For Matt Tavianini, a born observer of human nature, acting comes easily. “I’ve always had a real interest in what makes a person tick,” he explained. “I’m usually very aware of what’s going on with people—not always to my advantage.” The same instinct that occasionally lands him in socially awkward situations makes him a quick character study. Whether he’s playing Jesus Christ, an evil Indian god, or a remorseless murderer, he approaches his work the same way: by assessing his character’s motivations in order to get to their core.
Tavianini says it’s the bad characters that he often finds the most appealing. He counts Michal, a brain-damaged 40-year-old in the Genesis West production of Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman among his most successful roles. Michal murders children in ways that mimic fictional crimes in stories written by his brother. “He can’t see the harmful outcome; he’s deluded,” Tavianini explained of Michal. “For some reason, I was able to lose myself in that role. I guess I enjoy playing extreme characters.”
Tavianini attended UCSB as an undergraduate before going on to complete his MFA at Florida State University. After a stint in L.A., he returned to Santa Barbara to join Boxtales Theatre Company, with which he has performed since 2001. Boxtales specializes in physical theater, something that, alongside psychological realism, has always been one of Tavianini’s loves. He’s also performed with Genesis West, Lit Moon Theatre Company, Shakespeare Santa Barbara, and the SBCC Theatre Group, among others. Although he has directed, Tavianini is clear that performing is his real passion. “It’s exciting to get out of my own skin,” he explained. “There’s a safety in it, and there’s also a vulnerability. You have to probe inside yourself.”
Generally speaking, acting is a collaborative process, and Tavianini says working with directors is both challenging and rewarding. Sometimes, differences in interpretation make it hard to move forward. Other times, a tough director will push him to grow. He cites a production of Alfred Uhry’s The Last Night of Ballyhoo as one that changed him permanently. “I played a character who needed to stand up for himself in a romantic relationship,” Tavianini said. “The director pushed me really hard to break out of my shell, to be more vocal and critical. Because I had her supporting me, I found that strength and confidence in myself.”
Now, after more than 20 years of collaborations, Tavianini is beginning to consider his first solo production. In the meantime, his side job of fixing computers provides the perfect opportunity for character study, and might just form the basis of an original one-man show.