Thursday, September 14, 2017

Actor Shaming in Hollywood

I do not get angry often. Not really. I do get a little perturbed, occasionally. Sometimes. Rarely, though. Actually, it's more like exasperation than actual anger. One thing that DOES piss me the f**k off is what I'm going to refer to as "actor shaming." (You may officially file this under: Rant.) In an industry that relies so heavily on actors for everything from $250 million studio blockbusters to $250 local car dealer ads on cable TV, actors are treated like village idiots or temperamental children by the myriad of people who make money from their talent or personality.

Historically, actors have often been treated like second class citizens -- or even lepers. None of this is new. I get it. It is the level of utter disrespect in recent years that is so irritating. I have worked in the entertainment industry (I like the old term, "show business") for most my my adult life, but the last five years or so has seen a rise in this regard. Every single day I work with a wide variety of people in film and TV (and, yes, even the theatre) whose very livelihoods, their paychecks and fancy cars and expense accounts, are a result of the work that actors do.

Without actors, from whom would agents and managers collect their commission? Without actors, who would publicists complain about or lawyers manipulate? Without actors, screenplays would be literature. Without actors, directors would play chess. Without actors, producers would create other things to entertain us. It is the actor that is the constant.

I know that this little rant may piss some people off. Rest assured not ALL people that have actors as clients are bad people. Not all agents are leeches and not all acting teachers are in it to screw actors out of their hard earned residuals for a little ego massage. I get it. I have friends who are casting directors and agents and publicists. Good ones, too. Many of these people started as actors, so they have a unique perspective on what it takes and who the people they work for are. You lot I am not complaining about.

But there seems to be this growing disrespect - it has a gossip mill quality - about actors who are "difficult"  or have "attitude" or who are "demanding." It may shock many out there, but when you meet these people, you often find out that they are pretty nice and not weird at all. In fact, I'll bet 9-out-of-10 times an actor get pegged as being "a problem," it is their reps that are putting up the barriers and causing all the heartburn, not the actual talent.

Add to this the apparent disregard even those in the media have for some of the working-est actors in Hollywood.  How many "entertainment journalists" mispronounce names (poor Saoirse Ronan and Chiwetel Ejiofor) or get actors confused with other actors. (I'm looking at you Sam Rubin). Look, I know that not everyone is as involved in the Hollywood entertainment machine as I am, but those of us actually in the business, should, at the very least, have a basic respect for the people that make that industry work, that pay our salaries in some direct or indirect way  -- and that means actors. Period.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

On Being an Actor. In the beginning...

This page of this post has been empty for a long time. The title has been there. Nothing else.
Every time I get inspired by a great quote, whenever I think of a pithy and important idea, on the occasion of some fundamental misconception of the craft, I get all excited and begin to write a brilliant missive on the topic when...I freeze. Fingers hovering precariously above the keys. Still.  Fearful. Motionless.

Nothing you will read in the next thousand words or so will be remotely new if you are an actor of a certain age.  You have heard it all before. Every actor has, at some point in his or her creative life (some would call it "career") has thought, pondered, complained, fretted, dissected, and screamed at the things I am about to rant about. So, for the sake of simplicity, I'm just going to bullet point some thoughts, opinions, and advice. This is meant primarily for my younger or less experienced students, but it is also for my older, more mature actors who are returning to the game after a long break. If you study with me, I'm sure are are tired of hearing this stuff by now. Too bad.

