Austin Nichols caught the eye of TV mastermind David Milch while playing a bit role on Deadwood and, based upon Nichols’ performance, was cast as the eponymous character in Milch’s new HBO drama John from Cincinnati. Over its first few episodes, John from Cincinnati has baffled and delighted viewers. Although some are still mixed as to where they stand on the surfing-themed show set in Imperial Beach, California, one thing that everyone can agree on is that the show has been expertly cast, Nichols included. Austin stopped by recently to discuss the show.
Below you will find both the written transcript and the full mp3 audio of the interview.
Can you tell us what made you want to become an actor and how you got into the business?
You know, this really is a strange answer because I didn’t really choose acting, I feel like it chose me. It was like when I was fifteen years old all of a sudden there was some voice in my head telling me “Learn about acting.” You know, and I started taking classes and with like three different teachers in my hometown in Austin, Texas and it started slowly building. I feel like my whole career has been sort of a…small steps all the way through. So it’s been small steps and it’s progressed really nicely and I feel like, as a kid, I was always sitting Indian style with my nose two inches from the television screen and I loved movies to death. At that age I didn’t know that that’s what I wanted to do and I just knew that I loved to watch, I loved to watch performances and just a big cinema freak as a kid and so it just sort of naturally…it was weird cause I wanted to be a pro athlete, I wanted to be a professional water skier and at some point that little voice just said, “No, that’s not what you’re gonna do.”
How did you get your first gig? Did you just head to LA and just go for it?
Well, yeah I’ve done a couple of little things in Austin, that thing…I don’t know if I ever got paid, if I did it was like $80. They were little, tiny…I even did an industrial commercial, I did some short film for students at the University of Texas and that was probably about it and I decided to move to LA and went to college in LA, I went to the University of Southern California and started kind of working as an actor at the same time, I was always missing class, and so my first real gig was on a science fiction show called Sliders. And that was the beginning.
So far, you’ve had a really good relationship with HBO. You were on Six Feet Under, and then you had a part in Deadwood, and now John from Cincinnati. Do you prefer the premium channel, the HBO thing compared to network TV?
Well, the thing about network TV is that you don’t have the same freedom. And making a show for HBO is like making a movie for nine months, you know. It’s like being on a ten hour movie. I’m so happy to be working for them. It’s a real blessing, we have total—David Milch has total autonomy. He…we’re totally left alone, no one’s breathing down our necks, it’s fantastic.
Both Deadwood and John from Cincinnati are David Milch shows. How did you end up going from the bit part in Deadwood to John from Cincinnati? Was it something where Milch really liked what you did on Deadwood and then cast you on the new one?
It’s crazy. We were doing a scene, I was playing Morgan Earp, we’re doing a scene where I fell asleep at the whore house, and stayed overnight and it was morning time, which…it’s not Kosher to stay at the whore house past the hour that you pay for. So, we were doing a scene where David said, “I think the history books failed to remember that Morgan Earp was probably a thumb sucker.” And everybody started laughing and I was like Dave…Dave wanted me to be sucking my thumb in this scene where I was asleep. It’s sort of a grown…I’m a grown man who’s sort of a young childlike little fuck up sort of guy and so after we rehearsed that he took me out in the street on the Deadwood street and he said, “I got you in mind for this other project. I’ll tell you about it later.” And that became John from Cincinnati. He’s been looking at me to play John while I was playing Morgan.
What do you say to people when you’re asked what the show’s about? I’m not sure if we’re supposed to know what the show’s about yet. How would you describe it?
The greatest thing about it is if you ask somebody, “What is your life about?” It’s a really hard question to answer and the way people are responding to the show is so interesting because I get text messages and phone calls and emails and everybody saying “I’m hooked!”, “I love it!”, “I don’t know what it is, I don’t know why I love it but I can’t stop watching it.” And we all feel the same way working here. We can’t explain, we can’t put it into words a lot why we’re so attracted to it, we keep showing up everyday with big smiles on our faces. I…so it’s really interesting because it’s…most movies, most television shows, everything is sort of in a genre or a certain format and that makes sense to people that they have sort of seen before and I can truly say that this is something that hasn’t been seen before. And that’s pretty exciting.
Do you think the show could exist without the pedigree of having both David Milch on the show and it being on HBO which has produced so many great shows in the past decade?
Yeah I think so. I mean, there’s certainly…it’s certainly a…we certainly have so much freedom because of David and HBO knows what an incredible genius he is. But I think that there’s this—all of us actors need to take a leap of faith in doing the show and because we don’t know what’s coming up next. I think the audience has to do that too. And I think they have to do that no matter who is at the helm. But honestly, the show probably wouldn’t even…couldn’t exist without David.
For those who haven’t seen the show yet, how would you describe your character?
John is basically, he thinks the best of people when they’re not thinking of it themselves. You know, he’s a purifier of energy. He’s really exists without fear. You know a lot of human beings walk around everyday and they have all these fear based problems and it’s invented by the media, invented by your parents, and all kinds of different things but John is literally like a child and he shows up, he doesn’t have those issues and it’s inspiring just cause his presence alone inspires everyone to take another look at things as if the Yost family is like in a fiery plane coming towards earth and just in fact John arrives and sets them down gently, you know.
The way the character is portrayed by you, I feel like with the way it was written, there’s so many different ways you could’ve played the character. Did David Milch tell you how to do it or did you have any say in how you played John?
David was really quiet and he was ignoring me and I finally got to call him and I wanted to ask him and talk to him about it cause I like to collaborate and get everybody, you know, get help and throw my ideas out and David was literally—literally looked at me and said “I just want you to do what you did as Morgan.” And that really confused me and I didn’t know any—and the only thing he said is “Austin, you’re the guy. You gotta be the guy. And to you, I just want you.” And so I’m thinking, does David think that I’m retarded? And it took me a long time to sort of process what he meant by those things. In the end what I just realized is that whatever I do is fine. And he gave me so much confidence in just telling me that basically I can do no wrong. I can make no mistakes. All I have to do is show up and just be there with everybody. That’s all I’ve done and you know I was so inspired by Peter Sellers in “Being There” and a few other things…Mostly I feel like, it sounds weird because John is a character, but I feel like I’ve basically just show up as myself. Which, I know it seems weird, but true.
The cast for John from Cincinnati is just incredible. I mean, what were your first thoughts when you realized you’d be working with, you know Luis Guzman and Ed O’Neill, Luke Perry, De Mornay and Bruce Greenwood and all these people. How is it working with them on a day to day basis?
You know, Luis Guzman has been a hero of mine forever and just to spend time with him at the hotel and on the set is more than I could have ever dreamed for as an actor. I learned a lot from him and Ed…you know, my parents wouldn’t let me watch Married with Children because they thought it was morally terrible. They thought it was just awful for a young kid like me to watch Married with Children but I would sneak around and I would watch anyway. And I thought it was hilarious. And I find myself all of a sudden working with these people and it’s fantastic. The cast the David put together is really interesting and a bunch of people who really don’t go together but somehow when they do come together it’s just great chemistry.
Anything coming up for you outside the show and where do you see your career going in the near future?
Well you know, there’s a couple of movies I might do this summer but I also might just travel to Italy. I wanna buy a car and drive around and then drive around the whole country and then finally when I’m done just leave the keys in the ignition and go back to America. And I might just do some traveling, but I just hope that people get as much out of the show as we’ve all gotten working on it cause it’s more than just a show. It’s literally, I feel like it’s something that people can help people and take people to take something away from.
(Interview Conducted by Oscar Dahl)
(Image Courtesy of HBO)