Actor Phillip Lewitski of Hulu’s Utopia Falls doesn’t leave any stone unturned. He takes his job seriously, as we all should, but even he has times where he’s just not feeling his character.
What if you’re feeling that disconnect the moment you’re called to set? What can you do to quickly get into your character’s head to bring you back to the level of professionalism that’s required and expected of you?
Phillip Lewitski shares his secret with us and gives us great insight as to how he operates as an actor.
(If you’re just becoming familiar with Utopia Falls, it’s the first ever Sci-Fi Hip-hop television series, created by R.T. THORNE (Blindspot, Find me in Paris). It is prestige television for a new generation of young audiences who are culturally diverse, socially and politically minded, and are motivated to see themselves and their issues represented on screen.)
On Hulu’s Utopia Falls, you portray Apollo, a quiet and calm natured dreamer who works as a mechanic and brings his musical talents through drumming to the show. Tell us about your audition.
When my agent first called me about this role she told me they were trying to cast most of their leads as locals but couldn’t find anyone for this particular role. They opened up casting to Los Angeles, Vancouver, New York, Montreal and Toronto.
It all started with a self-tape. I remember when I first read the breakdown it was nothing like anything I had ever read before. It wasn’t a pilot – it got pushed straight to series — so I knew something about this concept was obviously working. They were pretty general when speaking about the show during first rounds of auditions. They just wanted to see faces and people’s interpretations of the role.
As always I read the character description but didn’t read it religiously. I always like to put myself into the role rather than trying to put the role into me. Everyone out there is going to try and be what the producers are asking for as far as character goes so why do you think that’s going to set you apart? There is only one thing you can do to guarantee that you will be set apart… use what you already have. Yourself. There is no one out there on planet earth like you so use that to your advantage. Of course, you should use elements of what they are asking for in the character but your spirit should always remain you or else they will see right through the façade you are trying to put on. If they don’t catch it, the camera will, the camera is a lie detector and never misses anything. If they miss it the first time, I promise you they will see it when they go back and review.
The casting process for this show was pretty extensive. They had quite a few rounds and actually had me read for two different roles. They watched my interpretation of one role and saw that my energy might work better for a different role so they had me read for that. If I was to mold myself into what I thought the producers wanted for that first role they wouldn’t have seen that side of me that was perfect for the other role. I try to be as flexible and free as I possibly can so they can shape me into what they need. I have always seen casting directors as partners in this industry. So many actors fear casting directors and think they are there to watch you fail when in fact it is the complete opposite. Your success is their success when you do an amazing job and that gives the producers something to work with — it makes the casting director’s job easy. They want you to succeed just as much as you want to succeed so in knowing that, it takes a lot of the pressure off and creates a healthy relationship between you and the casting director.
I don’t know if this is a superstition of mine or not but when I tape for a role and they call me in and then hopefully ask for a callback and then a screen test or chemistry test, I always wear the same thing as the first time they saw me. I don’t like changing anything that’s working. I digress, going back to Utopia Falls being that it was a lengthy process I made sure I stuck with what I had done. When I leave a casting studio in my mind it was like I never went in. That’s the only way I’ve been able to keep my mental sanity throughout this journey. This method becomes a lot harder to abide by when you get called in many times for the same role. It is hard to not get attached to the show and the role and the people involved.
Towards the end of the casting process for this particular role, the director and producer were in the room via a video conference call. When we started talking story and character and the direction they were wanting to go in I felt my heart becoming very attached to this project. I let that passion show in my eyes in the room but the second I left it was like that conversation never happened. It was only weeks and weeks later that I received a phone call from my agent with the offer. It was only then that I would allow my mind to be consumed full time by everything I had been through for this role.
Phillip Lewitski – Photo by Benjo Arwas
Did you make up a backstory for your character or was it given to you?
I become pretty obsessed with the mind of my character when I approach one so yes, a backstory for me is a must. I answer all questions that I could ask anyone about themselves and make sure I have an answer to them for my character. As military as I am with my prep, as soon as I arrive on set I always drop everything I prepared, I drop the blueprint. I never hold onto any strict way of doing or thinking about anything because then I am not free to play with the actors across from me or take direction from the director. I trust that everything I worked on is in my subconscious and will show up if need be.
