Showbiz, as the saying goes, is one tough nut to crack. There is arguably no greater truth to an actor or actress. But for those who have the luck, the passion and, dare I say, “it,” acting can prove to be an intimately endearing career that rewards hard work and perseverance, something Toronto, Ontario native Andrew Pifko knows all too well.
Andrew has been working in the entertainment industry for a number of years as an actor, voiceover artist, comedian, singer, writer and director, most notably earning guest credits in television shows like The Mentalist, The Big C and Mike & Molly to name but a few. Recently, Andrew has gained notable momentum in his career, having featured in a prominent Super Bowl commercial, as well as earning recognition for his role in his latest feature film Daddy Issues.
I recently caught up with Andrew Pifko to discuss his recent successes, gain his personal insights into the entertainment industry, and share his own approach to the creative arts.
Congratulations, first and foremost, on featuring in the most recent Stella Artois Super Bowl commercial, which has garnered a considerable amount of attention. How did it feel to have such extensive exposure in what is one of the most watched sporting events in the world? On top of all that, what was it like to share the screen with legendary veterans Sarah Jessica Parker and Jeff Bridges?
On the day, you know, you never think of the potential audience of a gig, and that’s true not just to commercials. I did an episode of Criminal Minds, and I know they have quite a large viewing audience. But on the work day you just concentrate on the gig at hand, and in that case it was a very concentrated two-day workday; I think the first day was 20 hours, and the second day was 22, so a lot of work to be done.
Of course, you know it’s a Super Bowl Commercial, you know that the potential audience is into the tens and hundreds of millions, but in terms of the exposure you just think “OK, right now I just need to keep my head down and do the work at hand.” You try to get the specificity that comes across, which you need in any commercial because the story is told inside of 30 or 60 seconds, so every little moment counts, every little turn counts.
So in terms of exposure, on the day you don’t really worry about it. Afterwards, it’s really incredible. On the day of the Super Bowl, I was getting text messages from people I hadn’t heard from in like 10 or 15 years; people I knew from when I lived in England, people I hadn’t heard from in a long time. Academically, you know what the exposure it going to do, but then all of a sudden, boom, it all explodes, coming from all corners of the world, so that was pretty incredible.
I’ve had the good fortune to perform alongside some really well-known people in the same vein of Sarah Jessica Parker and Jeff Bridges, and the comforting thing that I found, at least in my experience, is that the bigger they are, the greater the work ethic they usually have. I have to say that with rare exception, that’s never not been true. Whenever you’re filming something, there’s always the specificity of an angle and how you work around a set-piece, and one moment she [Sarah Jessica Parker] would ask me ‘Oh, do you mind if I come in here and I go around there,’ and I’m like ‘Yes, you may do that Sarah Jessica Parker, thank you for asking me!’ So gracious, and obviously it’s nice to be as settled into your craft as much as they are. For those opportunities that I’ve had where, even though I might not be famous, they respect the work that I do and give me the room to play. So it was nice.
With the comfort that they had in their career, and the room that they were given to play, I wouldn’t say it was a warm, fuzzy environment, but it was probably one of the most comfortable commercial environments I have ever been a part of, especially given the time crunch of shooting in 2 days, with 2 celebrities, plus it’s a beer commercial. I’ve been involved in commercials where there were no celebrities, and the pressure was cranked up. Tempers weren’t flaring, but in those other commercials it was just much more tense, and this was oddly quite relaxed.
At the outset there is always just a bit of a glimmer where you’re like “Ooh, stars,” but then once you get into it, one hour past that your just people at work, and it’s nice that people share that work ethic regardless of what their history or star status might be.
Speaking of legendary veterans, it seems you’ve rubbed shoulders with your fair share, having recently wrapped Greek Gods with Mel Brooks. What was it like to work with one of the most iconic and influential figures in comedy cinema?
This has now happened twice where I fully understood young fans with The Beatles or young fans with BTS [Bangtan Boys], where they lose their minds and they just kind of don’t know what to do with themselves. That was kind of me with Mel Brooks. And, might I add, about 4 or 5 years ago I did a commercial for Toyota, and I signed so many NDAs [nondisclosure agreements] that I didn’t even know until the day who I was working with. I then got in the car, and my co-stars were the Muppets, and I have to say, I kind of lost. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I basically became Ralph Wiggum around Lisa Simpson. I was that guy.
