Daniel Gillies
Photo courtesy of Daniel Gillies

Daniel Gillies: Art is the highest form of worship

by Heather Courtney Quinn

I got a chance to catch up with Daniel recently at home when he came back for one of his usual twenty-four hour weekend visits with the family. Daniel and my husband did an NBC pilot together years ago and have remained good friends ever since. Over the years, I have gotten to know him and he definitely embodies the ‘soul of biz’ because he is a true artist at heart.

Daniel is currently finishing up shooting the 1st season of The Originals for the CW. He also plays a doctor on NBC’s Saving Hope, which he shoots the rest of the year. He is so passionate about what he does and I honestly believe that he would do it, even if he didn’t get paid a cent.

Heather Courtney Quinn: With such a busy shooting schedule, how do you stay inspired?

Daniel Gillies: Narcissism (laughing). I am someone who cares a lot about the work that I do. I’m grateful for that… but I am sure there is a certain degree of surrender I could employ that would make me a little bit happier. There has to be a degree of understanding of the universe that you are stepping into. That being said, my vanity won’t allow me to turn up to set unprepared. That fluidity and ease that you can achieve within a performance, is only achievable if you do a whole lot of work that is unseen. It takes tremendous energy to walk the fine line of magic realism. And, in order to stay inspired, you have to keep feeding yourself the fun. I can only have fun if I work my ass off. I have a tremendous fear of allowing any work into the world that is less than what I am capable of. It’s my fear that keeps me motivated.

HCQ: What is the best career advice that anyone has given you?

DG: The best advice I ever received was from this wonderful acting coach in New Zealand, Raymond Hawthorne. He taught at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. He said to me, “Darling, get the fuck on with your acting!” I said, “what do you mean?” and he said, “it’s all very well looking real and natural, but sometimes you can look so natural that you’re fake.” So often, I’ll be in a scene with an actor who is waiting to feel before they act. And it’s like… ’just get the fuck on with your acting’… just say your shit and get out. Comedians are typically much better at observing the rules of drama. They have a better understanding of the inherent rhythmic properties of a scene. Feelings are a consequence of action. They want to see them take action in the face of adversity.

There is also another wonderful application to this violent maxim. “Get on with your acting” can also mean ‘don’t wait to be hired’. When my buddies and I in New Zealand weren’t on shows and we weren’t doing the only American movie that came to town that year, we were putting on plays. Go to class… study… train. I can never understand actors that say, “oh man, if I just had that opportunity, I could be great”. You have to go and create that frequency within yourself.

HCQ: What do you love doing that you are not doing now?

DG: Dancing and singing with my daughter. Holding my daughter is the greatest feeling I’ve ever had, other than holding my wife. There is nothing like listening to her breath next to my face and listening to her laugh when you entertain her. I am terrified at just how much I can love this person.

HCQ: How often do you get to see her?

DG: Once a week for nine or ten hours, if I am lucky. I just answered a question for you about emotions arising and now I am getting emotional with this question. I have a very lucky life. I am very blessed. I have a beautiful wife… a show that’s doing well. But human beings are tribal… they’re supposed to live with each other. Families are supposed to be there for one another and nurture each other… and the one disadvantage to all this privilege is that there is something unnatural about this. That’s the price, I suppose.

HCQ: What’s your philosophy for choosing a project?

DG: To survive… get paid. It is an important question and the answer is something that people need to hear, but only the slimmest percentage get to really choose. Most of us just need to pay the bills. When I took on both of the shows I am doing, I took them because I needed the money.

HCQ: Because you shot your own film?

DG: I had taken three years off to shoot my own movie. I was $110,000 in debt. These days, I do the work that’s in front of me. But, the one thing I do get to choose is the films I make. I am pretty proud of my first film, Broken Kingdom, and am currently writing my second one. Next to Charlotte, that’s what I do all of this for.

HCQ: So what do you do to relax? Is writing something that relaxes you?

