Be Yourself

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There has been much debate over what the Hollywood "image" is, but most people know what it isn't. It isn't "average." From the cover of any celebrity gossip rag, you would think Pilates and plastic surgery are as essential to a successful acting career as are a headshot and résumé. Yet when Back Stage spoke about the issue of image with four actors-who are, shall we say, say, other than Hollywood's idea of physical perfection -- - we found that being successful in the industry doesn't mean changing face.

Rainn Wilson, one of the stars of NBC's hit sitcom The Office and this summer's feature My Super Ex-Girlfriend, says that when actors lose their ability to be themselves, they can't effectively play other people. "No great actor ever became successful by trying to be someone that they're not in order to please somebody else," he asserts. "Yet that's the most common thing you see in Los Angeles: actors trying to be someone else to make someone else happy. You can't name a single successful actor who ever tried to go that route. It doesn't exist. Look at the guys who make over $5 [million] to $10 million a movie. How many of them are funny guys? You've got Jack Black, Will Ferrell, and Paul Giamatti-all of these people are making enormous amounts of money for the studios, and they're certainly not Brad Pitt."

Everyone Is a Character

Indeed, plenty of "not Brad Pitt" actors are working in front of the camera. Take Danny Trejo, who could be considered one of the hardest-working actors in Hollywood, with more than 130 film and TV credits in three decades, including the three Spy Kids films, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, and The Devil's Rejects. According to the Internet Movie Database, the actor has 15 films slated for 2006 and 10 other projects in the works, including Sin City 2 and the Quentin Tarantino-Robert Rodriguez horror double feature Grind House. Forty years ago, Trejo's résumé was much different than it is now: For most of the 1960s, it included Tracy, San Quentin, and Soledad-homes of some of California's toughest prisons -- where he was inmate B498. When Trejo was released from incarceration for armed robbery and drug convictions, he had one goal: not to go back. "When I got out of prison, I knew that the only way I could stay out was to dedicate my life to helping other people. And that's what I did," he says.

His crusade landed him on the set of Andrei Konchalovsky's 1985 film Runaway Train. Trejo was visiting the production to help a young production assistant he met in Alcoholics Anonymous resist temptation. On the set, Edward Bunker, the film's writer and a former San Quentin inmate, recognized Trejo as the prison system's lightweight-boxing champion and offered him a job as a boxing coach. "I started training Eric Roberts how to box. Eddie and Jon Voight brought Andrei Konchalovsky over to see me. I don't want to brag, but I do look like a convict," says Trejo, laughing. "The guys they had cast for [the movie] were tall, slender pretty boys; it looked like the battle of two bitches. Konchalovsky saw the relationship that I developed with Eric and said, 'Make him SAG.'"

That job started a landslide of offers. Trejo's pockmarked complexion, muscular frame, and scarred and tattooed body became his trademarks. "On my résumé it says, 'San Quentin Drama Arts.' Honest to God. I've had producers and directors call me in and say, 'Look, you got the part, but is this for real?'" San Quentin Drama Arts is what Trejo lovingly calls his stint in solitary confinement when he performed The Wizard of Oz to keep from going crazy. Though not as auspicious as, say, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, the "credit" has proved effective. "Early in my career a director said, 'Okay, kick in this door, and you have a sawed-off shotgun, and I want you to hold [up] these 15 people,'" says Trejo. "I did it. Then afterward, people clapped and said, 'My God, where did you study?' I said, 'Ralphs, Vons, Bank of America....' They don't get the joke." The actor says he doesn't mind playing so many unsavory characters, who range from misunderstood to menacing to downright homicidal. He embraces the term he's often labeled with: character actor. "I think all actors are characters," he explains. "Tom Cruise plays characters. The problem with everybody trying to be a leading man...[is]: The guys who are waiting to be leading men are the guys that you see in the gym and the club out of work. [They think,] 'I'm a leading man because this is the way I look.' You know what? If we put a skirt on you, you might be a girl with your pretty leading-man self."

Becoming a "pretty" leading man or dewy-faced ingénue is seductive, and it's no wonder so many actors-and their agents-aspire to that ideal. DJ Qualls -- whose acting career has had a steady upward climb with Road Trip, Hustle & Flow, The Core, and I'm Reed Fish -- says actors can sometimes be desperate to live up to Hollywood's increasingly high standards of perfection. "It's a human experience, not feeling adequate," he says. "I think most of Hollywood is like that. Hollywood is a big town of unpopular kids and beauty queens. It's basically those two groups: people who felt so insignificant growing up that they come here to feel special. And I can't deny that."

