The Americans's Kelly AuCoin On Playing A Man Of Faith, His Reaction To Matthew Rhys's Real Accent, And His Character's Groovy, Groovy Hair
Kelly AuCoin tells us which Law & Order star was the most considerate on a chilly set, and much more!
Since his first appearance back in Season 2, Kelly AuCoin has made Pastor Tim -- better known here as Pastor Groovyhair, for obvious reasons -- a gentle supporter for Paige Jennings, a staunch supporter of liberal causes, and, of late, the keeper of terrrrrrible secrets. Just in time for the Season 4 finale -- and the birth of the Groovyhair heiress -- I talked to AuCoin about his work on The Americans, with brief stops at other series of note.
Let's start with the matter everyone wants to hear about: our extremely serious Twitter beef. You were kind enough to retweet one of my posts on The Americans, and when I saw that you liked to interact with fans, I thought I might see if you wanted to let me interview you, and brought up the "Pastor Groovyhair" handle.
It's so funny. Maybe I saw it years ago. You sent me something from 2014.
Yeah, I've been covering the show the whole time it's been on, and that link to the post I sent from 2014 was your first appearance, so I've been calling Pastor Tim that all along.
Either that was somewhere in my brain or there's some sort of -- what's the word -- synchronicity between us. I was just slower than you. That was great. I thought I trumped you when I was like, "I think I got to it before you."
I knew I'd been calling you that for a while, but I couldn't remember exactly how far back it went. That was your first appearance, and I think at the end of the episode we don't even know what your name is. I had to call you something in my post.
That may be true. I can't remember if Paige says my name. Anyway. That was great. I love "Pastor Groovyhair." I think it's hysterical.
Let's talk about the groovy hair. In case fans are wondering, that is not all you.
No. As you can see, I don't have much up there.
What is the wigging process for this character?
Do you mean the application or the choosing?
Both. All of it. This is a wig-heavy show; at least you only have to deal with one wig, I assume, or doubles of the same look.
Exactly. The wig was chosen-- and I'm not speaking out of school, because Peg, the brilliant Wigmaster on the show, has already said this in that Vox article, about a day in the life, which was such a cool article. She didn't know, and I didn't know, that my character was going to be more than just a one-off. I don't think that they thought in these exact words, but it was like, "Oh, well, whatever's available. It doesn't need to last. It can be kind of funny." In my mind, maybe they thought it was kind of amusing to have this bizarre wig on me. Then when she found out the character was becoming more integral to the series, she was like, "Goddammit, why didn't you tell me? I would have picked something else!"
They gave me a haircut between Season 2, my first season, and Season 3. It was interesting. When I showed up in the makeup chair the first day back for Season 3, they were cutting the wig, and they were like, "We had an edict from on high that the pastor had to be less..." and they were using euphemisms to be nice to me, and I was like, "You mean less creepy?" "Well, yeah." The conjecture that Tim was a pedophile -- it lessened. There were fewer and fewer people thinking he was a pedophile, after the haircut.
I never got that vibe from him!
Some people really did. I think that's partially a knee-jerk reaction to the Catholic scandal. TV generally seems to paint people of the cloth as people with some sort of nefarious agenda. I'm not a religious person. I am definitely agnostic, but I love the fact that the show had sort of a radical approach. It's like, this guy is just a pastor. He seems to be. This could change on a dime, and they certainly don't confer with me on their storyline, but he just seems to be, more and more, just what he says he is. He's a guy of faith, who will counsel anyone, even counsel Elizabeth. That was a cool scene.
My suspicions were all that he was an operative of some kind, too. Because it seemed so random how Paige just meets that girl on the bus. You think, "That can't be an accident." I sort of thought, because his storyline was that he's kind of radical and political, that they're just going to be incrementally radicalizing Paige, and then at the end of it: "Oh now you're a Communist operative, too."
I can't, of course, say anything, but it's also I don't know a lot. They're in the writer's room now, banging away. I don't have any idea what's going on.
In terms of the way the wig goes: I get called generally, I'd say, like a half-hour earlier than I normally would, so it's not that long. Ruth is my wig person, and we always have a good time teasing me. She's always telling me not to help, because I'm always trying to tilt my head a certain way and do something to help. She's like, "Just sit still! You're like a six-year-old getting his first hair cut! Stop helping!" It's kind of nice. You have a half-hour to sit and talk. If Alice is in the episode, then Suzy [Jane] Hunt is there and we get to shoot the shit.
