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Leo Oliva: An Actors Notes From The Front Lines



“Acting is a very intimate endeavor. One that when we truly tap into our reasons for being drawn to it, and being hooked on it, we find the reasons why we pick the roles we play. Or better yet, why they pick us.” – Leo Oliva. 

What kind of projects are you drawn to?

I enjoy projects where I can live in the truths and subtleties found in the characters I play. Ultimately, that quality is either nurtured by the director and the production or it is squashed when push comes to shove. I see it as my responsibility as an actor to protect the truth of the individual I am portraying. If we as actors can look at the character as a person, we can breathe life into, we stop looking for the caricatures and tropes they may be built on and create a memorable performance. 

What genre do you lean towards?

I’m coming to love comedy more and more as the opportunities have come to play in them. But I’m not sure it will ever surpass the fulfillment I receive from playing in dramas and thrillers. Still, while my body of work rings as diverse, I don’t actively search for diversity in the roles I play; I look for honesty and depth in the characters and the stories being told.

If you could choose one role to play, past or future, what would it be?

PAST: The Joker – in the Nolan Universe.

PRESENT: The Cuban Loki Variant.

FUTURE: A modern day Scarface with a real Cuban accent. 

How do you break down an audition script?

Pencil in hand, I read it through with the least amount of judgment possible while jotting down my feelings of each moment as I read. I read every word including page numbers, scene numbers, and the FYI sections. I read every word in the audition request as well. I mine all of it for gems that might inform me as to who they want me to play. 

As actors, we must not play the text, but the subtext; not the words we are saying, but the reasons why we say them. I find this through deep exploration of the story and the character’s intentions. Hopefully, I have the entire script prior to production, and the latest draft, but learning how to do this quickly is essential and is based on experience reading great writing, self-exploration and comfort exposing inner truths. A prime example of when this serves us well, is when only receiving eight pages of an unreleased show currently in production and putting all three scenes on tape for an audition in just the course of two days…without a redirect. The only way I’ve found to feel fully satisfied with my work, is to leave it all in the read I send in. It may not always be what they are looking for, but it will be honest and exposed.

Do you do anything special to get into character? Is there a specific process?

Talent and Whatever it Takes! And then, a more practical answer is that I read the script a lot and work to find how I can best serve the story being told. In fact, I read it a minimum of three times before I start to even work on it. On my first read, I approach the script from an audience perspective and watch the movie in my head as I read. I take in everything the writer put on the page and attempt to feel every moment they want me to feel, and those in between. Then I come back and read it from the other main characters’ perspectives to see what relationships we are building or destroying throughout the course of the story. And lastly, I read it specifically focusing on everything my character does and says taking in not only the words on the page, but also the pauses and beats and things unsaid. I do all of these passes with a pencil in hand and mark the script if and only if I feel a strong emotional connection to a moment. Each read gets me deeper into the story. Once I have a feel for it and have accepted the project, I’ll carry the script with me everywhere I go and read it every chance I get. It may seem obsessive, but you never know when a deeper understanding or inspiration may strike.

In your opinion, what makes for a great headshot?

Not sure. As much as they are a necessity, I’ve never been a fan of headshots. I prefer a natural looking editorial shot. I guess if you can capture that in a headshot, it works for me. 

How important is it for an actor to have a reel? 

It’s our calling card. It’s what gets us into the room after they click on that little thumbnail of your headshot. Cutting a reel, for me, has always been about entertaining the viewer. If they want to see more of you, they will ask to see more of you. I cut my own reel and I always approach it from the perspective of getting into the scene as late as possible and getting out as early as possible. Once the main action of the scene is presented and ends, we are on to the next one. 

What actors do you look up to?

Great work is great work. But Anthony Hopkins is probably my all-time favorite. I can watch anything he is in over and over and still find nuances and moments he’s worked into it. It’s educational, entertaining, and inspirational. The work Jim Carey has done is also very impressive. His ability to cross multiple genres and play them fully and honestly is something I admire as well.  

How important is rehearsal time on set to you? not sure if this fits yet

A lot of the subtlety and subtext can also be found in the rehearsal process. The opportunity to run the scene prior to performing it in front of the cameras or an audience, allows for deeper layers to be explored without the need for pushing “on the day.” Many notable actors talk about the importance of rehearsals and sadly describe the lack of it. 

Times have changed, and production moves much quicker than it used to. Theater still makes time for rehearsal because there is no “Take Two.” But TV, and most films, tend to look past the rehearsal process for the hopes of increasing their “production value” by allocating the money that could be spent on rehearsal time on big VFX, locations, or other production expenses.

Still, as an actor, it is our responsibility and our duty to do our work. On ‘Home Invasion’, Ross Philips and I made sure to run our scenes for the day before we even left for set, many times running them the night before based on the planned schedule. I can say without a doubt that the few minutes spent doing a quick read through translated to an increase in production value as our relationship and comfort with one another grew. 

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