I've been a fan of Cirque du Soleil for quite some time. In fact, I remember my dad getting his hands on some tickets from some family friends back when I couldn't have been more than 10 or 12 years old, and seeing them for the first time under the Big Top down at Battery Park in New York City. At the time, all I knew about circuses was the Ringling Bros. kind, and yet after I emerged from that show, I've never taken in one from the traditional three-ring variety since. Cirque du Soleil is a circus on a much higher level - from its storytelling to its production values - that it's hard to go back to eating a lesser cut of steak when you've just tasted the deliciousness of filet mignon.
Over the years, I've taken in a few of the different shows that have come from the Cirque du Soleil, never walking away dissatisfied or unamazed, so I was quite curious to see what a Cirque movie might be like. Directed by Andrew Adamson and produced by James Cameron, CIRQUE DU SOLEIL: WORLDS AWAY 3D captures the gorgeousness of the many difficult acts that make up various Cirque shows, while giving you the best seat in the house, allowing you to be what feels like only a few feet from the performers while they're in the moment.
Recently, I had the chance to talk to the film's star Erica Linz about the experience of doing a Cirque du Soleil film, in addition to her history with the company. Erica basically ran away to join the circus when she was 19, having a background in both gymnastics and theatre. Her first Cirque du Soleil production was Mystere back in 2001 before moving onto her new specialty, the Aerial Straps, in 2005 for the opening of KÁ, where she has remained until her "retirement" from Cirque du Soleil at the end of this year.
In WORLDS AWAY 3D, she plays the role of Mia, a circus spectator who travels to another world, one filled with Cirque acts and performers, in the hopes of rescuing the trapeze artist The Aerialist, who she has a romantic connection with at first sight.
The night before our interview, I got to hang out with Erica for a bit, in advance of introducing her at a screening of the film. Rather quickly, we hit it off with her enthusiastically recognizing where my Bayside Tigers shirt came from. From there, we got to chatting about favorite episodes of SAVED BY THE BELL, its hilarious drinking game, our generation's affinity for mix tapes, Elf on a Shelf, etc. Needless to say, that would have been an interesting talk to capture for an interview in its own right. However, from that exchange, I knew she would make for a fun talk, and, while it's not exactly on display in CIRQUE DU SOLEIL, Linz is bursting with personality that I'd like to see someone take advantage of in the event that acting is something she continues to pursue. Enjoy...
Erica Linz - It’s nice to meet you. Look I made this earlier. It’s a Mandarin Oriental crown. [showing a drawing she made on a piece of paper, altering the hotel's letterhead]
The Infamous Billy The Kidd - Very nice.
Erica Linz - Yeah. If you wanted to wear it, I’d let you.
The Kidd - Thank you very much.
Erica Linz - You’re welcome.
The Kidd - So, we’ll cover a little bit that we talked about yesterday, just for the purposes of the interview and stuff, too, but just in talking to you before we started here and yesterday, it’s funny because I think there’s a perception of what a circus performer would be like offstage. You know like they go hang out with the bearded lady or... Not that all that stuff is in Cirque but...
Erica Linz - I’m hanging out with you...
The Kidd - [pause] Touche!
Erica Linz - [laughs]
The Kidd - But, you know, we were talking about like SAVED BY THE BELL and Pennywise and you were vehemently trying to get Ace of Base in my head so I just thought it was kind of fascinating what people might think a circus performer might be like is totally... I mean unless they’re... They might be out there...
Erika Linz - It depends on the individual. Because I.... One, I happen to be American, and that, in and of itself in the Cirque du Soleil world is a little bit uncommon. It’s not like it’s unheard of, but in a cast of 70, there’s maybe 10, 15 Americans. At least on stage. But, yeah, we’re all totally different. The one thing that we do all have in common is that deep down we’re each a little bit crazy, because we each had to make some kind of bold and unusual choices that caused us to end up where we are. But outside of that... definitely you’ll find a little more weird in the circus than in other places but... maybe not in your world.
The Kidd - Ehhhh...
Erica Linz - You have some quirky characters in your universe?
The Kidd - In the film industry? The entertainment industry? You almost have to be crazy and eccentric to want to do that for a living.
Erica Linz - Yes. I think it’s similar... maybe it’s just the entertainment community in general...
The Kidd - It’s not like we’re selling insurance, you know...? And those people are... not to knock people who sell insurance, but they have their 9 to 5 kind of job. They have a... not normal, but a little more conventional existence as opposed to...
Erica Linz - My office is 40 feet in the air upside down... And part of my uniform for work might include 35 layers of makeup where I draw eyebrows on my forehead. Yeah. It’s funny how normal is so relative.
The Kidd - It’s almost like different is the new normal.
Erica Linz - Yeah.
The Kidd - And normal is...
Erica Linz - It’s like rainbow is the new black. [laughs]
The Kidd - Starting with Cirque, I know you were 19 when you got started... How is it that you decide to want to become a circus performer? Because you... It’s not... It’s something that you either can or can’t do. Like you can’t develop the skills to put your legs over your head backwards and have people balance on you and... You either can do that or you can’t do that. So at what point do you say, “I think that I have something that I can bring to the table for this type of entertainment"?
