What do you get if you combine Keanu Reeves, Wesley Snipes, Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock? Oh – and don’t forget Denzel Washington. Shivers? Acting royalty? All of that. What would you give to work alongside any of these great names, to learn from them, maybe even sit next to them on a film set during a shoot and tell them that the scene they just filmed was going to be the shot for the movie’s poster?
Actor, producer and writer Kazy Tauginas can tell you all about it. He’s been there, done it, yet rather than letting his ego rise and his head graze the clouds, his feet remain firmly on the ground.
The following interview is one of the most fascinating that I’ve conducted to date. Not just because Kazy has been on-set alongside those movie stars, but because he was especially generous with his time and his answers, and more than happy to give amazing advice to aspiring filmmakers about his career to date. What’s more, his film Standing Eight (2016), inspired by his experience with
his mother, shines a light on Lupus, a condition which is gaining more widespread awareness, and goes to demonstrate the big heart that big man Kazy Tauginas has.
FF: Looking back, do you think that your time at the New York Film Academy was a necessary transformative experience for you, or do you think you would have made it to where you are now regardless?
KT: I can’t strongly recommend enough to anyone who’s thinking about getting into acting, how important it is to actually learn the skill set that you need in order to succeed.
For me personally, the New York Film Academy was a really fantastic experience. I took full advantage of everything they had to offer. Their acting programme works in conjunction with their filmmaking programme, and the huge advantage of that was I was able to implement what I was learning in my classes, with filmmakers, hands on.
A lot of people say that hands-on training is really the best way to learn and I 100% agree with that. So, if someone wants to be an electrician, what do they do? Are they just going to take apart an outlet and hope for the best? No, they’re gonna learn a trade, to learn how to do it properly, so that they don’t blow themselves out of the room and electrocute themselves!
It’s the same type of idea with acting. Acting is still a skill set. Of course, like athletics, you can have raw talent and you can have a wild imagination, but you still need to hone that. And you need training in order to do that.
So, my years at the New York Film Academy were invaluable, not just from the acting perspective, but also for the networking perspective like meeting other like-minded people. Getting a grasp of what I really, really liked because they had so many opportunities to hear speakers.
I got to hear Christopher Plummer speak; I went to a Q&A with him and seeing Christopher Plummer, right, the guy who has been entertaining us for our entire lives, just seeing how real he was and that he’s just a person too… Being able to see and interact with someone who’s been in the game for a long time and is successful, I think, especially early on in your stages is really important to see that you too can get to that place.
I think probably the most in-depth, brutal Q&A that I had at the New York Film Academy was with Melissa Leo who painted a bleak picture of the industry. Not in the sense where she was basically telling people there was no way that they were going to make it and that you can’t succeed or whatever, she just told people very bluntly that it’s hard. And that you mentally have to be prepared to not work for extended periods of time. She just really got into that.
I remember a lot of people sitting back in that Q&A because it was packed; I mean, it’s Melissa Leo! At the time, I think, she was up for an Oscar. And everyone’s kind of getting disappointed. They’re like, “Oh, it’s not gonna be easy to make it as an actor?” “Really, it’s gonna be difficult?” And I was sitting in my seat, and I was like, “Oh, this is good stuff.” I’m like, she’s being real; this means everything that she’s saying I was mentally prepared to do.
So, I felt like, listening to her, what other people would have thought of as a very negative view of the industry, and what it takes to be a successful actor, etc. to me was just a very realistic portrait of what was going on. I appreciated the fact that someone wasn’t sugarcoating it. And it helped me mentally prepare for what I had kind of imagined would be potential scenarios. It actually just reinforced what I had been kind of thinking all along and I thanked her at the end.
You know, I was really excited, but it was really funny, because I felt like the majority of the people that were at that Q&A that day were really dejected. When they came to the realisation that it’s not going to be a “Oh, look at me, I’m talented. I’m going to be a star, right? I’m just going to show up in Hollywood, and someone’s going to find me”, like it doesn’t work that way, you know? For very, very, very few people does it work that way.
I did 50 student films when I was at the New York Film Academy, so when I graduated I actually had a reel to show for myself. And I also took the time – during my very little free time that I had – to learn how to write.
