Sunday, March 29, 2009

Picture Perfect

Recently a photographer friend of mine graciously volunteered to take a few headshots of me. I didn’t need a full session since I was only looking for one very specific shot. For some time now, I’ve been noticing how a lot of TV shows seemed to have some kind of supernatural bent. Although I’m generally called on to play psychotic killers, I’ve lately been looking for a way to break into the new elite category of “Alien” killers. My slightly goofy, bespectacled photos just weren’t cutting it (Apparently aliens don’t wear bargain frames from Lens Crafters) so I was looking for a simple shot that would highlight my freakier side.

My friend is a very talented photographer and extremely easy to work with. He was great at getting me to relax my face and warm up to the camera. It was actually fun and he generously shot way more photos than I needed. Last week, he sent me the link so I could view the proofs on line. I’ve been stalling because I know what’s about to happen: My annual photographic identity crisis.

Let me start out by saying that although I know it’s a part of my job, I hate having my picture taken. There’s a reason for this. I’m not particularly photogenic. I’m not fishing for compliments here. I don’t think I’m a hideous toad or anything, but for some reason the camera and I rarely seem to get along. My ex was a handsome guy; not a GQ model, but he always looked remarkably good in pictures. It was astounding. No matter how casual the situation; how rotten the lighting, he always looked great. Blessed with solid bone structure and a strong chin, even his DMV picture was cute. I always resented him a little for that.

I, on the other hand, have a somewhat asymmetrical face (which I don’t really mind in life) but always looks sort of weird to me when frozen on film. Forced to look at multiple shots of myself, suddenly nothing is to my liking. Every feature is too big or too small; too high or too low, too close or too far apart. Photographs also rob me of my most treasured illusion: that I’m still a young, up-and-coming person in show business; that I’m just a kid with my whole life ahead of me. These days, there's a somewhat more mature set of eyes gazing back at me from the proof sheet.

In the early days of my career, I always ordered far too many copies of my headshots. It wasn’t so much a case of narcissism as much as it was a desperate attempt to define myself in some way. Being young, I didn’t really know who I was or what kind of actor I wanted to be. While one shot seemed to reveal my funny, lovable side, another made me look sort of intense and angry; while yet another suggested I could do sad, waifish characters. Since I naturally wanted play all those roles someday, I assumed that the best plan was to order 50 copies of each look. Of course, no agent I ever worked with wanted more than two shots: One smiling / One not. Case closed.

In those days, I was also obsessed with finding the “right” photographer. If I could somehow make a perfect “artist-to-artist” connection, then that person’s camera would at long last reveal my as-of-yet untapped genius! This led to a couple of expensive disasters along the way. Once, I showed up (with my eight changes of clothing) and was met at the door by a loopy photographer who instantly proclaimed that that I looked “waaay too tense.” Looking back, I should have been a little suspicious since she was drinking a glass of wine at eleven o’clock in the morning, but I was a little green back then. Somehow, I let her talk me into getting stoned before the session. It would “loosen me up,” she promised. The lady was in possession of some killer weed and all I remember is laughing my ass for the next two hours. However, when I got the prints, my eyes were half-closed and I looked utterly and completely baked. When I showed them to my agent, he remarked, “Well, these will be great if Cheech and Chong ever do another movie.”

Having sat in the director’s chair a couple of times in my life, I can tell you that when it comes to headshots, simple accuracy is helpful. One common mistake is when an actor chooses a hugely flattering shot of themselves. That’s all fine and well if you happen to be drop-dead gorgeous. But if you’re only a “nice-looking” person, you need to be prepared for some sighs of disappointment when you walk in the door. This is Hollywood. If they are looking for eye candy, believe you me, they can find it.

The second most common mistake is even deadlier. When you hand a potential employer your headshot, the last thing you want them to be thinking is: “When the hell was this taken?” Hollywood is a city obsessed with youth and (like it or not) everyone here has a keen eye. If you drop a photo on the table that looks like it was taken ten years ago, the first question uttered after you leave the room will be: “How old do you think she is?”

