For the past 3+ months, I’ve been enjoying my first time back among the ranks of the fully-employed in 25 years. And I’m not kidding when I say “enjoy”—far from finding the 9-to-5 (or in my case, 8-to-4) burdensome, I’ve found it quite freeing, and in ways I wasn’t really expecting.
Since many, if not most, actors need some kind of day job to survive, I thought it might be worth enumerating what I’m learning from my new gig, how it’s shaping the rest of my life (including my creative outlook—and output!), and other reasons why that thing you may be regarding as a set of shackles could be the very thing that frees you.
“Successes are a bonus, but life is made of the process of following your passion.”
“…two weeks later, I was on a plane flying to Mauritius to shoot the first episode.”
October last year, I was sitting on my couch on a rainy Sunday night, throwing myself a pity party. The party involved me sitting in sweats, eating Postmates, and watching murder mysteries. I hadn’t left the house for the entire day. I was ignoring text messages and just generally feeling really sorry for myself. I had been to countless auditions that month and hadn’t booked a single job. I felt lost. To top it all off, and I had acute bronchitis. I mean oh my god, how long do you have?
For staying power, play in the moment.
Whether it’s the weather, or the uncertain state of the economy, or the endless grind of politics, things have been a little grim lately, a little serious. And while the tendency during hard times is to bear down and get serious along with them, I am starting to believe that the answer, while wholly counterintuitive, is to ease up—to play.
People—and I include among “people” everyone from audiences to casting directors to colleagues to fans (present and future)—are starved for levity and passion. Those can be hard to muster in the face of grim times and prospects, but as artists, it’s our job to lead the way. We have to be the change we want to see in the world, to get all Gandhi-fuzzy on you; we have to put aside that life is hard and times are tough, and get back to the spirit that brought us here: play. But how do we, the artists, get ourselves there when the getting is hard? How do we keep ourselves fresh and alive, and, if you want to get down to it, marketable?
American Pastoral, written by John Romano and based on the book by Philip Roth, is a fascinating but uneven look at a family in 1960s America. There are some good performances throughout the film, and the cinematography by Martin Ruhe is excellent. Even though the film never quite takes off, its examination of the American dream in one of the most turbulent times in our nation’s history is definitely worth a look.
The film begins like a hazy dream as Nathan Zuckerman (played by David Strathairn) makes his way to his high school reunion. Zuckerman reminisces fondly about a local legend, Seymour “Swede” Levov (Ewan McGregor, who also makes his directorial debut with the film) a sports hero and a man destined to be great. Soon, Nathan runs into his old friend and Swede’s brother Jerry, who gives him the bad news that Swede has passed away. It turns out that Swede, despite being primed to live a life of happiness and privilege, wound up being surrounded by tragedy heartache. Jerry tells Nathan the whole story, which encompasses the main plot of the movie.
Soon after graduating high school, Swede marries his high school sweetheart Dawn (Jennifer Connelly), and they have a daughter Merry (played by Dakota Fanning, in the best performance of the film). Merry has a stuttering problem, which her therapist believes can be attributed to a desire to live up to her parents’ expectations. Merry’s relationship with her mother is cold and distant, while her relationship with her father has issues of its own. Most of the action in the film takes place in 1968, a politically and culturally chaotic time (and quite apropos for the film to come out this year, with all that is going on in the country), and Merry becomes involved with a radical political organization in the city. When a local business owner is murdered by a bomb, the police show up at the Levov residence looking for Merry. Did she have something to do with it? This question is at the center of the remainder of the film.
American Pastoral has interesting moments throughout, but it never quite gels. The performances are pretty good across the board, although neither McGregor or Connelly are fairly wooden in their portrayals of Seymour and Dawn. Fanning is excellent as Merry, as are Ocean James and Hannah Nordberg (who play Merry at ages 8 and 12, respectively). The character of Merry is at the heart of the film, and Fanning must go through an incredible transformation—from innocence, to disillusionment, to a soul that is lost and gone forever. This is quite a task for the young actress, but she pulls it off beautifully. If for no other reason, the movie is worth seeing for her nuanced and tragic performance.
The movie plays out like a book, which makes sense because it is based on the 1997 Philip Ross novel of the same name. This weakens the film at times, however, as we feel like passive observers watching the action unfold. Part of this is due to the historical nature of the film, with the narration making us feel a step removed. While it may work well in novel form, bookending the film from Nathan Zuckerman’s perspective, a character that we never meet in the 1960s world of the story, gives the audience a sense of disconnect. A great example of bookending a film in the current time period, while flashing back to another era, is A League of Their Own. But that works incredibly well because we see the entire film, including the beginning and ending, through the protagonist’s eyes. In American Pastoral, on the other hand, a side character takes us into and out of the main arch of the film, so we are left feeling somewhat empty when all is said and done.
