Dustin Tucker’s anonymity is an anomaly.
He has one of the most-recognized faces in Portland. He’s on stage as much as anyone, and as adroit as he is with his words and timing, Tucker’s ability to contort, bend and manipulate his eyes, eyebrows and other facial features makes his the most memorable mug in theater in Portland.
For the last few weeks, Tucker has been able to walk around his adopted hometown without recognition.
For his current show at Portland Stage Company, “Vigil,” Tucker has dyed his hair and eyebrows from dirty blond to a copper-brown, changing his look from a cosmopolitan 34-year-old to an stuffy, older banker-type.
Walking downtown or working out at the gym, he’s been going about his business with unusual stealthiness.
“Nobody knows who I am, which is kind of cool,” Tucker observed during a walk with his dog Minnie through Evergreen Cemetery. “But I forget that it’s there. I say hi to people and they think I’m weird.”
Tucker, a transplanted Texan who has made his home in Portland for five years, has just begun one of the busiest stretches of his professional life in Maine. He stars in “Vigil,” a dark comedy by Canadian playwright Morris Panych. It’s about a cynical, dislikeable cuss who rushes to the bedside of a dying aunt, who doesn’t die nearly fast enough for her nephew’s liking or convenience.
Tucker has nearly all the lines in the two-person show, which is up at Portland Stage through Nov. 17. After a brief respite, he reprises “The Santaland Diaries,” David Sedaris’s one-man show featuring another cynical cuss. It’s on stage in the Studio Theater at Portland Stage from Dec. 3-22.
“It’s a busy stretch,” Tucker concedes. “But I’ll be OK.”
Lord knows, he’s done it before. Tucker is nothing if not busy. He’s made it his goal to work as an actor since he left his home in Amarillo, Texas, as a teenager to study theater at Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan, a fine-arts boarding school for high-schoolers.
After graduating from high school, he moved to New York when he was 18, and lived there 11 years before relocating to Maine, He worked regularly in Maine before moving here.
He got his start in Maine at the Theater at Monmouth, and auditioned three or four times for roles at Portland Stage before finally landing a job in the theater’s then-annual production of “A Christmas Carol.” After acting in that show two years, he got his break when Portland Stage artistic director Anita Stewart cast him in “Fully Committed,” a one-man show in which he appeared as nearly 40 characters.
It was a breakthrough role. It allowed him to prove himself as a comic actor with great range and dexterity. That was January 2008. He moved to Portland that same year.
“I liked working here so much, I decided I should live here,” said Tucker, who resides a short walk from the theater. “Portland is a beautiful town, and I have a great circle of friends here. It’s almost impossible to make a living as a stage actor these days, but I can do that here. Portland is affordable, and I am happy here.”
ON THE ROAD AGAIN
He travels across the country to earn his living. In 2014, he has nine months of work booked already, including two months each at the Lake Tahoe and Idaho Shakespeare festivals. “That’s a good year,” he said confidently. “I didn’t work like that when I was in New York.”
It’s in Portland where Tucker has shown his greatest range. He’s been pegged as comic actor, for good reason. Shows like “Vigil” and “The Santaland Diaries” give Tucker a platform for his brand of humor, which involves timing, physical presence and vocal control, said Ron Botting, who directs Tucker in “Vigil” and has worked with him many times over the years as both a director and actor.
“I think his greatest skill is his ability to inhabit the physical sense of a character,” said Botting.
In “Vigil,” Tucker plays a guy named Kemp, who works as a banker and lives an unremarkable life. He’s downtrodden, physically bereft, and not very kind.
“Kemp is just so cynical, and that is not at all what you get from Dusty. Like all of us, he has his dark moments. But that’s not what you see of him. He does his best to take care of other people. As an actor, finding that place – learning to inhabit your character – is the great challenge. Dusty does it as well as anyone I’ve worked with.”
Tucker’s desire to act stems from his early years in Texas. His mother, Gaynor Tucker, remembers her son asking for help building sets for plays and puppet shows in their basement in elementary school. When he was 8, Tucker and his mom were driving through Amarillo when he saw a sign announcing auditions for the play “Auntie Mame.”
