A Conversation with Enrico Colantoni
Updated: Jan 13
It was my great pleasure to chat with Enrico Colantoni, a graduate of the Class of 1985. Colantoni has been working consistently for nearly three decades across film, television, and the theatre. Of the countless credits he has—Elliot Dimauro in Just Shoot Me!, the sitcom which propelled the actor into the limelight; Keith Mars, father to the titular character in Veronica Mars; and Mathesar in Galaxy Quest, a role that embedded him into the hearts of a sci-fi fanbase around the world—Colantoni is one of the most sought after actors in the business.
Colantoni was hot off the Broadway production of Birthday Candles when we spoke, a production he described with fondness, having to “mourn” its end.
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Let’s start at the beginning. What made you want to be an actor, and what made you choose The Academy?
I love this question. [Chuckles] But I don’t know, man…I guess it’s been almost forty years. So, I don’t know if I remember what I’ve told myself for over forty years, or what really happened. The impetus was to feel something that I wasn’t feeling at home. Sort of a grieving household—old-school Italian, but nothing was being said, so, a lot of emotion. I went to the University of Toronto after high school, thinking I would be a teacher. But I took one theatre elective, and it was fun, but it was the first time that someone pointed the way for me. My teacher said, “you should do this.” And no one had ever said that before, it was always just “fun.” I was encouraged to the point where if I studied really hard and spent the next ten years learning a craft, I could make a living doing this.
I went to The Academy because I’d heard it was the oldest acting conservatory in the English-speaking world, which I took to mean it was the only acting conservatory in the English-speaking world. It was an incredible experience, New York was beautiful; the building was beautiful… I always tell my kids that if they want to start their education in anything, go to theatre school. It teaches you how to be you, how to be accountable, how to be emotionally intelligent, you’ll have accessibility--you’ll be able to express yourself, you’ll be able to talk to people, you’ll learn how to have fun. And bring that skillset into anything you do from there on out. I did Company and ended up wanting more, so five years later, I auditioned for the Yale School of Drama, and that gave me the confidence to start working. The irony is that my first teacher told me it takes ten years to get good at anything, and it was my twenties: I left for New York when I was 21, and I graduated from the Drama School at Yale when I was 30—so it was 9 and three-quarter years before I started working with any consistency.
What might you say to young actors or young graduates?
Leave it all there. Don’t second guess what you’re being taught, just explore it. Take advantage of the time and the space to learn, and don’t judge it. Learn, expand. The greatest gift is, hopefully, that you come out realizing that you’re not bigger than the theatre, you’re not more important than the whole. There’s something divine about what you’re doing, and if you approach it like that, spend the whole two or three years believing that, and playing all-out, you're set. The moment you start judging it, you’re dead in the water.
Is that how you work today?
Totally. One of my first teachers was all about listening and reacting. She came from the school of Meisner technique, almost before it was called “Meisner.” And then one of my mentors, Thelma Carter, was about place—where are you in the space, the space is very sacred. And then, in my second year, things moved a bit more into scene study. The stuff that I got at Yale was all classical stuff, it wasn’t about creating an emotional life, it was about doing a performance eight times a week and recreating it, and having energy and a sense of fun. Yale gave me that sense of play. In New York, at The Academy, I enjoyed the emotional life, but I didn’t really know how to separate it, I’d bring it home, I’d get exhausted, I’d be afraid to go onstage, and I forgot to have fun.
Does your process ever vary between stage and screen, and do you prefer one medium over the other?
Yeah, process is everything, man. The theatre allows you time. It gestates. You have time to let it settle from your head, into your throat, into your heart, and eventually, by closing night, you’re right there by your balls. And it all starts coming out of you, and the divine steps in, and it pours out of you. With TV, you get a script the week before, if you’re lucky, and it stays in your head unless you’re a regular on a TV show. So unless you’re a star, you just need to know your lines and not slow everyone else down.
I’m very happy to hear you say these things. Having graduated two years ago, I find a lot of excitement in the mystery and newness of everything...but I’m also a bit insecure, if I’m being honest. I worked on a student film recently, and got the script the night before, at like 10PM, and when I got in there, I had to work with every fiber of my being to avoid panic.
I just finished a new play at The Roundabout Theatre Company this past year. Those plays… it started from the first day of rehearsal, and it doesn’t always happen because you don’t always like who you’re working with, but for this play, by closing night, it was like falling off a truck. And, of course, not too many people are able to make their sole living from the theatre.
Grad school has been on my radar for a while. Even when I was a student at The Academy, I had in mind that I might want to go and get a Master's Degree somewhere, to train more intensely in the theatre.
And anyone who says otherwise is a fool. Because two years at The Academy won’t give you what an artist needs. And even people who go straight from bachelor's programs to a grad program won’t necessarily get what they need… It’s anything, it’s everything, it’s what you need when you need it.
