Perhaps it should not have been surprising, considering that New Englander Christopher Annino has a passion for creating a space for performers to play against their stereotype, but my conversation with the physically imposing strongman/wrestler/director flew in the face of pre-conceptions. While he has the look of someone perhaps brash and imposing, Annino is soft-spoken, humble, and wholly concerned with what he can do for other people.
Reading through Annino’s biography on IMDB.com, some themes start to emerge. Annino has always had two prime focal points since his high school days: sports (specifically power-based athletics) and drama.
Fast-forward to present day where he has amassed a number of credits in all manner of roles: producer, editor, actor, and more, with his background in sports and wrestling leading to a calling card technique of employing pro wrestlers as actors. He works closely with Angel Orsini (perhaps best known as The Prodigette in ECW) in their company Tag Team Friendship Productions, giving acting opportunities to wrestlers such as Brian Blair and Gary Wolf.
It started with a stroke of inspiration a decade prior.
“About ten years ago, I was shooting for Circle of Champions (an upcoming documentary about female wrestlers), and talking with people like Wendi Richter and Vivian St. John,” Annino recalls. “I realized that we could give these wrestlers a second chance. We’ve got five more films that we’re working on that include wrestlers. It’s not just making the films – that’s the fun part – but it’s teaching them something that they can use.”
Since that time, Annino has developed such a strong appreciation for working with wrestlers in an acting capacity that he’ll swear by the performance of a grappler whenever given the chance. This preference, he explains, is born from the specific training the average wrestler receives both in preparation for that profession and through its practice.
“The number one highest paid actor in the world is The Rock, and he got everything from wrestling,” Annino begins. “It’s the best master class you can get. The problem is that lot of wrestlers have the mindset that they can’t be actors, but they can because they have better tools than some actors that have gone to college. So many wrestlers are using things you would learn from Stanislavski Acting 101.”
Konstantin Stanislavski, the Russian stage actor to whom Annino is referring, developed a method of acting that urged actors not just to play their part but to live as the character. He died in 1938, missing the development of the modern pro wrestling theatre that just may have fascinated him, seeing as wrestlers take on a new name (usually), mannerisms, costume, and speech patterns and will, at times, live in that character even when the curtain has dropped.
While Annino suggests that it’s a pro wrestling background that can grant the tools to thrive in acting, he is equally aware that, excepting The Rock and other superstars that break through, there’s a stigma attached to wrestlers that draws a firm line between acting in the ring and acting on the screen.
“Casting agents and directors are intimidated by how good wrestlers really are,” Annino suggests, without sounding like he’s trumpeting a conspiracy but rather a theory with some personal experience to back it up. “I know for a fact that actors are intimidated by wrestlers. Firsthand I experienced that. I wrestled on the indie scene for a bit, and when I was acting I was treated like a big, dumb lug. But a good actor can improvise and that’s what makes wrestlers great.”
So it was that when Annino, with an educational background in film and a school of hard knocks degree from training with Susan “Tex” Green, Orsini, Ox Baker, and Chris Blackheart, found himself hitting walls in both professions, it turned out to be a combination of the two that propelled him forward.
“I had been acting for years when I was blacklisted,” Annino says, looking back with candor to a major turning point in his life. He actually dabbled in acting from a very young age, appearing in a wedding scene in the Julia Roberts break-out film Mystic Pizza (“I was seven years old!” Annino chuckles when asked what he remembers of the experience), and he also found his way into the production of the Steven Spielberg film Amistad through a middle school blacksmith’s training program. He worked on some props for the movie and remembers meeting Morgan Freeman, who would come to warm up at the smithy.
So, how did he go from that promising beginning in the industry to being blacklisted?
“I still can’t get a job in Connecticut, or really anywhere in New England, because I upset a casting director and I called him out,” Annino explains. “Your whole life you train for something and, because of one person, because you won’t sleep with that person or do what they want, they out you and destroy you and they want to bury you.”
“You want to be treated like a human, and you’re not.”
After this experience, Annino’s focus shifted from simply working to finding a purpose to each job. He directed a movie called Attack of the Vegetarian Zombies which used the popular horror genre to target bullying as the zombies were being targeted and picked on (Annino currently plans on re-shooting parts of the film for a re-release as East Side Zombies). The film featured parts for wrestlers through Blackheart’s Showcase Pro Wrestling School in Woonsocket, RI, and set the course for Annino’s emerging desire to start with a good crew and work on creating a good film from there.
