Monday, November 21, 2011

New entries at Backstage's Unscripted blog

I've just started writing at Backstage's Unscripted blog, where actors in various stages of the career talk about their experiences. As such, my posts here will probably come to a stop, unless there's something really juicy that isn't appropriate for my blog over there. That probably won't happen though.

But thank you for reading these, and by all means come over to my new site and start reading those!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Why I Love Acting #371

At a film audition today, the director had me read a second scene. He handed me the side and said “you’re floating in space and a big happy moon appears and starts talking to you.” Like you do.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Ridiculous Things Overheard While Being an Extra

You meet many...interesting people doing extra work in TV and film. I just did two long days, so I had a lot of time to eavesdrop. Choice gems:

1. We are currently at war both underground and in outer space with alien beings. This was said with no hint of irony or self-consciousness by a man playing a court officer. He said he has video of UFOs in Brooklyn.

2. "They say you use 10% of your brain but I think I use more because I'm a Christian and I have less to worry about."

3. One woman literally spent the entire two days complaining about our union and our treatment on set. I'm not sure if you're aware of this, but the absolute most important thing on any production is whether the extras get 15 minutes to eat free breakfast, and whether anyone cuts in front of you to eat the free dinner of which there is plenty, and which we will all have ample time to eat. But her most impressive maneuver came at the end of the second day, as we were being driven to Manhattan by a Teamster. She praised his union for sticking together like glue. "That's a union. I wish ours was like that, but it's all backstabbing and climbing over each other." Then, in a move that would give fatal whiplash to any sense of logic, she bragged about the time she and three other extras got golden time after calling to complain, and the rest of the suckers missed out because they didn't look out for themselves. Golden time is when you hit 16 hours and get your day's rate every hour after. I bit my tongue so hard it still hurts.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Rollercoaster of "Huh?": How to Say No

I went on quite the little acting rollercoaster last night. I got home from work around 6 and checked my sites. I had an email on Actor's Access in response to a submission I'd made for a short film. Turned out they had scheduling issues and wondered if I could make it to an 8 PM audition. Good thing we moved back into the city.

I confirmed and they sent me the sides. They were weird, and wordy, and gave little to no information about the piece as a whole. So I did what I do best: a facile surface read. That's no exaggeration, it really is what's gotten me this far. You'd be surprised.

Anyway, my slot was 8-8:05. I show up at 7:55 and there are three guys waiting outside the room, with no sign-in or anything. More people start showing up, and finally someone comes out and puts a sheet out, telling us that they'll go by sheet order (why oh why did you bother giving us time slots then?). For all I know there are still people waiting in line to read for that film.

At this point I'm a little concerned. I have zero information about these people. There was nothing on the breakdown, other than the title of the film and the name of the casting director (who was a woman, and obviously not one of the two guys in the room). Is it associated with a school? Is it a production company that has other work? What the heck is it about? When is it shooting?

Well, I had clues to the latter on the information sheet, where they asked if I was available the next three weekends (including today, Friday). I guess?

I go in and do my thing and the person who I assume is the director makes it sort of evident that he's going to cast me and tells me to look for an email tonight. When I get one, it's from the casting director to "undisclosed recipients" telling us congratulations, and what to wear for the party scene Saturday, and to look for a second email telling each of us who we'll play. At this point I start to see what's going on, but I want to wait for that second email.

When it comes I finally have a script and production company. I do some research. I figure out what the movie's actually about. It's pretty strange. And I have one line. There are a couple of things that are preventing me from wanting to continue on this project. First, based on the hastily put-together breakdown and initial side, I'm led to believe that maybe Saturday wouldn't be the most organized day. Second, I had a really bad experience with something similar a few years ago. And finally, I've done this before. I don't need to do one line in some short film for free again. I have enough of that for my reel, and the experience doesn't have a lot more to teach me. So after much angsty deliberation I wrote back and said thank you, but no.

A word on that experience a few years ago: I auditioned for a group who wanted to do something in the 48-hour Asian American Film Festival. You get a cast together, get the idea from the organization at the same time everyone else does, then have 48 hours to shoot and edit a film. I had a good, lengthy audition in front of an Asian director and his white friend who seemed to actually be the director. It felt pretty good. Then we rehearsed as a group on Saturday morning, trying to build an ensemble and seeing where everyone fit in. Then we all sat in front of a store for six hours while that white guy filmed his vanity project with his buddy, and turned us into glorified extras. Never again.

