Actor Daniel Burns Talks About Playing a Troubled Teenager in Carey Crim’s “Conviction”

BY CARY GINELL

In the Rubicon Theatre’s production of Carey Crim’s drama, Conviction, which begins a month-long run this weekend, Daniel Burns plays Nicholas, the son of respected high school teacher Tom Hodges, who gets accused of an inappropriate relationship with a student. The intense play addresses a number of questions, both factual and moral, as Nicholas and his family deal with Tom’s dilemma. We spoke with Burns about this difficult role.

VCOS: Tell me the difference between playing a character that is totally unlike who you are and one that might be someone that you can relate to in some way?  Which one is Nicholas for you?

DANIEL: As an actor, I try to approach every character I play by first identifying the most basic ways in which we are the same or, at least, extremely similar. While on the surface Nick Hodges may appear to be far from my reality, there is so much that we share in terms of commitment to and trust of our family that finding the truth in Nick’s journey isn’t very difficult. As an actor, it is so exciting to be able to stretch yourself in new ways—playing characters that seem to be the opposite of you is just one of those ways—and how cool to be able to play in that world every night but still go home as yourself afterwards.

VCOS: You worked on this show in another production in New York this past summer. How has it changed since then?

DANIEL:  I got to work on Conviction at the first part of its premiere at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, New York. Carey [Crim] brought with her [to Bay Street] so much that she had learned, changed and observed from her work with Rubicon and the cast in the reading that it very much informed the full production that we mounted. Since the first leg of the world premiere, Carey has definitely tightened a lot of the dialogue, simplified scenes and allowed for the story to be told at its absolute best. For me, I was able to deepen my understanding of Nick and become more comfortable with exploring what Carey has written.

VCOS: Are Tom and Leigh’s parenting skills indicators about what the reality might be about Tom’s behavior?

DANIEL: Oh that’s a tough one! I really think that Tom and Leigh, like all parents, have their child’s best interest in mind. They want nothing more than Nick to be a happy and healthy kid. Tom is, seemingly to a fault (or maybe that’s for audiences to decide), exceedingly outgoing, caring and selfless. Very early in the play we see how these qualities can be misinterpreted or blown out of proportion by people on the outside. Their love and their devotion to Nick and each other is more than evident throughout the play but, faced with adversity after years of absence, this is a constant struggle to get back to the way they were as a family unit.

VCOS: Tell me about Nicholas and his relationship with his father – how do you look into yourself to bring out that character?

DANIEL: It’s not hard to want to connect with Tom. Nick wants so desperately for things to go back to the way they were and it’s certainly not for lack of trying on both their parts—by the end of the play, they find themselves on an even playing field as equals and connection or acceptance in lieu of all that has transpired is the only way to move forward. Like any father-teenage son relationship, Nick is embarrassed by his dad’s lame jokes and would rather do anything but show a morsel of affection. This isn’t too hard for me—I’ve been there. My dad can definitely attest to my own insufferably teenager-isms he was forced to deal with through my high school years.

VCOS: Can we view the show’s title on different levels? How do you view it? Is it “conviction” in the courtoom sense, or is it possibly a character’s (maybe Tom’s or Leigh’s) insistence of his innocence?

DANIEL: Yes. To all of that. I am still finding infinite ways to draw reference to the play’s title—Carey has chosen a genius one-word representation. I don’t want to tell you what I think the right answer is because—and I think she would agree with me—every interpretation is correct. The word has multiple meanings just as every story has multiple sides.

VCOS: Has anyone come up to you and “recognized” your character as someone they know personally?

DANIEL: Yes, they actually have! It is such a compliment to hear that the character you are creating is somewhat reminiscent of a real person that audience members have in their lives. I think we all tend to do that in some sense—we see a show or a movie and we think, “wow, that guy really reminds me of my friend or my co-worker’s son.” It means, I guess, that I am doing my job correctly, and it gives people a reference point to draw from. My hope is that I am able to provide some insight into that person’s mind, to help people better understand the characters that they recognize.

VCOS: Do you try and find new ways to amplify your character’s personality? Or have you settled into something that is comfortable for you?

DANIEL:  I am always trying to deepen my understanding of and my exploration of Nicholas. I will never think that my work is done here. I am so thankful that even after playing the role in New York, I was given the opportunity to continue with the production. There are certainly things that I think we found in New York that worked specifically for that production but that we have since abandoned and replaced with other things. Nick is a little more “California” here at the Rubicon—I think that’s really a product of a new cast, a new theatre and a new audience and it keeps things exciting and fresh.

VCOS: Is there a performer who you looked to for inspiration in your acting?

DANIEL: Oh gosh—there are too many to name! As a kid I grew up watching the gamut of Hitchcock films so I have a natural affinity for the work of Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart—if I can have half the style and charm as them and a tiny bit of their talent I’ll be content. I really love watching Edward Norton and Philip Seymour Hoffman, though. If I could model my career after anyone it would probably be a hybrid of the two of them—they both have such unavoidable presence and yet such versatility that they blend into any genre like total chameleons.

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Conviction plays at the Rubicon Theatre Company from September 6 through 28. For ticket information, dates, and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar.

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