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Actor Lucas Van Engen on "We Own This City," teaching acting, South Bend, and recovery

Lucas Van Engen as Leo Wise, at right, in HBO's "We Own This City"
Lucas Van Engen as Leo Wise, at right, in HBO's "We Own This City"

The new HBO series “We Own This City” is the latest from creator David Simon to turn a critical eye on Baltimore’s police, drug trade and the people caught up in it. In the miniseries, actor Lucas Van Engen portrays real-life prosecutor Leo Wise, who is tasked with uncovering a sprawling corruption web in a high-level police unit.

Van Engen, also an acting teacher, has appeared on screen in “Chicago Fire,” “Quantico,” “City on a Hill,” and much more.

Lucas Van Engen, welcome to The Roundtable.

Thanks! So first of all, I just I just have to acknowledge that today is a tragic day, I'm just feeling the weight of it. And I actually feel a kind of rage right now about what's going on in our country. Today's the day that the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. And yesterday, they loosened the gun laws after a mass shooting in Texas. So, I'm feeling like the pressure cooker of the country I'm living in right now and a little bit of hopelessness around what I can actually do about it. I just want to acknowledge that as a sort of starting place. What I'm going through today, as I'm sure so many of us are when I talk to you.

Sure. And just for people who are listening, we're talking on the Friday of the Supreme Court decision that struck down Roe v Wade. It's such an interesting time, because in a way, what we're doing is a little frivolous in light of that. And I wonder how you process that as someone who makes their living and does their profession in performance?

Thanks for asking, well, in this show, We Own This City, it fits in line with my vision for myself, that at least some of the work I do as an actor will have a positive impact in line with my social values. And We Own This City is certainly that. And David Simon and George Pelecanos and the director Reinaldo Marcus Green—I happen to share a vision with them. And they really have something to say with this show, which is around the war on drugs, and the cost that that phrase has in America as a policy and a focus on rounding up getting—racking up numbers in the police department versus actual policing and getting drugs off the street, which ultimately just negatively impacts poor neighborhoods, and particularly poor black neighborhoods. So, this show has something to say with a positive impact that can actually change minds in this country. And to your question, I hope that my work can continue to do that. And if I do something fun, that has nothing to do with a social impact I'm okay with that too, but that's my vision.

Well, obviously a David Simon project does carry some stakes. How often do you get to do something like that where you feel like it's aligning with your own views?

Not very often in terms of actually having a strong statement. So, this is a real win for me to be able to work on this project. There are things where the you know, we share values and on and off set but this one really had a statement to make and without ever being preachy, I felt — being heavy with a message I didn't think. I thought it was, at the end of the day, a true story. And they did it in a way that was entertaining. But no, this has not come along that often for me, I'm thrilled to be a part of this project.

Where do you come by your own politics? What in your life has influenced the way you look at things?

Yeah, so I grew up in South Bend, Indiana. And Indiana, of course, is a Red State. But where I grew up—I grew up Christian, I don't identify that way anymore. But where I was, was this little pocket of Notre Dame professors, including my dad, who went to this church and the politics within that church were, you know, all over the place, but relatively liberal in my family and in my and my family's friends. So as far as Christians go, we were these kind of like, liberal Christians. And that's what I knew about Christians growing up. So, I was always like, really dismayed when Christianity became synonymous with Republicans. I'm like, well, that's not me, and it never reflected who I was or how I thought about Christianity. In the end, I ended up leaving the church and finding my own way in that area as well. But you know, my parents were Democrats, and then and maybe more towards the center, and I'm the lefty liberal in the family. I think I got to New York, and I found my tribe. In a creative community, and in acting, the central driving force is empathy. And I find empathy most prevalent in my lefty liberal tribe.

Do I have it right that you and Mayor Pete, well, I guess now Secretary Pete, went to the same school?

Yeah, we did. We didn't know each other; I might just change that story and say we were best buds. But he was three years behind me and a year behind my brother. I mean, I can't believe I am older than a potential president of the United States. I don't know when that happened. But yeah, he went to my high school and so I was right there backing him the whole way during his candidacy.

If you don't mind my asking, why did you end up leaving the church?

