The reluctant hero: Dan Waller in 'The Pitmen Painters'

September 28, 2011

“I’ve split my pants like five times. I’ve done four shows with rips on my butt!”

Through most of The Pitmen Painters, Dan Waller is entombed in a close-fitting suit, perhaps a metaphor for his character: the most reserved, and possibly the most talented, of the four Ashington Group miner/artists in Lee Hall’s 2007 play. TimeLine’s production, directed by BJ Jones, lovingly etches the time and place: a little mining town in Northumberland in the mid-30s. And with Waller’s help, no character is more movingly drawn than Oliver Kilbourn.

Waller, 39, says he shares some traits with Oliver. “A fear of the unknown, to a degree. And a fear of letting down our peers or friends, abandoning them—selling out. And we both don’t like the spotlight really, it’s kind of uncomfortable.”

So… why is Waller an actor? “I got in trouble as a kid, and my mom made me do it as an extracurricular after-school thing.” He did well in a competition in eighth grade. “Then in high school, when I got suspended and kicked off the baseball team, my mom wanted me to have a hobby.”

“I got suspended all the time,” Waller adds, “for either fighting or drinking.” Part of the problem may have been that, after ninth grade, he moved from Algona, Iowa (pop. 7,000), to the big city of Ames, where he attended public rather than Catholic school.

“I was kind of a troublemaker before that. In Catholic school there’s a lot of rules, but the fun-est part is breaking those rules. In high school, I didn’t know who I was. The jocks thought I was a drama queen—actually the word was ‘drama fag,’ what they called me. And the theater people didn’t know what to do with me, they thought I was a jock.”

Waller sorted things out and eventually got a bachelor’s in theater and film from the University of Washington in Seattle. He’s worked a fair amount on camera as well as onstage, but “I can’t say this is ever easy. Unless you play a character that only good things happen to, there’s a sense of pain you have to go through on a nightly basis. It feels like private moments. And when I think about it objectively, that people are watching this….”

In Pitmen, however, “I needed to tackle the obstacle of the Geordie dialect first,” Waller says. “[Dialect coach] Tanera Marshall—she did Billy Elliot [also penned by Hall]—says the Geordie dialect is the most difficult one there is. I worked my ass off on that, I’ll be honest. I immersed myself in people from Newcastle, every radio interview I could find online and movies and sessions with Tanera.”

“But if you did the real Geordie, no one could understand a frickin’ thing,” he says. “It would be impossible. The English from around there don’t even understand it. And there’s a further dialect called ‘pitmatic,’ that developed in the pits. The script also has pitmatic.”

Waller says this is “a very personal play” for director Jones, who grew up in Cleveland and was once a card-carrying member of the miners’ union. “He can see the story through all the characters’ eyes, in particular Oliver”—the miner who travels the furthest into the deep, dark jungle...I mean, the arts world.

Waller, who says he tends to get blue-collar roles, has worked at various jobs since he was 14, first doing inserts and other tasks at the newspaper where his dad worked, then detasseling corn. “I also did construction,” he says. “Gas stations, a lot of restaurant stuff, managed restaurants, a cook, I was a waiter—I was a horrible waiter.”

But the scariest, most awful thing Waller did was to dance onstage. His wife teaches Irish dance, and he did voiceovers for Chicago Dance Crash, notably in 2005's Tribulation and the Demolition Squad. But he actually came out onstage in 2009, during CDC’s The Drawing Board.

“I hope you didn’t see that!” he says. I didn’t. “I had to do a portion of Thriller, yah, and I did the voiceover for Vincent Price. I had never been more nervous in my life, to the point where it gave me hives. I wanted to do it because I wanted to conquer it. I never conquered it, though, I was still scared as s**t. But now I can say that I did it.”