LOS ANGELES — Matt Clune sees his older brother, Rich Clune, a forward for the AHL’s Toronto Marlies, as more than just a hockey player.
Matt says that Rich is a “performer” who has natural charisma that lends itself to the screen, where an actor needs a presence to engage an audience. The way Matt sees it, Rich’s decision to start taking acting classes three years ago — and to put those skills to use onscreen this summer — was more natural evolution than novelty.
“Whether he’s playing hockey or in a room with people, he’s an alpha. He wants to be the leader and the loudest in the room and the most noticeable,” said Matt, a screenwriter in Los Angeles. “As far as him making the plunge and saying, ‘I want to study this craft,’ I think he always had that alpha energy you need.”
Rich, 30, has played 139 NHL games since he was selected by the Dallas Stars in the third round of the 2005 NHL draft. This offseason, he tackled roles in two short films. One was “Hypostasis,” an experimental short, filmed over four days in July in Toronto that explores mental health. Rich played the protagonist, Matthew Robinson. According to the film’s fundraising website, Rich’s character “attempts to control his bipolar condition over the course of an eventful day.” Rich, who has worked with organizations such as the Canadian Mental Health Association and the Renascent Treatment Centre, has been open about his own struggles with addiction and mental health.
His other foray into acting was a dark comedy titled “The Marvin Family Tortoise.” It was filmed in Joshua Tree, California, and Rich — who played a supporting role as a 1950s bureaucrat — shot his scenes during one day in August.
“I know a lot of hockey players who are doing internships at a lot of companies, so it’s not like it’s anything out of the ordinary to apply yourself to another craft,” Rich said. “But I’ve also never been afraid to be myself. It’s what I want to do.”
Growing up in Toronto, all three Clune brothers were into sports. Matt and Rich played hockey, and Ben, the youngest, played baseball. But they were also entranced by film. The brothers often discussed and dissected a wide variety of movies, including “The Godfather,” the “Rocky” films, as well Martin Scorsese’s and Stanley Kubrick’s respective works. This exposure gave them an appreciation for film and broader sense of cinema.
Ben is also a screenwriter based in Los Angeles, and he and Matt have co-written several scripts, including one about well-known drug trafficker Rick Ross and another about legendary boxer Joe Louis that have each been bought by production companies.
“I think stuff like that just gave us an opportunity to play together but also just enjoy movies together,” Matt said.
As Rich’s hockey career progressed, he mostly suppressed his desire to act because he was afraid to show his jock teammates that he was into the arts and wanted to act.
“It’s an easy way to start a fight, if you tell your teammates you want to go to a theater class or be in a play or a movie or something,” Rich said. “It was all in my own head. I’m sure it would happen, but it’s nothing I couldn’t deal with at the time. But when you’re young, you don’t know.”
It wasn’t until the 2014-15 season, when he was with the Nashville Predators, that Rich finally started to take acting classes, first in Nashville and then in Milwaukee, where he was sent to play for Nashville’s AHL affiliate. Rich, who also played in the Dallas Stars and Los Angeles Kings organizations, had been sober since 2010 and found that acting was a productive way to occupy himself during his downtime from hockey.
“It has just ignited different parts of my mind that I never used for so long just because I was so into ‘hockey, hockey, hockey … and drinking and drug use,’ ” Rich said.
Rich spent that summer in Studio City, California, where he stayed with Matt and took acting classes four nights per week to try to nail down the basics. During the offseason, Nashville bought out his contract and he signed with the Marlies, the Toronto Maple Leafs‘ AHL squad, which proved fortuitous for his acting career. Toronto is one of the top Canadian training grounds for actors and the AHL schedule, which is heavy on weekend games, gave him time to jump into acting classes during the week.
While his skill continued to increase through the classes and scene studies on his own, Rich never really felt the need to try to put his talents on screen because he didn’t have time to completely immerse himself. Hockey was his full-time job, even though acting remained a strong passion.
That changed this summer, when Rich signed on for the two roles. Rich found “Hypostasis” through connections in the Toronto acting world, and “The Marvin Family Tortoise” director Paul Cadenhead was wowed by Rich’s comedic presence during a reading after Ben suggested his brother for the part.
“[Rich] has tons of range. He’s not just one of those pretty boys who say, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do next, I’m going to go act’ and have no idea really what they’re doing,” Cadenhead said. “He has been taking classes, so he was completely well equipped.”
The projects have tested him in different ways. Playing a bipolar man was a challenge because Rich does not suffer from that affliction. The 1950s bureaucrat was tough too because he had to recite his lines using a period-appropriate dialect and delivery — and play to his funnier side.
“He’s one of those guys who has been through so much in his life already, I’m sure he can relate a lot of his life experiences to his acting,” former Predators teammate Victor Bartley said.
It’s not as if Rich is planning to give up his hockey career to be an actor. He still loves the game and wants to be a part of it for a long time, and hopes to return to the NHL. (He re-signed with the Marlies — for whom he contributed 10 points in 37 games last season — in June.) But acting is something that interests him now and satisfies his creative side when he’s not on the ice.
“I’ll always be attached to the game,” Rich said. “Maybe once I’m done playing, I’ll walk away completely and act and make films and TV — or maybe I’ll transition and work in hockey. I don’t know. It’s not something I want to decide [now]. I just want to let it happen because I love hockey too.”