Love, obsession, and radical empathy: an interview with Neil Redfield

For Decent Company October: fear, Neil Redfield is performing a piece about a man who is experiencing the thrill and fear of doing something highly taboo. Last week, Neil and producing director Josh Boerman got some coffee and talked about the fine line between love and obsession, as well as everything that follows.

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JOSH BOERMAN: Well, first of all, at the time we’re doing this interview, you’re about to tonight have the first-ever New York presentation of your solo show.

NEIL REDFIELD: Love: The Madness of the Gods. Yeah.

JB: Developed in conjunction with Decent Company and the Barn Arts Collective in Maine. This has nothing to do with what you’re doing in October, but I still wanna hear about how it’s been going. Tell me how it’s goin’.

NR: It’s been goin’ really well. Right now, standing in the space of seven hours before the performance starts, I’m feeling really good about it. I’m really excited to be able to do this presentation tonight. It’s been a long time coming. I actually just today had one of my Facebook flashback statuses from a year ago today, which was a lunar eclipse.

And I looked up the astrological phenomenon today, and I think Jupiter and Saturn are aligned or something. So the astronomical bodies are predicting this performance, or supporting the appearance of the gods, I guess. (laughs)

JB: There we go.

NR: So a year ago today I was working on reading the first few things that eventually became this project, and so it’s really cool to see this pretty long-term project come to have this very important milestone. And I’m excited to see what happens after this evening.

JB: Me too. So putting that aside, that’s what’s happening right now. And what’s coming up in a couple weeks, bit of a change of gears. 

NR: Yeah, it’s a little different. The two things I feel like I’m really good at in theatre are romance and serial killers. So are they the same thing? Maybe.

JB: Well, that’s what’s kind of fun, is that in the piece that you’re doing for October you are a little bit of column A, little bit of column B. This guy is kind of a helpless romantic who also happens to be completely messed up in the head, right?

NR: Yeah. Now that I think about it, I think it comes down to obsession. Because romantic love has a huge component of obsession, as does sociopathy. In that stalking behavior, in murderous behavior, is this obsession. Always thinking about that love object or that object of violence. So that’s interesting. I hadn’t quite thought about, but I think obsession is the common element between those two behaviors.

JB: Right. Because in this piece, not to give it all away for the audience obviously, but you are portraying a guy who has a bit of an unhealthy relationship with his object of affection. Let’s put it that way, yeah?

NR: Yeah. Yeah, extreme. An extreme relationship, yeah. So what I wanted to do with this piece was, one, explore this question that I’ve had for a while and am really curious about, which is why we like fear. Why in some instances we commoditize fear, as in horror films and scary stories.

What is it about the way our society is structured, or just humanity in general, that we enjoy giving ourselves that uncertainty? That’s something that’s always really fascinated me. I tend to be really affected by scary movies.

Like, when I was younger, I would go— well, no, I take that back. When I was younger, I used to watch The X-Files on Sunday nights when I was like eight years old, and fall asleep right afterwards. And I hardly remember this, but my mom always tells me that she freaked out a little bit, like, “Why aren’t you having bad dreams and stuff?”

But what scared the shit out of me was Ghost Hunters on the Sci-Fi Channel. Wednesday night, I would be home alone and I would watch Ghost Hunters, and I would get freaked out. I would be so scared. And yet, I would keep watching it.

JB: Because you wanted whatever that feeling was in some way, right?

NR: Something. I don’t know. I really couldn’t articulate it. I don’t know why. I was curious, I guess. Morbid curiosity, I guess that’s morbid curiosity. But yeah, the fact that we make things designed to be scary, and that we can raise fear and horror to a high art form, that you can be a connoisseur of fear, is fascinating to me.

JB: So that’s sort of the abstract component. But I also know that there’s a bit of a personal component as well.

NR: Yeah. So that was thing number one. And thing number two was to give myself an opportunity to play a sociopath character. Because as I just said, I think the two things that I am best at in theatre— and I will refine that statement to say publically in this interview that will be online, that I think my most marketable skill as an actor is, will be, playing sociopaths.