I’ve been teaching an acting class lately and one of the things I try to stress is developing a strong personal sense of truth. And truth is definitely something you want to filter down to how you choose to represent yourself. All any of us needs is one or two appealing photographs that actually look like us. In a perfect world, that picture also conveys the only things of value we have to offer the artistic process: our humor, our beauty and our flaws. In short: our actual honest-to-God selves. Photographic legend Annie Leibovitz once said, ‘When I photograph someone, what it really means is that I want to get to know them.” That’s a lovely sentiment and one that I suspect is true for many photographers. So the next time somebody points a camera at you, don’t flinch. Say “cheese.” Give ‘em the whole picture.

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

David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at
www.partsandlabor.tv

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Leap of Faith

Not long ago, I was approached about the idea of starting a “spiritually-based” weekly support group for creative types working in the entertainment business. I dodged that suggestion like it was a flying dagger! This being L.A., I instantly pictured myself trapped in a room with a with a Born-Again Christian, an angry Jew, a bunch of sober alcoholics, a Scientologist, a Buddhist, a molested Catholic and at least one person practicing “The Secret.” I was living in New York in the 80’s when everyone I knew was chanting “Nom-yay-ray-kay” in the hope that it would bring them a Broadway show or job on a soap opera. In those days, I wasn’t entirely sure I even believed there was such a thing as a “Higher Power.” But if God did exist, I was fairly certain that he (or she) couldn’t possibly give a damn whether or not I booked a pilot.

My father was a man of the cloth who left the ministry when I was fairly small (something for which I will always be grateful since there are few fates worse than being a small town preacher’s kid). Papa, however, never lost his faith and there was rarely a Sunday we weren’t all slumped in a church pew (me in my brown polyester suit). The churches we attended were always Pentecostal; complete with lots of speaking in tongues and congregants who seemed to share only one common denominator: tremendous personal hardship. There was lots of talk about sin, wrath, plagues and the unbearable agonies of Hell. Adding to levity, we frequently sang hymns where we referred to ourselves as “wretches” or “worms.” I hated it. For me it was the spiritual equivalent of Guantanamo Bay and as I glanced around at my fellow detainees, I couldn’t help wondering if I was the only one who thought this was all a huge crock of shit. As planned, the second I turned eighteen, I was on the first Greyhound out of there. I was a young man with plans. Big plans.

For most of my adult life, I avoided anything (and anybody) even vaguely “spiritual.” Then about eleven years ago, I reluctantly agreed to accompany my neighbor to visit a local church. Much to my surprise, I liked it and went back with him the following week. It was a wildly liberal congregation and even after my friend lost interest, I continued going. The people were very nice and the place clearly needed some help. Faster than you could say, “Jesus wept,” I found myself on the board of directors, where I helped spearhead some major repairs, fed some homeless people and staged some fairly successful fundraisers for AIDS and breast cancer awareness.

Needless to say, as time passed, the question of faith reared its head. I still wasn’t sure what I thought about the whole idea of God, but it was hard not to respect the human journey I was witnessing. I was used to hanging around creative types who are always seeking something (It just goes with the territory). But when creative people don’t know how to address their inner needs, it can quickly turn into icky self-absorption (and new headshots). This group was different. I was now among people who sought to fill an inner void by looking outward; by extending their hand to others. The work we did was taxing, morally complicated and never seemed to happen at a convenient time, but I began to see some parallels between their spiritual path and the one I was trying to hack out of the jungle of my own life.

Creativity is by definition an act of faith. I frankly don’t know where I get the balls to sit down at this computer and attempt to write. Doubt is so ingrained into my personality, it’s astounding that I ever finish anything. Somewhere along the line, it finally occurred to me that the only real responsibility I had was to express some form of truth. It didn’t have to be universally “true,” it just had to be personally true. It also helped me to realize that anything that emerges from my imagination is not uniquely my own; but is instead drawn from a vast well of human experience that shapes and defines us all. Much like life, the rules of creativity change daily. It’s daunting, but not impossible to figure out. For every bucket I take from the well, I simply try to put one back.

