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Welker White and Damian Young on how great TV has changed everything

New York character actors Damian Young and Welker White (pictured above as the drug dealing babysitter in Goodfellas) have been working in film, TV and on and off-Broadway for over 30 years. Between them Damian and Welker have over 100 US film and television appearances, as well as maintaining a consistent presence in New York theatre.

They have featured in dozens of movies and TV shows and Damian is currently in House of Cards as Aiden MacCallan (see clip below) the data scientist who will be a contining character in the upcoming Season 5.

The couple are in Melbourne next month to host two screen acting workshops for Daily Review readers. Before their arrival we asked them to tell us how to survive and succeed in the screen trade. And to find out about their workshops, click here.

Can you describe the moment that best encapsulated (even momentarily) that you were a successful actor?

Damian Young: In 2000 I was cast as the lead in a USA cable network single-camera comedy entitled The War Next Door which I felt was tailor-made for my comedic skill-set at the time. We shot 13 episodes and USA aired eight. I had grown up thinking “people starring in TV shows are successful actors” and since I was in a show, I thought “I’m successful now!” After airing eight episodes the show was cancelled and I went right back to having to hustle for work. I’ve come to believe that any actor that can make an okay living in this business is a successful actor, and that’s what I’ve been.

Welker White: In 1993 I was cast in Junior – a comedic vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger, Danny Devito and Emma Thompson. The film’s premise is that Schwarzenegger’s character – a world renowned scientist- agrees to undergo a pregnancy as part of a scientific experiment. I played Emma Thompson’s assistant. Well they put me up at the famed Chateau Marmont (in the room famous for a long stay by Jim Morrison) and paid me triple what I’d ever received on any other project. Days I wasn’t scheduled to work I hung out by the pool listening in on conversations from the likes of Val Kilmer and Tori Spelling. I thought, “this is it. I’ve made it”. Well, long story short, the movie was released, was terrible, and I was completely cut out of it.

What role do you most regret not getting (that you actually went for)?

DY: Don Draper in Mad Men.

WW: Phoebe in Friends.

What director, show or cast member could you not say no to working with, no matter the circumstances?

DY: There are so many people it’s hard to pick one, but the first name that comes to mind is John Cleese. Watching him and the rest of the Pythons, I didn’t know this kind of comedy existed when I was ten years old. We have a pretty similar look and happen to share a birthday. He’s been a huge influence on me.

WW: Like Damian it’s hard to pick one. Martin Scorsese comes to mind – I worked with him on Goodfellas and a couple years ago he asked me to do essentially one line in Wolf of Wall Street – so I guess that’s a good example of someone I couldn’t say no to (and don’t think many actors could, regardless of the size of the part)! Both Damian and I are huge Coen Brothers fans and would love to be in anything of theirs.

Welker White in ‘Wolf of Wall Street’

The most under-rated actor working today?

DY and WW: Two of our all-time favorites are Richard Jenkins and Margo Martindale. Two phenomenal character actors who have been in countless film and TV projects. They always give surprising, rich and poignant portrayals of everyday human beings.

What percentage of a theatre actor and a film actor’s skills are identical? Is it 90 per cent the same with a 10 per cent technical difference between the forms or more (or less)?

DY: I’d say it’s all the same except a very crucial ten percent.

WW: I don’t know that I can pinpoint an exact percentage, but I agree with Damian that the actor is doing the same thing, with some critical adjustments for each medium.

What is the mistake most commonly made by film actors who take on Broadway or theatre actors who take on film? Which transition is harder?

WW: In general, wherever you’ve started, that’s the medium that feels most comfortable for you. In other words, if you’ve trained for stage, working on camera can feel false. And vice-versa. As to common mistakes: The perception is that the stage actor is going to be too “big” for the camera. But as a teacher and a coach the most common pitfall I see is that stage actors, in trying to avoid being too big, often get flat on camera.