I love the idea of humanizing the villain, and I love the act of humanizing the villain. And I think we learn a lot about humanity by looking into the darkest parts of ourselves. In a more abstract way, it’s a really good exercise for empathy.

If you can humanize this monstrous character, if you can see even just, like, a little bit of yourself in that obsession or that fear that that person has, then I think you can more easily empathize with someone else you might see as a monster in a less obvious way.

JB: Sure. I’m curious specifically then in the creation of what you’ve been working on with this so far. Obviously when you’re working on putting together a character, a story involving somebody who you want to still keep a safe distance from, but also understand and embody effectively. How do you make that balance work?

NR: It’s funny; I really don’t think of it in those terms of, like, someone to keep a safe distance from. I mean, character in general has always been a sort of ephemeral distinction for me. Like, I’m definitely not any sort of psychological— I don’t come from any sort of psychological realism place of actor training or theatre training.

JB: Viewpoints all day, baby. (laughs)

NR: Viewpoints and Suzuki all day. (laughs) One of several things that I really ascribe to. But so I’ve never had the moment of feeling I’m getting too close to this character, or I’m afraid for my own psychology from dealing with this character. I’ve never had that experience myself. So, I mean, for me it’s always like, how can I get more into them?

JB: Yeah. It’s just that you look at other actors; I mean, the most obvious example that comes to mind is Heath Ledger when he went all method or whatever to do the Joker. That took a serious toll on him, and obviously we all know what happened there.

NR: Right. Right.

JB: And I read a very interesting article, too, about—

NR: Jared Leto doing the Joker?

JB: Yes, and I’ll link to it in here, about how this ideal of what we sort of think of as “the method” or getting into character is really just a kind of distorted, warped sense of masculinity.

NR: Yeah, I remember that article. That was a really interesting one. I mean, one, I think that example of Jared Leto doing it for the Batman movie, I think that’s a great example of sort of the tie between the masculinity issue. I mean, it being a way for this gender double standard to show through.

But I think separate from that as well, I think it’s just unnecessary. I mean, I think— this is acting treatise level of thinking, (laughs) but I think we can totally safely portray a character and walk out of the room safely by the end of the night.

But how that relates to playing a monster, someone we see as a monster and someone I want the audience to see as a monster, but also a human, also someone not totally different? I think that relates by— it comes down to empathy. It comes down to the empathy standard. How is this person like me? Yeah. That’s what I have to ask.

JB: Well, and that’s interesting too that you said something to the effect of you want them to see this character as a monster, but that’s not really true, right? I mean, you want them to get the sense that he’s doing something horrifying, but at the end of the day, if the only thing that they’re thinking is, “This is a horrible person,” then we’ve failed the audience, right?

NR: Right. I want them to see, to think— really, I want them to think he’s a monster and then see this human, this part of themselves, this thing. And to jump back to what I just said of asking, “How is this person like me,” that’s what I really come back to.

And I think that actually takes some courage on the part of the actor and the part of the audience, too, to be able to look at someone who’s really dark, really a monster, and say, “How am I like this person? How are we the same?”

And so I think that’s the most important thing about empathy, and I think that’s a really powerful thing that theatre can do too. And that’s why I think I like humanizing the villain, as I’ve said, so much. Because it forces me, and I hope an audience member, to ask, “How am I like that person that I think is so incredibly evil?” Not to say that we’re all evil, not to say we’re all bad.

But how can we 1) see every human being as a member of the same community that is humanity, and 2) all be collectively responsible for the worst things that we do and the greatest things we do as that community? I mean, that’s pretty lofty, but. (laughs)

JB: But I think those are important questions, too, in the really politically charged environment that we live in today.

NR: Yeah, absolutely. It comes down to poverty; I mean, relationships from the wealthy to the impoverished, and race, and prejudice. That seems really sweeping, but I think it really comes down to, you know, we see monsters in horror films and scary stories, and villains in fairy tales. But if we can humanize those monsters, if we can use those as practice, then maybe we can humanize each other in our everyday lives a little better.