  • Your acting coach is your acting coach, not your agent. Your acting coach is not your publicist, either. Or your manager. You pay them to be your acting coach. Let them do that and take everything else they offer with a grain of salt.
  • For my young actors, if you don't have head shots yet, go get them now. Now. Everyone else, get new ones every couple of years. More often if you have changed your hair, altered your look, started a regimen of Botox, or finally tossed the denim jeggings that were so popular last year. I know they're expensive (the head shots not the jeggings). I know it's a hassle. Every craftsman, needs their tools. These are yours. Find a photographer you like and keep going to them. 
  • Oh, I'm not done on pictures, yet: Make sure your pictures look like YOU. When you walk into the room for an audition or an interview you better look like your picture. It's that easy and it's that hard. Photographer Peter Konerko has an excellent set of videos  that will be very helpful finding your way through headshot hell. Check them out, they are great. (Okay, I'm done. I get worked up about this one.)
  • Learn your craft before you learn your business. You don't open a law office then go to law school. You don't get hired at a hospital as a doctor before you've gone to med school. Become an actor before accepting the secret golden key to "cold reading" mastery. Before spending $150 to be seen by the "greatest casting director" in Hollywood, learn to fucking act.
  • Stop worrying about how many Twitter followers you have or how many Instagram likes you are racking up. When you finally get the audition, none of that will mean a hill of beans if you can't deliver when it matters. I do not care how ripped you are or how hot you look in that new designer bikini or how sweet your kitten looks swatting your Fruit Loops around the kitchen. 
  • Kiss no ass. Once you get an agent, a manager, a publicist (one or all three) remember they work for you. THEY work for YOU. They are not omnipotent, they are not irreplaceable, they do not know everything regardless of what they tell you.
  • Work on your voice. Learn how to breathe, how to project, how to enunciate. I recently saw a play at a very reputable theatre and some of the younger actors simply could not be heard even 10 rows back.
  • Stop defining yourself as a TV actor or a stage actor or a film actor. Yes, you do that. Admit it. You are an actor. Each medium requires different techniques, true, but you are still an actor. Remind yourself of that out loud a few times everyday. 
  • Don't wait for the phone to ring. You have friends. You know people. Assemble your tribe and do stuff. Read plays. Seek out new screenplays. Write something for yourself. Take your iPhone and record scene-work. Do something. Audition. Audition. Audition. (Did I mention that you should audition?) Submit for any project you are right for or interested in. Volunteer at a local intimate theatre.
Here's the bottom line: We only get one life. Do something with yours. Stay busy. Being an actor is not like any other job. If fact, it is not a job. It is a lifestyle. As an actor, you will get "acting jobs" over the course of your career, but you will always be an actor even when you are not actually getting paid to do it. It is not regular. It is not normal. You will get frustrated and crazy sometimes. You will have moments when you will doubt yourself. Then, you'll get cast in a play or get a role in a small film. You'll be in rehearsal and the little voice in the back of your heart will remind you why you going through all this. Then it will all come rushing back to you. 
I mean, if it was all about making money, you would have taken your mom's advice and become a [insert profession here] instead of moving in with the person you did "Our Town" with in acting school. 

Thursday, June 1, 2017

In Defense of "Hollywood"

Just a little rant for a sec. Don't worry, it's not political. Sometimes the littlest things do set me off, though.

In the wake of the whole Kathy Griffin BS and to all of you Hollywood Haters that pile on whenever someone like Kathy Griffin does something distasteful or a famous actor takes a stand at an awards show, this is for you. For those of you who complain about the "Hollywood swamp" or the "Hollywood elite" or how shallow we all are in Los Angeles, this is for you, too. To everyone who might talk smack or throw shade at "Hollywood" then go home and spend three hours in front of the television watching "Big Bang Theory" (filmed in Burbank) or "Scandal" (filmed in Los Angeles and Hollywood) - STFU.

If you don't live here or have never visited friends here, you know nothing about my city or my industry. I'm sure I speak for my fellow Angelenos when I invite you to come and visit for longer than a trip to Disneyland or a TMZ Tour of Stars Homes,  Is "Hollywood" generally liberal? Yes. Happily. But we have differing opinions just like you. Some conservative some progressive. Not everyone agrees with each other. We are a diverse group of people in a really interesting and beautiful city - unlike any other. No, we are NOT perfect, but neither are you. Can we be full of shit and impatient. Sure. Just like people in your community.

Believe it or not, we are also generous, philanthropic, creative and kind. We work hard. We are not just actors and directors and celebrities. We are truck drivers and teachers and make up artists and security guards and EMTs and lawyers and janitors and mechanics and office workers and writers and designers and food service staff. Think of any job that people you know do and there are people doing that same job in a studio or a production company. They are just like you only they live in a different place.

