Editor’s note: Carrie Coon was an unknown Chicago actor before landing the role of Honey, the “pliant and sweetly sozzled soul” in Steppenwolf’s Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (seen here in 2011). Coon now manages a busy screen career from Chicago. According to last month’s New Yorker profile, she is on the same career path as veteran actor Jeff Wincott, profiled here, who leaped from Toronto stages to a lucrative career in TV and movies and manages all of that from his home in DC.
Here’s a question: Which DC-based actor has the most impressive entry on IMDB? (For you theatre-only readers, IMDB is the acronym of the International Movie Data Base.) I submit to you that darn few will have an entry as long as, or longer than, Jeff Wincott.
And I’m not aware of an actor in town other than Wincott who has graced the cover of TV Guide. Or has starred in a series of martial arts films. (That landed him on the cover of American Karate, in the number four slot on this month’s IMDB list “100 Underrated B-Action Stars,” and top of its subsequent list “Skilled Martial Artists Who Can Actually Act.”)
Maybe you’ve passed someone on the street and thought, “Didn’t I see that guy in Person of Interest? Or Sons of Anarchy? Or The Good Wife? Or Blue Bloods? Or 24?
Or was that the guy who starred in Martial Law II: Undercover?”
Wincott, a Canadian born-and-bred actor who has spent time in Toronto, New York City, and Los Angeles, now calls Washington home. If you haven’t seen him on our local stages, it’s because he is coming off of one of the busiest years of his career, and that busy year has kept him in front of the camera.
“I would say it’s not really where you live; it’s who you are, I think, that is important. We’re all different. We all bring something new to the table, and unique to the table. And I think that that’s important.”
I spoke with Wincott about several of his current film and TV projects, and about his career more generally — specifically, about how an actor who calls DC home can maintain as high a profile in those media as he does. After all, everyone knows, to be successful in that sort of work, you have to be based in NYC or LA, right?
When we spoke, Wincott was preparing to head back home to his native Canada where, on September 8th, not one, but two of his short films were screened at the 2018 Toronto Independent Film Festival.
“It’s really exciting in a lot of ways. One of the ways is that the Carlton Cinema — where the two films that I’m a part of are going to be shown on September 8th — two blocks north of that, I lived in an apartment, and I used to walk from my apartment past that cinema to Ryerson Theatre School, which is where I was studying theatre as an actor, and I would walk by that cinema a lot of times, and see the movies playing, and stop to think, ‘You know, it would be really great one day if I could have a movie playing in there.’ As it turns out, I will be returning to Toronto next week, and I have two movies playing in that theatre.
“And to tell you a little bit about the films, one is called Lustig. It’s based on a true incident that happened during the Second World War with Branko Lustig, who is the Executive Producer of Black Hawk Down, American Gangster, Schindler’s List.
“So John Black, who directed Lustig, the short film, was working on Hannibal and spoke to Branko Lustig about his experiences. And this is a story from his perspective, Branko Lustig’s perspective, as a child in a concentration camp in Auschwitz. And I play the German soldier in the camp, in the film.
“It was filmed in 2007. When I finished doing a 48 Hour Film Project in Virginia, the producer who did that 48 hour film — we ended up winning best film in the festival and I ended up winning best actor for that — but he introduced me to John Black and said, ‘I think you should put this guy in your next film,’ which, at that time, he was doing Lustig.
“And we met and we had lunch and he said, ‘You know, I’ve gotta ask you: this film is in German. Do you speak German?’ And I said, ‘I can count to ten.’ And so I counted to ten in German (and I had no idea, to this day, where I ever picked that up, but I did it) and he said, ‘Great! So, you have to learn how to say your lines in German, we start shooting next week, you’ve got the part.’ And so that’s how that happened.
“And the film has won the Grand Jury Prize for the Rosebud Film Festival and also the Grand Jury Prize for the Virginia Independent Film Festival. It’s a stunning piece of work. It’s a very powerful film, very important film, and a very emotional film.
“The second film is called Behind Bars. I submitted Behind Bars two years ago to a Toronto Short Film Festival (which it ended up getting into) and was communicating with the director on that festival, and I suggested to John that he should submit Lustig up there, because I’m from Toronto, so that’s how that began.
“Behind Bars is a short film. I wrote it and directed it and produced it and am starring in it. I decided to, once my son went into pre-K, that I wanted to give myself a project. And so I started to write, and I thought, you know, ‘What do I write?’ And I decided that I would write about what I know about, and what I know about is addiction and the struggles with that, and being someone who is now in my seventeenth year of sobriety, that’s how I began. So I kind of weaved it with the struggles that one has in the movie industry, as well as with addiction, so that’s how it kind of began.”
I asked whether it is hoped that either of the two short films could be expanded into feature length.
“With Behind Bars, it is an entity unto itself. As far as Lustig is concerned, I know that John has written a feature-length film. He has expanded on the short film to make it into a feature-length film.”
Another project about to come out is in definite contrast to stories of concentration camps and addiction: Wincott is in an upcoming comedy.
