Spotlight on Anthony Lam

One actor, one character, three plays: fellow actor Bobby Bermea profiles the star of Quiara Alegría Hudes' war trilogy at Profile Theatre

Anthony Lam has an infectious and generous spirit, and a high motor both as a person and a performer: everything he does, he does with an intense energy. A relatively new actor to the Portland theater scene, he’s a family man – he and his wife, Kimberly, have three kids; Nolan, 7, and the twins, Lilah and Alice, 4. He loves the stage (“That’s what I trained for. I trained on stage. I always knew upon graduation that I was always going to look for work on the stage.”) but the majority of his work, how he pays his bills and supports his family, is in TV and film.

It makes sense. He was born and bred in southern California and he’s TV/movie handsome, the product of Nicaraguan, Chinese and Spanish genes. Though he lost touch with his father, his grandfather was a central figure in his life, and Anthony kept the name Lam to honor him.

Anthony Lam, relaxing offstage. Photo: Bobby Bermea

I met Lam only recently, because he is the lead (along with Crystal Ann Muñoz) of the show I’m currently working on, Quiara Alegría Hudes’ Pulitzer Prize winning Water by the Spoonful, which is running through Nov. 19 in rotating repertory with The Happiest Song Plays Last at Profile Theatre. Water is the middle play in a trilogy – Elliott: A Soldier’s Fugue, Water by the Spoonful and Happiest Song – that follows a Puerto Rican family from north Philadelphia whose fate and fortunes are inextricably tied up in the U.S. military. The men of the family fight the wars. The women protest them and heal the wounds that are the result. Hudes weaves a beautiful, tragic, angry, and funny tapestry of lives, through which the one continuous thread is the character of Elliott Ortiz, who is played by Anthony Lam.

Traveling with a single character over the course of three plays is a rare opportunity for an actor. Walking with that character along his path, following the twists and turns of his life, can be as challenging, thrilling and rewarding an experience as an actor can have. Anthony found time, somehow, between playing the lead and being a dad, to talk to me about being an actor and living one character, in one story, through three separate plays.

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LAM FIRST THOUGHT ABOUT becoming an actor in junior high. “Before that I was terrified of performing or doing presentations in front of a large group. Then when I got into junior high one of my best friends took it as an elective. I decided, ‘Hey, why not? Why not build confidence in this area?’ And I just ran with it. I loved it. I loved being onstage. I loved making people laugh and entertaining people.’” When he got to high school, drama had to battle it out with baseball as the twin passions of his life. That’s when destiny took a hand. “I was playing baseball and I broke my jaw. I had my jaw wired shut.” While he was incapacitated and unable to participate in sports, his drama teacher lured him with movie-star dreams. “Basically, the hook was we were going to do A Few Good Men onstage. Tom Cruise was — at the time — my favorite actor (now, it’s Marlon Brando). So I spent the summer basically memorizing that movie, knowing full well that we were going to do that show. That was the hook. She got me. I played the lead. And just the look on all the audience’s faces when I was onstage and having them feel deeply the story we were telling, I felt that I found my calling. I pursued it a hundred percent.”

Lam attended UC Santa Barbara, where he studied acting. After graduation he lived the actor’s life, doing commercials and indie films: “I never wavered. That was the dream.” Eventually Lam met Kimberly, his wife, and they started a family. After a while, L.A. grew to be a little much for the young family.

“The cost of living in Santa Monica, which is where we were, was just too ridiculous for a family of five. We quickly grew from three to five with the twin girls.” Kimberly, a Portland native, suggested a move back home. “Being from here, she said it was a great place to raise children, good public schools, fresh air — which, I had no idea what fresh air was. I remember stepping off of the plane and taking a breath and, ‘What is this wonderful feeling that I feel inside’ (laughs), you know? Just breathing. Incredible. And I had never seen so much green. People were friendly. The little town that we live in (Wilsonville) is a wonderful community to raise children. Safe neighborhoods. We actually live in a cul de sac where we have, on our block, people from India, people from New Zealand, people from Japan, all within like three houses from us. So, I actually got a little diversity, which was fantastic. Our son’s school is two blocks away. We walk to his school. So it had all the ideals we were looking for. Everything that my wife said was actually coming true. It’s a really fun place to be. Portland is home. Our roots are here. We bought a house. So, it’s permanent.”