DG: Your husband actually recommended that I get into this martial art called Muay Thai. I started three and a half years ago and I’m not very good, but I love it. I don’t know why, but something primal was awakened in me — I made this revelatory discovery that I like to punch and kick shit. I actually ended up doing Muay Thai and Taekwondo. Taekwondo was lovely and probably better suited to me because I am an actor, but Muay Thai has made be a better fighter. It provides me with some degree of peace, which is wonderful. I am four years in and I am just starting to really learn how to kick… and that is the weapon of the sport.

I read a lot. I do write a lot… but that is not necessarily to relax because it makes me tense. That is like an investment in myself, my future. I know I am going to make this film that I am currently writing… but it’s painstaking actually.

HCQ: What books are you reading?

DG: I just read Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath and Erik Larson’s The Devil In The White City. I am one of those guys that has twelve books on the side of his bed for, like, three years. I have books like Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow which has been sitting next to my bed for four years. And Inherent Vice. Paul Thomas Anderson is directing it and I need to read it before it gets on screen. I love anything to do with space… that is actually what I do to relax. I love nerding out to quasars, blackholes, supernovas and the structure of the universe… string theory. I love the idea of parallel universes. It is still vastly beyond me, but I love it.

HCQ: You’ve been living in Atlanta where you spend part of the year, and then you spend the rest of the year in Toronto. What do you love about these places and what do you miss about L.A.?

DG: Toronto surprised me. I thought I would be greeted with that famous Canadian warmth and it is actually one of the coldest cities emotionally. It is oddly distant. I am not talking about the people I work with… they are fantastic. When I am in Toronto, I miss the South. In Atlanta, people are just so sweet and kind. They greet you in the street. The girl packing your groceries is going to call you “darling” at least 27 times before she says, “cash or credit”. The South places real value on family. But, what I miss about Toronto when I am in Atlanta is that Toronto is so culturally rich. One week Philip Glass will be playing in Trinity Bellwoods Park, then the next week there will be a Salvador Dali exhibit on the other side of the city. There are endless plays, theatre and music. Even their Gay Pride Week kills anything I have ever seen in L.A., San Francisco or Sydney.

HCQ: If you could live anywhere, where would you live?

DG: New York… hands down. I love Manhattan. There is no way I could bring my daughter up in the city… well, maybe if I had one of those three story brownstones. Or, Upper West side, Brooklyn… Williamsburg, Park Slope or Carroll Gardens. I just love the energy of it. I love L.A. too. L.A. is just so easy.

HCQ: What’s your biggest vice?

DG: Chocolate. I did a hardcore diet in 2012 and I got so lean from eating really well…  but I still ate chocolate.

HCQ: If you were to leave the world today, what would your message to the world be?

DG: That’s a question that is both intimidating and inspiring all at once. The reason it’s intimidating is because I feel like I am trying to do that right now. And, I think you and Ed are as well. I think that what we want our message to be is that we want to leave art behind. My movie, Broken Kingdom, says more about who I am as a person than any performance I’ve ever done on any show. There is this preface by Oscar Wilde to The Picture of Dorian Gray… he basically gives this sermon about what art is and then he ends it with, “all art is quite useless”. Some people are offended by that comment, but actually it is entirely romantic and beautiful. For example, you and I need food and shelter to survive… but we actually don’t need art. But it is a transcendently beautiful thing that we pursue art, even though we don’t need to. Some would argue that you need it on an emotional level, but if there were no art in the world, it’s not like human beings wouldn’t continue.

The point is… we create it because we love it and we carry some inexplicable desire to say something about our place in the universe. I’m not a religious guy, but I believe that there is some sort of magic going on. Some people call it God… I don’t know what I call it… the frequency that exists between, beneath and around all things. I love devoting my energy to saying thank you to whatever that is… and my thank you is art. It is my version of worship. I know it sounds sort of strange… but, to me, art is the highest form of worship.

Heather Courtney Quinn

About Heather Courtney Quinn

Heather Courtney Quinn is a TV/film producer who is partnered with Andrew Cosby (Co-created EUREKA and Boom! Comics) in their company, Lost Mountain Entertainment. Please follow Heather on Twitter: @HCourtneyQuinn

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