Interview With Actor Lee Shorten, “The Man in the High Castle”

By Ruth on February 8, 2017 in interview, movie, television
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A few months ago, I interviewed several different actors and industry professionals who recommended a series called The Man in the High Castle. Because I have Amazon Prime, I had seen this series advertised, but I had no idea whatsoever what it was about nor anything else concerning it. I gave the first episode a watch, and I was greatly intrigued. While I am still attempting to get through season one (my schedule is insane at times), I did happen to interview an actor who has been connected with the series almost from its inception. While it has been a little while since I chatted with Lee Shorten, I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed reviewing this very special interview we had while he was in the middle of filming season two. As season three is practically ready to begin filming, I think it’s an ideal time to share these magnificent moments with an extraordinary actor who was willing to share pertinent details about his career, his outlook on the industry, and his incredible devotion to his craft.

RH: First of all, where are you from? I’m trying to figure out your accent.

LS: Right. I’m from Australia. It’s a little bit mixed these days because I use the American accent so much as well. It kind of bleeds into it. So my accent is kinda crazy. Kind of a crazy hybrid. {laughs}

In my research on you, it looks like you had a nontraditional path to acting. 

Yeah, I guess you could say that.

I realize that’s relative–there are a lot of unusual stories out there. So why don’t you tell us your story about your path to acting?

I always liked the creative arts as a kid. I wasn’t particularly good at them or anything, but I was decent. I leaned more towards music to be honest. I finished high school and I did a little bit of drama, but not a whole lot. My parents were pretty insistent that I take a traditional career–medicine or law or something like that. When you’re young, you think that is probably the most sensible thing to do. So off I went to law school. But for my undergrad, I did film studies as my liberal arts major. I love everything about film. I know so many people are passionate about acting, and I really do like acting a lot, but I like the whole industry. I like reading scripts, writing, short composition, breaking down films–I like the whole thing.

So I went on to study law. I finished law school and got a job as a lawyer, and I no longer could pursue anything in film. Being a lawyer is pretty demanding on your time. I was a lawyer for about four or five years, and it just wasn’t satisfying. I had a wonderful girlfriend and a really good job. I just stopped and theoretically saw the rest of my life laid out in front of me, and I thought, “If I don’t take a shot now, I’ll regret it. But I think this is the last chance to take a shot because I’ll get married. I’ll buy a house, and I’ll have kids. And it would certainly be irresponsible of me to start pursuing this crazy career when my family should come first.” So that’s my story in a nutshell.

When I was looking you up, I noticed you were a musician. I was a music teacher, but I was more into singing than instruments.

I’m a terrible singer. {laughs} I think there’s a lot of parallels between music and acting. During my college years, I was playing in rock bands. In my youth, I was playing in a lot of big bands, jazz bands, and orchestras where you are playing the dots on the page. I do think there’s a lot to be said about the overlap between the two professions.

What instruments did you play?

I’m not terribly good at any of them. I played the guitar, the bass guitar, the drums, trumpet, trombone, and the tuba.

That is really something. I played the piano as well, but singing was always my thing. 

So what’s your favorite musical?

Probably almost a tie between The Phantom of the Opera and Wicked.

Good choice.

There are a lot of great ones. Lion King also would be one.

Isn’t it just the worst when someone asks what your favorite something is? It’s almost like asking, “Who’s your favorite child?” And you’re like, “I don’t know. I’ll try to give you something by way of response.”  {laughs} That was cruel of me.

When I was looking through your credits, I noticed that you’ve been on Supernatural a few times.

Supernatural is great. I’ve been very lucky in my career, I have to say. I went in for Supernatural  once, and they just happened to like what I did. So they asked me to come back. And then they asked me to come back again. So I was lucky. And I do love it. It’s a great show, and it’s been going for such a long time. The Supernatural fans are incredible. They have to be to keep a show going for twelve years. The community is amazing. I’ve seen them band together and get behind so many good causes. They really have each other’s backs. It’s quite a beautiful thing.

Incidentally, the first time I was on, the show was being directed by Robert Singer who was also an executive producer. And when a director is also a producer, they have a little more say in things. If I had done a different episode, it’s probably doubtful that I would have come back as many times as I did. So I have to tip my hat to someone.

A lot of actors I have interviewed have been on Supernatural at least once. It seems almost like a starting ground for a lot of actors. 

I would agree with you. I think you’re right. Almost every contemporary actor has been on that show at least once.

It’s one of those shows I am just starting to get into–don’t know how I missed it all these years.

I read once there are over five hundred shows on television. I can see why people miss shows and why they have lists that are six pages long and why they never get around to watching some shows. We are spoiled for content.

And now you’ve got streaming services which is where we find the show I know you from–The Man in the High Castle. I think the premise of that show is fascinating. I have not read the books. How did you end up getting involved with this show?