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Lam (second from left) made his Portland stage debut in 2015 playing Atomiko in Karen Zacarias’s “Into the Beautiful North” at Milagro Theatre. Photo: Russell J Young

AFTER SPINNING HIS WHEELS for a couple of years working as an assistant manager at a restaurant, Lam decided he needed to give himself the chance, in the Pacific Northwest, to continue pursuing his dream with his typical focus and drive.

“I had heard there were many theaters but I had no idea film and television-wise, what was going on. So having this job that was fourteen- to sixteen-hour days, I knew that I was going to have no availability to actually find out what it was like here. I had to jump ship. I did that, allowing myself to be fully available to take on any and everything that came my way. I did the PATA [Portland Area Theater Alliance] auditions. That’s how I got in touch with Teatro Milagro. I did a show there, Into the Beautiful North. Lauren Hanover (Profile Theatre’s associate artistic director) saw that show. She invited me to audition for Elliott.

“She said, ‘I don’t know if you’re familiar with Profile. We basically devote a season to a playwright. This incoming season we’re doing Elliott: A Soldier’s Fugue. But it’s also a trilogy — so it’s three stories and I’d love for you to read for Elliott.’ I had never heard of this play. I had never heard of Quiara. I remember picking up the play, reading it and being completely enamored by this playwright and how she writes and how she tells stories. And I can identify with this family. My Latin side, we were very close growing up. I always went to my grandparents’ house. I spent all my summers with my grandparents. The idea of a close-knit family was near and dear to my heart.”

The audition process was complex. For Hanover, to get his foot in the door, he read from Water by the Spoonful. He had to audition for Alice Reagan, the director of Fugue, via Skype. When Josh Hecht, Profile’s new artistic director, came on board, Lam had to audition for him as well, for the next two shows. But he felt a freedom auditioning for these shows that he didn’t usually have at auditions. “It’s extremely different when you’re auditioning for a commercial, for instance — where they’re looking at you and seeing your look and you’re saying words that you do your best to connect with but they’re like jingles. But these words felt like words that I’d spoken or felt. It was entirely different. ” It gave Lam a type of freedom, a looseness with his approach. “When I auditioned it was like, ‘This is who I am. If I’m right for this, you like my style. If I’m not, that’s okay but this is how I do things.’ And we hit it off. I was very fortunate. I got to take this journey.”

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Lam plays Elliot at war in the first play of Quiara Alegría Hudes’s trilogy, “Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue,” at Profile. Photo: David Kinder

ELLIOT: A SOLDIER’S FUGUE is the beginning, and as with all beginnings there is hope. “First play you get a feel for Elliott being so full of life. He’s young. He has so much going for him. He spoke what he thought, he had no censor. He always sized people up and he was always out to prove something. He can accomplish pretty much anything he sets his mind to.” Because of familial ties and history, what he sets his mind to is war.

“Starting with Elliott’s grandfather, he’s in the Korean War and he experiences what men experience in war and he does not tell his son anything about it. Then his son, Elliott’s father, goes off to war and experiences in Vietnam the atrocities of what Vietnam war veterans experienced. He as well does not connect with his son and relay any of that information. But because Elliott is longing to have this connection with his father he decides to continue the lineage of going to war because that’s what he knows the men in his family do. He goes to Iraq. In his experience in Iraq is where he deals with the first person that he kills. It messes with his head.

“He believes that because he goes to war that’s going to bring him closer to his father but in actuality it separates them even more. His father’s dealing with his own demons, with PTSD and everything that he dealt with and he’s trying to just bottle it up and he doesn’t want to talk about it. Elliott is desperate to talk to somebody but he knows that nobody else would understand but his father. None of his friends — he lives in this town in North Philly — they don’t know anything about war. He was the only of his friends that went to war. So he desperately tries to connect with his father in this way and it just brings them farther apart. He’s alone trying to figure this part of himself out.”

