Tuesday, March 27, 2018

On Being an Actor. The Long Haul.

Some of the best actors I know have never made a movie. They have never been in a Broadway show. They have never starred in a TV series. They work hard, they take class, they audition, they have day jobs, they commute to small theatres to do good roles in order to keep their chops up and, perhaps, have someone see their work. Sometimes, they move to smaller regional markets and work in Portland or Phoenix or Dallas or Chicago. They pay off their student loans, shell out hundreds of dollars a year for new head-shots, and hope their new agent might get them more paid work this year than their last agent did last year. It's not the glamorous Hollywood red carpet stuff you see on Entertainment Tonight. It is the work-a-day slog of countless journey(wo)men actors across the country. Well-trained, talented, dedicated.

David Fox-Brenton and Benjamin Stewart in "Sherlock's Last Case" at the Mayfair Theatre, Santa Monica, CA
Most of you reading this have probably never heard of an actor by the name of Benjamin Stewart. Benjamin was one such actor. I had the pleasure of working with him on several occasions throughout my career. The first time was at the Grove Shakespeare Festival in Garden Grove, CA. While we didn't act in any shows together, we were in a couple seasons simultaneously. I was a young actor with drama school and 10 or 15 shows under my belt and Ben was the mainstay character actor in the company. Later, I would be instrumental is his casting as Dr. Watson (pictured above) at another theatre I happened to being working at as a producer (and box office manager!). Many years later I would call on Ben again, once at a professional regional theatre company I had founded as well as a Shakespeare festival I was fortunate enough to briefly lead in Arizona. The last decade or so of his career he spent constantly on stage at the Arizona Theatre Company in Tucson and Phoenix. Benjamin was  fabulous actor. Did he have a career? Absolutely. A fine one. Did he make a lot of money? Hardly. Never made a major motion picture. Never had his name above the title. Never walked a red carpet at the Oscars or the Tonys. He was an actor, though, and audiences who were fortunate enough to see him perform were moved to laughter and often tears.

Also in the picture is David Fox-Brenton, another one of those excellent career actors you've never heard of. Interestingly, both David and Benjamin passed away in June of 2013 just 17 days apart. Both were 70 years old. It doesn't really mean anything, since to my knowledge this was the only play they were in together. But, I just just think it's interesting.

Nationwide, there are about 160,000 members of SAG-AFTRA and about 50,000 members of Actors' Equity. Granted, not all of these people are actors, per se. Some SAG-AFTRA members are journalists, radio personalities, hosts, musicians, etc. Also, many AEA actors are also members of SAG-AFTRA, so there is going to be some crossover. Remember though, these are just the union actors. There are easily (I'm guessing here, but I'll stand by it) at least as many non-union actors as there are union actors. Maybe more. These would include young actors just starting out, actors in smaller markets (i.e., NOT Los Angeles, New York, or Chicago), actors who have dropped out of the union in order to pursue their craft in ways not allowed by unions restrictions. These kinds of actors are no less professional, no less talented, no less dedicated than their union counterparts. Should you join one of these unions? Maybe. That union card is a badge of honor for most of us. But if you are just starting out, think hard about it. Sure, you'll feel good about the fact that you have the card, but once you take this step, you will cut yourself out of lots of acting opportunities - student films, indie productions, intimate theatre shows. It's a tough call. One of a thousand you'll make over the years.

For our friends and family, it may be a little difficult to accept that there is no magic key to unlock the door to financial success as an actor. No secret handshake. No one guru with all the answers. No special workshop that will suddenly alert studio executives you have arrived. There is no ONE way, no one person, no one role that will automatically launch an actor into Emma-Stonedom or Ryan-Goslingville.

  Left to Right: Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon.
It is also frustrating to understand that the timetable is different for everyone. How many parents and spouses have insisted that their  talented young thespians have a "five-year plan," a "Plan B."  Pure and simply, no one can do that. It is different for each and every actor. Some of you will hit quickly, others will start later, still others will become Benjamin Stewart. Bryan Cranston (of Breaking Bad fame), for example was 44 when he finally made a name for himself in Malcolm in the Middle. Stage actor Sidney Greenstreet made his film debut when he was 61 playing Kasper Gutman opposite Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon. There are no rules and you can't make any.The universe will not listen.

Being an actor is hard work. The work isn't just on stage or in front of the camera. It's involves all the other stuff that gets layered on our creative life. Taking classes, reading scripts, watching films and TV (yes, that's actually part of the job), researching and preparing for auditions, the auditions themselves, commuting to all these things, sitting for photographers, networking, volunteering at the small theatre where we are a company member, the list is long. Oh, yeah, plus we have to make a living at the same time.

