You don’t know what to expect when you speak to someone known for being silent. Will he be funny or profound? Charming, original, self-aware and interesting? Sweet-natured or thrill-seeking? Well, with Sam Wills, a.k.a Tape Face, he is all of those things and more and his lovely Kiwi accent adds to the fascination factor.
Sam Wills is the kind of performer who makes you believe that world peace may be possible thanks to a familiar, innocent humor, which anyone can enjoy. Last summer, Wills' character Tape Face won the hearts of people all over the world when he appeared on America’s Got Talent showing his unique brand of universally funny, non-verbal comedy.
By the time he was 12 years old, the New Zealander knew that he wanted to be a performer and trained to be a clown in the circus. He spent many years as a staple in the circus and freak show circuit where became an expert juggler and performed dangerous stunts like hammering nails into his face. He has toured the world over making people laugh with his silly, sweet and delightfully different act.
Wills spoke with TheCelebrityCafé.com about life after AGT, his beginnings as a busker and circus performer, what he thinks is off-limits in comedy, the creation of Tape Face, some behind-the-scenes tales from AGT, what he looks for in volunteers from the audience (who are his favorite performers), what he likes to do for fun and more.
TheCelebrityCafé: What have you been up to since the end of AGT?
Sam Wills a.k.a. Tape Face: I've been very busy. So obviously, after AGT, I went straight into a U.K. tour. So I toured for two and a half months all around the United Kingdom and then developed my bigger show and then got that planned and all under way to be—we're going to go back into the West End in June and July. And then, obviously, coming back here for doing some shows in Las Vegas. So I've just been at the Bugsy Room at The Flamingo and just doing some shows. And then also getting ready for the U.S. tour as well, so working on that and developing a documentary. Yeah, quite a bit.
TCC: It seems like it. Did you always want to be a performer?
SW: Yeah, I've been involved in performing since I was the age of 12. So it's just been one of those things that I've accidentally found myself in this career with no other qualifications.
TCC: What did you find funny when you were a little boy?
SW: Wile E. Coyote. Fozzie Bear was pretty good. I always found the Muppets very entertaining. And then, yeah, growing I suppose, just— yeah, I was one of those kids that had like the book, 1,001 Jokes. And so I would constantly be the one telling jokes to my parents, even though they'd heard them the same number of times.
TCC: What interested you about the circus and freak show life?
SW: Oh, the circus. Well, as far like—I was given a magic set when I was 12, so I think that was what every kid gets—a magic set at some point. But I loved the idea of mystery and the idea of knowing something that other people don't know I find fascinating. And from there, just moving into juggling was an appreciation of accuracy and perfection. I think with juggling it's very clear when you get it wrong because you drop and so I quite like that. There's a perfection of it. And then moving into the freak show stuff was just, I love how far some people can take the human body and do things that other people find disturbing and disgusting, but I find interesting.
TCC: I'm betting with your parents you were saying, "Mom, Dad, look what I can do."
SW: Very much so. But then again, my parents were also very encouraging in trying to find some other strange things. Like my dad was—my dad helped me build my first bed of broken glass [laughter].
TCC: Wow [laughter]! That's supportive!
SW: Yeah, very supportive parents.
TCC: Which continents have you performed in?
SW: I would say I'm lucky enough being a silent act that I can travel anywhere in the world. So, I've played shows all through Europe, South Korea, through Asia, through Australia, through America, through everywhere. There's still more places to go to, obviously. But I very much love the fact about the show that I can take it anywhere and everywhere.
TCC: How did you discover Tape Face?
SW: That came about because I was bored doing the other show. So, the old show of pushing nails up my nose and talking a lot. So, my old my show was very tricky and I would talk too many words. So, everyone expected me to do more talking and more tricks. But for me, the moment somebody expects me to do something, I will do the opposite. So, I surprised everyone and just did a silent character.
TCC: Now, how did the look of Tape Face evolve? You seem to wear more eye makeup now.
