Friday, March 4, 2011

Timothy D. Stickney: The WLS Interview, Part Two

In Part One of our interview with Timothy D. Stickney, the acclaimed actor discussed his current role on stage as Macbeth, why he has been drawn to Shakespearean roles through his career, and the ignorance and prejudiced he has had confronted as an African-American actor.  In Part Two below, Stickney expounds further on his experience coping with racism in entertainment, plus reveals how he nearly became part of the ONE LIFE TO LIVE writing team.  Was R.J. speaking in iambic pentameter? Find out below! 

WE LOVE SOAPS TV: What was it like for you to get the feedback that you spoke too clean and too well educated to play a black man in modern America?
Timothy D. Stickney: It was infuriating.  I am pretty easy going, but I was often enraged.  They are looking at me and telling me I don’t exist.  And I’m not so special a creature to think I’m the only one.  Those who create work, those that hire you for work, either had no experience of a wide range of people of color, or they were not going to allow this new stereotype to be propagated.  So they, having the power, kept me out.  Then it was also frustrating that once I was in a classical piece, somewhere in the review it would be brought up that a black man did not have this position in society at that time.  So not only did I not exist now, but I couldn’t exist then [laughs].  Apparently black men just fell on the planet in the last 50 years without achievements or positions, not even in imagination.  So I’ve carried a satchel of disappointment and frustration based on people’s lack of knowledge and prejudice.  But this is America.  If I was an adult black man and didn’t have that, that would be a miracle. 

WE LOVE SOAPS TV: Most of us see our lives reflected somewhere in media.  You haven’t. 
Timothy D. Stickney: Before getting in the business I kind of understood why I wasn't represented.  The people creating it are using their imagination or their own family as a reference.  They weren’t people of color, I could understand that.  But once being in the business, and them telling me that I could not exist, even though they are experiencing me, made me think, “How can I go around you?”

I am 46 years old.  My whole career, whether professional or in school, I have been the first or the only [one].  And I still am.  In my 30s I thought okay, here we are, the kids are starting not to see color as the primary influence in their lives.  Maybe they’ll forget. Maybe I won’t constantly be put in a situation where I’m proving, “We really can do this.”  But I still am.  I had to thank my director [Paul Mason Barnes] for this piece.  He cast a black man as MacBeth.  When I came to the first day of rehearsal I found I am the only person of color in this cast.

WE LOVE SOAPS TV: What was that like for you?
Timothy D. Stickney: It’s not new [laughs]. I’ve done it before.  I’ve even done it as the central character when that wasn’t the point of the play.  But [Barnes] was very flattering. He said they wanted the best actor so they cast me.  That was very nice to hear.  But I had to spend a couple of days accepting it, putting it aside, and doing the work because he made it clear that while this is a company that does mixed shows and all-black shows on their main stage, they are not by any means a “black” company. Their subscriber-ship has been an accepting audience.  But they still go back home in their car and have the thought, “That was okay. But in spite of that, I would never watch a television show like that.”  Any show that has a central character of color, let alone an entire cast, is relegated to the suburbs or a “black” show or an “Asian” show or a “Spanish” show.  It’s not just called a “show” unless it has a European character at the center.  So here I am playing this Scottish king.  It forces a new slice of reality into their consciousness. Hopefully it someday won’t be an issue, and we’ll knock all those “firsts” out of the way. 

WE LOVE SOAPS TV: So how did this professional Shakespeare actor get into doing a soap opera?
Timothy D. Stickney: Well, they are alike.  Aside from the depth of subtext...there isn’t very much subtext on a soap.  You pretty much say what you mean.  But the stakes are similar.  If you're not fighting for the throne then you’re fighting to stay out of jail.  Or you’re trying to save the family.  The stakes are the same, the entanglement of relationships are the same.

The difficult thing for me on the first three years of ONE LIFE was learning the multi-camera technique.  The camera work I had done was feature work, which was a single camera setup, remembering what you had done and matching it in the coverage.  In a soap it’s more about making decisions quickly, trusting them, and then dealing with the artificial situation.  You are closer to your costar then you ever would be in another medium because of the way the lens changes distances.

For me it became an exercise in dealing with text, and trying to find the human being that says these words. Often the dialogue is simple.  The industry changed while I was doing the show.  When I started, certain writers wrote the whole story.  So there was continuity in the sound of the story and the way that character’s dialogue was going to be.  From my experience, when Disney took over ABC, it became more piecemeal.  I think that was a way to mitigate the writer’s ability to claim ownership of anything.  So stories became written by whoever’s desk it fell on regardless of their strengths or comfort.  You did not write a whole story, you wrote a script.  From day to day your character’s dialogue would drastically change because a totally different person wrote the dialogue.