Hudes further isolates the characters in Fugue by writing the play almost entirely in monologues. Though it was challenging at first, Lam found over time that this form actually helped him navigate Elliott’s troubled waters. “Everything is directed out to the audience. I never spoke directly to any other character. Literally, the audience is your subconscious. You need to get these thoughts out. But you don’t know who to get them out to.” In essence, the audience is the character’s confessor and witness, which might be intimidating or even dangerous for the character but is liberating for the actor. “Connecting with the audience, there’s this thing about when you speak outward there’s no sense of judgment and you allow yourself to be incredibly vulnerable. You get everything out that way. When you interact with a person, there’s always this insecurity. There’s a wall. You’re not so quick to show everything at once. You have to be in certain situations where the wall comes down. You’re always there sizing people up. You’re finding a way to connect to the person that you’re talking to. With the audience, you just have so much more freedom.”

Connecting to Elliott was further facilitated by Lam’s own upbringing in the L.A. area. “There was a part of me, when I was seventeen, that definitely could relate to that need to prove something. Growing up, not having a father figure, going from junior high to high school and all of a sudden it’s like, trying to fit in and whatnot. And then be yourself. That struggle of not having to be part of a pack, to be comfortable in your own skin.”

Lam didn’t just draw from his own life but also the lives around him. “I had a best friend and I went to his house every day for a long time and he lived in the projects. So, being affiliated with, you know, low-income people who constantly, every day, had to struggle and fight for what they wanted and to be more even though they were looked at a certain way. I identified with that greatly. You always were out to prove something. You always felt you had to. It resonated with me, the musicality of how he spoke, the tone and everything. I could totally relate.”

This kind of experiential exploration, of mining of the self, can be scary but it can also be revelatory. “I learned that Elliott had this tough-guy mentality but inside he was this insecure kid. He longed for the love of his father. That’s me. That’s me in a nutshell. I had to be willing to allow myself to be that vulnerable, to show that side of Elliott. It’s very easy to show this tough kid, this charming, cracks-jokes kind of kid but on the inside he’s crumbling. He’s desperately trying to connect with his father, his grandfather. He’s trying to put the pieces together of where he went and who he became after that.”

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Lam and Crystal Ann Muñoz in the middle play of the trilogy, the Pulitzer Prize winning “Water by the Spoonful.” Photo: David Kinder

FUGUE WAS ONLY THE BEGINNING. Lam still had a tough row to hoe in front of him. But when you’re playing the same character in three different plays, all the work, all the research, all the mining come together, and then the first play itself becomes something you can draw on. “Once I did Elliott I met Josh Hecht, who had just moved from New York. He gave me an opportunity to read for Water and Happiest. He got to know me and who I was. He came in during the Elliott rehearsal process and saw our work and he offered me the part — if I was interested — to continue the journey of Elliott. For me it was like, ‘Absolutely. One hundred percent. I’m all over it.’

Lam was gung ho over the top, but underneath there was also trepidation. “As an actor, I’m always drawn towards things that are extremely challenging because it motivates me to be on my game every day. For something like this, doing two shows at the same time, knowing I had to do them back-to-back, it’s terrifying. I lost sleep and I was like, ‘How am I going to do this? How am I gonna make this work, stamina-wise?’ I had to put myself out there.” It was difficult. He was forced to take care of himself and conserve his energy. But it was necessary.

“Because I love the story so much. Both stories are so important. You have to tell both. I was completely excited. It’s equal parts excitement and absolute terror. It makes you dig deep within yourself. It gives you this motivation and this fire to do your homework and to practice. Every day I look forward to doing this. Every day I learn something new, I discover something new. You just have to have patience within yourself. As long as you keep putting in the time and the effort, it tends to pay off.”

Between Elliott: A Soldier’s Fugue and the current run was a long wait. This didn’t hinder Lam. In fact, it may have helped him. “I think the way this is set up is perfect, because the first one happens six years before the second one whereas the third one only happens one year later. So that was important. So, in terms of how this went down, I think it was great to have the big break right after the first one.”

