by James Arvantes
Cleveland Park resident Jeff Wincott—thespian, director, and martial artist—has appeared in nearly 150 television shows, 30 films and several stage plays during the past 40 years, sharing scenes with Samuel L. Jackson, Colin Farrell, Tom Selleck, and Nicole Kidman, among others, and acting in such popular television shows as Night Heat, The Code and Blue Bloods. He also graced the cover of TV Guide.
And now, at the age of 63, the Canadian-born actor has made a string of award-winning independent films, fulfilling a life-long dream of reaching a world-wide audience with his own stories and messages.
“I wanted to tell a story—my story,” said Wincott, the featured speaker at the most recent Tuesday Talk at the Cleveland Park Library on June 18. “It wasn’t possible for me to tell my story through other people’s projects so I had to create it myself.”
Amy Henderson, a resident of the Kennedy-Warren building and historian emerita of the National Portrait Gallery, served as the moderator, interviewing Wincott about his prodigious career behind and in front of the camera.
Henderson, who reviews theatre, books and exhibitions for a variety of newspapers and magazines, noted that Wincott is enjoying the busiest and perhaps the most successful time of his career, having won the best picture award at the Toronto Independent Film Festival in September for his film Behind Bars, which marked his directorial debut.
Wincott most recently starred in and produced the short film, Ping Pong Pigeons, an award-winning film written by his wife, Charlotte, a screenwriter. Wincott is also going to have roles in two upcoming independent films, Kringle Time and # Like. He is currently filming another movie, Platitudes, also written and directed by his wife.
In the meantime, he continues to play roles on television and in feature films. Wincott moved to Cleveland Park after his wife got a job in Washington. Henderson asked Wincott how he manages to sustain a successful acting career while living in the nation’s capital, far from Hollywood and New York City, the centers of the film and television business.
“I think it is possible to work from wherever if you have established yourself to a certain degree, which I have,” said Wincott, who is also a black belt in taekwondo.
“People know me and call me for gigs so that makes it possible to be here,” he added.
Wincott’s transition from acting to directing and independent filmmaking was a natural step, made much easier by the internet and other innovations such as live streaming. The internet era has given independent filmmakers the ability to write, direct, and produce their own movies without having to seek financial funding or approval from the major studios.
With the right kind of equipment, a person can shoot and edit their own movies, essentially becoming their “own studio and independent film company,” he said.
“I am reminded of (filmmaker and actor) John Cassavetes,” said Wincott. “I used to love his work and his (wife) Gena Rowlands’ work. John would always say, ‘just pick up that camera and start shooting it.’”
Wincott makes it sound easy, but he knows it isn’t. As he pointed out, “not everyone can go out and buy a bunch of equipment. You have to have a couple of bucks to do that stuff.”
Nevertheless, it is no longer necessary to obtain millions of dollars to make a movie. Short films can cost less than $500 to make, he said. The challenge, of course, is to make good movies. And that, in turn, is dependent on having a good script and casting the right actors.
Wincott knows a great deal about both. Born and raised in Toronto, Wincott studied acting at the Ryerson Polytechnic Institute in Toronto. In 1979, he landed one of his first acting jobs, appearing on the sitcom, King of Kensington. That same year, he appeared in another Canadian sitcom, The Littlest Hobo.
He began the 1980s by touring with the Toronto-based Actors Touring Company in their production of Romeo and Juliet, and then in a production of Play it Again Sam, playing the Humphrey Bogart role at the Runnymede Theatre in Toronto.
In the early 1980s, he lived in New York City where he studied with Michael Kahn, the former Richard Rodgers Director of the Drama Division of the Juilliard School, who now serves as the artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington.
In 1984, Wincott became well-known for starring in the Canadian police drama Night Heat, playing Detective Frank Giambone, the brash partner of Detective Kevin O’Brien, played by Scott Hylands. The series, which ran for four years, was the first Canadian drama series to air on an American network.
In the 1990s, he made use of his martial arts skills by starring in such movies as Martial Law 2: Undercover, and Missions of Justice with Brigitte Nielson. More recently, he had recurring roles in the miniseries, The Lizzie Bordon Chronicles, and The Night Of.
Just Do It
As an independent filmmaker and a veteran of the stage and screen, Wincott shared plenty of sage advice with aspiring actors and filmmakers who attended the June 18th event.
“Short film festivals are wonderful,” he said. “It is a great way to way to get in. You make a short film and submit it to these festivals and you start getting recognition.”
He also urged aspiring filmmakers and actors to “step right in and just do it.” Wincott used his own experiences to illustrate his points. When Wincott was in theatre school, he went to a talent agency in search of an agent. The prospective agent, a woman named Nancy, asked if he could sing.
“I said, ‘yeah, I can sing,’” remembered Wincott, who sang regularly in theatre class.
Wincott started singing before Nancy cut him off, telling him, “you can’t sing.”
Nancy then asked if he could dance and after Wincott danced a few steps, Nancy said, “You can’t dance.”
She finally asked if Wincott could act, and after handing him a few lines to read, she told him, “You can’t act.”
“But she said, ‘you’ve got chutzpah and I am going to take you on as a client,’” Wincott recalled, finishing with a flourish and drawing laughs from the audience.
Years later, Wincott was up for a role in a martial arts film, and after convincing the director and two others associated with the film that he can act, they asked about his martial arts skills, the other prerequisite for the role.
Wincott assured them he could fight, but they kept pressing, questioning him about his fighting ability.
“I was sitting there looking at these three guys, and I was thinking, ‘what am I going to say,’” recalled Wincott. “And then, I just went for it.”
Wincott pointed a finger at each of them, saying, “I can stand you, you, and you up and knock all three of you down.”
The director then told Wincott he had the part.
In some instances, the Tuesday Talks emerge as personal, even intimate affairs, a few of the speakers sharing private details of their lives with a receptive audience. Wincott told the audience he is a “recovering alcoholic and addict who has been sober for 17 years.”
“It is bigger than any festival,” he said as the audience applauded. “It is huge, and something I am really proud of.”
Wincott wrote about addiction in his film Behind Bars. But instead of writing about drug or alcohol addiction, he wrote about a man addicted to protein bars, an unusual twist. In the movie, the man suffers dire consequences because of the addiction, and even participates with a group called Bars Anonymous to overcome his need for the protein sources.
“People watch the film, and they come up later and say, ‘I have a problem with addiction or my friend’s an alcoholic or my mother is an alcoholic,’” said Wincott.
In this way, the film becomes a vehicle for conversations about addiction, satisfying one of the goals Wincott is trying to accomplish with his work – to spur discussions about important topics.
“It is nice to be in control of what I can be in control of today,” he said. “And that is, I can create my own work, and not have to sit there and wait for the phone to ring with all that anxiety and fear attached to it.”