Interview: Erica Linz

Erica Linz is done up extremely nicely, and much sharper looking than most of my interview subjects and far better looking that I am in a hoodie and ripped jeans. Granted, this is because we’re talking in the green room of a talk show she’s about to be taping in the not too distant future, but as one of the stars of the world renowned Cirque du Soleil she’s used to dressing up in any number of outfits, crazy, tasteful, or otherwise.

The charming singer and gymnast turned acrobat and actress for one of Montreal’s biggest cultural exports now also has to get used to dressing up and heading out to red carpets every night to promote her starring role in director Andrew Adamson (the first two Chronicles of Narnia films) and producer James Cameron’s loose love story and Cirque greatest hits collection Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away (opening Friday, December 21st). Playing a role created specifically for the film, Linz plays a young woman who becomes literally smitten with a falling aerialist as they both get sucked into the world of the circus.

Linz talked to Dork Shelf about adapting Cirque for the big screen, the hard preparation that goes into the numerous numbers in the 3-D extravaganza (shot with Cameron’s go-to Pace camera system), her brief time spent in Montreal before touring, and her own personal and exciting charity work.

Dork Shelf: This movie isn’t only fun because it’s like a trip to the circus, but it’s also special to people here because of Cirque du Soleil’s Canadian connection.

Erica Linz: It’s really cool because we did a Montreal premier earlier this month (where the movie is currently playing already), but every time we come to Canada I feel really happy and warm and fuzzy because it feels a bit like bringing the baby home to meet the grandparents.

DS: And you didn’t get to spend too much time in Montreal when you first joined Cirque, did you?

EL: Briefly. I was there ten years ago – I guess it’s eleven, now – when I initially joined Cirque du Soleil and I have really vivid memories of the city that are just like a random series of images. Here’s a huge corporation, and here’s a piece or art, and here’s a guy pissing on a wall, amazing grafitti, beautiful churches, amazing architecture.

DS: That’s usually the kinds of things that stay with you when you’re only able to spend a short time in a place that has such an impact on your personal and professional career.

EL: Yeah, and it’s such a cool cool place. I got to see some really great art while I was there. There’s a great culture there and a really vibrant circus universe. It’s the head of circus in all of North America, and not just Cirque du Soleil. It’s on the streets and all over the place.

DS: You started off as a singer and a gymnast. How did that end up translating into doing more stage work and eventually getting into acting and more acrobatic stuff?

EL: When I was something like seven or eight I started getting little tiny roles in things. First I was in the opera The Magic Flute with the Colorado Opera Festival, and I think I played one of Papageno’s children and a hedgehog. It would basically be that I would mostly sing, and I would have a few lines, then I would do a few flips and the audience would go “Awwwwwww. That’s cute.” That sort of led to musical theatre and that quickly led for some reason to doing a lot of Shakespeare. That was when I was eleven, but I was playing almost exclusively boy parts. There weren’t a lot of kids doing Shakespeare at the time. Straight up playing a page boy.

DS: When you got approached to do the film and take on this new role what were you doing at the time?

EL: I was actually doing Ka (for Cirque in Las Vegas) and I had been there for a number of years. I got a call between shows one day, literally before I was about to get my wig put on for second show, saying that they were planning to make this 3-D film and that they were interested in having me come in for a meeting and if I would potentially like to audition for the lead role. I was, like, “Yeah! Why not?”

DS: Was it a but strange to get asked to be the lead in something that has elements of other Cirque shows that you hadn’t worked on before?

EL: In so many ways. (laughs) It was really intimidating because I have a great respect for my peers in that world that having worked with Cirque du Soleil for over ten years I knew nearly everyone that appears on that screen, and a lot of them are dear friends that I have a deeply seeded respect for. A number of them were people with whom we came up together in the professional world. So to be in a position where I would be representing them felt like a tremendous amount of pressure because they also happen to be among the most talented people on the planet.

Also, when we were filming and we would get back to Mystere, where I had performed many years ago, or Ka where I was still performing, and I would see people doing tracks and acrobatic acts that I also did, you feel antsy and you just want to hop up there and do it with them because I love what I do!

