Saturday, January 29, 2011

Staying in Shape

Just signed up for another acting class and looking long and hard at a second one that provides practical instruction in using the teleprompter (useful in doing commercials and on-camera narrations.)

You never stop learning as an actor any more than you ever stop training as an athlete. Down time makes you flabby.  Whenever you're not getting practice (acting) you need to be learning. It keeps you sharp, helps you make new contacts and maintain friendships with other actors (who otherwise may think you're dead!)

Michael Caine in his autobiography What's It All About? relates a scene he did with actress Lizabeth Scott in the 1972 crime thriller Pulp. He was the star. Scott had been a big star, but hadn't been in front of a camera for more than 10 years. She was shaking with anxiety and needed reassurance to get through the scene (which ultimately she did just fine.) It goes to show that even pros like her can run into problems if they don't keep in practice.

So actors should always be thinking about what they need to learn, what they can add to their repertoire of skills - improv, dancing, voice training, playing the piano, horseback riding, how to handle and fire a weapon (very useful!)

And they need to be constantly watching and studying films and plays. Not just what is current but also films of every decade, silent films ("We didn't need dialog. We had faces." Gloria Swanson, Sunset Boulevard). I am constantly taken aback by young actors who give me a blank look when I mention someone like Richard Widmark.

Anyway I'm off. Tonight we're taking in Black Swan at the movie theater. I also put Ronald Coleman's A Double Life on the Netflix queue to see how they compare.  I remember finding it rather annoying that The English Patient pulled a lot of scenes out of Casablanca.  Actually it plays as Casablanca if Ilsa had left her perfectly nice husband and run off with Rick, who was a psycho stalker.  (I should do a post on why I hate The English Patient.)  More later.  I have a kitten dancing on the keys.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Mark Westbrook on What to Expect from Directors

Well a shower, a change of clothes and a night in my own bed and I’m a new person.  Life is full of adventures.

Mark Westbrook, the highly opinionated acting coach/blogger in Glasgow, Scotland, had a very interesting post this week of interest to actors everywhere, so I’m passing it along. It has to do with what an actor should expect from a director (and I can tell you it was a relief to know I could expect anything!)

To be fair, I’ve seen some very good directors who begin with a clear vision of the story they are trying to tell and give useful feedback on what the actor needs to do to convey that story. But I’ve also seen directors who micromanage to the point of exasperation, as though they are on something and absolutely cannot sit down or shut up. I’ve had directors who seemed only interested in camera angles and said little more than “action” and “cut” or, when asked for feedback, looked at me as though I were asking them to divulge nuclear secrets.

What an actor should reasonably expect from a director is rarely explained, which is why I appreciated seeing someone put it in print. Here is Westbrook’s view, somewhat paraphrased for film:

  • Because it is the actors who bring the script to life, the director’s first task is to help the cast understand the script in such a way that they are able to put it into action  (defined as something they can physically do.)
  • The director then helps the actors stage the action so that it remains faithful to the script, is performed to the best of their abilities, and in such as way that the story is conveyed.  
  • The director gives the actor feedback on his or her performance, with any suggestions for changes or improvement confined to practicable action.  If the director is giving notes, they must be notes that address something the actor can physically do.
  • The director then gets out of the actor’s way and allows the actor to create the role.  

(You can see Mark Westbrook’s complete post, listed on the menu as “What should directors do?” here.)

There’s an ongoing war between actors and directors. Westbrook describes the problem as the “interfering intellectual in a roomful of frustrated do-ers.” He may be right, and committing these points to memory may not get me any more feedback on the set. But at least I’ll feel on firmer ground when I ask.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

This is Turning into a Bad Week

Rats! Left the day job late when I should have left early.  Snowstorm moving through and the roads were already horrible.  15 miles between me and my own sheets.  After covering all of three miles in two hours, with cars sliding all over the road and a steep hill ahead, I decided to bail and pull into a Holiday Inn Express.  There's no restaurant.  Instead I was told there's a Five Guys a block away if I want to slog through this blizzard to get there.  It's dark and I've had enough snow.  Waiting for the room to warm up (after an hour it's up to 68 degrees), watching television, and dining on a box of cookies and a diet Pepsi out of the machine down the hall.  Brrrr.  Is it my imagination or is Sex and the City about as exciting as a trip to the gynecologist?

This is turning into a bad week.

p.s. And the TV just died.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Academy Award Nominations Are In...and I'm Disappointed

The good news is that the Academy is again recognizing some very fine "small" films. The bad news (well...maybe disappointing to me is perhaps a better phrase) is that they're following the leader in over-praising The King's Speech. The Academy isn't always on target. (I seem to remember nine Academy Awards for The English Patient.) The King's Speech is a fine film certainly. But I thought The Social Network was a brilliant film, with a so-well-crafted-it's-worth-studying script.

Aaron Sorkin did get a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. I'm keeping a good thought.

I Do a GREAT Mafia Wife!

