Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Stunted

Last weekend, I met a young guy at a barbeque who had just relocated to L.A. When I asked him what had brought him here, he was a little vague at first, but eventually confessed that he was interested in possibly doing some stunt work. I wished him well. Being the bookish, indoorsy type, stunt work has always seemed about as appealing to me as working on a bomb squad. Although, I truly admire the people who do it.

Over the years, I’ve worked with some terrific stunt coordinators who were great at making actors feel confident while keeping things safe and fun. I’ve also worked with a couple of guys who were not so much fun. My first unhappy experience came many years ago when I was doing a truly awful off-Broadway play. At one point in the show, I had to attack one of the other actors, who then had to beat me into submission. This was followed by a scene where we played Russian Roulette with a loaded pistol. Like I said, it was an awful play.

The minute I laid eyes on the stunt guy (who we’ll call “Bill”) I sensed I wasn’t going to like him. He was as big as a house and had an ego to match. He’d been working on some movie and seemed to think he was doing us a favor by even being there. When I confessed that I wasn’t exactly the rough-and-tumble type, he seemed to take it as a challenge to his authority. For the next two hours, he proceeded to choreograph a fight that was like something out of a James Bond movie. His idea seemed to be that my character was a glutton for punishment and that no matter how many times the other actor punched me in the face, kicked me in the stomach or kneed me in the groin, I just kept coming back. Finally, when Bill suggested that it might be fun if the other actor used a chair to knock me over the sofa, I felt compelled to point out that if his character really did all this to me, I’d be dead. This got a huge laugh in the rehearsal hall which made Bill dislike me even more.

Finally, the director stepped in, suggesting that maybe something a little less spectacular would work better for me. Bill, clearly miffed, shrugged his shoulders and agreed to pare the fight down to “something this guy can handle.” I was instructed to stand off to one side as Bill and his assistant demonstrated “the backhand.” I had to admit Bill was good. Every time he smacked his assistant across the face, it looked and sounded painfully real. In an effort to drive home the finer points of the backhand, Bill repeated it rapidly, over and over! Smack! Smack! Smack!

Suddenly, I heard a pop. My vision went a little blurry. I wanted to say something, but my brain couldn't formulate any words. The only thought I could crystallize was that I'd been shot in the head - which didn't make any sense. All of a sudden, the director was in front of me asking if I was okay. “No,” I answered as my knees started to buckle. Grabbing my arm, he steered me into a nearby chair. That’s when I was informed that Bill’s bulky metal wristwatch had come loose while he was demonstrating the rapid “backhand” and it had struck me in the forehead going about sixty miles an hour. Within seconds, a huge goose egg popped up over my right eyebrow. Somebody found some ice and gradually my ability to form words came back -- as did my ability to feel intense, searing pain! Rehearsal was called off for the rest of the afternoon and when I next saw Bill a few days later, he was much nicer to me (probably because he feared a law suit). In the end, most of the fight wound up occurring behind a conveniently-placed sofa where my fellow actor punched a pillow and I made a bunch of “Oooff” sounds.

My next scary stunt moment didn’t come until many years later. I was shooting a scene in a TV show where I had to sneak up on a lovely actress named Jill while she was seated on a sofa having a phone conversation, and hit her in the back of the head with a shovel. It was meant to be funny, but Jill and I were both anxious about it – and rightfully so. The “stunt shovel” was made out of rubber -- so, although it wasn’t deadly, it would certainly hurt if it made contact.

As planned, I wasn’t actually going to hit her with it. I was just going to swing at her, then jerk the shovel back at the last possible second. In order for everything to fit into the shot, I had to hold the shovel at the very end of the handle which made it heavy and awkward to manipulate. Plus, I had to step into the shot, hit my mark, and somehow time the whole thing out so I popped her just as she finished her phone call. It was tricky and the first few takes didn’t go well; mostly because Jill and I were both so nervous.

Tony, the stunt guy, was very nice and encouraged us to just relax and “go for it.” Finally, we got one decent take, but Tony wanted to try for one more. Feeling a little more confident, I again snuck up behind Jill and raised the shovel, but this time she hesitated in her lines. I wasn’t sure if she’d dropped a cue or was taking a pause. Following Tony’s advice, I “went for it” and took the swing. But unfortunately the timing was off. Jill moved her head and I accidentally smacked her in the back of the skull; knocking her off the sofa. Needless to say, I was mortified and apologized profusely. Thankfully, Jill was very gracious about it, but also made it clear that she didn’t want me on the other end of the shovel anymore. The director wisely chose to finish up with a couple of tightly-framed pick-up shots (with Tony wielding the shovel off-camera instead of me). When the episode aired, they wound up using the take where poor Jill actually got hit -- which I have to say did look pretty funny.