DS: One of the things that’s great about the movie is how you get a real sense of how big this extended family of performers really is. It’s a greatest hits movie in a way, so what was the vibe like on the set with the whole family banding together?

EL: It was really cool because there was no job title in the regular world that would allow you to go from show to show like I got to do. You can kind of think of Cirque du Soleil like a country where there’s a kind of overarching culture and attitude that kind of permeates everything we do. It’s this creative, artistic, international, open minded universe of bright, shiny, crazy looking objects and people. (laughs) And it’s amazing and a really cool thing. But every one of these shows can be seen sort of as a province or a state where they have their own sort of subcultures and tweaks and different ways they go about their day to day functions; different senses of humour. That kind of thing. And to get to go to each of them, I got to be folded into the casts, put into a different dressing room, and got adopted by a different family for a week at a time. I felt like a tourist in this secret universe that no one gets to fully discover.

DS: I can assume pretty easily that adding cameras and especially 3-D cameras makes you guys approach things a little bit differently because people are going to be looking as close as they can get without the magician revealing all the tricks. What was that like to tweak a lot of the stuff you already knew how to do for the camera versus what you would do for a live audience?

EL: For the performances there was very little modification, and one of the things that I think they didn’t want to do with this was to hide any cables or any harnesses or any of that because the magic of Cirque du Soleil is in that the fact that this happens ten times a week. They didn’t want to make a CG film except for the fantastical elements that happen outside in the desert and in the tents at the beginning of the film.

That’s with the exception of (on screen partner) Igor (Zaripov) and I because we were in the position that we were supposed to be the threads that tied the numbers together and added the narrative element. So we were supposed to be people from the real world who were pulled into this whimsical universe of Cirque du Soliel. So we had to take these habits that we had for ten years – and in Igor’s case too since he’s been performing his entire life – which is this really exaggerated movement that’s required to tell a story to the last row in a giant theatre. We had to take that to a much more internalized, kind of subtle style of performance where nearly everything is happening behind the eyes. Because suddenly your face is going to be ten feet high on screen and seen through James Cameron’s 3D camera and Andrew Adamson’s narrative, and things could have gotten really silly, really quickly.

DS: You just brought up two names I was about to bring up in Andrew Adamson and James Cameron, who don’t really seem like the first names to pop into someone’s mind when talking about this particular kind of project, especially Andrew Adamson who a lot of people think of as an animator and a blockbuster filmmaker. How much of making the film was a collaborative process between Andrew and James and the day-to-day Cirque crew?

EL: A shocking amount. I think sincere collaboration was the only way it could possibly work, because Jacques Methe, who is one of the producers on the film, described it really well when he said there’s a very specific grammar to the world of film and there’s a very specific vocabulary to the world of circus, and they both function in such different ways. Just for us, even the pace of a day when filming versus the pace of a day of performing is different. (On stage) the pace is very linear and the music starts and it will continue. It’s like you’ve rolled the ball and inertia will let it continue until it gets to its final bounce. Then when you’re filming, you do a take, you stop, you change camera angles, do a take, stop, change camera angles.

So Andrew and Jim ended up having to work extremely closely with the technical requirements of acrobats. We can’t do 75 takes of the same thing, and a lot of these things will take 30-40 minutes to reset and a whole crew of technicians to get it back to where it was at the start. I think it took them a little bit at first to get their groove, but there was always just that ability to constantly compromise.

DS: And when you’re doing it on stage you can’t break up the elements of what you’re doing. I’m assuming unlike on stage when you do everything in one go, you had to break up parts of the routines so the cameras could move and get readjusted. Was that harder for you guys to get acclimated to that since you’re just used to going and doing it fluidly every time? It seems almost like it would be taking it back sometimes to where you would be practicing one of these routines and one specific aspect over and over again, but it’s a practice where you have to go for it every single time.