After the break, history was known, groundwork was laid, and Lam was ready to step into Elliott’s world again.“It was really nice to have that seven-month layoff and then fall into it. Because Elliott is at a kind of awkward place. He doesn’t know what to do. It was perfect to have that seven months, to get that new sense of fresh eyes. Think of this character as time passed and all this energy that he once had, it’s kind of redirected in a new way. It’s not so positive. This is six years later after being discharged from Iraq. He’s in North Philly, back in his home town, where he vowed not to be. He’s working in a place where he — which was the reason he went to war was to not be that guy who works at Subway hoagie — he ends up working at Subway hoagie. Now he’s there caring for his sick mother. In Elliott: A Soldier’s Fugue you find out her back story — that she met his father in the Vietnam war. She was an Army nurse. He’s there working a shit job, caring for his mother who’s very sick and just having no purpose in life, not knowing where he’s going to go. It’s a complete 180. He goes from young and full of energy to despair, depressed, filled with anger and hate. He’s got all these demons going on.”

Something else is different as well. Elliott gets to — or ‘has to’, depending on his perspective — interact with other people. “In Water By the Spoonful all my scenes take place with Yaz and I rapping together and having relationship.” But the story grows, and starts to become a world. Other characters exist, who might not even interact with Elliott at all. In Lam’s mind, this doesn’t deter from the themes of the play, or the power of Elliott’s story, but only expands them.

“I feel like everyone has in them has this insecurity, this longing for connection. I think in this day and age where we have all this technology and everybody tends to be on their phones or the computer or whatnot, that human connection is so important. Not even just my character. In Water seeing the four characters, Orangutan, Chutes and Ladders, Haikumom and Fountainhead, their need for connection, that human experience, that human element is so important. Throughout these plays it’s just always touched upon. It’s about finding that connection with your counterpart or with your community. And we all have our demons. We all have our demons. It’s important not to hide from them. And to grow, and to make the choice not to give in to those temptations.”

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Lam and Wasim No’Mani in the trilogy’s final show, “The Happiest Song Plays Last.” Photo: David Kinder

FINALLY, IN THE HAPPIEST SONG PLAYS LAST Lam comes to the last, perhaps hardest, perhaps most hopeful stage of his story. “Happiest is another chapter in his life. He decides to leave North Philly and try to make something of himself. Once again he regains this fire that he had in the beginning — because of the possibilities. He becomes this hopeful optimist. In the second one he’s this isolated person who feels like he has no sense of purpose. In Happiest he begins to believe again. He really tries to makes something of his life.”

Elliott’s journey over the course of the three plays is a difficult one. It is fraught with twists and turns and brief moments of joy followed by devastating moments of anguish. And then the cycle starts all over again. But through it all, there are threads of hope and resilience that lift the pieces up and help carry Lam through Elliott’s very difficult life. I asked him what he hoped for Elliott after the last act. This is what he said, and in this, you find what the trilogy is all about:

“I hope Elliott finds closure and acceptance. We all make mistakes in life. We hope to be able to learn and grow from our mistakes, to not allow your mistakes to define you. I hope that Elliott continues on this journey to be the best version of himself that he can be that he sees in his mind. I hope he can let go of all the pain that he has felt and can forgive those that have hurt him deeply. Only when you forgive those people that have hurt you, when you release hate from your heart, can you truly be happy. If you have hate in your heart, in my opinion, it’s extremely hard to be fully happy. I hope that Elliott is really able to let all that hate that he has inside go. If he can only know that he was loved. The people that he felt didn’t connect with him, this was just the way that they could show their love. If he can really hang on to that idea: that they loved him in their own way, it will be easier for them to let go and to accept.”

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ONCE THESE SHOWS ARE OVER, it’s back to the world of television and film for Anthony Lam. He shot a feature over the summer, Translated, that is in post-production right now, adding to a resume that also includes national and regional commercials, short films, TV guest appearances (Grimm) and voice work on several video games, including three in The Walking Dead franchise. But he hopes to keep one foot in the theater door, always. “I wanna at least do one show a year. This is what I do full-time. I have to be ready and able to take whatever job comes my way to pay the bills and continue doing this. I wanna see what all theaters are thinking of doing. And seeing if there is something that appeals to me and I can actually lend my voice and it’ll work for both parties. If that happens I’ll do everything in my power to make it happen.”

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  • Profile’s rotating-repertory productions of Water by the Spoonful and The Happiest Song Plays Last continue on Artists Rep’s Alder Stage through Sunday, Nov. 19. Ticket and schedule information here.

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