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The Working Actor

The Reason Why We Act

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The Reason Why We Act
Photo Source: Clay Rodery

I was asked to be in a SAG Low Budget movie. I think that is what it’s called. SAG-AFTRA has developed so many new subbasements in its contract hierarchy, I wasn’t sure how it defined the official agreement I signed. It could have just as easily been a “SAG Ultra Low Budget” or a “SAG Extremely Ultra Ultra Low Budget” or a “SAG So Incredibly Low Budget God Knows Why There Is Even a Contract” contract. I don’t know. The reason I did the film was not money. The script moved me. The part was very different from anything I usually get to do. That was the reason why I agreed to do it. I think.

As we began to shoot the film, the entire ensemble of wonderful actors had to endure many hardships: dawn call times, no stand-ins, no dressing rooms, no toilets. To be truthful, there were toilets on the premises. We could use them. However, by the end of production, they gave up. Not only did they cease to be functional, but on the final day of shooting, they began to fire human waste at us.

I had to re-examine the question “Why?” We have already established it wasn’t for money or being treated like royalty. It wasn’t for the craft services. By noon the only things left on the snack tables were a jar of peppermints and a bowl of salt from eaten taco-flavored Doritos. It didn’t matter. I was still there grazing. Licking my finger and pressing into the crumbs to get what I could.

One of the actors joked that he hoped the movie would be recognized for awards. He said the script and the roles were so unusual. He wasn’t kidding about the script, just the awards. I knew, in that instant, I wasn’t doing the film for recognition.

There were times during the shooting when I doubted whether the film would ever see the light of day. Not because of the quality of the film but because of the complexity of the film business. The expense of marketing and postproduction is so prohibitive. But that didn’t matter either. I realized I wasn’t doing the film to be seen.

What? Impossible. Now we are beginning to defy the very idea of what acting is.

Why was I doing this project? Why was it important to me? If it wasn’t for money or career or even to be seen—why?

The answer came to me after the last day of the shoot.

It was not to be seen or heard but to speak. It was to stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon and yell into nothing to see if there was an echo. Whether or not there is an echo is unimportant. What is important is the search for something that returns: a sound, a friendship, a memory, an insight. A reason why.

It could be that art and prayer have a lot in common. The act itself creates its own echo, even if we never hear it.  

Stephen Tobolowsky is an actor, author of "The Dangerous Animals Club," and teaches improvisation for Kalmenson and Kalmenson.

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