John Fleck is an actor and performance artist who has appeared in some of television’s most iconic shows. He has appeared on Seinfeld, Star Trek (Enterprise, Deep Space Nine), Babylon 5, Carnivale, The Gathering, Murder One, Weeds, and True Blood, just to name a few. He also appears in the films Howard the Duck and Waterworld, and ZZ Top’s classic music video Legs.
Fleck has won countless grants and awards. He can be found working hard in for various theaters around the U.S. and often works as a performer in world-renowned video artist, Bill Viola’s pieces. He was recently featured in Mr. Viola pieces at The Getty Center (LA), The Guggenheim (NY & Berlin), The Tate Museum (London) the Venice Biennalle and at the National Art Gallery (London).
What were you like as a child? Did you have an active imagination from an early age?
I was very sweet (according to my mother who died in 2000). I think my sweetness was an attempt to correct some of the volatility between Mother & Father. We moved a lot . I went to about 13 different schools growing up so I never had solid ground under my feet or any best friends (and Father was very critical of me)– so yes, I did develop an active imagination that allowed me to escape the reality of where I was.
What was it like to grow up catholic? Do you think religion is unintentionally often more harmful than good?
My family was never devout even though we kids along with Mom (never Father) went to Mass on all the high Holy Days. I was an altar boy for about 2 years . At one point my Father moved the family down to Southern Ohio (across from Kentucky). He was a traveling salesman (at that time) so we never saw him and I loved it . I went to Holy Redeemer Elementary school and I joined the choir and became a very devout Altar boy. I loved the pageantry of the Mass and the ritual of it all. But it became very obsessive where I had to do every genuflection & prayer 9 times. 3 is the trinity. 3 x 3 = 9 (which to me was the holiest of numbers). Interestingly enough, after we moved (when I was in 6th grade) I never went to Church again (except again on Christmas & Easter). But my imagination was definitely fed by the spectacle of the Mass & and Heaven / Hell concept. My first solo works were very operatic, all about the extremism of Heaven / Hell. Good / Bad. Woman / Man. And all my work has had a ‘spiritual’ intent (framed within an often shocking extreme exterior) of breaking out of the shackles of shame (inflicted by religion or culture) that bind me – and discovering the TRUTH of who I really am.
When did you first discover theater? Do you happen to remember what was running through your mind when you first saw a play performed live?
My family did not go to theater, just movies. The first theater experience that had a profound impact was a touring production of Hair in Cleveland, Ohio. My brother in law had an extra ticket and he took me when I was 16 years old. That was radical at the time, people taking their clothes off on stage . Funny how all my early ‘solo’ shows had me getting naked sometime in the show… What can I say? I was a punk rocker performance artist .
Why do you think theater has always had such a timeless appeal?
I believe the Greeks coined the word Katharsis: to cleanse, purge, from katharos, the process of releasing, and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions. Isn’t that what great theater or performance art does for us? Better to see dark, dangerous behavior acted out on stage than to act it out in our personal lives . Ah, catharsis. And what about the lighter colors of human behavior. It’s nice to see a validating reflection of our beliefs & morals up on that stage as well.
What was your very first acting role?
I do remember in 3rd Grade being cast as the lead in The Ugly Duckling. Yes, I was the Ugly Duckling. I still remember my first lyrics & melody, “I swim round & around like a merry go-round’. That’s all I remember but I loved the attention and I was perfectly cast. I had no intention of being an actor. I majored in business . But after flunking trigonometry 3 times at Cleveland State University, I decided (with a friend) to audition to be in the chorus of Gypsy at a community theater and got it. And then I did chorus work in Sweet Charity in another Cleveland community Theater . And then I drove cross country to audition for the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Pasadena (at the time). I got in. God only knows I needed to study a lot more after AADA. I took everything (voice, dance, improv, etc).
What is the most challenging aspect of bringing your self-scripted solo work to life on stage?
Confidence is the key for me. If I allow self-doubt and self-criticism to take over, I’m done for. DISCIPLINE is important to get to the finish line. Keep on trucking’ is all I can say. Also, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Also, book yourself somewhere. If it weren’t for ‘deadline fever’ I never would’ve created anything. But once it’s booked somewhere, you’ve got to bring something to the table. Sometimes it can be intimidating having to bite off a BIG piece all at once. I love to develop original material in small chunks, such as a group show where I have to create a 5 or 10 minute piece. If it works, I will then expand it to 20 minutes at another gig until I get an hour full length piece.
What do you love most about acting?
I still take an acting class in LA . It’s important for me to keep my chops up (is that the expression)? With TV or film work you’re lucky if you have a 3 page scene to dig into . So I find a good workshop and an occasional play gives me characters that have more of an arc and more meat to chew on. Irregardless of 3 TV pages (or) a full length play, I love the engagement with other actors. Since I come from a ‘solo performer’ world as well, I get a real kick working with other actors. What do I love about acting? I love it when I’m focused and know what I want in a scene and me and another actor are listening to each other and don’t have any idea what’s coming next because we’re so in the moment. It’s the closest thrill I get next to parachuting out of a plane (not that I’ve ever done that but I can only imagine)
Do you ever get nervous about how your work will be received by the public?
