Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Tough week. Horrible cold made worse by the sloppy weather and the ongoing remodeling in my office. We're trying to keep up with clients amid absolute chaos. Printers disconnected. Construction debris piled up everywhere. People shifting around trying to stay out of the way of the workmen who today were painting the walls federal institutional yellow. (My, my, what was management thinking.)

But on the plus side we've started shooting the short film I'm appearing in, though it took a half box of cough drops to get me through my scenes on Sunday. This is going to be a real learning experience, as I suspect all film projects are in one way or another. The first thing I'm learning with this one is stamina. Sunday started at 5 a.m. and didn't end until 11 p.m. that night when I pulled in the driveway bone tired and with my cold taking a turn towards plague. This weekend I'm going to try and cat nap while they're changing scenes and relighting. (Where's my trailer?!)

I start my "Creating a Film Role" class on Monday with Michael Gabel and Todd Shoemaker - very excited about that one - and then I audition Tuesday night for another short film that gets underway in late March. Not forgetting the Stonehenge Auditions, but I still have to pull an audition spot out of the hat.

And tonight it's supposed to snow. Again.

I finished the book on Irving Thalberg and have been mulling over thoughts on the issue of personal branding. But that's for next time. For now I'm going to go lie down and read and think positive thoughts about how I'm not going to sneeze, wheeze, cough, snarkle and drip. I hate being sick.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

My Voice! In VO, you either "Sell It" or "Tell It," and here I'm telling it for Associated Builders and Contractors. As with most talent, I'm hypercritical of my own work. I like this narrative read, however. I think I capture just the right inspirational tone and maybe just a little bit of Sally Kellerman.

I think telling it is harder than selling it, because you have to sustain interest over a longer period. I find when I hire people to do VO for my produced videos that it's a real crapshoot as to whether I'll get the quality I need for narration. Everyone sounds good in a short sample commercial.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

I’ve been reading Mark Vieira’s book on Irving Thalberg while waiting out the blizzard. Books about Hollywood and filmmaking provide a lot of insight into what it takes to be successful: preparation and competitiveness (Katharine Hepburn), dogged persistence (Alec Guinness), and in many cases just being in the right place at the right time.

I am encouraged especially by actresses who succeed late in their careers. In 1930, MGM’s biggest female stars were Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo and – Marie Dressler, a 60-year-old, overweight, self-described ugly duckling. Dressler was a vaudeville comedienne who’d done a few low-budget film comedies when screenwriter Frances Marion suggested her for a screenplay she’d just written called Min and Bill. It was the kind of heavyweight part Dressler later said she’d been waiting for her whole life, and she won the Oscar for Best Actress for it the following year.

Dressler isn’t the only one. Beulah Bondi, an Emmy winner and Oscar nominee, had a highly successfully film career, often playing the mother of stars like James Stewart. Jessica Tandy worked sporadically while raising her kids and thought she was washed up as an actress; she saw a revival of her career late in life and won the Oscar for Driving Miss Daisy at age 80. Most of Joan Plowright’s film work has come after she turned 60. Ditto Angela Lansbury who had a successful TV series and just picked up another Tony Award on Broadway at age 84.

Perhaps one secret is to outlive your competition. I look at the headshots online of the thousands of aspiring actresses and wonder, how does any one of them break through that? There are so many of them. They’re all gorgeous, they all have great figures, they all have beautiful hair.

For actors who do break through and become stars it’s often hard to maintain their star status over time. Someone on screen who was once so sexy and is now wrinkled, bald, overweight, and stoop-shouldered can be painful to watch. It makes you think that Garbo and Dietrich had the right idea – at some point you just drop out of sight and leave your public with their nice memories.

But there are lessons to be learned from those who do succeed. Actors like Lansbury, Plowright, and Michael Caine maintain a certain elegance on screen and seem to avoid roles where they are seen as weak or ill. Even in Caine’s recent film Is Anybody There?, where he plays a man living in an old folks home, he doesn’t seem to fit in with the other doddering residents. He has strength and spirit, and he’s the star. Similarly Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, Robert Duvall, Jack Nicholson, and John Travolta hang on to their tough guy image into their later years. It makes me think that it isn’t one’s chronological age that’s the critical factor, it’s on-screen vitality. Perhaps that’s the key – outlive the competition and don’t give casting directors the impression you’re going to drop dead in the middle of filming!

I am putting this information in a safe place to refer to later. For now, getting dressed, getting the snow shovel, getting the hell out of this house!

