A veteran of film, television and theater, actor La Shawn Banks has steadily amassed a thorough body of work that is both diverse and wide-reaching. The Buffalo, NY native has made appearances in such films as “The Merry Gentleman” (directed by legendary actor Michael Keaton) and the ensemble comedy “Surprise Me!”, as well as on the small screen in episodes of “Chicago Justice”, “Chicago PD”, and Showtime’s “Shameless”. Some of Banks’ theater credits include “The Wheel” for Steppenwolf Theatre, “Around The World In 80 Days” with the Indiana Repertory Theatre, and “Old Glory”, “Issac’s Eye”, and “The Green Fields Beyond” for Writers Theatre.
Currently, Banks is starring in another Writers Theatre production entitled “The Scene”. Written by Theresa Rebeck and directed by Kimberly Senior, the play kicks off with an amusing exchange at a hip Manhattan party that quickly turns into something more complex. When close friends Charlie and Lewis meet Clea, a determined young woman making her mark on the New York scene, it sets them off on an emotional roller coaster. This provocative comedy-drama explores the dark edges of commitment and the struggles of balancing authenticity with ambition.
N’Digo recently spoke with Banks about his work in “The Scene”, his introduction into the world of theater and his best advice for aspiring to make a mark in the world of theater.
Talk a bit about your childhood. Is acting what you always wanted to do or did you originally have other dreams?
I grew up in Buffalo NY with a single mother. She still lives at home. There were a couple things I thought I wanted to do. I thought I wanted to be a radio personality or a recording artist. I studied vocal music through high school into college where I changed my major to Musical Theatre and got my BFA
How did you get your start in acting?
Singing was kind of the catalyst. I got into an arts high school for Radio and Communications (I was too nervous to audition for acting or singing), and then once I was in there safe and sound, I infiltrated the choruses, met my awesome music teacher Frank Scinta, changed my major to Vocal Music and started solo singing for competitions like ACT-SO for the NAACP. Then, through a church friend, I fell in with The African-American Cultural Center, in Buffalo which was actually right around the corner from where I grew up, (I had been seeing professional productions of August Wilson plays and musicals like “Ain’t Misbehavin'” and “Sophisticated Ladies” for years, knowing that I was very fortunate, but not knowing how, or why.) But they were running a little rag-tag theatre group for young adults. It started as kind of a lark. I replaced an actor in the show they doing about teen pregnancy at the time and it turned out to be incredibly fun. I have been down the rabbit hole ever since. That play was called “Having Babies” by the way. I found I had a little more courage after that and started auditioning for shows at school and actually getting parts. Getting parts was and still is incredibly addictive.
Was there an “aha” moment when you knew for sure that you’d be able to do this professionally?
I don’t know if there was an aha moment specifically. When I think back on all of it, it seems like it was always there. I was very fortunate. From a very young age I had people advocating for my growth. Our pastor’s wife, Mrs. Jane Matthews, saw potential in me and rallied my mother to get me enrolled in this gifted and talented program at a totally different school across town. I don’t know where I would be if that hadn’t happened. I wasn’t off to a bad start or anything, but wow, you know, who knows what would’ve happened instead? That exposed me to different ways of thinking critically and most importantly I think, it exposed me to Shakespeare.
Tell us about The Scene and your character, Lewis?
Lewis is similar to me in many ways. Single. Moved to the city after college and has worked super hard for his success and notoriety. We meet him through the lens of a very intimate friendship with married friends and through his dating life. And away we go. Don’t want to give away too much.
What spoke to you about this play that made you want to be a part of it?
I would do anything for Writers. They took me under their wing professionally almost 15 years ago. They have always celebrated my versatility as an artist. You don’t always get that. So when I read this and saw that Lewis could be any ethnicity, I got immediately excited about another opportunity to show audiences another facet of who we are as black people and what we do. Theresa’s writing transcends color on that level. She writes people and situations and its ridiculously funny. Add in a few actors and a director that I adore and respect and there you go.
Do you have a special process or ritual when preparing for a role?
No special process. I have more life to bring to my work now so I just let it in and try to tell the truth. Every play teaches me something about how to do the next one. You get braver every time.
Sometimes people assume acting is acting across the board. As a veteran of film, stage and television can you talk about some the subtle differences as far as acting in those various forums that most people may not understand?
This one question could be an entire article! I’ll just say for me, now, and this may change; my work improves as I improve. Some actors can do amazing, transformative work out of total chaos and craziness in their personal and professional lives. Often times we have to. That is my not my preferred setting. My best work comes from a sort of heightened relaxation. Panic mode doesn’t really work for me. I will always have to find a quiet corner. Beyond that, it comes down to your prep, the other actors and the director. I am learning that stage acting is very much about what a character is feeling. That’s what you’re trying to project to the back row of the house. TV and film work seems to be about what a character is thinking. That’s what the camera sees. It’s a bit of a shift. The only constant is the truth.
Who are three of your all-time favorite actors?
I have so many! Right now off the top of my head: Viola Davis, Bette Davis and Meryl Streep.
Who would you cast to play yourself in the movie on your life?
Mahershala Ali. He’s just super good.
Any advice or words of wisdom for those aspiring to make a mark in theater?
Remember that people like to feel good about themselves and the work they do. Treat people like you would treat yourself. And if you’re treating yourself like crap, first of all, cut it out, because you deserve better, and secondly, don’t get into theatre. You will be unhappy.
Any favorite affirmations/quotes that you swear by?
Many. “Do your best” springs to mind.
What’s next for LaShawn Banks?
Moving to Los Angeles to pursue more television work. Wish me luck!
“The Scene” runs through April 2 at the Alexandra C. and John
D. Nichols Theatre located at 325 Tudor Court in Glencoe, IL. For more information please visit www.writerstheatre.org