You know what? We are also mothers and fathers and friends and neighbors. We have families just like you. Our children go to schools. Our grandchildren play with dolls and ride bicycles. Sound familiar? Los Angeles, "Hollywood" to you, is full of of some of the most interesting, creative and intelligent people I have ever known. We all have nice friends who are funny and can laugh at themselves and also help a neighbor with a flat tire or broken water pipe. We volunteer for church functions and political marches. We vote. Some of us are meat eaters and some are vegans. AND we are one of the most diverse cities in the country. We are a city of many colors and every religion.

Now, come for a visit. Bring a bathing suit, a hat, and some sunscreen. Prepare to have the best pastrami in the country. Get ready for some great museums, exciting theatre, high-end or vintage shopping (if you care about that sort of thing), one of the largest urban parks in North America, and a great music scene. You'll love everything but our traffic. Guaranteed.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

New Musings on Mother's Day 2017

Whenever my mom would get mad at me she would call me by my entire name. Wayne Caldwell Watkins. I'm sure many moms do this. My memmory of it reminds me of the episode of Star Trek. In "I, Mudd," Harry Mudd is harangued with a stern, "Harcourt Fenton Mudd, where have you been? What have you been up to? Have you been drinking again, you miserable sot! You good-for-nothing...!"

I know that tone. I know the dread and distress that accompanies that full-name exclamation. Yet, I have only heard tell of mothers using this technique on sons. I cannot imagine a mother turning that on a girl child. I don't think it would be the same. I am not implying that mom's don't get mad at their female children, just that it must manifest itself in a much different verbal or emotional form. Let's face it, girl's names are different than boys. They are (I'm gonna catch heat for this, but) prettier. Elizabeth, Heather, Jennifer, Samantha, Dorothy...see, pretty. Wayne, Bob, John, Dave, Paul...not pretty. It would be pretty hard to retain one's anger when saying a few pretty names in a row. How would you even do that? That would be like trying to use a mean voice when saying "unicorn and mermaids," "rainbows and butterflies," "Julie Andrews." You just can't do it.

My beautiful daughter has two beautiful daughters. Both with very pretty names. For the life of me, I cannot image her ever being angry enough to use the "three-name-shout-out" on them. Granted, I'm sure my girl can get heated, but I've never seen it, personally. (That is the dad's prerogative, by the way, to only see in his daughter that which he wishes to see. Given the circumstances of our own personal story, this is even more the case.) Of course, I see perfection: temperance, patience, kindness, support, you know - the perfect parent, the perfect daughter.

Not surprisingly, moms are often placed on pedestals. Even through their brief moments of anger or frustration, they still rise to a level of near-sainthood. Dads, though, are never put on more than a step ladder. Dads are great, don't get me wrong. I absolutely LOVE being one and my son-in-law is a champ, but moms are...well...MOMS! Sure, sure, dads have these stereotypical traits that are, thankfully, not holding up through our societal evolution, but they still exist. Mom uses a cute little spoon to feed the toddler, Dad just shoves a piece of cheese into the teeny little pie hole. Mom reaches down and picks up the fallen banana slice, Dad kicks it under the sofa in order to retrieve it later when nobody is looking. Mom worries about her beautiful ballerina stepping on the seed pod from the sweetgum tree and Dad encourages the same hoofer to jump off the roof onto the trampoline. (No, Eric, this is not really directed at you.)

The pedestal on which I have placed my own daughter is very high as a result of her being A) my daughter, as well as B) a fabulous mother, and C) to quote the movie Mary Poppins, "Practically perfect in every way." Yes, I know I am laying it on pretty thick, but if you knew my daughter you would totally get it. Certainly, it is a pedestal she shall never be able to climb down from should she even try. In addition to it's height, I have firmly glued her feet to the cornice. (Well, I think it's called the cornice. Whatever the very top part of a pedestal is called.)

