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Critics, Comic-Con, and Character

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Beth Grant, Los Angeles

I just got back from San Diego and the Hollywood carnival called Comic-Con. What started as a few artists getting together in a couple of rooms to display their work to comic book, sci-fi, and fantasy fans has become one of the biggest promotional entertainment venues in the world. I've heard that more than 1 million people pass through the rooms of the convention center in those four days.

Just in case you haven't been to one, I'll describe the setup. There is a huge, I mean huge, area where the various fantasy, comic book, sci-fi, and every other kind of artists, filmmakers, studios, costume designers, toy makers, jewelry makers, head-dressers, and medieval-weapons duplicators set up booths to sell and promote their wares. There are booths where you can have your photo taken with cardboard cutouts of stars; bandstands where you can play an electric guitar and pretend to be a rock star; and booths with freebie T-shirts, buttons, big shopping bags, and autograph signings. The fans come dressed as ghost busters, big rabbits, superheroes, monsters. There was even a zombie funeral march with more than 100 people.

And then there are the panels and workshops: small rooms for small publishing companies who turn out to be guardians of the Henson legacy, all the way to the famous Hall H, which houses the big directors, big stars, big movies, and 6,500 fans. Most of the clips seem to be made especially for Comic-Con. I went to Hall H to see Terry Gilliam present clips from his new movie, sweet Heath Ledger's last, "The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus," and my friend, director Richard Kelly, who presented clips from his movie due out in the fall, "The Box," starring Cameron Diaz, whose performance looks like her best ever.

My daughter, Mary, was with me, and she and her friends were in heaven, carrying big bags filled with goodies and hoping to see Johnny Depp. At one point I went to the car and took a nap. I stopped by the "Extract" booth, stood behind the crowd, and watched myself go by on the trailer several times—a very odd experience. I took a few pictures with some of the very sweet Miramax people. Mary and her two girlfriends got videotaped in front of a green screen and then inserted into the "Extract" trailer in the Clifton Collins Jr. role where he gets hit in his nether regions.

We waved goodbye to Comic-Con and drove to the Old Globe in Balboa Park, had dinner with friends at El Prado, and saw "First Wives Club." Then I had a dream come true. I met the writer of the book of "First Wives Club," Rupert Holmes, who is one of my all-time favorite writer-composers ("The Mystery of Edwin Drood"). Happy, I left San Diego tired but inspired and ready for my trip to Chautauqua, N.Y., where I will speak as part of its lecture series. And then on to my love, New York City.

Leon Acord, Los Angeles

Ah, critics—a necessary evil of show business. The old joke goes, if you doubt critics are essential to the theater, just ask one! Not all actors read reviews. But when you're producing as well as acting—as I am with "Carved in Stone," running through Aug. 9—it's a different story. As our late playwright Jeffrey Hartgraves would say, "Use good reviews to sell a show; use bad reviews to wrap dead fish."

Astonishingly, nine out of 10 of our reviews have been flat-out raves, giving us an embarrassing amount of "pull quotes" and leading me to joke to the cast, "One out of 10 critics has absolutely no sense of humor." After our string of great write-ups, that one less-than-stellar notice incensed my co-producer–partner Laurence Whiting. "How can you be so lackadaisical?" he asked, as I tried to make light of it. But after more than two decades, I've learned to keep them in perspective. I've been bashed as often as praised, sometimes for the same production.

One of my first roles was that of a guardian angel–narrator in an adaptation of Jim Grimsley's novel "Dream Boy" at New Conservatory in San Francisco. One critic said I underplayed almost to a fault but otherwise was physically "perfect" another claimed my performance was excellent but physically I was "too urbane." Hard to believe they saw the same show on the same night.

Sometimes a critic not only likes you and the show but totally "gets" what the production is saying. You'll get a review that you couldn't have written better yourself. On those rare occasions, I'll sometimes break the "unwritten rule" and write a note of thanks to the author. Why not?

Then, there are those other reviews, the ones that sting no matter how many years pass. Most actors can quote their worst notices word for word. I'm no exception. And I got plenty in the early days. "Acord might be capable of more with better material, but that's merely speculation." "The weak link is Leon Acord." The worst: "Acord doesn't listen to his fellow actors." That one really hurt, as I pride myself on being an excellent listener.

Homophobia still rears its ugly head periodically. In "The Scheme of Things," one critic opined my performance was "far afield…looks imported from the ballet version." Never mind that I was playing a tights-wearing medieval poet named Harlequin. Another who attended the after party of "Salsa Saved the Girls" seemed offended when I introduced my partner, then wrote that my "personal 'orientation' seems not to necessarily prefer somebody's ex-wife." The critics I didn't meet, however, didn't notice or mention I was "playing straight."