I wrote my first feature length screenplay when I was at the New York Film Academy because of the people that I met who were around me. You know, I got cool with the teacher’s assistants. I got cool with other filmmakers and I felt really well enabled to take on an indie filmmaking career after I got out of the New York Film Academy. But I also felt like I had, not honed…but I had laid the foundation for my acting skill set. Which, when you’re going to school, what else can you ask for?
FF: Right, if you don’t mind, it’s time for some name-drops if that’s OK? You’ve appeared in movies that have starred the likes of Keanu Reeves, Denzel Washington, and, more recently, Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock and Wesley Snipes. Did you get to spend much time with any of them on set? And, if so, did you learn anything in particular from them, from an acting perspective? Did you get to observe them?
KT: I think it’s really interesting when you’re working, or meeting someone that’s in the layer cake in what you would consider an ‘A list’ talent. You never know what to expect. You never really know what their methodology is going to be.
I tend to just, when I’m there, see what they’re gonna give me in the scene, right? First and foremost, because it’s their show, so, you’re kind of there supporting them. So, to me, it’s just like, what do they need when they’re working?
Eddie, his approach to Dolemite Is My Name (2019), and how he created the character, is very Eddie Murphy-like, because you’ve seen so many of his movies, you’ve actually gotten a really good gauge of his personality, right? Because he injects a lot of himself into his roles.
So, he’s just super, like…let’s see how this goes, right? Seeing him work, he’s incredibly relaxed, which comes from a place of what I consider to be incredible confidence. Of course, he knows he’s funny or whatever, but he also had a really driving passion for telling that Dolemite story. He’d been trying to get that movie done for, like, 15 years.
You know, our little group, though, the brothers we played, the Bihari brothers in the film, play the record execs, we got a chance to chat with him, and I realised, I was like, whoa, you could feel the passion through what he was doing. Because he really cared about the material, like there was a love for telling that character’s story. And I think that there’s something to be said for that.
I think that actors, when we’re entering a role, we have to, in order to really put forth our best performance, I think we need to find things about the characters that we’re playing that we love, and whether that characteristic of that, you know, fictional character or real life character. You just have to find things that relate to you, and be able to kind of like, harness them, and create something that you enjoy playing, if that makes any sense, right? Because, if you’re not enjoying your place in that role, I feel like people will feel that, audiences will feel that, you know.
Working with Denzel… he’s very focused, very intense. His character, you know, he’s very method, so like, his character in the Equalizer films is very, it’s a dark character, like he’s killed a lot of people, there’s a lot of, you know, like this built up aggression in him. So, I think you see that, when he’s there, he can’t break from that.
I think that, you know, for some actors, some actors are very loose, and then some are very focused, and he’s a very focused actor.
For me, personally, I think for my mental health, and you know, you hear about roles like Heath Ledger, and people that get super into their stuff. I’ve always just kind of like, this is my character, this is me. I’ll find traits that mix or whatever, but when I go home every day, I feel like I left it on the set. And I think that’s, for me, that’s really important to do, because we are emotional.
So, it’s like, if you get really emotionally involved and you hold that in you, I feel like that could have long-term effects. I circle back to what Melissa Leo said in her Q&A. She said, after she wraps on a movie, she needs like two days to just decompress, and just allow that character that she created to kind of like, leave her essence.
And I think there’s something to that, you know, because you have to kind of cleanse yourself, because on screen we do a lot of crazy things.
And then of course, Keanu was great. He’s just there to make a great project and you can feel that, like I was on set for the first John Wick and everyone was excited on the set of that movie. I mean, I think they knew they were making something special.
FF: I was about to say, actually, you pre-empted the next question! Did you suspect it was going to be a very popular movie when you read the script and/or when you were on set?
KT: Yeah, I think when I realised they were doing something really cool was when I watched the stunt team rehearsals, and I was on set.
And we get a lot of wait around time, you know, if an actor’s late, whatever. So there’ll be times you have to wait but the stunt guys were rehearsing this sequence that was going on around a car, because when I was on set, there was only a little bit left for them to shoot, they were almost finished.
