Thursday, March 17, 2011

Finding That Uncommon Brand

A lot of talk this week about developing a personal “brand” – that certain look and personality that sets you apart from other actors and leads you to be cast in certain stock roles.  Almost all actors have a recognizable brand, especially if they are very big stars. If you go to see a film starring Tommy Lee Jones or George Clooney or Angelina Jolie or Drew Barrymore, you pretty much know what you’re getting before they ever appear on screen.

I think the term “brand” is getting confused with “niche,” however, and while I do think they are similar and that one affects the other I don’t think they are quite identical. 

Niche has to do with the roles you are initially cast to fill based upon your age, height, weight, body type, facial features, hair, voice, etc.  You can change your niche by changing your brand.  One example: someone once asked Cary Grant how – given his dicey childhood and lack of formal education – he became the model of smooth sophistication.  He reportedly said that he pretended to be the kind of person he wanted to be and after awhile he became that person.  In other words, he changed his “brand.”  

The goal of perfecting a personal brand, or changing a brand, is to become uncommon, to stand out from the scores – perhaps hundreds – of other actors being considered for a role.

Los Angeles acting coach Ben Hopkin has an interesting blog on branding and marketing that I recently came across and have now added to my Resources List on the right.  I hope to study it thoroughly this weekend and perhaps pick up a tip or two on how to develop a better sense of the kind of person I project – or want to project – on screen.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Clear and Sunny Skies Interview

Last night I attended what I hope is the first of many screenings of the short film Clear and Sunny Skies, written by the very talented filmmaker Anthony Greene.  I play Beverly Porter opposite Tamieka Chavis' Beverly Jones in a story about two women that meet on a bench at the beach, with life-changing consequences.  Here's the interview Tamieka and I did about the film. 

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Why TV Characters are Getting Older

Oh gee, here's a shocker: television audiences are getting older.  Yesterday's 3/9/11 Wall Street Journal called it "Television's Senior Moment," noting that "as audiences get older, so do the characters - and the ads cost more."  Hmm, costlier ads?  That is news.

As reporter Amy Chosick puts it: "For decades the TV industry has operated on a currency of youth, creating shows that appeal to 18-49 year olds, the age group advertisers traditionally consider most likely to buy new products, switch brands and spend on everything from cars to soft drinks."  But boomers themselves planted that idea back in the 1960s when they flocked to shows like Charlie's Angels and Hawaii 5-0.

And boomers, it turns out, are not following the behavior patterns of their parents (have they ever?) who were winding down their spending at 55.  Boomers are buying IPads and second homes, splurging on vacations and postponing retirement.  What is more, boomers grew up on television and watch it 5-6 hours a day, compared to an average of 4 hours and 49 minutes for TV audiences as a whole. They make up the majority of viewers for shows like NCIS and The Good Wife.

So now the word is that producers and advertisers are falling all over themselves to put more older characters into TV shows and commercials.  We have 66-year-old Tom Selleck leading Blue Bloods, 62-year-old Kathy Bates being tapped for Harry's Law and 89-year-old Betty White starring in Hot in Cleveland on MTV's TV Land.  It's being called a "Tsunami."

Oh, how delicious.

Now maybe local producers will stop looking at me aghast that I'm not wearing sneakers and a baggy sweater, and I don't have my gray hair in a bun!

Anyway, an article worth reading.

Acting From Square One

A young actress fresh out of college and with a few stage credits posted a question this week to a Google acting group I belong to, asking what an actor needed to do to get started from Square One in the Los Angeles film market. 

Well, being East Coast I couldn’t help with the LA part, but her question did get me thinking about what I’d learned in the two and a half years since I decided to take my career from producing/directing a political talk show for PBS (with “actors” of a somewhat different order) to working in front of the camera.

This is what I told her, and it’s probably as good a summary of my experience as I can come up with.  This is Acting from Square One:

