For this weeks On The Rise With… Mike has a wonderful interview with former Hannah Montana and Days of our Lives star Mark Hapka! For those of you who used to watch Hannah Montana I’m sure you’ll recognize him right away. For myself, I remember Mark from the Ghost Whisperer online web series.
Yes, I admit it, I’ve watched more than my share of Ghost Whisperer episodes, and I’ll stand by the fact, it’s a pretty good show.
This was only one of the reasons I was excited to read Mike’s latest interview.
Check it out below and follow Mike on Twitter @mikethewriter1!
On The Rise With… Mark Hapka
This week’s “On The Rise With…” is a “special edition”. If you’re a younger reader, you may recognize Mark from “Hannah Montana”. If you’re a soap watcher, you’ll know him from “Days of Our Lives”. And if you’re a procedural lover, you may recognize him from his various CBS guest star gigs. A seasoned actor with a passionate fan base, Mark has made his…um, mark…by taking the TV world by storm, and is now poised to do the same in film, with two theatrical features making their debuts within weeks of each other. An extremely talented, creative, and incredibly humble individual, Mark proves the old adage, “There’s more to him than meets the eye”. Continue reading to see what he’s been working on recently. I guarantee you it’s not at all what you’d expect…
Michael Marcelin: What made you decide to get into acting? Was it something inherent, or something you developed a passion for over time?
Mark Hapka: It was something inherent, but it was a slow build. There was this 6th grade play, in Mr. Lanzi’s class…“Aladdin”…and after that, I knew I had the bug. I didn’t end up doing anything throughout Junior High, but then I got back into Community Theater, performing at the Rome Community Theater, and the Capital Theater, and got into the high school musicals and plays. I was actually Drama Club President my Senior year. And it took off from there
MM: Was “Aladdin” your very first acting job?
MH: I come from Rome, NY, and there’s a fort there, Fort Stanwix, and technically my first acting job came from that. They do re-enactments there…people walk on the fort, in character and in costume…and, because I was too young to work at the time, I volunteered and played a young drummer boy by the name of Nicholas Hill. That was my first acting job. But there’s a few teachers that kind of helped me move forward. Starting with Mr. Lanzi in 6th grade, and then Mrs. Landau in high school. She was not only my drama teacher, but also my mentor and kind of got me going in life, in general.
MM: What prompted you to move from New York to Los Angeles?
MH: Actually, I had always talked about it. That was always the goal and plan. At that point, I was living in Syracuse, going to school for music education. I decided I didn’t want to make music, another passion of mine, a job…so I wanted to seek out an acting career in film and television. For as much as I loved the theater, I had a knack and a passion for movies. That’s the thing that really drove me forward. And the style of acting that takes place in movies. So I saved money and saved money, and then one day a buddy of mine said, “Hey, you’ve been talking about doing this. Are you going to actually do it, or are you going to be the guy that just talks about it?” That got me. So I literally set a date three months later, saved as much money as I could in those three months, hopped in my 1998 Nissan Maxima, threw a U-Haul on the back of it, brought whatever items I couldn’t part with, and drove across the country by myself. I had never even been to California or L.A. So when I got to L.A., I thought the central place to be would be Downtown…which I later learned wasn’t…because Downtown then wasn’t Downtown now. It was a little scarier. I moved into, I believe, the Fairmont Hotel. They gave me a monthly rate and I just put my other stuff in storage and slowly started to figure things out. I remember that first night there, I just walked out the front door and didn’t know whether to go left or right, so I went back inside, ordered some Thai food, watched some TV, and started going online to look at places to study acting and for jobs that were hiring. So I looked at LA Casting and Craigslist, and started doing extra jobs and music videos. I met a buddy on some Japanese music video we were extras in, and he was talking about his school, Playhouse West, and how much he loved it. That weekend they were going to have a film festival, so I went, watched a lot of movies, met some interesting people like Jeff Goldblum and James Franco, who was going to school there at the time, and I enrolled and just started taking classes from there.