Have you read The Mystic in the Theatre? It’s a first-person account of [Eleanora] Duse’s career through the eyes of Eva Le Gallienne. And she really was a mystic because the theatre was bigger than she was. The observations of people and the avid reading she did really benefited her, and those things benefit any actor. Making pizza for a summer in some pizzeria will give you something.
If I could talk to my twenty-two-year-old self, I would tell him to relax. What you’re bringing isn’t a game changer; you’re just part of the mosaic. I’ll never forget my first gig out of The Academy, it was for Meals on Wheels and had a big director doing it, and all these celebrities were doing it pro bono. All I had to do in it was run up the stairs with this meal, serve it to this old lady, and say, “Be careful, Mrs. Watkins, it’s hot.” So while they’re setting up, I’m doing the stupidest things to get myself psyched up—doing the stupidest of things—just to run up the stairs. I was exhausted by the time I had to go in front of the camera. It’s not brain surgery. Just run up the stairs. Have fun.
It’s so much simpler than we make it.
We, as actors, young actors especially, are constantly overcomplicating things thinking that we’re doing our work. You’re already human. Bring fun and joy, your spirit and soul. The love of what you do will come through.
The best acting I’ve done is when I haven’t tried so hard.
Absolutely. Everybody coming out of a drama school should be happy and alive, and youthful and vibrant.
How do you keep a character alive and fresh season after season, night after night?
Season after season is easier because the writing changes, and the storyline change. Again, reinvestment is key. Being open to the differences that will happen at the moment and being really available to the surprises that happen. I was doing a play this one time, and it had been almost fifteen years since I’d done anything on stage, and I had forgotten how to breathe. I was hyperventilating, and a friend of mine who was onstage with me just looks at me, out of character, and says, “what are you saying?” He had been on Broadway so many times that he knew innately that we can do whatever we want up here… and if you go up, I’ll help bring you back. Of course, that got the biggest laugh of the whole run! It was beautiful, dude, what was happening up on that stage. That’s how you recreate those little moments like that, man. Blocking is the same, and the lines are the same, but your openness and your senses are different every night.
What about your downtime—what do you do? I always ask this question, by the way, because I have no idea what to do with mine.
There was a time when I was a younger man, and it was all downtime. It was all about friends, class, and “hey, let’s do a play together, let’s rent a theatre, let’s do something.” And then work came consistently, and it was 20 years of no downtime. When you had downtime, you built a family and went on vacation. I’ll never forget the minute I started making a living doing this, I didn’t know what else to do. I had committed my whole life to this, and then you wonder, “Oh shit, what do I do when I’m not doing this?” I don’t golf, I don’t gamble, I don’t go to Vegas… I go to the movies, and I cook. So I started cooking a lot and reading a lot. And bridging the spiritual world into what I do, into what we do. And I started reading the mystics and the philosophers and different philosophies that have nothing to do with the theatre...but have everything to do with the theatre. But it gets harder and harder because so far this year, it's only that Broadway show. And now that I’ve grieved not being there and mourned its ending, you kind of wake up and wait for that phone to ring or bug your agent three times a day...but what do I really want to do right now?
Where I live, there’s a need for the theatre that isn’t being filled. It doesn’t exist here. So that’s what I’m going to do. Bring theatre to my community because they don’t have it. This is outside Toronto.
I’m tired of trying to be a “good actor,” you know, it’s exhausting. I just want to have fun and let everything come out of me. The creative energy you have now is the same energy you’ll bring in 40 years. Who you are in this moment and what you’re doing at this moment will determine your future. That’s a simple formula that is 100% foolproof. Bring a sense of exploration into your life. That’s what theatre school is; that’s why we get all the press because we’re around like-minded creative people and are doing that. If you spend 30 years staying curious, you can’t help but end up at The Academy Awards. That’s how it happens. If you do it for five years and then quit, you won’t end up at The Academy Awards. But if that’s your life, 30 or 40 years, it’s not a long time. But it’s a lot of “when, why, where” that we forget about. What we’re doing right now is exactly what we’ll be doing in 50 years.
I’ve always loved that. I hope that in 30 or 40 years, I have had a career that I’m really proud of—was part of all these shows—but I also really love bringing theatre to a community that doesn’t have it. Because when I was a kid, I didn’t have it until I was about 16, and it totally changed my life. I had a grieving household, but mine was a quiet, solemn household, very midwestern, almost Puritan. And the theatre became a healing place for me.
That’s why we do it. I hope you see that in your lifetime, I really do. That’s a beautiful thing.
I really appreciate your time and the immense care and kindness you’ve shown me. I'll be in touch and wish you all the best.
Please keep in touch, and let me know where you are and what you’re up to. Because we gotta stick together, the purists…we have to hold onto each other.