Born in Kaunas, Lithuania, Rytis Valiunas first stepped on stage when he was 5 years old, wearing a choir boy uniform. After many concerts and performances, at 15, he started attending after-school acting classes, and discovered yet another passion.
Years later, he earned his BFA in Acting from the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre in Vilnius. He craved experience, growth and walking out of his comfort zone, thus decided to make a big move to New York City.
“If you are not here to chase your dream, then why are you here?” Rytis asks.
I was really impressed by Rytis’ skills when I first saw him perform at the Consulate General of Lithuania in New York. After getting to know him a little bit, I realized that he carries some heavy experiences on his shoulders that many of our readers could relate to. In this interview, Rytis shares his journey as an immigrant actor in New York City.
Rytis, what inspired your decision to move to NYC?
There were many different reasons that influenced my decision to move to NYC. The obvious reason being the fact that this city is the center of everything. It’s one of the biggest cultural hubs in the world. After graduating from the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre I felt that there were still many things that I needed to learn as an actor and a human being so I was keen on finding a place where I could grow. A place that was different from home; a place with plenty of multicultural diversity. Therefore, after months and months of research and planning I found a school that was based in NYC and that held auditions in London. I jumped on the plane to London, auditioned and got accepted. On September 13th, 2015 I landed in NYC ready to start a new chapter of my life at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts – the oldest acting conservatory in North America.
How have you been perceived as a Lithuanian actor in NYC?
I have to admit that New York has treated me very well so far as an international actor. Back home I was never considered to be “exotic” or as someone who has an interesting story of origin. Here, people are quite intrigued and interested in the fact that someone from a tiny country in Europe is on stage.
English is your second language —have you mastered the art of being able to speak in different accents? Has language been a challenge in you profession?
Mastering different accents of the English language is definitely an ongoing process to me.
I am still learning how to speak in a “general American” accent — as we used to call it back in acting school. I find accents fascinating and trying to master one is an art form in itself.
In order to fully express your thoughts and to use your actions in the most efficient and creative ways possible, you need to have an intimate knowledge of the language. Living surrounded by the English language for the last three years certainly helped me. Language is a challenge in my profession. To this day, every script or play or any piece of text that I read — I look up the definitions of words and phrases that I don’t know and also check the ones that I am not sure about. What working with Shakespearean texts back in acting school taught me is that there is no shame in admitting that you don’t know something, as long as you are willing to learn.
What has been your biggest challenge so far living in the U.S.?
There are plenty of challenges being an international artist who’s trying to make a living in the U.S. because there are many restrictions, written and unwritten rules, especially when you are just starting out. The system here is different from many other places. In other countries, it’s unacceptable to not get paid for your work as a professional. Here, however, if you are someone who is just starting out as an artist, you have to be prepared to do a lot of work for free. That helps you build credits and adds to your resume and you make connections. Being paid for your creative work is a very limited joy – rarely will a non-union project pay their actors and even if they do, the wages are generally very low because of the overall budget of these types of projects. It also sometimes feels that if you are a non-union actor — you are either not yet good or known enough for anyone to pay you until you become a member of a union, which is hard for everyone, especially foreigners.
Therefore, all of us who are just beginning, foreigner or not, have to find a way to get some part-time work and juggle our pursuit of an acting career with survival. Most young artists in the city work multiple jobs to support themselves. I do too.
My favorite roles in New York so far are: Barry Bevins in a musical Welcome to America and Damien Dragnova in the immersive experience RED.
Welcome to America was my first musical and I had a chance to work with an incredible ensemble of people. I played a young, successful and confident talent agent, who discovers the protagonist at a local show and promises to make her a star only to leave her and everyone else behind when he gets an opportunity for himself. It’s fun to play the bad guy.
The role of Damien Dragnova was a huge challenge because it was a unique project that created a new level of immersive entertainment, where actors were creating a story with a changing cast and there were a number of different participants in every performance. I grew a lot as an actor during this process.
It really depends on the role and the amount of preparation you have done. Some roles come easier to you, some are harder to switch to and there are so many different ways to get into a role. Sometimes all you need is a gesture, an intention or even a piece of clothing or a prop. Some roles lead you to solitude before going on stage and for some roles you want to chat and joke around with others until you are cued to go on stage. It is a never ending journey of finding your own way in.
