The year was 1994, and after two years of living in a dingy basement without purpose, and without money, Marco Kyris, a 32 year old aspiring actor from Toronto, was desperate.
A tumultuous decade and a half had taken the man born Evrimahos Kyriakakis – the son of two penniless immigrants from Greece – around the world, but following a decision to return home permanently, Marco had found himself struggling to readjust.
“I had no direction and no money. I was pretty much aimless.”
Eight years prior, Marco – a then 25 year old – had arrived in Los Angeles, where he was given the golden opportunity to manage a Greek restaurant, between acting classes at the esteemed Beverly Hills Playhouse. Acting had been an ambition of Marco’s from childhood, despite a slight oversight making this much more of a pipe dream than a palpable reality: “I truly have stage fright. I don’t have conversational fright, but I really do have stage fright. To come in and prepare myself, and to know monologues and scenes, and to go up on stage and perform them, I’m terrified. Whether it’s on film or on a stage, or on any kind of a platform, it just scares me to death. To just dance freely at the disco or something, I’m not at all afraid. I’m good with it. To just have conversations, like we’re having now? I could probably just talk forever. But I could never audition.”
Half an hour into our long distance WhatsApp call, Marco begins to recall the incredible series of circumstances that had taken him from the slums of Greektown, Toronto to the golden lights of Los Angeles. In the early 80’s, Marco had travelled to Paris, inspired by a film, to pursue a life of colour and culture, far removed from the colder climate of Toronto, where he had spent much of a “loveless” childhood. Some months later, and he’d found himself in The Hollywood Savoy – an American-inspired restaurant in the heart of Paris, owned, as it turned out, by two Greek brothers, who were more than happy to offer Marco a job.
He would go on to work there for a year, before being approached with the opportunity of a lifetime – the chance to helm the brothers’ flagship Greek restaurant in the San Fernando Valley of LA: “They asked me if I’d ever done something like that before and I said no, cause I was only 24 years old. They gave me their phone number, gave me their addresses, all of that – they were in LA with their wives at the time – and they said to call them up as soon as possible. They said that they were gonna sell the place, and a month later, they did.”
Following the sale, The Savoy found itself under new management: “To put it simply, the clientele became different, and I just didn’t like being there anymore, so I thought that I’d take these guys up on their offer, and travel to LA. It was ideal. I could maybe take some acting classes there – you know, pursue that life a little more, make some money…”
After 6 months of immigration and border-related problems, Marco finally got in, crossed the border – “illegally, mind you” – and began his new life in the City of Angels: “So I met up with these Greeks, introduced myself, and they invited me over their restaurant, and they wanted me to start as soon as possible, within the next couple of days. They said that I needed to learn the ropes, starting me as a Waiter – and within a few months, I ended up being the manager of that restaurant. I would use the money earned there for the acting classes, in the thought that I could make it big.”
Between part-time studies at the esteemed Beverly Hills Playhouse – his chosen place of study – to mingling with the stars at his restaurant in the Valley, Marco’s new-found lifestyle was more than a dream come true: “Managing that restaurant, I got to meet all of the superstars that you can imagine. From Stallone to Michael Jackson, to Shirley MacLaine, you name the stars, I was meeting them. It was a big deal, coming from Toronto, and then Paris, and now Los Angeles, and you’re just 26, running a restaurant. I really just took the opportunities that were given to me, and didn’t say no to anything.”
After working for some time in the Greek Restaurant in Sherman Oaks, Marco decided to leave, for a different restaurant on the Sunset Strip, also owned by a Greek: “There I met even more superstars, from Eddie Murphy, to Bon Jovi, to Bruce Springsteen to- you name it, I met them. It was crazy, cause I’d basically already lived this pseudo-Hollywood lifestyle, and the entire time I never drank and I never smoked, and I never did a drug. So I was this clean-cut kid, going to parties, always being the designated driver for everybody! I’m not exaggerating! I wouldn’t even have a glass of wine!”