You never know how the mythology is going to meet up with the reality of a place, a person, of anything. And then it so far exceeds what you’d hope for, in terms of his [Mel Brooks’] precision, his comedy. He’s doing his bit, but he also understands because he is a producer, he is a creator, he is a writer for decades and decades, so that as soon as he gets on set, he makes suggestions like ‘Actually, I think you want that camera here,’ and it just was absolutely right. Because, through trial and error, technology aside, he knows how to tell a story. You might have different types of media, like Instagram or Snapchat, as a means of telling a story, but you need to have a good storyteller behind it. And that’s exactly what he was. He had comedy, and he knew how to put forth an incredible narrative, not just from an acting perspective, but in how imparted that to filmmakers and other actors.
So when the reality exceeds the mythology, you just don’t know what to do with yourself and you lose language when you’re up against that. Part of me was like “Well that’s it! I’m gonna end my career because there’s nothing I can see now that is going to top this.”
I would like to change it up a little now and get to know more about what makes you tick. Who would you say is the greatest influence on your work?
I have a few. Probably the first one that comes to mind is Animal from The Muppets. He just has this wild, frenetic activity, and then he takes a nap. That really lands well with me. I love bursts of action, and certainly this career brings that along, but yeah, wild bursts of actions, and then you sleep. That’s basically my whole acting life: frenetic activity, stop, nothing, nothing, nothing, frenetic activity, nothing, nothing, nothing.
The Muppets were my first understanding of comedy. They had the ability to take old school kids shows and just put it out there, but in a very dark clown kind of way, to have the horror land on them. There’s something about a 90-degree turn of Kermit or Fozzy Bear looking to you in a way that really allows the audiences to say ‘Oh my God, look what just happened to that Muppet,’ and the Muppet taking it onboard. There’s something about the core of that comedy I definitely take with me.
You’re quite the multi-faceted performer, being not only an actor, but also a voiceover artist, director, writer, comedian and singer. What would you consider yourself first and foremost, and where do your greatest passions lie?
It’s hard to say. The cheesy answer is it depends on the project, but it’s really true. I did a series of Staples radio commercials back in Toronto for about 2 years, and around the same time I was doing a play, but those Staples commercials were incredibly creative. Just so rare. Working with the ad company, they knew their demographic, and yet they allowed me to play with different approaches and nuances of the script. That was a voice thing, but that was a more creative experience than the dark, melodramatic play that I was doing at the time.
So in terms of voice, or direction or writing, it’s really whatever brings out the sharpest part of you. Throughout my time as a performer I’ve been doing a lot of stand-up, it was sort of the cornerstone of what brought me to the States performance-wise. So at times people are hanging on a word, and in that moment you are writer, and performer, and director, because the back of your mind is saying “No, back off out of the light,” “Maybe hit the G harder here,” “Hit a glottal stop there,” all within the span of one second.
So the short answer is, it depends. The longer answer is, whichever one of those fields of direction, performance, writing, etc., brings out the most specific part of you.
Speaking of your voiceover work, you have extensive experience in both animation and video games, most notably playing lead character in The Godfather video game adaptation, which as it happens I myself played and greatly enjoyed. What’s different about your approach to voiceover work, as opposed to onscreen roles?
Just by the nature of the fact that you’re being seen, you have so many other tools at your disposal. Just with a raising of an eyebrow, which obviously can’t come across in voiceover, you are conveying a great deal of information. How you are sitting; are you upright; are you slouched; what are you wearing. So, you need to do less because you have volumes more information visually coming at them.
That said, for me I think the greater precision work is done in commercial voiceover, a) because of the time time allowed, and b) because oftentimes it doesn’t require you to do a character so much as a nuance in the way that you speak. I think what voice has given me, and what you do in voice, still comes back to that notion of precision; that you have to be so much more careful of where you land you words, where you bring your tambour across and whatnot, because that is the one sense that they are going to hear: sound.
For the on-camera work you have a series of instruments in the orchestra, and it’s certainly empowering, but it’s just a lot more cats to wrangle.
You’re also quite active in the improv community being a part of acts such as Kaboombox and Robot Teammate and the Accidental Party. Obviously improv is one of many forms of acting, but how has it helped your performances onscreen specifically?
Well, it’s funny, I just did a Q&A at the SAG-AFTRA Foundation, where we had a screening of Daddy Issues. The thing is, acting is reacting. Just your cause of action, the reason you’re going onto the next thing. The woman who plays my daughter, Madison Lawlor, is such a phenomenal performing, like, Meryl Streep in the making, 100 percent. And what improv gives you is, if you’re not listening to your scene partner in order to create the next idea, you’re dead, the scene stops, and that’s it. If it’s a scripted piece, you’re going on, it might be by rote, you might be running on automatic, but the scene will continue. With improv it can’t, so by the very nature of the art form you have to take onboard what they’re giving you emotionally, with dialogue, everything. So what improv give you is a hyper, hyper awareness.
