Comedic hurricane Charles Ross brings his off-Broadway success—
a wildly condensed version of the Star Wars trilogy—to campus in January.
IT'S ANY YOUNG ACTOR'S DREAM: become a smash sensation by creating and performing your own show. And that’s exactly what Charles Ross has done with his pair of internationally acclaimed solo productions, One Man Star Wars Trilogy and One Man Lord of the Rings. But just as Luke Skywalker had to face his dark side, so too does this Phoenix Theatre grad. In a mythological twist normally found in galaxies far, far away, the shadow Ross has to deal with is that of his own creation.
It seems inevitable that Star Wars would play some part in the life of the Prince George-born actor. After all, he had seen the original movie more than 400 times before he was 11, by which time he had committed virtually every line to memory. But how many Star Wars fans—of any age—could imagine not only holding a licensing agreement with Lucasfilm but also being personally invited to perform at the launch of the final installment of the iconic film series, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith? Then you’ve got the hanging out with Hollywood celebs (Ian McKellen, Vin Diesel), the mentions in hip magazines (Esquire, Spin) and A-list TV spots (Late Night with Conan O’Brien, The Today Show). It’s all a little out of this world.
On stage, Ross, BFA ’98, is quite literally a tornado of thespian energy—leaping, gesturing and mimicking his way through a pair of 60-minute, prop-and-costume-free film adaptations. But off stage, Ross is surprisingly quiet and composed, carrying his lanky, 6’3” frame in an almost Zen-like fashion when we meet back where it all began for him, at the Phoenix Theatre.
It’s nice synchronicity. Not only is Charles Ross (‘Charlie’ to his friends) returning to campus to star in this season’s Spotlight on Alumni, opening January 24, but it turns out we’re sitting in the same dressing room where he spent the better part of five years. “No, really,” he laughs. “I dragged in a couch and practically lived here.” And was there any evidence early on that he’d shortly become one of the Phoenix’s greatest hits? “I don’t know if I was any more gifted or promising than anyone else,” he shrugs, “but I did everything I could in the program.” He singles out three acting instructors—Linda Hardy, John Krich and Kaz Piesowocki—as strong influences, but also notes he did much more than just study. “I did so much work here that I had to take an extra year to complete my electives. Being at the Phoenix was a chance to do as much practical, acting work as I possibly could—because I knew that wouldn’t happen out in the ‘real’ world.”
Another chance the Phoenix afforded him was meeting fellow actor TJ Dawe, BFA ’97. If you’re looking for the source of the force that is Charles Ross, Dawe’s your man. Better known as his own solo star (Labrador, The Slip-Knot), Dawe is the director of both the One Man shows; but he also saw something in Ross the faculty was missing. “Charlie was always cast as ‘the heavy’,” recalls Dawe, himself a Star Wars buff. “He was tall, could grow a beard and looked older than the 19 years he was. But no one ever took advantage of his comic talents.
“He would often do wild improvisations where he’d pantomime insane acts of violence, usually against himself,” Dawe continues. “Arrows being shot into his stomach, intestines being ripped out, screaming so loud his throat exploded and his eyes popped—and then a meteor would land and vaporize him. And if people were laughing, he’d just keep going. It wasn’t unusual for him to do this for 45 minutes at a time, all improvised. He was a comic hurricane—and he never got cast in comic roles. It mystified me.”
Yet for all the success that hurricane has generated—and let’s not mince words, Ross has already been more successful than most actors will ever be—he seems a bit bothered by the position in which he finds himself. Catching a glimpse of his own face in the dressing room mirrors, Ross poses a rhetorical question. “How do you avoid the genre you’ve put yourself into?” He pauses and spreads his hands. “This isn’t strict theatre, like Shakespeare; it’s kind of a performance piece—but no one would come to see it if they heard it was performance art, so I’ve disguised it as theatre. Unfortunately for me, I’ve kind of typecast myself as a sci-fi geek. I’m all on my own in some weird little single-member club, where I’m not strictly an actor, I’m not strictly doing theatre, and I’m not working with anybody else.
“It’s funny,” he says, although he’s not really laughing. “All I’ve ever wanted to be is someone who could make a living—and even that, especially in theatre, is extremely difficult. But I remember TJ saying, ‘Once you have this show, you can do whatever you like with it’—and it was almost like a curse.”
Of course, any curse that lets a young actor make, by his own admission, $11,000 US for a 10-day run—and that was before his five-month stint off-Broadway in 2005—doesn’t seem so bad. But with the upcoming Phoenix run coinciding with the fifth anniversary of his One Man Star Wars debut, Ross estimates he’s done the same show a thousand times or more. Suddenly, the curse analogy starts to make sense. Dollars, it seems, do come with a price. “Since the show has gone well, I’ve found myself becoming further and further isolated,” he says, referring more to his professional than personal life. “I feel almost trapped by it now; I think I need to find some time off. I’m beginning to realize how fantastic it would be to go and work for somebody else. I mean, all you have to do is act; I haven’t just acted in so long.”
By writing and starring in his own pair of hit shows, Ross, 32, has already done more than most actors could ever hope. And anyways, isn’t there something deeper going on here between the performer and his audience? TJ Dawe clearly thinks so. “One of my favourite things about One Man Star Wars is how ancient it is. I mean, Beowulf was spoken, so were the Iliad and the Odyssey—and all to audiences who already knew the story.” Noting that Lucas based much of Star Wars on Joseph Campbell’s classic Hero With A Thousand Faces, Dawe is quick to point out the mythopoetic subtext at work. “Charlie’s very much stepping into the shoes of a bard, recreating an epic myth for an audience; it’s a modern telling of the myth, but it’s the same story.”
Still, there comes a time when everybody has to put away their light sabre. “I would like to see an end to this,” Ross concludes. “And there is something coming up next year: Lucasfilm’s 30th anniversary of the original Star Wars release, and I think I might be getting an invitation to do the show there. Now, that might be the natural place to say, ‘Thanks very much folks, it’s been great.’ Because it could go on forever. I don’t want to be 60 years old and dragging my sorry ass out to do the One Man Seniors Star Wars Show.”
It could indeed be the perfect way to say goodbye, especially if Star Wars auteur George Lucas was in the house. Has Lucas ever seen him perform? “Nope.” Ross smiles—not the professional show-biz grin he’s flashed to countless cameras, but a simple, more sincere look that makes his eyes crinkle with pleasure—much like an eight-year-old boy watching Star Wars for the first time. “But that would actually be the best ending for me, to do it for him. It’d be like doing it for the maker, like I’d get to do my show for the deity of a religion. That would be cool.”