While this is not a great film, it is still a good one, and there are enough elements at play that make it worth watching. The setting of 1960s America and the search for an American dream that may not even exist is extremely relevant in 2016 America, and Dakota Fanning is terrific as the tragic Merry Levov. You do not need to see this one on the big screen, but it would be worth a rental at some point down the line.
The incredibly talented and knowledgeable casting director Vicki Goggin joined us for our October seminar to share some of her wisdom with us. Let’s see what she had to say.
1. There are a lot of myths out there. Don’t believe them.
“They” will tell you a lot of things. But what do “they” really know, anyway. Whether it’s “smiling isn’t in this year” or “always have a picture of yourself playing tennis”, “they” might not know what “they” are saying. So don’t believe the myths!
2. It’s so easy to put a reel together these days, you might as well have one.
You might have editing software on your computer, or you likely know someone else who does and can edit a reel together for you for relatively cheap. And if you don’t have any footage yet, just shoot something yourself and use that. Just get yourself on camera.
3. Your personality is more important than the lines.
Knowing your lines in an audition is important, but not as important as showcasing your personality. In commercial casting, the audition is nothing more than a vehicle for your personality. Don’t try to play a “character”, just be yourself. You’ll be amazed at the difference that makes.
4. Every line in a commercial is the answer to a question.
The dialogue in commercials don’t exist in a vacuum. They are part of a much bigger conversation. A good trick to help this shine through is to ask yourself the question that came before the line. That way you have a reason to say it. So if your line is, “This soup is delicious!”, maybe you are answering the question, “How does that soup taste?”
5. 3 Second Rule: After your last punctuation mark or word, stay in the moment
Just like you do in real life. While using a button at the end of a scene might not be the best idea, it’s a great idea to stay in the moment, even when you’re done saying your dialogue. You might find a moment that the director hadn’t thought of, and you will definitely be able to share even more of your personality.
QUESTION: How do you not self-sabotage your own auditions? I always feel like I do a better performance en route to the audition than I did at the audition, self-critiquing my performance all the way home!
ACTORS: This may be one of the hardest challenges to overcome, at least it has been for me. There have been times when I truly felt I did an Academy worthy performance en route to the audition, real tears and all, and on the way home, felt worthless for not getting even close to my car version!
If you haven’t read my blog, “Desperation Caught on Tape,” check it out: http://blog.castingnetworks.com/8363 “What you bring to the table depends on what you are hungry for; If you are starving for attention and recognition, guess what, that’s caught on tape, if you are full of love and light with an appetite for life, well, that’s what shines through.”
I had a friend who was a regular on the TV show Baywatch. She was beautiful, could act, was married and had a brand new baby. I believed she had it all… but she didn’t, because if she did she wouldn’t have sabotaged every audition by telling herself before she stepped foot into that audition room, that she wasn’t going to get a callback, as if preparing herself in advance, so she wouldn’t have to face the truth later. Guess what, she got exactly what she believed she was getting… no callback.
I believe we sabotage so much in life that doesn’t feel comfortable to us on the outside, simply because we are not comfortable inside with who we are and why we are here; whether that be a relationship, job or an audition. Just look at the media, they’d rather shine a light on darkness, highlighting all what’s wrong with society and relationships than put a spotlight on the good that gives one hope and inspiration.
When you walk into that casting room the casting director is rooting for you, the real you, that’s why you often hear, “be real,” they don’t want to see the striped down insecure, fearful version of you.
How you walk into an audition makes all the difference in the world. One of my all time favorite auditions caught on tape is Rachel McAdams reading with Ryan Gosling for The Notebook.
Yes, she is adorable, but she is also real and confident; not at all showing her hunger to get the part.
Even is she was nervous on the outside, which I can’t imagine she wasn’t, inside she had the strength to trust all of her hard work would pay off and it surely did… the rest is history. Bravo Rachel McAdams!
We have no idea going in what the producers or writers are really looking for, so why not believe they are looking for you? I don’t believe in playing it safe, that’s what the majority do; take a chance, a calculated risk to be different, instead of trying to figure out what you think they want? That’s a waste of time, use your time to prepare wisely.