Erica Linz - I think that I would disagree... That you can learn a lot of it. There’s definitely a natural set of gifts or talents that will lubricate the pathway to the circus stage, but me... Obviously I’m kind of, genetically, the ideal model for a gymnast. Like if you went to the gymnast store and you wanted to order one, then I would be basically what you would pick up. So that certainly guided me in that direction. And I got a couple of weird flexibility quirks that work well for me and all that. But you can totally learn it. But you’re right. Come the time that you’re making that career decision is not the time to be like, “I think it’d be really awesome to learn a cartwheel.” Because if you want to perform for Cirque du Soleil, ideally, you’d have mastered your cartwheel 20 years ago and built upon that skill set. But for me, I was a gymnast for 11 years and in and out of theatre since I was a kid, and it turned out that I preferred performing in competition. But I still really liked doing flips, I just didn’t want to be scored on it. I preferred the idea of... you know, working with a team to create one thing in unity rather than being like, “I beat you. Get down on the podium.”
The Kidd - “I have medals and you don’t. In your face!”
Erica Linz - “IN YO’ FACE.” Or the converse, which is, “I tried so hard, but I crashed and I ate it on theme and now I feel sad and you have a blue ribbon...”
The Kidd - “I worked so hard for this one thing that didn’t happen...”
Erica Linz - Exactly.
The Kidd - The other thing is... I don’t know that people necessarily know how acts get developed. Because I know the straps is kind of your specialty, and as a gymnast, there’s no straps. It’s something that you learn, you get trained upon as you go. So especially in terms of building Cirque’s show’s too... I started watching Cirque in the very beginning when it was literally just Cirque du Soleil. There were no...
Erica Linz - The original...
The Kidd - There were no other branch offs from it and now there’s tons. Can you just kinda speak to how different acts get developed along the way. Do you have input as something... Like the company comes to you and says, “this is something that we’d like to try to do.” Like how exactly does that form to a finished product?
Erica Linz - There are several different processes depending on the scenario of where the act is coming in to the creation process. If it’s an idea that’s born into being the idea of a show, then it’s a little bit different than, say, the act that I did in KÁ where that was an act that came after the show was already opened. But what it basically boils down to is that you have an apparatus. You basically know what it’s going to be. There might be minor tweaks to how it’s done or what kind of hardware, swivels, whatever you need. But you’ve got an apparatus and you know that it can do roughly these things. So you’ll go and do R&D and basically in my case that’s fling yourself around in the air, climb around your partner like he’s a jungle gym, and you’ll develop kind of a physical vocabulary of, “We think these things are cool and we think an audience will respond to them, as well as they’re realistic. You know. The’re awesome and hard but we can realistically achieve this safely ten times a week. So from there, I’ll take a look at the tricks that we have and kind of break down what elements we want to showcase. In my opinion, I think it’s valuable, if you have it, to show something that is dynamic and heavy on flash and then something that shows the flexibility that you’ve developed, and something that shows trust or danger, strength or maybe balance... whatever. I mean, the things that are extraordinary about the human body. And basically the stuff that you’re like, “Oh, you must have awesome flexibility, strength, balance, whatever to do those things.” So you balance that out and you start looking at the music and you build a structure of where you think, “this sequence takes approximately a minute and a half so try placcing it here.” And then you just play, and play, and play, and run and run and run it. And you build the characters around it. And then you start with the framework acrobatically. But from the beginning, we knew that this act was going to be a love story. So what are the intentions, who are these characters, what are they thinking, and then you build the interactions between. But you also have to figure out, in this interaction is the time that I show you that I’m totally flirting with you and my character finds your character to be desperately hot but I also need to move the strap from my left arm to my right arm and move my ponytail over to my left shoulder so it’s not in my eyes when I spin. There’s a lot that goes into it. It’s kind of a long process.
The Kidd - When you’re doing multiple shows, sometimes a couple shows a day over the course of a week, especially when you’re doing stage performances, I’m sure at a point it becomes almost muscle memory to do it. But when you’re shooting it for a film, how much different is that? Because you’re talking about... now you’re factoring in crews, cameras, budgets, lighting, all of that to make sure that you’re capturing these shots. So I’m curious how different it was to then shoot it as opposed to just one performance, one show and then get it out. Was it multiple takes? Multiple cameras shooting at the same time to capture it? I’m just kind of curious what the process was to lessen the strain on the performers while also making sure that they got the coverage they wanted for final cut.
