Keenan Ramos talks KC acting career and his turn as Red in Shawshank Redemption
The traffic is just roaring to a cluster during rush hour as I pull up to the curb right outside the Warwick Theater on Main. It’s just cool enough to keep me from bursting into an anxiety induced sweat as I climb from the cab of my ride. Thanks to that traffic, I’m late.
I’m here to interview Keenan Ramos. I’m a bit nervous. It’s not everyday Kansas City is the home of the rebirth of one of the world’s most celebrated tales of crime, punishment, imprisonment and freedom. To the stage, Stephen King’s Shawshank Redemption makes its North American premiere and Keenan Ramos is its star.
We talk about being from around the way, mutual childhood friends, building a career in the Kansas City performing arts, and doing the unthinkable — taking one of our generations greatest character treasures, Red, played on the big screen by Mr. Morgan Freeman and giving him life right here on Kansas City’s MET stage. Together, we travel the points between Keenan’s start in the creative arts and this monumental moment in his career.
Did you study acting after high school?
I went to KCKCC to play baseball and ended up not liking it.
Did you play in high school?
I played it in high school and football.
If you played in high school, why did you end up not liking it in college?
They were a lot better than I was.
But his widely known best friend, playwright Nathan Jackson made a suggestion.
He always talked about theater. He was like, man, why don’t you try acting down there at K-State? So, I went down there and auditioned, got some scholarships and ever since then…
How was Manhattan, Kansas?
Coming out of Kansas City, Kansas? Of course it’s a culture shock. You know when you’re in those big lecture halls and you went to class and the only seat left available is the one right in front and you’re the only Black person…
(Mimicking James Earl Jones) Welcome to class, Mr. Ramos.
Exactly. But, I can’t say anything bad about Manhattan, Kansas. It was great to me. That’s where [I] sort of [grew] up. I went there with a group of people that really took acting, theater seriously. We’re no Juilliard or Yale Drama or Carnegie Mellon, but I’m lucky to study with a pocket of people that really loved acting and loved theater and we held each other accountable for what we were doing within the discipline. If it weren’t for Kansas State and Manhattan I definitely wouldn’t be here.
I studied acting post high school too. The thing that struck me was how physical, how in the body, it all was. Coming out of sports, was the athleticism of theater satisfying to you?
It’s not even the athleticism, it’s the mindset. It’s that competitive mindset. If I couldn’t hit a curveball, I’d stay there and I’d practice until I did. If I can’t get the iambic pentameter of “to be or not to be”, I’m gonna stay in there until, until I get the meter. I took that focus and that mindset and I try to apply it to theater every time I step out there.
Fast forward to when you said to yourself, “I’m gonna be a professional actor”.
ACTF. American College Theater Festival. Every year we’d go and they have this Irene Ryan Scholarship Award. Every year I’d go and I was successful at it. A couple of years I almost won it. You start out with a thousand kids and it gets whittled down to about 16. If you’re one, two or three recognized, it’s hard not to think, if I’m stacking up like this against my peers, against the country, maybe… I’d like to see what I can do, how far I can go.
And then Nate. Everything revolves around me riding Nate’s coattails. It was March of 2004, and Nate was like, it’s this place called the Unicorn Theater. He’s auditioning for this show called “Take Me Out”. It was my third year of college and he was like, come with me. I thought, I’m not gonna audition, I’m still in college. But, I auditioned…with Nate…I ended up getting the role and he didn’t and I was like, whoa. I didn’t even think. I didn’t know I could hold my own with people. It was like maybe I can hold my own with some of these guys.
- What was your next step?
Nate wrote a show called The Last Black Play about Afrikan-American’s frustrations within the world of theater. We took that show all the way to the Kennedy Center. We were one of three shows in the nation to get invited and I was the lead in that. Tons of exposure.
[I got another opportunity] with Gregg Henry. The next year I was leaving and he was like, hey man, I’ve got this show. We’ll make you Equity, just come and act in D.C.
I packed everything up that year, moved to New York, so everything was just kind of easy. I’m not gonna just say no to that. Everything just kind of fell into place.
How many markets have you performed in?
Kansas City, D.C., New York.