So here are the points I'm trying to get across. My saying no is not a statement on the quality of this piece or what I think the finished product might look like. I don't think those guys are beneath me. What I saw on their site was very professional, and they're shooting with a nice camera. But people in my position are forced to be beggars for far too long, and it's degrading. How often have you gotten cast in something only to find out later the thing you're doing is batshit crazy? Why does it feel so presumptuous for an unknown actor to say something like "hey, before we get into all this, can I see a script and decide if this is right for me?" How long do I need to catch table scraps from other people's tables? I've done the one-line thing. I have a reel. If I'm going to do it any more, I'm going to do it for money. Sorry. I have to protect myself.

And future filmmakers, please realize how important your breakdown is. It's the first contact you have with the people who will eventually be in your movie. You literally cannot put too much information in it. It will help you get the actors who are right for your project.

So there it is. From pre-audition to cast to no-thank-you in four short hours. Now I'm going to go audition for this 13-year old. This should be good.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Amazing breakdowns today

I've been getting the itch lately to be more active, acting-wise. It's been a while since I was in someone else's project and I'm getting rusty. So, after coming out from under the rock that was my move into Hell's Kitchen, I hit the breakdowns online today to see what I could do.

My god.

How about this? An improv-heavy feature film (read: write our movie for us!) that will shoot in Cape Town, South Africa. Yes, I'd love to travel to another continent to shoot something with no planned dialogue. Ironically, it's about someone who falls for a South African internet scam. Interesting.

Or this: a non-union feature film with a pretty small flat pay (but travel and per diem!) that's going to shoot in Prague and the Ukraine. "The project will be hard work, in often basic living conditions. It will also be fun, interesting and involve a lot of road tripping." At least they have a script. Honestly, this one sounds somewhat interesting, but I'm too old for this shit. I can't backpack across Europe making a movie with half my closet on my shoulders. What, you didn't think they were going to dress their actors, did you?

Finally, a guy's looking for people to be in his online comedy show. That sounds like it's up my alley. After a little research, I found that he does not own the domain name of the show (which is also the actual name of the show--it's like ten bucks man, stay on that shit) and what few videos I found on YouTube are things I could easily just do on my own, with better results. Also, HE REALLY LIKES ALL CAPS.

Well that was depressing. Better get writing.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Kindness of Strangers

It struck me the other day just how dependent I am on people I've never met, or am trying to meet, or have met but don't really know. It's not up to me to get an actual line on a TV show. It's up to an agent to submit me, the casting director to decide to see me, and the producers and director to decide to hire me.


I've somewhat developed the talent of auditioning and then letting it go, and I'm also casually into Zen, which focuses a great deal on letting go in general. Despite that, it's incredibly difficult to keep from tying my own happiness to whether or not my phone's ringing. So there I am, down in the dumps because I'm not working or auditioning. One phone call later I'm skipping through midtown totally prepared to knock out an audition.

Which didn't go anywhere.

But I'm not sure I wanted to spend a month in Florida anyway.


I practically willed said call into existence. I spent most of an afternoon staring blankly at my computer, trying to figure out what I could do to remind these people I exist. I couldn't come up with much beyond a simple check-in email, which I think can eventually be overdone. Luckily the guy who called me must be psychic, because I didn't email him. So it looks like I have another exciting afternoon of obsessive thought in front of me.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

What are you working on?

Getting ready yesterday to meet an actor friend I hadn't seen in a while, I found myself running through the list of things I've accomplished or am trying to accomplish, so that I could answer that inevitable question: what are you working on? Like I was going to a job interview or something.

Do any other professions do this? When two accountants run into each other on the street, do they ask what the other has done recently at work? Probably not, because the answer is probably the same every time.

I think actors do this almost as a self-defense mechanism. First, you must understand that you ask the question simply so that you can answer it yourself when the other person is done. In a profession where work falls into your lap by byzantine Rube Goldberg methods, every little thing you do is a huge accomplishment. So we're happy to share these things with other actors.

There's also a predatorial starving-cheetah-on-the-savannah aspect to it. "You got what show? Who casts that? How did you find it? What are they looking for?" It stands to reason that if one of your peers landed something, you probably could too. In an industry with such heavily fortified walls around the good stuff, we're always looking for weak spots.

Wow, that all sounds pretty negative.