  • You need to show that you've studied acting somewhere. It doesn't necessarily have to be a four-year, degree program at a top-rated drama school. It can be workshops and seminars with respected professionals, but you need to show training, and be sure the mix includes Improv. You already have a good start, but consider training an ongoing process.  Pick up practical skills you can add to your resume, such as reading from a teleprompter, learning a dialect, firearms training, horseback riding, etc. 
  • Read everything you can on acting and the business of acting.  Bonnie Gillespie's book Self Management for Actors is encyclopedic in covering the issues you need to know to build a career.  Terrific books on the craft of acting include How to Stop Acting by Harold Guskin, Acting in Film by Michael Caine. and I'll Be in My Trailer: The Creative Wars Between Directors & Actors by John Badham and Craig Modderno, to name a few. Look for Judith Searle's book Getting the Part.  It's out of print but you may be able to find a used copy on Amazon.  Also Michael Shurtleff's book Audition
  • Look at blogs on general acting advice. One I often visit is Mark Westbrook's “The Acting Blog” at Westbrook is an acting coach in Glasgow, Scotland. Scan his posts. Lots of useful and insightful information there on how to approach scenes.
  • Most important, grab every opportunity you can to act in speaking roles. It's all about practice, practice, practice, and finding what kind of roles are a good fit for you.  Initially that may mean getting the biggest roles you can get in very small projects, then moving up to bigger projects.
  • Doing a cold read audition?  Here's some useful advice: Emphasize the verbs first, then the nouns, and let the adverbs and adjectives take care of themselves. Listen to classically trained British actors.  It's what they do typically and it adds a lot of power to your scene.
  • Don't spend a lot of time doing background work or directors may start thinking of you solely as a background performer.  When you do, remember that the farther you are from the camera the more broadly animated you may need to be.  And don’t be put off by instructions not to speak to, or even look at, the leading actors.  They’re not being prima donnas. Acting isn’t easy; they’re trying to stay focused.
  • If you speak on film - even one line - be sure you get the clip for your demo reel. Sometimes this can take persistence, especially on a low budget production.
  • Finally, know that everybody had to start somewhere and the road to success can be a bumpy one.  A theatre critic once referred to a young Katharine Hepburn as a "metallic voice" with a "face like a death's head."  An annoyed stage director once told 23-year-old Alec Guinness: "You can't act!  Get off the f**king stage!"  (He went back to his flat and cried.) And a casting director reportedly brushed off a 20-something Danny DeVito, saying "Who's going to want a 5 ft. tall character actor?!!"
  • So have faith in your own ability, try to develop a thick skin (not an easy task) and stay focused on a clear goal, such as where do you see yourself as an actor next year?

Friday, March 4, 2011

Rebuilding a House of Cards

Just announced that Kevin Spacey will executive produce and star in an American television adaptation of "House of Cards," the terrific 1990 British miniseries (from the novel) about a politician's behind-the-scenes double-dealings (and murder) on his way to becoming Prime Minister. The British original is one of my favorites and Ian Richardson was wonderful in the leading role as the deliciously named Francis Urquhart, or FU.

A Lesson From Radio Classics

My darling has been out of town all week so I’ve been driving his car and enjoying his Sirius XM satellite reception tuned to a station that plays nothing but old radio shows from the 1940s.  What a kick!  Lots of shows that later went to television – like Dragnet , Have Gun, Will Travel, and The Life of Riley – but many others I’d never heard of before, like X Minus One, Suspense, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, the “nation’s fabulous freelance insurance investigator!”  (Who knew?)

What dawned on me in listening to these shows was that so many plot lines and concepts that I thought were inventions of the 1960s, actually had roots in old radio, which drew in turn on literature.  You can hear echoes of television shows like Twilight Zone and One Step Beyond in Suspense, and Star Trek and Star Wars in X Minus One.  

Take the Hexabrod in X Minus One, a race of tall, thin, creatures incapable of emotion, only logic. These individuals sound a lot like Mr. Spock, who also sounds a little bit like the tall, thin, logical Sherlock Holmes. 

Anyway, what I was also listening to this week was how these radio players (many of whom were also film stars) deliver their lines, and how similar it is to the way British actors deliver their lines on Public Television programs.  

They hit the verbs.  

For example, in casual conversation I would deliver the following line like this: “WELL you see, he lived in the VILLAGE.”   But the British actress who actually said that line on television a few nights ago said this: “Well, you SEE, he LIVED in the village.”

I was so struck by how different that sounded, how much more powerful, that I started listening for where actors were putting the emphasis.  It’s what Alec Guinness advises in his first autobiography: when delivering a line, emphasize the verbs first, then the nouns, and the adverbs and adjectives will take care of themselves.  I’ve repeated that bit of advice in my head many times, but I didn’t really get it until this week when I was conscious of hearing it done.

Trying to find where to put the emphasis can be very hard, especially when you’re doing a cold read audition – no context, no direction, no nothing.  Harold Guskin in his book How to Stop Acting recommends an exercise where you take a deep breath, relax, and deliver the line.  Then take another deep breath, relax, and deliver the line a different way – and on and on until you find a way of saying the line that feels right to you. 