SW: Yeah, I deeply evolved. I think, when I first developed the character, I had it all planned out. And then I took it right back to no makeup, because I wanted to make this very accessible and easy for the audience to go for. And then, as my popularity has grown, I found that I've able to go back to the original character that I developed, because then it's not so off-putting and I've got the following behind it. And for me, I think that the growth of the character, again, over 12 years of doing it now, I've just found more ways that I'm comfortable in making the character evolve and change and going further into the weirder world that is Tape Face.
TCC: What do you like best about performing without speaking?
SW: It's kind of fun to see what people do. I really enjoy the fact that when I get people up on stage, they don't talk to me either. I think that's a very interesting thing that they have the ability to talk, but they choose not to. And so it's just really nice to see how much you can get somebody to do without talking, just through communicating with body language and gestures. So yeah, I love that.
TCC: How do you practice your material?
SW: I'm lucky enough that I do shows all the time [laughter]. So I'm always doing shows and developing. When I'm working on new ideas, though, I tend to have a studio. I have a dressmaker's dummy in that I use a lot. And then I tend to work on a lot of ideas in my head and play with some in a room. And I sort of work things out to the point that I know it's going to work and be funny and then just tweak it a little and put out a new show.
TCC: I think most comedians see the world a little bit differently, but I think you have an optimistic and useful and joyful way of looking at the world.
SW: Yeah, I definitely try to look at the world through a much more imaginative way. I think as we grow up we forget how we use our imaginations and play and behave as children. And so I'm a fairly immature person, so I like to look at—yeah, to have that childlike look of the world. Because then it's also easier to switch off the crappy parts of the world as well.
TCC: What do you think makes your comedy universal?
SW: I think it comes back to that play element. Everyone knows how to play. Everyone remembers being a kid and playing with toys and also inventing your own games. I think that's something that's really important. So when you take—I can happily take a drunk audience of stag dos and hen parties and whatnot—and then take them right back to when they were 9 years old, playing with their friends. And it's all about that game element, so that's really important for me and then that's where the comedy all comes from.
TCC: Do other cultures react to your comedy differently?
SW: No. Whenever I write material, I try and write in a fairly universal way. So the songs I'm using, I try and make sure they have a universal appeal and the 80s and 90s references, I keep it very—the pop culture I keep very worldwide. So I try not to isolate it too much, because again, I want to travel. I don't want to be limited to just English-speaking countries, or just cultures that are aware of certain Hollywood movies.
TCC: Now, do you think anything should be off limits for comedy?
SW: Comedy should be free. You should do comedy about absolutely anything. Comedy should be challenging and should push people's buttons. If you're not pushing people's buttons, you're not being funny.
TCC: Who are some performers whom you admire?
SW: Who do I admire? I love Buster Keaton. I definitely look up to his work, because he has that sort of stony-faced, wonderful understatedness to him. And I also love his status of, he always starts a film in the lowest status possible and then at the end of it, he's moved further on. I love that. I love his physicalities. Other performers I admire? There's a various bunch of magicians and physical theater and dancers I like. And again, I can go right back to The Muppet Show which was still a major inspiration to me and various cartoons like Wile E. Coyote and any Acme, Bugs Bunny, that sort of thing.
TCC: How do you discover what props to use for your show?
SW: I just buy everyday objects. I just tend to wander around like dollar stores and junk shops [laughter] and again, it's just stuff around the house. Because for me, it's important that when I do a joke—it's like the oven gloves. I love the idea that people at home are picking up their own oven gloves and making them sing after seeing me do a routine. So I want it to be a game that people can go home and then they start looking at the world in a different way. I think that's a fun little thing to spread out there, the stupidity and silliness.
TCC: And now what is your favorite thing about performing in front of a live audience?
SW: Oh, the live audience, it's just the energy you get back from them. I think there's only so much you can do on TV and YouTube. But when you see the material done live, it's the difference of seeing a band play and there's also the fun moments of anything can happen. I love those moments when audience members all engage and all play along. And some of the shows we've had here in Vegas, it just feels like a big party because everyone's so supportive of each other that people feel confident and happy enough to play around and be silly on stage.
TCC: Who are some people, alive or dead, whom you would most like to meet?
SW: I would love to meet Buster Keaton. Obviously, he's the bigger hero of the bunch. I would like to meet—there's a comedian called Joey Delaware. He's quite an inspiration to me because he's got quite an understated style.
