Originally published on Sam's Regret-A-Day blog, Saturday, September 13.
We don’t really know anybody. We always wish we did, but that doesn’t change anything.
Take two recent losses we’ve faced in the entertainment industry: Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Williams. These guys had proper demons.
To a casual observer, these demons were invisible. But to these two men, the demons perched on their shoulders day-in & day-out.
Even the people we THINK we’re close to are still miles away. And those we SHOULD know like the back of our hands are usually the ones we know the least about in the long run.
John Lilleberg was like that for me.
Watching what to steal
He was in the first show I ever saw in the Twin Cities, even before I’d done my first show here. Then in 2002, I found myself as the drummer in a demented, three-piece orchestra for a show at TRP called “A Night At The Black Pig.”
There were 30 highly talented actors in this fucker. Many of whom I’d work with again over the years. And Lilleberg was one of them.
Our three-person ensemble was placed daintily above a TRP vom. This meant that we spent a majority of the show just watching what was happening onstage. Which in some shows COULD be a horrible existence. But I figured out a system that made it all bearable. I decided to watch a different actor’s path throughout the show every night.
Again, we’re talking about 30 actors here. The possibilities were endless. But about two or three performances in, I found that I only focused on Lilleberg. And this continued every damn night of the run.
His character - apart from all the others - embodied a sense of pent-up lunacy. A rumbling underneath that the audience was only seeing a part of. Something you strive for as an actor. Not showing everything. Just enough to make the audience wonder.
It’s something I immediately stole from him.
Years later, I’d do a one-man show called “Thom Pain (based on nothing).” And I’m happy to admit that at least 75% of what I brought to it was a sense of “What-Would-Lilleberg-Do.”
Not showing everything. Just enough to make the audience wonder.
A few years before, I’d recommended him for a feature I was working on with Collision Pictures called “Further North.”
The director was looking for an actor who could play the part of a priest. But this character needed to be someone who was offering solace, while looking like he himself had his own demons to struggle with.
John was fucking IT, dude. It was a small role, but his performance REALLY stands out for me every time I watch it.
Something under the hood
The last time I saw him & one of the few times I ever worked with him was in 2012.
Basically a three-man job, this short film, “Viscosity,” was like going back to school for me. I’m acting across from a dude who had a MASSIVE effect on what I perceived acting to be. And yet when I watch it, I see how much I’m fucking “acting” & how effortless Lilleberg is making it all look.
All this comes down to regretting that I knew John, but never really KNEW him. You know what I’m saying?
Every time I’d see him in person, it was like meeting some big screen idol. Even though he never acted that way. Lilleberg was the quietest man in whatever room I was in with him.
Honestly, he always reminded me of John Milner from “American Graffiti.” Something under the hood going 100 mph.
I regret that the Twin Cities lost such a stellar talent. I regret that the world has lost the same.
One last thing.
I’ve been writing a screenplay for years. The main character is an indie filmmaker who faded into obscurity, but is suddenly thrust back into the spotlight, digging his heels all the way. And that main character has always been John in my mind.
I’ve written it in his voice, using all his mannerisms. Every time a line of dialogue hits the page, I can see John Lilleberg saying it. He’s a character haunted by proper demons.
And maybe this is selfish of me, but I regret that NO ONE could possibly play that role now.