Humble, funny, and talented are just a few words that describe Stephen Ellis. Recently I had the pleasure of chatting with this up and coming actor.
You’re in the new Coen brothers (Ethan and Joel Coen) movie Hail, Caesar. Can you tell our readers what it’s about?
Hail, Caesar is about the 1950’s Hollywood system. Josh Brolin plays a fixer to the studios. He has all these problems to solve on a daily basis and it’s kind of a day in the life of a Hollywood fixer.
It’s an amazingly genius plot devised by the Coen brothers. I guess I would say it’s a Coen brothers movie at their best.
The Coen brothers are very respected in the industry. What was your reaction when you heard you won the role of Clapper Boy?
I didn’t believe it. (laughs). I auditioned for two or three other roles in the movie. So by my third call back I was just so excited to keep going back and meet them. At that point I was just like, you know what, I can check this off my list. Auditioning for the Coen brothers and getting that far was a goal and the fact that I got it was unbelievable. My time on set was, just literally every day I was there was the best day of my life.
What was your experience working with the Coen brothers?
When people talk about them being the best film makers in the world I think it’s true. I have few other directors who I respect that much. They are definitely at the top of my list because of their professionalism and they storyboard every shot meticulously with their team. They have an all-star team. They have Rodger Deakins, who’s a director of photography. Dave Todd who storyboards their movies. They just come knowing exactly what they are going to do every day.
I’ve been on sets where people yell, they’re stressed, producers are giving their two cents. I never heard anyone raise their voice. Joel and Ethan Coen would come up to me and all the other actors and say, “thank you for being here”, “I hope you’re doing well.” They called me by my first name every day. Same with George Clooney. He was just so nice. He went around and just made sure everyone was doing ok. They really treat their set like a family and with respect. Even to people like me. So it was unbelievable. I’ve never been a part of such a well oiled machine that was just so genius at the same time.
You also filmed the award-winning short film, A Reasonable request, in a five hour window between filming for Hail, Caesar. What was that experience like for you and how did you keep a straight face?
(laughs). It was hard. I guess what I’d say I’ve learned so far in my short career is that things that you’re really not supposed to do turn out to be the most rewarding often times. I was advised that I had to be on set really early for the Coen Brother film. You should get a good night’s sleep. I’m listening to my parents saying, “get a good night’s sleep. Go to bed,” but I was like no I have an opportunity to film this crazy awesome short film. With an awesome script and a great director. I’m just gonna do it. I’m just gonna stay up all night and I’m going to get to work the next day and it’s all gonna turn out well. I was afraid to do that but in the end it did. I was tired, I’m not gonna lie. I was tired but it all worked out really well.
For me and I think for a lot of people when you have momentum and you’re doing a lot of things creatively it just gets better. I’m glad I was busy because you stay creatively alive. Your mind is churning and churning. Sometimes your best work comes when you’re overworked.
We stayed up all night and shot A Reasonable Request and I got to the set of Hail, Caesar and I wasn’t tired at all because as I said just being there was so energizing and so unbelievable. I had to pinch myself every time I walked on set. So I wasn’t that tired. The fact that I could be on one set the night before and another set the next morning I was like, “Wow I’m actually doing this. This is really cool.” So it really wasn’t hard. It was just a privileged really.
The concept of A Reasonable Request is “what would you do for a million dollars”. What is the oddest thing you would do for a million dollars?
Maybe… I’m just spitfiring ideas here. I haven’t really thought about it. I mean we’ve all played the game before. I think I would maybe binge watch like a season of The Kardashians. (laughs). That would probably take like a million dollars for the whole season. I’m talking a whole season with commercials and everything. That would probably require a million dollars.
When I was at Sundance we were actually talking about this. We were like looking at our house and there’s this huge mountain. I was like, “all right Andrew (the director) for a million bucks would you hike that mountain right now?” He was like, “hell no”.
I would say I’d show the film to my father for a million dollars but unfortunately he saw it online. (Editorial note: To honestly grasp how truly funny that is you have to see the short film. Warning it is NSFW.)
You have an extensive background in theater. What has been your best moment on stage?