There are positives to this as well. In the very least, having to come up with an answer to "what are you working on" keeps you busy, on your toes. I don't want the only answer to that question to be "well I'm about 20 hours into Mass Effect 2, getting ready to go through the Omega 4 relay." While true, and awesome, it neither pays the bills nor satisfies me creatively.

And I guess, maybe, somewhere deep down, we enjoy it when our friends do well. We need a good support system behind us to get anywhere in this business. We're all pulling for each other, right?

Well, as long as we're not the same type.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011


Honestly, that could be the title of any post ever related to acting. But in this case it applies to the period of time after a great audition for something you're really hoping to get. This time it was a sort of industrial/commercial hybrid (for those not in the business, industrial refers to internal-use stuff; at the lowest end of the spectrum, think training videos). The pay would have been pretty decent, but it would also have entailed a several-day trip to LA to film it.

At times like this, Amy is under orders not to call me. I've gotten pretty good at letting go after an audition and not dwelling on it, for good or bad, but sometimes I'm just too optimistic. I hate the feeling of my heart jumping when the phone rings and it's just my wife. I mean, I love talking to her, but, uh...

Love you Amy!

Anyway, after a couple days you can be pretty sure the call will never come. You can always be pleasantly surprised, but the reality of it is commercial casting moves pretty fast.

I had a couple of reasons to feel pretty good about this one, and not getting cast actually doesn't affect those reasons too much. I actually got the audition copy the night before, so I had time to get ready. Rare. So I actually knew what I was doing when I got in the room. When I got there, they were just finishing up the morning session before a quick lunch break. The guy before me came out in a full suit, way overdressed for the character and he didn't look like a suit guy in the first place. Then he started talking to the audition monitor. "Does she tell everyone 'nice job?' I mean, she said 'nice job,' but does she just say that, or does it mean I did a good job?" Whoa dude. Stop talking. "I don't know what happened. I mean I'm a naturally confident guy and I just didn't know how to get rid of that for the audition [the character is not confident]." Holy crap man, stop talking. I don't care if you threw down some Daniel Day Lewis stuff in there, you are talking yourself right out of this part now. Ah well. Everyone has to start getting out there some time. It just made me feel better that I've been doing it for a while.

And so, a few days out, I think it's safe for Amy to call my phone again. No worries. I have a beer commercial audition tomorrow, wherein I will once again have to pretend to like sports.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Obligatory Oscar Post

'Twas the season, and thank god it's over. That really might have been my last live Oscar viewing, at least until they invite me. You can shoot for young and hip all you want, you can even get Chloe Moretz and Elle Fanning to co-host, but until you hire an actual team of actually funny comedy writers, you will never succeed, Oscar producers.

Every year, in the months leading up to the Oscars the producers are all over the entertainment magazines talking about how they've figured out how to trim the fat and make the show relevant. And every year it looks almost exactly the same. You really think you can't cut this down to two hours? Cut out every bit that didn't work and you have a runtime of about 80 minutes, guys.

The only award that surprised me was Tom Hooper winning Best Director over David Fincher, but as I commented on Facebook, Christopher Nolan's absence in the category invalidates the whole thing. As if we need more evidence that these awards don't mean much other than a higher rate for the winner's next project.

Anyway. Spent pretty much the whole broadcast obsessively checking my email to see if I got cast in an NYU film I was called back for this past week. Interesting idea, well-written from the sides I had the chance to read, nice director/writer. He said he would let people know by the end of the weekend. Since I haven't gotten that email as of this writing, looks like I missed it. Which is especially interesting in light of an NYU director winning Best Live Short last night. At least that makes the NYU credits already on my resume a little shinier.

It's easy to fall into a downward spiral every time you don't get cast. It's like everything you've done before is gone, and the trajectory of your career depends on this one casting. Of course that's silly. I've gotten paid to do this, and I've been on TV as an actual real actor (and will be again soon, if Golden Corral will get off their butts and air that commercial). But in lieu of dropping $350 on a class, I like to just work to stay sharp. That's the reasoning behind my latest round of student film submissions; if I haven't done anything in a little while I get restless.

And I'm getting very restless.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

This Melissa Leo Thing

Deadline Hollywood has a good writeup of these Melissa Leo self-funded "for your consideration" ads. I'm trying to figure out what I think about this. There's more of a history to this sort of thing than I initially thought, with varying degrees of success and/or ridicule (for the latter, check out the link and read about Chill Wills' and Margaret Avery's insane campaigns--Leo could have done much worse).

