Q&A with Oliver Stark

by Kee Chang for Anthem Magazine

The British newcomer on realizing his acting dreams, coping with the unknown and lack of control, and the emergencies of 9-1-1.

Ryan Murphy’s FOX procedural 9-1-1 completed its freshman run earlier this year, instantaneously becoming the network’s highest rated series since Empire arrived on the scene three years ago.

Revolving around the multiple rescue attempts made by first responders in Los Angeles—with Angela Bassett, Peter Krause, Aisha Hinds, and Kenneth Choi playing police officers, firefighters, and paramedics—each episode of 9-1-1 started with Connie Britton’s calm and collected dispatcher on the receiving end of a distress call with the show’s signature phrase, “What’s your emergency?” Murphy calls 9-1-1 a “blue skies show,” which centers on the heroic people who get up every day to do good and put the community first while battling their own demons behind closed doors.

Along for the ride is Oliver Stark’s firefighter Buck, who’s thrust into the heart-stopping, and so often bonkers, situations with the lot—from a runaway bouncy castle tumbling off a cliff with children in tow to a tapeworm teased out of a hysterical, sushi lover’s asshole—while grappling with sex addiction. Once the show’s cocky wildcard—he’s never heard of Rambo, Conan the Barbarian or TLC’s “Waterfalls” because “As far as I’m concerned, the world began the day I was born”—Buck matured into a much more responsible and likable character as Season 1 progressed.

9-1-1 is expected to scale new heights of insanity when a catastrophic earthquake hits L.A. in the show’s second go-around starting this month. Following Britton’s departure, Stark and co. will now be joined by Jennifer Love Hewitt in her role as Buck’s troubled sister and this season’s dispatcher.

9-1-1 is Ryan Murphy’s first procedural since Nip/Tuck 15 years ago. Ryan told Deadline that he was surprised by the height of 9-1-1’s success. I would like to ask you that same question.

I was in some sense because I don’t think you can ever know for sure if something’s going to be a success. You can have all the right ingredients and it can look like it’s gonna be a sure-fire hit, but you don’t really know until it’s out there in the world. So I don’t think anybody was counting on it doing as well as it did. But we all hoped, and actually, I think it’s probably gone on and exceeded our expectations. Now it’s about going along for the ride with Season 2.

I’m curious about these ride-alongs you went on during your prep.

Yeah, I did ride-alongs with a firehouse located in Santa Monica.

Were you surprised by the nature of the emergencies and how frequently the calls came in?

It was a real eye-opening experience, but not so much because of the nature of the calls we went on. We went on three in about a three-hour period so it wasn’t that busy. They were all medical-related. For me, it was more an education in just the way the firefighters interacted with each other, the kind of community that they had built there, and the way that they made fun of each other but in a loving way. These are all things that myself and the rest of the cast have tried to implement into the show, on that level of camaraderie and being a family unit.

What was your favorite emergency in Season 1?

I have a few. I really liked the rollercoaster, which is in the second episode. I got to be very physical and actually climb up a real rollercoaster track 85 feet in the air. That was something I thought I would never be doing. So that’s my favorite for selfish reasons. I think the plane crash was probably another favorite, just because so many people put in so much effort into that. We bought a real plane and cut it in half, and they dug a man-made lake. It was such a huge effort on everybody’s part that we walked away at the end like, “Wow—we really pulled that one off!”

So not the tapeworm incident.

[Laughs] That was actually one where I thought the two guest actors we had in the scene were particularly good and brought so much to it. I never thought I would be pulling a tapeworm out of somebody, but it was a fun night! That’s actually one that I think sticks in a lot of people’s memories, I suppose, for good reason.

Ultimately, even a moment like that tells you who Buck is: he’s known to rise to the occasion, whatever that might entail. You had a great arc in Season 1, including the love thread with Connie Britton. She obviously left the show, but is she at least there in spirit in Season 2?

It’s certainly still a part of the story. We find Buck living in Abby’s [Britton] apartment so he’s still very much connected to her and hanging onto the thread of their relationship. As we go through the first couple of episodes—I know Tim Minear [the show’s showrunner] recently spoke about this—a lot of the other characters are kind of starting to tell Buck that maybe he needs to start thinking about moving on. But her essence kind of remains. Whether or not she returns in a physical sense—I still don’t know. I hope so! But I understand she’s a very busy actor. We shall see…

Do you get some funny reactions when fans meet you in person and realize that you’re not actually American? I think it’s a huge compliment that they buy into your accent.

Thankfully, people seem to tend to like the British accent so there’s only a positive reaction—so far, anyway. You’re right when you say that it’s a big compliment for me. That is one of the biggest compliments because that’s something I’m very conscious of, and I’m conscious of wanting to do a good job with it. It’s a pet peeve of mine as well, I suppose, when I can hear somebody’s British accent when they’re meant to be playing an American. I put in the time and the effort to make that as convincing as can be. Thankfully, so far, people have been surprised to actually meet me. It’s always a nice moment for me when that happens.

Is it easy to switch that on and off now or is it still very much part of the work?

I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s easy, but it has kind of clicked a bit into becoming second nature. It’s my third time in the last few years working in the American accent and I’m definitely feeling more and more comfortable with it. Every now and then, there’s a phrase that I find a little tricky to get my tongue around. I spend a few days, if that is the case, to go over the three or four words—to the annoyance of everyone around me—and just repeat it until my mouth gets used to it. Then when I turn up to set, it can hopefully just roll out very naturally.

You told FAULT magazine that you had come out to Los Angeles for two months in 2014 and went home feeling a bit defeated. You didn’t have the best time out there. Now you’re on this hugely successful show. Is this sort of what you had been dreaming about at the time?