Following this admission, the next question came naturally. After all, from my own limited perspective, Los Angeles, especially in the 90’s, had seemed to be a time painted in strokes of excess. Drugs, Drink, Sex – and in the middle of it all, Marco, seemingly able to resist all vices: “How did I avoid the drugs? How did I avoid the booze? I mean, I didn’t go to LA for the drugs or the booze, I went there to search for myself and a career. I mean, if I wanted to – drugs are available right here in my hometown of Toronto, at any time, and I didn’t do that there either.
“I’m from a family that barely had anything, that barely even had food on the table. Our headspaces weren’t around drugs or drink, our headspaces were like: how do I get food on the table and a roof over my head? Because if you drink yourself to death, how are you gonna get up the next day to put food on the table? I do credit my parents in that respect. The little that I did learn from them is that you should try to build with whatever you can. It never dawned on me that I should just become a fucked up disaster, you know?”
In LA Marco remained for the better part of six years, drifting from apartment to apartment, slowly becoming weary of the hectic lifestyle he had once enjoyed: “The year was 1991, and there I was thinking that I was still pretty much aimless at 30 years old. I was just really tired of everything, and I just wanted to go home. But people said – c’mon, stay, stay! I was very much a workaholic. I enjoyed working. But eventually, things took their toll. I wasn’t getting any work as an actor, and by then I was just burnt out on the whole LA vibe.”
That final year in LA would prove to be his worst, with one event in particular souring his experience the most. On April the 29th, 1992, the LA Riots, in response to the beating of Rodney King, began: “I lived so close to the riots, and seeing SWAT teams, and tanks and shootings, I just couldn’t believe it! I was not even a mile from all this. It all made me really nervous, really vulnerable. This wasn’t at all how I’d originally imagined America, imagined Los Angeles, it was a fuckin’ war-zone! So, things started to not look so dreamy to me, and I just said fuck it, packed up all my bullshit, and drove my car all the way back to Toronto from LA. That was a four day drive – can you imagine?”
While Marco had managed to escape the chaos of early 1990’s Los Angeles, he’d unknowingly traded in the City of Angels for the City of Recession. Canada, then experiencing one of its worst financial crises in a generation, was where Marco’s decade-long streak of good fortune had come to croak. The colder climate of Toronto, paired with the realisation that jobs were scarce, saw Marco spending the following year working as much as he could, using the money he earned to move from his Parents’ place – into a tiny basement apartment back home in Greektown, which he described as being: “no more than 200 square feet wide”.
After a two year stretch in the basement, Marco decided to sign up with an extras/stand-in agency – “just to pay the bills” – and was soon notified by an agent of a film that would be shooting two hours away, at Niagara-on-the-Lake: “They had some other wannabe actor stand-in pick me up from the place that I was working in, who drove me down to the audition. So I went there, had the interview, and talked to the first assistant director, who said that I was the right guy and the right fit on the spot, and that they needed me as soon as possible – come Monday. I had to go and quit my job as as soon as I could. Of course, I took the job immediately, because they told me what I would be making financially, and I was quite broke.”
Marco began his first gig as a stand in on the following Monday, during a tough winter shoot. The crew was all from Toronto, and would shuttle everyone back and forth: “This went on for a couple of months, and I hated it at first, because I didn’t really know what I was supposed to be doing, having never done stand-in work before, but the more time I spent on set, the more I understood what I was supposed to be doing.” A welcome positive of his new-found role as a double, was that Marco was now allowed the freedom to ‘act’, without the pressure of actually being an actor – given his previously disclosed stage fright.
A month after taking the job, Marco had managed to make something of an impression on his boss – who, along with co-stars Jon Lovitz and Dana Carvey, was in the middle of filming what would become 1994’s ‘Trapped in Paradise’, a moderately-budgeted-critically-maligned crime comedy set in Toronto. His boss? Nicolas Cage, who had asked to meet with Marco personally in his trailer.
“Nic’s assistant asked me to go into his trailer to talk with him. I honestly thought that I was going to be fired, because sometimes I say a bunch of bullshit on set, and I was thinking that maybe he was gonna tell me to simmer down. So I go into his trailer, at lunchtime while we were filming, and he told me that he thought that I was very good at what I was doing – in that I was in control – and that I was generally making his job much easier.”
