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Continuing from my last post, here is the second part of my interview with Kevin Dexter.
I always think of you as a bit of a swiss army knife in your approach to your career. Tell me about your philosophy on learning new disciplines.
I guess I just have a desire to understand things. And with time that builds on itself. The more you learn and the more you do, the more you want to learn and do. And travelling is like steroids to that equation. My years spent travelling have really been the most amazing (albeit eclectic) education.
When I left North America, the first thing I started with was language, which was out of sheer necessity. I quickly realized how even if you completely butcher a language, that intention, that desire to try and communicate with somebody goes a long way. And so when I started to travel I asked myself “What’s the most important phrase?” and Thank You seemed like a good one. So I learned “thank you” in as many languages as I could think of. Next time we hang out, ask me “Thank You” in a language and I’ll likely be able to tell you. I can say it in about forty languages so far, which is a fun little party trick. I can also name all the countries, their capitals and place them on the map. I like that kind of stuff.
One of the reasons I like learning so much is that I find there’s a feeling of freedom that comes with understanding something, because once you learn something, nobody can take that from you. That’s part of you now. Once you do something, that experience is yours for life. And all of that has gravity. It snowballs and it leads to more things. For example, if I hadn’t started by doing grueling work as a P.A., I wouldn’t have understood how a set works and so later on, I wouldn’t be able to walk onto a set as an actor and know how to do my job properly from a technical standpoint.Then, years later that experience of jumping into a new career in film helped give me the confidence to pull a complete 180 to go work in yachting. It may seem totally random but everything leads to something else. All knowledge will be used again.
Knowledge is what makes you useful and I think we should all strive to be useful.
A common mistake we often make is leaving when something gets hard because it is easy to do. Often, we leave when it’s hard not because it’s impossible but because it challenges our ego and of course we don’t like that (this coming from a guy with a healthy ego). So we too often quit when it’s hard. But, what if instead you choose to leave when it gets easy? It sounds weird but that idea of leaving when it gets easy, not when it’s hard has actually really benefited me. Once I’m good at something, that’s when I know it’s time to go and reinvent. It’s extremely tempting to stay somewhere and do something once it has become easy for you and the ball is rolling. Especially when you worked so hard to get there and leaving can seem like it means losing what you’ve built. But when you leave, what you actually take with you is the knowledge of how to build and what you’ve built becomes less important because you know you can build it again. And build it better. It is the transfer of building the things around you versus building yourself. It’s an interesting thing.The more times you leave when it’s easy, the more you sharpen that blade and build that skill set that is you.
To expand on that, it’s easy to think we have things dialed in and we are just THAT good. But likely, we aren’t actually looking at things fully. To further explain that, your brain wants to short-cut as much as possible and save energy, so a lot of your day to day is actually just muscle memory. You know where your keys are not because you remember where you put them, but because you’re used to putting them in the same place. And so, much of your daily life becomes habit and so your brain can turn off and you can go on autopilot, which is a good way for your brain to save energy but it’s also a good way to start getting complacent without realizing it.
One of the great things about travel (although it doesn’t seem that way at the time) is that when you go to a new country, at first everything is hard. You don’t know how to work the subway, you don’t know how to get on the bus, you can’t read the street signs and you don’t know how to pay for things. And that list goes on and on. The smallest little things are a battle. It is exhausting. But it is that very battle that keeps us alive and present. I actually believe this need to stay sharp in new situations is what keeps you young and fresh. I think it’s an important part of a long and healthy life. If you stay in a situation where you’re on autopilot, you are going to get old real fast.
Another way to look at it is the 80 / 20 rule. They say that if mastery takes 100 percent, then you can get 80 percent of mastery in 20 percent of the time. But that last 20 percent of mastery takes 80 percent of the time. I think this is true. So I tend to leave before I master a certain trade or subject, but I would rather have strong knowledge of many things than be a master of one thing. I think that when you solely focus on one thing, it seems to limit your ability (or interest) in understanding many things. For me, I want to have working knowledge of as much as possible so I’m willing to sacrifice that last 20 percent if it means getting to know more subjects.
To be successful in the type of work that you do, you routinely need to be outside of your comfort zone. In other words, you’ve sort of made a career out of being uncomfortable. What can you tell me about that?
Yeah, when it comes to modelling basically my job is to look comfortable in the most uncomfortable of situations. I am professionally uncomfortable. The process of casting (interviewing) for a potential job is insane.
