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AngelThomas Burr (Wolfram & Hart’s Lee Mercer) : The Chill Factor
By Sue Grimshaw
Thursday 29 April 2004, by cally
The Chill Factor
An exclusive Spotlight on Thomas Burr
Mystery: One whose identity is unknown and who arouses curiosity A dictionary definition which could be used to describe Angel actor Thomas Burr because apart from being aware that his most recognisable role is probably that of weasel Wolfram & Hart attorney Lee Mercer, very little else is actually known about him. CityofAngel.com had the chance to meet up with Thomas during a recent visit to London in an attempt to try, in some part, to put that right. What we uncovered was a charming, intelligent yet still seemingly shy man who is extremely dedicated to his profession but not afraid to make fun of himself in front of a convention audience. Hopefully this feature will prove that Thomas is less of a weasel and more of a wonder as he shares his experiences and advice.
THE STAGE BECKONS
Thomas Burr was a very welcome addition to the Senior Partners event at the Heathrow Thistle Hotel last November not only because it would bring him over to the England for his first ever UK convention appearance but also because it was a chance to reunite him with his fellow partners in law and disorder, Christian Kane (Lindsey McDonald) and Stephanie Romanov (Lilah Morgan). For some, being in the company of familiar faces, especially those of old friends, could be considered somewhat of a comfort yet Thomas found his inaugural meeting with the Angel faithful a little more daunting than he may have anticipated. "I was intimidated coming into it definitely," he explains, "I had no idea what I was in store for but I was so pleasantly surprised at, number one, how organised they [Starfury] are but also just how all the people, the attendees, are so unbelievably cordial and relaxed and there hasn’t been any uncomfortable moments." At that last comment, Thomas is reminded of an incident that had happened on stage moments earlier during his Q&A session. The sound crew had surprised him with a request to perform his own unique rendition of The Devil Went Down to Georgia which he did much to his utmost humiliation but to the high amusement of everybody else. "Yeah, but I can deal with that," he says with a smile as he recalls the moment. "Embarrassment is one thing because it’s something I’m used to but that didn’t come from them, it came from the staff!" Thomas makes a mental note to never let anything slip about any other songs he likes before continuing, "But like I say, embarrassment is embarrassment. If you’re an actor for 10-years you shouldn’t have much of an ego unless you are, I suppose, a huge successful film actor."
"As mentioned, being in London did give Thomas the chance to spend some time with old friend Christian Kane. They had worked together on the pilot episode of Christian’s debut series Fame L.A. before joining forces again to become the proverbial thorn in Angel’s side as the face of Wolfram & Hart. "It’s always great when you work on something," he says when asked about Christian and his Fame L.A. appearance, "and what’s cool about seeing Christian again is watching somebody evolve. He was so nervous when he did Fame L.A. because it was the first thing he had ever done. I’d just done a couple of independent films but he was fresh off the boat. He’d only been in L.A. for l think a few months before he booked that so watching somebody get so comfortable so quick, he’s a talented guy in so many respects and such a good-natured guy." It’s interesting that Thomas should make that perceptive comment about Christian’s evolving talent because to the casual observer that very same sentiment could be cast in his direction. As a native Californian, Thomas had no desire or aspirations to get into acting unlike so many who flock to Los Angeles. When he attended UCLA, a career on screen or stage was the furthest thing from his mind, "I didn’t study acting and it never really popped into my head. I didn’t take it seriously and certainly never thought of it as a profession but I also really had no idea what I wanted to do at all and I think that’s why most people probably go and become literature majors, there’s not that much you can do with it." It was only the influence of some of his college pals that made him think a little differently, "I knew a couple of people in the theatre department that I’ve known since I was growing up and I was friends with in high school but not great friends with them. I became very close with them in college and I sort of latched on to that social scene."
