IN CONVERSATION WITH DAN PAYNE

Dan Payne is a Canadian actor, who is starring in the new feature film ‘Corrective Measures’ opposite Bruce Willis and Michael Rooker, which debuted at the end of April.  A former pro athlete, Dan is well versed in what it takes to keep his body and mind in check.  He’s also a tremendous advocate for mental health.

Dan, you have a very interesting story leading up to your acting career. Before you started acting, you were actually a professional volleyball player in Canada and ended your sports career in the Netherlands. How did being a professional athlete shape you as a person?

I think it was huge. Growing up trying to find a sense of place in the world, I was struggling and to be a part of a team and to have a defined role was great. It gave me an idea of what to push for and how to push for something and then create a way to be successful. Learning how to work hard, the willpower that it took for me to be better at the sport was something that I’ve applied to everything in my life. And being a part of a team and how to be a teammate to others, streaming towards a common goal, is the same thing for me in acting. You’re on a set and everyone there is trying to make this movie, from the guy changing out the garbages to the executive producer. We’re all trying to do the same thing, make a great movie.

A lot of life lessons came from sport. I do also love the demand of performance in front of an audience. I love being on a team and it didn’t come till much later where there was an audience, a crowd, fans actually cheering your team on and I felt an obligation to be the best I could for every moment of that experience. And that unfortunately was a bit of an external drive. Over the course of life I have realized that the internal ones should probably take precedent, but we’re all young once. I tripped all over myself realizing that I love it when people cheer when I do well, so I’m gonna work hard.

You have moved a great deal while growing up, from Canada to Australia and UK. What’s the biggest impact moving around the globe had on you?

The cool part for me of all the moving, which I carried on after I left my home and family to be on my own, was the reflection of self in others, in other cultures and other people. And the ability to see the differences for their beauty and for their strength of creating and reassuring myself of who I am and want to be and showing me things that might make me have a chance of being a better human overall and resilience. When you move that many times, you get to rely on your core family and my brother and sister and I are still best friends to this day because of it. And I’m so grateful for that. Family is extremely important to me, because we were each other’s go-to, the safety net, the fallback for each other for so long. But not only resilience, moving so much also gave us an ability to adapt. We got checked into new schools all the time and we got to new towns and new places a lot. And that resilience, that ability to adapt, those things were essential.

I tried to follow my brother, he’s one of the funniest human beings on the planet. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, as so is my dad. So humor became a great way to cope and manage and just try and make light of a situation and make everyone feel comfortable and then move forward. We joked a lot, we had a lot laughter in our house. 

Which country or place holds the most special place in your life?

I love Australia, it was a huge transitional time for me. I had just finished being a pro athlete, I wasn’t sure where I was headed. I caught up to my brother and lived with him there. And we grew a lot. I mean, we partied and we were morons a lot too, but we did a lot of growing and I would like to say maturing at times. I hold that place very dear. 

Currently, I would love to be in Costa Rica or Mexico. I’ve visited those places for very lengthy amounts of time and there’s something culturally and the pace of life and priorities in those worlds that I absolutely adore. And they resonate really well with me. And then, I do love Canada. I’m proud to be here. I also had an amazing time in Holland playing volleyball. I just want to keep bouncing around. As soon as my kids move out of the house, I’m getting back on an airplane.

While you were in Australia, you became a professional photographer and reawakened your love of the creative arts. What is it about photography that you love so much? 

Photography for me became this ability to frame a moment, to tell people an entire story in one frame. And you get to determine the scope of that frame. So what you do or don’t include in that picture is part of how you tell that story. We shot very specific things that were kind of cookie cutter, but we got to shoot some creative elements as well a lot of times. It is about what is the story I want to tell in that single frame and how do I do it with what I do or don’t frame out and how much space do I leave or cut out. Really just the creative process of being able to tell a story in a single frame was pretty cool and a very fun challenge.

Do you still engage in photography nowadays? 

I do. My kids are my only real subject. I love trying to capture moments, but it’s hard because there’s a candid element to photography that I struggle with, cause I want to also be present in the moment with my boys. So if I have a camera strapped to my face, I’m not actually participating. It’s a bit of a balance. Sometimes a lot of the shots aren’t as candid as I’d like as I love to catch moments, but that means being glued to your camera. And that’s more of a job versus an experience for me with my kids. I’m not as much behind the camera because I’m a dad now and I’ve got two young boys that I just absolutely wanna be as present as I can for.

In your words, why is photography the perferct form of expression?

Because if you get that frame just right, you can capture a single moment for eternity and every time you go back to that image, it’s gonna spark that memory, that feeling, that connection to that experience from that one photo. It’s the same way when you’re watching a moving picture, you’re going to go through the emotions, but it’s a live moment and you are being taken on the journey if it’s done right by the performers, taking you through that universal truth of experience and emotion. But the beauty of a photo for me is that it is uniquely yours. And if it’s just right, you get to go on that journey every time you look at it and feel those feels and have that experience every time. That’s the beauty of that captured moment.