Actually, my first day in the hair chair, Matthew Rhys came in. I didn't know he was anything but American, and he came in with his very chipper British accent. I remember, it was really early in the morning, and I was like, "Oh dude, you're laying it on a bit thick. C'mon, that's not a very good accent. Pretentious." I'm so glad I didn't say anything to him, which I wouldn't have obviously. Turns out, it was actually a very good British accent.
You've now worked with two of the all-time best British people at faking being American. He and Damian Lewis are great at it.
They're amazing. They're incredible. Alison Wright, too.
Oh yes, of course. Three.
I'm sure there's more that I'm just not remembering right now, but it's incredible how good they are at those accents. Alison surprised me too, the first time I talked to her. It's like, "Wait! Wait. What's fake? What's real?"
What was the process of getting cast on the show for you? You said when you started, you didn't know if it was going to be more than a one-off, but what else did you know about the character? What was the process?
It was the second time I had auditioned for it. I had auditioned for a role that was definitely a one-off role, in the first season. I was really bummed not to get it, but in retrospect I'm very happy, because there was no future life for that guy. It was a great role -- all the roles are great. Rori Bergman, the amazing casting director on the show, brought me in for that second season.
It was Daniel Sackheim in the room with her, who was an executive producer for a long time on the show, and has directed a bunch of episodes. He even actually directed one this year, after he left to go to Game Of Thrones. Alik Sakharov was directing that episode. They were in the room as well. I did a sermon from that first episode, and then we did the "are you really going to beat me up?" stuff.
Then I got it. I found out I got it a few hours later, which was nice. It wasn't a callback. It felt like there was a possibility that it could continue. I tried not to get my hopes up, but it seemed like something Paige was diving into, so I thought, "Maybe I'll get a few episodes out of this." When I was hauled off to jail at the end of the season, I was just hoping that that wasn't a maximum security thing. I was hoping that I wasn't going to be disappeared.
Alik, on the set-- If I see him again, I'm going to thank him. I'll give him tons of credit for helping me craft the character that the producers found interesting enough to continue with, continue featuring. A lot of it had to do with, especially, the way he met Philip's violence, or potential violence. He didn't respond with an obvious fear, it was just open. That was something. Alik was putting that little bug in my ear. I think he was absolutely right. I have to thank him for that, and it's a sort of unique character on the show. He helped me find that.
That leads to another question that I had. This season we've seen Elizabeth -- even Elizabeth -- grudgingly give Tim credit for the sincerity of his beliefs. She says at least he's trying to feed people. She knows he's not a hypocrite.
Yup. They all come around. Like kudzu, I grow on people. Or mold.
We sort of touched on this a little earlier, but what has it been like for you to embody this version of Christianity, which we don't see a lot of in pop culture? Not that Pastor Tim is catholic, but there's a tradition of activism in the Catholic church, for instance, of liberation theology. What has that been like for you to play?
It's been really interesting and rewarding. I come from a political family. My dad was in Congress for eighteen years, from Oregon. That's why we lived in D.C. for so long. Actually, parenthetically, I grew up in D.C. I was Paige's age, so I actually grew up, in D.C. proper, at the time that Paige was growing up in D.C., so that's fun. My dad was in politics, and some of his greatest allies, actually, were progressive churches, congregations and pastors from progressive churches. They wouldn't necessarily agree on absolutely everything, but there were tons of common ground, socially progressive ideas, how to take care of people and whatnot. My dad was a liberal Democrat.
It's funny, people don't think of it that way anymore. Whatever anyone's political leanings is, I think we can all agree that more of the right now dominates the discussion, the religious discussion, especially politically. It's just interesting for me and really rewarding for me, to see some of what I remember on the show. We spent lots of time in churches with speeches and question and answers, and galvanizing volunteers, soup kitchens, and all kinds of stuff.
So you had memories and experiences of people that you knew in your youth that had the same sort of approach to both faith and social justice.
Absolutely. I think it was really interesting when Philip says to Elizabeth at the end, it's really telling, and I definitely remember this type of attitude: fundamentally, all that doesn't matter. "I don't believe in God," "I don't believe in prayer," "I don't believe in religion." Well, fundamentally that doesn't matter. Really, at the base, what matters is how we treat each other. That is the thing that always appealed to me, even though I never went for it, about religion growing up. That was what I was exposed to, so I find that interesting, and almost radical, of the show to portray.