You know, it’s another one of those lucky stories. I auditioned for a character, and he was originally known as The Suited Man. He was supposed to come in for one episode and be done. And it just so happened that the one episode where my character was featured was directed by Dan Percival who is also one of the producers. He really liked my audition, and they had me on set. They liked me as a person, I guess. {laughs} So they decided they would expand the part and create this character for me. It’s been a gift that keeps on giving. So again, I was just really lucky.

And of course, you got renewed for season two and now season three which I’ve heard is shooting some time this spring. 

Yes, we shot season two this past summer. And now we’re getting ready for season three.

And I believe you guys picked up some awards, isn’t that right?

Yes, we got four Emmy nominations and won two. We were nominated for visual effects, main titles, production design and cinematography. We won for cinematography and main titles. And we have been nominated for and won many other awards–it’s amazing.

But that’s pretty cool about the Emmys because here it is not even a network show, and you’re being nominated for and winning Emmys.

Honestly, and this is not just a shameless plug, it is one of those rare things where the concept is great. The studio is really behind it ’cause Amazon series is still pretty new and they’re trying to make their mark and they were looking for kind of their House of Cards, so to speak. So they’ve been very supportive of this. Everyone involved–creatives, producers, crew, everyone–is really invested in the show. Everyone truly believes in it, and everyone works very hard. And everyone’s super nice, so it’s a dream show to work on. I’m disappointed that we missed out on a wardrobe Emmy nomination ’cause I think the wardrobe department deserves it, but I’m glad we at least got production design because as an actor, walking onto those sets–it’s incredible. It does so much of your work for you. I believe I’m in the 1960’s–it’s such attention to detail. It’s fantastic.

I do agree the sets are awesome. I got to interview one of the stunt people–Maja Aro. I don’t know if you know her.

Yeah, I don’t know her super well, but I’ve seen her around on set and have had lunch with her.

I was still on the fence about the show, but she told me I needed to look up The Man in the High Castle. So I did. My problem is that I connect with all these people, and then I feel like I need to watch everything and throw my support behind everyone, and I run out of time. But I do enjoy getting to support everyone in the cast–not just the main stars.

That is so generous and lovely of you. As we said, there’s so much content so for you to not only watch and write about it, but to go out of your way to connect with people involved and not just the leads, that is wonderful. Not a lot of people do that. Thank you so much.

You’re welcome. I so enjoy discovering people and connecting with all sorts of people just like you. I’m learning so much from you. I’m always fascinated by everyone’s story. I like getting to share my discovery with others.

I think you must be a very wonderful teacher. Your students must be so lucky to have you.

Well, thank you. I do try. {pause} Why do you think The Man in the High Castle has been so popular?

Well, first of all, obviously because it’s based on a book. Philip  Dick is the sci-fi guy, right? He also wrote Blade Runner and Minority Report and so many of the classic sci-fi things. So we have that going for us.

The second thing I think is that everyone loves a good “what if” ’cause a lot of people think about, “What if we’d done this?” So that’s nice.

But I think the big thing is–it’s always interesting talking about this as an outsider–from what I’ve observed, America is going through a bit of a rough time right now, and there is a little bit of–not quite an identity crisis–both parties are trying to work out how they fit in these days and the politics and policies, and there’s a lot of shifting. So I think the thing about The Man in the High Castle is that it presents a picture of America that’s only slightly warped. The first season doesn’t quite show this, but as you progress through the season and into the next, you’ll see the character of John Smith, who is a Nazi. But really, a lot of his values are very all-American. He has this beautiful family, and if you were to strip away the Nazism and when he’s not talking about torturing, killing, and disabling people…when he’s just giving his son advice about school and love life, he could be a perfect American dad. He could be from The Brady Bunch. I think that the show allows you as an American to watch this show, and you identify with this, this, and this. I don’t like this. I don’t like that. And you get to pause and stop and ask yourself why you don’t like this or that. Why is this American, and why is that not fundamentally American? And how would I have coped under a Fascist regime? It allows you to reevaluate your own sense of identity and your own sense of what is truly American and what isn’t. It has fans who are extremely left wing, and it has fans who are extremely right wing, and I think it’s for that reason. They’re both looking at what is portrayed in the series with the thought that something is wrong, and I need to work out what that is. Hopefully that was not a convoluted answer.

No, that was a very astute answer. I can see what you’re talking about.

Thank you. If you keep watching, there is an episode where they celebrate V-A Day which is the day that the war ended. Again, if you strip away all the Nazi stuff, it could be Thanksgiving. It could be an Independence Day. It is really chilling by how much closer it is to the American Dream than not at all.

I’m still in season one, but I plan to keep watching. I did get to interview Lini Evans, who appeared on the show and had wonderful things to say about it.

