Thursday, October 15, 2015

In Praise of Indian Cinema

Actors not only love performing in film but we love watching and studying them. In fact, many of us develop an almost encyclopedic knowledge of classic films and the technique of directors, cinematographers, and our fellow performers. Fortunately for me my husband is also a cinephile and each week, as our schedules permit, we view one or two films in theaters and stream several more.

Recently we stumbled into a couple of Indian films that really impressed us. I say "stumbled" because the first - Bajrangi Bhaijaan - was posted at the theater with only its Hindi title; no poster, no screen shots, no plot summary. We took a chance on it because we 'd been impressed by such actors as Irrfan Khan and his story-driven films The Namesake and The Lunchbox. (Also, we rather like the energetic dancing and singing so characteristic of the Bollywood films coming out of Mumbai.)

Bajrangi Bhaijaan, with Indian mega-star Salman Khan, turned out to be one of the best films we'd seen in years. It's about a mute little girl from Pakistan who gets separated from her mother in India, and the man who takes it upon himself to find out where she's from and take her home, all of which is complicated by the political tensions between the two countries. We laughed, we cried, we were on the edge of our seats for 2 hours and 45 minutes (yes, Indian films run long, but you don't notice). It's a terrific film and the little girl is wonderfully appealing. Big stars take a risk in appearing with scene-stealing children, but here Khan holds his own in a role that shows his human side, and the kid really sells it.

Child actress Harshaali Malhotra with Salman Khan
Having had such a good experience with this film, we took a chance on another - Baahubali - the first of a two-part saga on the order of Lord of the Rings. It was epic and riveting, and its star - Prabhas - the kind of muscle-man who is also sexy.

Indian cinema has come into its own and with better promotion could crossover to a general American audience. The production values are extremely good; in fact, we loved these two so much we saw them twice in the theater and plan to purchase them on disk as soon as they're available.

So, we've become fans. We recognize many of the stars (even though most seem to be named "Khan.")

Salman Khan has a new film coming out in U.S. theaters in mid-November - Prem Ratan Dhan Payo.  We can hardly wait.

Witches, The Play

This past summer I had the pleasure of appearing in "Witches," a fantasy comedy by talented actor/playwright Scott Courlander for the Capital Fringe Festival. Fringe Festivals present a wonderful opportunity to premier new works with minimalist staging, and each summer more than a hundred plays and other kinds of performances, involving more than 500 actors and entertainers, get a sneak preview here in the nation's capital.

It is worth noting that  Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson, and Stephen Fry got their start in 1981 in just such a festival - albeit a somewhat larger one, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival - and the rest is history.

"Witches," a play about a sleepy princess found in an enchanted wood and awakened by three witches with hilarious results, is one of many Courlander has produced through his company, Red Knight Productions. It was not only great fun to do (I earned "Favorite Performance" honors from DC Metro Theater Arts for my portrayal of the witch Beatrice) but I'm hoping it will go on to full staging and great success (in which case, I can boast that I appeared in the premier).

Here I am with actor Stephen Mead, who played The Jester.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Dresses I Love

I remember, years ago, reading an article where a woman said she had found this dress that, when she wore it to a special event, the crowd literally parted in awe. One day I will find such a dress. Certainly before I attend the Oscars!

These are from Indian designer Manish Malhotra, all hand embroidered. Gorgeous.

Manish Malhotra, 2015 Couture Collection

Manish Malhotra, 2015 Couture Collection

Friday, April 3, 2015

Acting in Comedy

Comedy is a route many actors use to break into high profile TV and film. It allows you to work large in voice and movement and, in a way, it illuminates voice and movement for drama, because it allows you to see a broader range of what you can do. 

I’ve never thought of myself as a “funny” person. Can’t tell a joke to save me. Often referred to as quiet and aloof around those I don’t know well. But I started doing comedy in theatre and found that for me it was the one instance where the phrase “make a bold choice” seemed to make sense. 

Plus it’s safe. If you make a bold choice in a drama audition and people laugh, that’s bad.  If it’s a comedy role you’re after and they laugh, that’s good. 