For example: years ago while on my first modelling trip abroad. my first casting was for a runway show. They had about 200 models there and so they would bring 50 of us into a room at a time and make us stand in the circle and strip down to our underwear. Not awkward at all. Just you in your underwear in front of all your peers. No big deal. So you would have this little piece of paper with your name and your measurements on it and then, this guy who looked like Kim Jong Un, walked around us with his little fashion posse inspecting us. He’d look you up and down like a piece of meat he was considering buying. Then he would either write a check or an X on your piece of paper. So you could just watch as he’d go around the room, leaving a trail of destruction and broken dreams as people would look down and see what what mark they got, a pass or fail. It was brutal and for me it really set the tone of the the modelling world for me.The lunacy of that moment was a make or break moment because it solidified the insanity of the modelling industry. Maybe some people would have internalized that “failure” but for some reason, for me it was an epiphany that forced me to realize you can’t associate your self worth with things you’re not in control of. It was so ridiculous that it really gave me a clear division: I go into a room and I’m judged for something that is outside of my control. It’s not about me. I’ve since been in situations like that too many times to count so I’m lucky I was able to make that distinction.
It’s such a weird experience. I can’t tell you how many times I’m in a casting and the clients are talking about you, right there in front of you. There’s a panel, you’ll walk in and they’ll say something like: “Can you take your shirt off? We want you to pretend you’re riding a horse. Or maybe you can dance for us?” Of course there’s no horse and no music but that’s a minor detail.”We want you to look cool and sexy, but also inquisitive.” Inside, you’re thinking: What the hell are you talking about? But you still have to you have to do this to get the job. So you just become this guy that’s like, “Oh yeah, for sure. Sounds fun.” So there you are, dance riding your horse in a sexy/funny/inquisitive way. And this is just your first of many castings today. This is just Tuesday.
I’ve done so much weird stuff like that I can’t even begin.
But that’s the job. You’ll go to these castings where clients are judging you and they’ll say right in front of you, “What do you think about his ears? I don’t know about those ears. His ears just don’t work”.
My ears hear you man.
It’s brutal. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had somebody ruthlessly tear me apart right in front of me as if being a model means I don’t have feelings. You just sit there and you’re like, “Alright, thanks for the opportunity, guys. This has been fun. I’m just gonna go cry in the shower now.” It’s so insane. And yet that experience has actually made me stronger in the sense that I realize my body is just where I live, it’s not WHO I am. It is a tool that lets me see the world. I think it’s very important to make that distinction and the reason I’m probably able to do that, is I had a a lot of different jobs before I even stepped in front of a camera. I’d done other things, so whether some pretentious client books me, isn’t wrapped up in my persona.
Not only do you have to get good at separating yourself from it, but you also have to master faking it. I’ll go to a casting and they’ll be like, “How good are you at underwater welding?” And I’ll be like, “Oh yeah, great!” You know, “How good are you at kite surfing?” “Sure. All the time.” You have to lie through your teeth pretending that you can do whatever it is they want. Then when you book the job, THAT’S when the new challenge happens and now you have to go learn to kite surf. That’s happened to me a couple times where I’ve booked a job and then immediately panicked because I’ve got to kind of go backwards and be like, “Can anyone teach me how to shoot a bow and arrow?”. You just kind of gotta go for it. It’s sounds crazy but you just kind of need to say yes at the time and then figure it out later.
Your job is to walk into the most uncomfortable of situations and look comfortable doing it. That’s it in a nutshell. You know, I do it in China, which is even more daunting because the Chinese can be absolutely ruthless. It’s a generalization but it’s pretty common that they’ll say exactly what they’re thinking without worry of your feelings. Then you have the extra layer of difficulty in that it’s in Mandarin, so you’re playing this crazy game of telephone between you and the interpreter. A perfect example of that is the movie Lost in Translation. That scene with Bill Murray shooting the Whiskey commercial is my regular life. I cannot explain how many times, that has been my day at work. There’ll be all this long intense talk between the clients and the director and then finally when they are done the translator will turn to me and say: “More cool guy, more sunshine smile.” And you’re like, what the hell does that mean?
What has been your experience regarding aging as an actor or model. Do older models have a short shelf life or are you getting more work now?
In general, it’s so unfair. Men seem to be able to do this indefinitely whereas women often can do this until around their mid 20’s. For women, you’ve basically got two sides. You have commercial and you have fashion. If you are doing fashion, you have the shelf life of sushi. It’s not a career. It’s an experience. If she is a fashion model, a girl can get on set as young as twelve and by about twenty three she is done. Now, if you’re a commercial model (picture: selling products vs selling fashion. Commercials vs runway) you can go for much longer. That’s what I do so I have the possibility of doing this for an actual career. I didn’t get involved in this industry until I was 26, so I was already older than most, and I’m now 38. Weirdly enough, I’m working more now than I ever have. I think that’s because of a bunch of things. The longer you stay in it, the more clients and agencies know of you. You’ve also got a bigger portfolio which helps you book more work. Also, you sharpen your blade, and build your skill set so you’re better at what you do.
