John Cassini is all about the work
John Cassini wasn’t the kid who put on shows in the family basement. He didn’t attend an arts high school, or spend his teen years dreaming about Hollywood stardom. He was more likely to be found in a Toronto pool hall, cutting school and running with a rough Christie Pits crowd, than memorizing soliloquies or auditioning for plays.
But even before Cassini knew that he wanted to be an actor, he was doing the work.
It’s the second day of 2018. In less than a week, Cassini will receive the Ian Caddell Award for Achievement from the Vancouver Film Critics Circle, a prize that is (according to the press release) “handed out to a British Columbian who has made a significant contribution to our province’s film industry.”
By now, Cassini’s been doing the work for more than 30 years, and built a career that’s inarguably worthy of an achievement award: a member of the Actors Studio (New York City and Los Angeles) and Third Street Theater (Los Angeles); a lengthy filmography that includes blockbuster fare like Alive, The Game, Paycheck, Get Carter, and Seven; critically acclaimed roles on Robson Arms and Intelligence; a celebrated teacher through Railtown Actor’s Studio (which he co-owns with Kate Twa); an in-demand acting coach; a screenwriter (Break A Leg), theatre actor (most recently in 2016, playing the titular mofo in Haberdashery Theatre Company’s production of Motherfucker with the Hat), and film and television producer.
How did Cassini get from there to here, from Toronto pool halls and Christie Pits to an achievement award and a remarkable (and still busy) career? “When I first got the phone call [about the award], I was a little like, ‘I’m just getting started,’” he chuckles during that January 2 conversation. “I’m sure anybody who’s received a lifetime achievement award who isn’t 95 has said the exact same thing. It’s nice to hear, but I was a little taken aback, so when I heard it wasn’t a lifetime achievement award, I felt a little bit better.”
Everything Cassini has done – even the stuff that on the surface has nothing to do with film and television and theatre – has led to this award.
Cassini’s journey began in Toronto, where he grew up the son of Italian immigrants. He always loved movies. “My brothers and I would go on Saturday afternoons to the Capri on Bloor Street, because we lived right there,” he says. For a quarter, they’d watch films starring Vincent Price and Clint Eastwood.
Cassini was “in love with the movies, [but] I didn’t entertain becoming an actor because I just don’t think in an Italian immigrant family that was discussed,” he says.
In his early teens, Cassini says he “got into quite a bit of trouble, but [it] was never me; I never felt like I belonged in what I was doing. Nevertheless, every morning I’d wake up and I’d end up at the pool hall.” Eventually he landed in the hospital for a week with a cracked chest and bruised lung after hot-wiring a laundry truck in the middle of winter. “We were drinking grappa and bombing down the 401 and we rolled the truck,” he says. “It was pretty dire, and I ended up in the same hospital where my mother worked in the kitchen. Between that, and with a couple of friends of mine who unfortunately OD’d, I woke up one morning and I just was like, ‘I have to change my life, but I don’t know how.’”
It was a high school teacher who would help Cassini find his way. “I was pretty fast, and this incredible track coach saw me in gym class, and he said, ‘You should come out for the track team,’ and I did, and I just felt right at home,” says Cassini. He found the community he needed in the culturally diverse team, filled with the children of immigrants from all over the world. His self-esteem grew, and he “worked my ass off. I stopped hanging around with the neighbourhood peeps, stopped doing any kind of drinking, stopped doing any kind of smoking, and it really changed my life. I started to fall in love with the high of sports.”
Cassini’s hard work led to a track and field scholarship at Simon Fraser University, and the first thing he did when he arrived on the campus was head over to the theatre department. “Something was inside me that knew I wanted to pursue this,” he recalls. The acting classes were purportedly full, but he marched up to the head of the drama department and asked to join anyway. “He looked at me and said, ‘What makes you think you want to be an actor?’ And with lips trembling, emotion overtaking me, I said, ‘I’ve been acting my whole life.’ Because I felt like I didn’t know who I was yet. Because I was also not the jock, even though the jock part got me out of the crazy criminal life, I still wasn’t really a jock guy, and I did feel like there was something missing, and I thought, maybe I can express it through acting.
"He looked at me and he said, ‘Okay, we start Monday.’”
Cassini became so involved with the theatre department at SFU that the athletics department told him he needed to choose between the two – and his choice was to head to New York City, where his brother Frank was already pursuing a career in acting. It was there, Cassini says, that he “realized what it was to become an actor for real.” He studied with legendary acting teacher Julie Bovasso (“She changed my life in her fierceness for the truth,” says Cassini. “I remember her chain-smoking, sitting at a desk [in this] classic New York acting class, and then DeNiro picking her up for lunch”) and became a member of the Actors Studio. “Sitting in those chairs and being in that building was such a huge accomplishment for me personally, because when I dreamed of acting, I dreamed of the Actor’s Studio,” he says. “I dreamed of working in the room where those actors worked, and then next thing you know, 10 years later, that’s what I’m doing. That was always my aspiration.”
