Thursday, November 29, 2012

The actor headshot dilemma

It's that time of year again when I update my headshots.  Conventional wisdom and advice from the experts has it that actors should stick to simple clothes in solid colors, wear minimal makeup and jewelry, and leave the background blank or very soft.  I have generally followed that advice for the past three years while I was trying to figure out what my "type" was, but I find it too limiting.  For one thing, sticking to "rules" tends to homogenize actors into a bland sameness.  The idea is to stand out in that auditor's stack of headshots, not blend in.  For another, with me at least, it often makes me look like a soccer mom, and that's too young and not my type.

This year I went to Ken Arnold over in Baltimore.  Ken is a talented and busy actor who does headshots and demo reels on the side.  He didn't pose me (which makes me tense) and he let me wear whatever I felt was right for me and that I felt comfortable in.  My "type," as I'm finally figuring out, is a classic and often elegant older woman.  I can play senators, judges, attorneys, and socialites, or I can downscale with no makeup to working-class immigrants.  But I miss that wholesome, suburban, middle ground.

So I broke a few rules and kept a few others.  I wore a solid color sweater, but in bright blue.  I wore jewelry.  I wore coats, gloves, and patterned scarves. I wore my usual makeup, which I did myself.  My thought is that an actor's headshot should match whatever he or she looks like when they walk in the door to audition.  For me, this is indeed what I look like.

Ken gave me more than 250 proofs, which I winnowed down to 73, then to 20, and then to these 8.  I need a comedy shot, and general or placeholder shot, and a character shot.  I may go back to the 250 and have one more look, because I'm wondering if I need at least one with more of a toothy smile.  But this is a good start.  I like the pearls.  I like the black & white scarves and red gloves.  These things are part of what is uniquely me.  This is the way I dress.  And I very much like the backgrounds.  They give the shots context.

Now I have to choose.  I'll be looking for those that convey something in the eyes - a laugh, a thought.  And then we'll see how they play over the next year.  So far, photo #4 is my favorite, maybe because it looks like it could have been taken on set.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Actor networking underscored

Aha! I no sooner post on networking than theatrical producer John Essay publishes a column in Backstage that underscores what I said. Here's the money quote:

"You need to be available for discovery. A buried treasure is hard to discover unless you know to look in the general vicinity it is located. Make yourself available. Go to plays, movies, and industry parties. Taking classes will allow you to be seen by others who may be helpful to you on your way to success."

Mr. Essay doesn't give it all away (be wants to guide people to his website after all). You'll find more detail in my post below.  Still, it's nice to see someone make the same point.

Stand out in the crowd
By the way, I went to a workshop last night presented by a famous acting coach. Of the 60 or so actors in the audience, only three were wearing what I would call a signature look. Everyone else was dressed in dark colors and jeans, and half of them (men and women) were wearing similar dark-framed glasses. It could have been any crowd at a hockey game.

Every actor should package themselves in a way that sets them apart. It won't get you that role in the TV show or stage production, but it may get you noticed in the crowd and that's a step in the right direction.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Actor Networking Dos and Don'ts

I've been watching Directors: Life Behind the Camera, made in cooperation with the American Film Institute. The producers interviewed a long list of big name directors who talk about the art of filmmaking and their own careers in film. The first section is "you have to start somewhere," and what jumped out at me is how few of them said that they first went to film school to learn to direct. Not that there's anything wrong with going to film school, a good film school is terrific for teaching young filmmakers what they need to know, it's just that most of them started out on a different career path altogether. Then they fell into some aspect of filmmaking on the periphery and then....they met someone! And that meeting put them on the path to making movies.

What it underscored for me is the importance of getting out where you can meet others in the business and where they can actually see you and talk to you (which they can't do on Facebook or LinkedIn no matter how often you post something or "like" someone's project). Getting out and meeting people is referred to as "networking," and actors get a lot of advice on how to do that, usually involving dropping your card on someone in the business or sending them your headshot/résumé.  Let me suggest a few ideas more likely to work, and some things to avoid. Understand that all of these work together, so the more you adopt the more likely you are to succeed.

DO Remember That You're Auditioning Every Moment of Your Life: You never know who you are talking to or who is observing you. A new writer at my day job in Washington turned out to be the father of an executive producer at Temple Hill Entertainment, which makes the gazillion-grossing Twilight films. I met the father of TV screenwriter David Wilcox in an Alexandria, Virginia, McDonald's (I was reading a book on acting and he stopped to chat.) An actor I met working on an industrial turned out to be the son of Sidney Blackmer, one of the stars of the old horror film Rosemary's Baby. The point here: always look your best, be on your best behavior, and let everyone you meet know that you're an actor.  You never know what connections they may have.

DON'T Discuss Politics or Religion: Or post on it to the Internet. There's a scene in Casablanca where Humphrey Bogart excuses himself from a table, saying "Gentlemen, your business is politics, mine is running a saloon." Well, an actor's business is acting, not public policy or proselytizing.  All your friends may agree with you, but the director important to your career may not.  You won't know. Talk about film and stage work and keep your other views private.

Film Festival
DO Attend Gatherings Where You'll Meet Others in the Business: Film festivals certainly, but also workshops, union meetings, special screenings, holiday parties.  Be complimentary.  Stay sober. This Fall I've been trying to attend more SAG-AFTRA union meetings and small-group SAG-AFTRA workshops. The workshops are free, give everyone a chance to stand at the front of the room at some point, and are usually led by someone better known in the business than I am. It's an opportunity to meet other people in a relaxed environment.  If you make an impression, they'll know how to get in touch.

DO Develop a Unique Image: If an actor friend needed to point you out to a big-name director across a crowded room, how would he describe you?  Michael Caine, early in his career, adopted black, large-frame glasses and a cigar, so he was "that tall, blond guy with the glasses and the cigar." I'm "that tall brunette in the bright blue sweater and pearls." It doesn't have to be odd - it can be a color or article of clothing or style of dressing - but it does have to make you stand out, hopefully in a way that relates to your type.  Which leads to the next point...

