An interview with Actor and Director Paul J. Alessi
By Anthony T. Eaton
I recently sat down with Actor and Director Paul J. Alessi to discuss growing up in New York and his unique journey into the entertainment business. Paul played competitive ice hockey as a kid and later fought as an amateur boxer, was a volunteer firefighter and youth sports coach. His good looks led to modeling and ultimately acting and then directing.
As a kid growing up in New York, you were into sports; what was that like for you?
I have always been into sports, health, and fitness for as long as I can remember. I started playing roller hockey when I was about eight years old in Queens, New York. My first official organized team was the Saint Rita’s Rangers, Ravenswood. Two of my cousins that I did not know well were on the team, so that’s where I started. I was weaned on hockey, and I come from a big hockey family. I was one of the youngest players on the team. It felt amazing being a part of something for the first time; it was new and kind of intimidating.
I remember the first time I got the wind knocked out of me; it is etched into my memory. I played with kids that I didn’t know from the neighborhood. They had all been playing together on the streets or in the league for some time. So you feel like an outsider at first, and luckily I had my cousin that gave me some comfort and encouragement. Even though I was one of the youngest on the team with the least amount of experience, I felt it made me better. Learning and playing with kids that were more developed and experienced seemed like a no brainier. I stepped up my level of play, and I pushed myself extremely hard, and to this day, I take pride in being a team player. No matter the obstacles, I always challenge myself and move forward, win, lose or draw, and I appreciate having been a part of the experience. Challenges, adversity, choices, and integrity have a big part in shaping us into the person we become today and who we would be without them. I certainly wouldn’t be chatting with you today without those lessons.
You worked many different jobs but found yourself modeling and then moved to LA. Coming from New York, were there any challenges adjusting to life on the West coast?
Absolutely, and for me, there was a big adjustment. And to be honest, I’m still adjusting in little ways all the time and probably will forever. You would hope that people change, grow, and adapt, especially over time. When someone is raised in a particular environment, with specific rules, expectations, and judgments. They are embedded in your soul and are hard to shake and alter. Instinctively you react, like a boxer extending his jab and tucking his chin; it’s without thought. If you are not challenging yourself and being outside your comfort zone at times, I am not sure you’re doing yourself justice. New York is my comfort zone, but LA challenges me to be better.
Were you creative as a kid?
I took photography in school. I can remember my first time in a dark room and the smell of developing film for the first time. I found the entire process to be fascinating. I was able to get a good understanding of how the developing process changes the image. Changing the formula gives a different look to the film. It’s very similar to creating a character or developing a storyline. Figuring out how to create depth and uniqueness for your scenes, characters, and storylines is a valuable skill to have and work on for a lifetime. My transition into acting seemed like it was meant to be, and from there into creating and producing.
Now that I am thinking about it, I guess I initially found my love for the Arts back in high school in Mr. Clarks’ photography class. Wow, what a realization. A big thank you to Mr. Clark for unknowingly guiding me towards my passion. I also still enjoy taking photos to this day.
And what about acting? Where did that interest originate?
I remember the first time I stepped on stage as a kid in elementary school, and I wanted no part of it. Not too long after, I saw a college performance of Westside Story in that same auditorium. I loved it and was intrigued. Fast forward to when I first started as a model, I enjoyed most of the process. I remember arriving on set to all these different locations and having so many wardrobes, hairstyles, themes, and a dedicated small team of creative people to get you camera-ready. Taking on different personas and finding the pulse or an interesting quirk of a new character was always rewarding. Even though I enjoyed being in front of the camera, I learned a lot about lighting, shadows, depth of field, and other filmmaking nuances. It was all so new and intriguing.
When you moved to LA, you made your debut in TLC’s video Waterfalls; how did that come about?
The TLC Waterfalls video directed by F. Gary Gray was my first acting job and what turned out to be a wonderful and memorable experience.
Truth be told, I feel luck had a lot to do with it. I was modeling at the time and was brand new to California. I fit what they were looking for, a good build and pretty light eyes. Fortunately, the girls casting the video were from Brooklyn, New York, and we got on pretty well. If only all my auditions went that well.
The crazy thing is when I arrived on set; I found out they wanted an experienced actor. At the time, I was 100% green, and I had zero acting experience—another reason why I feel that luck was definitely on my side.
