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The Dreams and the Realities
Not to Win But to Take Part
Opening night. Last night I opened in Cornelia, by Mark V. Olsen, at the Old Globe in San Diego. It's a big show, with a set by John Lee Beatty, who, coincidentally, designed the first big play I did, Picnic, at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles in 1986.
I remember the day I was cast in Picnic so well because it was my first real professional job that lasted three whole months. Like every actor, I had worked many different jobs, most recently in production for a TV company, producing on-air promos and coordinating special events. One of the events was a luncheon at Fox presenting a documentary about Olympic athletes, directed by Bud Greenspan. It profiled several athletes, from their training through to their appearance at the games. The athlete whose story changed my life was a long-distance runner from Africa. He was considered a favorite to take the gold, but at the Olympics he pulled a muscle and couldn't finish the run. But he did not quit. He finished the race the day after his competitors. When he limped into the stadium, everyone stood and cheered.
When the movie ended, they introduced gold medalists from many of the previous Olympics. One by one they walked forward and received our applause; the last gold medalist was in his 90s and walked slowly to the stage. I started to cry and I could not stop. I went back to my office, still crying. When my assistant asked if she could help, I said I had to go home. I cried all the way home, walked into my apartment, and called my best friend. When she answered, I heard myself say, "I can't not act anymore." Shortly after that I joined an acting class at the Beverly Hills Playhouse and shortly after that quit my production job. I was finally an actor at age 33.
A couple of years later, I read that an acquaintance, Marshall Mason from New York's Circle Rep, was directing Picnic at the Ahmanson, and I wrote and asked him if I could audition. I got a call at the last minute from a mutual friend, who said that if I could get there in the next two hours, I could audition. I was sick with a cold and fever, but I got myself together and made it there. Miraculously, I got the job, and I've been working as an actor and only an actor ever since, for the last 23 years.
And now here I am on another John Lee Beatty set, back doing theater, enjoying my career and my life. Thank goodness I saw that documentary. I was so inspired by those athletes, who trained hard, sometimes won medals, sometimes didn't, but who did their best and—no matter how fast or how slowly—finished the race.
So that's my theme: "Slow and steady wins the race." On we go.
Meagan Flynn, Kansas City, Mo.
A Spring Hiatus
I found myself daydreaming out the window of my home office a lot in May. I have a wandering summer mind already. The weather has been absolute perfection here, and I've been traveling, which I must admit doesn't make for lots of career activity. It makes for a lot of margarita consumption in the sun, though.
When this time of year rolls around, I always get this weird longing to be back in L.A. To drive down Sunset Boulevard, hit the ocean, and grab a bite at Paradise Cove. To go jogging up in the canyon or grab a coffee at Buzz Coffee on Beverly Boulevard and waste the morning writing. Maybe I need a week in L.A.—a long week of seeing old friends, taking meetings, and having a good time. Anybody want to hang out?
While my mind continues to wander that path, I realize that all this wistful longing in the sunshine isn't putting dollars in my bank account or getting this column written any faster. I'm trying to rally and give myself a good kick in the ass for next month. After coming off the film I was on, I'm dying to get back in front of the camera on another feature. I'm in preproduction on two shorts, but it's just not quite the same. I have to get diligent again about submitting myself for projects and making new contacts. I think I've been relying on my fabulous agent too much this spring and need to make sure I'm doing my end to make us both more money.
Unreal Housewives is still going strong. I am learning bucketloads on this project, and we signed a deal to have it distributed on a major website as well as on mobile phones. As soon as the final copies have been delivered to the distributor, I'll give you the details on where to watch. Never underestimate the value of asking someone important to lunch. That's how we ended up with the deal. We went to a seminar armed with DVDs and asked a decision maker to an impromptu lunch meeting. Put yourself out there at all times. Opportunity will not find you; you must find opportunity.
And those two short films I'm in preproduction on? My production company is producing, which is exciting. We recently had a table read where we brought in several actors to read the scripts on camera and offer suggestions or ask questions. I highly advise any aspiring writer to have table reads. Hearing your words out loud is invaluable when trying to do revisions.
All right, I guess I should attempt to get back to my submissions, email, and envelopes. Then again, a margarita really does sound great.
Victor Joel Ortiz, New York City
Harbinger of Success
I recently obtained a new job, bartending at the SoHo House. It's a great place to work, and there's potential to network with people in the entertainment industry. But I soon had a predicament: the social question everyone asks upon meeting someone new, "So, what do you do?"
For the past year, I have not had a survival job. So when I met people, the answer was, "I am an actor. That's it. Nothing else." Most of the time they were surprised I could support myself. I wore it like a badge of honor. It was my identity. Now, I am an actor who bartends. Don't get me wrong: I'm grateful to have a job. But I just wish it were working on my craft.
The showcase I produced last month through my theater company, Harbinger, was a huge success. We concentrated on inviting industry pros, and our efforts were not in vain. Our actors were happy to get additional stage time, but I wanted the showcase to benefit me professionally. I began looking into Actors Connection because I wanted everyone in the showcase to get the right exposure. Lisa Gold, Actors Connection's CEO, even spent time advising me on which industry professionals would be the best fit for us. I met agents from Paradigm and About Face, and they have begun to send me out for commercial auditions.
