Matthew R. Wilson, assistant professor of theatre arts, joined the University of Mississippi faculty this year. He works around the world as a professional actor, director, fight director, scholar, and theatre instructor. Read about his role on the Emmy and Golden Globe-winning Netflix political drama, House of Cards, and as a leading expert in commedia dell’arte, a theatrical form characterized by improvised dialogue and a cast of colorful stock characters that emerged in northern Italy in the 15th century and rapidly gained popularity throughout Europe.
What would you like the University of Mississippi community to know about you as an introduction?
I’ve been running my own theatre company, working freelance, and serving as an adjunct professor at a few different schools, and my wife and I really loved living in Washington, DC.
I’m really excited that the Department of Theatre Arts chose to extend the offer because this stands out as a special department. The acting program has a really good reputation. The department is expanding and growing and the administration is supporting it. You don’t see a lot of that around the country these days. I’ve worked as a guest artist at dozens of universities, and most theatre programs are scaling down and cutting back. When I saw that the University of Mississippi was growing and moving forward, I said, “Something special is going on there, and I want to know more.”
My wife Sarah is an instructor in the Department of Writing and Rhetoric teaching first-year writing and advanced composition. After years teaching at different schools and working in different states, we’re excited to make a home in Oxford. As late as February, we were completely content with our lives in Washington, DC, but when we came to Oxford for our interviews we were impressed from top to bottom by the administrators, chairs, faculty, and students. We’re thrilled to join the University of Mississippi and to be a part of the exciting things happening here.
How did you choose theatre for your career?
My third-grade teacher was a professional storyteller, which basically made her the coolest third-grade teacher ever. Stories were a crucial part of our curriculum all year. We wrote stories, memorized stories, told stories, heard stories—all related to whatever else we were studying. That nurtured my love of performing and my respect for the stories that fill our lives and our world. From there, I kept entertaining whoever would listen by telling stories or reproducing classic stand-up routines and movie scenes. I started being a part of drama club in middle school and then joined a Shakespeare troupe in college. I made my professional debut at 18 with the Nashville Shakespeare Festival (I grew up in Middle Tennessee) and then started performing in small plays and student films in New York (where I went to college). By the time I graduated, I already had the beginnings of a career in place, so there was never a moment when I said, “I want to do this when I grow up.” It was something I grew up with and eventually realized I wanted to keep doing more seriously.
How do your areas of specialization complement the strengths of the UM Department of Theatre Arts?
I’m innately curious and love learning, so I’m fascinated by everything. I found early that diversifying my skill sets meant I had more job opportunities in a really competitive industry where everyone is always hustling. I started as an actor but then quickly began directing too.
At first I tended to get cast in classical productions, I think because of my love of literature and language, but then early in New York I started doing a lot of contemporary experimental work, which came naturally because of my interest in movement styles—dance and mime and clown and martial arts—that are so integral to experimental performance. Specifically I focused on stage combat, ranging from unarmed martial arts to historical swordplay to contemporary firearms, and also on mask work and physical comedy. It’s when I moved to DC that I really got to balance all these things and also began to do more and more on-camera work. I have six different resumes depending on which job I’m applying for: one for directing, one for acting on stage, one for screen acting, one for staging fights scenes and violence, one for general movement choreography, and one for teaching.
The theatre department is already excellent, and the acting program I’ll be teaching in has a great reputation. In addition to the fundamentals of acting, I’ll teach stage combat, which is already in place in the department but which we hope to grow in the coming years—and also eventually introducing more Commedia dell’Arte and ensemble physicality as well as more methods for devised work where performers create their own material and not limit themselves to interpreting other people’s work. I’m really excited to mentor the active student-run theatre groups on campus.
A student-run Shakespeare troupe was a huge part of my college experience and gave me the chance not only to hone my acting and directing but to tackle the logistics of putting on a play, which was invaluable when I began to produce my own work in New York and started my own theatre company in Washington, DC. In addition to all of these things on campus, the department has been supportive of my need to continue working professionally and maintaining the professional connections I have in other cities. We’ll work to leverage those connections for students to find work and training in the northeast during breaks or after graduation.
You have a very impressive list of professional experience in many different performance genres—theatre, film, television, mask work, clown work, etc. Which ones make you especially proud?
Every project in the performing arts is a new story to tell with new rules for how to tell it, new collaborators to work with, new worldviews to explore, and new roles to step into. I enjoy the variety of things I’ve been able to do, whether that’s acting in Shakespeare plays at the renowned Folger Theatre, performing contemporary comedy at the John F. Kennedy Center, working with Kevin Spacey on House of Cards, performing in a NASA training film, touring Europe with my own one-man mask show, or creating a crazy new piece of multimedia theatre in a warehouse in Brooklyn. Each requires a different kind of training and craft, but they are also the same at the core, which is just about being honest and being true to the rules that you create for each world.
This past season I was fortunate to direct six different shows in four different states ranging from classical comedy to contemporary musical farce. I did a 20th-century German play about the rise of Hitler (Bertlolt Brecht’s The Resisitible Rise of Arturo Ui at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, New York) and a 20th-century play about life, love, and death in a small New Hampshire town (Thornton Wilder’s Our Town with Faction of Fools Theatre Company, which Wilson founded). In each, the process boils down to
“What is the story we want to tell?” and “How do we tell it to the audience so they get the story we want?”