It’s crazy though. I never would’ve guessed that I would be working more now than before. I seem to have come into that nice zone where I’m no longer an older guy trying to play young. I am now playing closer to my age, the business man, or the dad stuff. The added benefit is those jobs tend to pay better. It’s rare now for some client to try and con me into working for “exposure”. They know better than to try that bullshit on a grown man.
You now call Shanghai, China your home. What prompted you to leave Vancouver, and tell me about your success in Asia vs North America.
A decade or so ago, I was working as an actor in Vancouver and very slowly I started making headway and booking more work. But at the same time I was also working a ridiculous amount of side jobs in order to be able to act while living in an expensive city like Vancouver. And when I say ridiculous; I’m not kidding: I had almost a dozen part time jobs in Vancouver at one point but I did all those jobs just to be ready for when the phone rang with an audition. So those Van years were fun, busy times…but man, they were also exhausting.
By 2011, I told my agent I needed a break. ”I want to go to Thailand for a month and just get away.” To which she said, “Well, why don’t we just get you a model contract?” And I thought, “Umm, what’s that?”
She said, “Well, an agency will represent you. They’ll front all your cost to fly you there, put you up and drive you around to castings. Then they’ll take a thirty five percent commission from any jobs you book. At the end of your 90 days, you’ll pay back what they fronted you and you’ll be on your merry way. And if you don’t make money, you don’t owe them.”
So after about 2 seconds of consideration I said yes and next thing you know, I end up on a three month modelling contract in Bangkok Thailand. It was a crazy eye opening experience and it completely changed everything for me. It felt like I had stumbled into this secret world. I’ve met all these models (also known as people) who were travelling the world on this golden ticket, this secret little highway.
I ended up doing six months in Thailand where I worked more than I ever had before. After the contract ended, I came back to Canada, and it wasn’t two weeks before I realized: why am I forcing myself to go backwards? To live in a city where I’m a broke actor cliche, stuck doing extra work and stealing granola bars from craft services when instead I could go and travel the world risk free and make money while doing it? It was a no-brainer. So I sold everything, got down to two suitcases and went off to the next contract, this time in China. That was back in 2012 and I’ve been doing it ever since.
Regarding success in North America versus abroad, yes I’ve been lucky to have found my groove travelling and working as a commercial actor, but one of the down sides of working overseas is that most of my Canadian friends don’t see the work I do. It doesn’t air in North America, so most of my western friends mainly know me for either an old Carly Rae Jepsen music video I did forever ago or for the Bachelorette Canada. Whereas outside of North America I’ve worked in South Africa, Europe, Mexico, Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand and now China. So I’ve been able to go all over and do stuff all over the place on really fun, challenging projects. It’s been a real gift.
And you know, I never, ever would have guessed I would end up here but I’m so thankful that things didn’t go according to plan and that I ended up in this city because actually I love living in Shanghai. This is my fourth time living here and it’s been a real progression because back on my first trip I absolutely hated it. In 2012 I just wasn’t ready for that culture shock. Coming back here after years of travel in other countries really makes me appreciate China. It’s been really good to me. But at no point earlier than this would I have been ready to live here. It’s one of those things where the process, the journey is what prepares you for where you end up. When I first started working as an actor in Vancouver Canada, that’s where I needed to be. I was grinding it out. I was doing the student film route and small little independent gigs. They were my much needed little steps that (while I had no idea) ultimately brought me to where I am today.
Now ten years later, I get to work on some pretty big productions where there can be a fair bit of pressure as the lead. If that had happened to me ten years ago, I would have crumbled under that. But the small little steps that got me to here (including ALL those little student films and indies) enable me to lean on my experience and do my job well. It’s a really rewarding feeling. It makes me wonder where the steps I’m taking now are going to take me in the future? I’m super pumped about that.
I’m so very thankful for the stuff I’ve been able to do outside of North America because I needed this journey to get comfortable in my own skin. When people ask about “my long term plan” or if I’ll stay in China forever, I usually say I’d like to end up back in Toronto. I’d like to try my hand as an actor there because I think it has a really interesting scene that would be a new challenge for me. But for right now, I’m really enjoying the craziness of living in China. Truth be told, I’d be lying if I said I knew where I will end up. But if my life up to now has taught me anything, it’s that the journey that gets me there, will be what prepares me for it.
And I really can’t wait.
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