Erica Linz - So they had to very... They had to adjust a few things. One, cameras require more light to capture an image than typically you would have on live stage, and that’s something that, anytime I’ve ever been involved in any kind of filming for acrobatics there’s a major light adjustment. Some people are sensitive to that, when they’re on stage, some people aren’t. For me, it doesn’t bother me. Outside of that... The process of doing a show is very linear, in that you put on your makeup and the show starts and then this music comes up and you know that you’re going to do this and you know you need to warm up and it’s very... predictable, except that it’s live and anything can go wrong, but on a day to day basis it’s... you kinda get it. Then you, when filming, will have multiple cameras. I think they said at one point that there would be up to 11 cameras running on one act at once. One because of time constraints. We were working in theatres that had live shows that still had to deliver their product to audiences every night. And they deserve a dazzling live performance and we can’t mess that up for them. So we wouldn’t be able to spend days and days and days and days on the same scene, so we would need to just really plan super well. Make sure that the angles were all covered... and then the acrobats run the number... a couple times... well they would have to switch between... So they would have to warm up then cool down then warm up again. And then they would come back and potentially shoot some individual parts. Live coverage. “This thing is really cool, we know this is a moment that the audience is going to respond to,” or, “We got this really great shot and it looks extraordinary so lets zoom in so we can see how your hands actually connect when you’re catching through the air.” And I think another difference is that these are acts that already existed but then they were sort of reimagined to a degree...
The Kidd - To kind of fit this.
Erica Linz - Yeah. Or in a lot of cases, to get my character involved, or to put my character in a show that she never exists in because... Well she only exists in CIRQUE DU SOLEIL: WORLDS AWAY. And in my soul. [laughs]
The Kidd - I know when we talked yesterday you said that James Cameron was not just an executive producer, but also very hands on in shooting, which if fascinating to me. It’s amazing to me... Even when it’s not his movie... The dude just loves to shoot. So can you kinda just... I know Andrew Adamson directed and wrote it and put it all together, but can you talk just about Cameron’s involvement? Because that dude knows his shit. Like in a ridiculous way.
Erica Linz - Not only does that dude know his shit, I think that dude, to a great degree, invented this shit.
The Kidd - Yeah, and I think he’s trying to push it, like, “I invented it, but that’s not where we’re going to stop. We’re going to keep trying to push it above and beyond to another level.”
Erica Linz - I don’t think he’ll be satisfied until you can smell it and taste it on screen.
The Kidd - [laughs] It’s holographic, or it’s something completely new. And I know you mentioned he was literally up in the harness...
Erica Linz - 70 feet in the air, up in a harness, shooting down on the action. That’s totally him. I think that... Sometimes I describe James Cameron as half-scientist, half-storyteller. I think that he is just a guy that loves to do stuff. And he is really active, and he is really involved. It was cool because you would kinda think that James Cameron who has, basically, two of the biggest films in history, and then Andrew Adamson, who is no slouch himself. SHREK, CHRONICLES OF NARNIA... very well respected. You’d think there would be this ego battle, but it just seemed like this was Andrew’s domain, and Jim was like, “Cool, I’ll go play in harnesses and do this and that.” I don’t know if anybody anticipated that this is how it was going to go, or that was what he was there to do. But I think James Cameron around a bunch of Technology with something that you could capture and share with an audience is a kid on the coolest playground there is. And he’s a cool dude. And there is... there’s this cool joy. And yeah, he’s meticulous. He wants the best out of your performance, and he wants the best out of the crew and himself, but deep down he’s a great big kid with stars in his eyes that sees something amazing.
The Kidd - In terms of putting the film together, how exactly did it come upon to land the lead in the film? Because you do have a theatre history and I’m sure they were looking for a Cirque performer that they already had and were familiar with. How did it come to this idea that, “We’re going to shoot a Cirque film,” and then the script fell in your lap, or you auditioned, or you were the one to kind of front that?
Erica Linz - I wish I could tell you, because obviously I didn’t come in until I came in, and I’m sort of late to the CIRQUE DU SOLEIL: WORLDS AWAY party, but they... I know at one point they debated whether or not they should hire a Hollywood actress, and bring someone in that would be more familiar with the camera universe... I don’t know if they wanted to bring in a name or what, but they ended up deciding that it was important to be authentic. Because within the film they don’t hide the wires, they don’t hide the cables, it is exactly what it is. It’s the stuff that’s really happening every day. So striving for authenticity they started looking within the Cirque de Soleil universe. Somebody that would have the ability to do the hardcore Cirque de Soleil stuff that they needed, but also to tell the story and... It’s challenging, a little bit, because you’ll find these extraordinary world champions left and right, but they’re so incredibly specialized in martial arts or gymnastics and this and that, that it would be a challenge to get them comfortable quickly with acting. So I think they narrowed down on a handful of us and... I don’t know because when I saw the initial drawings for the character she had long hair and definitely didn’t look like me, but at some point they were like, “Nope, we want the girl with boy hair and we want her to fly.” And I was like, “Sweet, lets do that.”
The Kidd - Alright, thank you very much, I appreciate it.
Erica Linz - Hey, can’t we just keep interviewing with you all day? Because this was fun.
CIRQUE DU SOLEIL: WORLDS AWAY 3D opens in theatres on Friday, December 21.
"The Infamous Billy The Kidd"
Follow me on Twitter.