We had the good fortune of connecting with Amir Levi and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Amir, we’d love to hear about how you approach risk and risk-taking
I think my whole life has been about taking risks. I don’t think about it in terms of risk-taking, I just think of it as what I need to do to either find fulfillment, or because my brain won’t let up until I do whatever it’s telling me to do. I’m very much someone who follows my instincts, and whenever I don’t listen to them, there Is usually some sort of consequence. As an artist, one of the biggest lessons I’ve kept with me has been to “Risk. Fail. Risk Again” (thank you National Theatre Institute). So when I had the instinct to start my own dance company in NYC, and then go back to training at conservatory, and then come out to LA for further training, and then to make the decision to stay… All those decisions in life could’ve definitely been considered high risk. And yes, I definitely thought about each of those decisions, but ultimately it was my instincts that had the final say. Also, the decision to live as a non-binary person in my day-to-day, and not just at special events… I’m fully aware of the fact that I’m pursuing a career in an industry that NEEDS to put people in boxes, and there’s image consultants everywhere telling actors how to market their “brand.” But honestly, what kind of artist would I be if I wasn’t truthful to myself? As an actor, I can fit into those boxes and work those roles because hey, a job’s a job, but isn’t one of the reasons we became actors because we could be chameleons and play dress-up? The difference between my dress-up and some others is that for me to dress as a man and all those roles is pretending for me. That’s not who I am. That’s just the way I’ve had to hide myself and my authenticity for the majority of my life. It’s ridiculous that to be myself is considered the higher risk. And part of being myself is to be an activist and a fighter for equity. When I see something that’s wrong, it is impossible for me to be silent. I HAVE to say something, and if I have to fight for it, I will. That translates to if I’m not being treated with respect on a job, and also to when I see people in positions of power/privilege not using their higher statuses to help others and do what’s right. One of the biggest takeaways I got from learning the Old Testament (yes, I went to a Jewish day school from 1st-8th grade), was that to be silent in the face of evil is just as wrong as the people committing the atrocities themselves. How many people have we seen forced into silence, and how many lives could’ve been saved if people had spoken up? All the major social justice issues that have finally hit worldwide attention over the last few years, from Black Lives Matter to #MeToo to all the crimes happening against Trans women (especially black and brown ones), are because people remained complacent while all these horrendous injustices were happening (and still happening). SILENCE = DEATH. Yes, it is a risk to be authentically me, but it’s an even bigger risk to not.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
This question goes hand-in-hand with the risk question. There is no clear cut direction in this industry because there are so many factors outside of your control, so most of the time we’re all flying by the seat of our pants. Why not have fun while doing it? I try to venture outside my comfort zone as much as possible and try to say yes to projects that spark true interest and fire in me, as well as saying yes to projects that will pay the bills or somehow further my career. One of the lessons I’ve learned is that you need to ask yourself these three questions about a project before accepting: Will I learn something from this (within this broad category fall the more specific questions of will this stimulate me artistically, or is there someone involved in this that I’ve wanted to work with for a long time, etc), Will this further my Career, and/or Does it Pay. If a project doesn’t answer yes to one of these three questions, it’s not worth my time. Not every project will answer yes to ALL those questions, but for me, I learn as I go, and as I do. I learned a long time ago that the projects we get paid the most for aren’t necessarily the ones that feed our souls. And not getting paid is a sacrifice I’m willing to make sometimes because not performing isn’t an option for me. Performing is my lifeline, my nutrition. Without it, I crumble. I could also go on a long rant here about how marginalized theater companies creating new work aren’t the ones getting the funding… so do we tell our stories, or do we continue to feed into the elitist brand of theater that shuts out anyone who’s not rich and white…but that’s a whole essay within itself. You’d have to ask other people who are more objective what sets me apart from others as I can only answer what drives me and what keeps me going. I think I have the