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New York Actor John Harrison

Interview with John Wesley Harrison

SR: What happened with your accident?
Christi and I were riding home on our Vespa from a friend’s house. We were heading Northbound on Flatbush Ave (near Prospect Park) and this big 15 passenger van was coming Southbound. They made a left hand turn into our lane and hit the Vespa and Christi’s leg. We were thrown to the ground and Christi’s leg was torn apart. The skin was peeled off of her leg from her knee to her ankle. Her Patellar Tendon was severed, her knee ligaments were destroyed, and she broke her hand, and knocked her teeth loose. My leg was also hurt: some quadriceps and tendons were severed; I tore some ligaments and cartilage in my foot, and broke some bones in my foot and ankle.
After we were hit, the van started up and sped off behind a Wendy’s next to the accident. People were running towards us and towards the van, and began calling 911. A black SUV even drove after the van, following it into the parking lot and behind the Wendy’s. I guess enough people were around that the van couldn’t get away, because the cops got all of the information on the driver and owner of the van. Before the paramedics reached us, a woman we like to call “Christi’s Angel” came to hold Christi’s leg for her, which had been completely dislocated.
It runs out that the paramedics had trouble finding a pulse in her leg. 1 of the 2 major arteries was not really doing its job in pumping blood, so the paramedics decided that, to save her leg, we should go to Kings County Hospital, which was the closest place and has a strong trauma unit. She later transferred to NY Presbyterian, where she had to get some skin grafting done to cover her open leg wound, and is having surgery at the Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) this summer to reconstruct her knee ligaments.
We both just feel so blessed to be alive… walking. We just got to dance together recently at my cousin’s wedding! She was able to return to work this spring, and I was recently able to perform a musical in my first play since the accident with my theater company.

SR: Do you feel this has changed your view on life, your priorities, what you would like to do?
JH: Definitely in some ways, but not in terms of my life passions. If anything, the accident reminds me of the fragility of life. I am so thankful to be able to pursue acting and other passions of mine. One thing I am reminded of is that comfort doesn’t come from having everything (corporate job, title, however people define success). Having “everything” does not make you less susceptible to accidents or life threatening situations. I feel so grateful that my wife and I are alive and able to go after our dreams.

SR: Have you always dreamed of being in theater?
JH: It started after I got a taste of performance in elementary school, in Austin. I was in my school choir where my director wrote musicals adapted from various stories, current events, movies, etc. Then in high school, I forged a close relationship with my drama teacher. I’m still in touch with her today over the phone and email! I spent some time with a couple of other acting teachers in Austin outside of school. One man, that I have tremendous respect for encouraged me to consider moving to NYC. When I moved to New York in 2004, that was obviously a major step in my acting career.
SR: Are you consciously aware of the theatrical choices you make? Or do you not make any choices?
JH: You mean choosing roles, whether or not to take something vs. taking everything? Sometimes it can seem like a blend of the two. I have to gain experience and respect, which involves putting in what may look like “grunt” work. Doing lots of things that pay very little or making a lot less than I could through other jobs. You don’t book everything you audition for, so you are going out after lots of projects, but it is still all part of the work and part of the big picture. I may audition for a particular role that I am not right for and I know I won’t be so right for it before I go, but it might be a chance to get in front of a new casting director or meet some new people. Once when I was in LA I had my first audition for Days of Our Lives. The casting director really liked me but thought that I was too tall and not young enough looking to place the boyfriend of a girl they already had that was half my height and in her teens. I suspected that before I went, but it was a great meeting, and she called me back for some other stuff. I also recently auditioned for the new Melrose Place and had a similar experience. The casting director mentioned I may not be right for that particular role, but she liked me enough to at least suggest me to another casting director!
SR: Which particular aspect of acting do you want to pursue (film, theater…)?
JH: Every area of acting, but for different reasons. Theater is so much fun, there is so much work involved in theater- stretching every skill. Doing theater is like ongoing training, exploration…. You get to experience the nuances of different shows… bond with cast members. Living in New York, my appetite has increased for live theater.
Last summer I was filming some episodes for “Guiding Light.” I quickly realized how fast the TV world can move (especially soaps.) We would basically shoot one take of a scene, reposition cameras and do one more … and that is it. No real rehearsal; it is all very fast. But there is an intimacy in doing something that doesn’t have to read on a big stage.
SR: What have been your personal experiences in live theater versus film?
JH: Film projects can sometimes be a much shorter process than doing theater. When you do a show, you have a lot of rehearsals well before the show even goes up. It can be a longer term experience, but you also really develop relationships with people. I have so much fun on stage, with other cast members, we have inside jokes that sometimes come out on stage; there is a sense of camaraderie in theater that are sometimes harder to experience in short term projects. I really love film though, and I would say that is the medium that long term will have the biggest pull on my heart.