Marco’s own inexperience had inadvertently contributed to this: “I’ll admit – I was louder than the other stand-ins were on-set, and had spoken up whenever I felt as if things weren’t going right for the actor, or the crew, noticing if certain camera lens’ were off, and so on, even though we weren’t meant to, and that I could’ve been fired. It just felt like it was the right thing to do.” Working outside of his position, it didn’t take long for Marco to be noticed by the hair and makeup people on-set, collectively known as “Camp Cage” – who relayed their feedback to Cage.
“I was stunned by his reaction. I honestly had just assumed that I was just doing what was expected of my role as a stand-in. After that he says – “why don’t you think about travelling with me, and come onto the next film after this one, as my stand-in?” – he told me that the next film was going to be shot in New York, and that the studio wasn’t able to pay me, as they didn’t have the money at the time. I said yes immediately, as I had friends in New York – and continued to work on the film for the next couple of months in Toronto. During that time I did hand doubling, feet doubling, the works. When we finished up in Toronto, I headed to New York. As it transpired, I ended up staying with a friend for nothing, as I could barely afford the train over.”
The film in New York became 1995’s ‘Kiss of Death’ – the first indiction that Marco had inadvertently stumbled into a world much bigger than himself. Directed by Swiss Director Barbet Schroeder, ‘Kiss of Death’ boasted a star-studded cast in David Caruso, Samuel L. Jackson, Helen Hunt, Ving Rhames and Stanley Tucci, eventually being screened at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival. From there, Marco’s career would span 19 films over a decade as Nick’s double, with smaller roles as the doubles of both Pierce Brosnan and Tony Shalboub, (amongst others) for 1996’s ‘Mars Attacks’ and 2004’s ‘Against the Ropes’ respectively. Naturally, Marco does have a favourite project.
“Face Off. For me it was always Face Off. To be on that set was genuinely exhilarating, all day, every day. There was just something very special about that one. For starters, it was the movie that got me the big binding contract with Nic. It was also just amazing to be in a film that John Travolta was in, who was actually my idol, as I grew up watching him on TV, and he was just phenomenal. For the first time in my life, I found myself being treated in a very special way, from the director, from the actors, from the AD guys, as I was now on what I could call ‘cage wage.’ Through Face Off, I had finally become the entourage.”
Continuing our conversation about Director John Woo’s crime classic, Marco lets slip that one of the most famous lines in the film – “Face… off!”– was entirely improvised: “Yeah, that line was all Nic’s doing, and we were all just stunned by it. I believe that the actor that he was acting opposite – Nick Cassavetes – didn’t expect him to say that line just one, let alone twice, and he just went with it! The thing is, he didn’t actually tell the other Nick that he was about to do that, and I think that that is part of Nic’s quirkiness, cause he dissects the script – and I mean this guy really does read into everything, like he probably had pages and pages of notes about this one character, and he’d obviously thought about it for a very long time – so for us watching, we’re all confused, we’re just stumped. But for him, he’s already thinking ahead, and acting in the mindset of that character.”
While ‘Face Off’ was Marco’s favourite project to work on, it wasn’t the first time where he had stood to witness Cage’s signature brand of rehearsed insanity with his own eyes. Two years prior, Marco had worked on Mike Viggis’ ‘Leaving Las Vegas’ – the film with the role that would land Cage his first Academy Award for Best Actor. To play the role of a man driven into the depths of Alcoholism, Cage was aided by an acting coach, who was himself a former alcoholic: “You can see the coach’s influence felt most deeply in the sequence in the film which takes place in the bank when he (Ben Sanderson) is all shaking and so forth. I think that Nic really went all out in what he felt a wishful, dying alcoholic was feeling like, after having conversations with that guy. To a normal person like myself, it looks wacky, but I’m not in that headspace, and when you see it on film, it all comes together. You wouldn’t think it, but a lot of the “wackiness” that Nic is known for was most likely prepared in advance. It really is like that phrase – there’s a method to his madness.”