Her studio isn't doing its own ad campaign for her, and she claims she's not getting the media attention a younger, more attractive woman might get, so she wanted to take matters into her own hands. I find this strange, since she and co-star Christian Bale are two of the surest bets at the Academy Awards this year. I imagine it's hard to think that when you're one of the bets, but that's what "your people" are there for.

If it wasn't for her melodramatic acceptance speeches I'd have an easier time brushing this off, but I can't. Something about her has been striking me as false. This is to say nothing ill of her fantastic performance in The Fighter, which stands on its own excellent legs and as such, should require no campaign. But, that's the nature of the industry these days. She's also claiming the ageism rampant in Hollywood is a major factor in taking out these ads for herself, because she can't get on the cover of a magazine. What, so you can stand next to the likes of Snooki and Kim Kardashian in the checkout lane?

I agree that ageism is a problem in Hollywood and our society in general, but I question the degree to which an actor can complain about it. Do your best to overcome it and change people's opinions, of course, but it's not like you didn't know this was a problem when you got into acting. That's like me trying to be a rapper and complaining it's a tough black guy's game. How do I overcome that? Be so good they don't care I'm white & nerdy. What has Melissa Leo done? Put out a performance so good she's sweeping the awards season. That translates to work. She could easily land a cable-series lead in the current TV environment, if not network (I say cable first because come on, their shows are way better).

So what exactly is the problem? And why is this rubbing me the wrong way? I think it's all ringing false because if she truly wanted to overcome the ageism/sexism barrier, why would she play the publicity game in the first place? And in playing it, why would she try to glam herself up and look so much like the thing she's fighting? Does she want to be known for an Elle cover or for her performance? Why is she so scared she won't get work after a solid round of nominations for Frozen River and a round of wins for The Fighter? Why would any sane person choose this career path?

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Awesome Audition I Just Had; Or... not to audition and why non-union commercials are sometimes the devil.

This audition was for a corporate web video with a fairly amusing premise, as far as these things go. And my agent actually sent me the copy beforehand! Which never happens. They're looking for actors who can improvise. Great, got it.

Snag 1: By "improvise," they mean "come up with the rest of the video based on the one premise we set up." The scene had two people. The script said
#1: Do you know about (anonymous thing I probably shouldn't say here)?
And then literally
#2 [Improvisation]
#1 [Improvisation]
SAG has rules against making actors improvise during auditions (which are skirted sometimes by never using the word "improvise;" a casting director might instead say "if you think of something else you'd like to say, feel free"). This is so actors aren't burdened/ripped off by making your spot great by basically writing it for you for free, without credit. Paul F. Tompkins told a story on the Nerdist podcast about auditioning for a commercial, in which they had him come up with a lot of funny stuff (which he's kinda good at). He didn't get the spot, but when he saw it they used the things he came up with at the audition. So. Boo. Non-union: we pay a fraction of the SAG rate for three times the effort!

Having done a few improv auditions like this before, I knew better than to rely on coming up with brilliance on the spot. I thought of some different reactions to the initial question, but kept it all loose enough to be able to work with the other actor and not steamroll them.

Snag 2: The other actor. At this point, I just prefer a completely flat reading from the casting director's assistant than to have to work with another actor in an audition. Am I this bad? I'm no Daniel Day Lewis but I think I at least have the basics of listening and responding truthfully, but also keeping it interesting. My scene partner, a lovely lady who had sketch and improv experience and thereby (I assumed) would know how to listen and escalate a scene with me, decided her reaction to my initial question should be to brush me off and keep going. Because...what? Things are always interesting when someone gets ignored? She had zero interest in getting cast? She hated my face?

They had paired us up beforehand and told us to work on it, making it 30 seconds with a definite ending. Ours was currently ten seconds with no ending, since endings require beginnings. I told her "maybe it should be a little longer," meaning "hey, maybe you should stop and have a scene with me." This isn't an acting exercise. I know in real life you'd brush me off and keep going, but you don't need to make me stop you. Listen. See what happens. So we fleshed it out a little bit. I came up with a couple of decent lines. We did it twice for the guy. Meh.

So the moral of the story? Listen to your partner. Work together. Join SAG. Get into commercial copywriting, because apparently any drunk idiot can crap out a one-line script and get paid for it.