They were like, a couple of days away from finishing the movie. So they had this other sequence, and I’m sitting there, and I’m watching them rehearse. And I was like, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like that, on screen. I was like, that is, that is interesting, I was like, wow! And I didn’t, you know, I don’t actually have a fight scene in the movie, I end up getting shot, like from a distance, you know, Keanu Reeves snipes me, so, up until that moment, I really didn’t get a chance to see any of the fight choreography. But I got to sit there. And I watched, while I was waiting.
I probably watched them for a good like 45 minutes to see what they were doing and I thought it was incredibly unique.
I think that’s really what people like about the John Wick films was that, first off, the R-rated action film has kind of gotten forgotten, and I think that audiences are craving that type of content, because a lot of us grew up on that type of content, and everything can’t be PG-13 and have a cape nowadays. So like, there is an audience for that movie, and I think John Wick proved, you know, and Equalizer as well, Equalizer, both films, did, you know $200 million dollars in the box office.
So like this, R-rated kind of content is definitely, I feel like audiences want it, they want to see more of it. And I think they really delivered with John Wick (2014), and Keanu, again, really cares about the material, really wanted to see a good product.
Like, there was a sequence that we shot, and I was on set, and they blew this stuff up around him, and they ended up using it in the trailer, and he’s walking past with all the flames and all this stuff, and when he sat down in the chair next to me, I was like, “you know, that’s gonna be the poster, right?” I was like that, right there is the poster. And he’s like, “it looked good?” I was like, “Oh, yeah, it looked good”.
And it did, and sure enough, it’s like the image on the DVD cases, him walking through these flames and stuff. But I was so happy just to be able to, you know, it’s my first big thing that I was on, so to just be there to witness this moment, again, an A-lister who I’ve been watching my entire life in this iconic moment of walking through these flames, which in the movie is in like slow motion. And, you know, I was like, so appreciative of just being there and seeing it. And I’m just really happy that even though I had a small role, I was able to be part of what I think is, you know, action film history.
FF: Absolutely! Fair play to him, and kudos as well for that. What’s the biggest challenge that you’ve overcome to make it to the stage you have as an actor do you think?
KT: Everyone’s acting path is different, right? Everyone’s career path is different. So I realized very early on that I didn’t have any, you know, familial connections into the industry that I was really going to have to build this up on my own.
And you know, when you’re kind of fighting a battle, sometimes you really would like to get a leg up and you end up developing relationships as you go, and then people will come out of the blue to help you. And it’s just like this. Because you really don’t know who’s gonna end up helping you or if someone’s going to help you at all or whatever.
But I think, really, the biggest challenge is just patience. Right? Because if you’re putting forth the work, and I mean, firing, all cylinders type of work, okay, I’m talking about like, you know, for actors nowadays, the idea of not developing your own content is a mistake.
You have to develop your own content, you have to take as much control of your career as you can. And I think if actors think that that model of ‘I’m just gonna audition, and things will come together.’ Yeah, that can happen. It definitely can and it will, but then you’re basically leaving your entire career in the hands of other people, which to me is a very scary place to be.
So for me…I’ve been developing content, auditioning; I worked my way up the layer cake from booking an industrial for the US Army, to getting a commercial to getting another commercial and I ended up doing three industrials for the US Army altogether. And then I ended up booking three commercials.
And in that time, I had also hired a career coach to kind of guide me because I felt like I was on the right path, but I didn’t know for sure. And you know, finding the people that are willing to guide you and help you is an important thing and sometimes you have to pay money to those people to do that, right?
Like you find someone who makes a career like as a career coach, as an acting career coach. And I hired Gwyn Gilliss, from the actors market, and she really helped me get to that place, but all the time, you gotta be patient, you have to be patient, because there’s always a delay.
Really, for very few people in our careers, there’s the idea of instant gratification, right? It’s just delayed gratification is the thing… So, patience, I think, is the biggest, because you never know when the opportunities are going to come, and all you can do is continuously keep moving forward, exercising yourself, creatively get better at what you’re doing so that when the opportunity comes, you’re ready to just, you know, hit it as hard as you can.
FF: What do you wish you’d known about screenwriting when you wrote your first script?
KT: Ah, proper formatting! My first draft was so bad because I didn’t know anything. I just bought Final Draft, and then started writing and everything was totally formatted incorrectly.
