Phillip Keene on how he lucked into his first acting part on 'The Closer' and the significance Pan Am holds in his life
The actor and philanthropist worked a string of odd jobs before landing his breakout role on The Closer as Buzz Watson
Phillip Keene is an acclaimed actor and philanthropist who is best known for playing the role of the LAPD's tech wizard, Buzz Watson in the TNT hit drama "The Closer" and it's spin-off series, "Major Crimes". He will appear soon on the highly anticipated thriller from MarVista Entertainment, "Deadly Shores" opposite Carly Schroeder of "Gracie" fame. The film follows Anna (Schroeder), who moves to a remote island as the new bride of a famous mystery writer (Philip). She starts uncovering secrets about her new husband's dead former wife and is afraid that she may be the next victim.
Phillip grew up in South Africa and Orange County. He got into theatre when he was in middle school and performed in "Annie Get Your Gun". He loved it so much that he stuck with it through high school as well. After he graduated, Phillip had to take up many odd jobs like most struggling actors. The day then came when he picked up a newspaper and saw a personal ad for a flight attendant with Pan American World Airways. This was a golden opportunity for Phillip who immediately packed up his belongings and went to Miami to train for six weeks. He then moved base to London for a few years.
Unfortunately, Pan Am shut shop in 1991 and then Phillip made the decision to move back to California. This time, the odd jobs that he worked in include those at a modeling agency, at the local gym, as a travel agent and even as a makeup artist. While working on these jobs, he also made the decision to attend UCLA and double major in history and art history. He also took acting lessons on the side while studying. Suddenly, a miracle happened. A friend of his, who worked in the entertainment industry, called and said that there's a role available on TNT's "The Closer". The rest, as they say, is history.
Even though he finally became an actor after much struggle, his love for the company that changed his life, Pan Am, never faded. Phillip houses one of the largest collections of Pan Am memorabilia which has now reached 3,500 pieces that include matchboxes, posters, uniforms, and tableware. He started collecting these items in 1996 and it continues to this day.
In Meaww's conversation with Phillip, we got to know more about his love for acting and his days at Pan Am.
1. What kind of preparation did you have to put into the character of Buzz Watson before you started acting in "The Closer" and later in "Major Crimes"?
Buzz was part of the civilian support system of the LAPD and though he wore a badge, it came from the Scientific Investigation Division (which he is a part of, assigned to "Major Crimes"). So I did learn about how one went about working with detectives and police officers, and what the correct way to address and speak to everyone was. For years, I was the only series regular who didn’t also carry a gun. In "Major Crimes", I shared that distinction with Rusty; we both were weaponized as time went on!
2. Could you give us a descriptive account of how you landed the role?
Whenever an actor explains why he or she landed a particular role, you will usually find some wiggly reasoning because mostly we don’t know. If you audition, were you the best? Or did the best person want too much money? If you were offered the part, were you the first choice? The second? The tenth?
Fortunately, I don’t have that problem in the case of Buzz. The producers wanted a recurring face in the Electronics Room, where the detectives watched live feeds of interviews with suspects and witnesses. But they were tapped out in terms of what they could pay for series regulars. That put them in a bit of a bind because no agent would let an actor appear in all episodes of a new series for a day rate, which is all they could budget.
So some of the producers cornered James, who had created the show, and said: "Why not put Phillip in this part?" James resisted at first because we were living together and had been partners for almost ten years, and he worried it might not be a good message to send to the rest of the company. But, in the end, he couldn’t find anyone else to do it for the money! So I lucked into the part. And it grew slowly, which was perfect for me because I was learning my craft in public.
3. You had a more pivotal role to play as Buzz in "Major Crimes". What was the difference in working on both sets?
"The Closer" was about one person’s view of the justice system, and how the rest of us reacted to the perspective. And I only had one really big story in all seven seasons of "The Closer", so I would say my part in that series was mainly reactive, supporting Kyra Sedgwick, and that was a genuine learning experience. I was surrounded by great actors with a lot more experience and they all sort of took me under their wing. I became especially close with Michael Paul Chan and Raymond Cruz and G.W. Bailey.
"Major Crimes" was much more of an ensemble, and though Mary McDonnell led the pack, we all had our turns to bat. And by the time my biggest story came along - an arc that went for ten episodes - I was fully ready to play. One of the most important aspects of my development as a performer would include the directors. Michael M. Robin had an enormous influence on my work. Likewise, Patrick Duffy, Nelson McCormick, Anthony Hemingway, Roxanne Dawson, Stacey K. Black and too many more to mention. Great directors make for great performances.