MM: Did you find it hard to break into acting? Did it take long for you to get an agent and/or manager, or did you sign with one pretty quickly?
MH: You know that saying “the right place at the right time”? I studied at Playhouse for a year. I didn’t want to audition for anything, because I didn’t want to burn bridges before I knew what I was doing. Then I joined a showcase, called “The 20-Something Showcase”, and it’s young, 20-something kids who are seeking out some type of representation. What happens here, is there are three performances, and each performance is in front of audience members who are industry-related, whether they’re agents or managers or casting directors. I did the first show, and that night I got a few emails and calls from various agents who wanted to set up meetings. So I took the meetings, and chose my favorite one, and landed my first agent that way.
MM: What was the first gig you booked?
MH: My first audition was for a project that they didn’t put the title on, and was basically for a web series. Keep in mind this was before anyone knew what a web series was, so it was the first attempt at a one. I didn’t know what it was affiliated with, but I ended up auditioning for it, and then I booked it. It was the first thing I had ever auditioned for, so in my head, I was like, “Oh gee, do you just go to these auditions and they give you jobs?” So I went in and found out it was actually affiliated with the show “The Ghost Whisperer”, which was on CBS. I was the lead character on the web series, and they had this marketing campaign where they wanted to crossover my character into the actual television series in hopes of bringing viewers from the TV show online, and vice versa. So they would run this side story with my character, and whenever I needed help, I’d crossover onto the actual show and get help from Melinda Gordon, played by Jennifer Love Hewitt. Then they would send me back to the web series. We ended up doing a few seasons of that, back and forth, and we actually won the TV Guide award for Best Web Show, which spawned another season. It actually changed the careers for some of the people over at CBS. They ended up becoming producers on the actual show and moved up from there. It was a fun process. So no you also have a little bit of trivia: “The Ghost Whisperer: The Other Side” was the first official web series ever created.
MM: From there, you got some great guest roles on shows like “Greek”, “Cold Case”, and “Hannah Montana”.
MH: Well, I feel like everyone does their “Cold Case” episode…their “CSI” episode…you know, the crime shows. I’ve done “Cold Case”, “Criminal Minds”, a couple of different ones…but the one that actually made a difference, and stuck out, was “Hannah Montana”. That role was very highly sought-out…a lot of people were auditioning for it. The exposure on that was kind of ridiculous, because that was the first time I started getting recognized by kids and their parents. Even before the soap. So that one really made a big difference as far as my first bit of exposure.
MM: What was it like performing in a sitcom-based world?
MH: It was a whole new world. I give a lot of credit to the people who do those kinds of shows, because it’s a completely different art form. There’s a speed that goes with it, and there’s no dramatic pauses… it just keeps moving. There’s a tempo…a pace…and you just gotta be on. My (acting) style is a little more subtle. I take time, and let the performance breathe. But in this, you had to keep going…and you had to kind of ham it up a bit. So it was interesting to allow myself to relax enough to be able to accentuate my acting and allow myself to be a little more character-y, and a little more free. It was pretty good.
MM: And having worked in theater previously, it probably helped you acclimate yourself to performing in front of a studio audience.
MH: That’s actually what it reminded me of! Of doing my little comedy roles in musical theater, where I was allowed to be a little more out there…a little more crazy. And being used to having people at a live performance, it wasn’t as hard on me as it could have been.
MM: As an actor, do you find it hard to do guest spots on a show that’s already been established? Or do you find the “one and out” nature fun, because of the chance to create and mold a multitude of characters in confined spaces of time?
MH: Actually, I think both of those are really good explanations for it. It is fun to change up in a short period of time…to just add a character and move on. But also, for example, on “Hannah Montana”, a role like mine…when you come on to guest star…you’re there to set up the main roles. You’re not there to be the center of attention, so a lot of your lines are used to set up their punchlines…their jokes. That becomes a little more tough, in the sense of following your instincts. Your instincts are to react, and to shine. But your job, on the other hand, is to make THEM shine. So that was a very interesting learning experience, too. I wasn’t there to just be myself and to work in the moment. I was there to focus on how to make my performance accentuate theirs.
