More than two decades ago, Arvada West (Colorado) High School drama teacher Rosanna Wilkie urged cop-or-DEA-agent-wannabe Kevin Lucero Less to show up for the first day of the school’s South Pacific auditions.
Less’ initial reaction: No way. Why in the world would a future law enforcement officer perform in a musical?
Wilkie assured Less that he wouldn’t have to do much at the audition. All he would have to do is sit and watch.
Less agreed to attend.
About 70 other students joined him.
Wilkie welcomed the hopefuls. When she announced the name of the student she had chosen to do the first reading, Less … heard his name.
“She had conned me,” Lucero, sitting across from me at Once Upon a Bagel in Winnetka, recalls with a stage-wide smile. “You know what else she did? She changed my life.”
Less earned the role of Commander William Harbison and discovered the joys that come with entertaining a rapt, appreciative audience.
Buh-bye, billy club; Hello, Dolly! (or something like that).
“Without Rosanna Wilkie’s encouragement,” Less adds, “I would’ve been a miserable cop or a miserable detective. Or I might have died on the job.”
Less, 40, grew up in the Denver area and in Los Angeles and graduated from the prestigious American Academy of Dramatic Arts (AADA) in Los Angeles in 1999. Among the other AADA products: Robert Redford, Grace Kelly, Spencer Tracy, Lauren Bacall, Adrien Brody, Gena Rowlands and Edward G. Robinson.
“Boot camp for actors,” Less, a Winnetka resident since 2007, says of AADA. “Brutal, the teaching methods. But I wanted to be challenged; I wanted my teachers to be stern, tough. I’ve always appreciated teachers like that.”
Less — a stage/film/television actor, producer and director, as well as a photographer, teacher, painter and lover of industry-changing, enigmatic films from the 1970s — teaches budding filmmakers and actors at DePaul Prep-based Infinity Arts Academy (IAA) in Chicago. He also launched Halo One Productions in 2005 and serves as its artistic director.
“With Halo One, I help fellow artists get on the right path,” Less says above his breakfast order: cranberry juice, ham and cheese omelet and a jam-smeared plain bagel. “I’ve never considered myself an actor; I’m an artist.
“We’re all, in a way, actors, aren’t we?”
Earlier this year, in a play, Surrounded by Leaves, Less staged at IAA to raise money for new equipment, he portrayed a madman. Less’ performance stunned one of his students in the audience. Frightened her. Less, from a spot on stage, noticed the student had gripped the sides of her face and had no intention of letting go.
“She was terrified,” Less, sporting a diabolical look, says. “That’s one of the rewards of what I do — getting that kind of reaction. You want your audience members to laugh when you hope they’ll laugh, sigh when you hope they’ll sigh.”
The pinnacle of Less’ career thus far occurred in 2007, when Sundance Festival named his 30-minute movie, Move Me, an Official Selection. It’s about a father and son, together for the holidays, before the son moves on for the rest of his life. Tension exists when the two interact.
“There’s also a tenderness between the two,” says Less, whose professional heroes, among others, are film director/screenwriter and television producer Michael Mann and playwright/screenwriter/film director David Mamet.
“The father and son,” he adds, “bond as they work on projects together. A toolbox … it’s a character in the film, too. The last scene [spoiler alert] shows the son in the car, driving away. Underneath his coat, in the passenger seat next to him, is the toolbox. The father had placed it there; the message from the father to the son was, ‘I’ll still be with you.’ ”
Bring up the 1974 movie, The Conversation, starring Gene Hackman and a 32-year-old Harrison Ford, and Less will utter one word: “Masterpiece.”
I ask Less for more of his thoughts about movies from that era.
“I watched movies like that with my dad [Phil, an attorney],” recalls Less, who finds time to teach a Cinema Appreciation class at Evanston Art Center. “The VCR years. Remember those? Movies in the 1970s were dangerous and anti-Hollywood, with characters that weren’t so pretty, with endings that made you think. Stanley Kubrick movies — A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, to name a couple … I loved them, loved all of them. I ask my students all the time, ‘What would Stanley Kubrick do?’
“I remind my film students, ‘It’s OK to be exceptional.’ There’s no need to produce or direct another comic-book movie. Do you want to see Batman 500 one day? I know I don’t. I’m all about unique, provocative movies, movies that have something to say.”
Alfred Hitchcock’s movies have spoken to Less. One of Less’ favorite Hitchcock flicks is Rear Window.
Another, Dial M for Murder, hit the theaters in 1954. Less portrayed a character in a play adaptation of the movie more than 10 years ago. Dana Armstrong portrayed the love interest of Less’ character.
Less’ girlfriend of 12 years?
Yet another reason for Less to be thankful for a certain drama teacher’s con.