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Vincent KartheiserVincent Kartheiser - ’Slag Heap’ Play - Backstrage.com Interview
Saturday 30 April 2005, by Webmaster
eatures East April 28, 2005 Face to Face
Vincent Kartheiser on the ’Slag Heap’ of Life
By Simi Horwitz Actor Vincent Kartheiser is one sly trickster. In his Playbill bio, it says he was named after Vincent van Gogh and grew up surrounded by his paintings.
"Not true," he quips. "I like to throw noodles on the wall and see where they’ll stick. I like to be ambiguous. Most people never know who I am."
Perhaps that’s true in life. But in the play "Slag Heap," which bowed Off-Broadway at the Cherry Lane Theatre on April 13, Kartheiser’s character, Dave, is not an especially ambiguous figure, albeit one probably far removed from the experience of most theatregoers.
Set in the 1980s, "Slag Heap" details the sleazy and depressing lives of baby-faced prostitutes who live in squalor on the bleak streets of northern England, hanging about in search of their next trick. When Dave encounters a rich john, he believes his luck has changed and trails after him to London, where Dave becomes a commodity on the party scene and finally a player in a low-end pornographic film involving bloody self-mutilation. Kartheiser, having mastered a Manchester accent, gives a totally convincing performance, evoking a cocky youth who clearly has no idea how downtrodden he is.
The 25-year-old Minneapolis native, who meets with me at the theatre before a preview performance, insists he did not have to overcome any distaste in order to tackle this material. Pushing his stringy neck-length hair away from his face, Kartheiser suggests that Dave emerges from a "misunderstood" subculture that is interesting by its very nature.
"Dave’s actions represent a culmination of events. Selling himself makes him feel valid. This play is a window into a certain kind of life — and I can’t judge it," Kartheiser notes. "I don’t think there’s anything gratuitously distasteful here, not even Dave cutting himself. And if you cut yourself, there is blood. He does it because he thinks the person who asked him to do it is going to help him. Dave is in fact just an object to be discarded."
Kartheiser, making his New York theatre debut in "Slag Heap," admits to engaging in a lot of "personal research" to prepare for the part. "I went out on the street, stood around, and tried to get myself picked up — not that I went home with anyone. But I did it just to have a sense of how Dave is perceived," he says. "After standing on the street, I felt that Dave has to be desperate and hard, but the director told me that Dave doesn’t respond to his life on the street that way at all. He believes what he’s doing will put him on the road to becoming someone.
"The challenge for me was to be realistic within that optimism," Kartheiser maintains. "The challenge was to find Dave’s pace, his goal, his na´vetÚ, which would allow him to see what he’s doing as a positive thing and nothing to be ashamed of."
Kartheiser, who played Connor, a vampire’s son with superpowers, on the Fox TV series "Angel," admits that Dave is a departure for him: "I’ve never played a character quite as na´ve as Dave. Most of the characters I play have an intellectual underpinning, certain smarts even if they’re simple on the surface. Dave, on the other hand, is a surface person. He’s not aware of emotions — his or others’. He’s aware that someone may be frowning, but not the meaning behind it."
In addition to his "Angel" role, Kartheiser has guest-starred on the TV shows "Sweet Justice" and "ER." He has appeared in several independent films, including "Another Day in Paradise," opposite James Woods and Melanie Griffith, and a host of productions at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.
Kartheiser insists he hasn’t suffered from typecasting, because he doesn’t think it exists: "Too many actors are able to break the mold. It becomes a bad excuse for those who don’t. You become typecast if you allow it."
The Audience Plays Its Part
The son of a tool salesman, Kartheiser wanted to be an actor from the outset: He started acting professionally at the age of six. After graduating from high school, he performed at the Guthrie, "learning on the job." Over the past seven years, he has worked steadily as an actor and, by his own admission, does not waste time tormenting himself over his next gig: "I work to live; I don’t live to work. There’s nothing I’d rather do than act. But it’s only part of my day."
Kartheiser has developed a kind of laid-back insouciance. Consider this: Asked what he’d do if he weren’t an actor, he doesn’t miss a beat: "Teach history, or build things — turn steel into something — or be a prophet. Spread the word and have it written down, have a cult, have people follow me."
His persona notwithstanding, he has clearly given Dave a great deal of thought, comparing him to some of the other roles he has undertaken.
"I’ve played underworld characters before: rapists, murderers, drug addicts," he says. "But the big difference is that they’ve chosen their lives. The characters in ’Slag Heap’ were forced into what they do for economic and political reasons. Think Detroit in the ’80s. The industry boom died and many kids were kicked out on the street. Not all became prostitutes, but some did. In northern England, there was a teachers’ strike for several years and for many kids who might have gone on to the university, it was no longer possible. And there was a large flesh trade at that time."
The ’80s is an era that has personal resonance for Kartheiser: "I grew up at that time and I’m in tune with it: the music, the scene, how people wanted to act. There was the aloofness and the grunge thing. In the U.K., those trends may have been economically determined. Here they had more to do with fads."
Nonetheless, Kartheiser does not believe that "Slag Heap" is a political play about the impact of Margaret Thatcher’s regime. "If it is political, that’s a byproduct," he underscores. "I’m frequently asked, especially when I’m in an independent film, ’What is it saying?’ I feel you have to let the audience do its part. There are four parts to a work’s vision: the writer, director, actors, and then the audience. It’s not ’What is it about?,’ but rather ’What does it mean to you?’ "
Pressed, Kartheiser acknowledges that for him, "Slag Heap" is ultimately a dramatic indictment of Western values that promote the idea that "what we accomplish is what we’re worth. Success, fame, money, power — they’re not real. We give those values power and then miss out. We’re absent from the things that matter."