Peter Mackenzie, Cole Escola help helm comedy panel at NH Film Festival

By CHRIS BIERI
Special to the Union Leader
October 11. 2017 1:04PM

Peter Mackenzie, who portrays Mr. Stevens on the hit ABC series “Black-ish,” will be part of a comedy panel at this year's New Hampshire Film Festival in Portsmouth. 
If you go...
WHAT: New Hampshire Film Festival Comedy Panel

WHEN: 9 p.m. Saturday

WHERE: 3S Artspace, 319 Vaughan St., Portsmouth

PANELISTS: Tom Bergeron, Cole Escola, Peter Mackenzie, Josh Meyers, John Viener, Rae Dawn Chong X

INFO: nhfilmfestival.com

Billed as a union of “Inside the Actor’s Studio” and a talk show, the New Hampshire Film Festival’s comedy panel gives attendees an interactive respite from darkened theaters.

This year’s panel features an assortment of comic talents, including Peter Mackenzie, a veteran actor who has emerged on one of TV’s most hailed sitcoms, and Cole Escola, a young comedian whose YouTube videos helped launch his career.

Moderated by Greg Kretschmar, the comedy panel is scheduled for 9 p.m. Saturday at 3S Artspace in Portsmouth. In addition to Mackenzie and Escola, it will feature Tom Bergeron, Josh Meyers, John Viener and Rae Dawn Chong.

Mackenzie’s acting career spans 30 years to a role in “Good Morning, Vietnam,” a film that entered a renaissance recently with his recurring role as Mr. Stevens on the hit series “Black-ish.” The sitcom has been hailed for tackling sociological issues surrounding race in America.

“There’s an appeal about our show,” Mackenzie said. “It’s a story of an affluent black family, but it asks the question, ‘How do you pass on to your kids a sense of who you are and where you came from?’”

Mackenzie compared it to a trio of series produced by Norman Lear in the 1970s — “All in the Family,” “The Jeffersons” and “Good Times.”

“Each episode is intended to start a conversation,” Mackenzi said of “Black-ish.” “I’m very proud of the show. Like Lear, we used comedy (to examine social and cultural issues). It made you laugh, but it really poked the bear and made you think.”

Mackenzie has been the definition of a working actor, notching more than 120 credits in television and film. His most recent project is “Kings,” a film starring Halle Berry and Daniel Craig and set around the time of the Los Angeles riots in 1992.

“I moved to L.A. in ’91 and the riot happened in ’92,” he said. “I think there’s a really timely element to the movie. (Director Deniz Gamze Erguven) manages to tell the story of the riots in the macro but (also) tell a very specific character-driven story.”

A Boston native, Mackenzie was able to return to his roots for a role last year in “Spaceman,” the biopic of former Red Sox pitcher Bill “Spaceman” Lee.

“I grew up in Boston,” he said. “I used to sneak out of shop class and go to Fenway and watch Bill Lee pitch.”

Mackenzie said his brother lives on a farm near the Monadnock Region, so the actor is a regular visitor to the state during the holidays. Appearing on the panel afforded Mackenzie the opportunity to make an extra visit.

“It was very serendipitous to coordinate the two,” he said.

Mackenzie said he didn’t know what to expect from the panel, but his sardonic response was a good indicator of his self-effacing humor.

“They asked me to do a panel,” Mackenzie joked. “They probably figured you’re on a hit show, so you must be funny. Well, that’s their mistake, and I’ll prove it on the comedy panel. We’ll show them.”

Escola’s career has taken a starkly different trajectory. But like Mackenzie, he is finding his work more and more in the spotlight.

Escola is probably best known for his series of YouTube sketch comedies, in which he plays a variety of quirky characters. Those shorts helped launch him into the mainstream, with roles in Amazon’s “Mozart in the Jungle” and the upcoming TruTV series “At Home with Amy Sedaris.”

“Probably more than auditioning, doing my own work has helped,” he said, especially of his YouTube videos. “I’ll get cast in something and the producers or writers would say, ‘We saw that and love it so much.’ It wasn’t my plan to use my work to get work from other places.”

Escola grew up in rural Oregon and moved to New York City as a teenager. He entered school at Marymount Manhattan College, a move that allowed him to acclimate to the city. He dropped out after only a year.

“I’d gotten over my fear,” he said.

In the entertainment business, Escola started working in cabaret acts before embarking on what would be a series of DIY projects.

He collaborated with comedian Jeffery Self on the YouTube series “Very Good Looking (VGL) Gay Boys.” That led to “Jeffery and Cole Casserole,” which aired on Logo TV.

Escola got raves for his role as Matthew in the Hulu comedy “Difficult People,” created by Julie Klausner.

“I got that part after doing a table read of an early draft,” he said. “From the second I read it, I said, ‘I have to do this.’ As the show went on (Julie and I) got to know each other better. It was, I think, written with me in mind.”

He also landed a role in Amazon’s “Mozart in the Jungle.” Escola said Sedaris, of “Strangers with Candy” fame, plays a sort of demented Martha Stewart type in the series, which debuts later this month.

His upcoming role, as Sedaris’ female neighbor, was again the effect of his independent work.

“Amy had seen one of the videos I’d done, and we worked together one day in ‘Difficult People,’” he said. “(Series co-creator) Paul Dinello and Amy reached out and asked me if I’d play that role on her show.”


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