I directed and choreographed violence for a dark comedy rife with gunshots, exploding blood effects, live cats, people strung from the ceiling, and Irish accents (Martin McDonaugh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore at Constellation Theatre Company in Washington, DC), which was an engineering feat as well as one of storytelling:
How do we keep the cats happy and contained in their blocking so that they don’t run into the audience? How do we get all these guns and blood squibs and special effects to go off in a way that is safe and reproducible while also being scary and surprising? How do we clean it all up between shows?
Talk about your work in Italy with the Commedia dell’Arte.
In high school, my drama class took a field trip to see a Tennessee Repertory Theatre production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in Nashville. I was mesmerized by the actor who played the fool Feste, and I thought, “Some day, I want to be able to do that.” But thankfully, even at that age I realized that he could do a lot of things that I didn’t know how to do—from acrobatics to guitar-playing to juggling—so I would need to work hard if I ever expected to get cast in a part like that. That’s what piqued my interest in mime and clown and mask and physical comedy.
From there I was fortunate to be selected for the Tennessee Governor’s School for the Arts before my senior year, and I studied Shakespeare there (I performed Romeo in the finale production) and also to work with a world-class clown and mask teacher. A few years later, after college, a friend from Governor’s School called and said, “We have to go to Italy to study Commedia dell’Arte with Antonio Fava.” I thought that was a good plan—not worth arguing against!!! So he and I spent most of 2001 and 2002 studying and performing with Maestro Fava at an international theatre conservatory in Italy. Eventually, what began as a means to an end—just a way to get more training to do physical comedy—became a love for Commedia itself. I returned to teach at the school in northern Italy from 2004 to 2009 and also created The Great One-Man Commedia Epic, which has now played in eight different countries. In fact, that’s the show that brought me to Oxford the first time, when I came as a guest artist to perform here at the Ford Center in 2013—that’s when I became acquainted with this great theatre department and wonderful university community.
What was most amazing about my time in Italy—studying, performing, and teaching—was the incredible generosity of spirit and play with which international comic actors transcend boundaries of language or culture. We would improvise scenes with five actors, and sometimes none shared a single language. That forces you to be very clear with your body and voice in how you communicate. You have to work to communicate, to insist on being understood, and to expect to understand. It’s that old rule of improvisation:
“Always say ‘Yes’” which means “keep the scene moving forward, accept your partner’s offers, don’t stop to disagree.” In this case though, actors are saying “Yes” to things they may not even understand and are collaborating in this beautiful and hilarious way. That was true off stage as well. Just trying to cook dinner together was a comic routine of epic proportions!
Describe your experience playing a senator from Georgia on the phenomenally popular House of Cards television series?
House of Cards is an exceptionally well-conceived and well-run show. All of us in the DC-Baltimore community were happy to have it shooting locally, and I had callbacks for at least 20 roles over the course of the first two seasons before finally booking a two-day shoot on season two, episode three.
The process was surreal. For several weeks, I didn’t know who I’d be playing or what was going on, just that I needed to block out several days for shooting and that I had to get in touch with wardrobe for measurements and fittings. During my final fitting, I tried on about 60 different ties with four or five different suits—all really nice suits—and they photographed each.
One time the knot on my tie was not quite straight—and these are just for fittings, mind you—and the costume head sighed and said, “We need to take another photo of that one.” I said, “You want me to re-tie this tie?” and she replied, “You don’t understand. These photos all go to David Fincher. He sees everything and sloppy ties are his biggest pet-peeve.” Fincher is one of the executive producers of House of Cards, as well as the Academy Award-winning director of films like Fight Club, Seven, The Social Network, and Gone Girl.
I recalled this story when I got on set and one of the set dressers was crawling behind my chair between takes, adjusting the big drape that hung on the wall behind me. “Sorry,” he said, “Sloppy curtains are David Fincher’s biggest pet-peeve.” I guess he has a lot of pet-peeves! But those are things most people don’t think of, and it’s a testament to the show that the executive producer—who could just sit in LA cashing his checks—is concerned about the smallest details like tie knots or straight curtains. Those high standards filter down and permeate everything the production team does. I didn’t get my character assignment until after we’d already finalized the shoot dates and even after I’d read the script. The script I received already had a lot of changes (all good ones, of course) from what I’d read for different characters at callbacks. No spoilers, but in this episode the Tea Party is trying to stop an initiative that Kevin Spacey’s character is pushing, and the back story involved my character, a junior Tea Party Senator from Georgia (“Senator from Georgia” was the official name of my role) who was set up to be the patsy to chair this session that was trying to slow-role the vote until it expired.
Now, editing is one of the most crucial things in all artform—winnowing down to the essentials—and ultimately my character and back story were not essential to the story, so you will barely see me in the final version of the episode, which is for the best; the show flows really well. It’s a common experience for day players with small supporting roles—sometimes you end up cut as the script is revised or the shots are edited together. But the royalty checks still cash, the catering was tasty, and I spent two days in a fine suit—with a neatly-tied tie—next to Kevin Spacey while we made a TV show. He was really meticulous as well, and I learned a lot playing opposite him and then sitting close while he shot the other parts of the scene.
Is there anything we haven’t asked, that you’d like to add?
One last thing: I grew up in Tennessee but have lived most of the last two decades in the urban northeast in New York City and in Washington, DC. I love many things about the South—the smell of fresh rain, country cooking, the novels, the guitars—but I never envisioned myself returning after years away. But Sarah and I clicked immediately with the people and culture of Oxford, and we are embracing our new lives as Mississippians. Especially with the national soul-searching that is going on right now, this is an exciting time to reexamine our heritage and what it means to be Southern for the future, and I’m really proud to reconnect with that part of who I am and to be a part of shaping what this University will be for the future.