TJ Mannix is an actor and improviser living in New York City. His credits include “Law and Order”, “The Radio City Christmas Spectacular”, and appearances on stage as a member of the The Second City Company. He is currently teaching his 29th round of Commercial Audition classes at the Magnet Theater. His website can be found at www.tjmannix.com.
On first meeting Cay
I remember I was at the movies, and I saw Kathleen Chalfant (Angels in America, Wit) standing there, looking like she was waiting for someone. So I walked up to her nervously and I quickly said to her “I don’t want to bother you, but I think your work is raw, honest, and vulnerable, and I thank you so much for that. That’s the kind of actor I want to be.” And I started walking away. And she said “Wait a minute! Come back here!” And so we got to talking and gave me Cay’s number and said “This is my acting teacher.” It was written in half red and half black because the pen ran out of ink half way through. I still have it to this day!
I’ll never forget, my first class with Cay a girl got up and started a monologue. Usually you have a few scenes first, but for whatever reason there was a monologue at the beginning. She had tears pouring down her face, falling on the table, sobbing her way through the whole thing, and afterwards Cay said to her “Alright, how do you feel?” The girl said “Okay. I think I did good. I really felt it.” And Cay took a moment and then said to her “Okay. I think the tears are a crutch for you.” And I thought, I love this woman.
Finding the path to acting
I was always a musical theatre guy. My parents wouldn’t pay for a theatre degree, so I got my degree in Broadcast Journalism at the University of Miami – and managed a double major in theatre. From there I had an internship that led to a job, working as a writer and producer, and shadowing other reporters for a news network. But in broadcast journalism what nobody tells you is you don’t get a vacation for the first five years you’re working, you’re always so busy moving from television market to market. So I took a year off to travel the world. While I was gone there was a flood at my parents place, and all of my reporting tapes and my work from the past few years was destroyed. So I ended up teaching with an international school in fifteen different countries for three and a half years. I managed a group of teachers in voice, dance, and instrumental techniques.
When I got back I started working in North Carolina on the corporate route, working for Viacom, Blockbuster. I was training managers. And then I stopped and I looked at my life and I was like “This is not what I want to be doing.” So I moved to New York to act, but had no idea what I was doing. I ended up taking a “golden handcuffs” job – good money but no time to audition. I justified it by having Tuesday and Thursday nights off for class. And I kept adding tools to the belt. In those days I kept thinking I need to pause, figure out the tool I need here for this scene or this character. Then one day I realized I don’t need to stop, the right tools will arise when I need them. It’s like in a scene, you have this moment, this pinch from your scene partner or whatever it is, and you don’t need to analyze it. It’s like your preparation, you can just toss it into the well and trust it will be there for later. (Laughs) I literally picture this old, stone, moss-covered well in the back of my mind that I keep tossing these things into.
Getting derailed and things that scare the shit out of you
I was making ridiculous money, I got the salesman of the year award, but it got to the point where I thought, I don’t want to be good at this, I need to be auditioning. I had a nest egg saved up, my plan was sound…then my timeline got interrupted by 9/11. I ended up being one of the first responders down there and opening up a shelter. I had taken a red cross class when I was younger, and when they asked for volunteers I told them “It’s been a long time, I don’t remember the paperwork, I probably don’t remember most of the vocabulary, but I’m here” and they said, “Alright, get on the bus.” All of the corporate jobs went out the window. I spent six months at ground zero, and all of us, the first responders, we saw terrible things down there. I ended up opening up a shelter, doing damage assessment on the Pile, and overseeing emergency service centers around the city. I spent Four more years out of the job [acting] and out of it. Most of us are still facing major health problems, and getting our lives back has been a gradual process.
When all of that was over I couldn’t go back to the corporate world. I wound up going back to class again. And Cay pushed me. There were things I was terrified to work on. She really pushed me. I remember working on GR Point (David Berry) which is a play about this M.A.S.H. unit in Vietnam. I realized then that if you want to act you have to use everything in your disposal, including the stuff that scares the shit out of you!
On work now
Acting brought me back. I was doing volunteer work, weekly improv, and through that I started acting again. I started slow with commercials. You could do a one day job and nobody depended on you. Then I got back into auditioning and doing what I wanted to be doing and not letting life get in the way. Because working in the corporate world was no long an option, and acting was this thing I was doing to get out of the house…I started booking. When The Second City Came to town hundreds of people applied for an audition. 100 got auditions, and 13 of us got to call backs. I was like “What the hell is going on here?” They hired six of us. I’ve now done three tours with second city, I’ve worked on over 85 commercials and Voice Over projects, and this week I started I started teaching my 29th round of commercial auditioning classes. That thing I started doing to get my life back, that became my life.
I never thought I was particularly funny. I was a musical theatre guy. But I think…honesty sums it up. The key component of sketch is truth, to come at it from a place truth, and having that perspective from acting is great. The ability to leave myself alone, to silence the head, working in comedy is getting that focus and serenity. And I apply that to everything I do.
I’ve been teaching at the New York Film Academy as well as my commercial audition class. What Cay always did well, and what I try to do is to meet the students where they are. It’s a level respect for the actor, for the fact that they showed up that day. If they are unprepared you find out what was their focus, what were they trying to do? There are a lot of teachers who will just take your money, never push you to improve. Cay knows where she wants you to go and what you need to learn, way before you even know, before you even have an idea of what you’re working toward. I had to develop my own vocabulary to help solve the students problem, to communicate with them and be able to meet them on their level.