As silly as it sounds, being an actor is a calling more than a career. Those of us who have been doing this a while will tell you that we don't chose acting, it chooses us. People become actors because they  have to. They have little choice in the matter. I've seen talented, passionate actors return to it after being away for 30 years, simply because it is who they are. Acting is how they express themselves, how they relate to the world, how they process emotions and meaning in life. The first time you were bitten by the acting bug, a career as an actor didn't matter, did it? You just wanted to be one! It was the joy of the work, the intensity of the process, the passion for the words, the pleasure of the community. It was the smell of the greasepaint, the roar of the crowd. 

While all this may seem grim and hopeless, it isn't. Quite the opposite. The life of an actor is a full one. Hope, ambition, variety, emotion, knowledge, close friends, and lasting relationships. Scene study class is therapy. A long run in a good play is safe haven. Your time on set is educational and inspiring. Thousands of talented, young actors stream to LA and New York year after year to start building their resumes and begin their journey through characters and stories and emotions. Thousands more, older and wiser, with loads of experience ranging from Simon to Shaw to Shakespeare still persist and persevere in regional theatres, stock companies, tours, and tiny converted store fronts. Each looking for the play, the role, the opportunity, the coach, the mentor, the director, the tribe that will connect with them, nurture them, create with them. 

In short, you are not alone. You never will be. You will become part of a tribe of creative people, encouraging each other step-by-step. You will help each other make new projects and find new voices within yourself. You will have support when you feel like you'll never work again and you will have applause when you take your bows or land your first big series. It will not be what you thought it would be, but it will be a uniquely personal experience the whole time. Enjoy the ride, even the bumpy parts. It doesn't matter if you are a Benjamin Stewart or a Meryl Streep. You are an actor, do the work of one...wherever it leads. That is part of the fun.

Places, everyone, places.



Thursday, January 4, 2018

In Defense of Hollywood, Again

2017 was  a tough year for Hollywood. Hell, it was a tough year for the nation. For the planet, even! With Awards Season upon us, we are about to be bombarded with more angst. We are about to hear from...wait for it...actors. We are about to watch award shows where (gasp) people say things that we might not like. 

About a year ago, Meryl Streep, arguably the greatest film actor of her (or any) generation blasted then President-Elect Trump. So began the Twitter wars - well, a Twitter war - waged on the "Hollywood elite." Hollywood. That monolithic, hypocritical, evil-headed hydra that is out to promote it's liberal agenda. That nefarious conspiracy bent on corrupting our children and poisoning the minds of our lawmakers. That factory of fantasy that dares to make us think about alien invaders, hope for superheroes, long for true love, fight for free press, indulge in crazy sex, and maybe even fall in love with a hairy monster (or even a slimy, scaly one).

In an article shortly after Streep's acceptance speech for the Globe's Ceceil B. DeMille Award, Timothy Stanley in CNN Online (Hollywood, Spare Us Your Hypocrisy), launched some very typical arguments - all of which we have heard before. Now, granted, much of what Stanley says in the article is fair and he certainly seems to agree with Ms. Streep's fundamental points. Yet, he, like so many others, creates this strange Hollywood specter that most of us in the industry simply do not know and have never participated in. Hollywood casting is hypocritical and bigoted. Hollywood is unfair at best, out-right discriminatory at worst. Hollywood is a Trumpian corporate greed machine concerned only with profit. Hollywood is a red-carpeted Skynet just waiting to drop a mind-controlling virus into our neural implants while we shove popcorn in our pie-holes.

These tired, old arguments are all far more complicated than the 35 year old Brit, Mr. Stanley, makes out. It's a deeper, more nuanced issue that few actually ponder before spouting off their opinions about "Hollywood." There is no "Hollywood." Hollywood is a phantom concept too often used as a scapegoat. There is no big tall building where bloated, cigar chomping movie moguls sit around conspiring over which white, British, male actor under 35 should get the next big role in Saw 9. Not every movie has an action figure licensing deal attached. Not every movie does a billion dollars worldwide at the box office. Do these things happen? Yes, they do. Rarely. No matter what you hear, actors (and other creatives, for that matter) are not interchangeable cogs in some giant golden gear cranking out lucre. 

"But," you are saying, "Harvey Weinstein!" 