Please understand, I do not say any of this to put any pressure on my beautiful child. She has her hands full just being a mom. Besides, I mean, that would be a pretty shitty thing to do on Mother's Day - heap insurmountable expectations on a person who already is super busy. I say these things because I have seen what good moms do. Including my own mother, of course, I have known some pretty terrific female parents. Moms of twins who, despite the frenetic chaos that two tykes must create, have remained relatively sane even before the kids leave for college. Perfectly amazing moms that have children who are dancers and actors and singers - often all three. These are the road warriors of parenthood, shuttling their talented offspring to ballet class, rehearsal, and voice lessons. While "soccer moms" may be a term not used as often as it once was, we all know what that means -- SUVs filled to the sunroof with smelly shoes, ball bags, and juice-pouch-swilling future Olympians. Then there are the moms who stay home with their gifted science student turning the kitchen into a bubbling workshop of goo and fireworks. And finally, the single moms, who by hook or by crook, raise the most fabulous human beings under the most trying of circumstances.

Moms the world over have sacrificed everything to raise their children. Their own dreams, their own passions, their own health. Moms compromise and juggle. They balance and negotiate. They put friendships on hold and forge new ones. They smile, they frown, they laugh, they cry, they play, they discipline. Sometimes all of those things in the course of a few minutes. So, it's no wonder that every once in a while they would let fly with a torrent of names in an effort to catch our eye or draw attention to the fact that we really shouldn't be pulling the dog by the tale.

My mother has been gone a couple of years now. As a result, I now use this holiday as an opportunity to give thanks for other people's moms that have graced my life. My mother-in-law whose name, appropriately, was Grace. My daughter's mom, Yvonne, who, with some help from her own mother, Violet, raised a wonder woman. Finally, that same wonder woman, Heather, who is the the mother of my two granddaughters, without whom I would no doubt have quickly put aside any celebration of Mother's Day at all.

Thanks for that, Heather. Happy Mother's Day.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

The Lost Art of Kissing (On Screen and Stage)

People kiss. I don't know why and I don't care. Sometimes it's just a little peck on the way out the door in the morning. Other times it's part of a shall I say this...elaborate ritual. A kiss can be a casual greeting accompanied by friendly pleasantries. A kiss can be a gentle reminder that the other person is in your thoughts. Then again, it can also be the culmination of an emotional journey that suddenly runs out of words.

It is a natural and, very often, intimate thing that happens countless times every single day the world over. Not all cultures kiss, this is true. A study that appeared in American Anthropologist in 2015 found that out of 168 cultures that were studied, only 46 percent of them kissed in a romantic sense. (And to answer your next question, no, I do not spend a lot of time researching these kinds of things. I just figured that I needed a little extra weight to this post, so I Googled some shit.) Thankfully, most of us weren't raised in those cultures and find kissing pretty great.

Funny thing is, kissing is something that is much more fun to do than it is to watch. That might be a good thing. It would be kinda pervy if we all walked around watching people kiss all day and laughing under our breath. In fact, we'd probably wind up in the county slammer on some sort of public nuisance charge if we got caught doing it too much. Doubtless, I'd be the first one arrested. The director in me would want to choreograph that couple in the restaurant or the lovers at that table in the corner. "Buddy, look, put your fingers on her jaw and let them slide to the back of her neck. Slowly. Slower." "Young lady, you're spending too much time biting his lower lip. Tilt your head more. There. Perfect."

In the cinema and at the theatre, however, it's okay to watch. A well-designed kiss can transport us into the very heart of the characters we watch. "Breakfast at Tiffany's," "To Have and Have Not," "Gone With the Wind," "Casablanca," "From Here to Eternity," "It's a Wonderful Life" all have kisses that define the relationship of the characters we've been following for two hours. If executed properly by the actors and staged perfectly by the director, they take our breath away as if we were on screen ourselves.