Oh, she’s a lovely person!

She told me how wonderful her experience had been on the show. And there are also some kids from When Calls the Heart who have appeared in the show. They were the first people to tell me about this show. 

I really hope you enjoy it. We’ve all been talking it up, and you might go in with expectations and come out saying, “Actually, this is garbage.” {laughs}

Oh, I know it won’t be garbage. I know the first episode was a little slow, but I think the first episode of the first season of any show is slow because they are establishing everything. But I was intrigued, and it was so chilling from the very beginning. Even the song choice–having them sing Edelweiss and just thinking that if the Nazis had won…this is why we fought. 

It’s haunting.

I was looking at the places that you filmed. Is it true that some of the show was actually filmed in Washington state?

They filmed the pilot in and around Seattle. And they also do some of the filming on location, so they did do some filming in Germany.

I’m asking because it’s so rare to see anything filmed in my state.

I think they would have loved to have stayed in Seattle, but they weren’t allowed to have Nazi insignia–which is understandable–so they were having to add it all in post-production, and it was becoming quite expensive to CGI all these swastikas.

Photo: Liz Rosa
MKU: LucyAnn Botham
Styling: Heidi Farnola

So in addition to The Man in the High Castle, do you have any other current/upcoming works you can mention?

I’ve worked on a couple plays. One of them is with Mayumi Yoshida, who plays the crown princess in The Man in the High Castle.  I did do a small stint on The Romeo Section, and that was a very popular show here in Canada.  I also shot a pilot called Ask Will, which is this quirky dramedy in the style of Arrested Development or Curb Your Enthusiasm. We are hoping to get a series pickup with that one.  That would be absolutely amazing.  I also shot a Canadian feature called Prodigals which stars one of my The Man in the High Castle co-stars, Kaniehtiio Horn (Hemlock Grove). But it’s true that The Man in the High Castle really does consume my time. I shoot a lot of indies on the side when I can. But they are “super-indies,” like they’ll probably never see the light of day outside of YouTube.

One last question. What do you like to do in your free time?

The truth is I’m a terrible workaholic. Free time is really still work time.  I still work as a lawyer sometimes. I own a distribution company called Emerging Pictures, and we do a lot of indie stuff. I am a big supporter of indie films. I meet with indie directors and producers and try to help them get their work out there. With everything that I’m shooting, my schedule is like this. I work. I go to the gym. I eat. And then I’m working on actor stuff. {laughs} I’m the most boring person alive, to be honest.

No, you’re not the most boring person alive. I promise. {laughs} I would call you a workaholic who loves what you do. I fully understand because I’m that way too. 

Well, that is the benefit–I do enjoy what I’m doing. I like to read as well. For the show, I do a lot of reading about Japanese history, but I like history anyway. So it’s nice to indulge in things you like that also feed your work. I say I’m a workaholic, but I think I’m only a workaholic because I like what I do.

 

While the vast majority of the people over the past year that I have spoken with are immeasurably kind, courteous, and supportive, Lee is one of those rare individuals who exudes warmth from the moment you meet him. I realize I only “met” him over Skype, but all of his interactions with me have been considerate, uplifting, and overtly hospitable from the moment we began communicating. While the preponderance of people I meet through my interviews are humble and benevolent, Lee took such a genuine interest in me that reviewing this interview was an especially sweet experience. Having music in common probably established a quick and mutual foundation for our exchanges, and the fact that he actively listened to my responses and questions is a quality that resonated with me on a profound level. Lee is an actor and professional with unrestricted depth, but the fact that his interactions with me were so authentic explains exactly why, in my opinion, he has had such success in this business, especially with recurrent roles. He doesn’t go out of his way to network; some people have to make a conscious decision to do that until it becomes “second nature” in this business. But with Lee, it seems that he is able to seek and find connections with ease and relate to people on a sincere level. I would say that like me, he has an insatiable desire to know and understand the people with whom he comes in contact, and I, for one, find that refreshing. While I interviewed him and attempted to direct the conversation to be about him and his work, in so many ways, he regularly turned the conversation towards others in order to feature and highlight them rather than himself. And that IS a remarkable quality, not just amongst actors, but amongst humanity as a whole. I would invite everyone to be sure to check out all his links below and follow him on social media where you can. Furthermore, if you are able and willing, be certain that you check out The Man in the High Castle, as the show is continuing to break records and produce fine, entertaining shows that have the potential to cause us to pause and consider “what if” and hopefully make us proud and relieved that in spite of all of our problems and disagreements as Americans, we live in a democracy that is rooted in the concepts of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

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About the Author

RuthView all posts by Ruth
43-year-old single mother of an active 14-year-old girl Born in Tacoma, WA; lives in Yelm, WA Entertainment Writer Available For Interviews and Reviews Substitute Teacher

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