You started your acting career in London and since then your career has continually enjoyed a growing success. Which one of your acting roles stands out the most to you?

Part of me wants to always just say the next one coming, for the new challenge for the new experience, for the new interaction and connection with other actors and artists. And that holds a lot of weight. 

I did a web series called ‘Divine: The Series’ and the people I worked with were incredible, Ivan Hayden and his crew. He’s an incredibly intelligent man and created this unbelievably cool world that touched into so many elements of religion, faith, belief systems, destiny, fate, life purpose and it was all done in this really artistically brilliant way through the story of these imortals, who no longer wanted to be imortal. I wish that had more legs and I wish we could have experienced more of that. So that character holds something for me because I felt like that’s a story untold that I’d love to be a part of telling. 

And the other one was in ‘Devil in the Dark’. I love the movie and it’s not that the movie told a great, incredible story that changed the world or fixed anything, because no movie does. But the experience of the collaborative creation of that story with Carey Dickson, who wrote it and the other actors, we kind of went to war together to create this movie. And at the other end of it, we all felt really proud of our experience and what we had created from what wasn’t a massive budget. It wasn’t a feature  where if something went sideways, just throw more money at it. We had to get it right. And if we didn’t get it right, we had to find a way to get it right with what we had and that kind of going to war with soldiers type of mentality. All cast and crew, everybody involved, we had to get tick checks. Every night after wrap, we’d have to strip down to our underwear and get checked over for ticks. One of the crew guys had one in his belly button and it was a bit of a thing to get it out. I’m talking about creating a movie in terms of soldiers and warriors, but you’re really supported and looked after and everybody there makes it an awesome experience. We did have to do a few of the extras that made the end result feel more collaborative and something you could be proud of.

You’re starring opposite Bruce Willis and Michael Rooker in the new feature film ‘Corrective Measures’, that just premiered at the end of April. The film is set in the world’s most dangerous maximum-security penitentiary, home to the most treacherous criminals. How was it working with such an icon, Bruce Willis? What was the hardest part about shooting this film?

Well, working with Bruce Willis is a bucket list event. He is a legend and an icon. I don’t get too starstruck because I’ve been doing this for a while and it’s more of a respect than “Oh my God”. But Bruce Willis has that presence, he is that guy and I grew up absolutely admiring and loving his work from ‘Moonlighting’ to ‘Die Hard’ to whatever. He was the definition of cool for me. So meeting him, I actually got the butterflies, which is kind of neat, cause it’s been a while since I had those. He was gracious and kind. 

The hard part for me was to make sure that I separated my sense of duty to the job, to do my work and recognition of the opportunity and immediate moment that I was in. I’m supposed to be a big badass criminal and I’d be sitting there “That’s Bruce Willis”. It doesn’t have much badass when you got this goofy smirk on your face and you’re giggling. So finding the balance between doing my job and being present, but also not forgetting that this is an incredible moment and opportunity in my career that I got to and I want to experience. I also don’t wanna get caught just doing my job and focusing solely on that and not recognize that this is Bruce Willis, a guy that I have admired forever and I’m sharing screen with him. And Michael Rooker, let’s not forget. He’s unbelievably cool and probably a tiny bit crazy in the most beautiful way as well.

You have amassed quite the fanbase with Disney’s ‘Descendants’ franchise. What is your favorite memory from this franchise?

That it made my kids think I was cool. I guess my favorite memory is the fact that I got to be a part of something that was as popular as it was for an age group that I now have interest in. I have two boys who are at that age and I want to be able to give them a sense of pride in what I do because of something that they can watch and enjoy. And this happened to be something that was incredible, Kenny Ortega is just an absolute wizard and the sets were just beyond dynamic. They were as bright and colorful as you could possibly imagine. The costumes, the dancers, the stars of the show, they were triple threats. They could sing, dance and act like nobody’s business.

Because I am a parent, it was the ability to be a peripheral parent character. I had the good fortune in that world to take a step back and sponge every bit of knowledge and experience possible because of the position I was afforded to be in. Watching Kenny do his thing, the choreographers do their thing, those kids, the stars of the show manage singing, dancing, performing and acting, I really enjoyed being able to step back and learn as much as I possibly could because of the position I was in for those films.

What excites you the most as an actor? Do you look for anything in particular when you’re taking on new projects?

The biggest excitement for me is to find out what in every new character relates specifically back to me, that I can bring to that character and bring to life. I like to joke that I get to hide in plain sight. When I’m doing it right, I’m tapping into a universal truth that’s connected to me, that I’m using as the filter through to this character. I feel connected to entertaining and performing and storytelling. And I love finding the connection to each character. That’s the thing that drives me the most. 

I definitely don’t wanna shy away from a challenge. What I will look for is if there’s a lack of integrity in that character or story. Everything else to me is an opportunity to learn, grow, experience or be challenged. But if there is a lack of integrity or something that speaks to me in a way that I don’t appreciate or doesn’t resonate, then I feel honored but I have to say no. That’s the only thing I really look for now as an artist, if I can move forward with integrity with this character, with this story. 