DY: The greatest pitfall for actors transitioning from one medium to the other is to buy the conventional wisdom: That a film performance has to be ‘small’ and that a stage performance has to be loud and broadly gesticulated. There are differences in focus, concentration, specificity and awareness.

Damian Young and Lisa Kudrow in ‘The Comeback’

What made you decide to start teaching theatre actors how to transition to screen – was there a Eureka moment? Has the era of great TV series changed everything?

WW: I’d been teaching at Brooklyn College for many years when they asked if I might re-tool their on-camera training for the MFA students. In thinking about what to include in the curriculum, I thought about how long it took me as an actor to understand what all the moving parts of the filming process were and how isolating I found that process to be. So demystifying the process has been a big component of what I teach. The big Eureka moment is how much this work highlights the requirement for absolute specificity. As DW Griffiths said, “The camera photographs thought”. On camera, it is impossible to get away with acting that is not truthful. I love that actors can self-assess very quickly watching themselves on playback.

DY: For the working actor, the era of the great TV series has changed so much for us. Not just the volume of work, but how good so much of it is. In the recent past, there might’ve been a couple of shows I would’ve liked to be on, but mostly TV was, for me, the promise of a decent paycheck. Now I can’t count how many shows are running that I would love to be on – and I admire the work of so many actors working on television today.

The question that once would have been absurd: will movie-making in the US survive?

DY: I think there will always be people who want to have a communal experience of watching something together on a big screen. However, because you can watch the same feature at home, I think more and more the genre of film that’s available in a movie theatre will become limited, eg: the current proliferation of super-hero and action movies.

WW: I think movies will survive simply because the unique experience of watching a story unfold on a giant screen is irresistable. While the current trend is, as Damian says, bigger spectacle films, I think we will always yearn to see the simple spectacle of looking into the eyes of a face that’s larger than life.

We know that there are things to learn in transitioning from stage to screen as an actor, but what about from big screen to small? Does television have its own quirks from the actor’s point of view?

WW: Yes! Film and television are both recorded entertainment, but film is a director’s medium, and TV is a writer’s medium. Films and television have a different heritage. Film evolved out of still pictures, and television came out of radio. Films, by and large, are stories told visually, and television relies more on dialogue. This is changing rapidly, which is exciting. Television shows like The Crown, or Game Of Thrones, for instance, utilise a visual scope and landscape previously relegated to film. I think it’s enormously helpful for actors to understand these differences, as it gives the actor a stronger grounding in the world they will encounter on set.

DY: There are many differences in the work environment between film and television. The primary one is the speed with which television moves. A Hollywood film might shoot 2-3 pages a day, whereas television shows shoot about 7-8 pages a day. Most television is episodic, which means that if you are an actor coming in for a single episode, you might be entering an environment where people have worked together for years. On a film, a single director guides the vision. In television the producers (aka the writers) run the show and the director on any given episode is there on a per-episode basis.

What is the most useful psychological trick an actor can use to survive humiliation?

DY: Be the first one to laugh at yourself.

WW: Remind myself that the crew is more worried about lunch than my performance.


2 responses to “Welker White and Damian Young on how great TV has changed everything

  1. How odd it is that great art about real issues does not actually change anyone’s mind about those issues. We like to say that art that we find honest changes people’s judgement of issues and people, but it has manifestly turned out not to be true. Issues like poverty, drugs, coorporate malfeasance, prisons, and so on do not actually seem to be affected in any way. The thinking of people and their elected representatives continues in the same grooves as before and no innovation or change is mandated. Its great to have good TV that actually reflects some reality. Its too bad art doesn’t actually change anything. I guess this could go all the way back to Euripedes and Aristophanes.

  2. Welker White completely steals that scene in Goodfellas — her insufferable tardy attitude in that hyperkinetic scene is completely enraging. Genius, playing the babysitter as So. Damn. Slow. At. Doing. Everything. And worst of all, that damn hat!


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