I’ve just booked a couple of comedy roles in upcoming productions, one film and one theatre, so I’ve been researching the finer points. 

One good source is Scott Sedita’s book The Eight Characters of Comedy: A Guide to Sitcom Acting and Writing. Sedita provides background on the history of the genre, as well as timing, technique and how to find your comedic "note." He then illustrates his points by profiling eight distinct comedy characters seen on television, and the common traits of each. There’s the Logical Smart One, the Lovable Loser, the Neurotic, the Dumb One, the Bitch/Bastard, the Womanizer/Manizer, the Materialistic One, and those that are In Their Own Universe. You’ll recognize many of these from your favorite shows. 

Acting coach Gunnar Todd Rohrbacher, in a recent article in Backstage magazine, says most successful sitcoms today feature narcissists or buffoons. He says our technology driven, social media immersed lives have made us, and/or those with whom we spend time, more self-involved and foolish.  (See the full article here.) He suggests that actors study the current crop of comedies – shows like “Mom,” “The Comeback,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” and “The Mindy Project” – and consider how our worst qualities might be fun for people to spend time with. 

Good comedy also depends on technique, and for that Dallas-based acting coach Cathryn Hart sketches out a few quick tips that can help actors pump up their scenes (full article plus a demonstration video here.) Hart says:

Most comedy has clean beats: make a face/say a line. It’s simple. Make a face, then say a line. It’s good to move first before a line anyway, as it makes a cool beat. And, on camera, it makes for a better edit. Plus, it forces you to have reactions. The beats can be quite fast or a slow reaction that you milk for laughs. This is great for basic commercial timing, too. 

Be sure to make your funny face toward the audience or camera. That would seem obvious, but the audience can’t laugh if they can’t see your face. Always cheat your reactions toward the audience. 

Get your energy up. Run/jump around the room before your audition or performance and get your blood pumping. Comedy has an energy to it, a buzz, even if you’re doing very laid-back humor. You have to be having fun to do good comedy, so get your juices flowing. Everything will happen faster and more easily. 

Pick up your cues. If you aren’t getting your laughs, try just picking up your cues. Almost feel like you are overlapping your cues and it will put new life into the scene. Never let the audience catch up to you. 

Have fun and play the moment. Set yourself free to just play with whatever is right in front of you. This is where all the magic is. Connect to the other actor, trust to live dangerously, and always make one last funny face before you exit. 

Good points! 

Obviously, and despite any lack of joke-telling ability, comedy isn’t just for those who are naturally funny. You can develop your skills and end up a better actor all around. For example,  Hart’s first tip – make a face/say a line – can apply to drama as well. If you think your line in your head, then say it, an appropriate reaction will come naturally and, in effect, introduce the words. It’s an old technique that works.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Dealing with the Casting Interview

Actors have all been through this at one time or another: casting liked your résumé, looked at your reel, and thinks you might be right for the role. They called you in, you killed the audition, and got a call-back. Maybe two. At some point in that process, you may have heard the phrase that strikes fear in the heart of many an actor: “Tell me about yourself.” (What?!)

Let’s face it, a lot of us got into this business because our own lives didn’t seem nearly as interesting as the roles we hoped to play, so “Tell me about yourself” sounds like a trick question. You feel like Meg Ryan in the 1989 film When Harry Met Sally, where she says "telling you the story of my life wouldn't get us out of Chicago." Besides, what else do they need to know? They can see you’ve got the experience and can do the role, yes?

True, but acting in a film or play is a team effort and if you’re going to be spending a significant amount of time with the rest of the cast (more than a bit part), then like any employer they’ll want to know what kind of person you are, how easy you are to work with, how well you’ll fit in. 

I’ve been researching the Casting Interview this week because I’ve been blind-sided a time or two by an interview that I wasn’t prepared for. Here’s what I learned:

Preparation is key. Think of it as a conversation, not a speech. When you get a call to audition, try to find out as much about the casting director and his/her agency as possible: what other films/plays they’ve cast, who starred in them, and how well they did at the box office. An internet search makes that part easy. If you also know someone who’s worked with them in the past, call and ask what that experience was like. See if you and the casting director have some common connections – people or work or experiences – that you can bring up at the audition or in the casting interview.