Wilson, who describes himself as "pudgy and a little bit odd, but strangely sexy and alluring at the same time," admits that in the beginning of his career he, too, struggled with trying to fit himself into someone else's ideal. "I had my earliest agent in New York telling me that I had to get my teeth fixed and I needed to lift weights to go for leading-man types of roles," he recalls. "I was 23 years old, I was in New York and just out of college, and I was conflicted about which way to go. But somewhere inside of me I was like, 'No, that's not me. That's not who I am.'"

Wilson says moving to the West Coast in 1999 cemented his choice. "L.A. is a pretty tough town for actors," he notes. "They have pretty distinct ideas about how people fit into what role in casting and stuff like that." That was when he was sure he didn't want to be a leading man; he wanted to be himself. "People [were] like, 'Oh, you want to be a character man? Don't you want to be a leading man?'" Wilson continues. "And it's like, 'You know what? I want to be working,' because I spent years not working, and I know what it's like. I know what waiting tables is like, and I don't want to ever do that again. If that means me playing goofballs and weirdoes and freaks, then so be it."

But Who Are You?

Rusty Schwimmer, who played a female coal miner in North Country and recently starred opposite Giamatti in The Hawk Is Dying, believes it's the quirks and imperfections that make a character interesting-and beautiful. According to Schwimmer, many actors fail to realize that a person's outward appearance is not the same as who that person is, and that trying to live up to others' expectations is a losing battle. "An image is dismissive," she says. "People can label you this, this, and this, and then it's all done. Then you really don't have to take a look at what that human being is like. It's an amazing thing to me how people are told they have to do this or that [to their looks]. Who made the rules? I don't see the rule book. There's a part of me that never wants to talk a lot about it because it puts too much importance on it. What is really important is the love of other people and the love of yourself. Then you're able to do your job, whether it's acting, plumbing, or teaching."

Schwimmer advises actors to establish their own identity before getting in the business. "I knew early, thank God, that if I just stayed myself, I was going to be okay," she explains. "So many people go into that thing: As soon as they get here they decide to lose their individuality." Originally from Chicago, she came to L.A. nearly 20 years ago to pursue her dream of acting. "I didn't have an agent. I didn't have a SAG card," she recalls. "I worked at Ed Debevic's-a 1950s diner-and made so many contacts there that I started getting a little bit of work from there but still no agent."

As the years passed, Schwimmer built up her contacts, got an agent, and began to carve out a niche in what she describes as the "cartoony" world of Hollywood. Today her résumé features a large collection of Everywoman supporting roles, including a no-nonsense barfly in The Perfect Storm, the salty headmistress in A Little Princess, the warden's wife in Amistad, and a juror in Runaway Jury. She figured out early on that it's the people in the middle-between New York and Hollywood-she's most interested in playing, and she chooses only characters she feels best represent the country as a whole. "I want to be able to portray all the people in my life that I think are heroes," she says. "To me the people who are heroes are the people out there who are longline fishing for our meals, mining iron ore. They're our heroes. They're the ones that make our country work. It's not Washington, D.C., it's not Wall Street, it's not Hollywood. It's the people who do the stuff that make our country run; those are our heroes, and those are the people I'm interested in. I think, as an actor, if you're not fascinated by human beings-real human beings-then you shouldn't be an actor. I'm more than fascinated. I'm slightly obsessed."

According to Schwimmer, listening to what other people say about you, good or bad, can poison your perspective. For that reason, she doesn't own a computer, has traded trendy neighborhoods for the many-cultured West Adams area of L.A., keeps her family and friends from childhood close, and rarely does interviews. "If you have a great sense of self, then you can do this; if you don't have a great sense of self, you're going to lose it," she says. "You're going to have to figure out who the hell you are first before you do anything. Even the strongest people get waylaid if they just listen a little bit to the things that are not happening. If I sit there and believe all [the good things people say], then I'm going to believe all of the shitty stuff, too. That's just a person's opinion who doesn't even know me."

Typecasting Lives -- And That's Okay

Wilson found that his success as Arthur on Six Feet Under and Dwight Schrute on The Office, though it took much longer than he had hoped, validated his choice to accept himself as is rather than fit someone else's ideals. "I just kind of found this niche that I just started exploring-and exploiting-which was really just extreme character roles," he says. "I played a demon on Charmed and a mugger on CSI and an alien in Galaxy Quest and a guy who gets brutally chopped up in House of 1000 Corpses -- all these different kinds of offbeat character roles, and I love doing those kinds of things. I'm very happy to play those kinds of roles and getting typecast as that."