You know, my teacher’s assistant, and my friend at the time, sat me down, he said, “Hey, man, we gotta fix this”. And we sat down, and we kind of ripped through it from the formatting. And then, of course, you start to learn about the three act structure.
Learning how to write is a process, and it’s an ongoing process, because if I go back and read something that I wrote, eight years ago, I’m like, this is filth, this is trash. Which I do, like now, during COVID, I’ve been going back and doing a lot of rewrites on stuff that I haven’t touched in years. And I’m reading it and I’m like, ‘What was I thinking? What?! What is this description?’
But, you know, screenwriting is really just being open to the process, and that’s one thing that I always, whether it was screenwriting or acting, I always wanted to, or even directing or whatever it’s like, initially, you have to be a sponge, and you just have to learn and you have to be okay with hearing that what you did wasn’t great.
Right, you got to set the ego aside because, if you want to improve, you have to admit that you’re not perfect. And some people have a hard time doing that. And I do, but I just got to set it aside and be like, alright, what do I need to do to make this work better?
And I’ve kind of always thought of like, with screenplays, you know…I wrote that first draft, I thought it was awesome. I was like, ‘This is the most awesome screenplay ever, right?’ Like, the first one I ever wrote, I’m like, ‘This is so great!’
But you go on, and shortly thereafter, you realise, ‘Oh, wow, there’s a lot of holes in this, there’s a lot of things you need to fix. And the dialogue is horrible, because all my characters’ sound exactly the same.
So, let’s just start picking it apart, and working; it’s an ongoing process. So, I like that I made a lot of mistakes. Because, for me, learning from those mistakes is what helps me improve as a writer.
FF: Do you think your experiences in the challenging environments of amateur boxing and being a restaurant owner mean you’re able to perform better under pressure on camera as an actor?
KT: Well, when you’ve been punched in the face in front of, like, 200 people, what’s getting in front of the camera? Yeah. What is that? It’s nothing.
You know, the boxing thing really taught me, you know… lost fights. I was never knocked out or anything like that, but, you learn a lot more from your losses than your wins. Because your wins really are just an affirmation of your ego and just kind of tell you how cool you are right? You’re like: ‘I won, you’re the man!’ Right?
But when you lose, especially in something like boxing, it really forces a different train of thought. And you have to still move on as a human being. You can dwell on your loss for a moment, but still life goes on, right?
And you have to kind of learn how to mentally ask, ‘What went wrong? How did it go wrong? Why did it go wrong? Was my head in the right space?’ All these different questions that you go through, and it forces you to kind of analyse what happened.
And sometimes you’re emotional, you’re upset or whatever; you lose, especially tight decisions where a lot of people thought you won, and you thought you won, and then they announced the other guy, and you’re like, ‘Wait, what happened?
Those are very frustrating but in those losses, I think it is where you really can develop your character. And that’s really, I think, through the losses is where you really find out who you are.
And acting is just a series of losses. Acting is losing over and over again. And I say that, and people probably shake their head, but you audition 100 times and you book two roles. You’ve lost 98 times, it takes a mental strength to be able to deal with that, and not let it get to you.
And I learned that from boxing. That definitely came from boxing: not accepting a loss and saying, ‘Oh, it’s alright, I lost, but I know why I lost.’ But in acting sometimes you don’t even know why you lose and it’s fine because you’re not getting punched in the face!
No, that’s all mental. So, initially, I’ve always enjoyed performing because before I boxed, I was actually a figure skater, and I used to get in front of crowds and perform.
And I didn’t realize that that was what I enjoyed about skating the most. I didn’t really enjoy competing, I enjoyed the performing aspect.
So boxing kind of takes the fear out. I already enjoy performing, but compared to knowing that you’re actually going to be physically attacked, and having to move and negotiate through that, versus just walking in front of a room and just doing something in front of them and hoping that they like it, and if they don’t…whatever.
And I think from the acting perspective, from as far as the restaurant went, I think the restaurant that I owned actually helped me when it came to development of characters. The life experience from owning that restaurant and all of the adversity that I had to deal with in ways that people that just go to a ‘9 to 5’ have no idea.
The pressure that you feel, the catching people stealing, your employees not showing up to work, if something goes wrong, the electric goes out for no reason and your restaurant is the only one on the block with no electricity, plumbing issues…all these like physical things go wrong.
