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Career Dispatches

Facing Challenges, Past and Future

Facing Challenges, Past and Future
Beth Grant, Los Angeles
This is my last visit with you, and I wish I could give you every last piece of my experience, my joy, my successes, my ups and downs, so that you will have an easier time of it. I want you to know that if I can do it, you can do it. But these last few thoughts will have to do.

"Slow and steady wins the race" is my motto. I thought I was a sprinter; turns out I'm a long-distance runner. I just keep showing up, doing what's in front of me, what is indicated. It really is all good. We can have a life, we can breathe; we are artists, not machines.

Last year, when my mother was dying, I was overcome with guilt about all the things I hadn't done for her, all the times I "set my boundaries" in a mean way, and all the things that I had said and done to hurt her over the years. We had many loving and good times, especially when I was younger and again when my daughter was born, but knowing she was passing away, I was filled with remorse over all of my mistakes. I apologized to her, one more time, and said, "Mama, I'm sorry I was so mean." She took a breath and replied, "Oh, Beth. Everyone has their own path." I've thought of that so often this year; my writing to you has given me such a wonderful view of my life. Thank you for listening.

"It is easier to be jealous of someone for getting theirs instead of doing the work necessary to get mine." I went to the same college as Sandra Bullock, who is a lot younger than me. I had been working steady as a character actor and gotten lucky, appearing in "Rain Man" and other big films. I began to hear about this younger actor from my school who was doing television. A reporter suggested that we would really like each other and gave me her phone number, saying she lived nearby. I was jealous that she was getting so much attention, and I never called her. Then the drama department put out an alumni magazine that featured a huge picture of her; mine was smaller. I thought, "Big deal…TV." Then I got cast in "Speed." We didn't know whom the female lead was going to be, and when we got to the table read, we waited to see. In walked Sandra Bullock. She looked at me, she smiled that smile, I fell in love. All the jealousy vanished, and I became her devoted friend in an instant. What a great lesson! We've worked together several times: She is always gracious, smart, loving, and the hardest worker I know. She inspires me to be my best self. Look what I almost missed.

Let's stay awake, let's continue to grow, let's be our best selves and not miss a thing. I'll be looking for you. Thanks for all the good times. On we go!

Leon Acord, Los Angeles
Every year, I promise myself I won't work this holiday season; I'll take the time to enjoy the festivities. But as soon as I do, I'm almost always offered a project too good to resist, and I break my promise. This year's deal breaker is Jason Moyer's wonderful adaptation of "A Christmas Carol," titled "Gay Apparel." After two productions at Celebration Theatre, this year Jason is producing and directing it at the Lyric Hyperion Theatre. When he asked me if I wanted to be involved, I quickly jumped aboard.

Although "Gay Apparel" re-imagines Scrooge and company as gay and places them in the world of high fashion, Jason's adaptation is amazingly faithful to Dickens' source material—more so than many adaptations I've seen. At the same time, it has hilarious dialogue. A cast of five actors plays multiple roles to John Downey III's Scrooge. I'm happily playing Jacob Marley's Ghost, Fezziwig, "Uncle" Tim, and a few others, and I'm very happy to be part of such a talented ensemble.

I haven't played so many characters in one production since a one-man show I did in San Francisco in the late '90s, so it's been a real acting workout. The show moves at a breakneck pace—maybe not a good metaphor, considering one character is on roller skates. It requires not only quick costume changes but also quick character changes. I'm re-learning how an accent, a certain word, or a gesture can "speed dial" you to a character. The biggest challenge has been Jacob Marley. Going in, I thought, "Oh, he'll be easy! A ghost has no limits!" But I've since realized the more "limits" a character has, the easier that character is to delineate. When you have no boundaries, you can be overwhelmed by all your options. Given this much rope, I could easily hang myself.

Another first in this show: Jason has somehow convinced me to participate in a dance number. I haven't danced onstage in more than 20 years. Good or bad, that alone should be worth the price of admission.

After producing "Carved in Stone" earlier this year, I'm quite content to be an actor for hire, especially as I watch Jason work so hard to produce the show in these dire financial times. But he's doing it—as well as acting and directing—and doing it well. In fact, the costumes alone (by Jennifer C. Smith) look as though they cost more than the show's entire budget. We open the day after Thanksgiving, then I'll be back to reviewing theater for when I'm not onstage.

So as I conclude my tenure as a Take Fiver, what's been the lesson of this year? I'd have to say, "Work begets work." Write that column in Back Stage; it might lead to unexpected writing offers elsewhere. Produce that play you've always wanted to do; an audience member might like you enough to cast you in their next play. Try new things (writing, producing, even dancing) and see where they take you. Thanks, everyone, and happy holidays!

Meagan Flynn, Kansas City, Mo.
As the holidays approach, I start thinking about the blessings in my life and feeling grateful for the opportunities I've had. In 2009 I've been so lucky to have had some amazing opportunities and experiences, including getting to share this crazy adventure called an acting career with you Back Stage readers.