My husband and I watched Michael Clayton last evening. We were about 15 minutes into it - at the point where George Clooney walks up the hill to wave at the horses and his car blows up - when I realized that we'd actually rented this same film from Netflix a couple of years ago. I remembered almost none of it. To be sure, it's fast-paced and an interesting puzzle of a plot, plus it has a cast full of extremely talented actors. But the problem I had was the same as with last year's Inception - I didn't care about anyone in the film. Caring about the characters is what makes a movie a classic. It's why we watch Casablanca again and again (and why they keep cranking out DVDs.) We want to know what happens to Rick and Ilsa and Yvonne and Sascha and Captain Renault and so many others. An interesting puzzle, once you watch it, becomes as memorable as yesterday's crossword.

Of course, that doesn't explain the endless sequels to Halloween.

I've been trying to get my head around something actor/producer Richard Cutting said in an online conversation a week or so ago. I'm not a linear thinker unfortunately. I think in concentric circles. My brain gathers bits of information, none of which seem related, except that they all finally come together at a common center and a lightbulb goes on. No lightbulb yet.

Black Swan is generating some buzz. It sounds reminiscent of the 1947 Ronald Coleman film A Double Life, where Coleman plays a reknown Shakespearean actor who starts thinking he is Othello instead of just playing the role. It ends with him killing himself on stage. Nothing new under the sun, as they say. I've heard good things about Black Swan, but will we care? Coleman is remembered for The Prisoner of Zenda and Lost Horizon. A Double Life was low budget and late in his career.

(A word about Natalie Portman's follow-on film No Strings Attached. I watched a review of the film on television the other night and it was the first time I'd heard this word applied to a mainstream film - the reviewer called it "raunchy." Probably a topic for another post.)

I'm booked along with other members of the cast to tape a promotional interview for a short film I did early last fall that's coming out in March - Clear and Sunny Skies. I liked the way that film was shot and have high hopes for it. It's part of a four-film package of related stories called The World at Work. Another short that I appeared in - The Golden Plate - has its first screening this Sunday, so that's on my calendar.

But no dramatic roles on the immediate horizon.  Only industrials. I read yesterday that the Weinsteins are turning to TV and have 15 series in the works, including one on Mafia Wives.

Harvey! Bob! Call me! I do a GREAT Mafia wife!


I never handle down time very well.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Waiting for the Whole Package

I went to see The Social Network last evening. Second-run theater. From the trailer it didn't seem to rate seeing it at a first-run theater, but the trailer didn't do it justice. It's a terrific movie. Aaron Sorkin's screenplay is brilliant in conveying the irony in Mark Zuckerberg's character. A sad, complex person. Highly intelligent, incredibly immature. Acting out feelings of anger and envy by sniping from cover. A man who connected millions of "friends" with each other around the world, but has only one friend - and manages to sabotage even that friendship.

I loved the closing scene. The young woman who has rejected Zuckerberg and dismissed his work on Facebook as "video games," now has a Facebook page - and he still can't connect with her. You don't envy his success and all his billions because it hasn't changed his life. But in an odd way you like him and you do feel a sense of hope that he'll come out alright. The lawyer nailed it: he's not an asshole, he's just trying very hard to look like one.

Hope is a nice place to end a film. Of course, how much of that is Zuckerberg's life and how much is creative license we don't know. Was there really a lost love? I remember the old bio-pic of composer George Gershwin where the lady love was pure invention. (Gershwin was reportedly rather asexual and his closest relationship was with his brother Ira.) No matter. The Social Network is a film I'd watch again and again and study closely. I've added it to my list of favorites.

Having now seen both The Social Network and The King's Speech, I have to pick the former for the Academy Awards. I looked forward to seeing The King's Speech because I gravitate toward small films and this one had gotten rave reviews. I liked it, but I never got a strong sense of the King as a man - and, yes, it did have that standard British, drawing-room drama feel to it. It wasn't as complex a tale as The Social Network. Also, Colin Firth has played a stammerer before in A Month in the Country.

The Social Network brought to the surface some other issues as I sat there in the dark watching it. I was thinking what great performances these young actors were turning in - so natural, so exactly right.

Drama coaches put a lot of emphasis on acting technique, as though it's the be-all, end-all of conveying a character. I think that's true for theatre for the most part. You can certainly put on a satisfying play outdoors and with minimal sets.

But it isn't just acting that makes a great film role. It's a terrific script and great direction. It's wonderful lighting, costuming, scoring, locations, make up. It's people who are monetarily and emotionally invested in creating something wonderful.

One of the most frustrating things for actors starting out in film is that you experience only rarely those professional and technical assists.  Lighting?  "Nah, we don't need lights. The indoor shot will look more natural without it."  Make up?  "I've got this great lipgloss I'm using on everyone - Night of Passion. You're gonna love it!"  Costuming?  "Just wear something pink. Whatever you've got." Location? "Jack's gonna let us use his place. He'll move some of his stuff into a corner." Directing? Script? I won't even go there.

The thing with indies and student films is that your writer, director and crew are often learning as they go too. You put up with conditions that are less than optimal, because actors have a visceral need to act. But it means that you can turn in a good performance, even a great performance, and - shot wide with poor lighting - you still look like hell and end up with nothing you can show on your demo reel.