Oh totally. I’m currently getting to live out my dream. I’m working on a job with a fantastic cast and fantastic creatives. It’s a part that I love to play. It’s a show that’s resonating with people. I’m having the time of my life. I’m getting to do everything that I wanted to do when I first came out here. So touch wood, and I hope it continues.

How do you cope with the unknown as an actor? Is that one of the more difficult things?

It’s the unknown, but also, the lack of control. The fact that you can work hard, you can put in the hours, and you can do whatever you need to do, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re gonna find any rewards—that’s something I struggled with and had to adjust myself to kind of letting go a little bit. For me, it’s about having good people around you. It’s about appreciating the little things, the little yeses, and the steps in the right direction. It’s about trying to take a step back and look at it as the bigger picture, rather than the day-to-day—this is a good day, this is a bad day—because that’s very draining. I try and look at it as an overall journey.

What did the 9-1-1 audition require, and was that a very drawn out process?

It wasn’t drawn out. The whole thing spanned about a week. I was actually watching the Hollywood Reporter roundtable of showrunners featuring Ryan Murphy when I got this email to audition for the show. But I didn’t get any information. There was no script. There was no character description, which is something you more times than not get. There were just three scenes taken out of context. It’s something that’s thrown me off a little bit in the past, but I actually took this as an opportunity to be like, “I can do whatever I want with it then.” So I went in the next day to read with a casting director. I came back a few days later to meet with Ryan, Tim Minear, and the heads of casting at FOX. I did the scenes, had a little conversation, and tried to forget about it after I left the room, which is easier said than done. About a week later, I got a call saying, “You’re the guy! You got the job!” At that point, I still didn’t know anything about it. I didn’t know what the part was. I didn’t know the size of the part. But because of the people involved, I couldn’t wait to be a part of it. I’m very thankful that I lucked out.

How different is life when you have TV commitment? Does everything get super regimented?

It’s certainly different at the moment, especially when we’re filming. It’s the little things that you don’t get to do. For example, I don’t remember the last time I went grocery shopping because we’re here so much. It’s a lot of time away from loved ones, but that’s the job I signed up for and the people in my life understand that. So there’s no resentment there. We’re lucky to have a good group of people at work so it doesn’t feel like work when we’re here. It’s a really nice environment to get to spend my time in.

When did you first have the desire to act that propelled you into this field?

I studied drama and theater when I was younger, but I never thought it was gonna be my career. When I got to the age of 18, I still didn’t really know what I was doing. I was meant to go off to university to study economics and then decided I didn’t want to do that. So I started working in various jobs, none of which were acting-related. Then I appeared in a friend of mine’s short film and liked it and it kind of rekindled this love for acting that I had when I was at school. So I just started appearing in more and more student short films, built them into a demo reel, and started shooting it out to agents. There was no one particular moment of being struck by lightening. It was more just a gradual progression of, “Oh I like this,” and then stumbling my way into deciding that maybe I can really do this.

Does anyone else in your family come from the arts? What does your brother do, by the way?

He’s a physicist—a scientist—so it’s two opposite ends of the spectrum. He’s building rockets and I’m here trying to be a tree. My parents have worked academic jobs. I often think that if you do have parents in the arts—not that it’s easier—it takes away the barrier of whether or not it’s possible. If your dad or your mom or whoever is doing the job that you wanna do, then you know it’s achievable. Whereas if that’s not the case, there’s always like, “Maybe this is a pipe dream and it’s never gonna happen for me.” Thankfully, I was given the support by them to go and try to do what I really wanted to do.

It must be surreal for them to see how much you took to acting and how far you’ve come.

My brother may be a rocket scientist, but I’m on TV so I’m now the favorite son. [Laughs] No—they’re really proud. The show started airing in the UK so that’s pretty cool for them. I’m very lucky to have had them support me and give me what I needed emotionally to go pursue this.

Are you filming Season 2 as the new episodes are airing?

Yes, we are! I’m sitting in my trailer now before we go off to work. We started filming about a month and a half ago so we’re still relatively new into this season and still, in fact, working on episodes that will be on TV within the next month. That’s pretty exciting and scary at the same time. It’s nice to know that, the stuff I do today, I’m going to see on TV in three weeks. It’s a very quick turnaround there, which is quite rewarding. You get this immediate evaluation of your own work that you can, if you choose to, watch and calibrate as you go.

As compared to an artful independent film, for instance, which can take years to come out.

Or you may never see it. I always think it’s nice for the guest actors that come onto the show because I’ve guested on things before where you do it and, five months later, it’s out. Whereas they do it and, in two weeks, they get to see the work. So it’s exciting to work like this. There’s a bit of time pressure, but when you have a crew and creatives behind the scenes as good as ours, they pull it off and make it happen.

What feels different now that you’re back?

I think there’s a level of everybody having settled into their roles a little bit. There’s less trying to work out who we are. We’ll walk into a scene and already know where we’re gonna stand because “This is who your character is and this is who my character is.” There’s a little less adjustment each time. It’s always a little cleaner and quicker and more efficient on our end because we have all come to understand the nature of the show. But it’s still exciting and fresh. We’ve got a lot of new directors so there’s new energy coming onto the show. I think it’s gonna be a really exciting season.

I know there have been talks about a possible 9-1-1 spin-off. Hypothetically, if we’re talking about Buck, what do you think would be a new trajectory that your character could go on?

I don’t know… I’ve never really thought about it. I guess we could see him—with any of the characters—transferring to another city, and about the readjustment stepping into a new crew and how that would work. Maybe Buck goes off traveling around Europe looking for Abby. Either one.




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