May is the Mental Health Awareness Month and you are a huge advocate for mental health. You’ve been open about your own struggles with depression. Can you share a bit more about your journey and how did you manage to get on top of it?

The journey’s ongoing and I’m very aware of the fact that it will be a management type of an idea. I am continuing to learn how to cope and manage with depression now that I’m aware. Awareness has grown from being accountable and responsible and that came from being openly transparent and truthful about it. 

And to answer the other part of the question, how did I get there? The fortunate truth is I got to a very dark place where I was willing to give up the most valuable thing in the world, the opportunity to be here. That darkness scared the hell out of me, because I think if I was comfortable with the thought, I maybe wouldn’t have enacted or acted on it at that time. And it would’ve become more and more comfortable and then I might have gotten to that place where it made sense. But it scared the hell out of me in a way that I recognized the things that have value enough for me to not go there. I still wasn’t aware of the fact that it’s something I have to work on. I still went back to the external and the biggest awareness I have is that I was driven solely by externals because I didn’t have any value for the internal. I’m still learning to feel a sense of self worth and value. The externals were the driving force, but I’m so grateful that I have kids because that was the thought that I had at that moment and I can’t check out because I’m honor bound to be a dad. So I went and told my wife and saying it out loud the first time was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but the best thing I ever did. I gave it a name and I took its power away to some extent, not fully, but enough to be able to start taking control. And as I like to say, regain control of driving the bus as for most of my life, it drove the bus. 

We talked about my sporting career. I’m grateful for it, I have amazing memories from it. I would be curious to know if I did my life all over again and I wasn’t driven by the external reward of recognition for being good at something, how far would I have gone and how much would I have pushed and how much willpower would I have applied to being that level if I wasn’t driven by the need to fill the void that I couldn’t fill myself internally. And that void continues to grow the less you deal with it. The bigger it gets, the more demand it has and the quicker you burn up the thing from the outside. 

I’m on a road defining that equilibrium between the internal and the external and the best part in the world is that when I did say something out loud and talk about it, I found support. The stigma around it is such a horrible thing that it makes you fear that that’s not gonna be true, that you will not find compassion for it because it’s weakness or it means being broken. And it’s not true. Now, for me to know that I’m not alone is one of the greatest gifts. And to know, when you find the strength and courage or somebody helps you find the strength or courage to get that step going, there’s going to be people there, whether it’s talk therapy or going to a doctor and getting some medication that might be right for you or whether it’s that friend who is willing to sit with you and cry with you and hash it out, means everything.

I’m hoping that people find the courage before they get to that darkest point. It’s a scary spot to be in and then it’s even harder and scarier to talk about it because you kind of feel like you’re even in a darker and more lonely space. So I’m hoping that talking about it and letting people know that there’s another side and that there is support and that you’re not alone and that there is a sense of hope, is gonna be valuable to make it so that people don’t have to get to that darker or darkest place.

Mental health is something we as a society don’t speak about publicly enough. How do you believe you as an advocate could help change that and make people realize how of an important issue that is?

That’s a great a question and I don’t yet have the answer. I still feel like I’m early enough in my journey that the position I’m in now with the awareness that I have is the best that I can do to my knowledge. Thank you for the space to talk about it because I don’t know what else to do except to be open, honest and transparent about it, to hopefully help in a ripple effect way. If it’s just one person who reads this and goes “Really, that dude?”, it will have an impact. 

Part of my thing was that I kept hidden because people were like “You can’t be depressed, man. You’re not allowed to, you’re six foot four, you’re not ugly, you’re a frickin’ high level athlete, you’ve got no financial woes”. The list of why you’re not allowed to be depressed was long enough that I was like “Oh yeah, you’re right. Nevermind, I’m good”. And I stayed hidden because I felt that judgment, that stigma. I guess part of me hopes that by talking about it, people will recognize that depression doesn’t give a rats ass what you look like, what you do or how much money you have. It doesn’t care, it is absolutely irrelevant. And I will look forward to finding new ways to hopefully help be a better advocate. But at the moment, I just hope talking about it is helping cause that’s all I really know how to do currently. I’m still trying to get to my own mental health. 

I am here talking to you and I am in a present moment right now in a position where if we do openly, honestly talk about this and somebody reads this and has a mild epiphany or a tiny little revelation, then that’s worth it. 

Besides ‘Corrective Measures’ you have quite a few projects coming out in 2022. What can you tell us about them, without of course giving away too much?

There’s a season four of a show that is fairly popular on Netflix. I can’t say what it is, but I get to get married to a girl that I think is a fantastic actress. We had a lot of fun and I love the show. I know that it’s popular for a good reason and I’m excited to be a part of it. 

Other than that, I’m writing a script with a friend of mine in Florida, that I’m really excited about. Any kind of creative endeavor that gives me that sort of soul satisfaction is fun. And then I’m looking forward to more auditions, more work and continuing the dream.

Interview by JANA LETONJA

Photography: David Tenniswood
Casting: Timi Letonja

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