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The Working Actor

Forbidden White Lie

Forbidden White Lie
A few weeks back, I offered a two-parter titled "Jerks Don't Work." I was appreciative that this "miniseries" brought forth a good number of comments from you readers out there. Though not everyone agreed with all of my advice, I'm always glad to have sparked discussion.

Reader "Sara Tonin" agreed that being a jerk can hurt you, offering this corroboration: "I've worked as a monitor [for auditions], and I usually get asked by the director, music director, etc.: 'Who was rude to you when signing in?' It's true at every step of the game." And casting director Billy DaMota adds, "There are dozens of agents who have no idea why their star client didn't get a gig—or even an offer—on a movie I'm casting. Because most of my movies are low-budget fare, being shot on a very tight schedule, I do my research and will call the CD on the last movie a particular actor worked on, especially if that actor has a 'reputation.' 'He was an asshole on the set.' 'She was mean to everyone.' 'He still has a "problem." ' (Meaning drugs/alcohol.) The agent or manager may never ever know why it didn't work out. And eventually it catches up to the actor in question. Bottom line: Be nice."

But it's most interesting to me that out of all the suggestions I made on how to avoid being a jerk, the one that proved most provocative was this: "And when people ask what you thought of the show, regardless of how much they say they want the truth, tell them you loved it."

"That's terrible advice," says "Lalal." "It also makes you look stupid. I think with things like this it's best to subscribe to the 'If you have nothing nice to say, don't say it' philosophy. I try to find things I did like about the show and talk about those. I do not flat out lie and say I loved something when I didn't." And "Working Actress" says, "I think it's best immediately after seeing a friend perform to congratulate them on their hard work. A few days later, if they ask you privately for your honest opinion, you can share any constructive criticism then." Others told me they just let loose with their candid, unedited observations, however harsh, because they believe it's the only way for artists to improve.

And yes, I can see the merit in all those philosophies. And of course, I recognize that my advice on this subject is a bit controversial. But I'm fascinated by this sudden flare-up of morality. I don't know why it is that actors, who may be perfectly comfortable lying about other things, get so deeply offended by the thought of saying they loved a show when they didn't. How is it that this one type of conversation became so damned sacred? Suddenly, there's some unwritten, unbreakable code stating, "Thou shalt not give false compliments." And I wonder: What is so all-fired crucial about being honest in this particular instance, when a little white lie may offer greater benefits?

While some small number of our very closest friends may truly crave our feedback, for the most part people just want to hear nice things about the work they're involved in. And the popular "Talk about something you liked" approach doesn't always fool people. I was once greeted at the stage door with "Wow! That suit you were wearing!" You think I didn't know that was a stand-in for "Ouch! That stunk!"? Why do all that work picking out positives and risk revealing disapproval? Why not just lie?

If someone asks, "So, what did you think of my cousin?" even if she's is a raving shrew, you're likely to say, "Oh, she's very nice," just out of courtesy. If a casting director you're reading for asks what you thought of the script, even if the thing's an insult to paper, you'll say it's great, because that's just smart. And I put it to you that when you see a show, saying you liked it—whether you did or not—is gracious, leaves people feeling good, and is best for all concerned. Because unless you're a critic or a show doctor, no one is really relying on you for an honest opinion.

When I was touring in "The Producers," we were out on the road for months, playing various cities before landing in L.A. for our run at the Pantages Theatre. Before that, we had rehearsed meticulously for weeks, so that our production would carefully replicate the original, multiple Tony Award–winning Broadway smash. And yet, L.A. friends couldn't wait to tell me what was wrong with it. "You know, in that third scene, where they're dancing? I would have had the girl enter earlier, while the guy is talking." Okay. Now, what am I supposed to do with that? Call Mel Brooks and Susan Stroman and enlighten them on what my L.A. friends thought were the production's shortcomings? The show was set. The discussion had no value, except to the speakers' egos.

One actor I know practices this policy: If someone insists three times, "No, I really want your honest opinion," he'll comply and share his less-favorable observations. It sounds safe enough, but that too can backfire. I've had it happen. A colleague who positively harangued me for the absolute, unvarnished truth about a production he had directed lost his mind when at long last I gently shared my only negative observation. "Are you kidding?" he screamed, "I worked on that specifically!" He sulked for the rest of the night, so what good did it do either of us?

Remember, I offered this suggestion in the context of a column about cultivating a reputation for graciousness. Giving positive feedback makes people feel good, and they will subconsciously associate you with that good feeling: "What a nice guy." That's good for your career. In fact, the more keen your eye and the more critical you are, the more strongly I suggest expressing only praise.

Old-school stars understand this. I once performed in a benefit attended by showbiz legend Carol Channing. A bit shy, I hadn't planned on introducing myself, but she insisted on meeting me. "You!" she said, once I had been presented. "You get it. It's about the relationship with the audience." "Oh, thank you. I'm honored. I—" "Never mind all that," she said, "Forget I'm Carol Channing. I'm telling you something important. You connected with people!" Sincere? Who knows. Gracious? Utterly.

I think maybe the Southerners have it right, with their lovely manners that can completely obscure negative feelings. In the South, I've been told by several natives that "Well, bless your heart" is sometimes code for "F--- you." It's false but ever so pleasant, don't you think?

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