Whenever I go out on stage I get butterflies. I psych myself out saying it’s ‘excitement’ rather than ‘fear’. As I said, it’s like parachuting for me. Is my chute going to open or am I going to go SPLAT on the stage ? In regards to my self scripted work, I often work with a director (and some other 3rd eyes) so that gives me confidence and other points of view . And hey, not everyone is going to like you. I’ve had people walk out of my earlier shows, usually enraged . My work used to be very cutting edge & shocking. But all in all, I’ve tended to get a lot of good press and response. But every now & then there’s a critic who just hates what you do. But if you can’t take the heat, stay out of the kitchen as they say.
Are there any little known things about yourself that your fans might be surprised to learn?
I’m of two minds. I’m a people person with lots of friends & social activities – but I’m also somewhat reclusive preferring to stay in and watch a nice sunset or a good movie on DVR. I really don’t go in for the whole Hollywood glitz and red carpet events. They bore me. Too much ego for me.
What do you like to do when you’re not working?
I’m one of those guys who’s always defined myself by what I’m doing creatively. I tend to get restless & irritable when I don’t have a creative project to work on or auditions to go on. But one of the great lessons I’m learning is that maybe where I am right now is exactly where I’m supposed to be so CHILL OUT DUDE and enjoy the moment. I’ll tell ya, I’m much more content with that attitude.
Do you have Star Trek fans recognize you often? What was it like to work on those shows? Were you a fan of the franchise?
Since I wore so much make-up, I don’t have people recognize me too much. I have had people recognize my voice interestingly enough. I still get lots of requests from all over the world for signed pictures. I have done some Star Trek Conventions which are a real trip. I actually had a bit of a stalking situation with a woman I met at one of the conventions. She found out all my contact info and kept calling & emailing me. Kinda creepy. I’m glad I’m not real famous. I loved the S.T. Franchise. It was quite the gravy train for me and I’m still very thankful for the residuals that come in (even though they’re getting smaller & smaller over time) . But mostly, I miss acting on Star Trek. I got to play so many characters and honestly, it was the closest thing on TV to doing Shakespeare. The language often was very demanding and articulation was very important.
I love Carnivale. Did you have fun playing Gecko? What kind of condition was it that ailed him? Was it ever named on the show? What did you enjoy most about your time there?
It was quite the spectacle, wasn’t it? And I love being a ‘series regular’. I felt like part of a family of Freaks (well, that’s what we were). Everyone was so nice & excited to be working on a high quality HBO show. Regarding the skin condition Gecko had, I imagined it was a very bad dose of Ichthyosis or fish scale disease which is a skin condition resulting in scaly skin, especially on the arms and legs. What else did I enjoy about Carnivale? I especially enjoyed the series regular pay check as well.
Was the makeup for that character a bitch to have applied? What did it feel like?
The makeup was grueling. 5 hours just to get it on (for a full body make up day) and then at least 1-1/2 hours to remove it. After a few hours of having it on I began to feel as if I were being tortured . Your skin can’t breathe. You can’t move very much. If they applied it to my legs or arms, you’d want to scream when the hair started to be pulled out from its roots. Yeah, it’s not for the faint of heart. But it was great for my meditation. When I’d start to panic after 12 hours of being encased in it, I’d just have to close my eyes & breathe in and breathe out & SURRENDER.
What was it like to play Dr. Overlark on True Blood? Why do you think vampires are so popular in modern times?
Dr. Overlark was a hoot. My sister says I’m such a nice guy but I often play such nasty creeps. Thank God I have a way of channeling that dark side (on TV) and not doing it in real life. Why are we so fascinated with Vampires? Maybe our consumer culture has something to do with it. We’re all scared of getting old & dying . Maybe selling your soul to the dark side is an ok price to stay young & beautiful? I wonder why don’t they do a TV show about old, ugly vampires? Because it wouldn’t sell, that’s why.
Do you have one character you have enjoyed portraying more than others?
I like any part with meat on it. Something that allows me to show some versatility, depth & nuance. Actually some of my Star Trek roles allowed that. However, it’s mostly theater (and my own solo work) that allows me to plumb the depths.
What is it like to work with Bill Viola?
Bill Viola and his wife Kira are two of the sweetest people on the planet. Maybe it’s his Buddhist leanings. Not only is Bill deep and completely immersed in his artistic vision, but he’s FUN. I always laugh a lot when I work with him.
Do you have a dream project you’d most like to bring into being?
I can’t say that I do at the moment – and that’s OK. I’ve always been one to panic when I don’t have one of my own big performance pieces in the works, but sometimes the field needs to lie fallow in order to restore nutrition to the soil (or soul) . .
What projects are you looking forward to working on next?
Perhaps not ‘dream’ projects, but I do have lots of things I’m working on now. My first Art show which I’m creating 10 pieces for atCoagula in Chinatown on Nov 9th. I’m scared because I’m not really a visual artist but hey, it’s good to shake up the apple tree and try another creative direction. At the moment, I’m adapting a speech from Moby Dick for a Moby Dick Gala directed by my old director pal David Schweizer at the Broad Playhouse in LA on Oct 5th. Crazy, huh? I’m floating out in a bathtub with a shower curtain as a sail and doing the infamous ‘sperm speech’ from Moby Dick . It’s actually quite beautiful. I transform into an angel at the end and sing a hauntingly beautiful falsetto Aria. Did I mention I have a 3 & 1/2 octave voice? – I think I was a castrati in a previous life.
Anything to say in closing?
A couple of my own cliches: Unto thine own self, be true. Comparisons are violent. Keep it simple. How important is it? Maybe Steve Jobs said it best when he said, “Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”