Tuesday, February 1, 2011


New Yorkers are famous for being cold.  They bump you out of the way with their shoulders on the sidewalk even if there's room.  They say things like, "Fuck you if you can't take it."  They thrive on hardship and adversity because they can then claim how hardcore they are for surviving it.  Not everyone is this way.  They can also be incredibly generous and kindhearted, but make no mistake: those are some of the coldest, hardest streets on Earth and you need thick, thick skin to walk them.

So coming from this harsh, unforgiving environment to sunny California and the laidback atmosphere has been a lot to handle.  I usually don't warm up to people until I've known or worked with them for months, remaining guarded until the New York facade thaws.  (A lot of my friends are actors I've been in shows with and they will probably tell you I wasn't that much fun to hang out with until we were in production.)

So imagine my dismay when discovering that film sets are basically like the first day of rehearsal of a play.  No one knows anyone and the first tentative overtures to friendship are loaded with baggage.  People talk up how important they are and who they've worked with.  They try out jokes and see how far they can go.  They flirt and try too hard.  I really have not experienced this level of open salesmanship before and it appears to be an L.A. thing.  In New York, yes actors were a commodity, but here they are also the pitchman.  Performing is only a third of what The Actor in L.A. is; the other two parts are advertising and advertising.

For a long time I worked in a New York theatre circle that respected good work and would promote from within based on merit.  The salesmanship and self-promotion could've been better on my part, but I felt like I could make a name for myself based on the acclaim of the work itself--which is all artists really care about anyway.  Making work.

Well, that got me only so far.  In the position I'm in right now, getting hired means having a website, a reel, headshots, postcards, a top class with a top casting director that has stars dropping by, and an oversized personality.  (Part of capturing "the truth" on film also means that the talent is skewed towards improv performers and non-actor wildmen like Puck from the Real World who are unpredictable.)  I may have always been the CEO of a business called "Paco the Actor," but while in NYC I must have given power of attorney to the art department and they ran the place into the ground.

I'm proud of the work I've done and the career I've carved out for myself, but opportunity is something to  always be searching for actively and that's never been clearer to me than here in Los Angeles.  You have to bring your A-game every time out and get yourself out there in every way you can.  Online, in the face, in the ear, on a postcard.  Never rest.

L.A. Domination Phase One: Student Films

I've been doing student films.  They've got high-quality equipment, brief shooting schedules, and opportunities for networking.  The personnel have also been told by professionals what professional conduct is and aspire to it.  (For those keeping score, Phase Two is to take my newly improved bad-ass reel and score L.A. representation.  Phase Three is go out on big time auditions that will bring home the bacon. Phase Four: commence domination.)

I have participated in five productions since I've been here and have learned a ton.  Perhaps the most important thing I can offer so far of that knowledge is this:


Simple, right?  Yes and no.  It takes a lot of stamina to stay focused and in the game take after take, and there is a lot of waiting around.  It really helps me to envision the end product and to keep in mind that everyone is working hard to make you look good... no matter how little they actually pay attention to you.

This was a hard lesson for me to get drilled into my brain.  Do people on film sets really pay little attention to the actors?  It can certainly feel that way.   It's not so much that they aren't paying attention to you as it's they're paying more attention to their own jobs (which have nothing to do with your feelings or ego. Another hard lesson.)

On a film shoot, the director is trying to make the conditions optimal for "capturing" moments, like lightning in a bottle.  So they'll spend hours tweaking the lights or switching filters or changing the frame so that when the actors get there, the chemistry between the characters can crackle and the flashes of lightning will be contained in a flawlessly composed bottle.  I've found film directors are not really into rehearsal because capturing a scene also means capturing "real" reactions and running it too many times can lead to a "canned" performance.*  I thought this was a load of poop until I started seeing it happen in people's work.   The camera is just too close. It sees everything.  It can tell if you are ahead of the curve as opposed to really in the moment.  When you don't know what the other actor is going to do, it really makes your body come alive and be a receptive instrument.  When we are receptive we may do things physiologically that we don't even know we're doing, and that is the very juice that film directors want to get.  The rawness of truth.

*David Fincher is only one famous exception to this, having shot 99 takes of the opening scene of The Social Network.  "To beat the acting out of them" to get to the truth.  Hmmm.

This need for conditions to be right entails every department needing the director to answer their 500 technical questions.  The director constantly has their attention on deciding something.  Adding more something here, racking focus a touch sooner there or something similar.  This means that you have your own questions about how the scene went and they...kind of can't deal with it right now.  I have frequently felt the need to have my performance validated, or at least commented upon, but you really have to just let them tell you if they need something different and trust yourself.  Twenty people hold their breath when the camera rolls, and maybe three of them are thinking about your work.  The rest are looking at the shadows on the wall or the glare on a window or if your hair is coming undone.  "It's a director's medium," they said and they weren't kidding.

And it's not a bad thing, it's just a different thing.  Theater actors are used to getting fawned over.  We get a full month of a director's undivided attention.  Big moments in a play are agreed upon/constructed together after hours of hot debate and mutual negotiation.  Once everything is blocked and everyone has come to a consensus and you're ready to go, the director turns their attention to the technical elements and the actors are on their own.  In film, you're in tech the whole time. (This is not news or even a new analogy, but like I said, I had to drill it in there because it's so different and repeating it here just makes sense.)

Constantly starting and stopping in the middle of lines, readjusting to hit marks...sometimes you'll give an amazing reading and you'll have to do it again because the boom was in the shot or a plane went by.  There really does always seem to be a plane going by.  Every time there's a new camera setup you wait for what feels like forever and maybe you haven't even said your first line yet.

Most people find tech to be the worst part of doing a play because of the starting and stopping and the slamming on of the brakes in the middle of getting your moment on.  I felt that way until recently.  In fact, each time you do a take you get another opportunity to knock it out of the park.  If you're having trouble with the mechanics of the scene or a certain moment you get to give it another shot.  Another chance to get it closer to honesty or truthfulness.  Because your scenes are thoroughly broken down into their component parts, you get to be highly specific with every beat.  And we all want specificity, right?