Thursday, September 20, 2007

Who says that?

One of the things I've been working on the last few months is -- at the core -- who I am as any given character. What I'm trying to do and how I do it may change throughout the project (or the scene, or the moment), but that should be layered on top of who I am as the character.

One of the things I don't like is watching a film and being struck with some version of, "She wouldn't do that."

So I started evaluating, trying to figure out what gets that reaction from me. Part of it is unrealistic circumstances created by the writing, direction, or editing, which arguably are outside the control of the actor. Other times, though, I'm realizing the disconnect occurs when the actor slips between why the character would do something, and why the actor would do something. In a couple of instances, it's because their was a switch between what the character in the current project would do, and what the actor had done as another character (or another character type) in a previous project that I suspect they were more connected to or comfortable with than the current moment's character.

So how do I avoid that? How do I find out that character core, that framework on which to hang my performance?

It's called a lot of things, but for me, it's come down to figuring out my character's "spine". Spine works so well for me as a metaphor, because it's the component of the body without which there isn't dynamic physical movement, it describes the moral character and attributes of a person, and it's the binding that holds a book -- the whole story -- together.

Early in my acting, I received a wealth of good coaching advice from my film coach Van Brooks. One of the pieces that stuck with me particularly was, "Don't judge your character". (The particular scene was me as a guy who may or may not have killed his ex-girlfriend.)

This came back to mind a few weeks ago when I was struggling with one line of dialog when getting ready for a cold read. My character said, "Darn" -- all by itself, in a cast-off way -- and it felt weird. The self-talk sequence that came to mind was bit like this:
  • "Darn"? He says "Darn"? Who says "darn"?
  • "Don't judge your character."
  • Who says, "Darn"? I do.

When I did the cold read, I nailed "darn". It wasn't punched, it was cast-off, I didn't think about it, and I sold it. My coach and peers called it out after the cold read as an example as to why selling the most insignificant word in a believable, organic way, creates good, unexpected moments.

Later in the evening (interestingly), my coach (Steve) had a discussion with all of us about weird dialog (someone else had some funky phrasing like "you're toast" that was causing similar trip-ups).

He actually even said, "Who says that kind of stuff? Your character does."

(Which was validating and freaky at the same time; he's in my head!)

So, one of my recent tools is I've stopped "judging" my character's dialog. That doesn't mean I don't try to figure out why he or she is saying what she's saying, and why it's being said at that time. But I shelf any useless judgements (like, "That sounds stupid", and so on). I can't replicate the "darn" by thinking about it, or trying to sell it. It works or it doesn't.

Oh, and a side-effect of not judging my character is I make more dangerous, interesting choices, which come through on the audition or cold read. ("Did I kill my ex-girlfriend? Yes, yes I did.")

Mheh. The process was more interesting as I worked through it than it probably reads here.

Industrial gig

I had a great industrial shoot this week.

This was repeat work for a previous client, and while it's always nice to be asked back, this group of folks, in particular, is a pleasure with whom to work. The director / writer (Jim) is fun/ny, very clear in his direction, and patient to get the "interesting" reads he wants -- even though we were shooting an industrial (typically dry affairs). The DP (Norm) and audio guy (Robert) really know their stuff, have been doing this for years, and have a pleasant, easy going way of working. We also had a new camera guy (Dieter "ja-now-is-da-time-ven-ve-dahnce"), who was pleasant, professional, and had a good eye for framing the shot.

(I'm hoping I can get some outtakes from the shoot.)

And sure, they're industrials, but since I wasn't completely happy with my previous performance when I watched it on the DVD (I was servicing the dialogue in places, not the scene or my partner), so I worked harder this time to listen better to my fellow actors, and not worry about "getting it right" -- because that prep part was taken care of, and worrying wasn't additive or productive.

I think it went well. It was a relatively easy (if lengthy) shoot, because this time it was 3 scenes (not six), and (for me), all in the same room, in the same wardrobe, shot from various angles.

On the technical side, we had two cameras this time (not just one), which made set ups, coverage, and master shots a lot quicker. I also enjoy acting in a multi-camera set-up; it's more challenging, gives me more to do, and gives more options.

Audio options for three actors (four, if you count the TV, which was a core component of the setup) were more open with two cameras , since we could have three lavaliere mics and one shotgun mic on a boom. (Our sound guy, Robert, is a great guy with whom to work.)

And my scene partner, Mikel McCurdy, is professional, talented, and a bunch of fun with whom to do a shoot. And she's one of my "favorite other wives".

All in all, a great industrial experience. Amazing that I get paid to work with folks this good.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Living a care-free life ...