Once in the room, you can’t just stumble around and repeat what you have on your résumé. You need to let your personality shine. Be warm and polite, relaxed but with lots of energy. If the CD seems in a positive mood, try to mirror their posture, breathing, and personality. 

Ask questions. Even though the interview is ostensibly about YOU, use what you’ve learned about the CD’s work to get them to talk a bit about themselves and reminisce. Success in acting often depends on the connections we make and the relationships we develop with others in the business.

Prepare a few anecdotes about yourself and choose one or two that seem consistent with what you know about the CD’s background and personality.  The following questions can get you started.
  • As an actor, what is the biggest risk you’ve taken that you feel has paid off?
  • Of what accomplishments are you most proud?
  • If you could play any character in any film, who would it be?
  • What is your favorite television show?
  • What books/plays are you reading? 
  • What are your goals as an actor? 
It might be a good idea to prepare a one-sheet computer document, with your anecdotes written down and a blank space to fill in information about the CD. Something you can customize, print out, put in your pocket, and scan just before you meet with casting. 

As actors, we are often advised to tell ourselves, “I’m going to like this person” before we walk into an audition.  But I think that just as important to making a good impression is thinking, “I like myself.” Scanning the one-sheet and reminding ourselves over and over of our life goals, the risks we’ve taken as actors that have paid off, the accomplishments of which we are most proud, and the things we love about this business, can put us in the right frame of mind for conveying the kind of person we actually are.

Finally, as you get up to leave, say “Thank you for seeing me.” And if you have their email address, follow up with a brief message thanking them again and touching on some point they made in the conversation that you found useful and/or memorable. You’d be surprised at how seldom anyone hears a “thank you” in this business so a little sincere gratitude goes a long way.

Monday, March 23, 2015

If I Could Remake a Movie, This Would Be It

I've been thinking about some of the great women's films lately. Films like Two Women, which won an Oscar for Sophia Loren; The Women, Clare Booth Luce's tour de force comedy, which has been made three times, and others (it's a short list unfortunately.) One that's often overlooked is MGM's 1951 Westward the Women, starring French actress Denise Darcel as a prostitute trying to turn her life around and Robert Taylor as the man charged with bringing a wagon train of women from Chicago to California's Sacramento Valley to marry lonely ranch hands.

I don't know why the film wasn't a hit. Maybe it was the poster art that has Darcel in an off-the-shoulder blouse - a la Jane Russell in The Outlaw (and that she doesn't actually wear in the film) - that makes it look like a standard-issue oater. Maybe later viewers linked it with Here Come the Brides, a rather awful TV series that ran for three seasons from 1968 to 1970, about a shipload of marriage-minded cuties that sail round the Horn to Seattle. The series, as I recall, focused as much or more on the guys.

But Westward the Women is a gritty pioneer saga and one of my all-time favorites. Produced by the legendary Dore Shary and directed by William A. Wellman, who had previously directed such films as The Ox-Bow Incident, Battleground, A Star is Born (which he also wrote), and Across the Wide Missouri, it is the women's equivalent to John Wayne's Three Godfathers, Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, and with maybe a touch of Henry Fonda's My Darling Clementine. It's a classic.

To begin with the women are believable types: prostitutes and widows, young and middle-aged, plain and lovely, American and immigrant. They are women with not-so-rosy pasts who are
willing to face a trek through dangerous territory for the chance at a better life. Along the way they face dust storms, hostile Indians, flash floods, rattlesnakes, and abandonment by most of the cowboys charged with seeing them safely to California. Women die along the way, one is raped, a child is killed, a child is born. But through it all they learn to pull together and regain their self-respect.

Wellman worked hard to make this a believable story. Before filming, he took the scores of actresses who would make up the cast out into the desert for three weeks and taught them all to credibly shoot a gun, crack a whip, drive a team of horses, change a wagon wheel, and more. Costuming (outside of promotional photos) was utilitarian and authentically of the period. Filming was dirty, sweaty, and grueling. But the result successfully captured the conditions on the California trail and what women went through in moving west.

