PHOTOGRAPHY AND STORY BY MICHAEL WILLIAMS
You probably know him better as “Juice”, or maybe “Shades”, and nothing would make Theo Rossi happier. Theo values his anonymity but even more so he wants you to remember him for his onscreen performances rather than for his off-screen life.
Born and raised on Staten Island NY Theo Rossi takes nothing for granted and applies an intense work ethic to everything he approaches. A chance encounter pulled him from the uncertain life of a young hustler into an equally uncertain, but more law abiding, life of an actor. By applying his hustler nature to acting Theo Rossi soon gained the trust of noted casting directors and there’s been no looking back since.
Whether it’s volunteering to rebuild his hurricane battered childhood neighborhood, running all night relay marathons with comedian Kevin Hart, building a water company, chasing around his young son, or changing the face of acting, Theo Rossi does it all with a sense of gratitude and passion. His much-loved anonymity is now becoming a thing of the past.
Imagista: How did you first get into acting?
Theo Rossi: My life was in no shape or form heading in the direction of acting. I’ve been working and hustling since I was young. My life, at the time I became interested in acting, really wasn’t going in a positive direction. I had the mindset of doing whatever I had to do to get by,
Imagista: You grew up on Staten Island?
Theo Rossi: I grew up in Staten Island and New York City and there was a very hustle mind attitude…a few, I’ll just “occurrences” happened in my life and in the lives of people I knew I was heading in a direction where I knew that, eventually there’d be some bad consequences.
I had friend who was taking an acting class and he invited me to audit the class and something about it clicked for me. I ended up auditioning for a few parts and somehow landed some roles despite not really having any training.
I decided to move to LA with my friends and to go for it. My hustle mindset and that mentality kicked in and I said to myself that if I’m going to do this then I’m going to do this at the highest level possible.
In my mind the only way to do things at the highest possible level is to inundate yourself with knowledge. I studied the history of film and TV. I wanted to know where it all started and who were the best people in the industry. I completely and utterly immersed myself with the artistic strokes behind acting and the industry. That was seventeen years ago
Imagista: Seventeen years ago?
Theo Rossi: Yeah, I’m a seventeen-year overnight success. I’m one of those guys; the story that no one talks about. I’m that guys who started out as an extra. I did extra work to get my SAG (my union) card. Then I had one line on a TV show, then two lines in and indy film…and then I did a guest star, and then a co-star…I’ve worked my way through even single inch of this business. And then, in 2008 my entire life changed when I was cast in “Sons of Anarchy” and it’s been an incredible ride ever since.
Imagista: How did your role, as Juice, come about in “Sons”?
Theo Rossi: Again, I’m a big believer in life that the signs are always there. The question is whether or not you chose to see them or not. I got into acting by seeing one sign and choosing to pay attention to it. When it came down to “Sons” it was a similar thing. I had developed an incredible relationship with this one casting director. I had worked so hard on every small role that she had cast me in. She was getting great feedback on me with regards to how hard I worked. How I showed up early. How I stayed late. How I did everything I was asked to do and more.
She was casting a show called “Forever Sam Crow” which was of course an early title for “Sons of Anarchy”. She thought i’d be a great fit for the series and even more so because the creator, of the show, Kurt Sutter, was originally from New Jersey and we shared a similar background.
She actually originally brought me in to audition for the role of Jax Teller but, seeing as I’m not a male model, that didn’t work out (laughs). I auditioned for a few other roles, some roles that never made it to the show itself. I didn’t get any of those roles. I was slightly disappointed but I had a lot of other things going on.
“Sons’ really appealed to me though because I could relate to a lot of it. I was raised by an uncle who rode motorcycles and he had recently passed away. I felt that it was a sign that I was supposed to do that show. Eventually I got a call from the casting agent saying that Kurt Sutter wanted to speak with me and that he had a role that he wanted to try out with me. Kurt said “listen, I don’t know if you’re going to be in one episode or a hundred. I don’t know if you’re going to be in one episode or a hundred but I really like you and I want to create this role and whatever happens happens.
My agents at the time said that I’d be a fool to take the role and I said I’m going to take it.
Imagista: Why did your agent at the time think you shouldn’t take the role?
Theo Rossi: They thought that it was way too risky, that I could have been on for one episode or only had one line. They thought that by taking those two weeks out I might be missing other important opportunities.