FX has just announced that the next two seasons of the show are going to be it.
Yeah, I know. That's sad. Two more seasons, though, that's great.
Do you have dreams for Pastor Tim before it's all over? Dreams, not spoilers. Assuming that you don't know anything about next season yet, as you said.
I don't. I mean, as an actor, I just want to be an integral part of the show, because it's fun. The cast is so so nice. I'm going to miss the table reads with Alison and whoever else doesn't make it to next season. It's just a great family, and I know that doesn't always exist. I feel really lucky with this and with Billions, just great people, great sets from the top down -- the stars of the show, the showrunners, everybody, just accessible and nice. As an actor, I just want to stay alive as long as I can and have some interesting stuff to do.
What about as a fan of the show? If you can imagine yourself as a viewer, what would be a satisfying way, do you think, for Pastor Tim to go out?
I've never been good at that. I was a fan, as I keep saying on Twitter. I actually was a huge fan. It was my favorite show on TV. I never would have imagined a character like Pastor Tim would have appeared. I don't know, I wonder if I could have been irritated if I hadn't been the guy. I would have been like, "Who is this little shit?" I'm never good at predicting.
One of the things I love about being a fan is being surprised. My wife is very different; she sees things coming a mile away. I'm almost always oblivious. I don't know. I would like to stay alive as long as possible. It was nice because a couple of episodes ago was the first time I really got to work with Keri alone. I'd been able to work with Matthew a lot and Holly a lot. It was nice to work with Keri a lot now. They're all so different and so amazing. They're all three kind of brilliant. Maybe an interesting, uncomfortable scene with Stan, where he's talking to me and he can't understand why I'm squirming so much.
Actually, the woman who plays Joan-- You know Joan, she's the phone woman? She's actually a great great friend of mine, Polly Lee. It would be great if we had a scene together. Basically all I'm trying to do is angle to have fun scenes with people.
Now that there's a Baby Groovyhair, it's harder for people to root for you to get taken out, I think.
"Baby Groovyhair." I know, right?
Even people I know who really like your character, a lot of times this season were like, "Just get rid of him. He's too much trouble." Now it's harder to say that, because there's a baby.
It's kind of brilliant. I know. They should have taken us out at Epcot. You had your chance!
You've mentioned this earlier: in addition to The Americans, you were also on Billions this year. What is it like downshifting from the very earnest Pastor Tim, to a guy who has "Dollar" as part of his name?
It's so much fun. They're like polar opposites. Dollar Bill is-- I'm going to have to explore this next season, but he might very well be a sociopath. He's certainly a bigamist, but he's loyal as hell. Not to his wives, obviously, his families, but he is to Bobby. It's a blast. He's such a little shit. He's such a rooster. The strut. You can't play him without strutting as you're walking through. It's great. There were only about four episodes maybe that overlapped [with The Americans], and a couple days when I had to shoot both. I was expecting them to be a little mind-fucky, but they weren't. The characters are so different. Both the writer's rooms are so good that there's no grey area; the characters are so specific, as long as you're playing the words. I was surprised I didn't get lost.
The idea of playing both in one day is kind of crazy. I recently saw Chris Meloni's Inside The Actors Studio, where he was saying there were years when he would be Elliot Stabler in the morning and then go over to Oz and be Chris Keller in the afternoon until the middle of the night.
That would be crazy, because he was a regular on both, wasn't he?
For me, I'm recurring, so there are days off. He was probably doing that constantly.
That's what he said. He'd get up at dawn and work until like 1 or 2 in the morning.
He's not sleeping. Literally not sleeping. There's a wonderful actor friend of mind named Tamara Tunie. We were doing Julius Caesar together on Broadway, with the same director I'm working with right now, actually. She would hang out in our dressing room and we would chat. At one point, she was doing-- Let's see if I have this right. She was doing Caesar, she was doing her stint -- and it was particularly heavy -- on As The World Turns. And she was doing SVU. This one week, she was working heavily on all of them, getting two hours of sleep a night. We had a bigger dressing room, and she was dozing on our cot. She was just like, "You know, what am I gonna do? I'm gonna say no? It's work. You suck all the marrow out of it, whenever it's presented." I can't believe [Meloni] did that over the course of an entire season.