I think it would have to be my first big production in New York. I was cast in an amazing play called The Coward. Written by Nick Jones and directed by Sam Gold. It was so paramount for me because three months before that I was playing a mouse in a kid’s play in Hoboken, NJ. (laughs). I was 25 and got paid like $1,000 for six week’s work and then three months later I’m on stage with veteran actors, with a Tony award-winning director.
I had the first line of the play and I remember right before the lights went up I kind of froze momentarily because I was so overwhelmed and happy, truly happy. I felt like crying. I’m like I can’t believe this is actually happening. Then the lights went up and it went really well and I didn’t freeze my words, but it was just a really amazing experience to get to that point. I was working so hard in NY so that was pretty amazing.
How did you get into acting?
I grew up in Ft. Worth, Texas. My mom took me to the community theater as a child and I remember being totally infatuated with it. It kind of took me to a different place and I just truly loved theater. I don’t know what it was. Then growing up as a teenager I played sports in high school and in middle school. Football, baseball, wrestling. That was kind of the thing to do.
Doing plays wasn’t necessarily the cool thing to do. Eventually it just hit me during my junior year of high school. I was wrestling and I said, “You know what? I’d rather spend my weekends in a rehearsal hall with some cute girls than in a gym full of a thousand smelly teens.” (laughs). I was like, “I’m going to do the musical. I’m going to swallow my pride and quit wrestling and do the musical” and I did. Once I did that there wasn’t any turning back.
You’d be amazed at the amount of male actors I’ve talked to where a girl was involved in them getting into acting.
I mean I think the truth is we’re always wanting to do it but it takes someone to give us the push, you know? (laughs) Especially in our formative years. This was before Glee or any of those shows that made it cool to be in choir. When I was growing up in Texas it wasn’t necessarily the coolest. It did not guarantee you’d have a date on Friday nights.
You have worked with a lot of very talented actors. What have you learned from them?
Honestly it’s crucial in this business to have people you look up to for support emotionally and to learn things from. First thing I learned from a mentor was that the work you get to do is the award. Winning an award is just secondary. Being able to wake up in the morning and do your work is the coolest thing you can have as an actor.
So it’s cool we didn’t win the best movie at Sundance. I keep telling myself that. (laughs)
The other best acting advice I’ve ever received in my life was from Philip Seymour Hoffman actually. When I was in NY before he passed away. He told not to judge the material. I went in for an audition and I was so nervous and excited to meet with him. To work with him. I did my audition and he looked at me, he knew me because I did a play with the Labyrinth Theater Company. He just looked at me after I read and he goes, “Stephen you’re judging the material. Just say what’s on the page.” It’s completely changed my whole approach to acting. I think about it every day. Don’t judge what other people have written. Just do it.
That was probably the seminal advice I’ve ever received. I don’t mean to name drop but I’ve been thinking about him a lot. He’s been on my mind.
You have been receiving a lot of buzz from several publications as an actor to watch for. What has that been like for you?
Well honestly when things like that come out it’s exciting, but it’s also pretty crazy because it kind of makes me feel like a fraud. (laughs) I’m like, “I don’t really know.” “I don’t know if I belong here.” It is exciting and it is cool and it’s very flattering but then you think, “Oh shit! Now what am I gonna have to do?” How do you improve? What’s the next thing you’re going to do? Do I really belong on a list with these other amazing people? I don’t know. That’s just kind of how I first reacted to it.
We at TNWU all have something nerdy/geeky about us. What is something nerdy or geeky about you?
Oh my! I would say my entire face. My personality. (laughs).
I don’t even know where to start. I don’t even know how to define nerdy anymore because now it’s cool to be nerdy. Which I don’t think I am. I think I’m like not cool enough to be nerdy. I don’t know. I think being nerdy is awesome.
Since I moved to L.A. I have really gotten into golf. I know it’s not nerdy to a lot of people but to my friends out here I’m a huge nerd because I show up dressed in golf shorts, golf shirts. I live in a hipster part of L.A. so I walk around and people look at me like I’m a weirdo. (laughs) I’m a nerd in my environment that I live in. If I were in Florida I’d probably be pretty cool.
You can see Stephen in the Coen Brothers new film Hail, Caesar this Friday.