The Modern Renaissance Man: Michael Knowles on Art, Politics and Jimmy McMillan

MichaelKnowles
// WEEKEND

A man of action, Michael Knowles ’12 jets between New York City and Los Angeles for his acting career, while pursuing his other passion — politics. He has worked with Jimmy McMillan, founder of the Rent is Too Damn High Party, Congresswoman Nan Hayworth and former presidential candidate Jon Huntsman Jr. In New York City, Knowles currently studies under Wynn Handman, the artistic director of The American Place Theatre, who has trained actors including Denzel Washington and Lauren Graham. Although Knowles does not often combine his passions in acting and politics, given his belief that we should leave politics out of art, he uses his acting skills to enhance his political ventures, such as hosting a lively web show with McMillan. And if dual pursuits of acting and political fame were not enough, Knowles is also the first translator of Machiavelli’s play, “The Girl from Andros,” which he translated for his senior thesis. WKND took a moment to pick Knowles’ brain on making it in acting post-Yale, making America a better place, parading on Columbus Day and indulging his love of cigars on the side.

 

Q. You recently starred in Great Caesar’s music video “Don’t Ask Me Why.” How did you get involved with that, and what was it like to be in it?

A. It’s always great to work with Yalies. What’s funny about that video is actually I had no idea it was for Great Caesar when I auditioned and got the part. Actors go on live auditions all the time, and that was one. It was a particularly interesting audition. There was a lot of improvisation. When I showed up to the set in Connecticut, John Michael Parker ’10 came up behind me and said, “Hey man! What are you doing on my set? How did we get you?” And I said, “That’s a hell of a coincidence!” He’s the lead singer of Great Caesar. I saw them during Spring Fling, and I knew him around campus, and the other band members as well. One response I heard when someone saw me in the video was “Michael, that is just so unbelievable. I just cannot express my disbelief when I saw that video. There is no way you would be in a football uniform.” I appreciated that response.

Q. Have you done similar gigs?

A. I did an MTV video about six months ago. When I got the part initially, I was the hero role, and I got to beat up the bad guy, and I got the girl. I’m not a particularly large or formidable man. And when I showed up on set, they said “Okay Michael, here are the rewrites.” And it turned out that I was actually getting beat up and I was getting dragged out of the bar, but it was fun to do anyway. But originally after Yale, I came to New York to cut my teeth in theater and to train with Wynn Handman at his acting studio. The man is incredible. He still teaches four classes a week, really intensive. Because it’s a professional team, most actors are working in plays or films around New York. I’ve been performing in plays and films around New York and obviously going out to LA when that’s where the action is.

Q. How have you been involved in politics? And how does acting couple with your political activity?

A. The skills of an actor pretty naturally translate into politics. To borrow a phrase from George Bernard Shaw, “Acting is a revelation of mankind to itself.” So it’s not the priesthood or the military, but it still seems to be a noble vocation. In both acting and politics, you need to love people. I started to become politically active in 2010 with Congresswoman Nan Hayworth. I often use the skills that I’ve developed in the last 15 years of being an actor, whether that’s making political music videos for Nan Hayworth, doing TV commercials with Jimmy McMillan about the national debt or giving speeches with Jon Huntsman in New Hampshire. My how-ever-many-great-grandfathers sailed on the Mayflower and my how-ever-many-great-grandfathers fought and died at Bunker Hill. They served at Valley Forge with George Washington. And here I am performing in plays and films. And yet when I think about their sacrifices, and I see an opportunity that I can be of some use in any way, I just can’t help but become politically involved.

Q. Were you acting before you became involved in politics?

A. I’ve always been interested in both, but I’ve been acting since I was seven years old. Before Yale, I studied at the Stella Adler Studio in New York and now with Wynn. You know, they say that politics is showbiz for ugly people. But I do find it’s sort of like that line in “The Godfather”: “Just when I’m out, they pull me back in.” When I came to New York, I got a call from Hayworth. There had been a scandal with her former spokesperson, and she asked me if I would step in and be her new one. And I said I was flattered, but I really didn’t have the time, and I was pursuing other things in New York. She came down and said, “Let’s have dinner.” By the end of dinner and drinks, she had persuaded me that this campaign was important for the country and it was my duty to help. In senior year of college, because I had been involved with Hayworth and Jon Huntsman, I formed a company with a few political veterans in the Hudson Valley called Red Pillar Consulting, which has allowed me to advise and direct campaigns of some politicians I’d like to help. When it comes to politics or entertainment, I like action. I don’t like just sitting around and having academic discussions about plays or strategies or politics. That’s important, too, but after the policy discussion, I like to get up and do it.

Q. How did you get involved with the Rent Is Too Damn High Party, and are you still hosting the webshow with Jimmy McMillan?

A. With our schedules, we’ve had to do it less frequently. I met Jimmy in 2011 because I was leading a national student effort to draft Daniels to run for president. The central issue for that campaign was our ballooning national debt, our annual trillion dollar deficits. I had the idea to air the first TV ad of the 2012 cycle. I wrote up a little sketch about it and the crux of it was the debt and deficit are too damn high. And we thought, how could we get this message across in a compelling minute or 30-second ad that we can air? Jimmy had just run for governor of New York very famously for the Rent Is Too Damn High Party. I thought, “I gotta get this guy involved.” So I called him, and he picked up and did it for very little money, essentially just travel costs. It starred Jimmy, CoCo [Courtney] Pannell ’11, and me. It got some views on Youtube and made the front page of Politico. CNN came up and did a story on it. Jimmy really helped with that campaign. Washington Post came to Yale to do a story on it. I think it’s safe to say that Jimmy had a greater impact on national political discourse than on rent controls in New York City.

Q. What kinds of acting gigs are you currently or planning on getting involved in? And are they at all related to politics?

A. I generally think that entertainers should keep their mouths shut and do their job and entertain, and not turn art into politics. Art that is political or ideological is not very good.

Q. Do you try to separate the two?

A. I do. My political activities I undertake because I have certain skills being an actor and a communicator and because I care about the condition of the country. Really, I just can’t resist. Art that is ideological — it just misses the point of the practice.

Q. Have you ever considered directing?

A. I have. I directed a bit at Yale. While I was working on the political stuff in college, I was directing film, opera — I ended up directing a play for Ariel Shepherd-Oppenheim ’10. I particularly enjoy directing opera because I’m not a very good singer, so it’s always such a pleasure. I prefer acting to directing. Directing is very aggravating. You’re responsible for everything. Actors are almost always irresponsible and difficult to wrangle. One thing I like about opera is that when all those frustrations reach their peak, I can sit back and listen to beautiful music and that would calm me down. I enjoyed translating as well. To speak of melding my political and artistic interests, that probably came to most fruition when I translated Machiavelli’s first play, “The Girl From Andros,” and produced it at Yale. What was very funny about that — just last September, I got a call from the Italian cultural institute in New York asking me if I would be interested in having a float in the Columbus Day Parade to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Machiavelli. It was fantastic. A float, a microphone on Fifth Avenue, who could ask for more?

 

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