SR: What appeals to you about acting?
JH: The ability to empathize with people. Getting the chance to step into someone else’s shoes without judging them and seeing life from a different perspective is amazing. On the subject of playing “bad guys” a teacher once reminded the class that even the bad guys believe that they are doing what they do for the best possible reasons. Not that it ultimately justifies everything they do, but in a sense, it is justified to them. You have to try to understand a world where you might feel pushed to make those decisions that we would otherwise see has bad.
SR: Are you a member of any acting union?
JH: Yes, I am a part of AFTRA, SAG and Equity. I became eligible to join SAG after doing some work in Texas a while ago, but finally joined recently after shooting a Klondike commercial in NY. If you want to do union work, ultimately you will need to join the union. I joined Aftra when I started working on Guiding Light, and then more recently joined Actor’s Equity. The unions are important because they protect the actors, fight for wages, meal breaks, etc.
SR: Is it easier to be “in the moment” on stage versus in your personal life?
JH: I don’t know that it is. Sometimes on stage you perform something that you have done several times and it can be easy to fall into autopilot mode, where you may not be living in the moment. Sometimes I will try to anticipate something that I know my fellow actor will NOT do. Then when they don’t do what I was anticipating or perhaps they do the opposite, it gives me a chance to be changed by them. Whatever happens actually hits me and becomes real.
In our daily lives, lots of things become routine… I take things for granted all the time. Studying the work of acting has taught me, in some ways, to be interested in people in a new way… to really connect, really listen. What I learn in my craft actually helps me in other parts of my life. I learn to be more attentive, to care more, and not to be callous, but to enjoy the small beauties in life…like the birds and the trees in the city.
SR: What do you do in order to guide your concentration?
JH: Curiosity. I ask questions and try to really hear the responses I get. Developing a sense of curiosity is crucial to me in acting as well as in life. When you are hungry, food tastes that much better, you know? If I am curious about my wife, I become really interested in what she has to say. When I learn to wonder more about her, then I appreciate it that much more when I get to hear about her day, her interests, and her passions.
I have always enjoyed digging through things, taking them apart, figuring out how things work, etc. The sense of curiosity makes discovery that much more fun! I am sure other people may have other ways to concentrate, but that is something that works for me.
SR: Did your family support your decision to make theater a lifelong pursuit?
Yes. It was hard for them to see me leave Austin, but I never once felt pushed by my parents into a specific career. They always encouraged me to make the right decisions, and definitely want me to be financially responsible, but encouraged me. My mother calls me her “Star;” she believes in me, not only to achieve my acting dreams but as a star in her life. It doesn’t really matter if in the public eye I am a star or not, the fact that my family loves me and accepts me is everything.
Christi is a huge support; she was actually excited about moving to New York and ended up getting the best job she’s ever had! She teaches at Trinity School and absolutely loves what she is doing.
I feel as though God has hand-picked the people around me, the wonderful community that I am in. We are really surrounded by so many loving people! My involvement in JARADOA Theater Company (Just A Roomful of Artists Doing Outreach And Theater), which put on the show you recently saw me in has been one way to see some connection between my community as a part of a larger community. We not only do shows, but have a strong focus on doing outreach: presenting radio plays in nursing homes, providing reading and literacy projects in schools, working with troubled and pre-incarceration kids, and a number of other programs are just a taste of what we do. It doesn’t even feel like work because so many people are involved in organizing and coordinating the events; it’s collaborative work, full of energy. I recently did some site coordination at one of our radio plays. It was amazing- we got to do an old time style radio play as if we were recording it live for the airways, but had an audience at a nursing home watching us. It was full of sound effects, songs, and some costumes. Then we got to hang out for a while to chat with them. Seniors make a great audience- they are honest and even yell things out in the middle of the show…”speak louder!” or “oh he/she is GREAT!”… Sometimes they will even sing along.
It’s nice to see people enjoying the arts. Arts touch people and change lives. There are so many ways that we can be blessings to people around us, and you don’t realize the impact you have when you’re doing good work. Getting to work for your community gives you a sense of humility and gratitude.