4. Did any of the cast members of "The Closer" make you feel starstruck?
It was impossible not to live in awe of Kyra every day she was on set. Her commitment, her work ethic, her talent, and her ability to find the essence of her character inside the story: she was a daily master class in the art of acting. And then there was J.K. Simmons. The last day of working with him - it was an emotional year, shooting our last season - and when J.K. left to do other things, I actually cried. It was the only time I wept because the show was ending. I think, if you polled the cast of "The Closer," they would all tell you the same thing. And, of course, Jon Tenney. But the cast of "The Closer" was composed of actors, not television personalities, which is why it received five SAG nominations for Best Ensemble.
5. Many actors get stereotyped after playing certain roles. You play a writer with some sinister secrets in Deadly Shores. What made you audition for the part after playing a surveillance expert/reserve cop for so long?
Actually, I didn’t audition for the part I played in Deadly Shores it was offered. And I’m really glad about that because my audition process still needs a lot of work. To date, I have only done work I was offered! Frankly, I think a lot of people see my work on "Major Crimes" and believe I’m some grown up version of a Vienna Choir Boy, so I was thrilled to play a more complicated character in Deadly Shores, a very adult male with gambling problems living beyond his means.
6. Since your love for acting started at a young age doing theater, do you see yourself going back to the stage for good once you've had your fill of celluloid?
Theater was my first love and I am deeply attracted to the stage, but it has to be the right role and it needs to be something that requires a lot of my mental bandwidth. James is working on a one-man show for me about an American working in Florence (which I shouldn’t describe further!) and I would definitely do that because we really like working together. As for other plays, it depends! For commercial theater, you have to commit for long periods of time, and the concept of touring is something that - so far - I haven’t been able to wrap my head around. My friend and fellow cast mate, Bill Brochtrup, is actually the artistic director of one of Los Angeles’ most important theatre companies, The Antaeus, and it’s so much work! And he does a lot of work all over Southern California. I don’t know if I have the head for that. But, so far, it hasn’t come up!
7. Tell us about your massive collection of Pan Am memorabilia and how you started collecting all of them. Do you have a particular piece that means a lot to you and if so, what is it?
I came of age, as it were, when I went to work for Pan Am. One day, I was just another kid in Orange County struggling to get to my job as a waiter, and the next I was training to be a flight attendant on the world’s most storied airline. If it sounds like I was star struck, I was! Everyone talks about the glamor of Hollywood, but it's nothing compared to the thrill of air travel as the jet age expanded to include the whole world. Also, I had never even been to Europe, and suddenly - almost instantly - I went from my tiny apartment in small town California to working in London, commuting from Amsterdam and flying to Rio and Stockholm and New York on a weekly basis. My collection of Pan Am memorabilia is like collating a great exploratory voyage in which I played a very small part. Pan Am not only pioneered aviation, it also changed my life. My favorite part of my collection is my old uniform. And it still fits! I promise you; almost everyone who worked for Pan Am feels the same way. We have reunions every year where we all get together and remember the transformational role our company played in connecting the world.
8. Were you influenced by the film "Catch Me If You Can" when it came to your love for Pan Am?
By the time 'Catch me if you can' appeared, I was already deeply involved in gathering Pan Am posters and dishes and playing cards and uniforms together, but it did confirm my belief that the attraction of our brand had not faded. In fact, I think Pan Am remains one of the most glamorous brands in the history of business because it was more than just an airline. And 'Catch me if you can' truly caught that spirit of adventure that permeated my own experience. It was, in some ways, inspirational.
9. You've worked multiple odd jobs over the years from travel agent to makeup artist before your partner set you up for the role of Buzz Watson in "The Closer", did you ever think you would be a full-time actor? Which of the jobs would have been your backup plan if acting had not worked out?
I wanted to be an actor all my life, but I was afraid to say it out loud. My mother told me it wasn’t possible, and that I would only hurt myself if I tried. Not very encouraging! And, of course, I lived on the economic fringe. My parents set me to work at the age of twelve, bussing tables at their restaurant, and I had to help keep my family afloat for most of high school. It’s hard to keep your grades up while working forty hours a week in high school. And so I thought a lot of my dreams were out of reach. Becoming an actor in my thirties and forties helped me realize that action can be more important than circumstance, and not to let the fear of failure determine my dreams. I’ve already spent more time in front of the camera than most actors get in a lifetime. Over two hundred episodes of television isn’t too shabby! Is it greedy to want more? I do want more. There are parts out there I’d love to play. But my backup plan is to go on loving life, no matter what happens, and to remember that I have already been granted incredibly special opportunities. And I hope I made the most of them!
Catch Phillip in The Closer, Major Crimes and his upcoming film, Deadly Shores!