For a wimpy character guy, I’ve surprisingly been punched, slapped, stabbed, kicked and head-butted quite a few times on stage and screen over the years and so far have lived to tell the tale. I always give it my best shot and try not to look completely terrified when I realize I’m about to go rolling across the floor. And I’m always grateful to the camera guys and editors who somehow manage to make it look real. Just last week, I got offered a small role in an edgy little thriller in which I get to be shot in the head and fall over a chair. I can hardly wait!

Copyright 2010 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.

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

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Celebrity Story

Living in Los Angeles has a lot of advantages. We’re blessed with an incredibly diverse population, a dynamic creative community and perhaps the best weather on the planet. We also have the added bonus of celebrities in our midst! Celebs (just like regular people) sometimes go out for lunch, pick up their dry cleaning and walk their dogs which allows the rest of us to get a quick, up close glimpse of the actual person who has dazzled us on TV or film.

When I first came to the City of Angels, I was wowed by every celebrity sighting and couldn’t wait to get home and call up some friend to report that I actually stood in line at the Starbucks behind Jodie Foster or rode in an elevator with Warren Beatty. But soon, I discovered that my friends, who’d live here longer than me, weren’t all that impressed. Apparently, in order for one’s “Celebrity Story” to have weight, you had to have had a more intimate, dramatic or quirky encounter with a star. These tales then become useful ice-breakers at cocktail parties; and the odder they are, the better.

My best celebrity encounter story dates back 20 years when I first came west to try my hand at this mysterious thing called “pilot season.” Being new to L.A. I never had any idea how long it would take me to get from “point A” to “point B,” so I tended to leave very early for every appointment. One day I was scheduled to meet with an agent and found myself at his office building a full 30 minutes before my scheduled meeting. Not wanting to look too desperate, I bought a newspaper and decided to kill the time, loitering in front of the building.

It was about 5:00 pm and rush hour was in full swing. The building was on Sunset, close to the famous “Strip” where the boulevard gets a little curvy. Even at rush hour, the curves didn’t seem to deter the drivers from going as fast as they possibly could, which I found a little unnerving. For some reason, I happened to glance up and spotted a guy on a motor scooter swerving through traffic. It looked like something might be wrong. Either the guy was being a little reckless or he didn’t really know how to operate the bike. Suddenly, he lost control and the scooter slid out from under him, sending him sprawling onto the blacktop just as a huge wave of cars were barreling around the curve. Panic surged through me! Dropping my newspaper, I rushed out into the street and began waving my arms to divert traffic. Luckily, the crush of cars was able to divide on either side of us and mercifully, neither the scooter guy nor I were killed.

I whirled around and saw the guy was trying to get to his feet. Sensing we had a few seconds before the next wave of traffic would hit us, I took a step toward him. “Are you alright?” I yelled. “Yeah, I’m good,” he replied as he pulled off his helmet and turned to face me. Suddenly, I was standing in the middle of Sunset Boulevard, face-to-face with then heavyweight champion of the world, Mike Tyson. I almost swallowed my tongue.

The first thought that popped into my head was to mention that I had just worked with his ex-wife, Robin Givens not two weeks prior on an episode of “Head of the Class.” Then it occurred to me that this man could easily snap my neck like a twig, so I switched back to Good Samaritan mode. “We need to get this bike off the street,” I yelled as the next barrage of traffic swept by us. “Thanks,” he replied. As we pulled the bike upright, I took him in for the first time. When I’d seen him fight on TV, he’d looked immense and terrifying; a force of nature that could barely be contained. In person, he looked shorter and more compact. “I don’t know what happened,” he murmured, sounding a little embarrassed. “Nothing,” I replied, “It think it just slid.” Once the bike was up, the champ informed me that he was okay to ride again. Climbing on the bike, he waved to me and sped away, leaving me to make a mad dash back through traffic and onto the safety of the sidewalk. The whole encounter had lasted maybe 90 seconds.

Oddly, the sidewalk was now lined with people who had streamed out of the lobby once word had spread that Tyson was sprawled in the street. The crowd began asking me what had happened and what he’d said. I suddenly felt very uncomfortable and decided to duck into the building and go to my appointment, early or not. Once inside the agent’s office, I couldn’t help but spill the beans about my bizarre chance encounter with the champ. The agent smiled slyly and said “You should call the National Inquirer. They’d probably buy the story off you. You might get ten grand for it.”