"The first thing that they put me in I just felt comfortable on stage," he recalls, "it was comic and it was funny and I liked the immediate response, you know, it felt good. So I started taking classes just to see if I would like it and if it would be something I would be into and I just took to it. It felt very natural and kind of comfortable for me and again I’m actually a fairly quiet somewhat reserved person but I definitely feel in acting the freedom that you can express yourself however you want so I definitely fell in love with it then." Not content to let his love affair with the stage simmer gently, Thomas embraced his passion wholeheartedly and went on to form his own theatre company called, The Subtle Bliss Theatre Company. "People I had studied with and had seen in some plays just talked," he says as he describes the company’s beginning, "we knew a lot of people that did theatre and we sort of said, instead of going out and auditioning for stuff where maybe we liked the script, you have so much more control when you’re in control of what you do. We also got to pick the people that we thought were the ones that could make the company shine and so we just formed a little production team and started trying to organise how we could get at least enough money to have a theatre and work out of that."
When Thomas talks about the theatre company, he is under no illusions that in a cutthroat business such as the L.A. acting scene, it’s going to take hard work in order to survive. For every actor that makes it to Broadway or hits the big time on the silver screen, there are dozens more waiting tables or parking cars constantly auditioning, waiting for their big break. This is where you witness the drive and determination that Thomas has especially when he talks about the early days of the company’s foundation and just what it takes to keep it running. "What’s hard is everybody has these great ideas. You know, everybody says, ’Lets do this, lets commit to this process,’ that’s really not gonna bring us much money, certainly not in the beginning. If you’re having something successful further down the line then maybe people in film and television will come see it. They’ll see the talent, they’ll start throwing money at you or giving you parts but you have to look long term. That way you have to think like, ’Ok, in the future that’s what hopefully will happen but right now we have to build a base.’ You have to give a lot of time and energy to it and you have to get a lot of people to do that. It can be very hard because a lot of people think it’s a great idea but when it comes down to saying, you have to run the theatre this week, keep track of when it’s open and when it’s gonna be cleaned or interview people that want to be part of the production company and finances and all that stuff, you know everybody has their own life. Unless you’re a very successful actor, a lot of people have other jobs that they have to do so it’s a question of how committed people will be to that one goal. People have a hard time doing that when there’s not big dollar signs."
POP GOES THE WEASEL
Thomas’ screen roles had been limited to parts on Fame L.A. as previously mentioned, The Hunted and G vs. E. On the 9th November 1999, Thomas made his first of four appearances as snide lawyer Lee Mercer in the Season 1 episode Sense and Sensitivity. Not bad for a character who was never meant to have existed in the first place. "The only reason why they wrote that character," he explains, "was because Christian Kane was away doing another project so they rewrote the episode so that it could be a different lawyer. The reason I got to audition for it is because I had read for the company a couple of times. I knew somebody in the casting office who had seen me read and they had used me as sort of a casting assistant a couple of times just as a favour because I knew them. Sometimes casting officers need people to help them with auditions, whether it’s running a camera or just reading a prompt for somebody and I’d done that for this company a few times. They basically just called me in and I very quickly got that role. That day I knew I’d got it!"
Knowing essentially that the part you had been chosen for was created as a temporary replacement for another more established character, it may have felt like the axe was always ready to fall, "Every single time I was there I was waiting to read the script thinking that," Thomas jokes. "If you’re there for a main stay like Christian, when he did his first episode he knew he was going to be on the show, not indefinitely, but he knew there were more shows in the future. Every time I did an episode I pretty much thought that was it. When I did the first episode it was just one episode and I didn’t follow the show so I didn’t really know that a lot of it really followed Wolfram & Hart as that was an essential part of the show. I was thrilled when they ended up calling me back months later to do a few more but again every single time they never said, ’We’re gonna keep you on,’ or anything like that. It was just they’d give me the script for next week so when I got three more in a row I was ecstatic. I think it was the third or fourth in a row I got the bullet in head but, you know, it always sort of crept in my mind, ’I guess if they really wanted to they could always bring me back!’"