I believe that every role I’ve played and studied changed me in some way, shape or form. Creating a role grants you access into someone else’s world. You get a chance to see everything from their perspective and most of the time, your character’s worldview will be very different from your own. And yet, you have to live the role every time you perform it. And I have gained so many amazing insights into the human mind and psyche because of the characters I played – anything from rich young playboy to a person who is terrified of human interactions; from a struggling artist to a king; from a joker to a killer. All of these roles allowed me some insight into the lives I will never live as Rytis. And that for me is a big part of the magic of acting – being able to lend yourself to a different life, even if it is only for a few hours.
Do you prefer acting on stage or on camera?
I am a classically trained actor, therefore, I have spent more time on an actual stage than in front of the camera so far. I love both, but nothing gives me a bigger thrill than being in front of a live theater audience. The energy the audience gives you is incomparable with anything else in life. Theater is moments art – after you’re done with a performance, nothing can duplicate what happened that night. Whereas when it’s film, you can watch it over and over again – and it’s a great way to see yourself from a side, the way your colleagues, directors and audiences see you, and make adjustments. On the other hand, camera work is done in pieces that you do over and over again and it’s more chaotic to tell a continuous story than on stage.
I really admire you for directing two very relevant, socially conscious and women-centric plays. Does My Head Look Big in This? – at a time of rising Islamophobia and cultural misunderstanding, this play is about a typical American high school teen who happens to be Muslim and decides to wear a hijab to school. Twelve Angry Women —about twelve women jurors deciding the case of a 19-year-old guy who was accused of killing his father. How did you decide to direct them? Do you see a future as a director?
Directing was a completely new venture in life for me. I wanted to try my hand at it for some time and when I finally got the opportunity – I leapt at it. Does My Head Look Big In This? was the first play I directed. I chose this play because of its relevance to the current situation of our political climate and because of the material itself. It spoke to me as soon as I started reading it. I liked the writing, the style, and I was thrilled to explore the problems we are facing today. A terror attack happened right before our opening— a truck drove into pedestrians in Manhattan. When we had the rehearsal after the attack, it made us all feel that our work couldn’t be more relevant and that we are talking about issues that are happening quite literally right next to us.
12 Angry Women was a different kind of challenge. I think it’s safe to say that a modern re-imagination of this classic piece with an all-female cast opens up an entire new world of possibilities and that is what I tried to work on. Even though the play is based on a movie released in 1957, it was fascinating to realize how relevant this piece still is and how relatable the characters are today.
I would love to continue working as a director because I think that having had a chance to cast and direct other actors, I became a better actor myself and now have a better understanding of the relationship that an actor and a director should have to create the best possible piece of art. Plus, it was very valuable to experience a different kind of artistic expression from the one that I am used to. I think constantly finding new ways to express yourself is a very important element in an artist’s journey.
What’s your ultimate dream/goal?
My ultimate goal is to inspire people through my work. I would love if after experiencing my performance, people would leave moved – maybe with a feeling they have never felt before or didn’t know were capable of feeling or with a thought that would eventually make them look at the world through a different lens. I would like my art to help people see the positivity and the beauty in the world, whilst still acknowledging the realities and the downfalls of life. In terms of professional achievements – it would be amazing to be recognized for my work nationally and internationally, though not as an end goal, but as a bridge to better opportunities and more interesting projects in the future, and of course, for the possibility to make a name for Lithuanian artists and artists from small countries everywhere.
What advice do you have for other young actors?
First of all, get to know yourselves. Being an artist is a journey inward. We all question ourselves and look inside for answers. Regardless if we find them or not, through the process of asking questions we get closer to knowing who we are, what we stand for and most importantly – what is the meaning of life to us.
Second, embrace your uniqueness. There will be a lot of voices and noise telling you to “do this” or “be more like this” or “you are this.” Don’t let that distract you. Be comfortable and confident in who you are as an artist and what you can offer as a creator.
And lastly, believe in yourselves. Trust me when I tell you that you are the only one that cares about your dreams. If you’re lucky, you’ll have the support of your loved ones, but that is it. Everyone else will be busy with their own dreams and aspirations. That is okay and it doesn’t mean that they are against you. Some people will be, but let them. Our biggest gift as actors is that we can make people believe — and people want to believe. But you can’t make others believe in your work if you don’t believe in it yourself. Lead by example. Be your dream. Invest in yourself to the point where others will want to invest in you.
Notable credits of Rytis Valiunas include originating the role of Grown Son in a production of The Egg-Layers, Barry Bevins in a new musical Welcome to America: A Caribbean Musical, Damien Dragnova in an immersive theater experience RED, Sgt. Thomas Elijah Daniels in Warlovers, the lead role of Antichrist in The Coming of Antichrist and others. Rytis’ Lithuanian credits also include various roles in film.