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Nick Rolfe: The Singer's Actor
by Andrew Davis
2008-04-01

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Add soul pianist Nick Rolfe to the long list of musicians ( from Cher to Snoop Dogg ) who have made the leap to the acting world. However, gauging from the reactions to his role in the HBO movie Bernard and Doris—where he played Susan Sarandon's piano-playing lover—the LGBT-friendly talent may very well be successful on the thespian and musical fronts. Rolfe recently talked with Windy City Times about high school, Jimi Hendrix and love-making ( on camera ) .

Windy City Times: What is your background?

Nick Rolfe: I was born in Philadelphia, but only lived there for about four years. Then, I relocated with my family to Seattle, Wash. The way my parents tell it, whenever somebody tickled the ivories in the piano in the house, I started screeching and hollering, so they figured, 'Oh, he wants to play the piano.' So I started taking lessons when I was six, and that's how I got into music.

WCT: And then you pursued music in school?

NR: Oh, yeah. I studied classical piano until high school. Piano was not cool in high school so my parents told me I could quit. But, obviously, music is in my blood; it called me back in my senior year in high school. I played sports, but music was always in the back of my mind.

WCT: How many CDs have you released?

NR: Four. My very first one was an all-instrumental jazz record for Bluejay Records; it came out in 2000. Then, I released three records on my own label. The most recent, The Mind of an Evolutionary, got picked up by Columbia Japan and they remixed it—so, technically, I have five CDs out there. [ Laughs ]

WCT: Speaking of evolutionary, how would you say your music has evolved?

NR: I've spent a lot of time trying to develop my sound with all the different music influences I've had; I grew up in a very eclectic household, musically. I grew up listening to everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Cat Stevens to Kool and the Gang to classical music to Thelonious Monk, and I liked it all.

I would say that I've developed a sound that I'm satisfied with at this particular point, [ but ] it's always changing.

WCT: Did you watch this year's Grammys?

NR: I watched the very end; I don't usually watch them too much. [ Laughs ] I'm not really satisfied with where the music industry is in this country. I respect musicians making a living, but I feel like record labels, and the industry in general, are not supporting anything that's new. So I've distanced myself from checking out a lot of the mainstream stuff. I did see it this year because Herbie Hancock was on it and he won Album of the Year.

WCT: The music industry seems so different than it was in the '70s or even the '80s. Musicians have said that the labels used to nurture their artists more back then.

NR: It's so crazy; there's no such thing as artist development anymore—although it seems to be creeping back in. There are companies that are doing digital-only record deals, which is a slick idea. Unfortunately, there's a ton of tremendous musicians out there who are getting no sunshine. [ Artists ] have to start thinking outside the box.

WCT: Who would your dream collaborator be, living or dead?

NR: That's tough. I'd love to get together with Sting; he's a bad cat. He has a lot of different influences in his music, and he has strong [ skills ] and nice lyrics. I got a chance to meet him; we opened for him in Finland a couple of years ago, and it was cool to meet him.

Now as far as [ deceased ] musicians, I'd have to say [ John ] Coltrane and Hendrix.

WCT: You wonder what kind of music they'd be putting out now.

NR: Oh, yeah. They'd be doing—and, excuse my French—some crazy shit. Those guys were not about playing status quo music. Look at what Coltrane was playing before he died; he was playing some really experimental stuff. I think that [ today ] they'd be into the technological side of music.

WCT: Any crazy concert experiences?

NR: No. The rock-and-roll guys get to see the crazy stuff. [ Laughs ] Something amazing that I experienced, though, was playing in France [ in ] this huge ancient amphitheater with these giant stone steps carved into the cliffside. Playing at Carnegie Hall was definitely amazing; I played for Dave Chappelle. That was one to remember. [ Laughs ]

WCT: Let's talk about Bernard and Doris, which is about heiress Doris Duke and her gay butler. How did your role in this movie come about?

NR: It was a 'six degrees of separation'-type thing. I went out to play on a episode of The West Wing, and I got a little of the fever when I was on the set. I've always wanted to act, but I didn't know how to get into it—but I thought the music might lead me there.

One day my manager called and said, 'You're not going to believe this. They want you to be in a movie with Susan Sarandon.' I said, 'What!?' A friend of mine, Sarah Hill, recommended me to the casting director because they were looking for a real musician to play the role.

I went to audition. Bob [ Balaban, the director ] liked me, and I met Susan the next day. I was fortunate to be with such tremendous figures and learn. It was a dream come true.

WCT: How intimidated were you?

NR: Honestly, I wasn't as intimidated as I thought I would be. When I went out to the set, I said 'Wow.' And there was no rehearsal— [ with ] my first scene being my last [ appearance ] in the movie. I was like, 'What am I supposed to do?' What helped me was being a professional musician, so I was able to fall back on being a performer. The acting side was a different side for me; I'd never be audacious enough to say, 'Oh, yes. Acting was nothing for me.' I had to go with my instinct and listen to what they said, and it was a positive experience for me. [ Acting ] is something I'm pursuing right now.

WCT: I have to ask: How mechanical were the love scenes?

NR: I think, in my very limited experience, that it depends on the love scene and the chemistry. The one with Susan did feel mechanical because it was your stereotypical movie-set love scene; there were lots of people, a boom mike and choreography. Now the love scene with the maid in the kitchen was different because it was just us in the room. It got a little more heated—let me put it like that. [ Laughs ] I think it was a little embarrassing for everybody.

See www.nickrolfe.com .


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