Kissing takes a deft and specific approach on screen to work. Occasionally, even our best actors fail miserably during a celluloid snog. Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp in "The Tourist," awkward.  Liv Tyler and Viggo Mortensen in "Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" were smashing into each others noses so hard it looked painful. Adam Sandler kissing Jennifer Aniston, Drew Barrymore, and Jessica Biel. Eeeew. Please. They just don't work. In all of these cases, certainly the directors could have done better in helping the actors find the right moves. (Except for the Adam Sandler ones. Those poor girls.) In fact, it is the director's job to do that. Regardless, the actors are left in awkward moments and the audience is left unfulfilled and often disappointed.

As in real life, not all movie kisses mean the same thing. There are romantic kisses, comedic kisses, dramatic kisses, passionate kisses. Not every kiss should necessarily be sexy, either. Actors have an old adage about how to play an intoxicated person. The secret? Don't play drunk. Play trying NOT to be drunk. Most people who have had too much to drink try not to appear drunk. That's key. Same for kissing. Sometimes it's is the reticence, the waiting, the anticipation of the kiss that makes it work on stage and on screen. Alfred Hitchcock's "Notorious" has one of the most intimate kissing scenes ever filmed. It's not a constant lip-lock. It's not a slobber-fest. It's not a non-committal smooch. It's not a bad-breath-avoidance-stick-and-move. It’s a masterful two-and-a-half minutes staged in such a way as to bring us a long for a very romantic ride. Hitchcock intention was to circumvent the Hays Code of the time. The ludicrous Production Code banned kisses longer than three seconds. So Hitch had them kiss for three, then whisper and nuzzle and go back to another three second kiss. Stop and murmur a sweet nothing, then kiss. Sigh, breath, kiss. Then repeat. Just may be the best screen kiss of all time. If you don't believe me, take a look below. Feel free to try this at home.

The stage kiss is very different from the movie kiss. The stage kiss isn't 40 feet high and in close up. These are normal sized actors (although many stage actors have heads quite large for their bodies, but that's another post entirely) and seen from ten or twenty rows back. There needs to be much more set up. The audience needs to see it coming a little. They need to feel the tension as the characters get closer. On stage the kiss has to be perfectly planned and executed to take advantage of angle and light as well as emotion and character. Timing must be perfect. Not too long, not to short. You can't "fix it in post" like they do in the movies. Hey, this stuff ain't easy.

The best actors pay attention to each other. They feed off of each other. They are professionals doing a job. You don't kiss a "co-worker" in a show the same way that you kiss a significant other on a date. Movie and stage kisses take work. Rehearsal. Usually that happens in front of a bunch of people doing other jobs while you're trying to look all Rico Suave or Pussy Galore. It's not as fun as it may sound and it definitely is not anything your life-partners should worry about. The finished product may look erotic or passionate, but believe me, getting there can be difficult.

Sometime in the 50s or 60s (okay, I just made those dates up because it just seems about right), movies and the actors in them forgot how to kiss. Kissing in the movies was better in the very early days of Hollywood. Perhaps I should say - more effective. In real life, the kiss is either the beginning of something bigger (oh, you know what I'm talking about) or so casual and commonplace it doesn't serve in your daily narrative (that morning peck as you both drive off to work). In movies, and on stage, the kiss is usually the climax to the scene. (Yes, okay, pun intended.)

After "Streetcar Named Desire" in 1951, with rare exception, everything went to shit. I blame Marlon Brando. And James Dean.  Did Dustin Hoffman EVER kiss anyone on screen? Come to think of it, did Paul Newman? Mostly, I blame Lee Strasberg. The screen kiss lost it's fantasy. Strasberg and his "Method" sacrificed romance for realism. (Again, fodder for another post.) We started to see on screen kissing become more and more like actual real life kissing. But, that is not it's purpose. The reason we go to see movies and plays, any art really, is not to have real life replayed before our eyes. It is to experience heightened levels of emotions in heightened situations. To see larger than life people deal with larger than life challenges. To experience emotions on a scale beyond that of our regular life. That is the very purpose of art.

So the message for all my actors and directors out there is this: Never underestimate this important bit of blocking. It can make or break a moment on stage or on screen. Well, actually, that's not right. It's not just for my actors and directors. I'm really telling everyone, pay attention to the kiss.  You, too, can elevate the ordinary to an art form. And.....action!