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.)