EL: Yeah! Kind of. It was a really big adaptation in that way. You’re used to getting up there and you have you act. My act is typically five minutes and I’m up there with my partner and we’re on stage and we are responsible for this specific amount of time to bring the audience with us for this portion of the story. We have to tell this tale of love or whatever it is in this allotted time successfully while achieving all of these acrobatic elements. And its linear, direct, and you know how long you have to set-up, warm-up, and this and that. Plus, the audience for the stage is feeding you this energy. You can hear their gasps or even sometimes its just obvious applause or this electricity in the air. You know when you need to give them something more or less or whatever.

Cameras won’t give you that kind of response. However, if you make a mistake you have the opportunity to go back and correct it or you have the opportunity to try it a little bit differently with just a tweak of flavour to make it achieve the end you’re looking for. They both have their luxuries and they both have their struggles, but I would say physically the thing that was hardest for everyone to adapt to was just the stop and go of warming up, doing a few takes, and then cooling down for thirty minutes while everything is set up, and then warming up again and just waiting.

DS: Now that you have seen all of the routines that made it into the film and now that you know all of them, are there any you weren’t familiar with before that you wish you could have a go at?

EL: (laughs) Like, everything. But the truth is that when you watch all these numbers as an outsider you think these people are bonkers…

DS: But you see all the work and the craft that goes into it…

EL: Oh my goodness, yeah. And you know what kind of training it takes for someone like a contortionist to do that thing where they completely fold themselves in half and do a seemingly impossible handstand on this bowl. You just marvel at this things and you have to remind yourself that, “Yeah, I have a full acrobatic act at the end of this thing, too.” I should hope that it’s impressive, but I’m always in such awe of everything that’s going on around me, and sometimes I forget that I’m actually a part of it, too.

DS: You also might see everything that comes before your act and wonder how you would ever top it since you’re coming at the end.

EL: (laughs) They sure did set up a difficult platform to climb onto.

DS: You do a lot of really interesting charity work and I came across the Circus Couture event that you helped to establish. Are you guys making this a regular thing?

EL: Yup! It’s an annual event. It should be in the fall. Autumn of 2013 should be our next major event. Circus Couture – the super quick version – is a circus, fashion, and art event that’s held to benefit kids with cancer both through care and research.

Essentially it’s a bunch of acrobats, artists, technicians, etc., etc., that all get together on a strictly volunteer basis. Acrobats put on new numbers and they kind of perform the sort of things that they want to perform, and the designers who work on all of these shows on the Las Vegas strip create all these elaborate costumes and this kind of ridiculous, over the top, avant garde fashion, and we do a couple of runways of just obscenely creative things. Then artists – sculptors, painters, lithographs, all kinds of things – donate things and there’s a silent auction.

It’s this tiny, weird little dream that my acrobatic partner from Ka and I did some shows late night at a nightclub to try to raise money to put on these shows. We started out with $1,800, and I guess the manager of the club had given us the additional $800 because he thought we really needed it for costumes. And it’s since grown to be a massive thing. I think we had something like over 200 people on stage with us last year.

DS: And these are all industry professionals donating their time and energy for free?

EL: Just volunteering, but some of them are world champions and circus royalty. Really legitimately and extraordinarily talented people. We had a glass piece donated to us last year by an artist that was worth $20,000 just because the community was looking at what’s available in the field of paediatric cancer care. It’s just not enough and it’s not where it needs to be. Especially in Las Vegas where it’s been hit so hard by the economic struggles recently. So many people have lost their jobs and lost their insurance and so many people need care and there’s only one clinic in the state that will treat kids regardless of whether they have insurance. So we just very desperately as a community of people who have made a home in Las Vegas and the city has given us a chance to live our dreams as performers, we wanted to do what we could to make our backyard a little bit warmer for us and the kids.

DS: And in your line of work it doesn’t seem like you get to be this independently creative this often? Is that a huge drawing point for a lot of the volunteers?

EL: It really is. When we reach out, the draw is initially to so something good and positive, but once we start planning the act, we’ll create an overarching theme and sit down with the individual performers and bring it to them and help them pick music and this and that, but unless they need our help we only guide the process. It’s a great opportunity for them to get creative and really try things that they never really get to do within the paradigm of a show that’s unlike any other shows where they get to be creative and do it all for a good cause.

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