Whew, the big ones. What brought you back to KC or did you ever relocate permanently?
Love did. I had my girlfriend back here. We were going to go to Chicago, but her family is in Salina, Kansas and my family’s here. So we decided to stay in Kansas City so that if Chicago comes calling or New York comes calling, I’d go. I ended up just grinding out a career here.
I love that. We believe that women are the ones sentimental enough to make a huge leap for love. It’s refreshing to know that the opportunity you followed was a romantic one.
I had a professor that asked what [I] want. Do I want to be rich; do I want to be famous? I remember just answering that I just want to be happy. I want to make a living being happy doing theater. That was an easy choice for me. We’re divorced now, but she made me happy and I’m happy and I make a pretty good living doing theater here.
Speaking of emotional transitions and maturing. This show. Shawshank. One of the most beloved, most enduring stories of Stephen King’s, even more so than The Shining. It’s even more haunting. It’s making its North American debut for the stage play and you are playing the pivotal role. Red is like, the man. That’s Morgan Freeman. That’s God.
I know. If I get this wrong, I will be hit in the face with a tomato.
So, you’re saying we can bring tomatoes?
Bring tomatoes, cabbage. Try to hit Chris, don’t hit me.
So how do you feel? Did you have to audition for this role?
I did. I heard it through the grapevine, hey, they’re doing Shawshank. I didn’t expect to get Red. I figured they go with an older actor and I would be happy to get one of the prison guys. But, I got here and read for Red and then I read for Red again. They let me go and I didn’t hear from them for about a month and a half. Then one day out of the blue they called and were like, we’re gonna offer you Red. It’s like, really?
Had you already been cast in Seven Guitars?
I got this first. A week later I got Seven Guitars. And it felt great. I’d just moved back here in August. I had done two shows and I was happy with those two shows and was going to try to audition as much as possible, so I wasn’t expecting these two plays.
Are you able to carve out a career acting here in Kansas City? Or do you have to supplement it with work from other markets or other kinds of jobs?
Acting is definitely what I do to support myself. I know a lot of actors locally who sustain their income just by acting, but there are a lot more who have a second job. We keep jobs for security blankets. I consider myself lucky because I’m booked all the way through November, but, what’s after that?
Do you also work in commercials and film?
I have not yet. I need to brush off the rust and get my confidence back on the stage. Once I do, I’ll pursue that.
You know, I’m the kind of spectator that loves sci-fi. I love fight scenes and a few explosions–
You’ll love this show. It’s got a lot of pathos.
What do you say to people like me who tend to be a bit unkind to adaptations, remakes, re-imaginings, people who tend to be skeptical?
It’s not just you. Everyone is going to walk through that door thinking that same thing. Where’s Tim Robbins; where’s Morgan Freeman; what happened to this part of the movie? That was my favorite part of the movie!
Just know we’re fighting, we’re fighting in there to sort of dissuade you from that. It’s not the movie. The play is really clear. It’s closer to the book than the movie. We’re controlling this particular story and if you buy in, bite in, you’ll have a good time.
The two things, that no matter whether it’s the script, the book or the movie, the two things that you get from it is: the warmth and the awful, awful situation. That’s what Stephen King does, he can find the warmth, the heart even though it’s tragic. They did it in the book, in the movie and it’s in this particular script. The warmth and the overall message of hope.
I’m comfortable saying this. Last year was one of the worst years of my life. I was away from Kansas City theater for a long while, my brother was killed in July, I went through a custody battle and it didn’t go my way, she moved to New York and I was in a really, really kind of bad place. I made two phone calls: to Cynthia Levine and Tim Scott and they said come on up and now I’m fighting my way to one of the greatest years of my life. This time last year I definitely didn’t have hope to be happy.
I hear you saying that you’re pouring all of that into this performance and these experiences are the spirit of this story whether it’s the book, the movie, or this new adaptation.
Every night I drive away from rehearsal and think, man gosh, look where I was last year. I am so happy, not only to be doing this play, but to be doing what I love again.
Mr. Keenan Ramos uses his personal pathos to resurrect Red with heart and humor along side the rest of the inmates of Shawshank Penitentiary. See him now through April 21, at MET at the Warwick Theater.