I also have an amazing support team that I can call on if I need help mentally getting somewhere. I remember I had this one scene where I had to get really emotional and I did all my prep before arriving on set. I spent most of the day alone in my trailer so that I could be focused and ready for that scene. Then one of the AD’s came knocking and told me they needed me on set. I was shuttled to set but when I arrived and was waiting in the green room, I felt like I had lost it. Something just wasn’t there. I didn’t panic because I had a backup for these kinds of situations. I had messaged one of my coaches who was currently across the country from me and told him I might need his help later. Fifteen minutes before they needed me on set I called him up and he knew what I needed. He knows me so well that within five minutes he had hit every trigger I needed and I was at the brink of tears. That was exactly what I needed. It’s a reassuring feeling when you know that if all else fails you have a backup plan because when cameras roll, cameras roll and you can’t hold up production.
Utopia Falls has a large cast. What’s it like interacting with so many people?
There can be a lot of drama on some of these sets with a younger cast especially working on a TV series because the shoots are so long, so there is plenty of room for people to create trouble. Luckily from the first table read for Utopia Falls I instantly got the vibe that the whole cast was going to get along quite well. Halfway through reading the first episode, the chemistry between all of us was electric.
When we started socializing after and got a tour of the sound stage it was an instant connection. We really felt like we were in that world and we knew we were about to start a long rollercoaster of a journey together. Things definitely did get pretty hectic as the months went by. There are all sorts of stresses on set, time restraints being one of them, organization, transportation. There were some days where we had hundreds of extras and double the crew with a six-camera set up for big scenes. As chaotic as it seemed at some points we all had the same end goal and just kept working towards it.
Our call times were all over the place but being that we are an ensemble cast we had a lot of scenes together so were on set as the group of us most of the time. There were times where we had smaller group scenes or one-on-ones but the whole cast got along so well that it was always a blast shooting with whoever. Sometimes we had call times as early as 3am. When we had night shoots we could have call times as late as 11pm so that we could shoot all through the night.
Phillip Lewitski – Photo by Benjo Arwas
You have seven siblings. Was it chaos growing up?
There are eight kids in total including me. My Maman and Papa always wanted a big family and even dreamed of having seven siblings but to their surprise my Maman’s last pregnancy ended up being twins. My Maman always said that she knew she wasn’t done having kids because during her years of mothering she would have all of us in one room and would hear a distant baby crying even though all of us were right there with her. She knew that that was God’s way of telling her she wasn’t done. After she had the twins she never heard that cry again. Yes, we all lived together in peace and harmony for the most part. Of course, it wasn’t perfect but we all got along quite well. We were homeschooled so we were sort of forced to get along considering we were all we had. We became best friends.
I am the second oldest. My older brother and I were the best of friends and did everything together. There was this one time when he was in the basement playing a video game and I was upstairs. He shouted up to me because he wanted to show me something but I didn’t respond. Instead, I just ran down to see. He thought I didn’t hear him so he started running up the stairs to get me. He had his head down I had my head up and as we turned the corner halfway up the staircase our heads collided. His forehead into my mouth. It was a bloody mess. My two front teeth were knocked out. One was still hanging from my gums. My mom ran down to see what happened. She immediately grabbed my tooth off the ground and put it in her mouth only to later on find out that the technique of putting knocked out teeth in your mouth to keep them alive only applies to adult teeth.
So after she tosses a bloody baby tooth in her mouth she carried me to the sink to try and see what was going on inside my mouth. Meanwhile, my older brother is on the phone with the ambulance freaking out. Long story short I ended up dislocating my jaw and lost both my front teeth way too early. The dentist was able to put the one that was hanging from a thread of gum back in but sadly a week later it died and turned black. I was stuck with a dead tooth that had already healed back into my gums and a big empty gap. My childhood pictures aren’t the prettiest but it made for a good story.
You were home schooled. Home schooling allowed you extra time to study theater and drama studies, but how did you do that if you were at home? Isn’t it difficult to study drama from home?
We were all homeschooled most of our lives but it got to a point after the twins that my Maman just couldn’t do it on her own anymore. So she put some of the older kids in school including me. I went to a self-taught school so that I had the flexibility to audition while keeping my grades up. Essentially it was a school that had the concept of homeschooling but teachers and a faculty who were there to assist you when you did have time to attend.
Considering I was homeschooled most of my life I think it helped keep my creative muscles alive. A lot of us lose that creativity when we go to school because it is so structured. My Maman always made a point that each of us had one hour of creative time separate from each other every day. My Maman put me in a theatre production when I was a kid so I would practice my lines or create different characters during this creative time. I have always been obsessed with Joker so I used to put makeup on, take my dad’s camcorder and create interpretations of Joker while doing little video diaries in character.