I haven't written about class recently. I need to talk about last week's epiphany about my character spine. Later I need to talk about that.

I want to talk about last night's class, because I had another of those "life equals acting" epiphanies.

The discussion was around being care free in our acting. Studying under Steve has given me a bunch of tools and applications geared toward getting me to be care free when I perform. (And I've touched on some of them before, but you're not going to get them here; get in class with someone of Steve's caliber.)

Anyway, the hard part about practicing to be care free is it puts it on the fore-front of my mind -- "mind" being that cerebral/intellectual killer of acting/being.

Steve doesn't want his students hung up on these tools and techniques (and, to be fair, a lot of these acting process steps are things he's figured out, so he's got a leg up on applying them more organically to his own process), so we've been doing things in class to help us become more care free.

Last night was one of those nights. And it was fun and inspiring, both when I was on stage and when other people were.

And what made my time (and the drive home, and thinking through the night, and this morning before things got all life wonky) especially good was my epiphany just before we finished prepping to go on stage:
I already work to live a care-free life. Acting is part of my life. That means I'm already working to be a care-free actor.
I don't mean I'm care free in a dysfunctional, character-disordered, disconnected kind of way. I've very much a planner and an executor, which on the professional side makes me great at doing both strategic and tactical work.

But I don't -- at home or at work -- worry about stuff.

There are a bunch of reasons. From a religious perspective, worry is a sin, it doesn't add any time to my life, today has enough worries of its own, yadda yadda yadda.

From a pragmatic perspective, what's worry going to get me? Honestly, best I can figure is an ulcer. Maybe even a bleeding ulcer. Yippee.

Taken to professional application, what makes me a great manager is I don't worry about managing. I'm ridiculously proactive about management -- personnel, risk, project, customer relationship, business recovery, whatever.

I build out a number of contingencies. I understand the impacts. I know what's allowable, and what's not. I communicate that to everyone. And I don't worry.

I still have tough, aggressive conversations with folks. Stakes are still high. I know I could lose customers, projects, or my job through no fault of my own; I don't worry about that. I worry about what could be my fault. And then when stuff does happen that is my fault (because it will), I take ownership, I fall back on one of my contingencies (fixes) for the situation, and I move one.

I once worked a project where someone walked into my office and said, "If anyone thinks this project is getting done, they're insane."

I sat down with him, we worked through the project, found out the project manager had been miss-representing things, and yep, anyone still wanting the project on the original cost, scope, and schedule was probably certifiable. So I articulated options, scenarios, and new cost, feature, and timeline considerations. And ended up getting negatively tagged and penalized. And I didn't worry (doing the work and and doing the right thing are incredibly freeing activities).

Understand, I work wicked hard at my job and in life. People who know me know I will fill any available time with doing stuff. Productive challenging fun stuff. It's my strength and my weakness.

And while I'm working with high stakes (corporate international mega-million dollars or personal relationship issues), I have fun; I laugh.

I bring a game console in to work for my development team and we blow off steam for a couple of hours (because if you can't spare the couple of hours, your project's already beyond in trouble).

I go catch a move for lunch to get creatively fed and reset and clear my head and be more productive when I hit the office.

But I don't worry.

It pours rain off and on for months on end and I can't get my lawn mowed and my neighborhood association might fine me and I don't worry. I mow my lawn when the chance opens up because I care about my neighbor, and if that chance doesn't open up until after I get a fine, so what? So I couldn't mow my lawn and someone was doing their job or was bored or was on a power trip? Not my issue. Not my worry.

Don't read this wrong -- I haven't "arrived". And there's a balancing acting between not worrying and being character disordered. And there are times when I worry, and have to have self talk (or a close accountability friend) reset me.

Kind of like when I have to get out of my head as an actor.

The main reason I wanted to study as an actor with Steve is I know I'm too careful as a person. I tend to do things right. But until last night, I didn't connect that I don't worry about getting things right.

So, the epiphany for last night was all the "right" stuff in life? Taken care of.

The acting opportunities? Networking with the right folks to get me the gigs I'm passionate about? Already happening. If the opportunities don't happen, it's not my shortcoming.

Auditions? I already know I carry myself professionally, know my lines, have my headshots, know the etiquette. So the audition, the callback, the freaking on-set scene is play time.

Work is done. Nothing to worry about.

And when I say "play time", I don't mean bounce a beach ball inanely for hours at a time. I mean no inhibitions other than what's ingrained and subconscious and I can break loose and do something important.

Last night, I had seven minutes to read a monologue I'd never seen, make some whacked out choices, and go. There was no way for me to memorize perfectly, so that wasn't a worry (though I surprised myself by still getting 80% of it, by not thinking about it).

