Tony Amendola Talks about Stargate and Shakespeare

We used to joke they’d give us all the sci-fi talk and you could see Richard Dean Anderson trying to figure out how to get a way in to burst the balloon that we’d been blowing up for the last 20 minutes.

Tony Amendola is a talented actor on both stage and screen best known for his performances on Stargate: SG-1, and Once Upon A Time.

How did Tony Amendola become an actor?

There are two types of actors: there are lifers from the time they’re in second grade and knew they were going to be actors, and then there are people who sort of stumble onto it.

I was in the second group.

I stumbled into it in college at a time when I was still searching and trying to figure out what to do with my life. I literally walked into an audition of The Tempest — that was the first play I ever did — I literally stumbled into it. I didn’t know it was going to be there.

It was initially very social and only later that I realized I became a better student all of the sudden. It filled you with a kind of passion in a way that really was an interesting thing and taught me that’s what kids really need: a place to put their passion.

It doesn’t matter if it’s chess, auto mechanics, acting. As long as they have a place, amazing things can happen because the world and the knowledge that’s in the world all of the sudden makes sense and is necessary to them.

So that’s sort of what happened with me. I was too stupid to realize the numbers were so much against anyone being an actor that I had no ‘Plan B,’ which is not something I recommend. Although I did get an MFA from Temple. My notion was to be an actor.

Oddly, a lot of my early work was in Shakespeare. They need men and it tends to be set in Italy or Spain or Sicily and there are a lot of men who sort of look like me. And that’s basically what happened.

What I remember about it is primarily the innocence. I do, to this day, think about the innocence and the pure joy of just losing yourself in this work and this world.

Now that I’ve been in it and supported myself for 40 years as an actor, more or less, it becomes different in the sense that all of the sudden your passion is your profession.

And now I deal with that. I go back and try to find the joy.

That’s one of the reason that I go to the Utah Shakespeare Festival—is for that. It’s to literally sort of recharge my batteries artistically, emotionally.

As an undergraduate, you performed a leading role in a musical or two at Sacred Heart Academy — an all-girls prep school. That dynamic sets the stage for so many questions I don’t even know where to begin. As you look back on that time period in your life, what are some memories that are still poignant today?

The first answer is, ‘Don’t believe everything you read on the internet.’ It wasn’t Sacred Heart Academy. It’s so bizarre. You probably got that off IMDB. It’s so difficult to change anything on IMDB. I never put that up there.

But there is some truth in it. I performed at a school called Albertus Magnus, which was an all-girls college in New Haven — quite a nice college.

I did a year of Summerstock there which included a musical. That’s the actual truth of it. And that was back in about the summer of 1974. It was great.

I’ll be honest with you. I said it was social, my initial reason for getting into acting. It was a way of having a community, a way of meeting young girls in a guided event where you had to be together because you were doing a play.

We all do it.

It was terrific. That summer was great because you never know.

There was a particular guy named Robert Jennings. He taught at my undergraduate school but he also ran that festival. He was a wonderful, wonderful acting teacher. There are directors you work with who are not concerned with acting — they say it’s the actor’s job.

And then there are directors you work with who challenge you as an actor. And he was one of those guys early on who did.

When I think about that summer, without question he is someone I think about.

We did a production of Dracula that summer where the “Dracula” was claustrophobic so when they put a stagehand in the coffin beside him. We did a production of “Charlie’s Aunt” where I was on stage and watched the other actor literally fall through the floor because there was a trap. It was one of those summers where you were all in.

There wasn’t time for much else. It was a great summer.

Do any of Tony Amendola’s acting skills translate to regular life?

 Oh, sure. Without question. I remember when I was in school there was a book called, “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Society.” I still remember the name. 

It’s about the roles we play. We’re very different as people with our college chums than we are with our parents or people that knew us when we were children. We’re constantly sort of chameleons.

Improvisation often breaks you out of the expected and it can be really, really useful in reading people. It’s really, really useful in terms of any resistance.

There’s a rule of improvisation: “Everything is a yes.” So, if I come in and say, ‘Hey, what do you think of the polar bear on my back,” you can’t say, ‘Hey, you don’t have a polar bear on your back.’

That’s not the way improvisation works. You either have to give me a hand or you have to extend it. So, “everything is a yes.” It’s about opening up. I think that’s really useful in life.

Also, it’s about sort of the masks we wear. There’s a mask a banker wears. There’s a mask a realtor wears. There’s a mask a religious person wears. And then there’s the truth beneath that which hopefully agrees with it. But as we know from drama, it doesn’t always agree.

The realization of those things from the theatre translate into real life.

What showrunners bring out the best in Tony Amendola?

Let me first say a word about Joe Mallozzi. Joe wrote some wonderful stuff for me over the years so I’m very grateful to Joe.

The two showrunners when I was on Stargate were Brad Wright, the creator, and Robert Cooper.