DON'T Get in the Habit of Wearing a Three-Day Beard: Actors with short, dark hair and a three-day growth of beard are ubiquitous in Hollywood.  That look makes a male undistinguishable from hundreds of others.  Bad move.

DO Look Like a Star: Television casting director Geoffrey Soffer made this point at a workshop I attended last year. People in the business who meet you are not just considering you for a role, they're also wondering if your presence will help sell the film and how you'll look and sound at all those interviews and promotional events you'll be expected to participate in.  Don't arrive at an audition in cutoffs and flip-flops. If you're a woman, don't show up at a public gathering with no make-up and wearing an ill-fitting bra or head-to-toe spandex.  I've seen all of that and worse.

DO Develop a Reputation for Being Easy to Work With:  As the saying goes, arrive on time, know your lines, and be nice to the crew. Ask what more you can do to help make the film a success.  Can you help find a location? Can you provide props? Can you give someone a ride to the location? On large productions you can't be as helpful without stepping on union toes, but you can always say "Yes, I'll come in early, work late, work all night. Please, do as many takes as you need. And, yes, I'll be there for the premiere and any promotional events you have planned."  If you establish a reputation for being easy to work with, directors remember you and may ask for you again. (Be wary of doing any risky stunts, however, especially in the last few days of filming.)

Consider working in student films
DO Consider Working in Student Films: Film students not only know and understand the process of making a film but they also arrive with a ton of expensive equipment - lights, sound, monitors, big cameras - which raises the odds that you'll get a good clip for your reel. They also have great contacts in the film industry.

DON'T Throw Headshots at People: Especially in public places, since they won't have any place to put them.  If they seem interested in you based on your thorough knowledge of their work, ask them if you can send a headshot/résumé and then get their card.

DO Become a Valuable Resource: Become a "go-to" resource for filmmakers. Think of some way you or your contacts can help their project. Put them in touch with someone who can provide a production-related service that they need. Suggest a terrific actor who doesn't directly compete with you. When I'm cast in a film or play, I save the contact information for all of the cast and crew into my IPhone with a note about the production and each person's role. Later if I see something they'd be great for, I make sure they know about it. I send them the posting or put them in contact with the director.  If a director asks for suggestions for filling a role, I can usually come up with 6-8 actors that fit the age-range and type they're looking for.

DO Get to Know Your Crew: The great actress Joan Crawford was on a first-name basis with all of the guys in the crew and reportedly treated them better than she treated her kids! There's a reason for this: (1) they make you look good on camera and (2) they have great contacts. People who crewed a student film I did three years ago are now working on major motion pictures. Remember their names. Stay in touch.

DO Share the Glory: This is where you practice your Oscar acceptance speech. If you post a screenshot from your latest film online, be sure to identify all of the actors in the shot.  If a film you were in wins an award, spread the word, but remember to mention and praise the writer, director, and stars. If you post about it, include links to the production company and all major players. A lot of people in the business subscribe to Google Alerts that notify them when their name is mentioned online, so they'll see it.  Actors who are always "me, me, me" are off putting and self-limiting.

DO Remember to Use Your Notecards Effectively: Yes, use them to tell the casting agency what you've been up to, but also use them to say Thank You, compliment someone on an award, pass along a contact, etc.  They are note cards; write notes!

DO Remember to Say "Thank You":  Thank the writer, thank the director, thank members of the crew.  When casting agency people put me in a film, even if it's just background, I follow up afterwards with a thank you note and a paragraph telling them how it went.  You'd be surprised how few people say thank you.  Just doing that will set you apart.


DO Remember What It Is You're Selling: Yourself, as an actor. About 75 percent of union actors need a side job to make ends meet. But if you're using your acting contact list to sell a product or service, you're not an actor, you're a retailer. You get the picture. Stay focused on your goal.  I write to make money, but I write under a different name and keep my contacts completely separate.

These are just a few ideas I've picked up over the years.  I'm sure there are many more tips out there on how actors can connect.  If you have one you'd like to share, please send it along.

The Story of Bella comes together

Finally saw a cut of The Story of Bella, which I did with Nora Achrati and Stephen Rutledge for R.M. and Jonathan Robinson (The Robinson Brothers' Indiego Blue Studio) in Baltimore more than a year ago. It's still only for private viewing, but they gave it a very imaginative treatment as part of a feature called The Shadows of Strangers, a compilation of short stories about the love, jealousy, revenge, and betrayal (all the good stuff.) These are talented guys (which reminds me that I need to start a list of up-and-coming young filmmakers, because I've seen quite a few.)  Anyway, here's a screenshot and what I look like with no make-up and harsh lighting on the third day of filming in an airless Baltimore rowhouse in 90-degree heat.

Kathryn Browning and Stephen Rutledge in The Story of Bella

Monday, November 5, 2012

Making it through another open call audition

God, I hate this: 132 actors, each with exactly two minutes to convince 45 casting agents, directors, and producers that they're worth a second look. Everyone's nerves are on edge.  Some actors pace.  Some mouth their monologue and gesture to the wall. The veterans lean back in their chairs and close their eyes and hope their hearts stop pounding.

A few years ago when they staged a revival of A Chorus Line on Broadway, they put out an open call for cast.  More than 3,000 actors showed up in a line that stretched for blocks.  The auditions went on for months as the director winnowed the applicants down.  The actors kept coming back and coming back and giving it their all.  I caught that show. It was fantastic. But for all they went through, I can't recall the name of a single member of the cast.  Another reason it's tough to work on Broadway.

This line was not that long. They took us in in groups of 20 or so, all types, all ages. In my group there was one lovely little girl of 9 or 10 with long brown hair whose little knees were knocking together so hard.  I wanted to put my arms around her and tell her she was going to do wonderfully well, but I doubted somehow that my words would sound sufficiently convincing. As it was I just tried to smile at her reassuringly.  I do hope she was there because she desperately wants to be an actress.  She was such a sweet-looking little thing.  There should be a rule that children go first, so they don't have to suffer so.