I recently had coffee with a close friend who (after taking a stab at being an actor and then a teacher) is now training to be a couple’s therapist. I was surprised to hear him express doubts about his decision. He was now “in the chair,” guiding his clients through their various crises and hopefully steering them toward some kind of personal growth. To him, it felt like a tremendous responsibility; one he wasn’t sure he was totally up to. As I listened, I thought about all the thoughtful research he’d done before starting on this journey. I remembered how excited he’d been at the beginning and how much commitment I’d seen him put forth. I finally asked him what seemed to be the only real question on the table: Did he believe in the process of therapy? Did he have faith that the big answers reveal themselves as we do the work and not before? Turns out, he does. I think he’s going to be a terrific therapist. I always did.

I guess faith is an inherent belief that you’re on the right path – even though that path can sometimes lead you to the edge of a rather big cliff that requires jumping. Usually it all boils down to a good honest assessment of what you’re actually good at – and then following the trail of bread crumbs until you eventually find the loaf. I’ve always liked to make people laugh. For me, laughter always feels like “possibility”; the chance to acknowledge that there are a few things we’re all scared of (or hope for) but just haven’t collectively admitted to yet. When I laugh, I know who I am. Not who I wish I was. But who I actually am.

I remember seeing Bette Midler interviewed once. Ms. Midler (surely one of the most unique success stories in all of show business) was saying that for her, being creative was a bizarre combination of brazenly believing that you were the greatest thing since sliced bread while at the same time, realizing that you’re probably not; that you could always be better. Faith is the pendulum that swings between these two opposites. If achieved, it will keep you going and if nurtured, it will keep you honest too.

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

David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at http://www.partsandlabor.tv/



Sunday, March 15, 2009

Shadow of a Doubt

Last Monday, I had an audition for a guest star role on a TV show. It was actually the sort of role I like to audition for: a loner; a weirdo; a psychopath; the sort of part I can relate to. I’d been battling a nasty cold for a few days, so in preparation for my audition, I loaded up on Afrin and Dayquil, then hauled myself out to the remote studio where the auditions were being held. As I sat in the lobby, surrounded by Asian actresses waiting to audition for the other guest star role (the beautiful but brilliant “Dr. Kimura”) I tried to say alert and focused. The audition scene I was going to be reading was extremely short and the last thing I wanted was to blow it by getting jumpy and distracted.

Finally my name was called and I shuffled in. The room was small and jammed with people. I zeroed in on the young casting associate who I would be reading with, cleared my head and went for it. Five lines later, we were done. I thought it had gone pretty well. At least three of the five lines had sounded reasonably convincing to my slightly plugged up ears. There was a collective “thank you” and a nodding of the heads. I exited the room feeling okay about it.

But as I walked out to my car, the shadow descended. I realized I hadn’t gotten the job. Experience has taught me that when they’re interested in you, there’s usually a little chitchat following the audition. Or at the very least, there’s some discernable change in the mood of the room. I hadn’t detected any. On the rare occasions when I’ve found myself in the director’s chair, if an actor auditions for me and I like his or her work, I usually engage them in a little conversation afterwards for one simple reason: to see if they’re crazy. I can tell you from experience: you don’t want crazy if you can possibly avoid it.

As I drove home along Los Feliz Boulevard, I started wondering why the hell I was still pursuing acting jobs. As an off-beat character actor, I don’t get a ton of auditions anyway. When opportunities do pop up, it’s hard to keep things in perspective. Two years ago, I had literally been plucked from screenwriting obscurity by David E. Kelley who'd handed me a plum role that had resurrected my acting career – a career I had willingly abandoned 15 years earlier. The experience was life-changing and reminded me how much fun acting can be.

But since returning to the audition circuit, I’d also been reminded of how tough the rejections are; how personal it winds up feeling (even though in reality, there is nothing personal about it at all). In the writing world, when your script is rejected, you can redeem yourself by shoving it into the hands of a friend and saying “Here! Read this!” Auditioning, however, is a different beast. As much as you can assure your friends and agents that you were brilliant in the room, none of them were actually there to witness it. Slowly, but surely, your doubts start surfacing. “Maybe I wasn’t so brilliant? Maybe I overacted. Maybe I sucked.”

