This edition of Talking With focuses on actor Steve Mize, who stars as a darkly conflicted widower who becomes obsessed with seeking justice in the crime-thriller film, “Plea.”
Steve emersed himself is his preparation to portray Tom Heeley, gaining 30 pounds, growing a beard, and digging deep into his own psyche to create him. And, it’s paying off. Steve has won Best Actor at Philadelphia’s FirstGlance, Outstanding Actor at Florida’s Treasure Coast, and is currently nominated for Best Actor at the Las Vegas Indie Film Festival.
The film has nabbed a ton of accolades for writer-director Brian McQuery and the entire cast which also includes Heather Langenkamp (“Nightmare on Elm Street”) Anne-Marie Howard (“Days of Our Lives”), and Eddie Kehler (“Dirty John”).
Steve’s previous credits include “Grey’s Anatomy,” “CSI: Vegas,” “Bones,” “Station 19,” “Ironside,” “Lie To Me,” “Truth Be Told,” “Days of Our Lives,” “ER,” and a bunch of indie films, commercials and voice-over projects. Steve’s solo show “Life, Audited” won Best Comedian at United Solo Festival, Best of Fringe in San Francisco, and the Silverman Award in Los Angeles.
To learn more, we are Talking With Steve Mize:
What is “Plea” about?
STEVE MIZE: After 20 years in prison, a man wrongfully convicted of rape and murder is released. The victim's husband has become a recluse, obsessed with a true crime documentary about the case, and tries to contact law enforcement to reopen the investigation, but they consider it closed. Then the prosecutor is kidnapped in a desperate attempt to convince her to find the real killer.
Why did you want to play Tom Heeley?
SM: Well, I usually play funny, earnest guys or cynical detectives. But I’m trained as a method actor, so this was a chance to dig deep and use the emotional skills I’ve developed for years. Plus, this story is a bit heavy and my character has very few opportunities to show that he’s fun and light-hearted, so the challenge was to bring as much heart to him, not just sit on sadness. And thirdly, from a prison standpoint, we usually don’t hear about the residual effects of cases, how they reverberate outward and affect the families who are often left to deal with the results for the rest of their lives.
What helped you the most in bringing this character to life?
SM: I had immense trust in my director and my fellow actors. We couldn’t have submerged ourselves into this type of deep material without very clear boundaries that were also flexible, not stringent. Brian (the director) created ease on set, which provided a huge safety net for the actors and crew to explore and solve problems, which allowed us the freedom to create.
Personally, to play this guy, I needed to find hope. On some level, it’s a love story. This guy’s trapped. He lost his family to a violent crime. His best friend did it. The wound is reopened twenty years later, but all the facts are flipped, and nobody wants to find the real killer. That’s deeply painful and very confusing. It’s easy to spiral into depression. Ultimately, he’s fueled by his love for his wife. It’s Hamlet fighting for justice and Romeo sacrificing anything for love. I focused on hope and love.
Is it difficult to take on such an emotionally heavy subject day after day while you’re working on a project like “Plea”?
SM: Difficult on one hand, but also freeing. In grad school, Sally Field compared our way of working, Method Acting, where we open up the deepest parts of ourselves, as akin to taking a razor blade to our soul. Afterwards though, I felt lighter, almost happy to release all that baggage.
Sally’s is a great role model for Method work, like Estelle Parsons and Al Pacino. Sally came from television, where the actor is expected to show up, know the lines and deliver, which is being a professional actor. There’s no time to find the emotion or wait for inspiration.
She’s my standard. I think I was in thirty or forty scenes and had to be ready all day, every day. If we shoot a highly emotional scene in the morning, I still need to be available for another one at noon, and another in the evening, with others in between. I owe it to the crew who’s working just as hard, they can’t wait for me. Technique helps, and trust in the director and other actors. And knowing when to avoid a heavy lunch, like lasagna.
Do you have a favorite moment in the film? And was it also your favorite to shoot?
SM: I love my scenes with Anne Marie (Howard). They were emotionally wrought. Plus, we were trapped in a car so we couldn’t throw our emotions around willy nilly. We had to give and take from our core, not just yell at each other. That trust is fun. She’s great! We’ve become good friends.
I also loved working with my Actors Studio friend, Eddie Kehler. We prepared in a completely different way. We didn’t rehearse or even talk before we shot because we understand subtext and the power of creating art in the moment, so that’s what we did. We had no idea what would happen, but we knew that we’d carry one another and create on the fly. It’s rare to get to work that way. Arthur Penn taught us to trust in that kind of work when I was in grad school. I think the authenticity shows in those scene, like it does in Arthur’s films. The best compliment came from the director after our first take. The pace was slow, but not meandering or self indulgent because Eddie and I were connected. The drama was high. Brian (the director) came over and said, “we could just use that. It’s perfect.”
The film is having a lot of success on the festival circuit. Why do you think its resonating with audiences so much?
SM: One surprise that I keep hearing after screenings is that most people didn’t know how it was going to end. They all have their theories about what they thought would happen, and other theories about what actually happened in the movie. Who did it!? That’s a real psychological thriller. People love to feel involved.
Also, the film is beautifully shot. It’s fascinating to see on the big screen because so many stories are being told inside the frame.
And thirdly, it’s a real story about real people. And it’s about redemption. Even though these people are in dire situations, they make positive changes. Mercy is underrated, but very powerful.
What inspires you the most creatively?
SM: Haha! So many things at the moment. You know, I paint and sculpt and build things. I’m self-taught, so I’m not creating masterpieces. But I love my time alone to make something where I start with an idea, and the thing morphs into it’s own thing that’s completely different than I expected. Sometimes I see a painting on my wall and I like it as a painting. But mostly, all I see are the ideas and thoughts that came to me while I created it. That process helps me as a writer, whether it’s a script or a short story, I know that it’ll become what it wants to be if I trust and enjoy time with myself.
I laughed because I have a one year-old, so time alone is very rare these days. But that’s all the creative inspiration I need. To watch a child’s mind take something in, want to understand how it works, get frustrated, figure it out, and then turn it into something else is fascinating. To see everything in this world as brand new is the best.
Finally, is there anything else you’re working on that we can watch for?
SM: Before the strike, I worked on CSI: Vegas, and a sitcom I can’t discuss. But I also shot a great role on Days of Our Lives that will be airing soon. Working in daytime was a completely brand new, thrilling experience. I hope it translates and I get to do it again.
During the strike, I shot three short films, and thankfully, I’m always working in Voice-Over, commercials, animation and video games.
And I’m always writing — stage, short stories, scripts, etc. When my wife was pregnant, I started working on a heartfelt piece about my experience as an aging dad who rebuilds his life and home by learning to parent. It’s fun. Live audiences respond well to the ideas and now there’s interest as a comedy series.