How did I do?  Okay, despite my own knees feeling decidedly wobbly. It is rare that I wow myself - I'm much too tough a critic for that - but I did okay.  I looked fabulous.  We'll see if something comes of it.  Fingers crossed.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

A better take on Anna Karenina

There's a full-page ad for Keira Knightley's Anna Karenina in today's New York Times.  I never cared for Tolstoy's story.  I remember reading it years ago and thinking the title character was a foolish addle-brain who was married to a perfectly decent man, blamed everyone else for the muddle she made of her life, and took far too long to finally throw herself under the train.  I somehow doubt that this version is going to change my mind.

a.k.a. One Woman's Story
But I saw a 1949 British film on television some time back that was a new and much more satisfying twist on the same story.  I was so enchanted I bought it.  The film is called The Passionate Friends and was released in the United States under the title One Woman's Story.  It stars Claude Rains as the husband and Ann Todd as the silly wife, straddling the fence between a secure if predictable life and a marvelous romance (that exists largely in her head as it turns out) with a professor, played by Trevor Howard (who was such a rock-solid actor in so many films.)

The ending is wonderful.  The fantasy romance becomes a public scandal (remember those?)  Todd realizes the professor actually doesn't love her, he loves his wife, and she has now put his life in turmoil. Claude Rains tells her off, says he doesn't want her anymore, then recants, says she's wounded him to the core, and that he loves her dearly.  But before he gets to that last point, she has slipped out of the room. In a daze and feeling rejected and ashamed (remember that?), she staggers down a darkened street and into an underground subway station.  She is clearly going to throw herself under the train.  She teeters, the toes of her shoes on the edge of the platform.  There's a rush of wind as the train emerges from the tunnel, she closes her eyes and begins to fall forward....and Claude Rains catches her in his arms.

Hey! It's a chick flick!

I'm watching The Ides of March this evening and doing a bit of on-line research for the short film that I'm shooting next weekend.  But after that I think I'll sit back and watch The Passionate Friends.  I like romance....

Daniel Day-Lewis on playing Lincoln

I'm off today to a gem and jewelry show and an elegant lunch at a posh hotel....a rare treat.  But before I go I want to mention a terrific article in today's New York Times on Daniel Day-Lewis and his role in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, which was shot down in Richmond, Virginia, last fall. (Being neither male nor petite, I had not the slimmest chance at a part, but a few of my actor friends had roles.)

Daniel Day-Lewis
The article is "Abe Lincoln as You've Never Heard Him," and it reveals Day-Lewis' total immersion technique for getting in character.  It is fascinating.  He begins with a ton of reading to develop a foundation for the role, particularly if it's a biographical film, as this one is.  But then he works to become so in-character that he can allow himself to believe for a time that he is, in fact, that person.  He doesn't go out of character during the many weeks of filming, and sometimes for a period afterward.

If any actor has the guts to try it, I think it's a do-able approach that can add a great deal of depth to a performance.  You just have to be prepared to warn the other cast members in advance (so they don't start chatting you up about last night's hockey game) and to put up with snickers from the crew.  But the payoff could be a jaw-dropping performance.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Choosing your acting resources

David Suchet quoting Stanislavsky: If you speak any lines or do anything mechanically without fully realizing who you are, where you come from, why, what you want , where you are going, and what you will do when you get there you will be acting without imagination.

Or, what is your motivation.

You must listen to the words and understand the feelings of other characters. Be specific. Understand where the emotion is coming from.  Make your response fresh.

I am watching this evening John Barton and the Royal Shakespeare Company in Playing Shakespeare, a set of four 1984 DVDs available through Netflix, which I have just put on my Wish List for Christmas.  It's wonderful just listening to the discussion and watching such incredible actors - Ben Kingsley, Ian McKellan, Judi Dench, Patrick Stewart, Suchet, and a host of others - in a workshop that I could never afford to attend in person. An actor is learning his craft constantly.  But you can spend hundreds – no, thousands – of dollars on local workshops and classes given by far lesser lights than Royal Shakespeare who take those same few lines above and stretch them into 6 weeks of pure muddle.

So why do we do that when there is such a rich trove of resources on DVD and in books?  I have begun to question that. 

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Another film, another role

Going over my script today at La Tomate on Connecticut Avenue in DC, preparing for a meeting with the writer/director of a short film that starts shooting the 9th.  It appears I got the role, playing a corrupt Senator.  It's a meaty part.  Two days of rehearsals and three days of filming.

I also have an open call stage audition on Monday in front of 50 or so area stage directors, so this weekend will be spent practicing my monologue for that.  Then full attention to the film.

Now if I can just stop eating the leftover Halloween candy. (sigh) I am so bad.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

I'm in two entries in the New York Television Festival!

The play just wrapped and I'm back to my first love, film.   I just found out that I'm in two entries in the New York Television Festival, October 22-27.  One is The Louder the Better, written and directed by Michael Toscano, about a radio talk show host succumbing to the greed and immorality of a national network (I play the network executive, natch.) TLTB took Faculty Honors at the Columbia University Film Festival back in May and has been accepted in the Independent Pilot Competition at NYTVF. The other entry is Capitol South, written and directed by my friend Rob Raffety, which is a comedy about the underpaid twenty-somethings who work in congressional offices and political action committees and do much of the work in Washington. Capitol South is in the Samsung "Second Screen Storytellers" Contest at NYTVF and in it I play a foul-mouthed and frequently tipsy Southern Belle who's president of a conservative PAC called "Americans for America."  It's very funny.  In fact, all of Rob's videos are very funny.

As Delilah Jones in Capitol South
The Independent Pilot Competition has yielded a good number of successes apparently, both in shows being sold to networks and studios for further development as well as individual talent deals for artists to develop future projects at the network, production company and studio levels.  (It's certainly a good sign when it gets on the radar among those at Columbia University.)

