by Lisa Bunbury & Laura Bunbury
Photo Credits: Jaime Chalem of Nisso Studios
John Verea is magnetic. When we walked into the room, there is an immediate sense of his calm, self-assured presence. At the same time he is incredibly humble and open.
We first spotted John on an episode of USA Networks Hit Series, “Burn Notice” (Ep. #10, “Hard Time”). He appeared on the screen and had such an incredible presence. Fast forward to a couple weeks later, through mutual friends we had the pleasure of sitting down to talk with him.
John has recently moved to Miami to be close to his three children.
Originally from Cuba, his family migrated to the US in the 60’s. My family was in business in Cuba. In the early 60’s after the turn, my father had the vision to get out. Within a year of us leaving, the country was closed and you couldn’t move or leave or go anywhere, so… we went via Mexico and then took a very unpredictable route; Mexico City to Arkansas then on to New Jersey.
John learned to read human behavior at a very early age. I owe so much of who I am to that little stint in the South. As a little boy in the South in 1964, they looked and me and said, ‘Well, he’s not black and he’s not white so what do we do?’ So they put me in a white school. I learned how to read behavior. I was being harassed and beaten up by these kids that would come up to me and they were really more just puzzled than anything else. It was a very strange and powerful experience because I learned how to survive behind enemy territory.
The language barrier was really a challenge for John as a young boy in the South. Ultimately, his father secured a job in New Jersey and that’s where he grew up. I loved it (New Jersey). I mean it was home for a long time. But I needed to leave. As soon as I turned 17 and I graduated, I moved to Boston and went to school up there. I needed to kind of have a little distance and get a stronger image of myself. I was too enmeshed in this culture and this whole thing… then I found acting and I went back to NYC to train.
Did you know that you wanted to be an actor from an early age?
I think I wanted to be an actor from the moment I was inspired, but I just thought everybody wanted to be an actor. Everybody wants that attention.
I remembered looking at the academy awards as a kid… really, really young… and just being filled by the inspiration that I got from people saying things that were just a little pearl of wisdom. I kept this to myself for the longest time. I just thought that was what everybody wanted.
And most everybody does… I mean, you know Andy Warhol was right. Everybody’s looking for their 15 minutes.
While attending college in Boston, John had an experience that changed his life. In college I had a very pivotal moment where I was held at gunpoint in my own home… and it altered me. When I picked up the pieces from there… it’s like a drawer, you know... you have everything really neat and you know where everything is. Then all of a sudden, someone comes and puts it all on the floor. When you put it back together again, it’s not exactly the same.
He decided to focus on an acting career from then on. I looked up an acting school in Boston. I was in school for business at the time. There was an incredible acting teacher at the school I went to, Northeastern University, named Patricia Sankus.
Patricia was so instrumental for me. She said there’s a guy in New York named Bill Esper, he’s taking over the neighborhood playhouse because Sandy Meisner is very sick. I think you should make an appt and audition for him, so I did. I was the youngest student he had received at the time and I was just hungry. Hungry. I also studied with Robert Neff Williams at Julliard and got an enormous amount of information.
I started reading everything I possibly could – just trying to catch up now that I was in a place where I finally felt like I fit in. I didn’t feel that often, as a young man. Now I feel I fit in anywhere, I feel very comfortable.
But as a young man, I grew up in a very Cuban environment and you know my friends and I would be in the car and they would be like, say something! Say something! (To girls) But I was like, what am I going to say, ‘Oye, Mami!”?! I mean she’s hot, but it was degrading, you know? So I didn’t fit in there and I didn’t fit into a lot of different places.
When I found acting I fit in, because I could be so multi-faceted. I’m not a square or a circle. I could do anything, really.
What was your 1st acting job?
It was a play at Northeastern University, A road show called “Promises, Promises” by Neil Simon. They saw me and said I was perfect, and then I opened my mouth. “He can’t sing!” (Laughter) And I wish I could, but I couldn’t. The director really liked me so he gave me a bartender role and then one of the dancers. Everything was wonderful – so energetic. Putting a play together is such a great bonding experience. My line was, “Mr. Vanderhoff, Happy New Year”, and I made it, “Aye! Mr. Vanderhoff, Happy New Year!” Just prolonged my moment by a fraction of a second… (Laughter)
After John spent time in NYC training he wanted to get a little more life under his belt, so he went to Paris. It was a big move. Nobody went abroad…it was like I was going to the moon! I was going to Europe, you know? I couldn’t believe it, but I was so moved by the writers I was reading. Hemmingway, Fitzgerald and Miller… they were all walking down Boulevard du Montparnasse and I wanted to do the same.
So I got enough money together to get a ticket and some money to at least spend a few months. And I stayed seven years… opened up a business there and that was really an incredible education because I got a chance to see my adopted culture America, my own culture, my family. I got a chance to really see who I was. Now I was a young adult in a situation where if I didn’t do it for myself then no one was going to do it for me. I could just go home. It was really quite powerful.
John’s time in Paris wasn’t all about acting. He tried many jobs and creative outlets. I did a lot of things, lots of different things. Everything I could possible do to find my path.
I had a bar. I became an asst. bartender, then a bartender, then a partner in this bar with some wonderful entrepreneurs. When that got old, I had some friends, ex-patriots living in Paris. One of them said, hey, do you want to help me do photography and I said sure, but I don’t know anything about it, but he said I’ll teach you. So one day he called me up and he said I am doing this Oil of Olay ad, come and help me, so I said great.