After about a half an hour, I was back in Hollywood and a few minutes later, finally home. Although I’d promised my manager I'd give him a call after the audition, I opted to conveniently forget that promise. The Afrin was wearing off and my sinuses were rapidly closing. What I really wanted was a stiff drink, but given the fragile state of my health, I decided to settle for a cup of green tea. I glanced at the clock; it was just over an hour since I had auditioned. It seemed like ten years. Suddenly, my cell rang. The caller I.D. read “Manager / Dave.” God bless the guy for following up, I thought. I sighed, reached for my artistic bootstraps and tried to pull them up before answering.

It might have been because my brain was still swimming in antihistamines, but I initially thought he said “Hi, it’s Dave. I’ve got Kip from APA on the line.” This threw me because I’m not signed with APA. And who the hell was Kip? “Congratulations!” said Kip, “It looks like you got it.” Despite the fact that I had no idea who I was talking to, I replied enthusiastically! “Great!” I said, as I wracked my brain, trying to remember if I had some long-forgotten project still floating around APA. My manager chimed in, “Nobody does ‘Psycho’ like you do!” Then it occurred to me that this wasn’t “Kip from APA.” This was “Chip,” one of my agents from “AKA.” Suddenly, I was incredulous. “I got it? Really?” “They’ve got a pin in you,” Chip replied cheerfully. “The network just needs to approve you, but it’s looking good.” Having had “a pin in me” in the past, I can attest that it’s not nearly as painful as it sounds. Usually, it means by the following morning the job is almost always yours. About an hour later, the pin came out and I was officially employed. Shooting starts tomorrow morning and it looks like it’s going to be fun.

The point to this story is that sometimes, even when you think you know, you don’t. Experience (which can be helpful and sometimes comforting) is no match for the utter unpredictability of the business. The chips really can fall in anyone’s favor. And this is both the most maddening and most delicious aspect of being an actor. Or a writer. Or a director. Or a producer. Or anybody in this business. Yes, you need some talent, some skill and definitely some determination, but once in awhile (when you least expect it), you just draw the winning number. And those are moments to be savored. So go out and spin the wheel, Hollywood! I got lucky this week. So could you.

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

David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at
www.partsandlabor.tv

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Amateur Night

Three months ago, I started teaching an acting class. It’s been fun to be surrounded by so many talented young people; all with a real desire to learn and get better at their craft. Recently, one of my students took me aside and nervously asked me if I thought she had the talent to “make it.” The question took me by surprise. Mostly, because she's quite good. I was happy to reassure her that she certainly could “make it” provided that the show business gods smiled in her direction.

The conversation flashed me back to when I was a young wannabe actor living in Austin, Texas and desperately wondering if I had the goods to make it in New York. I was terrified of the idea, but I also feared the possibility of going to my grave wishing I'd at least tried it. I had, at the time, a truly horrible job. I don’t even think this job exists today. I was a “file clerk.” Five days a week, I worked in the basement of a large insurance company where I literally "filed" all day long. Lit by florescent tubes, "the tomb" (as those of us who worked there called it) was a long, windowless room, lined floor-to-ceiling with tall racks of insurance files. From 8:00 am to 5:00 pm, I climbed up and down a rolling ladder, pulling the lists of “requested” files and then re-filing the files I had pulled the day before. It was grim, mind-numbing, soulless work. And it was the perfect job for me.

The utter boredom allowed me to daydream pretty much non-stop. I knew I wanted to an artist. I knew I wanted to make something of myself. Yet I also knew I could be totally comfortable staying in Austin. It was (and still is) a virtual Eden for regional artists. There was always plenty to do and see and hear. Yet part of me desperately wanted to measure myself against the big-timers in New York. Austin could never offer stardom. They didn’t give Oscars, Emmys or Tonys for “Best File Clerk.”

