PETER CAMBOR’S ROAD TO SUCCESS

Peter Cambor is a classic case of practice makes perfect: the 10,000 hours rule, if you’re not into idioms.  The time Peter put into training has had remarkable returns, like a starring role on Notes from the Underbelly and NCIS: Los Angeles, to name a couple.  His current gig is as bass guitar tech Milo on Showtime’s Roadies: Cameron Crowe’s new comedy about “the unsung heros of rock.”  This Sunday’s episode is a particularly big one for Milo.  In his interview, Peter talks about how he prepared for his shining moment and all the training that put him on the road to success.

When did you catch the acting bug?

I started acting when I was in high school. I was at a boarding school in Massachusetts called Deerfield Academy.   You had to take an art class your sophomore year and I randomly got into an acting class. I didn’t pay much attention to what I was going to do. There was a great teacher who was there, John Reese, who was very active in the Western Massachusetts [theater scene]. He had been a working professional actor in New York for years. He took the job at the boarding school because faculty at the time—I don’t know if they do this any more—were getting free tuition for their children. So he took the job up there and was a really great teacher.  He really prepared me and other actors for the professional experience. We did really good, solid productions—very interesting work.

As a current Wesleyan student I have to ask, how did your time as an undergrad at Wes fuel your creativity?

I guess that the best thing for me was the faculty at the time was great, Bill Francisco was a great teacher who has since retired. A litany of great actors had come out of Wesleyan before my going there, like Bradley Whitford and Frank Wood.  The ’92 Theater [Wesleyan’s student theater] had a play going on every weekend. Some of the plays were quite good, including In the Heights, as you know. There were things like that going on all the time.

There are two sides to working as an actor professionally. There’s the creative side where you’re making all the fun stuff, making theater, which is great.  But you also have to have a business acumen. Just like in any other business you have to know how to work on a team, how to work with other people, what’s realistic under great constraints and how you can find freedom within those constraints. You’re forced to creatively think your way out of problems. I think that little microcosm of the ’92 Theater really taught me that thing. People took big swings and sometimes things were great, sometimes things were awful. But there were always big, bold swings. Learning how to work together, fail together, succeed together was great.

I was also working with a great group of people. I was good friends with Thomas Kail who directed Hamilton, Lin Manuel [Miranda] and I were in a play together, I did a film with one of the executive producers for Brooklyn-Nine-Nine. There’s just so many more: Zack Whedon, Joss Whedon’s younger brother. All those guys were there. That’s a pretty hefty group of people to be working with, which of course I didn’t realize at the time.

What was it like trying to get work before you went to grad school?

First of all, when I went New York and wanted to do theater, 90% of the time they weren’t going to really look at people who didn’t have a Master’s. That was a major hurdle. I was there for like two years and it was really hard to get my foot in the door. I did a lot of non-paying theater. I worked with a lot of guys from Wesleyan, which was really fun. But stuff wasn’t really cracking in a way I could sustain myself. I was bartending and waiting tables. I knew I wanted to go to a grad program, but I also knew I wanted to be out of school for a second and just see what it was like. Then, September 11th happened and it was a really crazy time to be in New York. The economy tanked. All of that stuff really [put things in perspective]. I think that the experience of going to New York is really important before a grad program.

You got your MFA from the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) at Harvard. How did that training help set you up for success?

It takes time to train. It’s really hard to get the training that you need in a Bachelor’s, Liberal Arts tradition. But to be working 13 hours a day, 6 days a week, sometimes 7, only on your craft—voice work, movement work, scene study, dramaturgy, reading scripts—for two and a half years anybody’s going to learn more about themselves and their craft. It’s so much like being a professional athlete. You have to drill, and drill, and drill. The breath and movement stuff has to become habitual so you don’t have to be so conscious about them.

At the A.R.T. program you spend a period of time in Moscow at the Moscow Art Theater. There’s also a lot of Russian faculty at A.R.T. They give you a different perspective and teach you to value theater in a different way. It opened my eyes to a new way of looking at the world.

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Peter (right) in Desire Under the Elms at A.R.T.

The second year, you get to understudy the mainstage shows at the American Repertory Theater. I happened to be in a lot of them my second year. I was in like five shows. I got to understudy a lot of amazing actors. I got to understudy Bill Camp, who is now doing this show The Night Of on HBO. He’s one of the most amazing stage actors possibly of our time…To be around people like that and to be acting with people like that, watching how that work, for me was one of the most valuable things. Also, being in high-pressure situations where you didn’t want to fuck up [Peter laughs].  So when I got out, I knew a little bit of what the expectation was.

How has your experience acting in Roadies compared to NCIS: Los Angeles?  The genres and networks are so different.

