Stars' Torquil Campbell on playing a murderous con artist onstage
Canadian synth-pop idol feels strange connection to subject of true-crime story
As frontman for Montreal synth-pop perennials Stars, Torquil Campbell is no stranger to drama, with songs that routinely leave a trail of tears and broken hearts, as well as the occasional dead body. But he comes by his artifice honestly: a professional actor since childhood, Campbell subsidized his early efforts with Stars by taking bit parts on Law & Order and Sex and the City, and he once starred opposite Philip Seymour Hoffman in an off-Broadway production of Shopping and F***ing . You could say acting is the family business — Campbell's late father, Douglas, brought the Bard to life for 50-plus years at Stratford, and his wife, Moya O'Connell, is a fixture at the annual Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.
"The source from which art springs is often quite malevolent, selfish and dark." - Torquil Campbell, Stars frontman and actor/playwright
But while Campbell's lifelong musical obsession with '80s greats like The Smiths and Prefab Sprout is well documented, he returns to the theatre this week with a one-man show that reveals a more unlikely teenage fascination: tawdry true-crime TV. Produced in conjunction with Toronto's Crow's Theatre and premiering Friday at Calgary's High Performance Rodeo festival, The Rockefeller Project is Campbell's treatise on Christian Gerhartsreiter, the German con artist known as Clark Rockefeller (among many other aliases) who's currently serving a life sentence in California for murder. But as Campbell relays over the phone from Vancouver, The Rockefeller Project isn't just a recap of a criminal's life — it's an examination of the uncanny correlations to his own.
How did this interest in Clark Rockefeller develop?
When I was, like, 13 years old, I wouldn't go out because I had to watch Unsolved Mysteries. I watched that show endlessly, along with Dateline and 48 Hours. I find the stories absolutely fascinating. So when Clark Rockefeller was arrested for kidnapping his daughter in 2009, I recognized him as a person I had seen in 1993 on Unsolved Mysteries, but at that time, he was being sought under a different name, Christopher Chichester, in connection to the disappearance of two people from San Marino, California.
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So I started looking into this guy and I found a Vanity Fair article about him. I saw a picture of him and he looked like me and I started to realize that a lot of what he had been trying to do for a long time was impersonate someone quite a lot like myself — he was trying to be an effete East Coast preppy WASP, and that's what my family is! [laughs] We look alike, and we wear the same kind of glasses, and we have the same tastes in things… the similarities started to get really eerie. And I started to think, "What would it be like if I tried to become this guy?"
Is your show a monologue or is it performance?
It's very much a play, and I play not only myself and [Rockefeller], but also a bunch of other people. The play isn't finished yet — I've been writing it for three years and it's something like 350,000 words, most of which will never see the light of day. And in the lead-up to Friday, I'm still writing the play, because it's still happening to me. And my interaction with this guy will continue, and I don't know where it's going to end. It may end in a court injunction, who knows? I guess, like all solo drama pieces, the play to some degree has turned into a reportage on my own life. Certainly, this play is making me ask myself a bunch of troubling questions about why I'm doing this. I think Rockefeller just might be an artist, and that really frightens me.
True-crime storytelling has really come back into vogue with Serial, The Jinx and Making a Murderer. But we're consuming these shows as entertainment, even though they're about real people who've died. Do you ever feel hesitation drawing artistic inspiration from real-life tragedy?
I do feel trepidation about that. And to a certain degree, that's what the play has ended up being about. The artist is looked upon as a pretty benevolent force in the world, but the source from which art springs is often quite malevolent, selfish and dark. And whether it's a novel about the first World War or a play about a murder in San Marino, there's blood on the pages of those things. There's an indefensibility about that which can only be answered by saying, "This is the truth." This is what happens in the world, and my job is to talk about what happens to people. There's the fantasy world — Game of Thrones and stuff like that — and I've never been a big fantasy guy. I've always been more interested in the seismic possibilities of the tiny details of life. And crime is an incredibly fertile ground for story, for examining the human heart.
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Do you think this project will impact your writing for Stars?
Possibly. I've always written about these people. If you look at Stars' music, there are a lot of crime stories in it. "I love the romance of crime" — that's a Morrissey lyric, and I remember hearing that and I was like, "Yeah, me too!" I love the transgression, I love the moment when someone decides to do something terrible. I think Crime and Punishment is the first true-crime book, in a way. It wasn't true, but it explored that notion of "I'm just an ordinary person living an ordinary life and I could just go and kill someone. What would happen if I did? What invisible veil would I pierce, and what would be the consequences of that?" Someone like Rockefeller, he walked through that veil, and everything changed. I think he's a monstrous person and I wouldn't want him in my life. But there's a kind of fearlessness in walking through that veil that I find intriguing.
What are your plans for the show beyond Friday?
We're going to put it on at Crow's Theatre in Toronto, and then possibly another run somewhere else in the summer, and then another run at Crow's with a bigger production. This is the first of a few true crime plays that I'm hoping to write, and hoping to turn into a live version of Dateline [laughs]. Maybe Keith Morrison can come and narrate some of them for me. I'd love to tour it. I'm a performer, and to me there's very little difference between doing this and doing Stars. The only place I ever feel like things are going to be okay is onstage. I'm trying to double down on that confidence before I get old and start doubting myself. And it really is a question at this point of white-knuckling it until I'm 80, because my powers will diminish, so my confidence has to increase. I'm taking a page from my old man's book: the less you have, the more you should believe in what's left.
Torquil Campbell stars in The Rockefeller Project at the High Performance Rodeo in Calgary, Alberta. January 8. Royal Canadian Legion No. 1, 116 7 Ave. S.E. PWYC ($10 suggested). For more information, see hprodeo.ca.