The Cleveland-born, Los Angeles-based performance artist – his notoriety as one of the NEA Four whose grants were denied and his outrageous one-man shows such as Psycho Opera, Dirt and A Snowball’s Chance in Hell, along with his more than 120 credits in movies and TV, including recurring roles on Weeds, True Blood and three iterations of Star Trek, have been captivating audiences for years – plumbs his own psychological depths only to discover what makes him love work and life.
What historical art figure would you like to have lunch with and why? Genghis Khan – or is it Chaka Khan? Seriously, Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas would have been fun to hang out with. What fascinating lives they had. Just to hang around with them would have been fun. And Picasso would have painted me…on a toilet bowl. Also, Nijinsky– or Nietzche. He would have been an interesting guy, and I love what he said, ‘God is dead.’
What did you purchase with the proceeds from your firsts gig? I had so many gigs. I made money doing films, too. With my first big gig in Hollywood, I bought a house. When I got an NEA grant, I probably bought supplies to create art work.
What words or phrases do you overuse? I say, ‘sorry’ a lot. I also say ‘thank you’ a lot. I’m a very thanking guy. Usually it’s from the goodness of my heart, but sometimes it’s used to manipulate people.
How do you know when a work is finished? That is an existential question. I keep asking myself, ‘Why am I doing this [one-man show, Blacktop Highway] again,’ and I’m also self-producing. I need to get it out of my fucking system. We did it at REDCAT and in New York, and I want to keep building – keep adding new stuff. Randee [Trabitz], my director, we love the piece so much, this is my homage to the piece. I’d like to film it and let it go, and then I’d like to tour convalescent homes.
When and where were you happiest? I guess one of the moments of my most profound happiness I had was when I was 20 years old. I’m from Cleveland and I’d never been on a plane before. I flew to London by myself and had a Eurail pass for four months. That was brave and I felt like a warrior. I was so fucked up growing up in Cleveland and was driving down the coast of France and I’m thinking, ‘I have not been depressed for two months. Oh my god, I’m just feeling so good right now.’ That was the first time I felt that. Happiness is such a fleeting thing. I remember when I was a little kid and was happy at church praying, and going home – my father wasn’t around – and it was me, mom and the rest of the kids, and I got to dabble with Jesus. I felt like the son of god for a while, but that didn’t last long.
Performing live at the Lhasa Club in 1985. ©JP Boccara/Lhasa Foundation
What is your most treasured possession? Well, friends. And they’re not possessions, because you don’t own anybody. There’s a sense of family I’ve been needing lately. Randy [LaBorde, Fleck’s partner] – and I can say Victoria Looseleaf, but I don’t know if you’re my most treasured possession. Being here right now and just being grateful I’m still alive. I’m in possession of all my faculties – school faculties – and my heart.
What is your ideal escape destination? We are going to Thailand and Vietnam in late December. Is it the ultimate escape or a 10-minute escape destination? Sometimes just walking up in Griffith Park can be an ideal destination. I don’t have any one particular ideal destination. We went on a walk a few weeks ago and there was a full moon up in the park, and it was beautiful. How about ‘in a king-size, four-poster bed with you, waving around like spaghetti strands.’ Wherever I am at the moment. One thing I’ve really learned by seeing so many people with money and success, is that they’re not in as an ideal destination as I am.
What’s the worst survival job you’ve ever had? That one’s easy for me. When I was going to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Pasadena, the only job I could get was at Bank of America. It was from 10 pm to 6 am, and I was pulling staples. Angrily, they would put 55 staples in bills. I did a lot of that – pulling staples out of bills from angry customers.
What TV series from your youth best describes your approach to life? The Addams Family. Who cares whatever anybody thinks of ya. Just be authentically yourself.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? To be free of expectations and to be truly present in the here and now.
What is your most treasured memory? Being with my brothers and sisters the very moment my mother died in her bed back in Cleveland in 2000. She’d had Alzheimer’s for a few years, but I knew she knew we were all there. I’d never seen anyone die, in person. Wow, what a treasured moment.
What makes you smile? I have to remember – is it a genuine smile or is it to manipulate what I want in my life – navigating the treacherous world of human beings? When Randy came home last night, that made me smile. I smile a lot in yoga. That’s a nice smile. I just had lunch with a friend, that makes me smile. I’m also a sucker for innocence – when I see young kids and parents – I melt and I smile. I also love landlines. They make me smile.