And then all the things that you have to do with all the different personalities. And then the customers themselves, because I was in a college town, and it was in the middle of a cultural crossroads, local people, college kids, and I met so many interesting characters. Whether I liked them or not, they were etched into my memory forever.
And I’ll read a script nowadays, and I’ll go, ‘I know a guy just like this. He used to come to my restaurant.’ And I’m able to come up with character ideas – that’s from meeting such a wide variety of different people in a four-and-a-half-year span.
I have a catalogue of different types of people in my mind that I can reference at any given time.
FF: Wow, okay, it really did repay you then, that’s brilliant. You co-wrote and starred in multi award winning short film Standing Eight (2016) about a boxer who is forced to retire from boxing after being diagnosed with Lupus. I understand that the movie was created to raise awareness as your mother has the condition. To those who don’t know, can you briefly explain what Lupus is and where people can watch the movie with proceeds going to Lupus research?
KT: Sure, sure. So, lupus is an autoimmune disease wherein the body’s immune system attacks healthy organs and tissues. So basically your immune system is trying to kill you. There is no cure.
The average time to get diagnosed is six years for most people. For my mother, it actually took over 10 years. As we’ve gone on this journey of raising Lupus awareness and whatnot, and my mom has had time to really think about her journey as a Lupus warrior…she thinks that she experienced her first flare at the age of 16, which would have put her at least another 10 years out from the diagnosis.
So really you talk about 20 years, almost…a good 15 years that it took probably for her to get diagnosed. It’s a big chunk of time to not know what’s going on with your body. And that was when she was younger and Lupus didn’t even have the remote amount of awareness that it has now.
Lupus can affect any part of your body. It can affect your brain. It can affect your kidneys. It can affect your lungs. It can affect your heart. It can affect your skin and it really doesn’t have the same type of effects on any different type of patient. So, one person’s symptoms could be completely different from another person’s symptoms, which is what I think is the issue with diagnosing the disease.
Luckily, recently, there have been a lot of strides. There’s a company called Exogen which has developed a very, very important standalone test. Before, for people to get diagnosed with Lupus, they’d go through a series of tests and evaluations. Whereas now Exogen has actually developed a one time test that can not only tell you whether you have Lupus or not but tell you how active it is in your system. And it’s critical for people that are experiencing symptoms but don’t know what’s going on now.
I think we’re in this stage where Lupus is starting to turn the corner with awareness and the reason I say that is just through what happened with COVID-19 and with hydroxychloroquine and whatnot.
Up until a few months ago Lupus was being heard on national television regularly; they were saying ‘hydroxychloroquine is used to treat lupus patients’ etc. And I’d never heard Lupus said so many times on TV in a short period of time.
And that of course, makes people go look it up. And then also, there have been some very prominent people in entertainment that have been diagnosed with Lupus. Ava DuVernay recently came out saying that she had lupus. Selena Gomez just flaunted her scar because she had a kidney transplant because she had Lupus as well. Seal, the singer, the scars that he has on his face are from Lupus. Toni Braxton too.
There’s this ever expanding list of people that are coming forward and saying ‘I do suffer from this disease’, but the idea that just because you suffer from it doesn’t necessarily mean that you can never do anything, it just changes your approach.
But you also have to walk a really fine line because some people have moderate to mild cases. But some people have severe cases and, through social media, I’ve interacted with a lot of people from on that spectrum from mild, those who are still living relatively normal lives, to people who are severe, in the hospital almost every other day.
I’ve even had some people that I’ve followed on social media that passed away since I made Standing Eight (2016). So, it’s something that I think that needs awareness.
There are 1.5 million people that they can confirm in the world that have Lupus, but I would speculate there’s significantly more because of the delay in diagnosing and the lack of awareness, just within the medical community alone.
You know, rheumatologists should know Lupus instantly, but it turns out that they don’t, and you hear all these horror stories about how people’s rheumatologist didn’t even know they had Lupus and misdiagnoses and all these types of things.
So, really the Lupus journey, for me and my mother was really me watching what she was dealing with and never quite understanding it. I had a big revelation when I was in college, and I wrote a paper on Lupus thinking it would be really easy.