JB: But I will say this. I think that on the flipside, there has to be a limit, right? We want to view everybody, all people, as people. Even those who have done monstrous, horrifying things. But there has to be a limit to the empathy, doesn’t there?

NR: I don’t think so. Because that doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t— like, you can empathize with someone and not agree with what they do, and not support what they do, and still think, “You should be in prison. You shouldn’t be in free and open society for the better of everyone.”

But you can still empathize with them and still feel what they feel and understand where they’re coming from. So I think no, I don’t think there’s a limit to empathy.

JB: Even in extreme cases, like you get people who are serial killers and child molesters and stuff like that, people who go out and constantly are doing strings of horrible, horrible things?

NR: Uh huh. That cause pain to other people.

JB: That cause so much pain to other people. You’re saying that shouldn’t get in the way of our ability to see their essential humanity?

NR: Yes. That’s what I’m saying. And that seeing their essential humanity doesn’t need to get in the way of appropriate response or condemning their behavior. I firmly believe that. And I think that is why I’m so interested in villains and sociopath characters, these presentations of these people.

Like, I have a couple vivid images of Law & Order bad guys. Like, I remember an episode about a pedophile, and him being interviewed in one of the scenes, and just being really fascinated by it. It was like, “We’re not going away,” or something. That was the message that the guy, the character, said.

And it wasn’t so much the message that I was interested in. But just putting that person under a microscope and presenting that person as, this is a part of our world, and what are we going to do about it.

JB: Right. ‘Cause they’re not just going to go away.

NR: Right. People don’t just go away. I felt similarly when Osama bin Laden was killed. There were parades and fireworks going off on my college campus. And there was a really visceral response all over the country to that event, and in a lot of places it was celebrated.

And I remember sitting in my college dorm on that night and feeling really uncomfortable with this experience, because it felt to me like blind celebration of bloodshed. And it felt like there was nothing happy, nothing good, about this experience. Nothing comes from revenge. And that it came from a place of seeing Osama bin Laden as a monster. And again, clearly did terrible things. Caused a lot of pain, a lot of death.

JB: Like, a guy with a really warped mentality who did a lot of really awful things.

NR: Yeah. But killing him isn’t going to change anything. You know? We’ve got this thing, we’ve got this conflict within humanity right now between our country and the nations of the world. And once this one gets figured out or resolved or someone wins, then in another 50 years there’s just gonna be another one.

So it’s like we celebrate this thing that happened, but nothing really happened. It’s just part of the same cycle. And so it seemed to me at the moment that the more appropriate response would just be mourning, of seeing that here is another place where we as humanity sort of messed up. Not in killing Osama bin Laden, but the action that Osama bin Laden took, and the people that worked with him, and for him and did that. That was all a big—

JB: The violence of that action and the violence that followed.

NR: Yeah. So nothing changed. I’m not saying that, like— (laughs)

JB: You’re not saying Osama was a good guy, obviously.

NR: No, no, no, obviously not. But the root of violence is a lack of empathy. The root of violence is not seeing someone as an essential human. And any place where we do that, it scares me a little bit. I mean, to pull an interesting way back to the fear, that actually scares me.

JB: That’s something that scares you.

NR: Yeah, it is. Any time— I mean, a criminal, a homeless person on the street, it’s the same impulse of not seeing a person as a person. It comes back to this human tendency, cross-culturally, to find the us versus them.

And it’s the difference between killing and murder. Thou shalt do no murder means thou shalt not kill a human. But you can kill an animal. And you can kill something that you don’t see as human, even if it’s a person.

So that’s the thing that scares me. And that’s why I think it’s so important to practice empathy. Even in the most extreme cases.

JB: Radical empathy.

NR: Radical empathy, yeah. Because the alternative genuinely scares me.

To purchase tickets for Decent Company October: fear, click here.

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