FFWD Weekly
- Reprinted from FFWDWEEKLY - November 2001.
Interviewer:   Lori Montgomery

Thursday, November 1, 2001
Calgary's News & Entertainment Weekly
On Stage
by Lori Montgomery

Runs until November 24
Lunchbox Theatre

In Heaven, everything is fine for Malcolm Xerxes
Distinguished actor headlines Lunchbox Theatre's love story

Malcolm Xerxes is accustomed to standing out.  He’s in town for Heaven, Lunchbox Theatre’s upcoming play by Cheryl Foggo, and it’s the second time he’s been tapped to come to Calgary because a theatre company needs a tall, bald black man.  The first time was for Alberta Theatre Projects’ Two Weeks with the Queen, and he concedes that it begins to look like we don’t have any actors of our own that fit the bill. It works well for him, though.

"For certain types of fauna, being camouflaged and blending in with the grass is good because it enables one to hunt," he says. "In other cases, being spotted when everyone else is striped is good."

Xerxes has made a career out of taking advantage of those times when standing out is what’s required, although he admits that there are limits to what can be achieved.

"My personal experience is that there’s very much a glass ceiling and a glass wall in effect because of the fact that my complexion is what it is, and because I’m English.  A lot of people tend to assume that I’m not able to work in any other voice but my own, when in fact, most of the time, I’m working in a voice other than my own."

Such is the case here, where he plays an American rancher who travels to Amber Valley, Alberta in 1927 to start a new life after his community faces persecution in Oklahoma.

"He’s essentially the patriarch of the community," the actor says. "He led the journey here, and is the de facto Moses of the community.  His own wife died during the Spanish flu epidemic, and so he’s been raising his children by himself since 1918 and has become very much accustomed to being alone."

His solitude is disturbed by a teacher who moves to the town from Eastern Canada, fleeing scandal.

"Because she’s a very dynamic woman, he can’t help noticing her, but that causes a certain amount of discomfiture, because he’s so accustomed to the mindset of being a man alone."

For the purpose of the part, Xerxes is required to assume a Southern U.S. accent, which by all accounts he does with eerie accuracy.  It’s a skill he says he picked up early in life in Manchester, when the headmistress at his performing arts primary school made a point of discouraging the working class accent that would prevent her young charges from making a career in acting.

"She encouraged us to talk the way I talk now, and those people who were in the class who had a facility for mimicry for whatever reason, like myself, were encouraged to continue with that," he recalls, "not so much in terms of formal classroom training, but more in terms of being made aware of how particular dialects are associated with particular strata of British society, and then by extension, the rest of the world."

Xerxes says that he admires those actors who have made a name for themselves by "moving outside the box" – an approach that he has used in his own career.  Whether as a television stuntman for La Femme Nikita, an actor on the Toronto stage, a screenwriter and playwright, or percussionist for the band Another 1000 Miles, he doesn’t let his background dictate his path in life.

"If you’re concerned about only playing roles which are socially and racially aligned to one’s own cultural experience, then yeah, that would be a problem," he says.  "It would limit me if I let it. I choose not to let it.  I’ve never found myself bored, I’ve never found myself in a set of conditions where I don’t have enough to do."

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