…And a Passion: Q&A with Atra Asdou

“All you need for theater is two planks and a passion”—one version of a saying attributed to Spanish playwright Lope de Vega (who actually said something a little less pithy). Planks can be gotten anywhere. For passion, you need actors.

Given the cooperation of the Fates, this will be an occasional feature, exploring the life and work of actors by means of a standard set of questions. Earlier entries in the series can be found here. (Responses have been lightly edited.)

In this installment of my Q&A, which introduces a few new questions, actor Atra Asdou speaks to the casting issue that has recently stirred attention (for examples, see here and here), recalls playing to the family camcorder, and explains how her most recent role affected her perceptions. I discovered her, so to speak, while looking into a recent Steppenwolf Theatre production. You can find Atra on Twitter.

Atra-Asdou-Headshot-2-crop(w)Where were you born?
Chicago, Illinois.

Where do you live now?
Chicago, Illinois.

What’s your current role?
I just finished a run playing Julia in George Orwell’s 1984, a production in the Steppenwolf for Young Adult series. In February, I’ll start rehearsals for the role of the Wife in a Lookingglass Theatre Company production of Lorca’s Blood Wedding, which will begin performances in March.

What sparked your interest in acting?
My father has always been a huge movie fan. Spending all day at the movies was his favorite pastime when he was growing up in Iraq. When my siblings and I were children, we didn’t have a bedtime and we didn’t have restrictions as to what we would watch at night: it was whatever my dad wanted to watch. He’d, of course, manually censor any inappropriate moments by changing the channel then changing it back, but we’d watch every movie from Dumbo to The Godfather. Lots of Westerns, too. He’d quiz me on actors. “Atra, do you know who that is?” “Robert Redford?” “Robert Duvall.” When he bought a camcorder, my brothers and I would record silly premises and characters. My father would also take us to our cultural center to watch plays and sketches the people of our community would perform. I didn’t know acting could be a profession until fifth grade. That’s when I met my friend Nicole, who, at the time, wanted to be an actor. Her parents took her to the theater all the time, and she was involved in plays. They often had an extra ticket and were so gracious as to have me along to see shows like The Lion King. That was the first professional production I’d seen. That’s when I started pursuing it—taking classes in middle and high school, then majoring in theater at Loyola University Chicago.

What actors, past or present, do you most admire?
Chicago stage actors: Stacy Stoltz, Katie Rich, E. Faye Butler, Walter Briggs, Kareem Bandealy, Anish Jethmalani. To sum up a too-long list of film and TV actors: Lucille Ball, Gene Wilder, Tom Hardy.

Whose work have you seen recently that you admired?
Kristen Wiig—she can do no wrong. Helen McCrory’s work in the series Peaky Blinders. What I would have given to see her play Medea live at the National Theatre.

Where did you train?
Loyola University Chicago and Second City Chicago.

Who has most influenced your work?
Many things influence my work, but narrowing it down to the fundamentals: My family, Amy Sedaris, Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, Gilda Radner, Tina Fey, Sarah Silverman, George Carlin, and Jon Stewart.

Have you made any memorable mistakes?
Yes. Some made in regards to theater, too.

How do you maintain your instrument?
I pay attention: if I’m not feeling well, I get over my FOMO and spend the night in pounding Emergen-C and chicken soup. If I’m emotionally uneasy, I try to figure out why by reaching out to friends or journaling. I try to eat well, or moderately if I slip into a junk-food streak. I take classes, write, dance, do improv.

Do you ever use a coach?
For on-camera work, I usually go running to Janet Ulrich Brooks, Peggy Roeder, or Adria Dawn.

Have you faced any particular obstacles?
Yes. Usually regarding race and gender. I’m of the Charles Mee mentality that believes anyone should be allowed to play any character.

Although, for example, having a white man play Mandela might be horrifying, and the idea that “well, anyone can play anything” doesn’t sit well in that circumstance, mostly I believe that any minority should be able to play any role. See: Hamilton. I have that hang-up, because the majority (white men) have always had a bit of an upper hand in getting stage time.

I’m a woman of non-Arab Middle Eastern descent, or what the industry calls “Ambiguous Ethnic.” It’s a little difficult to be proud of a profession when a majority of the time, the roles I’m called in for are two-dimensional “ethnic” characters written by “non-ethnics,” and roles I’m told I’m “lucky to be seen for.” I had a streak where I was constantly playing disfigured Muslim women who end up being tortured, submissive, or abused in some way and are written as a support in the plot of a male-driven story. As an actor, the challenge and mentality is always to “make it work.” That’s just it: it’s work. I’m thankful for every role I’ve gotten: good fit or challenging; it’s helped me hone my perspective. But that’s one example of the many obstacles I’ve faced in this field.

