Born and trained in LA, the American actor Kenneth Ransom has been based in Perth since his wife Kate Cherry became the Artistic Director of Black Swan State Theatre Company in 2008. A semi-regular on the Black Swan stage, his recent performances include Glengarry Glen Ross, Dinner, The House on the Lake and The Motherf**ker with the Hat.
We met him following a mask fitting for his upcoming role in The Caucasian Chalk Circle, which the company will perform in July-August. Based on an old Chinese fable, the piece was written by Bertolt Brecht, a German playwright, and set in Asia. Black Swan will work with Dr. Wang Xiaoying, a director from the National Theatre of China, and his artistic team in its first international collaboration. Ransom says, “there will be a strong Asian influence, and the design and performance elements, except the acting, will be Chinese. This makes it unlike anything Perth has seen before. All actors, bar the main character and her love interest, will be masked, just like is done in Beijing Opera. This means our performance has to be more physical. The Heath Ledger Theatre [in the State Theatre Centre] is already not an easy place to perform vocally because there’s dead spots in it, so the mask will make it even more of a challenge.”
Ransom will play Shauva in the production, a cop who later assists the judge Adzak (played by Geoff Kelso). “Auditioning for Dr. Wang, a non-English speaking director, was a really interesting experience. There was a translator present, but I could tell he reads body movement really well. He was taking in everything I was doing and clearly wanted to see if I could communicate with him.”
Most recently, Ransom featured in the computer generated block-buster Gods of Egypt alongside an all-star cast of actors, including Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Gerard Butler, Rufus Sewell and Geoffrey Rush. Lionsgate’s $140 million fantasy action-adventure, filmed in Australia, launched February 26, but struggled at the Box Office with all the other films competing against the Deadpool juggernaut.
The recipient of a host of unflattering reviews, Ransom wryly acknowledges it’s “getting no respect from the critics. Jason Di Rosso [ABC Radio National’s film critic] really respected it, but I suspect he might have an agenda there because he wants to encourage international projects to come to Australia.”
Ransom appears in one scene with the main characters as a giant, lumbering CGI sphinx. “It feels like I auditioned for the role 4 or 5 years ago. They were interested in me right away, because something about my facial features really worked for them in regards to how they wanted to construct this cat-like character. It was my first time in a CGI role, and dealing with motion and performance capture, so I was unsure how I would get my character across.”
“I’ve been in over half a dozen feature films, but this was the first time in my whole life where the entire cast was present at the read through! In a play, you’re all on stage together so you always do a read through of the script with the whole cast. You never do that in film. The main characters might do so, but certainly not the one-line characters. In Gods of Egypt, we all gathered at one huge table because the director wanted to hear the whole thing. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau [Game of Thrones’ Jamie Lannister and one of the leads in the film] was a long way away. I come from the theatre, so I was projecting my voice, but I couldn’t hear one-word from Nikolaj or Geoffrey Rush. But you could always hear Gerard [Butler]! He has a booming voice and he played a ‘tough-guy’ character so it fit for him to be loud. I hung out with Gerard a little, but Nikolaj was very self-protective, probably because Game of Thrones has become such a phenomenon. You’d become tired of everyone wanting a piece of you.”
“I didn’t have a core role, but I had an important role for that scene,” Ransom says. “When it came down to shooting, the other actors were in the studio with me, but they were covered by cameras 1-3 [the main cameras] because they were people reacting to me. I was with the FX crew in front of a green screen in a little corner with small white dots [tracking markers] all over my face so that they could capture my facial features. I had to create some sort of sense that I was this creature, so I was on all-fours as is my character. I was projecting my voice over to where they were so that I could give them something to respond to.”
Ransom’s performance was then used by the FX crew to animate the computer generated sphinx so that it had real body motion. Benedict Cumberbatch was similarly used to give life to the CG dragon Smaug in The Hobbit trilogy.
“One of my very close friends is a film director who understands CGI more technically than I do. He advised me that you must create the whole world yourself, rather than relying upon another person. My training plays into that, because I was trained in The Method. It has a bad reputation, but I think one good thing about The Method is that it trains you to work independently, as I had to. Method acting is a way of working that came out of a particular period of time where believability on stage was becoming more important. It uses your own life in a constructive way. That doesn’t mean that if I play a drug addict I have to start using drugs, which is often the misinterpretation. It means I have find something in my life that is equivalent to using drugs. I have to find that need, that dependency. It says nothing about going and doing heroin, for example, to make it real for yourself,” Ransom says.
With a preference for stage over film work, the seasoned actor will also appear in Black Swan’s production of Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches this May-June. He will play Belize, a black ex-drag queen and registered nurse who is the closest friend of Prior, the main character. Ransom and his wife Kate Cherry were at the first play reading of Angels in America, which then opened in Los Angeles in 1992. Cherry was studying with the director Oskar Eustis who commissioned Tony Kushner’s magnum opus and served as the dramaturg on the show while at the Eureka Theatre Company in San Francisco. Ransom recalls knowing instantly that it was a new and different type of play, theatre that would make a difference. Kushner is now his favourite playwright.
“We have to remind ourselves and the world of the paranoia and panic that existed before the new millennia. People thought we might face Armageddon or Y2K in 2000, where the computers were going to shutdown and the whole world was going to end. Tony Kushner tapped into that with Millennium Approaches, that’s why he gave it that title. When the HIV/AIDS epidemic hit, people freaked out because people were dying and they didn’t even know what it was. It mostly affected homosexuals at first, but it trickled into the heterosexual community too. Now, you can live with HIV and it’s not uncommon to do so in the Western world, though it is still a death sentence in Africa.”
“We have now accepted homosexuality in a way that was unimaginable when Tony wrote Angels in America,” says Ransom. “There’s not marriage equality, but there has been some progress. There was a time when people got beaten up at Mardi Gras, now the cops are part of Mardi Gras. Angels got us to check ourselves during the height of the epidemic and asked what was the humane response.”
“I heard Tony talking during an interview to mark the 20th anniversary of the play, and he said that what he foresaw in Angels, from global warming to all the horrible wars, has been realized,” says Ransom. “We’re living it and it’s worse than he imagined, but we’ve become accustomed to it. Instead of Y2K and the end of the world, the millennium brought us 9/11, and that changed everything.”
Interview by Samuel J. Cox