MM: Also within that time frame, you did a musical web series called “Private High Musical”. A lot of your fans may not know that you’re musically inclined. Tell me how your involvement with this web series came about.
MH: That was just a case of a group of friends who wanted to work together on something that was created from scratch. It started with my friendship with Taryn Southern. She created the series and the music, and got her friends together on the weekends and shot it. It actually opened some doors for her, and I believe the idea was sold to MTV for a minute there, but then they ended up shelving it just before they were starting to do scripted series. It was a crazy, outlandish comedy that was a parody of “High School Musical”. We just wanted to use our musical capabilities and have some fun.
MM: Next up, you got your first major lead in a feature film, called “Midgets vs. Mascots”, right?
MH: Technically, that would be “The Danny McKay Project”, which hasn’t seen the light of day. The most commitment I’ve probably ever had as an actor went into that, and was my first lead role. I’m essentially playing a character who is terminally ill. He’s at the height of his game, and going to law school, and suddenly gets hit with a brain tumor, which leaves him with six months to live. So it follows him along those six months, going through the five stages of death…denial to anger to depression to acceptance…and then death. We shot in sequence, over the course of 45 days, and I decided to fast the entire time. So I didn’t eat a single thing for 45 days, and my body slowly broke down. I lost about 50, 55 pounds in that time, so I’d be able to portray his body whittling away. I went from around 200 and healthy, to about 150, 155 and gaunt. I wasn’t running or working out or anything. I didn’t want to appear toned. I wanted to appear as if I’d lost a lot of my size. Then I started thinning out my hair…I took out patches of hair…and ended up completely bald by the end of the movie. That was me just wanting to jump into something.
MM: So you’re going to be more of a method actor!
MH: Well, I don’t think it’s so much method, as it is dedication to the physicality of roles. My body’s gone up and down for each role, depending on the needs. I had to get really in shape for the FOX pilot, and beefing up for “23 Blast”, because the kid I’m playing was a little thicker and I also had to become a running back and a center. I just think physicality sells any role, so I’m always on board to either diet or workout or do whatever I have to do.
MM: Now, “Private High Musical” was pretty risqué, but “Midgets vs. Mascots” amped up the raunch level to 11…including brief nudity. What drew you to this film? Were you nervous diving into that kind of material?
MH: I was in a place in my life where I just wanted the challenge, and I knew that it would be something a lot of people would be afraid to do. I read the script…it was so outlandish…and I was like, “Either no one’s going to see this, I’m going to learn a lot, and I’m going to just have a lot of fun”, or “It’s going to do well, and I’m just going to be proud of dedicating myself to it”. It was shot like a mockumentary, so you always had to be on your game. The scenarios were set up, but everything was basically improvised. You just worked off of everyone. My role was crazy. I’m played this rich Dallas douchebag who was just this angry, racist kid. I went as far as wearing plaid shorts and double pastel colors…I even frosted the tips of my hair. So I really grabbed onto that. For me, it was a character…it was something that was so far from myself that I knew it would be a great challenge and great practice for future roles. It actually ended up doing really well. It won third place at Tribeca, and gained international distribution in the UK, because that was more of their style of humor. It was also Gary Coleman’s last movie.
MM: Your next role was your biggest to date: as Dr. Nathan Horton on the daytime drama “Days of Our Lives”. How did that come about?
MH: Actually, I was about to head to a screening of “Midgets vs. Mascots” when I found out I booked “Days of Our Lives.” I’d been on the show previously, in a different role, as a young Johnny DiMera in a series of flash forward sequences. It was basically Sami Brady daydreaming about her son going down different paths, and what kind of person he could be. I did that role on the show twice. I had one scene that was like 8 or 9 pages long, with Sami and a couple of the other characters, and I didn’t know much about the style of soap opera acting, or the way they shot it, at the time. So I did the scene and I hit my beats and marks, thinking “Okay, that’s the wide shot, and now they’re going to go in for some mediums, and then the close-ups”. But then I hear, “Okay, great. Moving on.” And I was like, “What? Did they get all their coverage?” and she says, “Yeah, that’s it.” And she pointed to three cameras and said, “Every beat you hit, you were catering to those cameras. Everything is covered in one performance.” It blew my mind, because it was like doing theater, but on camera. I realized how fast it moves, and how you have to be prepared. But the executive producer, Gary Tomlin at the time, saw how I was able to stay on for those 8 pages and move forward, and thought I’d do really well in a contract role, so they started bringing me in randomly for other roles. The one that ended up sticking was Nathan Horton.