Sunday, February 7, 2010

It’s 4 a.m. and I’m listening to the snow creak on the roof. We got 27 inches before the storm finally moved on, but only a foot at most remains on the roof. Still, an airplane hangar out at Dulles collapsed so now I’m wide awake worrying and thinking of a million other things, like the 60 headshot prints I’ll need for the Stonehenge auditions and whether to go ahead and have them printed or wait and see if I actually get an audition slot in the lottery. If I wait I only have two weeks to get the prints.

I like my headshots. I took a bit of a risk in having them done by a portrait photographer who’d hadn’t done actors headshots before, but I wanted to be sure I had someone who would consider what I was trying to achieve and work with me to achieve it. Bonnie Miller did that.

I also did a lot of reading on what casting directors look for and studied headshots of successful actors in film and television. I knew the photo had to look absolutely like me – flaws and all – when I walked in the door to audition. That was rule #1. Casting people don’t like surprises.

Then I spent an hour with TV makeup artist Lorna Basse, who worked on the talk show I produced a few years back, having her show me what look and colors would work best for me on camera, and how I could create that look myself for auditions. I knew I didn’t want makeup sprayed on my face as some makeup artists do, because that look can be too flawless and I can’t reproduce it on my own.

Based on my research, the approach I took was aimed at creating a natural look and eliminating anything in the photo that would distract from my face:

No earrings or jewelry of any kind

Simple, solid-colored clothing, but no all black (I could have also gone with bare shoulders, but decided that wasn’t appropriate given my age)

Simple, soft hairstyle

Professional but “natural” makeup

Shots taken either directly from the front or with my left shoulder forward and turned almost full face.

No angled or “arty” shots

The hardest part was getting what many casting directors refer to as “something behind the eyes.” I’ve never seen that defined beyond that phrase, but what I think it means is an expression that conveys wit, intelligence, humor, charm, or at the very least somebody home. To achieve that, to the extent that I did, I tried carrying on a non-verbal conversation with the photographer – thinking of things to say to her, but letting my face convey the words.

Bonnie took 400-plus shots with a rapid-fire digital SLR and then posted to an online folder the 100 most promising. I cut that list down to 10 and then contacted friends and family, gave them the password to the folder and asked them to tell me which they thought looked most like me and most conveyed that elusive “something.” That’s how I arrived at the four shots I use.

For printing, I asked Bonnie for minimal photoshopping - largely softening shadows and eliminating stray hairs and any evidence of my pierced ears, but leaving the “consternation” lines. I went with borderless prints and, departing from the standard, decided on no name or contact information on the front – again, because I didn’t want anything distracting from my face. I did have my name printed on the photo I use for my postcards, however, since that's a follow-up item and it seemed appropriate to reinforce my name there.

Do the headshots work? I think they do. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised to hear the producer of the short film I’m now in say that she’d noticed my headshot online and thought I’d be perfect for the role. That raises the issue of being cast largely on your "look" - at least initially - but that’s part of the business. Anyway, I just need to decide which headshot to print and when, and I guess the which will depend on the monologue I finally decide to do.

So, time to remove small cat from my lap and put him back in his room. Maybe milk will help me sleep. I hope so. Stop creaking, roof!

Saturday, February 6, 2010

More snow. It started yesterday morning and is still coming down. The forecast was for 25-33 inches. My husband and I have been out with shovels and snow thrower four times and will likely make another pass over the driveway and walks in another hour or so. How do they make it through the winter in places like Maine and North Dakota?

Shooting on the film has been put off until next weekend. Hope the director likes a snowy background as cold temperatures will keep this on the ground for weeks.

Watched Clara Bow in the silent film It last night and caught a 26-year-old Gary Cooper in a very early role as the newspaper reporter. Cooper speaks (mouths words) but not enough to warrant a title card on screen. The commentator noted how he “fills the frame,” even in a minor part, and that this is what it means to be a star. Audiences noticed him and liked him (as I did, even before I recognized him). There is just something about his face, about the way he moves. After It he did another film with Bow, not very successfully, and then landed a Western and found his groove. Clara Bow must have had a harder time. She’s very cute and animated in this film, but not terribly different in looks than the other actresses playing shopgirls. Bow, I think, had to earn stardom. Cooper just had “it.”