The winner of Second Screen Storytellers gets a guaranteed production budget of $300,000 to create an original short series with accompanying second screen material. The winning selection and subsequent series will debut at the Consumer Electronics Show in 2013 and will then be exclusively distributed via Samsung Smart TVs and Galaxy devices.

Michael and Rob are great guys and I have my fingers crossed for them both. We'll know the outcome in a few weeks.  In the meantime, a few shots from the two productions.
With Charles Blatz in Capitol South
With Elliott Kashner and James Brady in The Louder the Better

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The reviews are in!

"J.B." for American Century Theater is a confirmed success! Nice reviews at DCMetroTheaterArts and TalkinBroadway/DC.   Special thanks to the wildly perceptive drama blogger John Glass (DramaUrge) for noticing I was a standout in the ensemble. (Hah!)  Actually, over all of the reviews, I think everyone in cast got a plug, even the dog, Bela, a Mi-Ki who will soon need his own website.  Never appear with kids and dogs?  I'm appearing with both.  They're adorable.   More reviews are expected in the next few days.  

John Tweel, Loren Bray, and Kathryn Browning

Joshua Aaron Rosenblum, Joshua Dick, and Bela

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

My favorite things....and Lesley Manville

Being handed a bouquet of yellow roses on opening night has me thinking about all of my favorite things.  Cashmere sweaters in cerulean blue.  My husband, who is like a part of me.  Luxury accommodations on a cruise to anywhere. Mallomars (yum). And British actress Lesley Manville. The woman whose incredibly sensitive face is an inspiration for all that I do, both on stage and on film.

Lesley Manville in Another Year
One wonderful thing about not being a principal in the play J.B. is that the pressure is off to carry the production.  I can relax and concentrate on making the most of a small role; one of the most important being to let the tension go out of my face and body so that I can react truthfully to what is going on around me and inside me.

The role I play in J.B. is purely reactive - part of an ensemble of women whose purpose is to comment on the events transpiring center stage.  Some actors would take a purely mechanical approach to that, cueing off a word of dialog to turn this way or look at that cast member.  But I've been allowing myself to relax and get completely in the moment,  so that I can move and react not when I think I should but when it feels natural and right.  I guess one way would be an intellectual approach and the other an emotional approach.  In any case, I like what's happening as a result.

At the end of Mike Leigh's Another Year, the camera settles on Lesley Manville's face and the emotions she conveys are just gut-wrenching. In one fleeting moment her character drops her defenses and tells you absolutely everything about her life.  I don't think I've ever seen another actress who can do that. Sheesh, I should be so good.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Actors hitting their groove

We opened in J.B. (podcast with principals Steve Lebens, Bruce Alan Rauscher, and Julie Roundtree available here.)  The  Preview had a few technical glitches and dropped lines.  Opening night we were technically correct, if a little safe.  Last night, the third performance, I think we hit our groove.  Spontaneous applause, laughter (and tears) from the audience.  Everyone in the cast pumped with adrenaline.

It’s not easy being an actor and working a day job too.  I drove into the theater parking lot Friday night feeling dog tired from a week of dress/technical rehearsals every night and writing contract proposals and ad copy every the day.  Up at 5 a.m., in bed by midnight., again and again. But the minute I walked into the dressing room I felt a rush that lasted through the performance and a couple of hours after.  There is nothing else like it in the world.

I read once that Sir Laurence Olivier, late in his career, was often seen shaky and doddering in the theater wings before a play, every bit the picture of an old man in his declining years.  And yet the minute he got his cue to go on he was suddenly erect, with a spring in his step, striding onto the stage.  It’s a lovely story, and I believe it absolutely.  There is something that keeps actors at it, even when fame is secure and they no longer need the money.  Acting is exciting.  It’s fun.  It gives you a sense of creating something from within yourself that is…well...wonderful!

Opening night fellow actors Bob and Roberta Chaves stopped by to see the play and brought me a bouquet of yellow roses, my very favorite.  They open in a few weeks in  To Gillian on her 37th Birthday at Theater on the Run and What I Did Last Summer at the Alden Theatre respectively.  I will be there with hugs, and flowers, and cheering them on.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Opening in the Pulitzer/Tony-Winning J.B.

For friends in the DC area, I open Friday in the Archibald MacLeish Pulitzer/Tony-winning play "J.B."for The American Century Theater.  Special deals going on. Goldstar and Ticketplace both have 1/2 price tickets available for all performances. Also two Pay What You Can performances on Thursday Sept 13 (a preview) and Wed. Sept 19 (a full performance). It's a thought-provoking play, not surprisingly. Steve Lebens and Bruce Rauscher are terrific as God and the Devil. I have a small supporting role, but come 20 minutes early for the pre-show Clown Reverie and you'll see me do a turn as the Bearded Lady. I'm searching prop and party shops for a cigar to add (as if the beard wasn't enough!)

Doing is the best classroom, as the saying goes, and I find that I learn a lot from watching more experienced stage actors at their craft. Also, as Michael Caine advises, stealing whatever works.   The role of Mrs. Lesure calls for me to express serenity and faith in the midst of disaster - not easy for an ants-in-the-pants actress, such as myself.  I'm having to tap into a lot of inner stillness.  It's still a work in progress, but I find moments when I am so overcome by emotion that get a catch in my throat and tears in my eyes.   (And to think I used to have a hard time crying.)

I love the camaraderie of stage work.  The nervousness early on, struggling to get a sense of your character and wondering if the play will ever come together...and then it does.  A playfulness develops back stage, if only because we're so on top of each other trying to change into costumes and put on make-up. No shy bunnies here.....away we go!

Monday, July 30, 2012

Reading the script

The morning smells of Los Angeles.  Odd how smells trigger memories.  Odder still that after more than 30 years in the East, and a good many years since I've even visited LA, I should suddenly start smelling the cool, misty, eucalyptus-pungent mornings that I remember there. But several times over the past year, I have stepped outside, taken a breath, and been flooded with memories. I was even moved one Sunday to research apartments online. (What does this mean?)