MM: That particular show tapes up to three months in advance. Would you say it was your hardest role because of the massive amount of pages you’d have to shoot in a day? And would you also say it helped prepare you for future jobs?
MH: I wouldn’t say it was my hardest job, but I would say a soap is like acting boot camp. It really prepared me for memorizing and being on my game and being able to not flub in the middle of a performance…but to keep moving forward. It prepared me to make the most out of every take, essentially. I learned a lot from the soap, and am grateful for my time on it.
MM: Around this time, you got to go back to your roots of performing live, by doing an episode of the “Saturday Night Live”-esque comedy show “ACME Saturday Night”. How did that come about? Tell us about the experience of doing a sketch comedy show live. Was it improv, or scripted?
MH: Well, Molly Burnett was my co-star on “Days”. We were love interests, and had our onscreen couple name, which was “Mate”…Melanie and Nathan. Acme likes to bring in actors from different shows to do these little “Saturday Night Live” type skits and whatnot, so they approached Molly and I. Being that we love live stuff, and love to have fun, we said yes. We agreed to do all these skits, so they are scripted, and there’s TV screens that have our lines there, but no one really stays on it. Everyone is always trying to mess with the other person, so it was just a lot of fun, because it was like doing an improv class, and messing around. We got to sing, we got to be different, goofy characters, and just have fun with the rest of the seasoned actors.
MM: The next few questions should cement you for a nomination as one of the hardest working actors in Hollywood. You filmed three features and a TV pilot back-to-back! Let’s talk about the first film, the inspirational football biopic “23 Blast”. Tell me how you got involved with it.
MH: That one was an audition that came up at the last minute. I remember my agents calling me up at 6pm, before they went home for the day, saying, “Hey, we have this last minute appointment for you for 9am tomorrow morning…would you take a look and try to make it in?” I said sure. I open it, and it’s like 16 pages of sides, which is a lot to prepare in a small amount of time! I figured I could just cold read, and do the audition that way. And then I look at the breakdown, and it says the character is blind…so there goes the idea of cold reading. I have to memorize, because I don’t think you can pull off pretending to be blind, and then looking down for a second to check your next line, and then go back up. So I memorized it…and I also had to put on a Kentucky accent. I went in the next day and just decided to trust my instincts and go with it, as much as I could, and then let it go. And I went in…had a lot of fun…left…and then an hour later, got a call saying the director, Dylan Baker, wanted to meet with me the next day. So I went back the next morning, played with some ideas, a few days went by, and I got a call saying they loved me and that I’d be heading out to Kentucky in three days to start shooting.
MM: Next is the comedy “Scrambled”.
MH: This one takes a page from the “Midgets vs. Mascots” genre. It’s a kooky comedy…but not as raunchy. It’s just one of those things where I wanted another challenge. My agent had actually gone to college with the director, and he called me last minute and said, “They still need their lead…they haven’t found what they wanted. They watched some of your stuff and really like you. Would you want to do this, starting tomorrow?” (laughs) I didn’t even get the chance to read the script. I did it as a favor for my agent, and trusted he wouldn’t give me something terrible…so I said yes. I went to set and got the sides for the day, and kind of learned them while I was in hair and make-up. I wound up working the first three days without reading the script. So that weekend, I finally had a chance to read it, and start preparing a little bit, but I realized I had already done a lot of the scenes. That was an interesting experience in general. I just saw it, and it came out really well. It’s definitely an original movie.