Paul debuted as the tragic AIDS victim in 1995’s award-winning TLC video, “Waterfalls.” produced by F. Gary Gray.
You have played various roles, but in 2001 you played yourself as a contestant during the first season of “The Amazing Race.” Why that, and what was the experience like?
Being a contestant on the Amazing Race was like being on an emotional rollercoaster. I am grateful for the incredible opportunity to travel the world and experience life.
At the time of the first season, reality TV was just starting to become something big, and many actors looked down on it. They thought that reality TV would take airtime and jobs away from the “real actors,” which I planned on being. As absurd as this might sound now, I did not want to do the show at the time, and I was very vocal about it. I believe that my conflict, reluctance, and willingness to express it had a lot to do with them choosing me to be a contestant. To go back in time, Hindsight is 2020.
You have had the opportunity to work with some very talented people in the business, is there anyone that stands out that has helped you in some way?
Yes, a few amazing souls have helped me in one way or another, some without even realizing it. I won’t mention anyone by name. However, the people that I have learned from, I respect immensely. The offers and gestures without strings, even things that might seem simplistic, are few and far between in this business.
Many view everyone as competition, which is something that I do not. Those few that have done these selfless acts are embedded in my brain and heart. Every opportunity that I get, I try to reciprocate and not necessarily out of a sense of debt. These are the people that stand out to me and are the type of person that I believe in, wish to support, and elevate if at all possible. In many cases, I would be surprised if they even realize how much they have impacted me and how grateful I truly am.
The entertainment business can be ruthless and full of pitfalls. How do you stay grounded and centered?
Being grounded and centered means a number of different things to me. I’ll touch on some of the ways that I feel help me accomplish it. First, I’m a big proponent of always remembering and knowing where I come from and where I have gone and where I plan to go.
Second, as cliché as this may sound, I believe that my body is a temple, and I do my best to treat it as such. I’ve been a health and fitness enthusiast since I’m a teenager. I eat very well and clean. I work on giving my body; rest, being aware, different types of meditation, focus, working out, staying in shape, working on functionality, mobility, stability, flexibility, being open, present, breathing, and working on being in the zone and often as possible.
Do you have a process when preparing for a role?
I do have a process, and depending on the type of role, the process can vary a lot. I have my basics that are staples, and then I layer from there. It is invaluable to have a toolbox to draw from and options. Even if that toolbox gets dusty, it is always there.
How has this pandemic changed things for you and your work?
I think it has changed things to some degree for everyone in the world. One can feel and see the turmoil in people. The entertainment business is not easy, to begin with. The added complications that social distancing adds to networking and production become even more expensive, time-consuming, and challenging. Some change is inevitable.
I have things that are keeping me busy. Before the pandemic, I produced a film that I am incredibly proud of, distributed through Lionsgate/Grindhouse called “Born A Champion.” Written by and starring Sean Patrick Flanery, Katrina Bowden, and Dennis Quaid that was released to theaters and digital platforms on January 22nd and Blu-Ray on the 26th.
Sean Patrick Flanery and I spent more than a decade getting this one to the finish line. I find Sean to be an incredibly multi-talented and a solid person to be producing and working with. It’s pretty great to see your visions come to fruition and knowing that persistence and determination do pay off.
I have also been spending time preparing for another project that I plan to get going once things settle down. Between COVID and the political issues, some of the people I know in financing are not too eager right now, so time will tell.
Of all the work you have done as an actor and producer, what are you most proud of at this point?
I would have to say “Alpha Males Experiment” AKA “Knuckle Draggers,” even though not too many people have had the opportunity to see the film. I hold “Alpha Males Experiment” very close to my heart for many reasons but mostly because it was an amazing experience pulling together the film on a shoestring budget with favors, volunteers, and good old-fashioned blood, sweat, and tears.
I produced it and was one of the lead actors. I was involved in every aspect of that film, from the creation to distribution. I was fortunate enough to have surrounded myself with a fantastic cast and crew, and I have made some lifelong friends from it.
I have not had a chance to sit down and watch it but I watched clips and it looks great!
