A Quebec-Born Haitian Actor in New York as part of the Canadian theatre salon

This post is part of the Canadian theatre salon curated by Chantal Bilodeau for the World Theatre Day 2014/Crossing Borders salon series.)

I knew I wanted to be an actor at a young age. My second-grade class elected me to be the Prince in a production of Snow White. I declined and instead played the role of Sneezy, the comic relief of the play. From then on, I was hooked, that was it, after college I would go to New York to study acting and become a star! In the meantime, learning English would be a priority: I would watch American TV shows as much as possible and take my English classes seriously.

Crossing the border from Canada to the U.S. pre 9/11 was easy enough. I had a student visa and many years later, I got a green card through my father. A few months after arriving in the Big Apple and starting acting classes, I grew impatient. I was eager to learn the ropes and hit the pavement, as they used to say. Maybe I should have waited longer. I dove unto the scene in an era of violently-themed black cinema and gangsta rap. For a French-speaking actor of color born and raised middle-class in an all-white Quebec City, the road was paved with obstacles, to say the least. What was portrayed on the big screen and in the media at that time was far away from my own reality. I played the character well in print, but in my speaking thug roles, my lines were kept to a minimum. I was even ridiculed by an agent after mispronouncing the word Breyers while reading commercial copy for the yogurt company. In order to find work, I would have to play African characters on stage and focus on all-American roles more fitting to my baby face.

Determined not to give up, I immersed myself in speech therapy classes: A great help if you do the work. Success came in the likes of director Ron Howard, who saw the talent past the accent and cast me in his movie The Paper. “You’re a good actor Vincent,” he said. “We will figure out something.” He did. He made my character ambiguous: Dominican, American? As with everything in life, some people will embrace your difference while others will only want to see the stereotype.

One of the highlights of my theater career was being directed by Austin Pendleton in Admissions – Tony Vellela’s drama about a group of diverse student leaders who take over the offices of the college President only to be torn apart by their own political differences. Vellela and Pendleton had been working on Admissions since 1992, staging numerous reading with the likes of Cynthia Nixon and Stephen Mailer. Vellela adapted his play to make my character Haitian and we went on to win the Best Ensemble Cast award at the 1999 NY Fringe Festival. Working with these veterans was a great experience and I try to see them and their work every chance I get.

In recent years, thanks to open-minded directors like Wes Anderson and Phil Morison, I have had the good luck of being cast as a French Canadian character, regardless of color.

Needless to say, this acting thing is quite the roller-coaster ride. I travel frequently between Montreal and Brooklyn where I currently reside. I feel blessed! When asked: “Where are you from?” I can proudly say, semi-quoting Sting: “I’m an alien, I’m a legal alien, I’m a French Canada-born Haitian actor in New York.”

Born in Quebec City, Vincent D’Arbouze moved South of the border to study acting at the Stella Adler conservatory in New York, and briefly with Bobby Lewis of the famed Group Theater. Soon after, he had the opportunity to work as a regular stand-in on the Cosby Show. His acting credits include : A scene opposite Paul Giamatti in Phil Morrison’s All Is Bright, Jenna Ricker’s Ben’s Plan, the Canadian Filmmakers Festival winner The Overlookers, Ron Howard’s The PaperMirador and HBO’sOZ. On stage, he last appeared inBorne to the Ocean, Olga Humphrey’sF-Stop and Tony Vellela’s award winning Admissions directed by Austin Pendleton. Other theater credits: Caliban in The Tempest, Paris in Romeo and Juliet and Private Dean in Bury the Dead. He can be seen in the Emmy-winning educational series We are New York.