ability to lose myself in the show at the same time as being fully aware of the audience, almost like I separate into the performer and the outside eye. I sometimes watch other actors “getting into character”, and that doesn’t resonate with me. It’s almost like the Wardrobe leading into Narnia. The stage is Narnia and outside of it is ‘normal’ life. I can remember everything on both sides of the passageway, but once I step into those worlds, I’m there and fully present. It’s never easy. It’s an ongoing struggle of constantly fighting the urge to compare where I am in my career with peers of mine who are now leagues and bounds ‘ahead’, and I’m still working my survival jobs, wishing I could perform full time. I’m constantly reminded of that saying “You’re where you need to be”, and I try to tell that to myself whenever I have doubts. It definitely doesn’t completely comfort me, but my motor is still running and my instincts are still telling me to push ahead. When I came out to my grandmother, she sent me a beautiful e-mail with her love and support, but one of the most important things she said was that “When you swim against the current, it takes double the hard work, the consistency, and the courage.” I also know I don’t fit the mold of what is conventionally attractive. I know I’m in an industry that places a lot of focus on looks. I was even told by an ex-best-friend that I had “other qualities.” I also know that I was put on this planet to perform. And to not just be the comic relief. If some people don’t like what they see in me, and they’re only interested in watching people they’re attracted to, they can subscribe to OnlyFans. I’m not going anywhere or diminishing my light for the sake of other’s comfort or conventionality. There are constant struggles because we also fall in love (not necessarily romantic) with the people we’re in shows with, and every closing of a show marks an end to those relationships. If you’re lucky, you build friendships with some of those people, but it’s not always the case. The ones you do keep in your life, however, you do form a very special bond. I could go on for hours and pages about all the lessons I’ve learned and heartbreaks and victories and defeats, but instead, since right now the topics of accountability and abuse are finally being discussed, I’ll end on this: We as actors are trained to be vulnerable and to give ourselves completely over. We’re taught sometimes by toxic people who convince us that if we are treated horribly by directors, teachers, etc., it’s for our own good. That is a lie. It is important for us to differentiate the difference between being challenged and being abused. Who is forcing us to look inward and go deeper as an artist, and who is just being cruel? I’m a very loyal person, and sometimes it’s to my detriment because it’s hard for me to walk away from situations that are not healthy, because of the time I’ve already put in and not being labeled as a ‘quitter.’ It’s important to surround ourselves with people who will be truthful (not ‘yes men’) and who will look out for us the way we look out for them. As for my ‘brand,’ I think the answer to that is a combination of all the answers in this interview. 🙂
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
Assuming Covid wasn’t a thing, and we were living in an alternate timeline, there’s definitely a lot that can be done in LA, AND outside of LA. I would definitely wanna go to the Getty Villa because it’s absolutely gorgeous and majestic and romantic, and so many other adjectives that fall into that category. I would recommend taking a guided tour because there’s a lot of fascinating history around the Getty and many of the pieces there. Also, hopefully there would be a show going on in the beautiful theater there that we could catch after taking in all the sculptures and views. I would also want to go to the Broad since I’ve NEVER been there, and I’ve seen all the pictures friends have taken there, and it’s been on my list for a while. When you live here, it’s sometimes hard to make time outside your career and your survival jobs and the daily routines that keep you going, to venture from those comfort zones. One of the many cool things about LA Is how close it is to getaway spots. Of the ones I’ve been to (Palm Springs, Laguna Beach, etc.), I would definitely pick Temecula as my favorite one to return to. Besides there being endless wine tastings, there’s a cute town to walk around with tiny off-the-beaten-path shops, as well as delicious restaurants. I would definitely want to spend at least a night there to give us time to take it in… and of course to soak in all the wine. Speaking of wine, there are lots of cool bars here. As I’m not a fan of crowded spots, I generally tend to avoid bars on Friday & Saturday nights. Some of my favorites include NEAT, Sara the Wine Bar, The Cinema Bar (they have live music every night!), and for something that’s an experience of its own, Beetle