TCC: How did you feel about auditioning for America's Got Talent?
SW: I just wanted to go on that show to be seen. So for me, I've been performing this character for 12 years and I've got a very successful career in the U.K. and all through Europe, so I just wanted the challenge to go on and be seen in America. So for me, it was a choice of exposure, so the idea was to go on the show and just be seen by as many people as possible.
TCC: Did you avoid speaking the entire time, even backstage, to maintain the illusion?
SW: No, I happily chatted to people backstage. The agreement was, that I made very clear to the show, was that they could never film me without tape. That was one of the reasons that it worked and they knew that I would happily walk away from it, because I also don't care [laughter].
TCC: How did you decide which judge you would use for which bit?
SW: I kind of lined up what I thought the audience would want to see. I did want to use Simon for a couple of routines, but then I thought, to a degree, I'd rather use some of the other judges. And again, it was just the choice of material just naturally matched up with them.
TCC: Do you keep up with any of the judges or the contestants?
SW: Yeah, I'm still friends with a lot of the contestants. The judges, we don't really chat, because I think they're busy doing their own thing and whatnot. And I think after 12 seasons, they're not really—it's not the type of show they make friends with on. But the contestants I think, you know, we all very much—we bonded through it and we see each other around on the certain circuit of shows and bits and pieces.
TCC: So did you take a vacation after the show?
SW: Ha, I wish. No, after the show I went straight into my tour for three months and then did more touring through Germany, through Holland and then just came straight out here [Las Vegas].
TCC: Now will you be making any more music videos like I Love the Way You Shine?
SW: I might make another couple. Yeah, that was a fun music video. That was quite a few years ago. I'm always interested in doing new projects and putting the character in different places and sort of developing different platforms to go on to. I'm interested in cartoons at the moment. I'm interested in developing more online content and working with some other performers to use their ideas—to develop their content and bring it to the audience, which would be quite fun.
TCC: Now, what is your role in this year's Fringe Festival?
SW: It's coming up in August. I'm taking a best of show back to the Edinburgh Fringe. So I'll be playing the Pleasance Grand, so that's an 800-seat venue that I'll be hopefully filling every night for many days. And essentially it's just a best of my material show, because I've done the Fringe a number of years and I've got quite the following over there. It's just a chance for me to kind of shake out the cobwebs out of all my old material before I kind of retire it and then come back with a new show later on.
TCC: Now, when you see a street performer do you stop and give them money?
SW: Oh yeah, I do. It depends if they're good. I don't just give money to anyone. They've got to entertain me [laughter].
TCC: Makes sense. They have to be entertaining.
SW: If they've caught my eye and they're doing something interesting or if they've got a new take on it, absolutely. But if I see a street performer just trucking out the old lines that everyone knows, doing a regular format, then I'll probably watch the show and watch the audience reaction but the chances are I won't pay them because I don't think they've done the work.
TCC: How can someone who sees your show increase the odds of being selected to be a volunteer?
SW: The best thing to do if you want to be chosen for a volunteer in my show is be normal [laughter] I tend not to choose people who want to be on stage because then they just don't do it right. I just want people when they're—I just want to have a natural reaction from somebody on stage. I want to see somebody on stage who—they aren't super comfortable. I want to be a wee bit out of their comfort zone because then it becomes a fun experience for them. But at the same time, I also don't want them terrified. But yeah, I tend not to pick people who've come dressed in costume or look over-enthusiastic. And in the same sense, I don't pick people who are looking like a rabbit in the headlight [laughter].
TCC: But you have a good sense of who's who and what's what by looking at the people?
SW: Yeah, after 12 years, I've become pretty good at reading people's body language.
TCC: So how do you like Las Vegas?
SW: It's pretty cool. It's a fun town. It's like every night's a Saturday night and it's a bit of a party. We've been really lucky that every show here's been sold out. So we've even added an extra show here and there. And I'm definitely going to look at coming back. So I've got some more touring and some more plans to do in other countries first and previous commitments. But I definitely think it'll be in the calendar to come back here and do more shows. I think the audiences like it, so it makes sense.
TCC: Well, I'm hoping to see you when you're in New York in May.
