Interview with local actor Matt Sanford

Santafe.com - July 18, 2011

“There’s a real amount of self discovery to being an actor..."

“There’s a real amount of self discovery to being an actor. To play a character truthfully, it can take you to some truly ugly places within yourself. When many would call actors professional liars, I would say we find the truth inside ourselves to create these parts. It's a process both difficult and painful.”
 
- Matt Sanford
 
Matt Sanford is a local actor who has been performing in Santa Fe for over 10 years. Working in both stage and screen, he is largely regarded as one of Santa Fe’s great local talents.
 
Matt Sanford will be performing in the upcoming original production Doc Watson Vs. The
Vampires. The show will be playing at Warehouse 21 from July 21 - July 31 Thursday through
Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., Sundays at 4:00 p.m.
 
I recently had a chance to have coffee with Matt and talk about what it was like to be an actor in Santa Fe and in general.
 
Winston Greene: What was your crystalizing moment, when you knew you wanted to be an actor?
 
Matt Sanford: I’d been acting all through school, but it always seemed like a hobby. It wasn't
until my sophomore year of high school that it made sense to me, that this was what I wanted to
do with my life, for better or worse. The moment came, and I think a lot of actors could relate,
when I was on stage and suddenly felt like I was on a roll. I was so caught up in the moment I
was in. Not thinking about the audience, not thinking about what I was saying, or how I was
moving; I was just up there, doing it. After the fact, all I could think was “That was fun, that
made sense to me, that's something I could do my whole life.” Now it's the one thing I think I’m
really good at and want to do the most.
 
WG: Who would you say are your greatest influences when crafting a character?
 
MS: “I could say there are many big influences as an actor. Performers like Peter Sellers, Peter
O’Toole, and the Marx Brothers to be sure. Especially Kevin Klein, who I had the pleasure of
meeting and working with on a film I did. That was definitely a galvanizing moment. When it
comes to crafting a character though, it becomes more unique to the circumstances of whatever is
happening in my life as that character comes up. My most recent example would have to be my
character from the recent Woman’s Voices Festival. After I read the scripts, I knew the character
had to be a local actor friend of mine. I went “This is Todd Anderson, I need to be Todd Anderson
to be this guy.” It’s really a case by case thing. Of course those other influences undertone my
work, but a specific character can come from anywhere.
 
WG: So meeting Kevin Klein, what was that like?
 
MS: He was probably one of the sweetest men I’d ever had the pleasure of meeting. It was a
movie I was working on, though I wouldn’t necessarily say it was a “good” movie. It was sort of
a low budget, Hollywood, A-/B+ sort of movie. I had this one line, a bit role in a coffee shop, even
so I was still pretty seasoned on set etiquette at this point in my work. So I’m off to the side
minding my own business while I waited for some AD to bring me onto set. Out of nowhere,
there's Kevin Klein standing next to me waiting for his scene to set up. So we strike up a
conversation, he gives me a cigarette, has his personal assistant bring over some coffee for us;
next thing you know we’ve been sitting there for four hours just waiting for the scene to get
going. We mostly talked about acting and he asked me some personal questions trying to get to
know me. He wanted to know if this was something I just did to make money, if it were
something I wanted a career out of? Meanwhile I’m sitting there going “Pirates of Penzance,
good! You beautiful, beautiful man!” Really, such a sweet guy though, and that was another
moment of reassurance to know that a man of that stature and talent could take the time to sit
down, be a decent human being, and have a conversation with a stranger.
 
WG: What’s the difference when working in The City Different?
 
MS: Ha, that’s...a delicate question. In Santa Fe, there are simultaneously a lot of opportunities
as an actor and not a lot of opportunities as an actor. It comes down to your willingness to
commit to being a “Santa Fe Actor.” It can be really hard. Just the cost of living demands a
young person to work two or three jobs. That being the case, it becomes a real challenge to be
committed to doing shows consistently if you’re stuck in the rat race of trying to make ends
meet. The city has a lot of incredible theatre arts. People who aren’t familiar with going to
theatre pieces consistently don’t realize the amount of talent that is local to this city. There are so
many actors who could be doing shows Off Broadway, in Chicago, the Northwest Circuit; those
indie hubs for quality theatre. The downside to that coin, for as many small companies as there are
in this town, it becomes hard to find a consistent amount of work. So many of the shows that go
up around Santa Fe are very off beat. Maybe that is a good thing but it can be difficult to be an
actor trying to challenge yourself and your process while appealing to a demographic audience
that isn’t always willing to go out of their comfort zone. That sounds a little harsh but it's been
my experience that audiences in Santa Fe are so used to a certain type of theatre that they can’t
always step outside of it. Performing in Santa Fe rests in two extremes. You have on one end
very traditional theatre, shows that people know and love and are willing to pay high ticket
prices for because they know what to expect. On the other end you have performance art that is
so idiosyncratic it becomes nearly inaccessible. As an actor; one is unchallenging to my process
and the other goes outside the realm of realistic emotional experience. That's the fine line
between theatre and performance art. A visceral experience is great but it’s my job as an actor to
tell a story and if you have no story to tell, you have no more business on the stage than I do
being in your piece.
 