One of the best improv teachers in North America today is a woman Rebecca Drysdale. She helped to create the show Key & Peele, I think she’s on Orange is the New Black right now, but she is an amazing performer, and probably the best improv teacher out there. One of her lessons is listen like you want to date them. Use every little kernel they said, like “Oh, I used to go to Bahli,” and then you’re thinking, “She went to Bahli. She went to Bahli. She went to Bahli.” You just drill that information in. Etch it into your skull. That notion of attentive listening is so incredibly heightened when you’re doing improv.
In musical improv, I started a music rap improv group called Kaboombox, and people aren’t just throwing you words that you have to pick up on, but you’re picking up on the beat, and they may have created a melody that you then have to do a callback for, or take their melody and augment it, or maybe take their up-tempo melody and turn it into a minor ballad. It’s listening, it’s adaptation, it’s everything. So improv is one of the greatest tools for any type of performance, and certainly that’s what I’ve taken it to be.
And I understand you are currently playing a leading role in the Second City Hollywood production More Guns: The NRA Musical. I would love to hear more about this production, as well as the message intended by its strikingly satirical tone, unless my ears are deceiving me?
Nope, your ears are perfect. We just had a show last night, and it was a really good show. Actually it was a weird show. When you get any group of people together for an artistic activity, it’s hard in any city, but I’ve found in Los Angeles getting any group of people together to do something for a long run, even if it’s just once a week like the show, it’s incredibly difficult. So there’s any number of tracks that understudied or doubled, both in the band of 3 and cast of 10, and normally we might have 1 [understudy or double], maybe tops 2. Last night we had 4. That creates this very heightened awareness of “Okay, let’s look after each other,” because everybody knows their parts, they know their choreography and whatnot, but last night was pretty heightened because everybody was subbing in, and it certainly creates a totally different energy than what you’re used to.
We just got a 4-month extension to the end of August, and your ears are correct, it’s More Guns: The NRA Musical, and it is a satirical – without being preachy – and poignant way of looking at the gun rights debate in the United States. It’s Philip Labes and Michael O’Konis who wrote and composed the piece. Without hitting you over the head, it goes down the road of the responsible gun debate; of how can we support the Second Amendment, but do it in a responsible way…while also using puppets, because you’ve got to have puppets when you’re talking about guns. That’s just logic!
I have to say, I’ve done a lot of musicals, and it’s probably one of the best-written shows I have ever been involved in. I thought I was just signing off on theatre when I came to Los Angeles, but I’ve been lucky to do this one. Whenever you’re dealing with an issue-based piece, if that’s an essay, a musical, whatever it is, you got to, what’s that line from Signin’ In the Rain, “Make ‘em laugh.” So there’s this notion that you’ve got to have a little comedy to make it stick, and certainly being at Second City frames it within that comedic context. It’s easily one of the best narratives and best composed pieces I have ever been involved in.
You have quite the interesting background. Not only are you a multi-faceted performer and creative, but you also hold an Honors degree in Zoology and Microbiology, as well as partaking in pre-med studies. What was it that drew you away from these fields and into the performative arts?
There’s a great high school in Toronto called Earl Haig, which had this phenomenal athletic programme called Elite Sport, and an academic programme called the Academy Programme, and also Claude Watson, which was the arts element. All of these people, and really it was like a mini Mensa, crowded together in this amazing place. I actually went through the arts and academy programmes there, and I was really on the track to go into performance, but in a sense I kind of lost my way and went into biology. The biology complement at the high school was really amazing, I mean they had a marine biology element, where we went down to Jamaica and studied reef ecosystems, scuba diving and whatnot. I was about to start going into the arts, but I loved the biology complement so much that that started me on a track, and I was actually looking to go into an area of law as it related to biology and genetics.
When I went to the university of Toronto, it was around the time that the human genome project was being started up, where they were mapping the entire gene, like what base pair creates an arm, or blue eyes, or height. So the notion of proprietary genetics was really starting up, and that fascinated me. It still fascinates me to this day, the legal, moral, ethical and religious implications of “can you own a life?”
So in a sense I fell away from the arts, after having done it in high school and up until that time in my life, but then came back to it as I was in university in the lab titrating chemicals, all the while I was singing show tunes, and then I started getting gigs, either directing plays, or singing in choirs. I had a couple of gigs in synagogues and churches, helping out with their choirs, singing during services.
After university finished off, I took a year off to live in Japan, and I said “Do you know what, let’s give it a shot!” Then after 3 or 4 years I was making a living at it and loving it, so the die was cast for me. It’s certainly something that I loved, but in terms of something I really wanted to do, it was what I eventually found myself doing anyways.
