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Acting Chops with Karate Chops

Local actor stars in Sofia Coppola's Priscilla
Author: Devan Mighton
6 months ago
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Evan Annisette remembers the poster of Shorin-ryu Karate legend and 10th dan black belt Mike Stone that hung on the walls of Kersey’s Karate. “I used to look at that poster as a kid,” recalls Annisette, who fondly looks back at his time learning martial arts at the prominent Windsor dojo. “I spent so much time in there during my formative years, learning life skills and disciplines that helped shape who I am today.”

Stone is a karate legend. Born in Hawaii in 1943, he had a long and storied career as a martial arts practitioner, karate fighter, fight choreographer, movie stuntman, an actor, an author, a United States Army service member, and motivational speaker. Nicknamed “The Animal”, Stone set a record of 91 consecutive wins at karate tournaments and won the sparring grand championship at the first ever International Karate Championships at Long Beach, CA in 1964.

It was through karate that Stone would meet Elvis and Priscilla Presley. In 1968, at the Mainland vs. Hawaii Karate Championships, an event promoted by Elvis’ karate instructor Ed Parker. Stone, who had been working as record producer Phil Spector’s bodyguard at the time, met the famous couple and Elvis suggested that Priscilla train with Stone.

A torrid love affair arose from this training, which contributed to the split and divorce of the famous couple. Stone and Priscilla’s romance lingered on, but ended when Stone sold the story to the tabloids and she broke it off.

Fast-forward almost six decades and Annisette, now a full-fledged actor, has gone from staring at Stone’s poster on the wall of the dojo, to portraying the immortal fighter on the big screen.

Annisette was born and raised in Tecumseh by his parents, Garth and Denise. He attended Puce Public School, before it was known as Lakeshore Discovery School, before moving on to Academie Ste. Cecile International School to get his high school diploma. After which, Annisette attended Carleton University in Ottawa to study criminology, in hope of going to law school.

However, in life, things rarely go as planned.

“Growing up, like so many people of my generation, I really had no idea what I wanted to do,” explains Annisette. “I decided, one day, that the program I had enrolled in for my undergrad was not going to bring me any satisfaction and that I needed a change in direction.

“I called my sister, Megan, and when she asked what I wanted to do with my life, I said, “I want to be an actor”—it had always been brewing. This was the first anyone in my family had heard about this. I was, after all a very shy kid and the last person they expected this from. She encouraged me to tell my parents, who have been nothing but supportive of my aspirations from day one. From there I decided to move to Toronto and enrol in film school. This is where my acting journey started.”

Annisette says that there was never an “ah-ha” moment that led him to discover his calling, that the desire in him to act had manifested over a number of years.

“One thing that was always a constant in my life was film. I love movies—a lot. Films can be transportive, transformative, and therapeutic. That is the power of the arts. I did not know in what capacity, but I knew I wanted to work in film.”

Upon leaving Carleton University, Annisette moved to Toronto to attend the Toronto Film School. After completing his program, he knew that he needed even more training if he was to have a chance at breaking into the film industry. All of his favourite acting heroes attended classical acting schools in the United Kingdom and he made it his ambition to do the same.

He applied to the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) and The London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA), auditioning in New York for LAMDA’s International Program. He was initially waitlisted and chose to study film in Los Angeles while awaiting the next year’s round of auditions. He tried-out again for LAMDA, this time at UCLA, and was accepted for the 2018 semester.

“The training was intensive and gruelling, but it was one of the best years of my life,” states Annisette. “I got to meet and create with some incredible people and live in London for a year.”

In 2019, upon graduating with a master’s degree in Classical Acting for the Professional Theatre, he returned home to start a career in the acting world, but like many industries today, one can not simply just walk into these roles.

“It is no secret that the industry is very difficult to break into and it can be hard for many actors to even get a foot in the door,” he explains. “Fortunately, I can say that my search for representation was rather short. With a lot of help, I was granted an audience with my agency and signed relatively quickly.”

Annisette says that his audition with Noble Caplan Abrams (NCA) was, and still is, one of the most nerve-wracking auditions he has ever experienced, but it paid off in the end and landed him a caring and hard-working agent.

Despite having his career trajectory temporarily slowed down by the COVID-19 pandemic, Annisette joined the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA) and started landing major gigs.

“I still get that first-time feeling every time I land a role and my education continues every time I get to work with other actors,” he says. “I consider it a life-long apprenticeship. Acting is something I will do my whole life, whether anyone is watching or not. I have no illusions of being the next anybody, I am just enjoying the ride and learning as I go along.”

Annisette says that his favourite role so far is the one that is making all the noise right now–portraying karate legend Mike Stone in Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla.

Coppola is an award-winning writer, director, and producer with popular films such as Marie Antoinette, The Beguiled, and The Virgin Suicides to her credit.

“The script had me captivated from the moment I started reading it, and of course getting the chance to work with Sofia Coppola was an incredible experience,” states Annisette. “I loved working with Cailee Spaeny (who stars as Priscilla). She is a very generous scene partner and such a sweetheart.”

He says that he is honoured to be a part of this film.

“My agent called me and asked if I knew karate because it was on my resume,” he explains. “I told him I did and he explained that there was an exciting audition for a feature directed by Sofia Coppola he had for me. I auditioned for the role in October of last year, not really knowing what to expect. When I got the call that I had booked it, I was elated, terrified, but elated. It still hasn’t really sunk in to be honest. I am just very excited to see the whole piece.

“I tried to learn as much as I could about Mike Stone as a figure, his career, and his work in the martial arts world, but I was more focused on his perspective of his relationship with Priscilla. I tried to focus on what would serve the story as opposed to trying to recreate this person. Priscilla’s telling of the story is what matters.”

Annisette, who grow up studying karate, says it was a privilege to portray such a master of the martial arts. “He is one of the great masters of modern karate and a truly remarkable human,” he says. “I remember a poster that hung in the dojo at Kersey’s Karate of Mike Stone and a picture of Mr.Kersey and Mike together.  Definitely feels like a full-circle moment—shout out to Kersey’s Karate: you rock!”

Despite being tight-lipped about upcoming projects, Annisette says he does have some new material coming out soon and, also, some projects that have yet to shoot. He says, like any actor, he is just trying to stay busy, and credits his agent for all the great roles.

“I love acting because it is challenging,” explains Annisette. “I am a relatively shy person; always have been. I enjoy being taken out of my comfort zone and stretching the limits of what I see possible for myself. My favourite thing about acting is the affect it has on others. I know what the power of a great performance has had on my life and to be able to offer even a fraction of that to others, or be a part of a beautiful piece, is to me a means of giving back; it’s how I contribute.

“My advice to anyone looking to break into the industry is to go for it. You’ll know whether or not it’s for you very quickly. I would do this job even if no one was paying or watching. You are never too old or inexperienced. The most valuable lessons I have learned have been on set, and they’re usually screw ups. Just keep moving. Be on time, be nice, and stay hungry.”

Priscilla premiered on Sept. 4 at the 80th Venice International Film Festival and is set to be released in North America, by A24, on Nov. 3.

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