Last summer, during a production of “The Merchant of Venice” at UC Irvine’s New Swan Shakespeare Festival, Richard Brestoff – the UCI drama professor who won accolades for his portrayal of the vengeful loan shark Shylock – was thrown for a loop just as he was about to launch into a pivotal monologue. There on the ground level of the mini-Elizabethan theater, a young man sitting just off the stage uncrossed his legs and appeared to sigh. Heavily.
“It distracted me enough that I lost a couple words,” recalls Brestoff, who assumed the playgoer was bored. Fortunately, the actor recovered so quickly that only a Shakespearean scholar would’ve known he had deviated from the script.
“It’s a challenge to hold your concentration when you see these instant reviews,” he says.
Despite the peculiarities of performing in a small house like the 125-seat New Swan, Brestoff found the role of Shylock to be one of the most satisfying of his long and varied acting career. He’s appeared in more than 30 television shows (“thirtysomething,” “The Fugitive”) and a dozen feature films (“My Favorite Year,” “The Entity,” “Car Wash”). He’s also appeared in regional theaters, off-Broadway and on radio.
“The character of Shylock turned out to be something I was finally ready to play. He’s so interesting,” Brestoff says. “He’s a normal person, but life’s damage over time has made him capable of monstrous behavior. That’s his flaw.
“You reach a certain age, and you gain enough control of your craft that you can take on these complex, demanding roles, and they seem to fit.”
His performance in the Claire Trevor School of the Arts’ winter 2011 production of “Merchant” earned him a nomination for the Falstaff Award, coveted among Shakespearean actors.
“There was no other actor nominated from a university production. I don’t even know how they found out about me,” Brestoff says. The other nominees – including Kevin Spacey for “Richard III” – performed in professional theaters.
At UCI, he counsels drama students about the realities of their career choice.
“I used to really scare them and tell them only 4 percent of Screen Actors Guild members find work, and less than 1 percent of those make more than $30,000 a year. But I don’t anymore,” he says. “I don’t want them to go into this blind, but I do know they need to go in with hope. They’ve heard it’s impossible all their lives.”
In particular, Brestoff tells them to expect – and rise above – failure. “You’re going to be rejected way more than you’re accepted,” he says. “Failure is an event, not a person. It’s not who you are. You learn from it and you go on.”
He remembers how devastated he felt after narrowly missing out on the role of Mozart in the movie “Amadeus.” (Tom Hulce won the part.)
“I got as far as a screen test with the wig and the makeup,” Brestoff recalls. “That crushed me. It took me a year and a half to get over the disappointment. That took a toll on me, and I swore I would never let it happen again. You have to pick yourself up and go back out there. Otherwise, [rejection] will drag you to your knees.”
He recommends having outside interests to help weather the highs and lows of acting. Brestoff joined UCI’s Claire Trevor School of the Arts in 2003 to pursue his love of teaching and writing; he’s the author of five books, including The Camera Smart Actor.
“Performing before a camera and a live theater are very different,” he says. “With a camera, you can work in such detail. If I pick up a cup and hold my pinkie out a certain way, that reveals something about my character. The camera can capture these tiny behavioral clues and make them mean something. They get lost in a big theater.”
One exception is the New Swan Theater, where attendees are close enough to catch the smaller movements and expressions.
“We can do some interesting, subtle things, and people will get it,” he says.
Brestoff has developed his own method for fully inhabiting his character, a focus that takes his mind off the audience and helps him overcome the stage fright he’s had since he started acting in junior high.
“I look up into the rafters and feel the presence of the characters I play,” he says. “It’s like they’re ghosts who can’t speak for themselves, and as actors we give them a voice. It gets me onstage, because it’s something larger than myself.”
And if a lone playgoer has itchy feet, it doesn’t matter as long as Brestoff feels he’s given a character like Shylock his day in court.
“If I look up during a performance and see the ‘ghost’ nodding his head, I know I’ve done my job,” he says. “And if he’s not happy, I still have another show tomorrow night.”