In Theatre Trip’s “Spotlight On” series, we’re chatting with some of the most inspiring people in the theatre industry. And today we’re doing a special feature on CJ Stewart – an American actor who is classically trained in Britain!
CJ Stewart is currently finishing up his MFA at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire in the United Kingdom. He received his BA in theatre at Prairie View A&M University, and is now playing the leading role of Othello at the Blue Orange Theatre in Birmingham.
So what initially inspired you to get into acting?
“Well, growing up I knew I wanted to be some type of performer. I used to sing and dance for my family. It was usually Michael Jackson. But it wasn’t until high school that I first became inspired to act. I was playing American football and had many class electives; one of them being ‘intro to theatre.’ I think at the time I chose the class for fun, but towards the end of the school year, we had to perform monologues in front of the whole class.
My initial thought was to just go onstage and get it over with, but it was then that something in my brain shifted. Something clicked, and I actually believed the speech I had to deliver. Immediately afterwards, my teacher pulled me to the side and told me that I should really consider looking into acting. From that day onwards, I became inspired and knew it was worth a shot.”
What do you enjoy most about your career?
“Being a storyteller. Telling stories and holding a mirror up to nature is one of the most important jobs in the world. I love this career because it gives me the opportunity to possibly change someone’s life. Other than that, I get a kick out of making discoveries about characters that are unlike me. It always allows me to learn to empathize with situations that I’ve never even considered that people experience. Acting is thrilling.”
What has been the most difficult challenge so far in playing the role of Othello?
“Following his thoughts. It’s a roller coaster of feelings and emotions, and you really have to be an emotional athlete to take on this role. It’s also a very dark journey mentally, so I’ve been having to also stay grateful and positive for the journey itself to keep me above ground.
I think one huge thing that I had to dismiss is the stereotypes of the General. I had to dispel all of the stereotypical actions of a darker skinned person that Shakespeare wrote and ask myself how would anyone in the world (at this period) react to the demands of being betrayed by the only person in the world that might possibly love them. Not saying that anyone in the world would go down the path of the Moor, but Othello is a very flawed, insecure human who leads with love. I’m just going moment by moment, trying my best to react honestly, with all my heart.”
“Be honest and be true. Acting is storytelling, but you have to always remind yourself to tell the truth.”
Do you have any tips and tricks for getting into character?
“Of course! I think one of the best ways to get into character is to endow the world that the character is living in. It’s important to believe the given circumstances of the beginning of your character’s journey. Once you have set your mind to believe the character’s world, you will be moving in the right direction. Sometimes I create a routine for who I’m playing depending on their hobbies, and what they constantly do in the play. Listening to music from the time period that the character is living in is also my go to. Acting is believing, and you have to commit!”
How do you typically prepare before stepping onstage? Do you have any pre-show rituals?
“I think about my most immediate objective and why I’m coming on stage. I always do a drop-in improv exercise in which I talk myself through to the very moment I step on stage. This allows you to always be coming from somewhere. My pre-show rituals are listening to music that either puts me in the mood of the show or gives me energy. I also find moments to lay down and breathe to reflect on my gratitude towards the process.”
Is there a particular role that you would love to play one day?
“I have quite a few actually! But to list a few I would love to play Hamlet, Romeo from Romeo & Juliet, Scar from The Lion King, and Boy Willie from The Piano Lesson, by August Wilson.”
Which actors or actresses would you say that you look up to?
“The actors and actresses that first come to mind are Sidney Poitier, Viola Davis, Leonardo DiCaprio, Denzel Washington, Regina King, Meryl Streep, and Idris Elba.”
Can you tell us a bit about your time at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, and how it has helped shaped you as an actor?
“RBC has given me everything I wanted out of an MFA program. My cohort and I spent 10 hours a day in our first-year training rigorously to shape our bodies, voices, acting, and singing. We were lucky to have a number of different tutors who all offered something different when it came to the craft. I learned how to act in my undergrad at Prairie View A&M University in Houston, Texas. But the Conservatoire has made me feel more comfortable within myself, and I think that’s one of the most important elements in acting.
You have to be comfortable with who you are mentally and physically before you shift into someone else. I’m beyond grateful for RBC for sharpening my tools and letting me become more secure about how I work. My time at the drama school is wrapping up, but you can come see the fruits of our training in our upcoming productions around Birmingham, England.”
“Changing the world through creation is my ultimate goal.”
If you could give a piece of advice to someone who is brand-new to acting, what would it be?
“Don’t be afraid to fail. We learn from it, and it always makes us better. You are enough. Acting is very hard, but do not let anyone discourage you. Just commit to it and focus on mining and bettering the craft of it. If it’s possible, my recommendation is to go get trained at a drama school or university. And once you’ve started that, my best advice is to take everything to heart, be honest and be true. Acting is storytelling, but you have to always remind yourself to tell the truth. Lastly, have fun! Because it is difficult, if acting feels like a chore to you, you’re probably wasting your time. You have to absolutely love it.”
What would you say your goals are for the coming years?
“I’m here to use my voice to inspire and let the population of dreamers in the world to know that you can do anything you work hard for. My ancestors have set down pillars for me to stand on. Pillars that they suffered to build. It’s my job as an artist to stand on those pillars and tell stories that will hopefully change the molecules of humanity into something more understanding and bright. Changing the world through creation is my ultimate goal.”
What did you think of this interview with CJ Stewart?
Are any of you working as or aspiring to be an actor or actress? We would love to hear all about it in the comments below! And in the meantime, you can check out even more of our theatre interviews with inspiring people in the industry!
*The featured image was taken by Jessica Raphael.
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Author: Stacy Karyn
Stacy Karyn is the founder of Theatre Trip, author of The Thespian’s Bucket List, and creator of The Cast Album List. She has a TESOL drama certificate, a BA in theatre, and has worked and interned with Broadway and Off-Broadway theaters.