WG: Santa Fe seems to have an extreme polarity between high end traditional theatre and “local
theatre,” often putting on original and innovative pieces but locked in the bubble of low budget
production. Where do you think that sharp division comes from?
 
MS: I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about that as an actor in this town. I’d say a lot of it comes
from Santa Fe’s reputation as being the arts mecca of the Southwest. I say arts with a capital “S”
on the end. It drives me crazy though, because saying this is an arts mecca is a very misleading
term. So much of the arts community in Santa Fe is geared towards a very hoity toity visual arts
paradigm. When it comes to the performing arts though, a lot of the Santa Fe arts scene buys into
the hype of it being a touring show or such and such group from Argentina at the Lensic one
night only. But when you have a group of really talented hard working locals trying to put on a
show that moves you as an audience member I feel like the majority of people in this town pat
these productions on the head and say "How cute, you’re doing theatre." There are companies like
Iron Weed Productions who put on these remarkable shows, producing pertinent pieces, with
talented casts, directors who are really trying to say something, and it’s met with this attitude of
“oh it’s theatre in Santa Fe.” Just because it’s not a touring show from New York doesn't mean
you aren’t going to have the same experience as an audience member. I don’t think it’s fair to the
people working to make an established theatre scene in this town. It’s a huge disservice.
 
WG: As a performer what was your most terrifying moment?
 
MS: I could probably give you an answer for every production I’ve done in the past ten years.
It’s a strange thing, in terms of recent production the most terrifying moments I had was last
summer. During a summer rep festival I was in a show called The Person I Once Was. The show
was running in rep with three other shows but we were all sharing the same venue across the
span of two weeks. So show times got a little odd. One night curtain was supposed to be at 10:00. The show that was running before us had a 7:00 curtain. They ran late so by the time we went on stage there was all of maybe four people in the audience. Seems counter intuitive but playing for four people in a 400 seat house is much more terrifying than
playing for 400 people in a 400 seat house. So that for me was exceptionally scary and exceptionally hard but the show must go on. Whether you have one person in the house or 1,000, you do the same level of work as you would if the show was sold out. It was still one of my scarier moments though.
 
WG: Was there ever a time you thought you’d be willing to give up acting?
 
MS: Probably once a month. In Santa Fe it's virtually impossible to make a living as an actor. I
go back and forth about it all the time. Have I wasted the past 10 years of my life devoting all
my time and energy to this career that may or may not pay off? Being an actor has no safety net,
it guarantees you no standard of life for the future. I think about it a lot and it's consistently
terrifying. At the same time, as an artist or performer or whatever name you want to put on it;
there’s a very distinct moment where you stop and ask yourself “How much of my life am I
willing to sacrifice to make this work?” It's only been in the last two years that it's really made
sense to me that if I were to give myself up, if I offer my life up to this craft that means so much
to me, fingers crossed it’ll pay off. If it doesn't, the joke's on me. If you really care enough as an artist
though, you have to ask that question. If you care enough to give up practicality to make it
work.
 
WG: The lifestyle of being an actor is a difficult one. When you’re buckled under the pressures
of everything from emotional strain to the sheer physical demands of the work, what keeps you
going?
 
MS: My acting coach has always stressed to me that whenever you’re working on a character
and that character has an activity or talent they do, then you as an actor need to be just as good at
that thing as they would. I think those things are the tools I use to ground myself back in reality.
Having those very small, basic, but very human experiences that you can draw from. It’s a nice
give and take. The things outside of my acting life benefit me as an actor and my life on stage
benefits my personal life. You can’t separate the man from performer, maybe that’s the real
nightmare.
 
WG: I’d like to end our interview with a quote of someone I think you know pretty well. He said
“It’s great to be a writer and I think it's the better job. But at the end of a day it’s probably better
to be an actor, because after the show everyone wants to shake the actor’s hand, meanwhile the director is sweeping the stage."
 
MS: While I am quite familiar with that quote, I think it’s unfair to the writers and directors. Its
a symbiotic relationship. Without a writer, the actor has no story to tell. The actors may be the
face of the story but a face is not a whole. Audience are also a part of that symbiotic relationship.
In the same way of “If a tree falls in the forest does it make a sound"; if you have a bunch of
actors on a stage and there's no audience, would you call that anything? There is a direct
relationship between an actor and his audience during a performance, we’re connected and we’re
equals in terms of the story. I’ve always believed the true magic of theatre isn’t on the stage but
rather in the circuit that is formed in the five feet between the stage and first row. That’s where
the real magic of live performance is, somewhere in that empty space where these fictional
people and real people connect.
 
Full Disclose: I also have a role in this show. While I personally do think it is a very good show
it would be unprofessional to endorse it on those grounds. That being said I still encourage
everyone to come support this original, local, and very funny theatre piece.