What makes you cry? Questions like this. Doing this show [Blacktop Highway], when I’m driving across town from the East side to the West side on a Friday night. Sometimes for me to get into a show, sometimes I just feel really sad. I like to cry before I go and perform. I feel like if I can cry and open my heart, it opens my channel to be more genuine, to make me be better in the performance. The other day Waze redirected me down Glendale Boulevard and I was driving past the lake and usually there’s a whole bunch of families, and there was a complete tent embankment – and there were no people there. And the bridge under Echo Park – that’s an encampment. It breaks my fucking heart that so many people are so nothing. Look at all the people who have so much – myself included. The disparity makes my heart break.
What is your go-to drink when you toast to a show you’ve performed? On opening nights I always have a glass of white wine – whatever’s available, whatever they’re pouring – as long as it’s dry and kinda cold.
After an all-nighter, what’s your breakfast of champions? I’m a man of convenience, so whatever’s around. We’ve been eating a lot of avocados lately, with corn chips from Trader Joe’s. That’s what I like.
Who inspires you? Martha Raye inspired me as a child. Maria Callas and Yma Sumac in my middle years. Beto O’Rourke inspired me very recently. I know he lost, but he represents a state of consciousness I aspire to. And Go Mueller Go! I’m [also] inspired by Truth Seekers.
What’s your best quality? I’m a good listener. Its funny – I saw a psychic in New York four years ago – he’s the psychic to Yoko Ono. At the time I was getting my astrology cards done once a year and this guy said – he knew I was an actor – ‘You’re going to be working a lot and you’re going to play therapists, because you listen.’ I never went to another psychic again. It used to be that I could pee on cue, but that doesn’t happen anymore.
John Fleck in Blacktop Highway
What’s your biggest flaw? I’m very aware that I lack patience. That is one of the spiritual lessons. Patience, it’s not my biggest flaw – I had a heart attack because I have the Fleck DNA, but the biggest flaw, I suppose is my fear of mortality. Maybe that’s not a big flaw, but it’s being aware of how short our time is that we have on this planet. My ego, thinking I deserve better: shoulda, coulda, woulda. When I start comparing myself to others, that I’m not good enough. Ego has to compensate for not being enough, not having enough. I’m in a 12-step program and am learning about gratitude.
What is your current state of mind? My state of mind, state of being, state of the world. Please let me channel all this angst into a creative form. This whole what’s going on with Trump and the country – globally – capitalism, socialism. It’s hard to separate state of mind from state of country, state of being, state of state – Ohio – and my family. We’re not talking anymore, that’s my state of mind. But right now, though – we have choices to make – and my choice is I’m walking outside by the pool, going to the studio. What a beautiful state of existence I have here. I’m getting back to gratitude.
What do you consider your greatest achievement? I managed to create a life for myself. I kind of left my biological family and as Armistead Maupin once said, ‘Get rid of the bio in biological.’ I have my logical family and have created a more spiritual family for myself – not tied to blood. The fact that I’ve managed to create a state of being and life in that I’m just really truly blessed. Artistically, I think my show, Blacktop Highway, is one of my best performances. I’ve been telling everybody this is my swan song, that I’m not doing this anymore. It’s probaby the swan song for this piece. I can’t move on to new pieces until I get them out of my system, and I haven’t gotten this out of my system yet.
If you were to die and come back as a person or thing, what would it be? I’d kind of like to be able to fly, so I keep thinking like a bird. I love the desert – Joshua Tree. I’d like to be, not a buzzard, but I’d probably come back as a buzzard or vulture. I look at these birds flying – I’ve always had a thing for birds, ducks. I’d like to be able to fly and float – you have a lot more options for survival. The first role I had when I was in third grade – it was my fifth school because we moved around so much – and for some reason I got cast as the Ugly Duckling, and I remember my fucking song. I remember the musical instructor. He pointed me out and said this was a very attractive and talented voice. I’d like to be a duck. And I was in Howard the Duck. See how cosmic the connections are – the universe responds in kind.
Cover image: John Fleck in It’s alive, it’s ALIVE! a musical cabaret at the Odyssey Theatre, Sept. 18-October 9; photo courtesy Randy LaBorde
Visit the artist at johnfleck.net