MM: Then there’s the horror film “Altergeist”. What’s the premise, and how was your experience on your first feature-length horror film?
MH: It’s a paranormal thriller unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It actually mixes the genres of supernatural and extraterrestrial. It’s hard to explain without giving away too much, but it’s an ensemble cast and we got shipped out to Wine Country for a few weeks, where we did a bunch of night shoots. We had a lot of fun.
MM: Finally, there’s the science fiction TV pilot, “Parallels”.
MH: This one’s great, especially coming off of a football movie where I’m playing a sweet Kentucky boy who’s lost his sight. In “Parallels”, I’m playing a kid who’s lost his way…has a shaved head…is a tough guy from Philly who’s been doing back alley and underground fights for money. He’s basically taking fights that he shouldn’t be taking, just because he doesn’t really have the will to live…he kind of likes to bash himself against the world, and see if he comes out of it. I put on a little bit of bulk, and had an East Coast accent for this role. It’s a sci-fi show, but it’s also really grounded. It’s more about the characters and their relationships, while the sci-fi is sort of the backdrop. You’re not going to be distracted by crazy visual effects or outlandish situations. You kind of buy into it because it’s so real, and so natural.
MM: Now, you also have some distribution news for us about a couple of your newer projects. Tell us where and when we can find them.
MH: “23 Blast” opened in theaters nationwide this past Friday, October 24th. “Altergeist” is actually on DirecTV Cinema right now, and in a couple of weeks, they’re going to pull it and release it in theaters on November 7th.
MM: You also just completed a role in another project, called “Searching for Katie”. What’s that about and how did you get involved with it?
MH: “Searching for Katie” was an experiment created by my friend Taryn Southern and our director Aaron Feldman. We wanted to shed light on the scary truth of some “organizations” that are out there…how the passion of an idea/organization can brew into cult-like tendencies. When you think of cult-like organizations, some major ones come to mind. We decided to spend a weekend living as method actors and let the characters we created step into our bodies. We remained in character for 3 days straight. In the setting of the plot, we were part of an artists Co-op with general views that echo similar views of questionable groups that have existed over the years. Hours of footage was captured on various cameras. (Film crew and security cameras). Later the post team crafted the footage and filled in the gaps with story and professional interviews. It’s a haunting project that was JUST released yesterday in time for Halloween and can be rented/purchased on VIMEO OnDemand.
MM: What people may not know, is that your next role is something very different from what people are used to seeing you play: director. Your first project is for a web series entitled “Therapy Required”.
MH: I’m realizing that I just like challenges. The ultimate goal has always been to direct. I don’t know if I’d call this my directorial debut, rather than my way of educating myself in directing first. It’s kind of me trying to see what it’s about, and what kind of mistakes I can make. I had a group of friends who were producing this little web show called “Therapy Required”, and they learned that I wanted to direct, so they asked if I wanted to direct it. Before reading anything, I was just in a place where I was going to say yes to any types of challenges, as far as directing. They already had a cast in place, so that was another challenge: not knowing the caliber I’d be working with. I said I would direct it under two conditions: that I get creative control of changing whatever I needed to, and that I get to cast my lead guy, because that’s something I really needed specific…and they agreed. So I said yes, read the script, redeveloped it completely, and it’s been a fun process. They love the changes I’ve made. It’s kind of evolved into a longer idea, where it might actually be a nice little pilot presentation. “Therapy Required” is the working title right now, and we’ve shot a good chunk of it. I’m in the edit right now, learning a lot of things, and we’ll go back for some pick up shots, and just see what we can come with as a group. We’ve got some great producers on board, the actors are doing a great job…and we’ll see what comes of it. So I would kind of call this directorial boot camp right now.
MM: So you’ve always had a passion for directing?
MH: I was doing one-act plays in high school…so yeah, it was always the ultimate goal. I just think that the best directors are “actor-directors”. I really wanted to understand acting so that I could be the best director I could be. For instance, what Ben Affleck is doing now is what I’ve always kind of wanted to do: which is develop and create the projects that I have a passion for, and then create roles for myself that I really want to play.