Had the first read-through on the play J.B. and got a look at the cast. Only one is a familiar face to me, and unlike The British Players cast, where it was all one happy family, only the principals seem to know each other here, so there will be a process for everyone of warming up and learning to work with different personalities.  Some of the concepts director Rip Claassen has in mind for staging the play are very exciting, and my role, though small, is not insignificant.  I was glad of that.  It's my first time working for The American Century Theater.  Much to learn.

You can get a lot out of just reading through a script with the assembled cast - things you don't hear in just silently reading the lines on the page.  I participated in a script reading in Baltimore last month at Ken Arnold's Studio Boh.  Mike Morucci, who is a very talented writer, had penned a script for the ABC-TV series Castle and wanted to hear it read by actors before sending it in to ABC for a shot at a writing fellowship.  It was a terrific script, tightly written and funny.  He has a great feel for the characters.  I got to play Martha Rodgers, which was a hoot.  Actress Susan Sullivan, who plays Martha on the series, does a great job in that role so I consider it a compliment that Morucci said I so captured Susan's voice that he thought she was in the room.  (Ha!)  I like comedy.  Wish I could do more of it.
Reading through a TV script for "Castle" at Studio Boh in Baltimore.  I'm on the far left.

So, this week I put my J.B. scenes on audio tape so I can get off book as quickly as possible.  Only one day of rehearsal for me, but next week I imagine the days will start to build.

Friday, July 27, 2012

At the Columbia University Film Festival

One of the things I did back in May that was pure pleasure was attend the Columbia University Film Festival at the Lincoln Center in New York. A film I did for Michael Toscano, The Louder the Better, or Max Cotton’s Climb to the Top, was one of the entries (and went on to take Faculty Honors), but I was also impressed by Andy Nguyen’s beautiful, gritty, Forever in Hiatus, about a washed-up former pop star pedaling a bicycle taxi aimlessly in the streets of Ho Chi Minh City; Nathan Floody’s delightfully wicked animated short, Hunters; and Juliet Lashinsky’s riveting Keys. Wallet. Phone, which I thought so much of I contacted the star, Rae C. Wright, and gushed until I’m certain I made a pest of myself. I’ve had bits and pieces in films where I thought I did okay (I’m my own toughest critic), but Wright had the whole film to herself and turned in a lovely, nuanced, emotionally wrenching performance that had me eating my face with envy. The credits started rolling and I just sat in my seat, stunned, and thinking "Wow.""

Here’s what Rae Wright said about her young filmmaker, and the art of acting: “I think Juliet's a good director.  She gave me time to keep sorting out where we were in the sequence of events, (even though we couldn't shoot in sequence.)   I often struggle with doing the work in order to avoid taking on the suffering of a life.  My tricky mind says; "Why work hard when there's not much pay?"  "This character is such a lame excuse for a woman!"  -- stuff like that.  I like this quote:  "Even though the actor longs to be swimming in the water, they approach the shore with trepidation."

Rae C. Wright
Wright, who reminds me of the great British actress Lesley Manville, is not without experience.  She studied with Lee Strasberg and Kim Stanley (who played Pancho Barnes in The Right Stuff). She earned a ton of stage experience touring with an ensemble in Europe and has appeared more recently in one- and two-person shows in the New York/New Jersey area.  She also writes plays and teaches acting to undergraduates at New York University.

Now her focus is on landing a role in a great television series.  I have no doubt that she will.  What a wonderful talent.

And what a great time I had watching all of these films and meeting some of the directors and actors.  Columbia has a terrific program.  You can watch their 25th anniversary video and see interviews with many of the filmmakers, including Michael Toscano here.

By the way, I turned the wrong way coming out of the Walter Reade Theater at the Lincoln Center and suddenly found myself on a dark street in front of a fire station. I asked one of the firefighters where I might be more likely to find a cab. He said "Well you can find one right here!" and the whole contingent of firefighters stepped into the street and stopped a cab for me. I love it! Only in New York!  It was a great evening.
The crowd after the screening.

The Walter Reade Theater at the Lincoln Center

A scene from The Louder the Better, which took Faculty Honors

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Soon to be On Stage Again...This time in J.B.

Heading into rehearsals next week for American Century Theater's production of the Archibald MacLeish play J.B.  A small part, but still a grueling schedule through early October. Trying to get a class or two in and still be home enough that the dogs and cats don't forget who I am.  Glad to see some familiar faces in the cast. Theater really is like family.

A Session with NY Acting Coach John Pallotta

A rough few weeks with too much going on.  But I'm back, and lots to say about what I've been up to.  But let's talk acting.  

I went to an introductory group session this week with New York Acting Coach John Pallotta and it was quite remarkable. His advice seems to run counter to what we learn in most acting classes.  If you’re trying to capture a character you create a backstory, right?  You think about motive and objective.  You agonize over whether you understand where the character is coming from.  Well, I won’t say that Pallotta says to forget all that, but what I saw him accomplish with actors (including myself) was very much impulse and spur of the moment.

The advice seemed to be to simplify the scene and then relate it to a personal experience; for example, a monologue from Frankie and Johnny he expressed as “boy meets girl, boy gets laid” (and wants to get laid again). Then add the knowledge that the “boy” has been in prison for three years and physically apart from women.  Just that little bit of information transformed a nervous, flat reading into something touching and real. My Queen Margaret monologue from Henry VI, Part 3, which tends toward an Olivier speech (at his most stagey) was boiled down to betrayal.  When I was told to relate it to an incident of betrayal in my life, suddenly Queen Margaret was full of anger and tears.  You’re saying the same words, but the thoughts in your head are coloring them.

To be sure, if an actor is just about to speak his lines and someone gets up in his face and quietly says “Your mother just died” or “Your girlfriend is cheating on you….Go!” there are two things at work .  One is surprise and the other is permission. Suddenly you are reacting to a thought without having the time to get your public defenses up, and someone is saying it’s okay to do that.