Qualls has also seen advantages to just being himself, and he has gotten a lot of recognition-from fans and from the industry. According to an interview with Hustle & Flow casting director Kim Hardin, director Craig Brewer called on Tennessee native Qualls to play Shelby, the sound engineer opposite Terrence Howard's rap star hopeful, because the actor's look is so recognizable. "I'm sort of caught between this working actor and famous person thing because I'm recognizable enough to work consistently, but I have to audition for something to get offered something," says Qualls. "I'm not an A-list actor, but I'm not...the unknown working character actor. It's very confusing to me. I've had experiences where I've gone to Fox or something to talk about a project or to audition, and the valet people are asking me for autographs [or asking], 'Please, can I park your car?'-getting all of this great treatment from these people. Then I go in and I meet with these producers, [and they ask,] 'Have you ever done a movie before?' and it's like my seventh movie."

The actor has experienced the challenge of relishing one's own identity in everyday life: It's hard, and it's even harder in Hollywood. "Even in college, I got some good parts, but for the most part I got passed over for the better-looking guy," he says. "And so I was pretty shy and really aware of the fact that I was gawky and tall and skinny." Yet standing out brought the young actor out of community theatre in Tennessee and to a sound stage in Hollywood. "I was doing a play called Boys Next Door, and a casting director named Shay Griffin saw me -- she's from Atlanta -- and she was casting Road Trip and a couple of other things. And I went down and auditioned for, like, three movies and booked all three. And it was great because they're just dayplayer parts down there-they don't really cast leads on location-but it was sort of a break for me because Todd Phillips, the director, was there, and my line was, '$250.' And I went in with a bunch of other guys and said, '$250.' And he was like, 'Hey, you should read this script.' And I read it and came by the next day and read for Kyle and wound up getting that part."

Having an unusual look, such as Qualls' "gawky and tall and skinny," is like wielding a shiny business card: Fans and casting directors take note. "There are not a lot of people walking around looking like me," says the actor. "When people come up to me, it used to be, 'You're the guy from...' and now people know my name is DJ Qualls. It's funny because when I'm out with my friends who are actors who are better-known than me, I get much more recognition. But when I go to an audition or when I'm cast in a part and go to set, I'm surrounded by these people who all look alike-big chins and small noses and spiky little hairdos-and I just want to say, 'How did you get this part? There must have been 50 other guys in that audition who look just like you.' But when I walk into the room, I'm pretty much the only person that looks like me. I've also walked into auditions before-especially early on in my career-and [it's] me and 40 male models, and I've gone in and said, 'If I'm too ugly for this, tell me right now.' I just feel that I should acknowledge it, I should be honest about it."

One of the benefits, according to Qualls, of being a "normal" or "everyday" actor is that he's not limited to playing one type of role. In going from project to project, he tries to stretch the expectations of the audience and himself. "I'll go as far away from type as the opportunities will let me," he says. "I think that's the secret if you want to be seen as a versatile actor. Every role you pick, you try to go somewhere you haven't gone before. So basically it's like, if I do one role that's sort of nerdy, I try to go as far away from that as possible the next time."

Trejo says typecasting is a necessary evil for many actors in Hollywood, but vanity can make the difference between having a successful acting career and working as a barrista. "I think typecast people are the only ones that work in Hollywood, when you think about it," he explains. "I watch people [who say], 'No, I'm waiting. I'm a leading man or leading lady.' And I say, 'Are you going to take my order or not?' because they're serving coffee. I work. It's like painting a house. I'm a housepainter, and somebody hires me and says, 'We want this house green.' [I don't say], 'Oh, I only paint blue houses.' I'll paint any house any color. It's work. I think people get hung up on, 'This is what I do. This is the character that I play.' I'll do anything."

Everyman, We Need You

The best thing about being an everyday actor is that you can play everyone: Wilson's quirky worker on The Office, the computer whiz Qualls portrayed in The Core, a miner like Schwimmer in North Country, or the ne'er-do-well Trejo plays in many of his films. As Wilson points out, there are more of "us" than there are of "them," anyway. Maybe Hollywood could stand to have a little more honesty and a little less Botox.

Concludes Wilson, "If you look at any high school class of 300, maybe there are 20 popular kids and then there are 20 losers-and then there's everyone else in the middle who's part nerd and part popular. Maybe [they] were on the debate team or went to band camp or whatever. We should make movies and play characters based on all those people."

Everyone, at some point, has wanted to be one of the popular kids: beautiful, smart, "perfect." Yet Hollywood isn't perfect, and it probably never will be. Actors like Wilson, Qualls, Schwimmer, and Trejo reflect the reality of the human condition: unique, flawed, and absolutely fabulous.