The only thing I ask from a showrunner is that they simply write for you. My god, Brad wrote for me. He wrote an episode called, “Threshold,” that was really, really challenging and really sticks out in my mind as my favorite Stargate episode. It’s sort of the backstory between Teal’c and myself.

Bratac - threshold
Tony Amendola as Bra’tac in “Threshold.”

Brad came down and said, ‘Okay. I’ve got this for you. Let me see what you are going to do with this.’ It was almost like a challenge, but he wasn’t saying, “Hey, you’re going to be fired if you don’t do a good job.”

He valued my work. You’re coming on, you’re a guest star, and then finally he writes you a really, really powerful episode.

After it was done, probably two or three episodes later when I was up in Vancouver for another one, he said, “I have to tell you.  I didn’t know if some of the scenes would work, but I didn’t cut a single frame out of your stuff.”

And I thought, “Whoa!” I hadn’t seen it yet, but believe me — we never know as actors. We go in, we perform, and then people cut and paste.

He didn’t do any of that.

There is another guy I worked with named Simon Barry. He is the creator and showrunner for Continuum. He was so wonderful because of the way he handled how much I needed to know. I played the mastermind, if you will, of this organization and I needed a lot of information.

But he was smart enough to withhold enough information so when all of the sudden I wasn’t manipulating everyone else and when I was manipulated, it was a surprise to me.

In other words, I didn’t have the knowledge of what was coming and that was so wise of him.

The other thing he did was write an episode in which I was in the same scene as seven different characters. What else can you ask for in terms of a seal of approval?

There’s an episode that he directed where my character was displaying seven different things. You don’t need someone to say, “Hey, I like your work,” if they’re writing you stuff like that. I think it’s a given.

Oddly enough, I just did a couple of episodes of a very odd series called, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. It’s with Elijah Wood, etcetera, and Robert Cooper is one of the executives on that show. It was so good to see him last summer.

How does it make Tony Amendola feel to know the Stargate cast chemistry and his performance caused many fans to feel like they’re part of the family?

That’s an interesting question because what we do on screen reaches so far beyond that into somebody’s living room. That’s been the joy of acting.

Even at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, all of the sudden I’ll meet Stargate fans—and that’s always nice. All of the sudden you’ll meet a girl who’s 22 or 24 and she’ll say, “I used to watch that with my dad every single week.”

So you know she was probably 12 or something at the time. It was something that families would do together and that was important to me. The same thing with sons and mothers — and the military.

On set, there’s so much wasted energy. I remember a director friend of mine who, at the first rehearsal of a play we were doing said, “Never was so much energy and time wasted on so little productivity.”

Everyone’s trying to impress everybody. So you take a deep breath and finally get to work.

That is eliminated when you’re on a show for a while. You know who’s having a good day and who’s having a bad day. You know people’s temperature. It makes it a lot more comfortable — particularly for a guest actor.

Often I find that when you’re a guest star on an episodic show, you’re front-loaded. A lot of your material is at the beginning during the first three or four days. The reason for that is the regulars are still learning their lines because they’ve been working.

It’s always hard to come into that situation, but with Stargate because I did so many of them the feeling was like an old friend, who when you don’t see them for a while, you come back and it’s as if you’re in the middle of the same conversation.

Which actor on Stargate: SG-1 is most and least like their character?

In my opinion, the one that is least like his character is Chris Judge, who I spent a lot of time with.

He’s really just this ball of intelligence and mischief and libido and everything. And of course the character with his, “Indeed.” It’s very, very condensed.

I’ll go one better and tell you who’s the most like his character, and that’s Richard Dean Anderson.

We used to joke they’d give us all the sci-fi talk and you could see Rick trying to figure out how to get a way in to burst the balloon that we’d been blowing up for the last 20 minutes.

It was brilliant because O’Neill was the audience surrogate when things got a little too “woo-woo.” All of the sudden O’Neill will just pull it back to earth.

Rick has that dry, sort of cutting — if you don’t know him well and aren’t used to him, you might take slight offense at how he’s behaving. But once you get to know him you get to realize it’s just the way he is.

I remember one of my first scenes with him. I’m a guest star coming up and I want to get to work. And one of the first scenes I have with him, I thought, “Why is this guy just fooling around all the time?”

Only later did I realize that’s what oddly gave “Stargate” its longevity because he brought that humor that didn’t exist in the film.

That was the carryover into the television series.

Without that, you couldn’t, I don’t think in 1997, have sustained a series on as dark a tone as was taken in the movie with Kurt Russell. All that was going on in the backstory with his family, etcetera, but I don’t think you could sustain that for 10 years the way we did.

Richard, his own personality, married to O’Neill, made the chemistry of Stargate makes sense.

The other person I want to mention who was crucial to the chemistry on Stargate — this is somewhat archetypal — is Amanda Tapping.

Amanda Tapping was sort of oddly the welcome wagon. She was the one — I watched her do it many times after she had done it to me — who really welcomed people. She tried to make you feel as comfortable as you can be.