At the time, I was also appearing in a play at one of the local community theatres. It was a British drawing room comedy; one of those old chestnuts you could bring your grandmother to without being worried that someone would say “fuck” or take their clothes off. One night, I arrived at the theatre completely exhausted after eight hours of non-stop filing. I was cranky and depressed and felt (at age 20) that my life was already over. Who was I? Just a penniless college dropout with no game plan.

I pulled on my costume and trudged out to the wings. As I listened to the audience filing in, I started thinking about the glamorous Westgate Dinner Theatre located on the opposite side of town. It was an Equity house that booked "professional" touring shows. I knew that at this very moment, those actors were also standing in the wings waiting for their performance to start. But the difference was they were getting paid! Were they more talented? Were they more driven? Did they have “connections?” I knew that dinner theatre wasn’t exactly the big time, but it looked pretty damn good from where I was standing at the moment. As the houselights went down, I tugged at my uncomfortable collar. Who was I kidding? Our little amateur production now seemed shabby and embarrassing. My back hurt from climbing a ladder all day. I had papercuts on nine of my fingers. All I wanted was to get this over with and go home. Hearing my cue, I sighed and marched dutifully out on stage. And that’s when it happened.

The play was being staged in the round (with audience on all four sides). Unlike a normal proscenium stage (where the lights are in your eyes) when you walked out on this stage, you were keenly aware of the audience. I don’t know why, but on this particular night, I noticed them in a way I hadn’t before. As I hit the edge of the playing area, the whole audience turned their faces toward me…and smiled! This group of total strangers seemed oddly happy to see me; and I hadn’t even done anything yet! The very fact that I was even willing to put on this funny costume and at least try to entertain them, had won me a totally unearned place in their hearts. It was like a wave of goodwill had just washed over me. Suddenly, I wasn’t tired anymore. A surge of energy shot through me and I dove into delivering the best comic performance I could muster. The rest of the evening seemed magical. The cast landed every joke; every sight gag. The applause went on longer than usual and we bowed deeply in our goofy, period costumes. A few people even waited in the lobby to shake our hands. If there was even a ghost of a chance that I might be able to get paid for doing this, I had to pursue it. That night as I steered my dented Buick out of the parking lot, I knew I was going to New York. Six months later (on a song and a prayer) I did.

My hope was, of course, that my talent and charm would be recognized quickly and rewarded in short order with major stardom. That’s not exactly how it worked out. In fact, I’m still waiting for that one to work out. The transition from “amateur” to “professional” was neither as easy nor as hard as I’d expected. It began with a healthy dose of humility, followed by a few years of extreme poverty, interlaced with quite a bit of incredibly hard work. I’m not sure exactly how I fueled my ambition during that stretch, but I do know that I steadfastly harbored an unshakable faith that this dream I was chasing was the most wonderful destiny a young man ever could wish for. I guess it worked. I’m still here.

According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary the word “amateur” comes to us from the Latin word amator meaning “lover” or amare which means “to love.” “To love,” when you are young and relatively innocent is, of course, quite easy. You are filled with nothing but great expectations and very little real experience to temper those dreams. Grown-up love (the kind that lasts, anyway) involves loving not just the dream, but also the reality. I try to instill in my students that most careers are a wonderful mash-up of the good, the bad and the ugly. Glorious victories. Shitty disappointments. Rapturous praise. Rotten tomatoes. Enduring friendships. Freaks and Fiends. Lavish attention. Followed by periods of complete and utter invisibility. During my first “professional” gig, I stupidly asked an elderly character actor why we had to do eight shows a week. To me, it seemed like a lot to ask. He smiled thinly and replied, “We do eight shows a week, my boy, on the off-chance that we might get one of them right.” Turns out he was correct about that. More often than not, that "one" - that happy attempt that goes well - does seem to make up for everything that proceeded it. Whenever we did a performance that went better than expected, I remember the old character actor used to clap his hands together and exclaim, "All is forgiven!" Being young, I had no clue what he meant by that, but it now strikes me the most elegant and concise definition of love I have ever heard.