Then on your drive home, instead of self-sabotaging, self-indulge! Buy a chocolate shake or a brand new pair of shoes, or walk along the beach, knowing you came from a place of truth and authenticity not a place of trying to get somewhere, like crying a bucket of tears.
What you will bring to the table, especially this Thanksgiving, will be conversations filled with love and peace, an appetite for life with plenty of left over gratitude!
DO YOU HAVE A QUESTION FOR KAREN? SHE WOULD LOVE TO SHARE IT IN HER NEXT BLOG!
The zen teachings advise us to cultivate “beginner’s mind”, because it is the open, flexible, teachable state that is humility’s gift to growth. It’s also a dandy way to keep you in the moment, which is something every performer wants to do.
Recently, I began taking ukulele lessons, and became a newcomer all over again. It’s been challenging, exhilarating, and frustrating by turn, but I am learning a lot, and (I suspect) about a lot more than just how to play the ukulele. Here are some of my fresh-from-the-beginning takeaways that you may be able to apply to your work as an actor—or to any new hobby or endeavor you might feel like picking up.
1. Practice, practice, practice. The ukulele is a far less demanding instrument than the guitar, which I’ve tried and failed at learning beyond hacker-beginner level many times. A uke only has four strings! And a tiny neck! And—hallelujah!—open tuning! But just because it’s easier than something else doesn’t mean it’s easy, period. There are still chords to learn, finger positions to get familiar with, and, for those of us who gave up on guitar, callouses to build up. I’ve never met a teacher who doesn’t suggest that practice as the #1 thing that will turn you into a better player. And this one doesn’t ask too much of us: just 20 minutes per day! The trick is to do it every day. Because if you miss one day, it’s easy to miss two, and once you’ve missed two, you’re halfway out the door. But don’t just practice; instead…
2. Practice what you suck at. Look, I get that you don’t like to look bad. Or feel bad about your abilities, even alone, in the privacy of your own home. But as our teacher reminded us, no one ever got truly good at something by practicing what they’re good at. Do that and you will end up like me: able to play “Chopsticks” very, very well—and that’s it. Seriously: two years of piano lessons as a kid, plus two more as an adult, and that is my complete repertoire. What I’m trying to do now is devote 2/3 of practice time to what I’m bad at or find boring: fingering on the fretboard and strumming patterns, both of which feel like math problems to me. For the last 1/3, I reward myself by playing a simple song I can sing along to.
3. Add to your toolkit what YOU are most interested in. There may be some skills you need to learn that are just not fun in any way, but that are required of you as an actor. But if you’re going to stick with acting and get good enough at it to work consistently, you’re going to have to spend some of your time cultivating new skills. Try to find ones that actually interest you at least some of the time. For ukulele class, the teacher had us (a) talk about what we wanted to get out of the class, and (b) email him lists of songs we wanted to learn. Because if we can identify what it is that got us excited about the prospect of learning this instrument, and throw in a few songs that we really want to play, we stand a far better chance of staying motivated enough to learn. (For the record, the one song I asked for was “Tonight You Belong to Me,” an old duet Steve Martin & Bernadette Peters did in one of my all-time favorite movies, The Jerk. (Look for a video link in a future column—you heard it here first!)
What actor endeavors could you improve by applying “beginner’s mind”? Is there anything that you know would make you a stronger actor, but that you’re avoiding practicing on the regular? Which skills could you add to your own actor’s toolkit that might be fun to learn as well as useful to have?
BOOK(s) OF THE MONTH: By the time you read this, the 2016 U.S. presidential election will be imminent or over. (And boy, I cannot WAIT to get this one behind us!) Whatever the outcome, I am going to make the rare recommendation for a semi-political (because of context), definitely culturally-anthropological (if that’s even a word) memoir: Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance. Subtitled “A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis”, it tells the story of a boy from Kentucky-Appalachian stock who made it up and out of “the holler”, ultimately becoming a real J.D., i.e. juris doctor, as an adult. It is a compulsively readable story that gives good insight into a slice of America not all of us are familiar with. And for actors, there are some truly brilliant characters to study, including the matriarch of the author’s family, J.D.’s grandmother, known as “Mamaw.”
When it comes to advancing a career, dependability rules. All things being equal—talent, for example, and suitability for the role at hand—when people know they can count on you, it goes a long way toward removing the “no,” to borrow a line from our friends in sales. So how, exactly, do you add “dependable” to your skill set?
Here are a few of the steps that have helped make me the person people feel they can rely on.