For multiple seasons, for a while. Oz was on for a long time, longer than people remember. Enough about Chris Meloni. He's not here. Back to you: you also played Gary, brother to my favorite House Of Cards character, Doug. Is Michael Kelly in fact the best? If he's not, please don't tell me.
Michael Kelly is one of the nicest people I've ever met.
I'm so glad.
An incredibly generous actor. [He] was very supportive and helpful to me when I was there. He's great. I was really happy for him that whole season, and he got the Emmy nomination for it. That whole season was like House Of Cards: The Doug Stamper Story. God, he was good. He's always good. He's a great guy. He's a really really great guy. Very nice person, and a brilliant actor.
He's my favorite thing about that show. That would also be good preparation for The Americans, I would imagine, being one of the three decent people in a show that's all about complete bastards.
That's true. That's funny that I hadn't thought about that. I always was focusing on the fact that, coming from a political family where my dad was a Congressman, at one point I was on three D.C.-based political shows at once. It was House Of Cards, The Americans, and Madam Secretary. In none of them was I playing a politician. I just thought, "Come on! You're missing out. I'm good here. I grew up with this shit." Actually, it was kind of fun. House Of Cards, I think I was literally the only person that season who was not from D.C. I was from Columbus, Ohio.
Of course, like every New York actor worth a damn, you've played a variety of characters on Law & Order. What was that experience? Please say magical.
It was magical.
Was it actually magical?
It was not without its charm. No, it was great. My first on-camera experience, really. My first real on-camera experience were these shows. The first couple episodes that I did, two years apart maybe, the first one I look back on it now and I'm like, "God, what was that accent you were affecting?" I don't even know what I was doing, I just didn't sound like myself. The second on, I was like, "Oh, I can do this." What's the name of the woman who was on for a while, she married a New York Giant. Dark hair. Angie Harmon: She's the one I was working with. It was freezing cold in this place, and my teeth were literally chattering. She was able to have a coat on, but she'd come to visit me. I was in my house, and I couldn't have a coat. She finally was just like, "Can somebody get this guy a blanket?" In the shot, she said, "Just like wrap it around, come on, you can do it." I didn't know what I was doing. I couldn't demand anything. It was just really sweet. We cut the scene, and I was nervous as hell. I kept apologizing when I'd screw up, and she's like, "You're great. You're doing great. Don't worry about it. It's awesome." Then in our van back to our trailer, she was like, "We got the scene, that was awesome. You're great. What's your name again?" I always loved her. She's a total sweetie. She took the time and noticed that I needed it. She took the time to make me feel comfortable, which is really nice. All the rest of them were great, too.
I have two final questions. What is your favorite show, be it now or all-time? Other than The Americans.
I won't say The Americans, or Billions, or The Blacklist, since I'm doing all three of those shows. Okay, I'm going to rank them. I'm going to say The Wire. Deadwood was up there very high. I was obsessed with NewsRadio. That was one of the greatest ensembles that's ever been on TV. Season 4 of The Wire was one of the most engrossing, devastating things I've ever seen in my life.
Last question. What is your most formative show, the one that changed you and shaped you the most? Could be as a viewer or as an actor.
As an actor, Without A Trace. Because of all the flashbacks that they used, there were a number of times where if you were a guest star on a show, you were obviously deferring to the leads in a certain way. You're creating a real character, obviously, but you necessarily are tailoring it somewhat to the needs of the main characters. Not because of the actors, but because of the storyline, the arc of the whole season. These flashbacks allowed us to sort of be the story. It was the first time I'd had to assume that responsibility. My character was this millionaire designer guy, and I was orchestrating parties and all this stuff. You had to have this sort of balls-out kind of "deal with me"-type of approach. That was a great experience. Any time you're forced to take on a position of-- I hesitate to say power, a position of authority or presence, like you are the shit in that moment. You're the center of gravity in that moment. The shoot depends on you in a certain way. It was a great experience to have to meet that challenge.
In terms of what I've seen: The Wire. I have to think about this. In the past, I remember growing up with All In The Family, and just realizing that people could fight, and that within families there were different political views to be had. There was validity in a number of different things. Thatt was big. M*A*S*H, of course. Actually, that's interesting. It's so far away from me now, but I'm guessing that M*A*S*H might have had as big an influence on me as anything else, in retrospect. There was nothing that actually made me want to be an actor. That was actually being on stage.