According to the Motion Picture Association of America (yes, the MPAA members are the six "major" studios, but the data is real), there are somewhere around 400-500 "major" movies created in the U.S. every year. In 2015, over 2,300 dramatic features were submitted to to the Sundance Film Festival. Add to that some 1,800 documentary features. Add to THAT the countless short films that pop up out of every graduate film school across the country. Oh, and the U.S. is only #3 on the list of the world's top movie producing countries. We're behind India (Bollywood) and Nigeria. Nigeria! The people making these movies range from struggling young artistes with very specific points of view and very distinct, personal stories to tell all the way up to the giant blockbusters with budgets in the hundreds of millions. Hate to tell you, but there is no great and powerful puppet-master pulling the strings to all these stories. The handful of perverted assholes you hear about do not represent the vast majority of people in the world making movies for all the RIGHT reasons.

Do bad things happen in what is commonly called the "movie business?" Yes. Is there corruption and under the table dealings? Certainly. Is it always fair? Hell, no. Are there casting problems up and down the industry? Fuck, yea. Have been for a while. Will be in the future. Do we need to do better? Yes, absolutely. 

Casting, in particular, will never be perfect. Ever. There will always be something at issue in the process of casting.  So long as actors want to act, so long as opportunity is not afforded those who desire to pursue a career in acting, so long as theatre and film and television are viewed as hobbies for young people and not respected as actual industries of excellence and advancement, so long as those who attempt to study in order to learn the art and craft of the actor are marginalized or dissuaded from doing so, the playing field will be uneven at best.

When actors take classes or go to drama school they are taught that the purpose of learning their craft is to create characters. They are trained in voice and movement. They take classes in history and literature. They sing and dance and wear masks. They believe in and pursue the notion that they can play any part with the right amount of dedication, study, training, and talent. How many white actors have aspired to play Shakespeare's Othello? How many black actors have dreamt of playing Hamlet? Should performances of John Merrick in Bernard Pomerance's The Elephant Man be restricted to only actors with similar physical deformities? Should the role of Elisa (played by the fantastically gifted Sally Hawkins) in The Shape of Water have gone to an actual deaf mute actor? Is it unfair for a highly talented actor to play a disabled war veteran if that actor does not have that exact disability? Actors long to explore character and experience. They strive to experience and empathize with the wide variety of challenges set in front of them by playwrights.

I know what you are going to say. You are right, this isn't the 1600s, or even the 1800s. There actually ARE actors of color, actors with physical challenges, women actors who can play female roles instead of the men that used to play them in Shakespeare's day.  I get it. Look, this ain't easy. But to tell an actor, any actor, that they cannot be allowed to play a part because they are not perfectly typecast flies in the face of every reason the actor becomes an actor. I once directed a play that had a character who was 75 years old. I auditioned 200 actors. Not a single 75 year old actor came to auditions. Not a single 60 year old actor came, either. I cast a 50 year old and aged him up with make up. Am I ageist for doing so? Should my theatre have done a different play with more easily cast characters? Should I have kept looking? Hired a first-time actor?  Don't blame actors for the parts they get. It's a hard game.

Art is not segmented into the neat pie charts of population demographics. Not film, not theatre, not painting, not literature, not music. Art does not represent the masses. Should it? Perhaps. Maybe. Should it strive to be welcoming and fair? If anything should, art should. That said, art is also messy. It is subjective and devoid of the black and white that defines other parts of society. It is shades of grey and rainbows of color that many people just can't focus on.

If we must wield a sword of blame for all of this imbalance and unfairness, let's use it to hack at a country whose very culture oppresses those with points of view, those with stories to tell, even though we claim this is not the case. Blame family members who demand productivity from their loved ones instead of creativity. Blame a government that does not support the arts to any truly significant degree, so much so that young humans of color have no opportunity to create their own stories or even dream of doing so. Blame a system of education that is more concerned with children's test scores than actual knowledge. A place where these same children are not allowed to dream of a world in which they are valued. Where dreams of most young people are sacrificed for a notion that education of any kind, if you can afford it, is a job factory rather than a place of gaining consciousness and understanding. Education should never be just about choosing a career. In a perfect world, our schools would be dedicated to creating well-rounded human beings full of information AND imagination. After their schooling these same human beings would be full to the brim with questions of the cosmos, overflowing with an appreciation of nature, AND know how to balance a checkbook. They would understand civics, appreciate history - everyone's history, AND love poetry. They would be passionate about literature and the arts, they would respect other cultures and colors and creeds. These kinds of humans could adapt to any profession. Any job. They might even become filmmakers.

To clumsily paraphrase Shakespeare, The fault is not in Hollywood, but in ourselves.

Oh, back to Meryl Streep. If you are one of those people that think actors should not publicly voice their opinions on anything other than acting, I will welcome your silence at the bar when my Packers are playing. Unless you've played pro football, zip it.