It truly is, as Pallotta says on his website, transformational. But in my mind it raised a few questions about how to use it in auditions.  One is that a monologue is star material, whereas most auditions (at my level, at least) are cold reads for supporting characters.  Instead of saying “ Great Lords, wise men ne’er sit and wail their loss, but cheerly seek how to redress their harms,” you're likely to be saying, “Is this intended as a gift?  We have some beautiful cashmere sweaters I can show you.”

A bigger concern is whether I can “surprise” myself and give myself permission to react to a memory on the spur of the moment without over-thinking it.  Pallotta gets $500 an hour to coach high-priced talent through a multimillion-dollar film (another perk you get when you’re a major star.) I would need to somehow do what he does for myself.

It’s worth another look so I’m looking for time on my calendar for a class.  He’s a personable fellow (I like him!), and persistent. More later. In the meantime, enjoy his testimonials. He knows Meryl Streep! (sigh)

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Movie scripts, sides, and scene resources online.

My schedule has been jammed lately - a trip to lovely New York for the Columbia University Film Festival, an audition coming up in 10 days, a movie role that didn't work out - but I have time for a quick post. From time to time I need a scene from a film or a movie script for reference. The sites below have movie scripts, monologues, and/or sides that can be downloaded.

Daily Script
Simply Scripts
Why Insanity - Movie Monologues
Actors Pages - Audition Sides
Screenplays Online 
My Zen
Stage Monologue Archive
John Pallotta Studio New York-Sides Database
Beverly Hills Playhouse Audition Scenes Database
The Monologue Database
Actor Point

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Even the Stars had trouble with their lines

A reminder that we're all human: The Classic Hollywood Guide to How to React When You Screw Up a Scene.

Monday, April 2, 2012

More on Sanford Meisner

The play has closed.  Tired.  Exhilarated.  Have already been asked if I would be interested in auditioning for two more well-known plays (a comedy and a musical.)  Of course!  In the meantime, I found this summary on the founding of the Meisner school by William Espers, one of his students and a great teacher in his own right.  There is more on YouTube (a wonderful resource) on the Meisner technique, which has produced some terrific actors, including Robert Duval - one of my favorites.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The play is up and running: Cause Célèbre

Kathryn Browning (L) as Stella and Roberta Chaves as Edith in Cause Célèbre
Well, it's a wild ride, I must say.  Remember the comedy "Noises Off?"  I can now relate totally!  Technical glitches the first three performances, especially opening night when the lights were cut in the middle of two scenes. Saturday night I blanked on a line (arrggghhh!!!) and made a rather awkward recovery.  At the Sunday matinee a doorbell announcing my entrance failed to ring, leaving actress Roberta Chaves ad-libbing lines like, "Hmm, I wonder where Stella could be?" until the technician discovered the problem just as we were about to make a loud door-knocking noise (the bell was unplugged.)

But after three performances I think it's beginning to settle down.  The blocking is now set and the stage manager has things under control.  Members of the cast - all highly experienced in theatre - have been wonderful.  Just delightful people.  So supportive of each other.  And the reviews coming in are encouraging.

I think this play was exactly right for me. I have a decent-sized role (six costume changes!), but the venue is not so huge as to leave me feeling unbearably anxious. I've learned to trust my improvisation instincts and found that I can get laughs. (I've never thought of myself as someone cut out for comedy, so will now have to amend that.) I've learned the joy of telling a story straight through, start to finish, to create in my mind a four-walled room on stage that I can comfortably move about in, and to boom it out and cheat to the boundary mics in a theatre space with acoustics that are less than ideal.

And I look fabulous in hats!
The cast takes a bow.

Winston Churchill said that success isn't final and failure isn't fatal.  That's as good a motto as any for an actor, and something to remember when the doorbell fails to ring. (Hah!) I'm looking forward to taking on another play later in the year in a bigger theatre.  But for now I have eight more performances of Cause Célèbre  and I'm having a grand time!

Monday, March 12, 2012

Hardworking actors

Actors are among the hardest working people on earth and the most hardworking actors are those who appear in community theater.  Their day jobs are by and large real careers and not just something to fill in the gaps, and yet they show up evenings and weekends for rehearsals, use up scarce personal leave on performance days, and somehow between jobs, rehearsals, and commuting, try to feed families, do laundry, tidy the house, walk the dog and - oh most precious commodity - sleep.  If they have a spouse who pitches in at home, as I do, they consider themselves blessed.  If they don't, I don't know how they cope.

Four days before we open with Cause Célèbre and the schedule is brutal. Spent the weekend loading in, reading lines as an ensemble, and doing cue-to-cue with the stage manager and sound and lighting crew.  I feel confident I've got the lines down and can now totally focus on characterization.  A few cast members (with far more lines) are still a bit ragged, but they're pros and I know will have it by opening night.  The pressure is intense. Tomorrow we begin dress rehearsals, which for me means three 19-hour days at a dead run.  The one benefit: I'm too exhausted to be nervous.

Genesius of Rome is the patron saint of actors, lawyers, barristers, clowns, comedians, converts, dancers, epileptics, musicians, printers, stenographers, and torture victims (aha!). Actors, at one point or another in their careers, can relate to every one of those roles I'm sure.  I am grateful for a wonderfully supportive cast who have been generous in sharing their experience with this film actress who is about to step in front of a theater audience for the first time.  Between a good saint and a good cast, everything should be okay. 

Friday, March 9, 2012

Acting on moral convictions

There aren’t many careers where you may be asked to simulate sexual intercourse, portray a rapist (murderer, Nazi, Klansman, pedophile, you name the character), or appear nude on stage before a thousand people, night after night.  Working as an actor can test your values, and each of us has to decide for ourselves where to draw the line between art and paycheck.

Last week the issue came up in an online acting forum and it set off a spirited debate between those who think that actors starting out can’t afford to turn down work (and that to do so would spell the end to their career) and those who think you should refuse any role (or scene) that makes you feel uncomfortable, because you have to live with yourself.

