An actor, producer, and writer by trade, Ivan Shaw is one to keep your eye out for. Steadily paving his way through both film and Television, you may recognize him most for his recent work in shows like HBO’s Insecure, Hulu’s Casual, and USA Network’s Pearson. Now he is stepping into the horror realm with his latest role as Henry Cask in NOCTURNE, one of four films being released this month as a part of the WELCOME TO THE BLUMHOUSE series.
For the release of NOCTURNE, I got a chance to chat with Ivan Shaw, where we discussed the psychology of his character, how he reflected on his own experiences in classical music while working on NOCTURNE, and what it was like working and collaborating with the director Zu Quirke.
To start things off, can you talk to us a bit about your character?
Ivan Shaw: I play Henry Cask, who is like the hotshot teacher at the school. He’s extremely strict and very very stiff. He’s got this air of arrogance. He’s a very difficult teacher to have if you’re a student and I think the story of Cask is a story of a guy who just ultimately never achieved his dreams. And he really excelled in this one field but he just fell short and ended up as a high school teacher. I don’t think anybody that at one point in their life was considered great in their discipline ever strives to, you know, shoots for the middle. I think Cask had dreams of conducting and performing all over the world and then just, you know, one day realized that that wasn’t his destiny. And, by virtue of that, that has caused a lot of suffering in him and it shows in his approach to music and his approach to discipline and his approach to students.
I thought your character’s development over the course of the film was really interesting. He almost comes across as the devil on their shoulders, you know, encouraging that ambition at the expense of each other. In terms of figuring out that dichotomy between that devilish quality as well as the incredibly human aspect of his character, how did you go about tackling that?
Ivan Shaw: Well, I think a couple of things. I think, you know, by virtue of the amount of suffering that he’s experienced, that has caused him to go inward to some degree and not show very much until moments later on in the film. But, I also think there’s a quality of him, because of the environment that he exists in and because of it not being the global stage that he actually wants, I think that that causes a desire for a little bit of the gamesmanship and the kind of puppeteering and the desire to pin people against each other, control them and manipulate them and I think that’s all exciting for him beneath the skin. And I think that’s all a result of his specific psychology.
Well, it’s interesting you bring up psychology because there are moments where I was wondering does he know the type of damage that he’s inflicting on his students? With his manipulations?
Ivan Shaw: Yeah. I think he’s aware of it because I think he’s a product of it. You know, I think when you grow up in that world, you don’t have very many options and I think he was directly a product of that kind of philosophy. You have to learn it somewhere and he was certainly taught that from the time he was a very young child and now this is all he knows.
What was also interesting to me was that the academy is this natural pressure cooker, but it also seemed like a little slice of what it’s like to work in the entertainment industry period. There’s open knowledge that there’s little positions and roles available here. Do you agree that it’s almost like a glaring example of that?
Ivan Shaw: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. When you break down the numbers from the statistical point of view, the entertainment industry is one of the worst. So, absolutely. It’s completely comparable to that. It’s extremely competitive and can be very uninviting at times and can be very dark at times and can be very challenging. And I’ve seen it bring out great things in people and have seen it bring out horrible sides in people as well. I’ve seen people go crazy in this town. It’s difficult.
Also, building on the entertainment industry, it’s very subtle in the film but it gets brought up that your character has been sleeping with a student, which creates a whole other dimension to the power dynamic and the abusive tendencies within that industry as well. Can you discuss a bit about that? Because it’s really subtle.
Ivan Shaw: It’s very subtle and it comes out in little moments here and there. And again, it’s a product of a person that’s extremely damaged that never dealt with his own demons. The type of person that allows himself to do stuff like that or that wants to do stuff like that didn’t come from a good family. He’s been traumatized himself and he’s extremely damaged and that’s one of his outlets is to control and manipulate people like that.
In terms of research, what specifically did you look at to sort of inform your character?
Ivan Shaw: I remember, because of how abbreviated my prep time was before, I remember really diving into the psychology of this guy, and then when it came to the physicality of the conductors, it was a lot of my conversations with Zu [Quirke]. Because we talked a lot about stillness and the minimalistic approach to what a person of that stature would do to communicate with his students. Mainly, barely even moving a finger to get them to stop playing, you know? There’s just absolute control. It was really born out of looking at why this person is damaged in the first place and why he does all of these things and how, by virtue of that, he exists in this world of classical music.
That makes a lot of sense because, as you mentioned, conductors are essentially the puppetmasters of the orchestra.
Ivan Shaw: And I also have a good portion of growing up around music and I have played classical music growing up and I played in band and I’ve been around all that. So, I understand what’s it like to be demoted from first chair to second chair. [laughs]
Again, that competitiveness. It’s so intense.
Ivan Shaw: It’s so intense. And when I was in Junior High, I had a horrible teacher that was very controlling, maniacal. He was just a bad person. He would just yell at students. He was not a pleasant human being to be around, but he was a music teacher and I played trumpet in classical band and jazz band. This movie certainly made me think a lot about those times.
Switching gears a little bit, what was it like working with Zu Quirke?
Ivan Shaw: Zu is a rockstar. She’s incredibly intelligent and she’s got such a unique voice and just an interesting perspective. She is so interesting herself and she was great to collaborate with. I just wish we had more time leading up to it because it all happened so fast and we were thrown into it. But we did sit down before the shoot and we went over everything and I was just really impressed by how well thought out every single thing was and also how connected and how well it all tracked from a writing standpoint as well. It was great. She comes from that world and she had a lot of interesting insight into that type of dynamic and that type of sacrifice and that type of torture you have to endure.
I’ve been reading up on her and her experiences definitely show throughout the course of NOCTURNE because it’s a very specific environment.
Ivan Shaw: Yeah. And you watch her two short films, which I did before I started this movie, and you just get this sense that, there’s a specific stylistic choice there and that’s very resonant of her and I find that all very fascinating about how well she can communicate all that through film.
To wrap things up, what would you like audiences to take away from NOCTURNE?
Ivan Shaw: With stuff like this that’s so specific, thematically, I hope they take away whatever they really want to, but I just hope they really enjoy it. Get a couple of scares here and there. It’s up to them whether or not they feel like they identify with this message of sacrifice and the things you have to endure in order to be great. I guess, if anything, it’s a bit of reflection in this crazy, crazy time.
NOCTURNE is now available for viewing exclusively on Amazon Prime Video. To learn more about the film, check out our capsule review. Or check out our interviews with Jacques Colimon and Madison Iseman.
This interview was edited for clarity and length.