The monologue was from a drug dealer. I did it with a debilitating stutter on Ts, Ks, and Gs, and a constant nervous bicep-rubbing-the-ear physical tick that nearly gave me rug burn.

Would you buy X from that guy? Maybe not (though I was pretty desperate in my stuttering, spastic plea).

Will you remember that guy who tried to sell you X?

Oh yeah.

And I wasn't worried about getting it right at all. For that moment, I was a care free actor.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

And the Emmy goes to ...

Yesterday (September 8, 2007), The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences "awarded
the 2006-2007 Creative Arts Primetime Emmys for programs and individual achievements at the 59th Emmy Awards

Who got recognized?

Lots of hugely deserving folks.

And we got some deserved local love, too, as Beth Sepko was co-recognized for Outstanding Casting for a Drama Miniseries (location casting) for Friday Night Lights -- filmed here locally as well:
BETH SEPKO, Location Casting
Friday Night Lights
Nice. If you need Principal Casting and Extras casting, Beth and Sheila are top-notch.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

And the Award Goes to ... Mona Lee

OK, there should be more of this.

Below is a note actor, coach, and inspirational creative CK McFarland sent out to the Austin film community in recognition of fellow actor, coach, and inspirational creative Mona Lee, one of my film coaches.

I've asked CK's permission to post her note in its entirety here for broader awareness. I've added links for context. The commentary afterwards is all me. ;-)

For years I have wanted to see the Austin Film Community Host some Film Awards, similar to the ACOT Awards. Yeah I know they give them out at the airport to big name celebrities who have gone off and made us proud, and other celebrities who have passed through and made us look good.

But I'm talking about true Austin Awards acknowledging the truly great folks who have stayed, and not just actors, but other members of our community who have been dedicated, and worked so hard for us all. Oh yeah there are those few who continually get their name and picture in the paper , because they have helped put us on the map, and continue to do so. But there are also many other wonderful folks who have contributed in major gigantic ways to make a difference.

This is a tough profession, though not as hard as soldiering or coal mining. But there is perhaps no greater competition than being an actor, due in fact, to the sheer multitudes of those seeking dreams. Yet many (here) don't even have a clue what they are up against, the dedication to training it takes, or the number of actors they are competing against who have been thoroughly trained.

But within our multitudes, there are actual real live great actors living amongst us. Actors comparable to the best in our Movie Magazines. And some who even work a lot, particularly the men. Congrats guys. But I want to tell you about one actor I saw work on stage at
UT a while back. OK, it was 30 years ago let's say. She was playing the outrageous role of Claire in A Delicate Balance by Edward Albee. Now I was in a special private acting school in California and was home to visit the folks. I went to the theatre and saw my first ever real true brilliant actor on stage. I had never in my life seen anything like this woman and the role she played, and it was breathtaking and galvanized my memory to this day. I believe she went on to Julliard from UT and made quiet a name for herself. Well I remembered her name - Mona Lee.

Mona Lee put us Austin actors on the film map. Our roots can be traced back to her. She is the source, the spring from which much of this sprang. When I moved here in 1980 and began a professional theatre ( with the Tuna Boys and Marco Perella) I hired her to coach the company. But she wasn't just coaching theatre actors, she was showing all the Austin actors how to transition to film and what we needed to do to accomplish that. She turned our heads right around and showed us we could be film actors right here in little ole Austin. And she's still doing that. And there is no better helpmate than her BIZ book - which every one of you should have by the way.

Now I am just sitting here at the end of the Labor Day struggling to figure out how to get my classes full, and thought of where it all started and why. It always goes back to Mona, my friend and my competitor (both as a coach an an actor). And I just might shoot myself in the boot giving her all this publicity, but I don't care. Because acknowledging people is so important. And so I acknowledge Mona, not just for her coaching and her BIZ book, but her history with us - a director writer producer and vital and amazing actor who lives amongst us.

She is the reason I have wanted to start some sort of Austin Film Awards So we could give her a the first one and say 'thank you Mona". Good God people need to be acknowledged and I just wanted to start at the beginning. I guess I'll go get something engraved.


I studied with Mona in her beginning and intermediate classes. She had a subtle style that got a lot out of me. And despite being an active coach and working actor, she's also very available.

All of the stuff CK says is pretty inspiring by itself, but carries even more weight and import coming from her.

CK has herself and inspired and pushed so many actors in their craft, and done so much for the Austin creative community.