It’s like if you’re doing a Restoration comedy, or Shakespeare, or a hyper-realistic Noël Coward play. It’s a matter of adapting to the style of what you’re doing. The procedural crime drama is an example of a type of style. There’s a dead body at the beginning of every episode and a guy in handcuffs at the end of every episode. They’ve been making shows like that for decades. With that there are certain tropes and styles that you have to know to play the part. It’s not taking anything away from the acting. Those shows are incredibly successful. The NCIS franchise is the number one franchise on the planet. It’s like a billion dollar enterprise: NCIS, NCIS: Los Angeles, NCIS: New Orleans. People watch and people like to know what they’re going to get. That show is run like a tight ship. It has an unbelievable production team, an unbelievable crew. You go in and get one or two takes. Everyone’s home for dinner by 7pm. It’s a really tight ship. They know exactly what it is they’re making and it’s a massively impressive operation to be a part of.

That being said, you kind of just go in and do your thing. It’s not like you’re going to go in and have a 20-minute conversation with the director about what your intention is or the backstory of your character. A lot of that is really up to you. A lot of that is really up to you in television in general. There isn’t a lot of rehearsal time. In film it’s a little bit more similar to theater in that there’s some time to ruminate and rehearse and figure out what you’re making.

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Peter (right) as Operational Psychologist Nate Getz on NCIS: LA

Then, on a show like Roadies, when you’re working with an auteur director-writer like Cameron Crowe, it’s a little more like doing a film. There were more discussions. Roadies is a weird situation…Cameron being the writer and director he gets so much input into creating the world [of Roadies]. There’s a real level of magic to his work. Having someone who knows the stuff and is on set with you all the time means we’re building it as we go. Also,  because of the platform [Showtime] and who’s involved, Cameron Crowe and J.J. Abrams, they give the episodes a little bit more time to shoot. We have more time to figure it out. We’re creating it one episode at a time.

It’s an entirely different vibe. NCIS does an hour-long episode in 7 days and Roadies takes 9 or 10 days. Those two days are an immense amount of time.

How did Roadies come about?

I got an audition for it. There were sides from Roadies [we could do] or a monologue that Jason Lee’s character had in Almost Famous. They said to have a faux British accent—to go in and out of a British accent. I remember looking at the material and I was like, “Well, no one is going to do the Almost Famous scene. No one will touch that.”  As I was looking at it I realized I could be the only one that does it in the room: “Fuck it. I’ll just make it my own.” I worked on it. I had this idea that the British accent should be really thick and then all of the sudden [my character, Milo] would drop it. I went in and did it. I ended up working with Cameron for like a 45-minute or hour-long session. It was really crazy. It was a really cool hour…Then two months later I got a call from my agent saying, “They want to offer you the part.”

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Peter Cambor as Milo and Colson Baker as Wes in Roadies (season 1, episode 4) airing this Sunday on Showtime

This week’s episode of Roadies is a particularly big one for Milo. How did you prepare for it?

The thing about Cameron’s scripts, he’s very good about including the ensemble.  It’s an ensemble piece.  There are plenty of scenes where I don’t have dialogue or a lot of involvement. But there’s always a lot going on for my character internally. Cameron’s really good about picking up on that when editing. So in a lot of ways it’s the same, but you just have to talk more.

There’s a big through line in this episode about my relationship to the person I work for, Rick Bayless played by Chris Backus. His character goes missing in the episode…I feel very protective over him, so I was trying to core of that. You have to find the truth of what’s going on and make it a really interesting story for yourself. You make the circumstances life or death. You have to find all of that in it and really play off the people around you.

What did you most enjoy about shooting this upcoming episode?

It’s such a great group of people. In the episode we’re all on the bus and not allowed to get off of it. It was the entire cast crammed into really small quarters. That in it of itself made for an intense week. We were all there, everyday, all day, for nine days. We all bonded and became very close. Anytime you spend 14 or 15 hours a day with that many people in confined quarters like that you get the giggles. You have people talking shit about the situation [Peter laughs]. It ended up being a great episode for us all feeling bonded. All of the energy fueled the episode. It was really fun and intense to do.

Watch the preview of Sunday’s new episode

What’s your advice for aspiring actors?

Musicians are constantly practicing scales and getting their chops up. There’s constantly repetition and practicing. I think acting unfortunately can be one of the laziest of the performing arts professions. You have to find things to keep yourself sharp: to constantly be busy and practicing. Also, be patient. Be willing to fuck up and fail a lot. ♦

Don’t miss Peter on Roadies this (and every) Sunday at 10 PM ET/PT on Showtime!

Photo Credit: Coco Knudson, Richard Feldman, Neal Preston/SHOWTIME
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