One of the greatest experiences of this past year, and of my whole career, was getting to work on Major Major Hollywood Motion Picture in the spring. And I'm proud and excited to announce that MMHMP, Jason Reitman's "Up in the Air," whose cast includes moi in a small role, will be coming to theaters this month. Working with Jason Reitman and George Clooney is how I always dreamed working on a film would be as a kid. Watching the two of them work is an education beyond anything I anticipated. Jason makes films that are intelligent, timely, and witty and that stir real emotions in you. I've been a fan of his ever since I first saw the short "Consent" on the Internet a few years ago. If you haven't seen this hilarious short, get over to YouTube now and check it out. I was even Juno for Halloween last year, although I never did have the nerve to mention that to him—didn't want to seem like too much of a cheesy fan. I sincerely hope to have the privilege of working with him again. And as to working with George C., I have no other word for him but "gentleman." He was gracious and welcoming, and he made me feel like I was working with a good friend the days that I was on set. And beyond that, he was kind to everyone. He talked to all the extras and signed autographs for fans. I think that kind of courtesy and graciousness is what really lends to having a career as long and successful as he's had.

I was privileged enough to attend a cast-and-crew screening of the film in St. Louis a couple of weeks ago, and I have to tell you, this film is unbelievable! "Up in the Air" really, really moved me. I laughed, I teared up, and I can honestly say it's my new favorite George Clooney role. All the actors are perfectly cast and give incredible performances. The two female leads, Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick, are nothing short of amazing. I encourage all of you to go out to the theater and see it. I know you are going to love it. I can't wait for it to get to theaters in K.C., because I am dying to see it again and share it with my friends and family. Congratulations to the entire cast and crew: You made something really special and something that I am so proud to have been a part of.

So to all of them, thank you. And to all of you, for staying with me and following me this year, thank you. It is truly a season of blessings, and I hope I don't ever take a single one for granted.

Victor Joel Ortiz, New York
Since this my last Take 5, I want to begin by saying thanks to all who have read my adventures and showed support throughout the year. Since my November column, I was cast as the lead in an NYU 16mm film, “Minnesota,” in which I was a werewolf hunter; worked with a Columbia graduate filmmaker on a class exercise in which I played a Serbian; auditioned for Playwrights Horizons’ “Clyborne Park”; and began freelancing with Emerge Artists and Monarch Models. To say the least, I have been busy.

I have also been judging a weekly “Singer/Songwriter Idol” competition and have seen some amazing musicians. The process of choosing who would be awarded the prize money helped me understand a casting director’s perspective in a new light. The truth is that there are many extremely talented artists in NYC, and if you plan on making money as one, you need to be head and shoulders above the competition. The best musicians were the ones who played until their fingers bled and still loved what they did. I am sure it will be one of those that I will award the prize money to. I thought to myself, I should buy the sheet music to my favorite songs and learn to play them. As an actor though, I can’t rent “There Will Be Blood” and learn to act—or can I? I recommend watching Jack Nicholson’s stillness from the “code red” scene in “A Few Good Men” or Diane Keaton’s concentration in “Annie Hall.” There really is so much to learn from their subtlety.

I recently saw Steve Jobs’ commencement speech to the Stanford graduating class on YouTube. I couldn’t recommend it more highly. One of the themes he spoke on was having the heart to follow your curiosity and intuition, without fear of where it will lead and trusting that it’ll all be okay. Don’t give up until you have discovered an occupation that you love, he said (feel fortunate, fellow thespians). Jobs also spoke of how he almost died of cancer and said, “Sometimes life will hit you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith. Keep moving.

Remembering you will die is the best way to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose, so be brave. You are already naked; there is no reason not to follow your heart. Your time is limited; don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Trust in your gut, destiny, karma, life, or whatever you want to call it that the dots will somehow connect in your future, because if you do, it will give you the confidence to follow your heart even when it leads you off the well-beaten path, and that will make all the difference. If you live each day as if it will be your last, one day you will invariably be right.”

Stay hungry, stay foolish. Thank you, God bless you. More on me at

Julian Miller, Chicago
I've always loved hearing and reading about actors on acting. Maybe it's because I think, somewhere along the line, I'll hear that one perfect statement that will open me up to a world of freedom and creativity that is always "on." So I read and take in as much as I possibly can. I remember reading that training could "lead you astray." I thought to myself, what a ridiculous notion. How could practicing your craft lead you astray? Couldn't it only lead you closer to "the goal"? Years (and a lot of training) later, I understand the point. I'm about to piss off a lot of former teachers, but the truth is that most training for me has been about 1) establishing a safe set of tools with which to carefully carve out a "character" and 2) pleasing the instructors—two things I'm very good at. Neither, when boiled down, are the essence of acting.

Feeling the space between my work and acting forced me to turn a mirror on myself. I was focused on either trying to be in the moment or the fact that by trying to be in the moment, I was already out of sync with said moment. I was also out of sync with my fellow actors. Early in my career, this inspired paralysis in me. I was afraid to do the wrong thing. I was being given a lot of attention and the pressure was on, or so I thought, and so I was unable to do anything real. I remember standing in an audition room and feeling so tired and numb that I literally felt the moment that I gave up on that particular audition.

Then I read an interview with Jonathan Groff where he talks about working with Olympia Dukakis, and he asks her a question, and her response has to do with "seeking out work that scares the hell out of you." It made no sense to me at the time, because I needed to believe in my training, and my training up to that point was all about safety. Play it safe; play the (safe) truth of the moment. Now, after training in Chicago, I understand. After this latest round of rehearsals and classes, I feel the freedom to act. It makes so much sense. Training for me was always about doing the right thing. Now my approach is that there is no right thing or wrong thing. My job as the actor is to bring myself to the work with 100 percent commitment, not to figure out where the story and I can meet in the middle or where to take the perfectly timed drag of a cigarette. Now I have no idea what will happen on stage or set, and I'm free to let it happen instead of trying to make it happen. And that is scary and freeing. For the first time in my career, I'm up for the challenge.

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