“I’d like to try that,” he told his mom. She stopped the car, and they inquired at the theater. Tucker landed a small role, beginning his theatrical journey.
Although she was surprised by her son’s desire, Tucker’s mom said she realized pretty quickly that acting fell naturally to him. “I realized he could probably do this when he was standing backstage between his scenes and he was saying the words to everybody else’s lines – at 8 years old, which is pretty incredible,” Gaynor Tucker said.
At 14, he went off to Interlochen, It was difficult for his mom and dad when Tucker left Texas for Michigan at such a young age. But they knew they had to let him go to pursue his dream. He quickly outgrew community theater back home, Gaynor Tucker said.
“We just felt it was the right thing to do for Dusty. We were both very supportive of him, and would do anything for him. He was so committed to theater, I thought it was a waste of time for him not to go somewhere to practice what he wanted to do. When he went to Interlochen, he got on that plane and never looked back,” she said.
SELF-DESCRIBED ‘ODD DUCK’
An only child, Tucker had a hard time as a kid. He was an “odd duck,” he said, and didn’t fit the mold. He didn’t play sports, didn’t do all the things that other kids did. He was bullied and teased for choosing theater over football. He cited the support of his parents and the interest of a director or two for getting him through his early-teen years in Texas. “I am so fortunate that my parents are who they are,” he said.
Interlochen changed him. There, he found other kids just like him. He learned to opened up among his peers, and his creativity blossomed. “The teachers there would look you in the eye and were interested in what you what you did, what you had to say and what you were thinking,” he said.
In addition to finding himself on stage, Tucker had another revelation at Interlochen. He realized he was gay. He probably knew as much in Texas, but it took him awhile to come to terms with it. In Texas, he attended an Episcopal school “and it just wasn’t talked about.”
He did not tell his parents until he moved to New York, but they already knew. “How could they not know,” Tucker asked. “I was scared to tell them, but I don’t know why. It was a total non-issue.”
It’s a non-issue in Portland, too. The community has been welcoming, and he appreciates living in a place where he can be himself and concentrate on his work without worrying about being accepted or judged.
Tucker is single. His work keeps him on the road, which makes it hard to have a relationship. Actors are famously self-centered, too, he noted. That’s not a great trait when it comes to long-term commitment, he laughed. “People call me a non-person during the rehearsal and performance process. I don’t talk a lot. I don’t go out.”
Instead, he has a dog. Minnie is a mini-pincher mix, and he takes her on the road with him as much as he can.
When he is not working, Tucker attends plays. A few weeks ago, before he delved deep into the rehearsal process for “Vigil,” he attended four plays in one week. He loves the city’s restaurants, and counts among his favorites Nosh, Boda, Flatbread Company and Marcy’s.
Another dedicated interest is his fitness. He quit drinking three years ago when he realized that alcohol was affecting his life, his relationships and his sanity. “But it did not affect my work. I never, ever got drunk before a performance,” he said.
He enrolled at a recovery center and came out a better, stronger man. “It was the best decision I ever made,” he said. “It was time.”
He quit drinking and threw himself into the gym. He works out at the Bay Club at One City Center, and prides himself not only on how he looks, but how he feels. He has abundant energy and is able to put more of himself into his work.
His personal trainer, Dan Tanquay, noted Tucker’s commitment. “He’s in excellent shape now. His cardiovascular is excellent. He has a good strong muscular base. He’s very fit,” Tanquay said.
“Dustin has incredible desire and passion for whatever he does. He was one of those guys, he came in and didn’t have any basic foundation. We started from the ground up. He wasn’t overweight, but he did not have much of a base at all. We’d work out two or three days a week, and he’d just keep getting better and better.”
Tucker feels grateful for the opportunities he has had in Portland. Being an actor is the only thing he’s ever wanted to do.
“I get to make people feel and look inside themselves. I can make people laugh. I can make people cry. But I can make them think – and that’s what’s happening in the world right now, the possibility to think on your own. It’s an honor to be a part of that process.”