BEHOLD THE COMPANY JOKER
During his tenure at Wolfram & Hart, it was quite clear that Lee Mercer would never be able to quite live up to the promise that his colleagues Lindsey and Lilah had, but it didn’t stop him from trying. It was his idea to bring in rogue vampire slayer Faith to deal with the pesky little problem known as Angel but unfortunately his people skills weren’t up to much and his arrogant manner ignited Faith’s temper as he ended up on the wrong side of a desk! "The end was just me going into the desk repeatedly...it kind of creeps in your mind, ’What did I do to deserve this?’" Thomas on Faith beating up Lee
It was this close encounter with a piece of solid oak that Thomas cites as his most memorable moment on Angel. "I think the scene with Stephanie, Christian and Eliza [Dushku], where she ended up beating me up, that was definitely the most memorable," he confirms, "it was the most takes that we ever did. That was a long scene and the great punctuation mark at the end was just me going into the desk repeatedly because you all feel like I’m just an idiot having a girl do that to you. But also they really wanted to capture the expression on my face. I just remember David Greenwalt was there for that scene and he was directing it. Of course it kind of creeps in your mind, -What did I do to deserve this? Did I do something wrong last week?’ but I always tend to go with it and just kind of have fun. I guess some people might be uncomfortable playing a character who’s put in an embarrassing, humiliating position, I sort of relish in that."
Lee Mercer’s career with Wolfram & Hart was cut short when a bullet was unceremoniously placed in his skull after mind readers detected that he was thinking of leaving the firm and taking his clients with him. But if Thomas were offered the chance to reprise the role, would he take it? "In a second, are you kidding, absolutely," he says without hesitation before going on to explain what he would like to see happen to his character if that were ever to happen. "I think it would actually be quite fun to have him back as someone you always see pay for being evil. Meaning that would be a good way to just always have, in comedic ways, him get beat up by whoever or killed successively. Like resurrected, killed, resurrected, killed that could be a fun pattern." CoA staff member Nicola Jones commented to Thomas about the amusing visual of seeing his character Lee sitting in his office after the pounding given by Faith. "Exactly," Thomas replies as he continues his idea of using Lee as a comedic fall guy, "I mean imagine just having a character that you can just torture and beat like a voodoo doll and stick pins into, that would be fun!"
AUDITIONS OH AND A BIT OF ADVICE TOO
Since leaving Angel, Thomas has made an appearance playing a transvestite in the 2000 film entitled Bliss as well as appearing in BraceFace Brandi in 2002. His work with the theatre company is ever present and actually features in his immediate plans. "I have a play in Los Angeles right now that’s the first thing," he says "and what is being cut right now are some short films that I did for the Aspen Comedy Festival. I just came from New York and did those which I suspect I’ll probably go there to see how those things go and then pilot season’s coming up which is generally a lot of auditioning." With the pilot season approaching it was interesting to see if there are any particular types of roles that Thomas looks to play. During his Q&A session over the weekend, Thomas had openly admitted that he wasn’t the best sometimes at choosing roles as his friends often talked him out of accepting parts that he ordinarily thought were good for him. "Unfortunately I don’t get to audition for everything I’d like to audition for as there are roles out there that are just going to go straight to people that have huge track records and that have a lot of credits," he admits. "But I think for the most part there are definitely things I turn down and that I have no interest in. But also because I like characters and I like things that are different for me. I try to experience different things and lots of different kinds of characters so it’s never hard for me to find a part that I find interesting or that I want to audition for."
So which does he prefer, film, TV or theatre? "All three! I love doing theatre, I think that essentially I will always want to go back to doing that hopefully," he admits, "You know it happens to some people that they start off in theatre and then they start doing more film and TV work and they’re successful and they go on to do that. The people I really admire, my sort of heroes and the people that I look up to, are the people that have become great film actors and have gone back to do the stage." The fact that Thomas never even imagined being an actor as he grew up in California, his advice to somebody who is considering getting into perhaps one of the oldest businesses in the world is honest, "The number one thing I would say is work," he answers, "If you want to act, act but seek out plays and places and I’d say study that’s very important but from the get go get on stage, make the connections." It is his own drive and determination that has kept Thomas going and he feels that has to be an essential part of any actor’s resume, "When you’re an actor, especially at the beginning you have to be very self motivated. It’s not like working for a company where you can show up every day whether you’re tired or not and you’re kind of like a part of a machine that’s working. You are your own product. If you don’t push yourself then nobody’s really gonna push you. It can happen if you’re very lucky and you’re lazy and you have agents and managers who are making money off pushing you and that will happen once you’re successful but in the beginning you have to push yourself and find ways to work and find ways to be seen by people that will also want to attach themselves." Thomas obviously pushes himself constantly and markets his product very well. There is still very little information published about him but it can only be a matter of time before the mystery that is Thomas Burr is revealed to all!
Written by CoA UK Staff Writer, Sue Grimshaw