I’m in the latter camp. We turn down roles for all sorts of reasons – moral, religious, political, "doesn’t do anything for my career." I've turned down roles where my character was simply intended to ridicule people of a certain religion, or to play straight to another character's off-color jokes. There may be consequences to turning down a role (or balking at a director’s bright idea); there are with most decisions. But on the flip side, nobody gets a pass because they were “only following orders” from the director, or reasoning that “if I didn’t do it, someone else would.”  Do something over the line and it may come back to bite you.

It all comes down to integrity, weighing the opportunity to appear in a film, play, commercial, etc. against your personal beliefs, however they manifest themselves. Sometimes you can have the objectionable scene changed. In the end, your real choice is that you have to be you.

Actor, writer and producer Paul A. Rose, Jr. (13/30 Productions and Starlight Productions) has collected anecdotes over the years that make that point.  Here are some of those he shared in the forum:

Patrick McGoohan, a Catholic, turned down a chance to play James Bond (before it was offered to Sean Connery) because he didn't want to play a womanizer.  He went on to play a similarly spy-themed character, John Drake (who was never seen to even kiss a woman), in three different series, at one point being the highest paid actor in the UK.

Jackson Rathbone, who's just getting started in his career (Jasper Hale in the Twilight films) has played characters who are morally questionable, but turned down roles that he found, "morally reprehensible."

Jim Caviezel, a Christian, asked the director of Angel Eyes, one of his first big roles, if they could change the sex scene in the movie to simply him kissing Jennifer Lopez, because he felt uncomfortable with it and thought the scene was unnecessary.  The director agreed.

Doug Jones, a Christian, has portrayed several popular characters, usually under heavy makeup, including Abe Sapien in the Hellboy films and the Faun in Pan's Labyrinth.  His most memorable role, though is as zombie Billy Butcherson in Hocus Pocus.  In his most famous scene, confronting the witches and defending the children, he had one line - calling Bette Midler a "Bitch." He did that take, then asked the director if he could try something different.  If you've seen the film, you know his improved diatribe, with no profanity, was the take that survived.  (An illustration of the business adage: Don’t bring me a problem, bring me a solution.)

Last year, Neal McDonough (Band of Brothers, Desperate Housewives) was fired from the ABC drama Scoundrels, because he refused to do sex scenes with Virginia Madsen.  A Catholic and family man, he's turned down many roles or requested parts be rewritten to accommodate his refusal to do scenes that even hint of sexual intercourse.  And Scoundrels? It lasted just 8 episodes.

Paul Rose adds: Hollywood - despite some complaints from folks in “the flyover states” - is really, for the most part, conviction neutral.  Your faith (or lack thereof) or moral convictions (or lack thereof), can gain you some jobs and lose you some others, but 85-90 percent of the decisions made to cast you or not cast you are due to concerns, valid or not, that have nothing to do with your faith, your moral convictions, or even your politics.

Well put.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

See the Oscar-nominated shorts, while you can!

Just to give everyone a heads up, the Oscar-nominated short films (live action and animated) are now being shown in art house theaters around the country.  These are very well done and a must-see for students of filmmaking, so check out the movie listings.  A few of the films are also on YouTube, including this one, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, which is touching and delightful and one of my favorites.  I hope it wins!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Mark Westbrook's Top 10 Tips for actors

Mark Westbrook recently posted these 10 tips online. I thought they were worth passing on.  Good stuff!

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The stuff dreams are made of: an acting career

I heard a fellow actor complain the other day that acting is an awful get-rich-quick scheme. Well, I would certainly agree that it’s marketed that way. An entire industry has sprung up of casting directors, agents, actors, and others (some famous, many not so) who - for a fee that ranges from $100 to $300 - will shake your hand, critique your monologue or mock audition, headshot or reel, and promise to give you the inside scoop on how to make it big as an actor. The implication left dangling is that if you show up you could be "discovered" and cast in their hit film, television show, stage play, etc. Acting, like our Maltese Falcon friend here, is the stuff dreams are made of and on all sides that dream often feeds an ego or meets an emotional need.

An aspiring actor can spend a fortune on seminars and showcases that promise they hold the key to overnight success. Somewhere in one of the many books I've read on the profession (probably Bonnie Gillespie's Self-Management for Actors) I actually came across a casting director who claimed that over the years he had critiqued nearly 3,000 actors in these paid weekend gigs. He also admitted that in all that time he'd actually cast only 2 of them. If that's typical, those are lousy odds.

I suspect that another thing that feeds this idea of overnight success - that it's all about luck (which can't hurt) or knowing someone (which also can't hurt) - is that the industry numbers are so discouraging. A figure often cited is that most dues-paying members of the Screen Actors Guild make less than $10,000 a year (and non-union probably far less.) But what skews those numbers is that there are a lot of people who act in small stage and screen productions simply because it's fun and who really have no intention of leaving their day jobs. And then you have people who really DO expect overnight success, who put more faith into being discovered than being trained, and who then get discouraged after a few years and drop out. Nobody gets into banking "for fun," thinks they can do it without developing skills, or gets discouraged if they're not quickly made chairman of the board.

The sober reality is that like most other professions acting takes on average about 10 years of steadily working at it before you get to a place where you can begin to call yourself a successful actor. And how would I define that? Success is when you can comfortably support yourself with your acting, when the vehicles in which you perform are fully professional (and that will be obvious), and when respected directors begin to call you. After four years of working in front of the camera (behind doesn't count) I'm beginning to hit on two of those three. Six years to go.

Friday, February 3, 2012

I will be appearing on stage in Terence Rattigan's Cause Célèbre

Just FYI, I will be appearing in the role of friend Stella (a very "Coral Browne" role for those of you who remember Coral Browne) in the Terence Rattigan play Cause Célèbre, being produced by The British Players in Washington, DC, next month.  Hugely happy to be in the cast!