My current coach, Steve Prince, says of her,
"There isn't a more creative, Dynamic teacher around than CK. I have had the pleasure of teaching with her and I learned as much as I taught. I filled my notebook with thoughts and techniques I learned while listening to CK critique our students. Her workshop is a safe place to push yourself beyond your perceived limitations while inspiring confidence in your craft."
Casting Director Donise Hardy (CSA) says of CK,
"CK McFarland is an invaluable leader in our entertainment community. Over the past 8 years, I have had the privilege of working with CK and on many occasions have watched her film students work at Alleywood. I am always impressed by the growth I see. "
And you can even catch some of CK's work on YouTube (clip embedded below, and recorded before the recent passing of Texas film and interactive incentives legislation).

Every actor should be on set or in class all of the time -- regardless of our level. Austin has a great coaching pool, and a sub-set of those folks are of some of the best, most passionate mentors with which I've been blessed to know. I mention many of them regularly in this column. And Mona and CK are two more of the greats.

Let me know if you need either of their contact information.

Efficient favorinepotism

I don't normally just post pointers to other blogs (I like to offer original content and maintain a select blogroll), but I like this post from LA Casting Director Bonnie Gillespie.

What initially grabbed me was this quotable nugget:
"That, in short, is why people who like to work together like to work together. Call it favoritism. Call it nepotism. Call it a closed network. What it is is an efficient, familiar, easier way of doing business when every second counts (and costs a bundle)."
In a nutshell, a great summary of personal and professional dynamics -- People like to work with people they like, and time is money.

A lot of the post resonated with me for several reasons. Bonnie touches on research, active listening, confidence, authenticity, and other topics that fall pretty close to where I live, and, frankly, are staples of good business networking, regardless of vertical market. (For more on my take on authentic networking, see this previous post of mine -- one of my most read and most republished.)

You've probably heard, "It's not what you know, it's who you know." I actually think it's "what you know and it's who you know".

It can be pretty frustrating to lose out on a gig or a job because they auditioned or hired someone they knew, rather than you. But it's a great thing when you're the person they know.

I'm sure we've all wanted to instant chemistry with someone at some point or another. Think of that personal or professional contact that you really wanted to get to know better, after a "non-sexual professional flirtation" (Bonnie's words) interaction.

It's not like you can force chemistry, or this "relational shorthand" thing Bonnie talks about -- no matter how much you want to. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't.

Here's a quick positive and negative example from me.

On the positive side, I've always felt like in order to be "full", I need a complete set of mentor relationships around me. These can be on the relationship, spiritual, professional, creative, personal, or hobby side of life (or best, all of them). That means I actively seek out mentoring more junior folks, hanging around peers that encourage me and hold me accountable on what I can do, and meeting with someone who mentors me.

I met a guy who talked about things he struggled with that I struggle with. He showed video clips from and talked about my same favorite movies. He was a comic book fanatic. He was a toy appreciator. He was a small business entrepreneur. He was in life where I wanted to be in 25 years (with the important stuff; not money or recognition or any of the transients).

So I asked him to be my mentor. Thankfully, he said yes, and we've been meeting formally, seeing movies, and going to things like Comic-Con for almost 7 years.

On the negative example, there's a writer whose work I really like. Later I ran across his bio and some of his Web postings, and saw he had been reading, watching and listening to some of the exact same stuff at the exact same time I was (William Shatner, Johnny Cash, Death Cab for Cutie, Brian Vander Ark, Sandman, the Firefly boxed set, Batman the Animated Series, and so on).

I thought, "This guy's a lot like me -- a professional creative with great stuff of his own inspired by some of the same stuff I am; I want to know him."

I met him at a professional conference. He didn't know I was an actor, and he spent the entire time during a panel badmouthing actors. Not only was he vitriolic, the stuff he said wasn't opinionated -- it was false (and he was disrespectful of the panel members' time).

For a bunch of reasons, I still wanted to work with him, and with his company, so I hit him up for work (my clients know I generally introduce myself in creative ways). I then found he was making fun of my submission and deriding me within his company.

That's unfortunate by itself -- it dis-incents me from wanting to work with him -- but worse, because he's been unknowingly badmouthing me with people with whom I do have good rapport (which is how I know), which hurts him within his own company. I feel bad for him.

To be fair, I know I've probably been a version of an "unapproachable chemistry guy". I've received feedback in the past that I'm so focused and making so many things happen in the business world, or being so passionate and black and white with things like beating my "do the right thing" drum, it can be a bit intimidating to folks who don't get the chance to know me more personally. Because I care about improving as a person, that's feedback I take pretty seriously, and look for ways to to improve how I interact with folks in those contexts.

And there are some relationships (business and professional) where the chemistry just isn't there, for any number of reasons.

Anyway, those are some thoughts from me. But check out Bonnie's full post over at The Actors Voice.

Huh, I snuck some original content in there, anyway. ;-)