You may have seen a rising Cypriot actor on TV. And you’re sure to see more of him says THEO PANAYIDES after meeting a man who also writes and directs
I’m in Geri, a dishevelled village on the outskirts of Nicosia, thrashing out the merits of Hollywood studios. “I’ve just directed a pilot and I’m deciding at the moment whether to go with ABC or not – or whether I’m going to go with Amazon or Hulu, or one of the other guys”. The disconnect is a little mind-blowing – and becomes even more so when I watch the last 15 minutes of Trust No-One, the TV pilot produced, written, directed by and starring Simon Kassianides (you can find it on his website, simonkassianides.com). The action scene unfolding on his tablet is as slick and exciting as a Bourne movie – which is no surprise, explains Simon, since the stunts were designed by the stunt co-ordinator from The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum. That must’ve eaten up a hefty chunk of the budget, I point out. Not really, he replies, implying that the man must’ve worked for a fraction of his usual fee, or even for free: “He’s a fan”.
A fan? A fan of what? Take your pick, from James Bond to the Marvel TV show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. London-born Simon is in Geri at the moment, staying with his cousin Symeon over the holidays, but he’ll soon be back in LA, figuring out what to do with Trust No-One (“In all honesty, it depends on the deal”), writing a film on American War of Independence hero Peter Francisco and doing promotional work on Unforgettable, a film he made with Katherine Heigl and Rosario Dawson which comes out in April. At 37, he may be in the best place that an actor (or actor-director-writer) can be: newly established, his career about to crest, but also with a promise that the best is yet to come.
What’s he known for in Hollywood? What’s his brand, so to speak? “I’m not really known for anything right now, in all honesty,” he replies with a shrug. “I think I’m just respected as a good actor. I’m known as, you know, ‘Oh, he’s a great actor’ – which is one of the best compliments and a dream come true, obviously, but I’m respected in the town for ‘He’ll do a good job. Let’s get him in, he can play a psychopath, a love interest…’ Which is what’s happening now – on Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders, the show that I’ll be doing, I’m a BBC journalist and I’m the main love interest for [lead actress] Alana De La Garza. So, next season, that’s me. But for Unforgettable I’m a complete psychotic lunatic and sociopath from Silicon Valley.”
We should point out – ‘in all honesty’, as he likes to say – that he’s tended to be cast as a swarthy, sleazy type, often amoral or duplicitous. In Quantum of Solace, the James Bond film from 2008, he was Yusuf, Vesper Lynd’s boyfriend who turned out to be a liar and unworthy of her love. In Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. he was Sunil Bakshi, a member of HYDRA who was burned to a crisp at the end of Season 2 (“I’m officially dead, I got incinerated. I was so evil they killed me bad!”). His physical appearance may have something to do with it: wildly handsome, with expressive brown eyes, black curly hair and stubble trimmed just so – but also a sharpness to the chin and the line of the mouth that could easily segue into cruelty or decadence. His very first role – with almost no acting experience – was as Pedro, a randy Mexican houseboy in Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana; it was one of his first auditions, “and I ended up on the West End stage with Woody Harrelson for seven months!”
Thereby hangs a tale – because he was already in his mid-20s at the time, quite an advanced age for an actor who’d never even been to drama school. Hollywood is full of smart cookies, but there can’t be many of his acting peers who have a degree in International Business and a Master’s in Finance, as Simon does (he even spent a year working in derivatives at Bankers Trust of America). His whole family are business people: both his parents now work in property (they’re not estate agents; they buy and “flip”) and he also has an older brother working in the City. His mum and sister-in-law used to own a trendy coffee place in South London called Urban Coffee – and it was there, about 12 years ago, that Simon got his big break, or not even a break but “my first time being allowed to look through the keyhole,” as he puts it.
It wasn’t a career move because he didn’t have a career, nor even any thought of getting into show business; he was just an affable young guy who’d always loved movies and was working – while “in transition”, and figuring out what to do with himself – at the family coffee shop. He’d become friends with one of the regulars (this was Piers Vellacott, now a BAFTA-winning producer and a “really good mate”) who worked as a production manager and asked Simon if he wanted to help out – just making teas and coffees for a day – on a WW2 documentary. “And I went and thought ‘This is good, I like this actually’. So I wrote a bunch of letters, knocked on a million doors and became a set assistant – which is, you know, beggar’s work, but I loved it – and then I became an assistant director”. Remarkably, it took another year before he even thought about becoming an actor – at which point, things happened quickly. Simon signed up for a summer course at the Central School of Speech and Drama, with a view to enrolling in the main programme (he was about seven years older than anyone else). He went onstage, and it was clear at once that he had that elusive something; “One of the teachers called their agent, and said: ‘You should see this guy’”.
He was (and is) keenly aware that his path into the profession was unorthodox, and worked hard to close the gap. He spent a year consciously amassing a good showreel “so I went and did every single thing I could do”, playing roles like a transsexual drug-dealing psycho in medical drama Holby City (we say he ‘played’ these roles but of course he also had to audition every time, and elbow out a bunch of other actors). After Bond, he relocated to LA and basically started all over again, trying to make his name in what’s very much an industry town; even now, he studies conscientiously, taking classes at the Howard Fine Acting Studio where his classmates include Chris Pine, a.k.a. Captain Kirk.