I also loved to play my instruments and paint. My little brother and I, when we were really young, used to take my dad’s camcorder and go down in the valley by our house which had a big river and trees and lakes and we made little short films. We would improvise and use ketchup for blood and create this whole storyline, just the two of us. He would direct and work the camera and I would be the actor. We were so young so none of it looked good but it was super fun. I never went to a formal drama school when I was a kid but only attended basic theatre classes. Later on, in life, I started working with incredible acting coaches and attended the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute in Los Angeles. I found some incredible coaches who I plan on working with for a lifetime. I have this one coach that knows me so well he can trigger me in ways that no one else can.
Phillip Lewitski enjoying the sunset. Exclusive to NYCastings.
Tell us about your family’s heritage and why it’s so important to you. How has your ancestry helped you as an actor and musician?
Family is everything to me. They are the people I go to when I need to be grounded or when I need to be called out for something. This is deep-rooted in our culture. Family are the people you always go back to. We all have our paths we venture off on but never forget where you come from. My great Grandma has told me stories that I have used in my daily life and without those I would feel very lost at times. I always pray to my ancestors when I act. I ask for their guidance so that I bring honor to them. They are always with me and because of that I never feel alone. A lot of the music I compose is stemmed from things I heard when I was younger. When I went to my first pow wow I’ll never forget feeling the drummers beat in my chest. I use that feeling whenever I sit down at the piano, drums or violin.
You recently shot some episodes of Vikings whose production company, World 2000 Entertainment, is in Ireland. Where did you film? What kind of preparation did you do for your character We’jitu?
We filmed Vikings about an hour and a half outside of Dublin. Although they had the whole cast in a hotel that was only a 15-minute drive to set. It was pretty incredible when I first arrived and got the tour of the set. After watching the show I assumed they used a lot of CGI and green screens but everything you see in that show is real. They have literally built villages bigger than the average community. The Viking ships are all genuine size. The massive walls that surround the villages are all real. It’s one of the biggest studio lots I have ever been on and they are so organized and attentive to detail. The rehearsal periods were super extensive for everything we did. They wanted to make sure that when they brought the whole crew in, which included hundreds of people and a drone camera the size of a small helicopter – and on some days five hundred extras – that we were all ready to go. Things happened really fast for this show so I didn’t have months and months to prep the character. Within a week the contracts were signed the production got me a work permit and I was on a plane to Ireland. To answer the last question, production was amazing. They flew me, business class, had me put up in a gorgeous hotel and shuttled me to and from set in luxury vehicles. They also had incredible chefs catering for everyone on set. I have nothing but good things to say about that production.
What acting values are most important to you? What about life values?
I have witnessed a lot of egos on sets and that’s always been something that I promised myself I would never become. Making a movie or TV show is a group effort. It takes a village to create something from start to finish. For me, I don’t see a set as some sort of hierarchical system. Everyone is playing their part; everyone there is essential to create a quality piece of work so talking down to people or thinking you are better than anyone else is ridiculous in my opinion. This sort of mentality only makes all those long days hell for everyone around you. I’ll never forget my first day on Supernatural when Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki walked into the makeup trailer and made a point to shake my hand and welcome me onto the show. It can be very intimidating when you are joining a well-established show so to see how respectful and humble they were was really inspirational and has been something that has always stuck with me.
Have you ever questioned something in the script on any of the productions you’ve worked on?
I think it’s important to question things in the script but make sure it is something you truly believe in and have hard-hitting evidence to back up your argument. Most of the time the director or writer will be fair and hear you out but they will also be honest and if they think your adjustment will make the story lose its integrity they will tell you. There was this one time where I felt like my character wouldn’t react the way the director was asking me to do it and he came back and said let’s do two takes with each version so that the editors can have options. Of course, you have to follow what he says and give both versions your all and trust that in post-production they will know which version to use.
Contrary to popular belief, Phillip Lewitski gets a night out. Exclusive to NYCastings.
What advice do you have for Canadians who want to break into show business?
I would say that if this isn’t everything to you… and I mean everything… if you have a plan B or another plan of action go with that because this industry will eat you up and puke you out. If you don’t have that burning unrelenting passion inside of you to get you back on your feet you won’t survive. This is a mental game and your mind has to be fully convinced that this is what you need to do, this is what you came here to do.
Anything else you’d like to say?
I would like to give a big shout out to Matthew Harrison at The Actors Foundry studio. You were a huge part of shaping me into the actor and person I am today. I would also like to shout out David Strasberg at the Lee Strasberg Institute. You are an endless vessel of knowledge I have learned so much from you. To every other acting coach you know who you are who have helped me tremendously on my journey I am forever grateful. It’s not about these people shaping me as an actor, they have genuinely shaped me as a person and that is a priceless gift.
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