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

David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at
www.partsandlabor.tv

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Borrowed Brilliance

Years ago I tried to write a spec TV pilot loosely based on an early chapter in my parent’s lives. It featured an ensemble cast of quirky characters and took place in an economically depressed mill town in eastern Kentucky -- A friend of mine referred to it as the hillbilly version of “Northern Exposure.” One of my characters, (named “Roland”) was sort of the heavy in the script. A gruff, hard-headed business man, he had little patience for anything that didn’t turn a profit and his desire to build a gaudy mini-mall in the center of town thwarted the altruistic efforts of our hero (who was based on my Dad). As written, Roland seemed to take a certain glee in screwing things up for others. The script basically centered on themes of forgiveness and redemption and although I liked most of it, this Roland character bugged me. He never quite worked. While all the other characters popped off the page, this guy just barked and sneered his way through the story without engaging our hearts in any way. Finally, I gave up and asked a friend to look at the script, hoping he’d provide me with some useable feedback.

While I was waiting for my friend’s response, I started reading a collection of short stories by Ferrol Sams, a writer I very much admired. One of the stories was narrated by a chatty female character that frequently went off on very long and highly entertaining tangents. In one of her long-winded asides, she briefly mentioned an old man whom she referred to as “mean,” but then quickly added that no one in town took his behavior personally since it was generally accepted that he was “just mad because his wife had died of cancer.” It was the only reference to the “old man” in the whole story, but that one detail instantly (and perfectly) defined this guy’s worldview in my mind. He felt robbed. Fate had taken away the only person he loved and now he was left alone. I began to think about Roland.

I didn’t want to steal anything from the estimable Mr. Sams, but I began to wonder if I could give my character some distinct reason for his ill-tempered behavior. I sat down and retooled my script; creating the character of Roland’s wife; who after 33 years of marriage had finally had enough of his hardball tactics and had left him and moved in with her sister. Now, Roland, who felt he’d done nothing but work hard all his life to provide for his family, had a reason to be angry at the world. He was being punished for doing what he believed to be right. And worse yet, his personal problems were now on display for the whole town to see. This change humanized him and gave him a journey in the script other than being just a stock antagonist – surly and obstructive for no reason. By the end of the story, Roland was humbly showing up on his sister-in-law’s porch with flowers for his estranged wife and in the final scene of the script, they are briefly seen out together on what appears to be a very awkward “date.”

So, here is the point of this tale: I never would have thought of that change on my own. Had I not read Ferrol Sams short story, I’m sure Roland would have just laid there on the page without making much of an impact. All I did was notice how Mr. Sams had artfully explained a character’s temperament and then tried to incorporate that tactic into my own work. It made a huge difference in my script and taught me an important lesson.

Many times, those of us who are trying to do something creative, tend to think we are the only ones who have ever traveled this road. It pays to remember that people have been writing stories and creating characters for thousands of years. Whatever kind of tale you are telling (a drama, a comedy, a romance), I can promise you someone in the history of time has attempted it before you with varying degrees of success. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t endorse plagiarism, but reading (and analyzing) the work of other writers is an invaluable part of developing your own voice.

I’ve been teaching an acting class lately and I recently advised my students to choose a “celluloid mentor” for themselves; an actor whose work they admire and then to start watching as many of that person’s films as possible. Again, I’m not advocating outright theft. I don’t suggest imitating anyone’s line-readings, gestures or personal style. I’m only suggesting that when you watch “how” a gifted artist approaches a particular character; “how” they achieve their goal in a tricky scene; you are gaining what could be an invaluable tool that might come in darn handy later in your career.

Years ago, Michael Caine (one of the most durable screen actors of all time) gave a series of seminars in London on the subject of film acting. They were taped and shown here on PBS in the late 80’s. I recently noticed that they will soon be available here on Netflix. What I remember most about these remarkable sessions (in addition to Mr. Caine’s enormous generosity) was him strongly encouraging his class to watch as many brilliant actors as possible. “For one simple reason,” he advised, “So you can steal from them!”

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

David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at
www.partsandlabor.tv