I remember when Jack Nicholson won his Golden Globe for lifetime achievement. He spoke of how he'd worked with thousands of actors, directors, and producers throughout his career, but through it all he had only one agent. I understand how rare Nicholson's career is, but I would definitely like to have someone I could trust professionally and grow with as an artist.
AFTRA recently had its "open door" lottery, and I got a great time slot on the first day, so I guess you could say, "I won!" If I had to choose someone to meet professionally, I think that developing relationships with casting directors is the way to go. They all seem to be very adamant about finding the right actor for the role, regardless of representation. So, until the right role chooses me, I just have to remain as sharp as I can—and be ready.
Leon Acord, Los Angeles
You walk a very fine line when playing a real person. How do you capture the essence, the soul, without imitating or—worse yet—mocking the person you're portraying? For every Cate Blanchett–as–Katharine Hepburn, there are a dozen Faye Dunaways–as–Joan Crawfords. As I rehearse to again play Quentin Crisp in the play Carved in Stone, opening June 19, I find myself walking that line once more.
When I played him in the 2002 San Francisco production, I was terrified. I'd never performed with a British accent before, much less played someone twice my age. I hired a voice coach, in addition to the one the show had retained. Luckily, Quentin was never camera-shy, so I had many film and TV appearances to study. I read every book by and about him I could find, listened to recording after recording, and wrote at length in my journal about all our similarities. I felt it was as important to think like him as it was to look or sound like him.
I approached it much like I prepare for a day's shooting. On a film, I work out every beat and nuance intellectually the night before. Then I throw it all away when I arrive on set, staying open to the moment and my fellow players. With Quentin, I'd try to imitate him as closely as I could at home—physically, vocally, emotionally—then try not to think about it at all at rehearsal. I'd do vocal and physical warm-ups but allow the "simulation" to seep in unconsciously.
While it's tempting to be self-aware, listening to yourself can be fatal. There were moments during the first rehearsals when I'd hear myself sounding like him and think, "Good." But that would throw me right out of the moment.
Eventually, I found playing him easier than playing most roles. There were so many hooks: his accent, voice, tone, posture, attitude. I could focus on any number of things when I'd feel Quentin slipping away and Leon slipping back. I never thought, "I have to be him." Rather, I'd focus on embodying his individual traits.
One can be too respectful. Watching YouTube clips of the San Francisco production, I realize I was perhaps too serene, too reverential. I hope to correct that this time. I have help from our Oscar Wilde, Jesse Merlin, who lived in New York City in the late 1980s and befriended Mr. Crisp. Jesse has been an invaluable resource, and I have been picking his brain like mad. He has helped me realize there was a private man behind the public image, who laughed, sometimes swore, had a wicked sense of humor, and could even be rude or get drunk on occasion. I look forward to exploring those sides of this endlessly fascinating man.
Julian Miller, Philadelphia
Actors Behaving Badly
You are at a play. The acting has you on the edge of your seat. As the antagonist flies toward the heroine in a murderous rage, she pulls out a gun—showing us she knows more than we thought she did—and fires. Bang! Her would-be assailant crumples to the ground, and our heroine walks toward the door, delivering a final line of dialogue before closing it. But before she can finish, the actor on the ground sneezes, breaking the illusion of death and ruining the final moment. When you recount the story of your evening at the theater, which part will take precedence: the two hours that were perfect or the two seconds that were not?
I found myself with less than a week to go in my most recent run. Who knew that six days could have such a profound effect on the run of a show and how you recount the experience? The theater and the producers and 99 percent of the cast were amazing—simply the best-quality production I have been a part of. Yet I was face to face with one of the most unprofessional actors I've ever had the displeasure of working with. He did not have the skills required for theater. Not the endurance, not the base-level competency, nothing. Nonetheless, the cast made him look good.
Was this actor grateful? Not at all. He went on several tirades, giving notes to other actors like "You've gotten 'bigger' since rehearsal" and "Just do the show we rehearsed"—which was funny because we were two weeks into the run before he knew his lines and four weeks before some semblance of character arose. He attacked personal relationships and sought out the insecurities of others to make himself feel better. He would attempt to be divisive by saying that other actors agreed with him, à la "Well, I asked Connie, and she said…." He was cancerous, an abusive alcoholic with a flair for the inappropriate. He was a nightmare to work and live with.
The last week, he ended up turning his brand of garbage on me, and I simply don't put up with that. One night I was doing him a favor and being the designated driver, and I actually had to get out of the car and walk home to get away from him. We lived in the same house, and of course when we walked inside, he opened with "You're a sad sack of shit," slammed the door, and started up all over again. I attempted to take the high road, not badmouth him, avoid the situation, but it was nonstop. I almost left the show because no one showed any sign of caring—as though this sort of behavior was acceptable because it was a nonunion house.
What do you do in this situation? Should I have left? Should they have reprimanded him? All I know is that now that it's over, I'm left with having taken the high road, which I'm proud of, but having compromised a bit of my integrity at the same time.
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