But I always believe that you’ve got to lead with your gut and lead with your instincts and my instincts kept telling me that this was something so much bigger than it even was. That god my instincts were right.
Imagista: Thank god for the fans too. Juice is one of the most intriguing characters on “Sons”. What was it like working with Kurt and working on that show?
Theo Rossi: It was creatively fantastic because Kurt is super interactive with his actors and ever season before things got started he’d sit down with you and go over the broad strokes of the season ahead and what was going to happen with your character.
The funny thing is that for the first three seasons he and I never really had that conversation because Juice wasn’t an integral part of the show yet. I was just one of the guys in the club so I’d show up to work and they’d write some funny stuff for me here and there.
It wasn’t until this period in season three and season four when Kurt called me in for a meeting on our off time. I was thinking that this either means one of two things: either I was getting killed off or he’s going to tell me something and he did. He said “listen, I’m going to try something out with the story line…with your dad, and the sheriff”… and he gave me the broad strokes of it and I was like “whoa, that’s amazing!”. I was so excited and what was really cool was that the audience responded so well to Juice that the role really built up. Juice really became this four dimensional character, and I say four dimensional because he hard this extremely well thought out and well rounded character was started out just as us trying something. It was a amazing.
Imagista: Juice’s character on “Sons” is arguably one of the show’s most nuanced and richest characters as well as one of the most vulnerable characters. How did you reconcile Juice’s vulnerability as a character with his outlaw biker personality?
Theo Rossi: I think that my job as an artist, as an actor, is to bring an authenticity to the character. I felt that, when I started discovering this guy (Juice) and through the road map that Kurt had laid out, that Juice was just longing for acceptance and that he wanted a family, that he wanted a tribe to belong to, because he’d never had a family. I had this lost boy, Peter Pan feeling for Juice.
Everybody is the hero of their own story. I don’t think Juice ever felt that he was a bad guy. Even though he did some heinous things he was always doing them to protect others and keep them out of trouble. I think people loved him so much is because he was such a gentle soul. My job was infuse that into him. I wanted people to feel for Juice even as he was doing some terrible things.
I always want to do is to create duality with my characters. have both sides of the coin, the yin and the yang, the light and the dark. Just like with anything I try to live in the margins with my characters. A lot of characters are written within the lines…as in “bad guy”, “good guy”, “husband”…I try to go within the margins and try to explore there.
Michael/Imagista: Let’s fast forward to 2017. Can you tell us about this new character, “Shades”, that you are playing? How you prepare to play a Marvel character vs. how you prepared for “Sons of Anarchy”?
Theo Rossi: The prep work is actually very similar. To me “Sons” in way was a living graphic novel. It was almost like a comic book with all the larger than life characters that were almost like comic book characters. It was almost like “Guardians of the Galaxy” on bikes. With “Cage” we enter and explore this extremely culturally rich world of Harlem. Shades is this fringe character that skates this line. The difference between Shades and Juice on “Sons” is that Juice was a side stepper whereas Shades he’s the one that’s throwing the things that people try ot step out of the way of. Shades dictates the action.
There are leaders and there are followers in this world. It’s just a fact. So to play someone who feels he’s smarter than everyone else, who really leads is versus follows is a very different thing.
What Marvel (with Netflix) does so well is to ground these stories and characters in reality even though they are superhero shows. It’s almost like an afterthought that they are super hero shows.
“Sons” opened every door possible for me in everything. I met my wife through “Sons”. I have my child because of “Sons”. Now I am able to go out and actively seek out these extremely different characters where each one I play is so different than the next. What I hope is that I can continue that. I said right when I entered this business that I never want to be put in a box and this business can be nothing but a box and I’m not climbing in it.
I don’t want to be put in a box. I just want to be different all the time and because of that I want to protect my anonymity. I love that when I walk down the street people yell out, Juice, and Shades, and Ghost. They never really say Theo and I actually love that. If people say to me, “I’m so sorry, I don’t know you name”, i’m like that’s great, I’m glad you don’t know my name. Once I lose my anonymity I think I become less believable because then they’ll know about my life. But then again we live in a world of social media where people crave to know as much about you as they can and if they don’t know then you can become lower on the totem pole. The trick now is how I balance those things.
Imagista: How has having kids affected your career?
Theo Rossi: It’s changed everything. Becoming a dad has almost put my career on steroids in a way because more importantly than ever I want to let my kids know that they can do absolutely anything that they want to. So I have to set the example by showing them that, that they can do absolutely anything.