Still, you hang in there because for you it's the only option and gradually the scripts improve. You begin to feel like you know what you're doing, and you get directors who know what they're doing. You have crews made up of professionals experienced in film (and what a difference that makes.) One day, with any luck, you see yourself on screen - with beautifully lit closeups and skillful editing - and you think, "Wow!"

That's why there's such a long list of people to thank when an actor accepts an award. It's the whole package. And waiting for the whole package - for everything to come together - can be hard indeed.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Stay in the Know

It was good to hear from Mark Gantt.  Mark not only has a Streamy "Best Actor in a Drama" Award but is also co-creator (with Jesse Warren), Executive Producer and co-writer on the hit series - The Bannen Way - that is getting him so much attention. The series is distributed by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

The appearance of these really remarkable web series reminds me of a critical issue in acting. The film industry is risk averse. Every new industry, new company, new political movement, new research field, you name it, starts out with one goal - trying to win. Over time, as organizations and patterns of doing business become more established, as more money is involved, as people get an idea (or think they have an idea) of what works and what doesn't, the goal changes to trying not to lose. Bad development all around.

Today Web entertainment is the new industry and without gatekeepers saying "it can't be done," creativity is through the roof. Talented people are getting a chance to experiment and show what they can do. Everyone benefits. These are exciting times.

By the way, Mark's comment reminded me of something I left out of my last post.  Once you've done everything you can to get your résumé and photo where those in the business can find them, set up a search engine alert (Google Alert is one) on your name and the title of your most recent (or most important) acting gigs. You'll get an email every time anyone posts a comment on the Web about you or your films and that gives you a chance to respond and make a new connection. It also gives the person who posted the comment a chance to say more nice things (as I just did with Mark!) That's how you create "buzz," and you don't need a publicist to do that.

Producer and Casting Director Bonnie Gillespie has an online course called Your Actor MBA that covers career promotion and more. Worth considering. You might also take a peek at her book Self-Management for Actors: Getting Down to (Show) Business. I own it and find that it's an enormous help.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Don't Forget to Promote Your Work

Up half the night engaging in what is called "search engine optimization." On every website where I'm listed, my profile got an overhaul, with content revisions and more tags to make sure casting directors can locate my information. I'm uploading new headshots in the next day or two.  Then everything gets resubmitted to the search engines.

The business side of acting isn't as exciting as working in front of a camera or an audience, but it can be as important to your career.  There are so many tools available now to help get your name and face in front of casting directors and yet it's surprising how many actors neglect to take advantage of what is available. They'll spend thousands of dollars on classes and workshops, but fail to create a website or put up a headshot and résumé at Actors Access or IMDbPro. I've worked with several very talented actors over the past year that I couldn't locate on the Web once we were finished shooting the film. How can they be so capable and not leave a better record on the Internet? That's missed opportunity.

I've also been watching web series this past week and making a list of some of the top shows produced locally. There is some amazing original programming now being created for the Web - Murder Squad, Tyranny, Old Friends, The Bannen Way, Angel of Death, Downsized, and others. These have very high production values. Some are funny as hell! The plan is to put my new headshot and résumé in front of some of these talented writers, producers and directors. Web is the direction entertainment is headed. Get in now.

Late next week I'm up in New York to finally film my scenes for Pegasus I. Hope the weather holds. A week of work on the computer, then on to what I enjoy.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Time to Get Down to Business

A new year begins and it's time to get down to business. There's so much to do. This past year I wanted to work on improving my skills and therefore didn't look beyond non-union productions. Lots of work came my way and as I became more widely known producers and directors began contacting me prior to putting out a general casting call (gratifying since my showreel is still waiting for more clips to become available.)

Anticipating a move now to union productions, I'm putting my photo and résumé where I hope they'll attract a wider audience. New profiles going up at IMDbPro and Actors Access at certainly. Actor's Access is free. IMDbPro costs a small fee, but it has become my home page for keeping up with industry news. lists contact information for television, film, and theatre projects being cast in Los Angeles and New York. is a resource for downloading sides for productions being cast.

My new headshots come in at the end of this week from photographer Bonnie Miller and will be mailed and emailed out to a half dozen agencies locally and a select few in New York. New notecards and business cards are in the works. Considering a revamp of my website to something not quite so dark. Right now I'm working off a template. I may need to invest in a better design.

Actors can do a lot to promote themselves - and need to if they're going to get anywhere - but at some point you also need objective input and guidance. This year I'm hoping to connect with a manager who can help me in that area. Managers and agents are not plentiful in the DC area (Good grief, there are more in South Carolina!), but I've contacted friends and acquaintances in the business and asked for recommendations in hopes they can refer me to managers interested in taking on new clients.

One good thing about being over 40 - you have an inherent sense that you need to accomplish things NOW. I do.

p.s. Saw True Grit last weekend.  The Coen brothers did a much better job telling the story, but it still needed John Wayne.  Rooster Cogburn is larger than life, and so was he.