“Yes. The last time I did a comedic feature was The Undertaker’s Wedding with Adrian Brody, and I had so much fun doing that. Interestingly enough, I began in stand-up comedy, in Toronto, at a club called Yuk Yuk’s. I was the new feature of the Wednesday night, and I went on, and did some comedy there, and enjoyed it.
“My stand-up comedy career didn’t last too long. I ended up really being abysmal, and ended up throwing the microphone on the ground and walking out. It was just horrible — a horrible experience; never went back to it.
“But The Undertaker’s Wedding was great, and I was asked to do this film called Kringle Time — played the mayor of a city — and it was fun. It was great. Comedy’s hard, but it’s really fun. The fact that you get to go to work and do the thing that you love and also have a lot of laughter surrounding it is really great. Yeah; I really enjoyed it.”
I asked Wincott how he gets most of his work. Is it through his agent, or through people he knows, or through people seeing his work in other projects?
“It’s very much all of that, what you said, insomuch as one part of it is having an agent — people — them submitting me for projects; two, people seeing your work and giving you a call and offering you something; and three, word-of-mouth through someone else, a friend of a friend introducing me, and then something coming of that.
“With Kringle Time, I knew a casting agent in Los Angeles, when I lived there, and when I told her that I moved to the DC area, she said, ‘I know these filmmakers, these young filmmakers, who are really talented. And you should call them up and maybe go have lunch with them.’ So I did.
“A year ago, I called them up; we sat down; we had lunch; it was great. There were no projects that they had going on at that time, but we stayed in touch, and in June, they contacted me through my agent, and we ended up making this happen.”
We aren’t through with the upcoming projects: there’s also the pilot that just got picked up by CBS.
“Yes. I filmed a pilot for a new CBS show called The Code, and I just got word yesterday that I’m going to start filming that series in late October in New York City. It’s a military show which stars Dana Delaney and Luke Mitchell, and I play General Carrick in the series.”
It will be a recurring role, not a series regular, which means Wincott will be in many, but not every, episode. A mid-season replacement, it will begin being broadcast sometime in 2019.
“What’s interesting is that I’ve worked on many projects that have not shot in one of the major hubs. I’ve shot a film in Puerto Rico; I’ve shot a film in Vancouver; I’ve shot things in Toronto; I’ve filmed in North Carolina; Florida. So there’s a lot of projects that I’ve worked on that have not centered or been shot in one of those hubs — let’s say, Toronto, New York, or Los Angeles.”
But how does he keep on the radar when he doesn’t live in one of those hubs?
“What has to happen, and that I usually do, is, being in Washington, DC, I make sure that everybody in the surrounding areas, casting-wise, is aware that I’m in the vicinity. So I will reach out to Donna Belajac in Pittsburgh — and a project came up there, called Unstoppable with Denzel Washington and Chris Pine; I ended up going back for a callback with Tony Scott on that and getting the project.” Wincott plays Pine’s brother in that 2010 film.
“They shot The Wire in Maryland; Baltimore. I went up there for a callback on that; ended up getting that. The same with The Invasion. I did a callback up in Baltimore on that and got that role. And then in Virginia — they shot a film in Virginia called Lake City with Sissy Spacek and Rebecca Romijn. I ended up getting one of the lead bad guys in that film.
“So I think if people are aware of you — and there is a certain amount of marketing that has to go on with that, and work, as an actor, which I think we have to do all the time, anyway: we can’t just rely on our agents to do all the work; there’s work to be done for ourselves, that we must do, as well.”
Having lived in those hubs, both in the US and in Canada, how does Wincott like Washington?
“I like DC. It’s very international. It reminds me a lot of Toronto, in the sense that you have so many different cultures, and languages, and it’s extremely international here, which I love. You know, I can be walking, taking my eight year-old son to school, and getting into a conversation with somebody who’s from Croatia. And the next morning, I’m walking my son to school and talking to somebody who’s from Japan. It’s really — it’s great. I love it.”
But has he ever lost out on an opportunity by being too far away to pounce on an audition?
“I have not crossed that bridge. Last week, I had to go into New York City for a producer’s session on a Ridley Scott project, and my wife was working in Virginia at the time, so I took my son with me to New York. We got a hotel, and I went in the next day and I did the audition. My son was in the waiting room. I told him not to talk to the other actors, to be quiet. And so I went in the room and did my thing.
“So there’s a little bit of a logistical thing that goes on, especially being a family man and having a kid, that comes into play with that. But, you know, the three-and-a-half hour train ride up to New York is very relaxing. I can work and study and memorize my lines on the way.”
Since it’s been over thirty years since the TV series that landed Wincott on the cover of TV Guide, I asked whether he would mind me submitting the picture of it along with the interview. “No. Absolutely. By all means.”
And could he talk about the experience of being on the series? “I can. I really believe, as an actor, there’s certain aspects that are needed. One is talent; and two is luck; and three is determination.
“And in the case of Night Heat, this TV series: at the time, I was living in Los Angeles, and it wasn’t going well for me. I was on Venice Beach doing mime, trying to make a buck. And I got a phone call to come to Toronto to do a sitcom.