SW: Yeah, we're playing Gramercy Theatre. I'm very much looking forward to that that'd be good fun.
TCC: What do you like to do for fun when you're not performing?
SW: When I'm not performing, which is very few and far between, I play PlayStation. I [laughter] enjoy playing PlayStation games. I like watching movies. I tend to watch 3-D movies. I've got a real sucker— I'm a sucker for 3-D. I think because when I was really young I saw a King Kong film and I loved that. I remember there were two moments that the 3-D was incredible— where an arrow flew out of the TV at me as a kid and it was like, "Wow, that was amazing!" So for me, that was like real magic. So I love 3-D movies and, yeah, playing PlayStation.
TCC: Now is there somewhere you wish to travel where you haven't been before?
SW: I would like to travel to Japan. I think one of the original reasons I developed the show back in New Zealand was I wanted to go to Japan, but I was too lazy to learn the language. And weirdly enough I've been to nearly every other country in the world except Japan. So I imagine when I finally get to Japan that's when I'll probably retire [laughter].
TCC: Now, are there any charities that you actively support?
SW: I do support a [world?] of them. Probably too many to list, yeah.
TCC: Okay. Where do you call home?
SW: Probably whatever airport terminal I'm in [laughter]. I seem to travel quite a lot. I can consider the U.K. home and New Zealand is, I suppose, my far-off distance home, but I've sort of reached the top of my game over there and there's not enough work for me. Whereas in the U.K. it's easy for me to jump into Europe and do more shows and so yeah, I would say the U.K. is home for me but America is looking quite inviting at the moment.
TCC: Oh, we like having you here [laughter]. Now, do you have a favorite cartoon character?
SW: Favorite cartoon? Probably Wile E. Coyote. I love the fact that he can just order anything from that Acme company. I wish I could do that. I wish I could just order jokes and tricks and have them delivered by a parachute.
TCC: Amazon's pretty close to that [laughter].
SW: Yeah, Amazon is pretty good. Yeah. Once the drones come in, it's going to be like a real life cartoon [laughter].
TCC: So what's next for you?
SW: I'm always developing new ideas. I'm working on a new third show at the moment which I'll be debuting in 2018, and then I'm look at doing some more festivals and more touring. People always want the show to go to different places, different countries. And for me, I'm still happy writing for this character, so I think the moment it becomes work is when I'll stop. But no I've always got a few ideas and a few tricks up my sleeve but again moment. The moment I am expected do one thing then I'll probably do the opposite.
TCC: Are you also creating new characters now too, to use later?
SW: I've got a couple of ideas, but at the moment, that's been not high on my priority list. So I've just sort of written some basic-level things down. And again, it just comes down to that time thing at the moment. At the moment, I really like [inaudible]. I think he's a character that, even after 12 years, I still get a kick out of being inside the character, and playing around, and seeing what people do.
TCC: So how do you like the fans to connect with you?
SW: Oh, I love social media, so I'm on every single bit of platform of that. So I talk to people on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, the whole lot. And there's no social media team working for me, doing any of that and whatnot. So I do all of it myself. So I reply to messages, I see everything. So when fans send me messages on Facebook, I see everything, I read everything. We do things like draw and play. I encourage people to create art and also to develop their own ideas and do their own performances. But no, I tend to try and do as much as I can on social media without it eating too much into my life. But there's a lot of the time that I do feel like a 14-year-old girl attached to my phone [laughter].
TCC: Well, you've been wonderful. Is there anything you'd like to add?
SW: No, I think we're pretty covered on everything. Yeah. No, I think, yeah, the tour's coming up, so I'm really excited about that. We're making a new documentary about travelling through America and so that'll be quite a trek because we're going to get an RV and travel around the country. So I'm sure that'll provide some surreal antics.
TCC: I think you have said in one of the other interviews that one of your goals was to perform on the West End. Is that something that's happening for you soon?
SW: I was lucky enough in 2012 that I did a season in the West End, but I've also been again lucky enough so I'm getting back and this time playing in a much bigger theatre. I'll be playing the Garrick Theatre, so the next two months, in June and July. And that'll be with my proper big show, so that's a two-hour show with intervals, and it's just me as well, which is quite fun.