Well that has value to be sure, but it may not be clear to every actor which way is the right way.  That kind of advice would seem to appeal to an actor who approaches a character from the inside.   If you’re the kind that approaches a character from the outside you look for rules and strategies to get you started – like hit the verbs.

My "ah-hah!" moment.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Listen to Your Voice

I was in a mobile phone store this week (do we really have to say “mobile” anymore?) and happened to mention to the sales clerk that I was an actress.  He told me he was very interested in getting into acting as well and said, “So, what does it take?  Do you just need to know someone?” 

Ah, the age of instant gratification.

I guess it helps if you happen to be good friends with, or related to, someone already well-known in the business.  But that just opens a door; you still have to be able to deliver a credible performance.  That takes training, desire, intense focus, a little bit of luck, and a whole lot of practice. 

Practice that’s ongoing, even with something as simple as speaking.  One of the things I had to overcome in starting out was getting used to the sound of my own voice.  (You laugh?) People seldom pay attention to their own voice in speaking to others and we certainly don’t think about projecting our voice and the emphasis we put on words when we speak.  As a result, when we’re put on the spot in an audition or performance we end up sounding like we’re “acting” instead of that naturalness we’re trying to achieve. 

Drama coaches often tell you to listen to how other people talk, and there’s value in that in developing a character.  But the first step in acting is really listening to yourself and then developing ways to “warm up” your voice before performing so that your pipes are clear and your diction is what you want it to be. 

You can do voice exercises,  of course, but something I’ve found useful and do on a regular basis is simply to do a dramatic reading of the morning newspaper.  It’s readily at hand.  It’s a “cold read” every day, so I don’t get tired of the text.  I can pick it up and walk around with it.  I can practice projecting my voice while I’m reading and try emphasizing different words.  I can practice looking up from the page, which helps during auditions. 

I also try being more animated, not only in how I say the words but in how I behave when I say them.  The interesting result is that I’m becoming naturally more animated when making general conversation and – I hope – a more engaging person.  Less English/German, more French/Italian.  And that’s helping my overall performance.  

Last week I had a very small role (very small) in a commercial produced by Weaselworks, a New York-based production company.  Very nice people and real pros.  The day I was on set went like clockwork and the footage looked terrific.  This week I’m doing voiceover work for conference videos and a VO audition for a national commercial.   But the week feels slow. 

I want things to move fast.  I must be channeling spring.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

And the Winners Are...

…not James Franco and Anne Hathaway apparently. The Academy Awards presentation has such wonderful material to work with. Why do they have such a hard time putting together an interesting show?  When Bob Hope hosted the show it seemed to work – a professional comedian who was a known, likeable, and reassuring presence; presenters who took their craft seriously and behaved as such; a couple of big production numbers to break up the speeches and keep everyone entertained; good clips of the nominated films and performances; winners who gave happy, tearful and (usually) brief acceptance speeches.  Okay, the Sasheen Little Feather episode in 1973 was a bit weird, but generally it worked until the last decade or so when organizers seemed to lose sight of what it’s all about in favor of attempts at manipulating the audience in one way or another. Last night’s show was often awkward. Franco and Hathaway had no chemistry, and Hathaway’s woo-hoo when leading the applause felt like a forced cheer from someone with little enthusiasm for the game.

That said, the Brits at their best are hard to beat.  I was on the side of the film critics in pulling for The Social Network.  It was a very American, rocky-road-to-success story, I thought, but as some have pointed out, the Brits had a struggle with personal affliction set against the drama of World War II and their finest hour.

Helen Mirren 2010
At least Aaron Sorkin got his much-deserved Oscar for The Social Network adapted screenplay.  The ladies were lovely and, as one revealed, it takes an entire team of hair and makeup technicians to put each of them together.  I always watch for Helen Mirren and she didn’t disappoint, although I liked her silvery gossamer dress last year a bit better.

Helen Mirren 2011
The Academy should pick a host (one) with experience in keeping people engaged and amused (If drag is okay then I vote for Eddie Izzard!), develop a format and stick with it.  If they’re losing their audience it’s not because the show doesn’t appeal to “youth” but because it’s a bad show.

So on to another year of filmmaking.  A lot of adapted fairy tales for children on the horizon (let’s hope they keep them clean), lots of sequels (oh tedious) and here and there a little gem of a film that amazes and keeps me slogging away at this business.