Before the Scene with Kim Coates

by AJ Buckley on August 17, 2011

Before the Scene is where we all start. In a small town with our families. In front of a mirror with our friends. The days spent  sleeping on a couch. The nights working at a bar. Living with the unknown and surrounded by uncertainty. It’s about the times that define us. It’s about the darkness just before the limelight.

Kim Coates is a veteran actor who has starred in Black Hawk Down, Waterworld, The Client and The Last Boy Scout.He currently stars as Tig Trager on Fx’s hit show Sons of Anarchy.

What made you become an actor?
I don’t know if you believe in fate, but I do. I was nineteen. At a university, first year, I was able to take an elective. I didn’t even understand what that word meant at the time, but it meant anything I wanted. I took a book, I opened a book, I went [brrrr]with this book and I landed on the letter “D.” I went to “Drama.” And I went, “You know what? Let’s take an acting class.” So I took an acting class for fun and that’s how the whole thing started with me. Four years later, I had done twenty-seven plays at the University of Saskatchewan up in Canada, including summer stock, and I was well on my way to getting my equity cred and becoming an actor.

What was your biggest fear?
My biggest fear at that time when I was twenty-one, was, “Am I going to be smart enough to understand all that acting entails? With Shakespeare and Bernard Shaw and Eugene Ionesco and these incredible playwrights that I was just starting to get into? There’s no acting in my family. There was no “arts,” really, in my family. My mom and dad met in a bowling alley, and I love that about my mom and dad. I was wondering if I had the chops…[if I was] smart enough to really pull off what is required to be a great actor.

What was your lowest point?
When you’re an actor in this business, you’re going to have low points. You’re going to have ups, downs, mediums. I think my lowest point was when I came to Los Angeles and I was forced with this decision: do you do something you really don’t want to do? What if I was forced to do a television show that I didn’t want to do or do commercials to support my family? I had two girls in the early ‘90s. They were growing up and my biggest fear was just not being able to provide for them while staying on my course of action, which was theater, film, really good TV shows, that sort of thing.

What was it that kept you from walking away?
I’m not sure I was ever going to walk away. I was naïve early on. I worked really hard…I did the theater route… a lot of plays, a lot of theaters, Stratford, Broadway, I played Dracula in Atlanta, and I ‘ve certainly turned down money jobs in the past ‘cause I didn’t want to be in that film, or was concerned about certain parts. I’ve never really thought about walking away because it’s what I do. I’ve loved meeting the people I’ve met and I’ve always believed that it was going to work out and, so far, it has worked out.

What did you walk away from?
I made a pact with myself early on that no matter what happened I would go with my gut. I think there’s been a couple of times where I would question myself. Why did I say no to that? Or why didn’t I get that when I was so promised? And I made a pact with myself that I wouldn’t kill myself over it. Sometimes you have to think about that but I never have really doubted the way things are supposed to be. I remember people saying, “Wow, you did The Last Boy Scout, and then you did The Client, you’re not a star, like what…” And then I said, “Well first of all, I don’t know what a star is, really. And second of all, I think I’m probably on the path that I’m supposed to be on.” Kim Coates is on the path he’s supposed to be on as long as Kim Coates has left it all on the table. Things don’t always work out, but as long as you leave it on the table…you do your best work, you’re not an alcoholic when you come to work, you’re not smacking around your girlfriend, and you’re an honest, honest mother with yourself, your work, and with your friends and family, then I think things are going to be exactly the way they’re supposed to be.

Who was your closest ally?
My allies are my buddies. My wife. We’ve been married twenty-six years with two children. My mom and dad. Everybody is still, and always has been, very supportive with me and my choices. I had one guy at school, my mentor, Tom Kerr, and he’s still alive up in Vancouver. He’s the one who saw me in a play. And I was this jock football player and he goes, “You have talent.” And I was taken aback by that. He’s the one who got me through university, telling me, “Follow your bliss, kid.”

What were you doing before the morning of the audition that changed your life?
That was so long ago! I have no idea. I have no idea what I was eating. Probably a peanut butter and banana sandwich. I don’t know what I was actually eating, but I will tell you about the audition that I think propelled me into sitting with you today. I believed in theater… I still do…so I wanted total theater. And my first TV audition was with Sonny Grosso. He was the original French Connection cop, one of the two, and he was producing this TV series up in Toronto called Night Heat. And I knew nothing about TV and film. Nothing, zero. I remember getting this little audition. There were two lines, literally the guy had two lines. I walked in that room and all I remember doing is thinking, “You got to do something, you got to do something.” And I sat on a chair, and I rocked back on that chair, and I put my feet up on that table. At any second, I could have fallen. I could have fallen right on my ass. I kept fluttering my feet on the table and I said the two lines, put the chair down, and walked out. And I could feel people were just like, “Is he going to fall? Is he going to fall?” And Claire Walker, the casting person came up and said, “Kim, Kim wait. We want you to read for the lead guest star.” His name was Chucky, a cocaine-filled crazy man. And I got it and that audition taught me television acting, film acting, hitting a mark, what a clapper is. With film acting, you can’t act. You have to be. You have to be that person because the camera picks up everything and they know when you’re acting and you can’t afford that in my world. That was the big audition, way back in the mid-80s, that really propelled me to where I am today.

What words kept you going?
Tom Kerr, my mentor, said to me once, “I can’t tell you how to succeed, but I can tell you how to fail, and that’s by trying to please everyone.” Back then, being an actor, organizing, wanting to be liked, wanting to learn, I was really spreading myself thin, really thin. So those words really taught me to be truthful with yourself, love your buddies, be a nice person, be a good, honest person, but don’t spread yourself too thin. If you’re trying to please everybody, you’ll end up not pleasing yourself and then you’re going to suck. You don’t want that in this business, you don’t want to suck. You can not get good reviews, ‘cause reviews don’t mean anything really, the good, the bad, the medium…yes, we need them, but don’t believe the good ones and don’t believe the bad ones. Just stay true to your art and your craft. I was spreading myself too thin and some of the words I’ll never forget were, “Make sure you just take care of yourself and your loved ones and don’t worry about what other people may think of you at times, just be a good person.”

How have you changed?
I was a redneck, man. I was a football player, a hockey player. I didn’t know Shakespeare, I didn’t know Hamlet. I didn’t know anything. I had okay marks in high school, but college changed me. That was when I started to change about gay, straight, music, art, painting, poets, all that stuff was overwhelming to me. And so I think, other than my children, my marriage, and some of the buddies I’ve met, and the travel I’ve done, I’m most proud of how I became an open person from this craft that we’re doing. I am shocked at that from where I came from, not to say that I was just a redneck as a kid, I think was a pretty good kid, but I wasn’t involved in any of that art stuff and now I am and I now love it. Can’t get enough of it.

What words do you have to inspire others?
I really mean this from the bottom of my heart: you just have to follow your bliss and know that it will all be okay. In today’s climate, there’s no guarantee of jobs, there’s no guarantee of anything anymore. Education is very important, we all know that. Having a family that you love, that’s important, we all know that. But it’s lonely out there and you need to follow your bliss. And I believe that. Joseph Campbell said it in The Power of Myth, one of my most favorite, favorite, favorite books of all time, everyone should read it. It’s amazing, and he says that, about following your bliss. And if you do that, if follow your loves, if you follow what you’re attracted to, you will always be doing something that you enjoy and you excel. If you follow your bliss, you will be happy and really that’s what being in this world is all about. At the end of the day, whether it’s a bum day or a medium day, you want to be happy with your day because we’re all going to die someday. So we might as well be happy and searching for happiness. Because that’s a good thing.