Great question. I went to a fairly liberal church in New York as well. And my values kept not aligning with the church's values. And of course, every church has different values. So, there's not one set of values in in the church, but my values kept being at odds with them. It got to the point where I was hanging out with a small group of—these Protestant churches, often they have small groups and the small groups are a way to feel like you're a part of the community in a real way. And it's a great, it's a great aspect of the Protestant churches. So, I had a small group of friends, and I would say 50% of them were actively gay. But when we got to church, none of us talked about it. None of us talked about our sex lives. We all talked about it outside of the church. There was a gay pride. I remember one Sunday, there was gay pride going on outside the church, they were marching down the street, and the preacher prayed for the parade. And he did it in a way that was in support of them. But he also had to code his language so that he didn't stand out against the church's official stance on the march. And I was just done. I couldn't handle any more. I thought it's just so—we're acting like, we care. But my friends can't be gay, but they can outside the—I was just like, I'm done. I can't do it anymore. I was too angry.

Have you replaced that sense of either a group to belong to or even like a personal faith with something else in your life?

Yes, I have. I'm in recovery, I think is the best way I can say it without breaking any things. And so, I have a whole group of people and in recovery we're all encouraged to find our own higher power. That could be the group of others who are recovering, it could be my own definition of a higher power. And I've always been interested in spirituality anyway. I'm not just interested; active in finding a spiritual life for myself. Once I left the church, I just expanded what my spiritual life is, and I searched and I eventually found recovery and found a whole lot of people who were thinking just like me anyway. Now I have my own definition of a higher power and spirituality. That all influences my acting as well, by the way, it's all kind of intertwined and I couldn't pull one out from the other really.

How so? What do you mean?

Well, my acting life is directly proportional to my life outside of it. I had an acting coach once who said, the better actor you are, the better you'll be, you'll be at life and the better you are at life, the better actor you'll be. So, I've had to do a lot of personal digging, a lot of therapy, a lot of recovery, to become the actor I am once the cameras rolling. And I teach also, and I really teach in that way, too. There's stuff that's happening with students on camera that can't be solved by an acting coach that requires therapy or sobriety or what have you. And I can't do it there in the room, but I can encourage them to get the right kind of help.

Did you notice personally a difference in your performances before and after recovery?

Yeah, and it's gradual. But there's a kind of—it's easier for me to talk about it in my students, of course, to speak generically. You can kind of see like a filter between them and what's happening in front of them. This is true for me, too. And that's why I'm saying it, it's just easier to see it on others. So, there's a kind of like—it's almost like a foggy glass between what's happening in front of them and what's going on with them. Now, that's a great option to be able to play with as an obstacle as an actor. But if that's your base, like set point, there's not a lot of room to go from there. And so, as the glass got clearer, I started seeing clearly. For example, I came out of a meeting once and somebody once said, "You know what sober stands for?" And I said, "No". He said, "son of a, b, everything's real." And that's exactly what it felt like, to me, I was kind of in shock for the first 90 days. And everything was just hitting me so hard. So, if you can imagine, like, I was desensitizing myself on a regular basis, because everything felt too hard, too much to handle. So, when I was no longer desensitizing myself, I had so much more of myself to bring to anything on stage or on camera. And then it just becomes a matter of like, continuing to open that creative valve and honing it.

What goes into teaching acting? Acting is incredible to me, that anybody can do it and make you convinced of their performance. It's something magical. How do you get a student to a point where they're able to do that?

I love that, I love talking about it. I've been through a number of approaches, systems, techniques, and I find them all lacking to a degree and all fantastic to a degree. So, I was deep into this thing called the Eric Morris System. His approach is basically, okay, the method is great, but how do we actually make it work? Like how do we actually have these real reactions and so on, and as a whole system, and that's great, but then there were restrictions in that. So basically, long story short, what I found is that every student needs something different, every actor needs something different. So rather than come at class with one approach, I have 20 years of classes of various approaches, plus my own intuition, which is mainly what I rely on now. And I will guide the students wherever I feel, intuitively that they need to go for their own like—like tuning an instrument, like it's different whether you're tuning a piano or a guitar, it's going to be different for every instrument, I feel it's different for every actor. And I just happened to be pretty good at finding the right—sticking with tuning analogy— which valve to turn or whatever that analogy would be. I just happened to be really good at tuning with people.

How do you know how to do that?

I guess, empathy and connection to myself, really learning about myself. So, everything is ultimately projection. I'm ultimately projecting on them what I identify with in them. It just happens that I'm often right. That's what's fed back to me and I see it work so I ask a student a certain question; suddenly, tears are flowing. And then the scene begins and we have an incredible scene right in front of us. And that all comes from work on myself years and years of work on myself. And oh, no, I can't think of his name. I'm terrible with names. There was an HBO documentary on the guy, Garry—

Garry Shandling?