It became incumbent upon the actor to try to make themselves sound like the same character if you were capable of doing that kind of work, or cared.  And I did.  Over the years I rewrote more and more of my own dialogue, which they knew, which they accepted, which they encouraged.  It became that type of exercise: how can I say what they want me to say, use the imagery and the metaphors that they have started, and not make myself the central character or the smartest kid in the room by rewriting what it is I’m going to say? Which led me to submitting scripts to be on the writing team. 

WE LOVE SOAPS TV: You were going to be a writer on ONE LIFE?  How did that turn out?
Timothy D. Stickney: Ultimately, our idea of timing was different.  By the time they were really interested in me, I was not so interested on having my name on the stories they were doing. 

WE LOVE SOAPS TV: What time frame was that?
Timothy D. Stickney: Oh, now, I’ve been bad enough [laughs].  But in the last four or five years I was submitting scripts constantly in the training program.  They liked my ideas, they just told me they weren’t going to use any of them.  They wanted me to practice finding the voice for each of the characters on the show.  As I said, it was a good exercise, it became a deeper study in text analysis for me. Which is really at the root of how you begin your work with Shakespeare.

Over the years I played lots of games to keep myself entertained.  There was a period where I would try to put something of a classic comic book cartoon villain into my character, and have R.J. say it.  Then I would wait to see if anyone in the crew or cast would pick it up.  Often it would just be friends or family that would write me later and say, “Did you actually say...?" Initially I tried using bebop, not hip-hop, using bebop jazz rhythm to base R.J.’s speech on, so that he didn’t sound like everyone else in Llanview.  Then I did the same thing with Shakespeare.  I tried to find a suitable quote for what they had already started to work into the dialogue.  That was always easier for people to spot.  It was fun for me to have the street smart gangster quoting Shakespeare. 

WE LOVE SOAPS TV: Was R.J.. speaking in iambic pentameter?
Timothy D. Stickney: I would go by where the dialogue started.  If it reminded me of a Shakespeare phrase, I threw it in and we’d see if it would make it past the producers.  I would never, or rarely, sneak it on tape.  I would usually say it in blocking so that they heard it, so that there wasn’t a panic.  I wasn’t trying to waste anyone’s money.  They trusted me because I wasn’t drawing undue focus to R.J.  I’m a company member, I like to work with a cast.  I understand you need to have a different focus to make any kind of story work, let alone an episodic show with 30-some main characters.  I think that’s why I lasted as long as I did.  As a contracted player they didn’t have to fight me about those things.  They had to fight me about more mundane continuity things. 

WE LOVE SOAPS TV: I always enjoyed R.J. because he wasn’t a typical anything.  He could be cruel but loving.  He was a criminal but had regrets. 
Timothy D. Stickney: I think what made him human was that his main problem was being a little brother.  Maybe if Hank hadn't been quite so successful and loved and popular, maybe R.J. would have tried to be like him.  But there was no room on that side of the street.  The only way for him to get attention was to be the other guy.  They came from the same family, but one had decided to do this other thing.  I don’t think he was “evil.” He was still operating off hurt from when he was twelve-year-old. 

WE LOVE SOAPS TV: Did the role of R.J. give you a chance to play complexities more than the film and primetime roles you were going for?
Timothy D. Stickney: Absolutely.  I mean soap is like “film camp” because of the speed with which you have to make your decisions. It’s the exact opposite of film where you sit around all day to do half a page.  You’re encouraged over a greater period of time to make choices and try things.  I have been much more confident in front of camera since then.  Having millions of people see you every day for years helps your cue.  That cuts both ways.  But you have to have a reason these days to even get the opportunity to walk in the room, especially if you are over twenty.  Which I am.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Come back for Part Three in which Stickney discusses why R.J. never had an intense love scene, the subtle ways racism operates in daily life, what can be done to help our society go forward.  Plus, would he ever return to Llanview? Find out in Part Three! 

Damon L. Jacobs is a Licensed Therapist now accepting new clients in New York City.  He is also the author of the popular book "Absolutely Should-less: The Secret to Living the Stress-Free Life You Deserve," currently available at For more information about scheduling an appointment, please email him at [email protected].


  1. Wow! Thank you again for interviewing Mr. Stickney! He is one of Daytime's best actors and truly played one its most complex anti-heroes/villains.

  2. I enjoyed your interview. Tim really dug in deep to analyze dialog and subtext. I'm interested to know why he wasn't in any indepth love scenes ala John McBain or Todd Manning. Was it skin? Or the racist notion of affending the "sensibilities of white folk."

  3. @phyone .. ah you mean this? : )