Chat with ... Max Samuels, former Staples Player, actor on the rise
WESTPORT — Staples High School is known for producing creative professionals, and actor Max Samuels is among the constellation of artistic Staples grads on the rise.
With recent appearances in the TV shows “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and an off-Broadway debut in the play “Angry Young Man” in 2017, Samuels, 25, is living the life of a young actor in New York City and admits, “It’s a doozy. It’s been really exciting.”
Growing up in Westport, Samuels’ parents, Steven and Judy Samuels, appreciated the arts and took Samuels and his two younger sisters, Rachel and Zoe, to plays, Broadway shows and movies and inspired his passion for theater.
“I kind of knew I wanted to be an actor before I knew what that meant. I would put on little performances in my basement with my sisters,” Samuels said.
Samuels caught the theater bug in sixth-grade at Bedford Middle School when he performed in his first play, “Honk!,” the musical tale of “The Ugly Duckling,” under the guidance of Bedford’s then theater director Kevin Slater.
“He was a terrific mentor of mine and really treated us like professionals and instilled in us the idea that the most important thing in the theatrical setting, but really in any setting, is to be someone people want to continue to work with,” Samuels said.
Throughout middle school, Samuels performed in musicals with Westport’s Center Stage Theatre Company run by Jill Jaysen, who led the students in developing their own plays, an experience Samuels said he could not have gotten in many other towns.
At Staples, Samuels said he became a “full-time extracurricular theater practitioner,” as a result of the wealth of productions the high school put on each year. “My Staples Players chapter was so important. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now if it weren’t for that chapter of my life,” Samuels said.
From his humble beginning role as a set of spoons in a Players performance of “Beauty and the Beast” his freshman year, Samuels said he was in awe of the organization’s resources and the talented older theater students that served as role models.
“I think it’s no coincidence that there are so many talented actors and directors that come out of Staples. It’s definitely more nurture than it is nature. It was a cool thing to do. We all took it so seriously that of course people were going to hone their skills and get better. That was the expectation,” Samuels said.
By his senior year, Samuels was 85 percent sure he wanted to pursue acting as a profession. But he instead chose to attend Dartmouth College over an acting conservatory program because he wanted a broader education and to continue studying Chinese, which he began at Staples. Samuels appeared in 13 productions and readings at Dartmouth, performed in the improv comedy group Casual Thursday, and graduated magna cum laude in 2015 with degrees in both theater and Chinese.
While at Dartmouth, Samuels studied abroad at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art and fell in love with Shakespeare and heightened text. Craving more vocational training to supplement his liberal arts background, Samuels returned to LAMDA after graduation for a one-year master’s in classical acting. The program emphasized process over product and only put on one public show per year, Samuels said.
“It was nice to have this exploratory, laboratory-type environment, which you certainly don’t get in the real world. I think not being afraid to fail is the key to making good art in general, but particularly for theater, you fail and then the good stuff comes,” Samuels said.
Following LAMDA, Samuels played Scrooge’s nephew Fred in a run of “A Christmas Carol” at the Northern Stage in White River Junction, Vt., and then moved to Manhattan. In addition to his two small TV spots and a performance in the four-person British farce “Angry Young Man,” Samuels has performed in an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler” and often works in new play development.
Samuels keeps jobs as a cater-waiter and tutor in the Fairfield County and Westchester suburbs to get through slow periods, and dreams of getting to a point where he consistantly acts in interesting and varied work, including both TV and theater. Though he said he would never want to give up the latter.
“There’s something about that live element that I think we as a society and a culture need now more than ever, perhaps as an antidote to so much that is impersonal and via screen or via like or post. I think there’s something so important about getting a bunch of people into the same room and grappling with ideas. I never want to stop doing that,” Samuels said.