1. Deliberately build dependability muscles on your own.
Just like your voice, flexibility, and physical fitness, becoming a dependable person is something that we have to work on every day. If you don’t feel that’s the case and you’re known as a pretty reliable person, I’m guessing that you grew up in a household that modeled and instilled the reliability, duty, and diligence that is now such a part of you, you don’t even see it. Me? I grew up in a home where we learned very, very early how to fake it. So I’m good at the short run, but poop out when it comes to sustaining good behavior—which is essentially what dependability is.
If you’re more like me than those sturdy, reliable types, I humbly suggest you get yourself a thing-a-day project and some support, either real-life or virtual—or better yet, both.
Recently, I finished a year-long project where I lettered one “sign” a day—some thought, quote, or idea that appeared before me in response to a silent question, or even a question I didn’t know I was asking. For 365 days,* I showed up whether I wanted to or not, and posted a drawing to social media. I did it only to hold myself accountable (and to build some lettering skillz), but to my surprise, somewhere around the halfway mark, people started telling me how they’d come to depend on these little signs showing up in their feed every day.
*It ended up being 375 days, as I missed too many to make up in time. Guess what? NOBODY CARED AND THE WORLD DID NOT END. People still thought it was a remarkable achievement. More importantly, so did I.
2. Reverse engineer the day/drive/gig/etc.
Part of being dependable is building in enough time to actually get done the work you’ve committed to. And this includes accounting for the time required by regular human maintenance—eating, sleeping, and so forth. I am a chronic underestimator of how much time it will take to get from A to B (or deliver something from me to C).
I’ve gotten better at building in enough time by starting at the result I want and working backwards. For things I really need to get to, I first mark my calendar with the appointment time. Then I calculate the time it will take to transport myself there like a sane, rational person living in the world with other people—a lot of them, usually—who are also trying to get somewhere, and I put that time in the calendar. Then I calculate the time it will take to prepare myself for walking out the door and either add this to my calendar, or write it on my to-do list for the day.
For some people, this might be overkill. For me, it’s been a lifesaver. Even more calming than a to-do list is a to-do list with actual, actionable instructions.
3. Own your mistakes.
Whether I like it or not, I learn my greatest lessons by falling on my ass or my face. That mortifying time early on in my acting career when I missed an entrance because I was chatting up a producer backstage? It taught me the necessity of focus, even if I risked looking nerdy or uncool. That time I missed an urgent, last-minute request to show up on set before the previous night’s call time because I turned off my electronic notification device, a.k.a. pager? Taught me to never, ever turn off my electronic notification device once I’d booked a job. Or between jobs. Or, like, ever, unless absolutely necessary.
You’re going to make plenty of mistakes; it’s an inevitable part of life. The best way out is not to deny or defend in some (usually vain) hope of salvaging what you think you might have lost. It’s to own it, make it right if you can, and change what you do moving forward.
There are no short cuts to reliability; by definition, it’s something that’s won over time. But by doing a little every day, anticipating what you can, and making right what you blew, you can become the bastion of dependability we’d all love to rely on.
While everyone remembers the headlines hailing Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger as the heroic pilot behind the Miracle on the Hudson, Clint Eastwood’s new film Sully, based on the book Highest Duty, written by Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow, takes a closer look at the man behind the miracle. Tom Hanks is stellar as always in the title role, while Eastwood’s pacing and attention to detail make the film considerably more dramatic and tense than you might imagine it to be—particularly during the scenes that take place during the aftermath of the accident. While it is unlikely to garner too much awards-season attention, Sully is a taut and engaging drama that is sure to please audiences all over.
Lessons from halfway through
Over the almost-10 years I’ve been writing this column, I’ve accomplished several outward-facing creative projects: a two-person show with four actors (and music! and dance!), a massive crowdfunding project for a local non-profit, and a series of 21, 30, and 100-day projects. What I’ve not done is a lot of documenting of them along the way, so at just over the midpoint of a yearlong thing-a-day project, I thought I’d step back and share what I’ve learned thus far. Hopefully, it will serve some purpose for creating, adjusting, or surviving your own long-term project, regardless of what form yours takes.
1. The perfect is the enemy of the good. This applies across the board, from inception through execution. I have finessed to the point of exhaustion ideas for scripts, books, classes I could teach, and pretty much any other writerly thing one can generate; inevitably, either someone beat me to shipping—or worse, I wore out my own interest in it. If you wait for perfect, you’ll be waiting forever, when you could be learning and growing by actually making something. So yes, a little noodling and meandering is fine, but then commit, and adapt as you go.read more