Yes. Somebody asked him why do you do—you must be so peaceful and Zen with all this Buddhist stuff you do and all the meditation. And he said, I wouldn't do it if I were feeling well. That's my experience. I've just been trying to feel OK for 20 years, and I've done a lot of work on it. And that work allows me to help other people too.

Let me ask you this. You had a lot of experience on the stage as well, especially earlier in your career, as I understand it. Do these techniques or tools that you're talking about, do they have to change between what you're doing on stage and what you're doing on screen because of the presence of the camera and the lack of a live audience?

Yeah, they do change dramatically. The authenticity stays the same. It's just what are you playing to? And how are you telling the story? I'm going to misquote him terribly—there's a teacher in New York that I love, his name is Jon Shear and he talks about on stage, we are relating to the other people—how am I relating to the other actors on stage, and the audience can see that from the back row. And when you get down to a close up on camera, it's how am I relating to myself? How am I processing what's happening? And so, it's really just shifting. One way of doing it would be the shift, like what am I relating to? And then of course, there's those dramatically different techniques also, just in terms of how you're using your body on stage to tell a story versus on camera. And of course, that has to do with aesthetic distance and what needs to come across.

Let me bring it back to ‘We Own This City’ now. In this series, you play a real life person, Leo Wise. Do you have a different approach to that as opposed to a fictional character?

In this case I didn't and I toyed with trying to bring the real Leo Wise's mannerisms to the screen. I watched a lot of his interviews, I asked questions about him. And I brought a couple of his mannerisms that people told me about, but mostly that was just to please myself. Because Leo Wise is not a recognizable public figure, I didn't feel pressured to grab his mannerisms, or do any kind of imitation. I thought the thing that would read the most is if I just brought myself fully to this part, or I should say a piece of myself fully to this part. And I think that served, ultimately, served the piece better, and ultimately, served Leo Wise better, than me trying to do some imitation of him when I didn't know him. When I talked to him—I got to meet him and we laughed a lot. And I said, "man, you laugh a lot and you're actually really funny." And I didn't bring any of that to the work. I mean, I brought some hint of a humor, but not really and I was very serious. And he goes, "Oh, no, when I'm at work, I'm very serious." So being myself, serve the project, and I hope him.

Talk to me about performing in this particular piece with Jon Bernthal. He plays the lead character. He's a police officer we later learn is wrapped up in the corruption. He's got to be just an incredible force to be on a set with.

It's like being in the room with a lightning bolt. I just can't say enough good things about Jon Bernthal. I had a brief interaction with him over the course of three weeks. Meaning he came to my trailer. First of all, he came to my trailer to run lines with me and we ended up having a good time talking for like an hour. And he had—I'm not gonna say he had no ego because everybody has an ego, but he had no ego on set. It was really incredible how he interacted with everybody there. He also—talking about having something to say and being part of something that has an impact—he has a lot to say when he's not acting and he actively makes choices that help him say that, he's got podcasts that do that. So I find that really inspiring in terms of his acting, he just is so incredibly alive in the room, he's one of those actors. All I have to do is be with him in the room, and he's gonna bring out of me the best, the best of me. So that was a blast being with him. In a couple scenes.

I have another question about the show and your approach to it. As it unfolds, your character is learning more and more about the case and who it touches. So as an actor, do you need the entire picture of the run of the script, the six episodes and how things are going to turn out? Or do you leave some things to be revealed to yourself in real time to impact how you react to information? How does that work?

Thanks. It's different for every project—and as the actor I don't often get the choice. In ‘City on a Hill’ when I worked on that I didn't know what was happening. It was episode by episode Tom Fontana was running it, starting in the second season, and I just didn't know what was happening. And that's how he works. I'm sorry, he might have been running it the first season too. Forgive my lack of knowledge on that. One of the greatest producers and I just shot myself in the foot. Anyway, I didn't know what was going on at ‘City on the Hill.’ On this, I got the full six-episode arc. And so, I had mentioned Jon Shear, I sat down with him at the beginning of it once I booked it, and I looked through the whole six episodes, and I started saying how do I build an arc for Leo Wise, who's not one of the main characters per se, but he's a regular member of the cast. And he's got a lot to do. So how do I build an arc for him whether there is one there or not, and we started digging and found something that I was really happy with that pulled me through the whole series. And in turn, I'm very happy with my own performance in it.

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A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.
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