MM: Would you say, working under Dylan Baker for “23 Blast”, that having an actor as a director was better than having just a director as a director?
MH: I think so. Dylan was very open to the ideas the actors had, and things that would feel natural, because he knows how actors think…how they work. He knows what they need to get the best performance out of them. I’ve worked with a lot of directors who don’t understand that. They would line-read you, and worry more about the shot they were doing, not realizing they were cutting off a really great performance. They were more worried about the extra that didn’t walk behind you at the exact moment that they’d seen in their head. It’s really unfortunate, because it sabotages a lot of great performances. Whereas an actor’s director kind of lets things flow and is open to different scenarios and options and sees what he comes up with in the edit. With “23 Blast”, some of the biggest laughs and acknowledgments we got were things we came up with collaboratively on set.
MM: What advice would you give fellow actors who are still struggling to get their foot in the door?
MH: Be resilient and maintain perseverance. This is an industry where, if you’re not passionate about what you’re doing…about your craft…you have no business being here. If you’re just here to seek fame, it’s going to drive you crazy. There’s also going to be a lot of times where you’re going to want to give up and second guess yourself, and those kinds of moments filter out those who just don’t have what it takes. Just keep moving forward. And it’s inevitable that you’re going to be successful, because you can’t work at something for so long, and so hard, without getting some type of reward or any type of success.
MM: If there’s one role in history you wish you could have played, which role is it, and why?
MH: Oh man…there are so many roles that have been played by Tom Hanks and Christian Bale that I would have loved to sink my teeth into. I mean, when I did “The Danny McKay Project”, one of my inspirations was Christian Bale in “The Machinist”, because of the amount of weight he dropped in that amount of time. That was kind of who I was channeling…except I had to continue to bartend to make a living…lifting cases of wine and Grey Goose as this frail 150lbs guy who’s not eating anything, and being threatened by his boss that if he didn’t eat something, she would fire him. (laughs) But there are so many roles that I want to play, and will play. I’m learning that I fall into the types of roles that are challenging…all the ones that people may be hesitant or don’t want to play. I’m always ready, willing, and able to fall on my face…and each time I come up stronger. I’ve just been fortunate that some of them have worked out…like “23 Blast”. It’s either you get it, or you don’t. It’s either you make a fool of yourself, or you sell it. There’s no in-between, when playing a role where you’re blind…or dying. I think I have a harder time with casual stuff…casual conversations. Give me the emotional stuff…that comes as second nature.
MM: What’s one thing people would be surprised to know about you?
MH: I always prefer to do my own stunts in my projects. There’s nothing more jarring than a cutaway to what’s clearly a stunt double. It takes me out of projects I watch and is a big fear that people will be drawn out of my work. I’d much rather learn, train, prepare, and do it myself. In “Parallels”, there’s an opening fight scene that I not only did without a stunt double but also had a hand in choreographing. When I played a wrestler, I trained two weeks straight so that in every hold and in every slam, you see my face reacting to the action. I have a high respect for stunt doubles; it’s hard work and taxing. In my opinion, the only way to guarantee an authentic performance of the character within a stunt is to have the actor do it him/herself. A double will always have a different body shape/language, weird wig, and potentially over-act. That’s not to say there aren’t a ton of talented, experienced stunt men/women that pull off the job flawlessly…it’s just a gamble, and I’d rather not risk sacrifice of any detail in a project. I’d much prefer to take a hit or two myself.
MM: Who would you say are some of your directing influences?
MH: David Fincher is one of my favorite directors. I really enjoy the crazy style of Baz Luhrmann. I also appreciate the visual and subtle style of Gus Van Sant. And I really love Paul Thomas Anderson, which I think I have some of the same instincts that he has with his work.
Movie: Fight Club, Good Will Hunting
TV Show: Breaking Bad
Musician: Brandon Boyd
Director: David Fincher
Book: The Alchemist
If you’d like to follow Mark and see where these new projects and adventures take him, you can do so on Twitter and Instragram under @MarkHapka.
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