“So I went up there and did that, and, at the same time, I auditioned for Night Heat, this TV series, and I ended up getting this TV series and staying in Toronto and shooting it.
“But what I’m saying is, is that was a situation of luck, because, had I not been in Toronto, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do that. As it turns out, we ended up doing 96 episodes; it won a lot of Gemini awards in Canada; I was nominated for Best Actor. And it really opened up a lot of doors for me as an actor. And that was a CBS show, and what’s interesting is, The Code is also CBS, so it’s very exciting for me.”
I asked Wincott to talk about some of the directors he’s worked with. “I worked for Oliver Hirschbiegel, a German director, very well known; I worked for him on The Invasion. I also worked with Tony Scott, of course, on his last film [Unstoppable] which was such a blessing. He was a terrific director, just a really great guy, and always made you feel comfortable and relaxed on set, working with you.
“I worked with Jean-Jacques Annaud on Quest for Fire, who won the Academy Award for Black and White in Color [1976 Best Foreign Language Film.] I doubled one of the leads in the film, and was offered a principle role on it, but, at the time, I was doing Bent on stage in Toronto. It was the Canadian premiere of that play by Martin Sherman, and I was really happy working on stage, so I turned that down and stayed doing the show Bent in Toronto.”
We interrupt this interview to explain how Christopher met Jeff. We met as Dads at Forrest Hills playground, chatted, saw each other around, and, about the third time we met, I asked how his son had ended up with the unusual name of Wolfgang. Jeff replied that he had played a character named Wolfgang in the play Bent. “You were in Bent? I was in Bent.” We realized we had acting in common, and the rest is history. We now rejoin our regularly-scheduled interview, already in progress.
“I worked with a lot of terrific directors: Matthew Lucas, who I just finished working with on Kringle Time, is very talented, and somebody who has an ability, in the moment, when you’re working, and seeing: ‘Maybe we can try it a different way,’ and being open to that, giving me ideas, and maybe changing some of the script so we can do that. It was a wonderful environment and really just — it was great to work with him that way. He really cared about the work; cared about the actors that he was working with and set a great mood for everybody to work in.”
I asked Jeff to compare the process of working in film versus television. “I think there was a bolder line between TV and film in past years. I think that line has become more blurred. Working on The Night of, which was a TV miniseries that we shot in New York City with director and producer Steven Zaillian, who wrote Schindler’s List — well, you know, he really took his time, as far as setting the look of the set, the lighting, even what people wore — really took that time. And in the performances, took the time.
“And that’s been something that has been synonymous with filmmaking, but I think that that now becomes more television as well, especially when it comes to miniseries. Yes, when it comes to an episodic show, where they’re turning out one per week, it has a tendency to go much quicker, and the characters, and what you bring to it, are a little more solidified, I want to say, as opposed to [when] we have a little more time to create.”
Might I also mention that Jeff’s brother is also an actor? “Yes, you can!” And that they seem more collegial than competitive? “Yes. We are — very collegial.
“And I remember, there was a TV series that was going on in Toronto, and they asked me to audition for it, and I went there with my brother (who’s an actor, Michael Wincott) and so he was in the hallway, I was inside, I was auditioning for the role, and I said to the director, Allan Eastman, I said, ‘This guy has a brother?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ And I said, ‘Well, my brother is an actor, and he’s in the hallway. Can I bring him in?’ And he said, ‘Sure.’
“And so Mikey — I call him Mikey — Mikey came in, and we did the scene together, and then, at one point, we threw our scripts down and we were improvising. Anyway, it ended up we both got the roles. It was great.” (I remember Michael Wincott fondly for his role as Rene Ricard in the 1996 film Basquiat.)
I asked Jeff which of the many things that exist on film would be what he’d be most proud of, and most anxious to show Wolfgang, who will be nine in November. “That’s a good question. What would they be, if I was to show him something?
“Well, you know, he really loves the martial arts. He loves these kind of action things, you know, the fighting stuff. So I think it would be great for me to be able to show him one of those classic martial arts action films that I’ve done in the past.
“Mission of Justice: there’s a gauntlet scene, and there’s forty guys lined up — twenty on one side and twenty on the other — and here I am, your father, and watch what I can do, and how I take these guys down.
“And you don’t have to worry about being afraid. And, you know, when you think someone’s going to break into our house — it’s not going to happen. ‘Cause look at my work; look at what I’ve done. You know that I can protect you.
“So, there’s something in that, I guess.”
Any final thoughts? “That I have a film coming out called #Like that’s written and directed by Sarah Pirozek and starring Sarah Rich. And another film coming out called Bolden starring Ian McShane and Michael Rooker — I play Johnny Collins, a mob boss in that, who represented Louis Armstrong. That was directed by Dan Pritzker and produced by Dan Pritzker.”
“My God,” I observed. “You’re busy.”
Jeff reacted with a big laugh. “You know, I’ve gotta tell you something: I’m having one of the best years of my career. I really am. And it goes up and down, I know that — but while it’s happening right now, I’m really enjoying it.”