Interview with Olivia Baseman

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I grew up in Pittsburgh PA which has a vibrant theater scene. My parents are huge lovers of dance, theater, music etc. as are my siblings. So I’ve been surrounded by the performing arts for as long as I can remember. Growing up I loved to sing and dance and put on plays… When I was 11 an important person in the musical theater world heard me sing and suggested to my parents that I study voice as he thought I could have a real career on the stage. So that was it – I was off! I began performing regionally right away and then moved to NYC for college. Recently, I was in Elementary (“Elementary” Ancient History (2013)) on CBS.

Did you study acting
Yes. I graduated from the drama program at Circle in the Square Theater School in New York City. I was also in a pre-professional program for musical theater when I was a teenager, so I was able to work with a lot of great teachers from Carnegie Mellon University and various other NYC and Pittsburgh institutions at a very young age. I made the decision to move to NYC to study drama because, when I was 16, I was in a really good straight play that required some heavy emotional work – and I didn’t know what to do… I realized that I had no idea how to express real emotions in a way that other people could relate to if I wasn’t singing. So I figured I better get some technique.

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Olivia Baseman in ‘Devils 2010’

What acting technique do you use
Well, my training is in Stanislavsky Technique. So that is always the foundation. But depending on the project I will use more of a Strasberg approach, or Adler…it’s whatever feels right for the project.

What wrong impressions do actors hold about acting
I think many people confuse being an actor with being a celebrity. Being an actor can lead to celebrity but they are very different jobs. Acting is a craft just like playing an instrument or designing clothes.

Do you take courses to improve your craft
Yes. I try to always be studying. The last few years I have found the scene study classes at ESPA at Primary Stages really useful. And my theater company, The Seeing Place, gets together every week to work on technique and read plays – which keeps me sharp.

What acting books do you read
While I was training, so many! Too many to list here. These days I don’t read about acting very much. I do read a lot of interviews with actors whose work I admire, though. I find that to be really helpful.

How do you keep fit as an actor
I ask lots of questions. About everything! I’m always reading and listening and investigating… I see as much theater and film and TV as I can. And I’m a total news junkie… As for the physical… I try to eat healthy and do a lot of yoga.

When you’re offered a role, what do you do next
Research! I find out everything I can about the time and place and look of the project. I read the script many times first as a story and then looking for the playwright’s rhythm and style. And then again focusing on my character’s personal story. Then I record my lines so I can listen to them, which is my preferred way of memorizing

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Olivia Baseman and Stephanie Willing inMy First Autograce Homeography 1973-74, in 2014

How do you take a character in a script to a honest, believable and breathing person
I go through my scenes asking all the basic questions about the given circumstances, physicality, objectives etc. After I’ve answered all of those, I do my best to go to rehearsal or to set and live through the experience of being that person in that place and time.

How do you stay fresh on set
I stay in the headspace of my character. And I try to stay very relaxed in my body. And very alert in my mind. I feel like you need to be like a cat on a set. They may be lying down sleeping, but – when the moment comes – they spring up ready for anything.

Describe a memorable character you played
My first real TV job was on a show called Chappelle’s Show on Comedy Central. It was created by and starred the comedian Dave Chappelle. Now pretty much every episode of the show is brilliant and many of it’s sketches are considered classics. But the one I’m in, which is about the pop star Rick James, ended up becoming a huge phenomenon. My character is one of Rick James’s (Dave Chappelle’s) “girl’s.” I’m the platinum blonde (I actually have naturally blonde hair) and, among other things, I’m the recipient of the line “Hold My Drink, B***h!” which became one of the show’s biggest catch phrases. So when the episode came out, I was suddenly being recognized everywhere – people would yell the catch phrases at me while I was walking down the street… It was insane.

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Olivia Baseman with Dave Chappelle

What do you want most from a director
A solid foundation. Clarity about their take on the story and how they want to tell it. What they need from me, and then the trust to let me do my work.

What advice would you give to actors
Don’t be concerned with what others are doing. Stay focused on your own unique point of view.

Briefly write about your career
I have been fortunate in that I have gotten to do a great range of projects. From Gilbert and Sullivan operettas to the director Darren Aronofsky’s Oscar nominated film The Wrestler and everything in between. I have worked a great deal with the writer, director and designer Ian W Hill at The Brick Theater in NYC doing beautiful, challenging experimental theater. Right now I’m working with The Seeing Place (where I’m an ensemble member) on Boy’s Life by Howard Korder which will be playing in rep with Boy Gets Girl by Rebecca Gilman in July in NYC. One of the interesting things about The Seeing Place is that they pair shows in a way that exposes things that you might not immediately see in them… like a great DJ does with songs, if you will. Both Boy’s Life and Boy Gets Girl deal with gender and society… With the ways in which we use and abuse each other because we think that’s what’s expected of us… How we are, in a way, trapped into behaving badly because we think we have no choice. So if we do our jobs right it should make for some really cool theater.

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