I was like, ‘Oh, well, my mom has Lupus, so, I’ll write a paper on it.’ And I sat down and I looked at the science of what was going on with my mother’s body, and why she was getting certain symptoms, and that was kind of like a ‘lightbulb’ moment for me, where I was like, ‘Oh, wow, this is what’s happening with my mom!’
And then when we decided to make Standing Eight (2016). I just wanted to do a project that carried some emotional weight that actually could help people. And it was really kind of just a warm-up with my production team.
We wanted to do a short film together, something straightforward that could show off our talents. And I knew that I wanted to involve the Lupus angle, and then we wanted to involve boxing because at the time I hadn’t been cast as a boxer yet.
Even though I had the background, which was frustrating, and my co-producer was like, ‘Well you want to do boxing, you want to do lupus… Why don’t you just make the boxer get Lupus?’
Then, as you do a little more research, you find out that only 10% of Lupus patients are actually men. We ended up telling the story of a minority group of Lupus patients because men who have Lupus have a really tough journey; it’s basically considered a ‘woman’s disease’. So, I think it was a really good step in the right direction, because there are not a lot of projects that use Lupus as a plot device.
I think raising awareness for a group that has been severely underrepresented in pop culture, in entertainment completely, especially now that you know Lupus affects mostly minority women… I feel like this is a disease that people should know about and be aware of.
So I think that Standing Eight (2016) was just a small step, but it just opened a lot of doors to work with, like, the Lupus community and the Lupus Foundation of America. They were able to use it and offer a tool for people to raise awareness. Support groups would hold screenings.
And it just kind of turned into this thing after we had our run in the film festivals. The film ended up landing on Amazon Prime, and we’re in the US and the UK on Amazon. On Vimeo, we’re available in every single country in the world.
So, I’m really happy with it and I’m happy that it was able to be used for what its original intention was, to help raise awareness for the disease.
And really I look at the film as just a conversation starter, you know, this professional boxer ends up getting sick when he’s preparing for like, the biggest fight of his life, and it turns out that he has Lupus.
It’s a short, so we didn’t have time to draw attention to specific details; the character was experiencing very general symptoms: fatigue and joint pain. He’s forced to retire, because you can’t be a professional fighter and have a chronic autoimmune illness.
And it’s just really about him psychologically dealing with the fact that he can’t fight anymore because of this disease. Not really him dealing with crippling effects of the disease. It’s just it’s more of a psychological thing of not being able to do the thing that you love.
FF: And finally, what are you working on now/next?
KT: I’ve got a couple of projects that are still going to be released, who knows when now. I can’t really talk about them.
There’s a horror film that they haven’t started to publicise yet, called Shimmer (2020), which is about an entity that actually moves through light. Instead of a horror movie that takes place in the dark, this thing moves through light. So, it’s a very interesting take on the horror genre. I’m excited for that to come out. I think it’s a fun project.
I’ve been writing since COVID hit because that’s about the only thing I can do creatively.
Auditions just kind of started to come back in, but it’s been relatively dry. Might have auditioned five times since March 2020, which is fine.
The industry has to take its time to safely come back. I mean, there’s nothing else to be done, so I’ve been developing a feature film using Lupus as a plot device, along the same lines as Standing Eight (2016) involving fighting and lupus.
With a feature film I’m able to elaborate on a lot of these ideas and concepts and, just, flesh out the story and the effects of the disease, and whatnot. So that’s kind of been my baby, but I’ve also, you know, started rewriting a lot of my old stuff because, I figure, why not just update it and at least get it to a point where I can read it without like, feeling myself kind of go ‘Eugh!’.
Yeah, I’ve just been trying to be as creative as possible and I think it’s important for everyone to just stay mentally healthy during a time like this. I think being creative…writing, I even got back into drawing a little bit….it’s just good to have your healthy creative outlet to keep your mind busy and focused on actually seeing something come to fruition. Whether it’s like an idea that becomes a screenplay, seeing it come from conception in your mind to putting it on paper and reading and writing it out, it’s a good sense of accomplishment that I think we all need at this time.
Film lover. Coffee hater. Raising a newborn during a global pandemic and interviewing indie filmmakers in between nappy changes.