It’s always fun to interview someone who’s nothing like their character. Mike Houston is no exception. Since season 4 started streaming of Orange is the New Black, Mike has become known for playing CO Lee Dixon, a guard in a group of guards whose actions make them deserve some jail time themselves. But as Mike explains, it takes an incredible amount of technique, focus, and imagination to play a guy most viewers see as “evil.” In fact, by the end of this, you may actually sympathize with Dixon. Yeah…Mike’s that good. Since training at the William Esper Studio, Mike has been on a constant mission to create exciting work with talented people. In this interview, he discusses the tips and tricks that have allowed him to do so.
When did you catch the acting bug?
I remember when I was in kindergarten, I got to play the Wolf in some version of Little Red Riding Hood and that was it. I performed in plays and musicals any chance I could from that point forward. However, it wasn’t until I landed at the William Esper Studio after moving to NYC that I became obsessed with the craft of acting.
Was there anyone or anything in particular that inspired you to pursue a career as an actor?
I was working for an Internet company near Boston back in 2001, I wasn’t happy with it, and just didn’t feel like it was serving me in any capacity. I ended up being let go one day and immediately called my mom while driving away to explain what happened, feeling particularly lost, and she said on that call, “I think you should think about acting as your next job.” I was blown away. I didn’t really know what to expect when I called, but it sure as hell wasn’t that. I never looked back. She’s since passed, but I attribute all of my professional success to her having absolute faith in me in that moment that I could do this.
You studied at the William Esper Studio that focuses on Meisner technique. How did that training help set you up for success?
The Meisner technique relies heavily on listening and being fully present in the moment of a specific circumstance and letting your imagination do the rest of the work in being prepared emotionally. By making listening a key component to being fully present, the training has helped a great deal in working with directors and casting directors, specifically when they offer adjustments. This kind of storytelling (theater, film, TV) is very collaborative, so I believe listening is crucial to its success.
In 2007, you and some of your classmates started The Collective film and theater production company after being encouraged to “create your own work.” Can you discuss building the company from the ground up?
It has been such an incredible, fulfilling experience that has come through hard work and not without its ups and downs. When we started, we would meet on Monday nights for 3 hours just to stretch our creative muscles. Then, soon after we began meeting, when we would see something popping in the work, we’d start the wheels turning on producing it. It has always been organic. I really think this is what has contributed to our still being relevant today. We don’t sketch out a traditional season or production schedule. We tell stories when we think they’ve had a chance to work themselves out on Monday nights and are then ready to be brought to our audiences. Everything we’ve made has come through our Monday sessions, and will continue to do so.
What has made The Collective a positive collaborative and creatively fulfilling experience?
I think because we have such a dynamic group of individuals in our permanent ensemble, with very different backgrounds and experiences, all having input towards what we want to produce and work on, whenever we finally do so, the creative fulfillment is electrifying. It takes the focus away from individuals and centers it on the company as a whole. And in turn, any personal success we find outside of The Collective, contributes directly to the success of the whole. That has always been extremely gratifying to me.
You’ve been on Inside Amy Schumer a bunch. What’s something people don’t know about working on a sketch show?
Personally I was surprised to find out how much pre-production goes into it. Each sketch was produced as if it was a short film. It was incredible to watch the final product come off the page.
Orange is the New Black spoilers ahead!
Beware if you’re not done with season 4!
You’re in the newest season of OITNB! Can you describe the audition that landed you the part?
So I flew to LA to shoot some extra scenes on a pilot I had previously worked on—Sneaky Pete for Amazon—and I got a call from my agent saying that the casting folks at Orange wanted to know if I could tape an audition for Lee Dixon and have it to them by that evening. I called my friends who were on their way to pick me up to head out for the evening and asked if they could help me go on tape before we headed out. We put together the audition on my iPhone and I sent it on its way. Five days later I got the call that I booked the part. I found it charmingly ironic that after living and working in NYC for 10 years, I got my biggest role to date while working on the other side of the country.
The guards in general this season, including Dixon, are really hard to sympathize with—it’s almost impossible. What humanizes him for you?
I’m a big believer in the idea that we are who we are because of how we were raised and the environment we were raised in. Dixon is no different. In fact, not only that, but he’s also been involved in a chaotic military conflict overseas. It’s all part of who he is and how he now views the world.
The scene where you’re driving Bayley (played by Alan Aisenberg) home after he killed Poussey was really striking. What was it like to shoot that? How did you prepare for it? I imagine the set felt pretty tense.
I spent a week on that monologue—and referring to the previous answer—trying to sort out what could have happened to Dixon and his experience over there that something like those things he describes would be so common place in his mind and something he’d openly discuss. But more so, he sees Bayley in pain and tries, in his own surreal way, to help Bayley come to terms with what has just happened. Honestly, Adam [Bernstein, director] and Jenji [Kohan, creator] were so caring and supportive with both Alan and I that it made working on that scene far less intimidating than I thought it would be.
As much as acting is a job, it’s perhaps the most personal, visceral art form out there. You use your whole self. So when you’re playing a character who treats others like “animals,” a character who lives in an incredibly dark headspace, how do you let it all go at the end of the day?
I think playing this character, for me at least, speaks to the Meisner training. So much of it is using imagination to get to the emotional space necessary to carry it off. Because it’s my imagination that creates the circumstance I need to be emotionally equipped, it’s also something I can walk away from fairly easily, because I can look around at the cameras and the crew after the scene and know that what we just did served this specific story, and that Dixon only really exists in that story.
What’s your advice for aspiring actors?
Make sure you’re doing this because your heart, mind and soul can imagine doing nothing else, and be patient. So many things are out of your control in this business. Just work to become a master of your craft. Most importantly, don’t forget to live in the moment and enjoy the journey. ♦