It started with a call from the comedian Mary Mack. A friend of hers, she said, was making a short film, tentatively titled “Sara and the Boys.” She was going to be Sara, and had recommended me, if interested, for a part.
Visions of the Academy Awards® — well, at least Sundance — coursing through my head, I immediately expressed an…well interest wouldn’t do the response justice. Would-be actors had waited tables, served as personal assistant or nanny, even emceed open-mic comedy nights at Laundromats while waiting for a part — any part — to materialize after a series of demeaning and fruitless auditions; and an offer had virtually landed on my doorstop unsolicited.
And I didn’t even have to kick back ten percent to an agent! (Mary, I was confident, was not licensed by the state of California to
pimp represent actors. Also, I was pretty sure, I wouldn’t have to pay dues to SAG, AFTRA, or the stage union, Actors Equity. Of course I wasn’t going to get paid, either, but some of my best work has been done with no pay — the difference being that this time, I knew that in advance.
It wasn’t exactly my first brush with Big Time Show Biz. Several years ago, Art Fein heard about an audition for a non-union Tom Green project. Art was taking his teenage daughter, just so she could see how it worked, and interrupted my daily viewing of Judge Judy to (probably) supply him some adult company. To compress events a bit, both Art and I auditioned (the character was a cranky old former skateboarder), among a long line of aspiring actors, some of whose faces I even recognized. I wound up getting a callback; Art didn’t. During the second round (me and a couple other guys and a whole bunch of attractive — this was a Tom Green special — young women), I explained to the producers that while I could read lines fairly well (as I had during the first audition), I had trouble memorizing them. I was dismissed; and as far as I know, the show was never produced.
Mary had said that my part in “Sara and the Boys” pretty much consisted of appearing to be asleep. Heck, I thought, I could nail that with minimum rehearsal, and there’d be no lines to memorize..
A day or so later, I spoke with the producer/director, Jeffrey Williams, who explained the concept. Without revealing too much here, Mary was to play Sara, and I would be the senior member of her “boys” – a pair of cats. With all four felines (there’s another, who’s not part of the “family”) portrayed by humans, I like to think of this as kind of like “Cats,” only without the tedious songs, expensive costumes and character names like Mungojerrie, Rumpleteazer and Bustopher Jones.
He didn’t use the exact language, but Jeff made it pretty clear that my character would be officious, imperious, and condescending. This, I thought, would stretch my “acting” muscles to their limit.
Having viewed most episodes of Inside the Actors Studio, I knew that I should somehow pull the character from my own experience. As I had none of those qualities myself, I decided to carefully study the bearing and mannerisms of the Bravo program’s venerable host, James Lipton, and craft my own character’s identity from eliminating from the equation “obsequious” and those blue cards with the questions.
Williams explained that the film would be shopped to festivals (Sundance! Well, maybe the Valley Film Festival) and Internet sites like “Funny Or Die” — where he has already placed some shorts.
And even if the film didn’t get worldwide distribution (heck, the Internet pretty well guarantees that it could be seen as far afield as Iceland, Bulgaria and Patagonia, should anybody find it), at least I’d have something for my reel. If, that is, I ever got around to assembling a reel. At this rate, though, I wouldn’t need to circulate samples of my work to casting agents; I was already being called in without having to audition. I really don’t see why actors are always whining.
At last, I thought, I would be allowed to speak the language of the theater: words like “sides” (what anybody else would call pages of a script); “off-book” (you know your lines and no longer have to hold your sides); and even “choices,” about which, more in a couple of seconds.
On Saturday before the “shoot” (another bit of jargon, you non-show folk would call it “filming”), I was scheduled to meet with the writer, director and producer. For a seven-minute, non-union short, this was relative big deal; these were not the same person.
Furthermore, the meeting would be at Farmers’ Market, long known as a hangout for film and TV people. Most of the regular habitues were between assignments, as they say, but we were meeting in a place where real writers, producers (many of whom would while the day away at a table by Bob’s Doughnuts), and contestants for Let’s Make a Deal, which taped next door, congregated.
The meeting took place, as scheduled. I met the writer/co-producer, Dan Greenberger, at Farmers Market and we walked to his office (café latté no doughnuts, no “between-assignments” writers other than me) at CBS Television City. Director Williams was there, together with all of the actors save Mary; she was committed to another project during the day, and had a comedy show to produce and host that evening.
All the other cats — Zach Palmer, Jackson Bond Jr. and Ryan Tutton— have professional experience; Zach and Ryan having met in a road company of the Cameron Mackintosh revival production of “Oliver.” And Mary is a professional comedian and musician whom I first saw on Last Comic Standing, where I noted her originality and Wisconsin accent and had made a point of looking her up. Mary works, mainly, throughout the Midwest, where she has an avid following — and was invited, she notes, to compete in the TV show without standing in line outside Chuckles or the Yuk Factory or whatever in an open call.
We “cats” went through one scene, repeatedly. The three other guys were terrific as two “inside” cats and a rowdier, hipper and rather disdainful “outside” cat. As promised, my main duty was to appear asleep while the three younger cats played with a dead bird; at one point, I was to wake up and shift positions. Not much, but it wasn’t “background.” And didn’t Judi Dench win an Academy Award® for her approximately eight minutes in “Shakespeare in Love”? Charlie Chaplin felt no need to talk onscreen (well, at least until the technology was available). And comes the inevitable sequel to “The Artist,” I’ll be ready.
The scene went well enough, I suppose. The other guys were sensational; it was fun to see the words on the script come to life through them. It was I causing all the trouble; even with no lines and relatively action, I kept trying to find my motivation. I was a cat. Asleep. And then I woke up. “Why,” I asked the director. Patiently, he explained that I was tired, and then outlined some action. “How broadly should I play this?” I asked? (That would be one of those “choices” actors talk about). “Broadly,” he replied. I yawned harder; moved with more exaggeration. The director seemed pleased.
Piece o’ cake, this acting.
…to be continued.