Earlier you interestingly compared yourself to The Muppets character Animal, in that you work, you sleep, you work, you sleep, yet I wonder where you ever find the time to sleep.
You recently finished rejuvenating a 1929 classic Hollywood Hills home to its former glory. What drew to you to this project, especially considering you no doubt have your hands full with an ever-growing career?
Sure. Well first let me give you the 2019 segue award, because you were able to tie-in Animal with home renovations, so bravo you!
I renovated a place back in Toronto, and one of the things you learn is that 50 percent of renovation is just waiting around for things to happen. Waiting for permits to go through, waiting for contractors to show up, just waiting, frankly. And so, while you’re doing other things, like your acting career, this is a nice companion piece. You can always work the time, like you might have an audition or you’re filming something at a certain time of the the day, and then you can just say “Hey buddy, can you meet me at 8am at the house,” and then working it through.
The renovation back in Toronto was small, and then when I found this place, I wasn’t expecting to get into a house this size, but it just seemed right. I dove right in, it was about 2 years of renovation, between getting all the permits, and engineering specs, and designers and whatnot, bringing it back to its former glory, while still having some of those modern amenities, all the while reducing my footprint.
Your latest upcoming theatrical release, Daddy Issues, which you mentioned earlier, has already attracted a lot of buzz on the film circuit. Tell us more about it.
So Daddy Issues is a film I shot about a year ago. Beautiful film. A first-time feature from Amara Cash. She’s done a number of shorts before with her writing partner Alex Bloom, through their production company.
Depending on whose perspective you’re telling it from, it’s a beautiful story about love, and love that gets cracked wide open, and sometimes it’s destroyed and sometimes it’s rebuilt. It centres around Maya, who plays my daughter, and she has a girlfriend who, it turns out, is also my girlfriend. It’s a lovely love triangle!
Whenever you audition for something, you know in the first few moments if it’s a cop drama, hospital drama or romcom, but the beautiful thing about this [Daddy Issues] is that it did not fit neatly into boxes, and that is always a great sign, because it means you’re doing something that is not necessarily low-hanging fruit.
A good callback will always seem like the first day of rehearsal. You can tell so much about the logistics; do they have their pragmatics together; do you know artistically what they want to do. There are other productions I have auditioned for where I realised soon in “Oh my God, they’re winging it and they don’t know what they’re doing.” So to have a director like Amara, who has a very specific aesthetic with a look-book of images and sounds, you know that that will create for you an incredible sandbox in which you can play. She has her vision, you work with that, and then you find out how far does the pendulum swing artistically, that you can really just go for it.
We went to about 30 festivals around the world. We were in Italy, London and all across the States: Boston, Miami, Out Fest in LA, to name a few. We did really well, picked up some hardware for the beautiful cinematography, for writing, I picked up a couple pieces in Italy and Virginia. And it came out just 48 hours ago. So now we’re just preaching the word and we’d love everybody to see it because we’re really proud of the work.
As you mentioned, your performance in Daddy Issues secured a number of nominations in the Best Supporting Actor category, winning in Italy and Virginia. How does it feel to have your hard work recognised in this way?
Listen, I could say acting is a gift and it puts food on my table, and that’s all true, but you know what? It’s nice. It’s just nice [Laughs]. I mean I’m a human being and I like nice things. But it’s nice certainly when you go to a festival and you see the work of your contemporaries. In this craft you don’t necessarily need awards, but there’s very little recognition for the work you do on a regular basis, because more often than not, 99 percent of the time the work is never even known about. It just doesn’t come to the level of public recognition.
So it’s nice to have, I wouldn’t say validation, but acknowledgement that you might be on the right path, because acting is a career where you don’t have an HR department to check in with to see am I doing this right, am I doing that right. It’s like shouting into an echoless canyon often, so it’s nice to have a little bit of echo come back at you.
What’s next for you? Any notable upcoming projects that build upon your most recent successes?
Right now it’s all hands on deck for Daddy Issues and More Guns. They’re two of the greatest projects I’ve ever been involved in, and it’s been sort of a lunar shot in that I happened to be selected for these parts. Everybody in it brings their A-game, so I’m really selling it to the world.
I’m also part of a fun series on BYUTV called Dwight in Shining Armour, in which I am a recurring guest star. It’s written by Leanne Adams and her husband Brian. It’s one these great kids shows, kind of like the old world of Sesame Street that entertained the kids and adults at the same time with double entendres.
More Guns: The NRA Musical is on Saturday nights at 8.30pm in Second City Hollywood, and Daddy Issues is available for streaming at https://www.daddyissuesmovie.com/