Sunday, July 13, 2008

The New Adventures of Actor-Man

The young, pretty A.D. stuck her head in the door and smiled. “We’re ready for you, Mr. Bottrell.” I was feeling a little jumpy, but that was to be expected. After all, I hadn’t done any acting in a really long time. I exited the trailer and crossed the parking lot to where the scene was about to be shot. As I got closer, I noticed there were quite a lot of people standing around; Not just crew members, but also the extras who would soon be pelting me with ad-libbed questions as my character tried to deliver his prepared statement to the press. Wow, there were so many of them. As the make-up woman blotted my face with a cold sponge, I began to feel a little short of breath. A weird numbness began crawling up the back of my neck and across my scalp. As I stared at this small army of people (all of whom were now staring back at me), I was gripped by a huge, paralyzing wave of fear. Suddenly, the director called “Action” and I couldn’t remember a single word of my speech. Not one. I sputtered and stammered through take after take, never once getting it right. At one point, the poor director yelled over the camera, “Just say anything!” Finally, after about ten takes we landed one where I said most of the words in approximately the right order. I limped away, utterly humiliated. I had known the lines in the trailer! What the fuck had happened? Before the next scene, I frantically drilled myself on every word. I arrived on the set wound tighter than a box spring. I got through it, but my performance was rigid and lifeless (and the continuity people were ready to strangle me). All I wanted was for this nightmare to be over, but there was fresh hell to come. My character had already been written into next week’s episode. How had I gotten myself into this mess?

By answering the phone. That’s how. When a casting director-friend of mine had originally asked me to audition, I had turned her down. I was scheduled to take my short film to festival in Palm Springs and the audition was going to screw up my departure plans. She was, however, not deterred; promising me an early appointment time and swearing it would be “fun.” I agreed to come in, but felt nervous about it. I had given up acting fifteen years earlier when I moved west to pursue a writing career. Occasionally, a friend of mine who was a showrunner would hire me to do a couple of lines here and there on whatever sitcom he was producing, but usually the roles were so tiny (“Customer # 2”) that I didn’t even have to audition for them. When I stepped into my friend’s casting office on that fateful Friday morning, it had been more than seven years since I’d been in front of a camera. Luckily for me, I had one of those miraculous auditions that occur every other eon. Everybody laughed and two hours later, I was in wardrobe. When I received a revised script the following day, it was clear that my character (originally intended to be in only one episode) was now going to reoccur the following week. Apparently the creator of the show had taken a shine to me.

After the debacle of the first episode, I drove to the studio to shoot the second one with my knuckles white on the steering wheel. My stomach was in a knot. I wanted to puke. Why had I said yes to this? As I flashed back on the nightmare of the previous week, I recalled one very crucial detail: everyone else on the set had been relaxed and happy. I had been the only miserable wretch in sight. “Fuck it!” I yelled out loud in my car. “I don’t give a shit! I never asked for this! If I suck, it’s their fault! They’re the ones who hired a talentless hack for the role! I’m going to fucking-well relax and have fun if it goddamn kills me!” Plastering a jittery smile on my face, I marched onto Stage 16 fully determined to stink up the joint. But fate intervened. The other actor in the scene (a series regular) was having a few justifiable problems with his character’s through-line. Suddenly the focus was off me and onto solving his dilemma. I was all too happy to rehearse the scene several different ways until a solution was found. I began to enjoy the process and when it finally came time to shoot my big freaky monologue (where I threatened him), I was into it. Afterwards, a crew member discreetly complimented me as he unhooked my body mike. “You kinda scared me, dude,” he whispered. I was floored. Not only had I frightened the sound guy, I had actually managed to enjoy myself. The curse was broken. My “one-episode” character was kept on the show for eight glorious weeks, growing more nutty and sinister with each installment. By the time the final episodes aired, I was signed to an agency and had begun to audition for TV pilots and guest star roles.

Truthfully, stepping back into acting hasn’t been exactly been like riding a bike. I’d forgotten how ridiculously brief auditions can be – not to mention the staggering number of things that can go wrong in that short period of time. Even in my early heyday as a stage actor in New York, I was never particularly easy to cast. I was tall and skinny, not particularly handsome and sort of quirky. I could never play leads since I largely came off as sort of asexual and dickless. But when I had the right role (like a junkie or a hillbilly), I could be pretty good. The problem was finding those parts. I largely got cast because directors liked working with me and would offer me roles that I could never have booked in a standard audition situation. Still, I was an oddball. The best reviews I ever got in my life were for a Samuel Beckett play where I portrayed a ninety-year old man who spoke only in gibberish. When I asked my agent if he could use the good reviews to get me more auditions, he answered, “How do I sell a twenty-eight year old actor who plays ninety?”

When screenwriting fell into my lap, I wasn’t too sorry to leave acting behind. The constant scramble to stay visible was wearing me out. The huge disappointments were getting harder to take and then there was all that horrible waiting for the phone to ring. Although I’m a little less vulnerable now, there are still some aspects of the job that kill me. Chief among them being that Godless moment, when I am driving home from an audition and it suddenly occurs to me what I should have done! -- That brilliant line-reading or funny bit that would surely have landed me the job! Ugh! Sometimes I wonder how I could have invited all that anxiety and regret back into my life? I guess the answer is that when acting goes well -- when you manage to dazzle them, it’s Heaven. In that moment, I understand what it must feel like to be an Olympic athlete – performing some ridiculously complex feat, but somehow doing it with an ease and precision that seems almost supernatural. And then there are the cheers from the crowd! Oh, excuse me. That was my manager calling. Gotta go. I’ve got an audition tomorrow. I’m reading for a guest role that’s described as “a nervous, lonely, oddball” (sort of an asexual, dickless type, I’m guessing) on an obscure cable series I’ve never heard of. I’ve got a good feeling about this one. Cross your fingers!

Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
http://www.daviddeanbottrell.com/

This essay can be emailed to a friend by clicking on the small “envelope” icon below. David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being unexpectedly middle-class in Hollywood at www.partsandlabor.tv

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