I only realized I was seen as “other” after college. My first role was for Ellie Dunn in Shaw’s Heartbreak House. I was seen for that production because I looked Indian and the director had an Anglo-Indian take he wanted to put on the production. I was seen because of my looks, and I got the job because I did well. People of color, and women, often have to work harder to prove themselves. We’re always seen as the supporting characters, which is changing, but not very much. What bothers me the most is that brown people are cast as other brown people. I can play East Asian, East Asians play Iraqis, Latin American Greeks play light-skinned black (these have all happened)…and white people are cast as brown people, too. But brown people playing (what is socially perceived as) “white” characters—that’s a rarity. That’s a headline when it shouldn’t have to be. It’s rarely a first option. It comes after proving your abilities as an actor to play character and not race. That double standard is infuriating. That there should be any classic work produced that doesn’t actively call for open casting—which includes race, gender, religion, ability, and class—is ludicrous to me. Even more ludicrous is the excuse “There just aren’t any.”

The positive side of it is it gets me seen, I guess. I’m aware of that. The negative is that it becomes a pigeonhole that I have to constantly work through: which may not be different than many other actors who aren’t of color, aren’t women, aren’t trans-gender, who knows. I’ve gotten really good at finding the dominance in what are, on paper, submissive characters. I cringe at that sentence, by the way. I love challenging roles, no matter the character’s ethnic background. It’s just exhausting barely ever getting to speak in my own non-Middle-Eastern-accented voice, and playing women who are set up more to ask questions than to speak the answers.

1984 11a (Adam Poss & Atra Asdou)(w)

Adam Poss and Atra Asdou in George Orwell’s 1984, at Steppenwolf this fall (photo by Joe Mazza/Brave Lux Inc.)

Were you shy or introverted as a child?
Slow to open up to new people, I think. There’s home footage of me playing with my shadow on a sunny day. So…shy or introverted, either way I was a bit of a gonzo.

Do you do well in auditions?
I’ve gotten better than when I started.

Does stage fright or performance anxiety ever hinder your work?
Performance is where I don’t have to be hung up on anxiety. I leave personal issues at the door and get to work on the wonderful and focused task of telling a story and making connections. That kind of precise work helps abate anxiety for me. I cannot control an audience’s reaction, and I love that freedom. That’s not to say I don’t get nervous from time to time, but stage fright isn’t something that hinders me.

Have any of your roles worried you, upset you, made you crazy?
I was recently talking with one of my 1984 cast-mates about how we subconsciously carry our plays around with us throughout the day. I mean, by curtain we’ve all acknowledged that what we experienced was a play, it can be put away until the next time—but…just because rehearsal or the show is done for the day, doesn’t mean our minds don’t work on the material, finding little clicks in everyday time outside the theater. So it seeps in and becomes more prevalent. Noticing the use of technology, censorship, sexuality, political alliances, in my everyday life has come even more to the foreground of my thoughts than, say, if I wasn’t working on a dystopian play.

Though I have been upset by roles, and roles have worried me in some ways, these feelings mostly happen during the beginning of a process, where it’s a lot of introversion: self-doubts, questions, and putting pieces together. I’ve also been emboldened by roles and have learned from both sides greatly. With that, I should hope I’m quite cognizant enough to know I’m not “crazy.”

What do you think about physical exposure: partial or full nudity?
If it is necessary to tell the story, then OK. If the male figure is naked, even better—because if you put together a compilation of females versus males who have had to get naked for non-pornographic roles, I think the ratio would be way off balance. When a man is naked, he’s usually strong, a soldier, a warrior, animalistic, or it’s funny—but where is the naked female warrior? She’s busy being raped on Game of Thrones. If the story happens to be about a woman being objectified, or victimized, I think twice about why we need that visual in the story, and whether or not it is illuminating something in a new way; what is it we are supposed to get from it? Note that I’m not saying we shouldn’t tell stories about rape or be ashamed of the female figure or censor everything to avoid a “male gaze.” Never. There is just a lot of female nudity that ends up with the female as a victim, or that’s there specifically for the “male gaze,” rather than her being empowered.

Is acting your only work?
To the dismay of my bank account, currently, yes.

What are you good at?
I should hope listening, timing, intuition, detail, and supporting my scene partner(s).

What do you wish you could do?
“Theatrical” skills. I wish I could actually be an amazing ballerina, do crazy circus stunts, and belt huge Broadway numbers. Careerwise: I wish I could sell a series or film and act in it with my talented, incredible friends.

What role or roles would you most like to play?
Any kind of Mob boss or character in search of redemption, Puck, or any of Shakespeare’s fools (Touchstone is still my favorite role I’ve gotten to play onstage.) Medea, Brecht’s Mother Courage, as well as the Emcee in Cabaret. It’d be awesome if they keep making all-female versions of male-driven classics. See: Ghostbusters. That would’ve been incredible to be a part of. Loved it before, gonna love it even more.

If you weren’t an actor, what might you be doing instead?
Directing and writing aside, teaching elementary school, or maybe something serving the disadvantaged.

Do you have a favorite book, play, film, or TV show about actors?
Waiting for Guffman, Extras.

Do you have any good actor jokes?
Robert De Niro walks into a bar. The bartender, Meryl Streep, says, “Watch your thoughts, for they become words. Watch your words, for they become actions. Watch your actions, for they become habits. Watch your habits, for they become your character. And watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.” De Niro says, “You talkin’ to me?”

That kind of  good-actor joke?

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