The film is noteworthy for another face on screen – romance novelist Elinor Glyn. Glyn was the Barbara Cartland of her day apparently, and originated the term “It” as a code word for sex appeal. For a long time I thought Glyn and Rudy Frimmel were just names Meredith Willson made up for The Music Man – like Eulalie MacKechnie Shinn – but I have since learned that both were actual people of that time. As was Dan Patch (actually he was a horse). Madame Elinor Glyn in person hardly lives up to the hype. She looks rather middle-aged and dowdy, very much like Margaret Dumont in the old Marx Brothers films. Hardly anyone you’d think was a writer of hot novels. She must have had a very active fantasy life.

Still struggling to find appropriate audition monologues, especially one I can use for the Stonehenge Auditions in late March. Stage monologues are just too over the top for film and hard to cut down to the 90-second time limit. I may have found one from the film Virtuosity, a Louise Fletcher role I pulled out of an interrogation scene that involved several characters. Fletcher was just my age when she did the part in 1995. I just need to remember Michael Caine’s advice for confrontations – don’t blink, hold the power. (I don’t think Louise Fletcher ever blinks!)

I ran the Virtuosity piece by my drama instructor, along with Saunders from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Constance from The Life of David Gale. This was the only one he thought I could make work for me, though he wasn’t crazy about any of them because he thought the monologue should be more about my character than me talking about another character. I don’t know. I think your delivery can say a lot about your character. Besides, most monologues where the character is saying something about themselves are memory pieces, and I’ve read a lot of interviews with casting directors where they say they don’t like memory pieces because they see so many of them. Anyway, I’ll just be glad to have something for Stonehenge, assuming I get picked in the audition lottery. Stonehenge is a chance to be seen (and cast possibly) by a lot of casting directors, and to have my audition posted to You Tube. I’m involved in short films shooting through the first week in June. Stonehenge might fill my dance card for a time after that. At least I hope so.

The hour is up. Time to grab the snow shovel again. This is getting old.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Attended the first cast meeting for the film on Saturday, then drove 80 miles home in a driving snowstorm that went right over Washington instead of going to the south as was forecast. Thank heaven for four-wheel drive and a GPS that got me around all the pile-ups on the beltway and I-95. I’m a good driver in snow. Still it was four hours on the road before I finally pulled in the driveway.

We start shooting next weekend and I’m looking forward to it. This is going to be good on-camera experience and in a significant role. Plus the producer is hoping to premier the film at a local theater, which should be a kick.

Feeling really good about it, and reasonably confident. I have a lot of experience working behind the camera and I read books on filmmaking constantly. Plus I’m a huge fan of movies and old TV series, as my thousands of Netflix ratings can attest. I can’t imagine wanting to be an actor and not having an historical view of the business, and yet I encounter that all the time among fellow acting students. Younger people tend to be very current on American television acting, which is something I find too often rather slap-dash.

Besides, unlike British television, which uses actors of all shapes, sizes and ages and can actually conceive of romance between two dumpy, middle-aged, rather ordinary looking people – and pull it off brilliantly! - American TV tends to homogenize the cast. Almost everyone is trim and attractive and has a “cool” way of speaking. Child actors sound like they’re 10 going on 35. It’s so unimaginative.

I’ve been thinking about this dearth of historical perspective because of an incident in class last Tuesday. One of the students – a very talented thirty-something guy – had done a scene from Homicide: Life on the Street where he was playing a convicted rapist/pedophile. I remarked that he reminded me of Richard Widmark in the film where he shoves the old lady in the wheelchair down the stairs. His response was, “Who’s Richard Widmark?” at which point the instructor and I looked at each other like, “Oh my God!”

Okay, so Widmark was before his time. Clara Bow was before my time, but I learn a great deal from watching silent films, and foreign films too.

There is so much to be gained from studying films from the standpoint of craft, and so much to be gained from reading books by and about great actors, directors, producers. Talent alone is no guarantee of success in this business. In fact, if I had to put my finger on what is, I would say focus, an obsessive focus on the goal of seeing yourself succeeding in film. When you stay focused, good things happen – in part because you’re more alert to opportunity when it comes along and in part because, in some peculiar way, you become a kind of opportunity magnet. I saw that happen in my writing career. I saw it happen again when I got into television as a producer. It wasn’t having “connections,” because I had none. It just happened.

Case in point, this film I’m doing. The producer said she was so pleased when I finally sent in my headshot and résumé because she’d seen my headshot online and thought I’d be perfect for the role. It also helped that there apparently weren’t a lot of other actors vying for the part, but how often does that happen? The producer thinks you’d be perfect and few others apply?

Focus. Focus and study great film actors and great film roles.

Which raises the issue of whether to try at all for theater, but that’s a topic for another posting.