It took five years in LA – graduating from sleeping on a sofa to a Spanish-style house and Toyota Prius – before the town knew his name. The turning point comes when “you start being offered parts, which is where I’m at now. Where you don’t have to audition, where they know you from things and say ‘Hey, would you like to do this?’ – and that’s a bloody good feeling”. Four years ago, on the other hand, he went through a period of nearly eight months without work. “And that’s testing. Because you’re in a town where everyone’s working, seemingly, and you’re not doing it. That can test you, ’cause you think [his voice sinks to a dark mutter] ‘Oh god’, you know, ‘maybe I’m really not good’. And the demons start creeping in.”
I’m not even sure I can picture him fighting off demons. Is there a dark side to Simon Kassianides? It doesn’t seem so in Geri, smiling and relaxed, a celebrity guest in the bosom of his Cypriot family; then again, he must be accessing those psychos from somewhere. He does seem extremely focused, though of course it’s inevitable since we’re talking about his career. I suspect he’s the type who could be ruthless, if he absolutely had to be. I also suspect he’s fiercely competitive – and it may or may not be significant that, when I ask for names of his actor friends in LA, he mentions only women. His “best mate there” is Caitriona Balfe, the lead actress in Outlander (they shared a house for a few years); others include Elizabeth Henstridge and Chloe Bennet, both from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., then there’s Naomie Harris who’s another great friend. “It’s really weird, two of my very close girl friends are nominated for Golden Globes. Naomie Harris for Moonlight – I think she’s going to get an Oscar – and then Caitriona Balfe for Outlander”.
Can actors ever really be friends? Simon pauses thoughtfully, as if to say it’s a valid question. “The first challenge that you’re ever up against is your own insecurity,” he admits. When you hear of a friend’s success it’s sometimes hard to repress a pang of jealousy, “it’s just the nature of the job… But you get past that early, if you’re lucky. I mean, I’m truly happy for a lot of my friends who do very well – because they’ve got kids, they’ve got lives. Acting is a bastard business, in many ways”. Does he have kids? No, he replies, not married, no kids. “I was…” he starts to say, then decides not to: “I’m single now. Yeah. Looking for a good Cypriot girl!” he adds, and laughs uproariously.
It’s unlikely he’ll be here long enough to find one – though he comes every year, both to Geri and Athens where his dad lives, and remains very Cypriot in his own mind: “I know who I am, I know my roots. And I’m proud of them”. Still, the foreseeable future lies in LA, especially now he’s made the leap from actor to hyphenate. Trust No-One – which has found willing backers, and also opened the door to the Peter Francisco biopic – was his own project from beginning to end; “I knew that, with all the favours I could pull in, I could get away with doing it for about $350,000”. He managed to raise the money on Kickstarter, helped by his minor-celeb status (Sunil Bakshi on S.H.I.E.L.D. was a massive hit with the fans; “I just knew how arch you had to play it,” says Simon, a comic-book fan himself), found his crew, then storyboarded every shot in the one-hour pilot. This is Hollywood; if you’re going to play at this level, you have to be serious.
If anything, he’s a little too serious. “There has to be a work-life balance, and there’s definitely too much work at the moment,” he sighs when I ask about life in LA. “It’s a machine,” he adds, “the city is a machine. It’s a dream factory, everyone’s there to achieve the same thing… In LA, eve-ry-one’s in the business!”. The work is all-pervasive; even parties tend to be about promotion or, at the very least, networking. Social life, for him, means going out for a meal and a chat, “whatever normal people do”. The wild-party, sex-and-drugs lifestyle is available, if you choose to have it, “but I discovered very early on that those who are working at a high level there are doing exactly that – they’re working”.
What does he do for fun?
“I really like reading,” is the slightly surprising answer. He’s just finished Blink by Malcolm Gladwell (the non-fiction bestseller about the best decisions often being impulsive ones, which is largely how he made his own career choice) and is now on the latest Alain de Botton, plus he always has a thriller on the go (currently Jussi Alder-Olsen). He also goes to movies, which he’s loved since childhood: “The Godfather was on constant repeat,” he recalls. “Conan the Barbarian, I remember that being a big influence for me. Star Wars. Ghostbusters”. Simon’s tastes run to commercial hits over capital-A Art – and in fact he remains very business-minded, as befits his education and family background (he’s also one of the few actors to have entered the business from the production side). He’s the kind of man to whom a producer can entrust money without worrying that he’s just going to “sit in a field picking daisies,” as he puts it.
Reading and filmgoing are very solitary hobbies, I point out. Yes, he agrees, but his job is so relentlessly social – and it’s not just the acting, it’s also the constant hustle of being affable, easy-going, easy to work with, relaxed and charming like he is in our interview. “If your name comes up in an industry town, then people want to check it out. ‘Did you work with so-and-so? What are they like?’”.
He himself has worked with some divas, says Simon, but absolutely refuses to name names, even off the record. Instead he tells a story of how he bonded with Christopher Plummer, the Oscar-winning star of his other new film, Cliffs of Freedom (it’s set during the Greek War of Independence). Everyone was keeping their distance, out of respect, but Simon sat next to the 87-year-old veteran and began to banter: “Why have they got you at the Four Seasons?” he asked (all the other actors were in cheaper hotels). “Are you difficult? Is that it?” Plummer laughed, and the two became good friends. “Nine times out of 10, actors just want to have fun,” concludes Simon, trying to make sense of his time in this “bastard business”. I wish him well, and head out into the muddy streets of Geri.