“In those ten years since I really wanted to focus on finding a group of people that were good enough and found enough heart to understand the concept of this,” he explains. “You don’t need a lot of talent to be a good actor; you need a lot of heart and courage and be able to learn. I don’t work with actors; I work with people.”
His personal reward for giving people an opportunity to showcase strengths that others, and themselves, may not have recognized is evident in his voice even over the phone, as he excitedly extolls the talents of some of the wrestlers he has featured – none perhaps so strongly as Jeanne Basone.
Basone, best known as Hollywood from the original 1980s GLOW program, impressed Annino beyond his hopes when he cast her in his film Silent Times in 2018. “I gave her a leading role in a comedy,” he recalls. “She never got a chance before. She’s done acting, but she’s always played bit roles and never discovered what she could really do. Jeanne is one of the finest actors I’ve ever worked with, and I hope she gets more roles.”
Another accomplished in-ring performer who never really saw film acting in his future is Gary Wolf, otherwise known as another ECW alumni Pitbull #1. With a small role in an upcoming film entitled Lollipop Gang, and also a meatier part and story creation credit in the upcoming Killer Bees Society, Wolf credits Annino’s directing style with establishing a comfortable and motivational environment on the film set.
“He lets us come up with ideas,” Wolf says of an actor’s freedom to create on Annino’s set. “He’ll say to be sure to put this in, but he wants us to be more like ourselves.” Wolf also echoes Annino’s philosophy that pro wrestling provides a type of acting boot camp, even if wrestlers don’t realize it at the time.
“All us wrestlers are like characters; we can turn it on and off in a second,” Wolf explains. “That’s what we’re trained to do.”
Angel Orsini chimes in on the business model that she and Annino have created, with a similar love for seeing so-called non-actors come out of their shell and shine. “Christopher is the artist, and I’m the structure and the organization,” Orsini details. “He’s our creative director, and I focus on the business management and marketing.”
“We want to help people become more entrepreneurial and help themselves. We’re trying to establish ourselves as not just a production company but a vocational entity to give people the tools they need to display their talents. That’s where we think we can help people the most.”
Orsini also weighs in on Annino’s statement that a wrestler is especially well-suited to acting in other areas, with a little more emphasis on the qualities that support the creative aspects of a performance. “I think wrestlers are very special people to begin with,” she offers. “They’re very extroverted and not self-conscious. A wrestler is used to working hard, and if you want to be a good actor you have to work. A pro wrestler is used to going to practice. They’re not lazy. If you want anything in this world you have to not let fear paralyze you and then work at it. Then you go knock on some doors to get an opportunity.”
Annino and Orsini have broadened their scope of nurturing those they find to be struggling on the edges of the wrestling and film industry to also include musicians, as they part of a group that has created the New England Music Hall of Fame. The tone of the project sounds familiar, as they seek to celebrate musicians, primarily but not exclusively of the New England scene, that they feel have been overlooked.
I ask him if Annino feels that this mission of opening doors and recognizing the overlooked ever feels like it’s coming from a chip on his shoulder. He pauses to consider this, but doesn’t believe that he is driven by bitterness. At least not anymore.
“For a long time I was so upset … so upset,” Annino admits. “People are so negative, so why should I do it? I could go out and scream and yell and that won’t do any good. But I took that negative energy and made it something positive. A hammer can either build or destroy. Building something means more, and I’m trying to build something that everyone can enjoy.”
There’s one more point from Annino on the nature of a wrestler inhabiting the world of an actor that stuck with me, and it’s one that not only sounds sensible but once again speaks to the atmosphere that Annino seeks to create on his film sets. “A wrestler’s gotta trust the other person,” he states. “They understand the value of someone else. They understand the value of a team. It’s a team effort, not an individual effort.”
“Reflecting back, on my film sets, I’ll have transgender people, veterans, wrestlers … any type of person,” he continues. “They’re all working together. The attitude that we have is due to the people that we involve. I just create a place for them to hang out and I just want to teach them. I was in their position ten years ago when I was blacklisted.”
And so our conversation circles back around to the beginning of Annino’s journey, when he found himself faced with an unfair situation and was suddenly on the outs in his acting career due to his confrontation with the man he calls “the creepy casting dude.” Yet, with time and hindsight, Annino now looks upon what was an ending as a fresh start.
Like anyone else, he’ll have to wait to look back upon the coming ten years and see how his journey has evolved. If there ever was a case for the power of positivity, it would be that Christopher Annino is content with what comes to pass.