Cassini’s first-ever audition led to his first-ever acting job: Knightwatch, a Toronto-shot ABC series about a group of justice-seeking vigilantes starring Benjamin Bratt. Cassini describes that job – his first experience on set – as “learning on the fly. I remember the first time [the director] pulled the focus to my nose, getting startled but pretending not to get startled and pretending I knew what that was and pretending I knew what the mark was.” Until then, Cassini had only done theatre, but on Knightwatch he “instantly started realizing the detail and specificity of film acting, and the microcosmic aspect of it: when it’s your coverage and you have that one line or that moment, how important it all is to encapsulate your part of the story. I was falling in love with the detail of all of that.”
He headed to Vancouver after Knightwatch was cancelled (Says Cassini: “It never felt right to stay in Toronto. I think because maybe this whole life that I had created for myself was a re-invention for me, I couldn’t re-invent myself there properly”). The Vancouver screen scene was in the thick of the Stephen J. Cannell years; Cassini spent three years playing the bad guy on shows like 21 Jump Street and Street Justice before booking his first Hollywood feature film in 1992: Alive, the biographical survival drama film based on Piers Paul Read's book Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors, which details a Uruguayan rugby team's crash aboard Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 into the Andes mountains. Cassini flew down to Los Angeles for the premiere – and ended up staying there for 12 years.
LA was a good fit for Cassini. In Canada, “I couldn’t get arrested by the CBC,” he says. “The Canadian stuff that was happening, it didn’t feel like any of it was in my wheelhouse, and American producers were always telling me, ‘You’ve got to go down to LA.’” In Canada, he played all manner of bad guys; in LA, “I started reading for cops, I started reading for doctors, I started reading for parts other than bad guys. The first gig I got was nine weeks on a movie playing a detective, as the third lead. That got me my SAG card.”
Cassini didn’t sit still in LA. He was committed to doing the work, through the Actors Studio and also through Third Street Theater, which he describes as a “class slash theatre company that would put on plays.” This is how he says he “survived” LA: “I didn’t go down there and just try to become famous or wait for that next great audition; I went down there and I instantly started studying more and doing theatre and just connecting with all of these incredible actors, some of them still my friends today, some of the best actors I know who some of them can’t get an agent in LA because that’s how difficult it is out there, because they’re not matinee idols, but they’re great actors and they’re in there and they’re doing great work with independent films or theatre.”
And Cassini was happy because he was doing the work. “I’m in love with the process of acting,” he says. “I’m in love with the creation of the work. To me, that’s my happy place. I became the actor I am today because of those 12 years in LA in the sense of how much output of work I did on those stages.”
In the early 2000s, Cassini returned to Canada to play one of the roles for which he is best known: Yuri on Robson Arms. “I always looked at Yuri as being this really lonely character who did some crazy stuff,” says Cassini. “[Robson Arms] told beautiful stories. They expose the human condition in a comedic form, and it was fantastic.” Cassini followed up this game-changer of a role with the role of a lifetime: that of strip club owner Ronnie Delmonico in Chris Haddock’s Intelligence.
“To be able to bring all of my work but also all of my history, any of that street stuff that I was involved in, and to be able to bring that into the DNA of Ronnie and to be able to be loose that way and not feel like I had to proper him up in any way and just let my street flag fly a little, and to engage in that incredible writing opposite Ian Tracey who is a gift to work with: I was in heaven, man. I was in creative heaven.”
Cassini admits to being heartbroken when Intelligence was cancelled, but also grateful, because it’s “part of my history of building blocks of where I’m going to go next. I’ll always have a piece of Ronnie with me. I’ll always have a piece of Yuri with me. I’ll always have a piece of any of the plays I’ve done, and I’ll tell actors that all the time: ‘You own these characters now, and you can borrow from them. They’re in your DNA.’”
Five and a half years ago, Cassini partnered with Kate Twa to form Railtown Actors Studio, a professional actor training facility with a focus on theatre and film training.
Railtown Actors Studios is, as most things in Cassini’s life and career have been, anchored by the work. “When you enter Railtown, it’s only about the work,” he says. “It’s not about if you’re a regular on a show or you’re more famous than this person or if you’ve got more Instagram hits than this person. It’s about the work.”
And at this moment when he’s receiving an achievement award for his body of work, Cassini acknowledges that he didn’t create it alone. “I feel like one of the reasons why I probably was running with the wrong crowd when I was young was we all want to be seen, and I don’t want to throw anybody under the bus, my mother was incredible, but my father was a bit of a distant man, rest in peace, and I was acting out,” he says. “I had not been seen, and when I got into acting, I thought people were seeing me a bit: not just on stage, ‘look at me, look at me,’ but seeing me, because I was working at revealing my true self, and people were seeing that, and acknowledging that. So these mentors along the way, they’ve seen me, whether they were bosses that gave me a great job, or people who were in my training, I feel like [this award is] a bit of an homage to them. They are part of that. They are part of my story. Some of them have passed away, and some of these people really paid it forward to me, and it’s why I feel so committed to paying it forward now.”