It's a terrific movie, with a sweet ending. Maybe now is the time to tell this story again.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Robins have arrived.

There is nothing like a taste of warmer weather to get a person moving. Here in the East the winter cold and snow have been brutal, and I’m one of those people who - if I can’t get out - pace like a caged tiger.  No point in trying to get any work done.  As soon as the snow goes away and I can get out, I sit down at the keyboard.

“Options,” as hockey coach Herb Brooks used to say. It’s important to have options.

The warmer weather was heralded by robins and the appearance of my little scene in Season 3 of the Netflix hit series House of Cards, playing North Dakota Senator Ann Wallace opposite another robin, series star Robin Wright. It’s television at its best and I was more than happy to have a small (very small) role and to see my name in the credits. 

It’s the opening shot of Episode 2. Long-time New York actor David Little is to my left. 

Now on to my continuing class with Helen Hayes Award-winning director Serge Seiden at The Studio Theatre, which is turning out to be terrific, a midsummer play in the role of a daffy old witch (What fun!), and a wealth of possibilities, including a call-back on a feature shooting in New York, and in talks for a big-budget feature shooting later this year on the West Coast. Welcome Spring.

As Senator Ann Wallace (center) in Season 3, Ep. 2
Robin Wright

Monday, January 12, 2015

Another Year....

Lucky Money Toad
Another Year and, no, not the Mike Leigh kind I hope, although it was probably the most profound film of 2010. 

Actually I was thinking about that film the other day and how – despite the synopsis – it was really about Lesley Manville’s character, Mary. Another year older. Another year alone. Another year of desperately looking for Mr. Ideal (and with her options becoming less and less ideal.) Profound, and heartbreaking.

For an actor, however, the arrival of another year is about staying positive. On New Year’s Day we rush to read our astrology forecast, seek out messages in fortune cookies, tarot cards, runes, hold onto our lucky numbers, lucky jewelry, lucky audition outfits, lucky Chinese Money Toads….anything to keep our energy up and our attitude optimistic.

Because no profession brings more rejection and uncertainty than acting.

It takes, on average, about 10 years of hard slogging to support yourself as an actor.  Sure, some are seemingly overnight sensations, especially women and especially in television, but those with staying power took a long time getting on anyone's radar.  Matt Damon waited 10 years between his on-screen lines (with Julia Roberts in Mystic Pizza) and his breakout role in Good Will Hunting (which he co-wrote with Ben Afleck). Harrison Ford waited 11 years between working background on Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round and his starring role in Star Wars. He credits his success to simply outlasting all of the actors who rode into Los Angeles on the same bus. 

In other words, successful actors commit to the long haul. Most who get into this business don’t do that (which is why you can’t draw many conclusions from the earnings averages at SAG-AFTRA.)

Why does it take so long? It takes a long time to find the training that works for you, to discover your type, to decide what kind of acting you want to do, to figure out the audition process, to build your reel, to make connections. Most of all, it takes a long time to find that one role that is exactly right for you, that defines you as an actor. Do any of us remember Harrison Ford in The Conversation? Or William Shatner in Judgment at Nuremberg? And those were critically acclaimed productions. Humphrey Bogart appeared in more than 80 films; I recognize the titles of only about 20.

I am now into my fifth year, not counting my four years as a television producer. What I’ve learned is that there are no shortcuts, so pocket the money you would spend on one-off workshops and seminars that promise the key to success, and instead put it toward the best acting classes you can find. Insist on feedback when you train. Look for stage work.  It gives you an opportunity to be bold and teaches you the arc of a storyline. Make friends in the business, develop relationships. There are lots of nice people here.

Matt Damon has said that every actor is one role away from being a star (in fact, he said the doorman at his hotel is one role away from being a star.) In short, a lot of success looks like dumb luck. So, prepare and prepare, audition and audition, and wait for dumb luck….whenever it comes.