Here's the plot: "It's 1935. The headlines scream "murder most foul!" All England is scandalized by the crime of the decade. Cause Célèbre is an emotionally complex real-life drama of love, betrayal, guilt and obsession. Did Alma Rattenbury bludgeon her ailing husband to death? Or, was it her 18-year-old lover, desperately driven by their affair into a jealous rage? Whatever the truth, she is already condemned by an outraged public for the unforgivable crime of loving a boy half her age."

Yes, it's a potboiler and a great show!

Monday, January 30, 2012

Paying the actor

Two of the major acting unions – the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) are moving toward a merger, and it’s prompting much debate among those in the business over the benefits of union membership vs. non-union.

Payment for an actor’s time and talent is certainly one of those benefits, along with covering an actor’s costs – mileage, meals, drycleaning if you’re asked to provide a costume, and insurance in case you’re injured on the set.  Payment can be scale or adjusted according to the size of the production, but actors typically get paid something when they’re union – and money is an obvious good thing.

But payment confers other benefits, both to the actor and to the production, that many overlook.

To begin with, advertising paid roles turns out a larger and often better selection of actors, which makes it more likely that exactly the right fit will be found for each role being cast.  Even with a multimillion-dollar budget, bad casting can ruin an otherwise good story.

A producer/director who is paying the cast - who has invested in the cast as part of his investment in the film - is going to make sure he gets his money's worth and will demand a lot from the performance. That works to the benefit of both the actor and the film. Actors want a director who's going to demand a lot from them, not one who feels he can’t because he isn’t paying them anything.

On the other side, an actor being paid knows he has to earn it, that there's a heightened level of professionalism involved. And that sense goes up with every assist that is provided to enable him or her to turn in a good performance - from professional lighting and makeup to dancing lessons and dialect coach. For the actor who's simply donating his time, talent, gas, costume, makeup, you name it, it's a far different mindset.

I’ve worked on films being produced by students at Columbia University and other respected film schools and was paid.  And I think that one reason I was paid is that the instructors at those schools understand this concept, that the more money a filmmaker has invested in a project up front, and the more he or she understands that they are working in a business with required costs, the more effort they are going to put into making it a success.  And actors want every film they are in to be a success.

Every new actor starts out working for a credit and, if film, a DVD.  You often get bigger roles in small, low-budget productions and if the script shows originality and the production values are reasonably high, it can be worth the tradeoff.

But as quickly as possible - which is as soon as they think they're ready - actors need to move into paid roles and union membership.  It pays off in the quality of your performance, the quality of the film, and the respect you get as a professional.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The importance for an actor of letting go

Those interviews with starring actors tacked on as special features on movie DVDs are often a wealth of useful information, especially for those of us in the business. This past week, I've been watching the very well done Swedish versions of Stieg Larsson's trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest), and in the interview with star Noomi Rapace, who plays Lisbeth Salander, she says something that jumped out at me.  She talked about the importance in a scene of "letting go," of losing yourself in the moment and trusting the director that it's going to be right.

If you're an actor that approaches a role intellectually (as I do), that can be difficult to achieve.  If you're in your head thinking Do I need to pause here?  Walk over there? Turn my head this way? then you're not connecting with any other actors in the scene and you're certainly not connecting with the theatre audience or those who will eventually see the film.

And it shows.  I have raw footage of a scene I did with the lovely and up-and-coming LA actress Walker Hays, and in the middle of one closeup I get a look in my eyes - it's just a flash - that says "What's my next line?" Although the rest of the shot appears to be fine, and the editor can cut around that momentary lapse, the performance wasn't as true as it might have been had I fully connected with Walker.

The ability to "let go," and to live in and react to the moment, is as important to good acting as it is to good sex.   It means forgetting there are cameras and crew all around you and for a moment living fully in an imaginary world where only you and the other actors exist and whatever situation called for by the script is real.

Children are often surprisingly good at this, maybe because they still feel free to pretend.  For adults it takes a lot of trust; in the director, in yourself, and ultimately in wherever it is fate and destiny are taking you. 

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Streep is astonishing in The Iron Lady

Just a quick note: saw Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady. My God she's good - just breathtaking. The most influential world leader of the past century played by the most astonishing actor of the past century. You completely forget it's Streep.  She works incredibly hard at her craft and makes it look effortless.  How can they judge her for the Academy Awards?  There's Streep, and then there's everyone else.

I thought the criticisms of the film - that it dwells a bit too much on Thatcher's infirmities and not enough on her triumphs - were fair. But even so there's much about it that's terrific, even apart from Streep.  The makeup is incredibly good and natural.  Jim Broadbent is wonderful as Denis Thatcher.  Alexandra Roach is eye-catching as the young Margaret.  The film is beautifully shot.

I'm thrilled that this kind of film was written and directed by women. It's not a "woman's movie." It's not Bridesmaids.  Women filmmakers are starting to turn out some great work.  

The Un-Pilot Season

Late January to late April actually IS Pilot Season and I'm rushing about getting all my tools together. For pilots the casting agencies will be looking for name actors that will draw interest and backing. Since that isn't yet Kathryn Browning, the agencies casting pilots won't see a submission from me.  Instead I'll be looking for interest from those agencies that are NOT casting pilots but casting current episodic television shows and independent films.  It's a small window of opportunity.  During Pilot Season many name actors are holding out for pilot auditions and a chance at a possible series so they aren't quite as available for anything else. That means slightly better odds for the rest of us in those productions that are already up and running.  At least, that's the theory.

My headshot prints arrive this week along with new post cards and business cards.  Cutting my demo reel down to 60 seconds and adding a couple of new clips.  Putting together a mailing list of New York casting agencies that I know have cast roles for the 15 or so TV series based in New York, but who aren't on the list of those agencies casting pilots.  Also listing the DC/Baltimore agencies for the features being shot there, like House of Cards with Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, which begins shooting next month I believe.  Trying to get everything out the door by next weekend as I have film and stage auditions coming up and an 8-week Meisner class that starts the 24th.

Glad to be past the holidays and seeing things moving again.

And trying not to get fired from my day job for insubordination. But that's another story (I'm so bad.)