In the late 1990’s, Cage almost got the chance to play Superman in Tim Burton’s infamously cancelled ‘Superman Lives’. While much of the film’s messy upbringing has since been made public – including Kevin Smith’s (yes, that Kevin Smith) original script in its entirety, along with videos and photos of the first costume tests, and even a full-length crowd-funded documentary in 2015 – Marco was allowed a closer look than most, going as far as to don the costume himself as part of screen tests, proof enough of the project’s fast moving development.
Along with Directors John Woo and Mike Viggis, Marco would, over his decade long career, also share the sound-stage with such masters as Ridley Scott, Tim Burton, Gore Verbinski and Martin Scorsese: “I got a really great memory from my time working for Marty, who was really good to me the entire time. He truly allowed me into his world. Very few people were allowed to be behind the monitor with him there, but there I was. He’d played a prank on me once, with the help of some of our guys, it really is quite a story.”
In the midst of filming what would become 1999’s ‘Bringing Out the Dead’ – a dark Nicolas Cage-led Drama with a more obscure place in Martin Scorsese’s notable filmography – Marco was tired. Driven to fatigue by long days and longer nights, shooting had taken its toll: “We were in the soundstage, which was this living room area, and I was standing in to do my scene, and I noticed a piece of paper, which looked like a folded up newspaper clipping, and just ignored it, assuming that it was just a prop – as the prop team usually would leave things like that around the place. So I didn’t touch it. But Marty kept on telling me to pick it up, as it was reflecting off of the light, or something, so I did.”
Far too tired to think otherwise, Marco obliged: “So I open it up, and it opens up to a picture of this middle aged man, with the darkest, deepest, baggiest black eyes I’d ever seen, with a phone number at the bottom. It said something like – for people who are suffering from ‘baggy eyed syndrome’ – and I’m reading this thing, and then it all clicks. Everyone just starts laughing, and I say – “hey, this thing is all about baggy fuckin’ eyes!” – and it was actually Scorsese, with Nic’s executive assistant who initially set it up, who went along with the joke. He was cracking up, and he came onto the stage and gave me a hug. That was one of those moments.”
While his path has seemed at times extremely – and at times divinely – fortuitous, Marco doesn’t believe in God, believing instead in his own ability: “Hard work is the best remedy for success. It takes a while, like everything does. People give up too soon, looking for instant gratification. I eventually learned how to be a team player, something that I never knew before, especially in Camp Cage. It was a constant tag team of communication to make sure the ‘boss’ was satisfied on set in a professional manner, without ego. We all knew our position with Cage, and worked them to the best of our abilities. Some who hid their mistakes were dismissed. Greed dismissed a lot people from the get go. I always say that you should take life as a learning experience, and that if you aren’t into something, that you should just move on, and reinvent yourself, as does Madonna.”
Marco did have some more specific advice, however – that he has applied directly to his own life: “You need to keep an open mind with a global vision, and attitude, to be able to lift yourself into a job title, no matter what it is. Nothing is forever, and change is always welcome, I feel. But, I have to say, keeping free of drugs, drinks, dope, cigs, whatever – is probably a good start. That intrigued all of my restaurant owners as I worked under them, and ultimately Cage. I was always prompt, and never hungover, ever. I never drank during the work week. Just lightly social on the weekends, and nothing more. It is a win-win when you live life in sobriety.”
Thanks to several smart real-estate investment choices, Marco has been living comfortably in his hometown of Toronto since wrapping his final film as a stand in, Andrew Niccol’s ‘Lord of War’ (2004): “After coming back from Africa wrapping ‘Lord of War’, everything sort of shut down and everybody was pretty much done. So I’ve not seen him since that time, other than on the news. I guess that it is sorta like leaving your boss, and that you aren’t gonna see that person anymore cause you moved on to different things. Everybody moved on, that’s just the way that things are.” Marco’s latest venture is a short film titled ‘Uncaged: A Stand-In Story’, a documentary short aimed at shining more light on the man behind the myth, along with a book – aimed at telling his expansive, and at times unbelievable, story in full.
“I stood under a light for a living as the man in the shadows of Nicolas Cage” – reads Marco Kyris’s Twitter bio. Now as the star of his own documentary, currently making waves at numerous film festivals across the globe, Marco is hoping to make the shadows his home no longer.
Artwork by Fernando Sanchez – (@elfernandosez)