SR: Have you always taken employment opportunities that were financially promising?
JH: No, I have rejected some great paying work simply because I knew it wasn’t where my heart was. I remember an opportunity that I had to do some High-Tech/IT work in Dallas, Tx when I was living in Austin. I would have made more than twice what I was making in Austin doing technical work, but I was getting more plugged into the arts and didn’t want to leave Austin yet. More recently in NY, I was interviewing for a position doing some more IT work in NJ. I was hoping that I might be able to telecommute so that I could be in the city for auditions and projects, but they said I would need to spend my time there. I would have had a 2 hour commute each way, but I would have made a very decent amount of money. At the end of our lives, money fades. I think God has given me some passions, and I don’t want to wake up in 10 years wondering why I was so afraid to take a chance on something bigger than me.
Many times actors will have the great opportunity to turn down higher paying ACTING work because there is another project that resonates or that feels like a bigger piece of the bigger picture in their own careers. I suspect that can be the case in almost any industry.
SR: Do you give yourself a timeline for all of this (acting)?
JH: I’m on an 80 year career plan. It’s freeing to think of it like that. A lot of people come to New York with expectations and when they are unmet, they give up and get depressed. I try not to have that mindset, and instead of focusing on things I can’t control, I just want the stamina to stick it out. It’s like in a casual family game of Texas Hold’Em, where you don’t always have to be the best player; you just have to be the last one at the table.

SR: How do you deal with a lousy audition/performance?
JH: Well I actually just had one not too long ago. My first audition after our accident was with the TV Soap, “All My Children.” I got some great feedback from the casting director. Though I may not have been suited for the particular role, she kept bringing me back in for other roles. On one of them, I had a callback for a role where I didn’t get a chance to see my audition material till late the night before (I had also just started rehearsals for a musical.) I felt like the callback was one of my worst auditions ever. I allowed myself to grieve it for a few minutes, then let go. If I tell myself that I am not allowed to feel down about a bad audition, I am creating an impossible trap. Instead, I give myself full permission to feel however I feel, but then to create a boundary so that I don’t dwell on it. BTW- not too long after that audition I got a direct booking for some other work on the show (unrelated to the audition.)
SR: Do you sing or dance, aside from acting?
JH: I do! I am not as great of a singer as some of the folks in my current show, but it is one area I am excited about growing into, with some training. As for dancing, Christi and I both love to dance. In fact, we met through the swing dancing community and look forward to getting back into it more as we both heal up. I am hoping to get involved in more musical theater, tap, and ballet classes soon.

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This entry was posted on Monday, July 13th, 2009 at 5:22 am and is filed under Industry News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

18 Responses to “New York Actor John Harrison”

  1. Chris Says:

    Great interview! John’s story is quite intriguing and provides great insight to the actor’s journey in NYC and beyond. Not only has John carved out a rewarding niche in this great landscape of talent, but he has an outlook on the process and approach that is fresh and unique.

    Best of luck, John. Thanks of sharing!!

  2. Tom Says:

    Wonderful interview. I had to re-read John’s answer to the question about lousy auditions a couple of times to really appreciate everything that was being said. That’s some of the best advice I’ve ever seen on how to deal with a performance that doesn’t come up to the artist’s own expectations. Words to live by!

    Take care, John!

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