I show up on the set and the girls are getting their hair and make-up done and everything. Then all of a sudden, we’re ready to go and she takes off her bathrobe and she’s naked. My friend goes, take this to her and put it next to her breast. Press the ball, the little button - facing me - and tell me what it says. So I go to her breast, I do what he says and I go ‘564’, he goes thanks. (Laughter)
Then after a little while, I realized what 564 is and started becoming a really good assistant. I started traveling and that just lead me to another aspect of my life there and it was fun, it was great.
Acting was still his main passion. I never wanted to do photography. I wanted to act. After having all these wonderful experiences, I could not let go of it, so after 7 years I said this experience has kind of played itself out. I’m going back to America and pursue this thing that I can’t let go of. So instead of going to the east coast, I went to the west coast.
Coming back to the west coast, how old are you?
I’m 28 years old. I had been in Paris since I was 21. Now I’ve landed in America, times have changed. I know that I am in America – but I am in a very different place, I’m in La-La land. (Laughter)
Wow, it was very different. I grew up in the inner city. I’m thinking to myself…I had this beautiful girlfriend, she was a model in Paris and I had this incredible flat, and now I am in Los Angeles and I am a waiter in a restaurant. Why did I do this?! (Laughter)
I’m thinking this is not the best decision I have ever made in my life, but I never really question when something moves me so powerfully. If I stay in my head I can get confused, just like anyone, by all the conflicting thoughts. The reality is that I am here. I am meant to be here in this place at this moment, so I try to figure out what I am supposed to be doing.
John always keeps himself open to the moment, possibilities and adventure. I don’t really have a master plan. I never have. I can’t imagine how you can unless you want to be on a default setting… I mean you go to school a certain amount of years... testing… you get out and then you are a doctor, etc. God Bless those people who can do that. I have never been wired that way so I’ve never been able to get something that is so linear. To me it has to be a creative experience to motivate me to action.
It really aligns with acting too and the need to be organic and in that moment. It’s a human condition. The very first day at the neighborhood play house, Bill Esper says, “Can anyone tell me what acting is?”
Everyone had their version – fine. Then he says, “Here’s what I think it is and I think you will be quoting me in years to come. “Living truthfully under imaginary circumstances. “ It's so simple, but so difficult because you have to get there. It’s about authenticity; you’ve got to know yourself. Otherwise…
You’re all in your head… That’s the worst place to be. It will only get you into trouble, especially as an actor because that’s where nerves are… that’s where judgment and everything else is and then you’re lost.
I was working with Bruce Campbell (Burn Notice) and you know these guys have been doing this for years now and they’ve got it down. I’m on the set with him doing the very first scene where he comes to the prison to see me. He likes to get his stuff out of the way first, which I think is a very good idea for an actor because he can do it.
So they set him up and I am behind the camera and I start crying in the scene and I saw this beautiful moment on his face like, “F*&%K, man! I am going to help you!” In the scene he is an old friend and he IS there to help me. That’s the story. We have a relationship - and I got emotional.
A lot of times when you’re working, you’re a professional, doing your thing, hitting the marks, but you don’t really go deep.
Right… you don’t drop in. You just hit the mark. It’s TV – it’s not profound. You can have these moments, but it’s not often. But in that moment he (Bruce) looked at me - it was wonderful because it fed me as well. And no one captured that. It was just that moment. That magic is what acting is all about. It’s so beautiful.
It’s what people live for. Audiences look for it too. Definitely. As a collective, audiences want to be moved because in that moment you’re not worrying about problems with your kid who’s sick or your mortgage. You’re buzzing. It’s special.
You’ve done theatre, TV & Film. How do you feel the transitions between mediums work. Is it fluid or difficult? It is a bumpy ride. In theatre, you have the luxury to rehearse, so that process in itself is a beautiful place to work it out. With TV, it’s hit that mark. Say that line.
TV can be very intimidating with cast and crew and clicks and a director who has his pressures from the execs in California – it’s crazy. And all that pressure rolls downhill. There are 2 unwritten rules on a film set:
Rule number one. There is always a victim.
Rule number 2: Don’t be that victim!
If you know what you are doing and you are a professional, you can show up on the set and put all that (drama) secondary, hit the mark and do your job.
Films are a different story. In Europe, my first film was in Asia. It was a German/Franco/Italian co-production. Six different languages were spoken. People in Europe tend to hire their friends because they know they are going to hag out with them. So they hire people they like, so even the audition process is different. It’s cruel. You’ve got 1 chance, like an Olympic gymnast. You’ve got to hit the mark that first time, you’ve only got that moment.
So how do you do it, with the nerves? It’s such a big thing for actors, managing that. What’s your trick?
You have to understand how you’re wired. You have to take inventory of how you react when someone insults you, when someone compliments you. Know your nervous system and know how you function so you can go in that room and just do it. How can you drive a car if you don’t know how it works? That’s your job as an actor, to know how YOU work.
**Next week, read Part II of our interview with John Verea where he talks more about his experiences in Europe, training in NYC, knowing who you are as an actor and the fame game.
For more information on John Verea: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0893948/
***Special Thanks to Jaime Chalem of Nisso Studios for taking all of the photos and for use of his studio for the interview.