Another film that I am grateful to have had the opportunity to work on is Boondock Saints II. I was on location in Toronto and was engulfed in nothing but filmmaking. It was amazing to be around a group of amazingly cool and talented people. We all lived with one another like a big family, and the last people I saw each night before my eyes closed and the first people I saw each day when they opened were Troy Duffy and Chris Brinker (except for those days when Taylor Duffy was pulling a prank or two and cracking me up). At the time, I did not want to leave Canada. It felt like home. I could go on forever about my time in Toronto. I learned that making two films back to back was utterly invaluable to me in those two years. Luckily on both films, I was fortunate to be surrounded by an incredible cast and crew and some of the best all-around people one could ever ask for.
I first noticed how truly talented and dedicated to his craft Sean Patrick Flanery is during this time. Many people may not know this, but besides being an incredibly gifted actor, he is also a talented writer. The relationship we developed on Boondock II led us to become producing partners. Our first film together, “Born A Champion,” was first released to theaters via Lionsgate and then has gone on to be released via streaming and will go on to be released internationally.. We even have a few more in development that we plan to share with the world. It’s comforting to see how one opportunity can lead to so much more in life.
Initially I had asked Paul if he could choose one actor to work with, who would that be and he said Leonardo DiCaprio. Later, as we were reviewing this interview Paul said he wanted to change this to Actor and Director Mel Gibson. Paul wanted to make sure I understood that while Gibson had done and said things that are contrary to the way Paul behaves and expects others to, this desire to work with Gibson was because despite his shortcomings and very public troubles, he is still a very talented artist. This led to our having a long conversation about how everyone makes mistakes and should not be defined solely by their human failures.
What would we be surprised to learn about you?
I played “Freddy Fluoride,” a toothpaste tube, as a kid in an elementary school play.
You are also very charitable, and your charity work and support are extensive, is there any in particular that have a personal meaning to you?
The first words that immediately came to my mind, selflessness, compassion, empathy, honor, and love. Being able to support one another in whatever way that might be, without labeling it, to help lift one up in different areas of life has a whole special meaning all of its own. Our actions have reactions, and sometimes it’s the simplest thing, of giving our time, our acknowledgment, a small gesture, a smile, showing that you care, just being there. It can be as simple as that.
I feel that we are drawn to various things in life for one reason or another. I prefer not to put a label on it. Like most people, I gravitate in the direction that my heart takes me and where I feel I can make a difference. There are so many deserving charities out there, and I do not want to influence anyone. Let their hearts lead them.
I will share that I have been growing my hair out regally since I was a young adult so that I can donate it. If a small gesture can put a smile and tears on someone’s face, I see everything right in doing so.
What are your thoughts on those in the business using their celebrity to take a public position on issues or politics?
Politics are very personal and can be convoluted. Again it’s a lot about perspective. Would I take an opinion from an actor or celebrity on what doctor to use? Maybe depending on whom the actor or celebrity is, and where their background and knowledge are, and where it comes from on the topic at hand.
In America, everyone can do as they choose and stand by a platform they wish to support. It is our First Amendment right, freedom of speech, religion, and the press. Nevertheless, as for myself, I am not a fan, for a few reasons.
As an actor and a lover of film and character development, I feel that it personalizes the actor/person too much. And if you care about your craft and are someone who engulfs themself in character, to become someone or something else truly. I believe you are doing yourself a disservice.
As a viewer, I can become deeply immersed when watching a film. However, in many cases, an actor takes me out of a scene or the movie.
Some people see films because they like a certain actor. By publicizing your personal views and opinions, you have the chance of losing some of your audience before they even see your work. It’s their choice to express their views as they see fit; however, I am not inclined to do so. I am not claiming to be some big celebrity that everyone is waiting to hear my political views. Maybe someday…time will tell.
What is next for you as an actor and producer?
I have a good selection of projects in development and am working on funding. At the moment, I am very focused on putting together a closed-ended series based on the hit novel “Jane Two” by Sean Patrick Flanery.
Any words of advice for readers?
Stay on course the best you can. Focus. There are too many diversions in life. Many people, who have taken a journey down the wrong path, have not returned. Stay true to yourself and others. Try to align yourself with respectful, honest, supportive, trustworthy, loyal, and honorable team players. And while you’re at it, try and ride a unicorn to the end of a rainbow and get that pot of gold, guarded by the tricky leprechauns, and always be happy to hear of someone else’s success.
Thank you so much for sitting down and doing this interview Paul, it was an absolute pleasure.
Follow Paul J. Alessi on his social media sites and visit his website to learn more about his work.