House. Walking around Abbot Kinney in Venice, especially on first Fridays, you get to experience lots of food trucks and the feel of people enjoying themselves…outside…in the beautiful cool air. Plus, Abbot Kinney also has lots of cool shops that are fun to window shop (a little too pricey for me, but hey, maybe in this fantasy timeline, money isn’t an issue). Some of my favorite restaurants include Hugo’s, FOOD, Chili Thai, and various Taco Trucks, especially Chiqui’s, located at the corner of Vine and Santa Monica Blvd. AND we can’t forget about Griffith Observatory! Besides it having an absolutely breathtaking view, the shows in the Observatory are super fun and informative. LA has an endless amount to offer, and also I’m assuming I wouldn’t be in the middle of rehearsals/performances that week. I would of course also want to take my friend to catch some shows that some of my favorite intimate theaters would probably be putting on that week. The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
Sooooooooooo many shoutouts, so little time! I would like to preface this by saying I would probably write a novel about my mom and my amazing friends and scene partners over the years, but instead I’ll mostly focus on some of the artists/community who have particularly helped me over the last year or so. My partners at We The People Theatre Action: Kimberly Atkinson & Marianne Davis. And our guest producers over this past year: Edward Hong, Reena Dutt, & Carene Rose Mekertichyan. As artistic activists, our work is never finished, but at least it feels like we’re doing something. I’m excited to see what our future holds and how we can continue to change the conversation and be a platform for those who need/want it. Also, major shout outs to all the amazing actors & writers who have lent their talents, and the non-profits who have agreed to be featured (and double shout out to those that could send a representative!). Jon Lawrence Rivera & Jon Imparato. These two amazing human beings not only figured out how to put on socially-distanced immersive theater in the middle of the pandemic, but they also centered the story around myself (a non-binary femme) and two Black trans women. They were a much needed salve in the middle of all this isolation and performing from the waist up (Hi Zoom!), and provided a safe space for us to tell our stories. Not only that, Jon Lawrence Rivera has been feeding the LA theater community for free with his FLIP KITCHEN, and Jon Imparato continues to help LGBTQ members in need. Both of these men are true mensches. Sean Cawelti & Rogue Artists Ensemble. Every time I work/play with them, I am challenged as an artist while having a ridiculously good and frustrating time (in the best of ways!). They are truly innovative and an ensemble I am proud to call a home. I’m excited to see where they take theater and any medium they want to conquer in the future. Brendan Milburn (Composer), Vanessa Stewart (Writer), Daniel Henning (Director). These artists took the seed I had for a one-person musical and ran with it. We were able to premiere it at the beginning of the pandemic via YouTube, thanks to our amazing tech: Bree Pavey, Rick Baumgartner, and David Haverty. The blank theatre gave us the platform from which to workshop it a couple of years ago, and now our show lives on their YouTube channel. Hopefully, one day I’ll get to perform Nathan C. Jones: A Love Story? In front of a live audience for a good extended run. My amazing representation: Debra Manners, and Julie Smith at Smith & Hervey/Grimes. These two women have been super supportive of me and I’m grateful to have them (and their teams) in my corner. All the amazing artists in the LA Intimate Theater Community who have continued to be beacons of light and artistry, especially during these very isolated times: Rosie Glen-Lambert with Inkwell Theater; Allison Youngberg with Naked Angels; Nancy Keystone and Critical Mass Performance Group; Jessica Litwak and the HEAT Collective; Lori Meeker & Chelsea Sutton with Meadowlark Falls; Rogue Machine with the Around The Clock series. Countless others from all the content-creators and streaming services keeping us entertained and enthralled, to those the content-creators and streaming services keeping us entertained and enthralled, to those paving the way to making the theatrical communities more equitable and inclusive spaces when we can do live theater again (especially WeSeeYouWAT.com). And OF COURSE, all the audiences who have supported any or all of my artistic endeavors. This includes the amazing reviewers, bloggers, etc., who have helped share my voice (Shari Barrett with BroadwayWorld, Lauren LoGrasso with Unleash Your Inner Creative, Samantha Barrios with KPLive, Adam Rothenberg with Call Me Adam, Randy Slovacek with The Randy Report, Larry with The Outfront, Rachael Carnes, and others!)
Devin Schiro, Matthew McCray, Chelsea Sutton, Reena Dutt, Kelly Stuart, Ashly Covington, Nancy Keystone, Bree Pavey