She’s a terrific actress and it’s no surprise now that she’s producing and directing.

I worked with her on an episode of Continuum and it was just sensational to work with her as a director.

What is one of Tony Amendola’s favorite time travel shows that he hasn’t also acted in?

There’s a couple of them. Way back when there was one called, The Time Tunnel. This one really goes back. And then there’s another that is created by Brad Wright, called, Travelers that I would love to be a part of at some point.

Would Tony Amendola return for a fourth Stargate?

Oh, yes. I’d love to see a series that was in the same universe and I’d be happy to come back as Bra’tac if the material was good and there were some familiar faces.

You know, if they want to do The Adventures of Bra’tac, I’m completely open.

Is now a good time for a fourth Stargate?

 Oh, yeah. I think so.

What’s tricky now is peering into the future and trying to find the right balance between a utopian vision and a dystopian one. We all know sci-fi deals really with the issues that are contemporary. They may be set in the future, but it’s really always about contemporary stuff.

There’s a lot of stuff to look at and how it’s approached can be really sort of fascinating so it never gets old.

It’s oddly like George Lucas taking the Joseph Campbell sort of quest and turning it into Star Wars. Taking some of the stuff that’s going on in the world now and examining it through SG-1 would be really, really terrific.

How is the Utah Shakespeare Festival perceived in other parts of the world?

I think the Utah Shakespeare Festival is perceived with great respect. What Fred Adams created is really, really extraordinary in the fact that it has existed for so long and they’ve done so many plays there.

One of the first times I saw that stage was in a documentary done by the BBC — this was before The Globe was built in London. It was with Jeremy Irons and they were looking for a replica stage — a stage that was as close as possible to the dimensions of Shakespeare’s stage.

Did they find that in England? No, they found that in Cedar City, Utah.

Audiences watch ‘The Three Musketeers’ in 2016 performed on the renowned stage at the Utah Shakespeare Festival. Credit: Tyler Morgan.

They went through there when they were looking at how they were going to build The Globe that exists now in London.

That always struck me.

Although I had been to the other festivals first — I had worked at Oregon Shakespeare as soon as I was out of school, I worked at Colorado while I was in school, I worked at Cal Shakespeare while I was at Berkeley — but I had never gotten around to Utah.

So when the opportunity came to work there — because a friend of mine, a director Sharon Ott, was doing “Merchant of Venice,” I had never set foot in Utah. So I had no idea, I had never seen the beauty of the country and I’d never felt the warmth there.

I came in and I thought, “Hey. It’s four months, it’s a great role. Have an adventure!” From the moment I got there it was just sensational.

The work of course is challenging and you keep very, very busy. In case you didn’t know it, actors can get a little self-involved. I don’t know. Maybe it’s a secret. There’s something about the physical surroundings of that area that really is sort of a solace to me.

When I felt that way — when I had a tough rehearsal or didn’t know what was going on or was very, very tired —I would just simply drive up to Cedar Breaks National Monument.

It’s 20-25 minutes straight up the hill. You stand there and you look at the Hoodoos and you look at what I call nature’s own Terracotta Warriors.

It automatically centered me and gave me a picture of where I sit in the world. To quote Coriolanus, “There is a world elsewhere.” Don’t get so sucked in to your own importance.

It was just healthy to me. And then going to Zion’s National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park, etcetera.

Unfortunately, although I’ve worked at Sundance, I’ve never spent much time in Salt Lake City. For a while when Karl Malone and John Stockton — I really loved that Utah Jazz team — but I’ve never really spent too much time. So I haven’t had the chance to go to Temple Square, but I’d like to.

What would Tony Amendola most want to ask Shakespeare?

Number one, I’d want to question him about his time management skills and what he was able to accomplish. You know, I’m ten years older than Shakespeare when he died.

There are two types of actors and theatre people. There are flamboyant, artistic people who are just out there and live life loud.

And then there are other slightly more-removed people. I think of Alec Guinness — the ones that almost look like bank managers until they step on stage.

That’s what I would want to know. Shakespeare had his hands in the artistic world and yet he had his feet firmly planted on the ground because The Globe was a business.

I’d have to ask him how he negotiated that. I went from the environs of Shakespeare festivals where the work is all in to the marketplace that is commercial television and film and theatre in New York.

It troubles me. So I would ask him that.

I would also want to know what happened during the years when he left Stratford as a young man and the next thing we know, ten years later he’s written this play.

What happened? What were those years about? No one knows.

The other thing I would want to know is, “Tell me the meaning of “‘Measure for Measure.’”

Everyone asks you, “Who is the historical person you would ask to dinner,” and if he’s not at the top of my list he’s certainly one of the top three.

Further reading

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

One reply on “Tony Amendola Talks about Stargate and Shakespeare”

Your rendition of Shylock at the UT Shakespeare Festival in 2010 was so fantastic that my family still talks about it. I’m not sure I would even want to see The Merchant of Venice anywhere else because it probably couldn’t compare to your performance.

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