’re on a set like The West Wing,you feel like you’re part of an amazingly organized and well-oiled machine of a show. Lawrence O’Donnell was on the set. Aaron Sorkin was correcting me and making sure that I got my lines right. Martin Sheen was more than affable and pleasant. It was a day and a half, I think, of what I did, but I really enjoyed it. There’s just nothing like being around a group of high-functioning professionals that are working at the top of their range.

John Kapelos and Nike Doukas in South Coast Repertory's world premiere of The Prince of Atlantis by Steven Drukman. Photo by Henry DiRocco/SCR.

What was the best lesson you've learned as an actor?

I’m still possible learning it. You have to always show your stuff, no matter how much people know who you are. Part of my lot in life is I have to audition. People go, ‘Well, they should know.’ Well, people who do know you, know you, but every year there’s a new crop of people coming into the business, and there are people who are new casting directors and new film companies and producers, and new writers and directors, and the function of having a long career is making sure you’re not only known to the people that know you, but try to make yourself known to the people that don’t know you. You should not look for the big break...The big break comes in small little fractures, and one day something happens that makes you all of a sudden...more desirable, or whatever, more wanted as an actor—more sought after as it were. But the thing is, people know [when] you love and respect the work and serve the work, as opposed to making the work serve you….[M]ake sure you understand exactly what you’re doing, and do as well as you can, and make it work as well as you can. I learned a lot of lessons as an actor, and one of them has been humility. I wasn’t born with a lot of humility. I was born with a lot of arrogance. So there are things that I learned character-wise that have made me realize that I’m not the only boat in the ocean. The one true thing to be as an actor is semipermeable—your skin has be to semipermeable—you have to be hard to the realities of the business with rejection, but you also have to be sensitive to the emotions and the scripts and the work that is sent your way and the people that you work with who are very simpatico. You can’t become jaded and shut off in ways that are gonna inhibit your very craft and the art of your work.

What projects do you have coming up?

I am in The Shape of Water, the Guillermo del Toro movie with Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Richard Jenkins. We shot that in October; that’s a featured film coming out. I’m in a film called 22 Chaser, which is coming out in 2017, and I am writing a film script that I am hoping to direct for Reelz.

What would you like your legacy to be?

I would like to be known as a working actor that was kind, hardworking, knew his stuff, respected his follow person, knew the work, always tried to achieve for better, and never disappointed anyone in terms of my work ethic.

Join John Kapelos at this year's Albuquerque Comic Con at The Albuquerque Convention Center on January 13th-15th. Purchase your tickets here.

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