Work long enough, and you'll learn to shrug off the digs and even to laugh about them. Eventually the good reviews outnumber the bad. The horrid ones don't kill you; the great ones don't change anything either. You're never as bad, nor as good, as they say.

Reminds me of another old joke, about opinions. But that one's unprintable.

Meagan Flynn, Kansas City, Mo.

I am a little shaky with excitement for a couple of upcoming things. First, I just finished having lunch with a director friend of mine who is directing the upcoming short I am producing and co-starring in. It just hits me sometimes that those of us who take on this business really see the world in a different way—and a valuable way at that. We are so focused on the thing that we love that sometimes the rest of the world doesn't worry us. We were sitting in a crowded restaurant that is a new hot spot here in K.C. It's actually only been open about 12 days and was having all sorts of growing pains. The computer was down, everything was running behind, and the staff seemed stressed out. And my friend Nick and I were so caught up in discussing the film project that we didn't notice any of it; we noticed only because the waiter kept coming over to apologize. I think film people tend to get caught up in the creativity of the projects we are working on, and then we see the rest of the world through those eyes. I love being this passionate about something. Even more than that, I love being around people who share that passion. Nick is an amazing director who I really feel is someone the industry will be taking notice of shortly. He just has this intensity and drive that you feel right when you meet him. But I digress.

Point is, I am extremely excited for this piece. It's a dramatic short about a dysfunctional romance between two people. I think it is going to be very real and raw and almost uncomfortable for the audience to watch. I feel like it is something that everyone will be able to relate to and recognize on some level. I have always been a fan of brutally honest character pieces, and I am finally now getting the chance to work on one. As an added bonus, we are bringing in an exceptionally talented actor friend of mine from L.A., whom I have been dying to work with for years, as the lead. I truly have a dream team of people working on this project. I'm also a little nervous, as I hope that I can perform at the level of my fellow actors on this piece. I definitely don't want to be the weak link in the chain. Pressure, pressure. I think I'm up for it, though.

In other news, I have an audition this week that I would kill for! Really, it's a little ridiculous how bad I want it. And it's not because of the part—it's only a two-line role in the film—but it's because of who the scene is opposite. One of the funniest movies I've seen in the last couple years starred this actor, and I would be so excited to be on set with him. Want a hint? Too bad. I totally believe I can jinx things. So if I get it, I'll tell you more. Keep your fingers crossed for me!

Victor Joel Ortiz, New York City

I found myself in a situation last month that I am sure every actor has had to deal with at some point in their career. A friend of mine is directing a play this fall which opens in October. I have wanted to work with her for a while, and I'm pretty confident that with my best effort I could be cast as a lead in the production. Unfortunately, the play opens the same day as my best friend's wedding. I'm supposed to be in Miami serving as his best man. We have been friends for 20 years, and it's not something I can or will even consider missing.

I explained my predicament to the director. After she gave me a lighthearted ribbing, she said she understood my decision. I learned something in the process however: At the end of the day, acting is a job. A very competitive one, obviously, and many actors sacrifice everything to succeed, but I am not one of them. My best friend's wedding is more important than the lead in any play—even a Broadway one. Alfred Molina once spoke to the actors at Terry Schreiber Studio and mentioned that they should figure out if they "want to act" or if they "need to act." It wasn't a judgment call. There were plenty of successful actors that didn't need to do it; they just wanted to. And so with this lesson, I feel that I fit into the "want to" category.

Also this summer, I have tried to attend all the free Shakespeare in the Park performances that I can because I want to increase my knowledge of the Bard (I found nine different plays performing this summer). In doing that, I find that there is so much to learn from behavior onstage. Some of the actors' movements seem arbitrary to me, like they didn't know what to do with themselves. Others were perfectly still and only moved when they had to; it was as if they were very precise in their movements, and these are the actors whom I thought were the most effective. Their bodies were instruments to tell the playwright's story. These actors took the time to figure out what they would be doing if the scene never happened. Other times they matched their body language to the dialogue with comedic results, and I thought, How did they come up with that?

This month I finally finished principal photography on my first lead in a feature. I was cast in "Blood Kisses" two years ago, and because it was ultra-low-budget, we were forced to shoot around everyone's schedule and on the weekends. It took two long years, but I am happy to say that our director, Robert Kornhiser, led us into battle with endless enthusiasm and patience. The film was short-listed at the IFC film festival, and Bob is currently in the process of editing and submitting it to various festivals. Hopefully, from there, it makes its way to distribution. The website for "Blood Kisses" is at portfolioolio.com. For more on my adventures, visit VictorJoelOrtiz.com.

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