Being a poor young actor at the time, ten grand sounded pretty good to me. But as I drove home, I kept wondering if the story was really worth that kind of cash. I began to consider the possibility of juicing it up a bit. After all, nobody had been present at the scene except Mike and me. I could say anything. I could say he smelled of alcohol (he didn’t) or that as he lay dazed in the street, he was calling Robin Given’s name (he wasn’t). Then I remembered that Mike Tyson was at the time, a powerful multi-millionaire with an infamous temper who might well be able to track me down and beat the living shit out of me. I decided to let the story go. Perhaps, I’d just chalk it up to my good deed for the day and leave it at that.

Imagine my surprise when, two weeks later, I was standing in the supermarket line, leafing through the National Inquirer and spotted a short article about Mike Tyson taking a spill on his motor scooter. Apparently, one of the onlookers who’d observed the whole incident from the safety of the sidewalk had called it in. There was no mention of the skinny, white guy who’d rushed into traffic to protect and aid the champ, but that was okay, I told myself. I hadn’t known it was Tyson when I ran into traffic. I just thought it was somebody was in trouble.

That odd little memory came back to me last week when I happened to catch Tyson appearing on, of all shows, “The View.” Quite a lot had happened in his life in the last twenty years and much of it had not been good. Barbara Walters couldn’t help bringing up her much-talked about interview with Mike and his then wife, Robin Givens and even had the balls to ask the champ if that interview had caused the collapse of his marriage. It was also clear that a few of “The View” ladies didn’t seem to be too happy to be seated so close to a convicted rapist and domestic abuser. But the strangest moment came when Tyson admitted that he was now completely broke. It was an awkward admission on a talk show that largely likes to skim over the surface of unpleasant topics. Barbara, who had very much assumed the lead up to this point, tried to segue gracefully into a commercial, but the camera was still on Tyson’s face. Never the most polished media personality, Tyson looked somber, but not sorry to have rocked the boat with a little dose of reality. His crimes, his arrogance, his regret and the consequences of his misplaced trust were all on display for the world to see.

On the rare occasions I tell the story of Mike and me, I never open with “Did I ever tell you about the time I saved Mike Tyson’s life?” Maybe the oncoming traffic would have spotted him and swerved out of the way with no help from me. Who knows? I’m just glad I did it. And I’m glad that I occasionally get to cross paths (even in the strangest of circumstances) with those people who fascinate, infuriate or seduce us with their exploits and abilities. It’s one of the coolest parts of the life and the city I chose for myself. Have a great week, Hollywood. Keep your eyes open. You never know who you might see.

Copyright 2010 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.

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

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Getting It Straight

A couple of days ago, a friend sent me a link to a piece published on Newsweek.com by an openly gay entertainment reporter that really pissed me off. It was a piece basically claiming that casting openly gay actors in heterosexual roles simply never works.

As a gay guy trying to make a living in Hollywood, this is, needless to say, is a subject that hits close to home. I’m generally not big on writing letters to the editor, but this particular piece inspired me. I shot off both a letter to the editor of Newsweek and an Op-Ed version to the L.A. Times. However, since I suspect that neither of them will see the light of day, I thought I’d use my modest internet platform to share my personal opinion with those who might be interested. Here is the link to the original article: http://www.newsweek.com/id/236999 And here is what I wrote in response:

Dear Newsweek Editor:

I recently read with great interest an article published in Newsweek’s online edition entitled “Straight Jacket: Heterosexual actors play gay all the time. Why doesn't it ever work in reverse?” by Ramin Setoodeh (an openly gay writer). In the article, Mr. Setoodeh expresses his opinion that openly Gay actors are simply not believable in “straight” roles, then goes on to grade the “believability” papers of actors Sean Hayes, Portia de Rossi, Neil Patrick Harris and “Glee’s” Jonathan Groff. Their scores were not good, but he did allow that some of them could pull off straight people as “broad caricatures” but not as “realistic characters like the ones in Up in the Air or even The Proposal.” Funny, I saw the “The Proposal” and I don’t remember there being any realistic characters in that film.

I kept asking myself, "Is this guy joking? Speaking as an openly out professional actor, I can assure you that there are a great many gay and lesbian actors who have spent pretty much their entire careers playing "straight." Trust me. If they weren't convincing, they wouldn't still be working. I also couldn’t help noticing that Mr. Setoodeh didn’t bother to express his opinion on the "believability" of say, Emmy winner, Cherry Jones ("24") or Academy Award nominee, Ian McKellen ("Lord of the Rings," "The X-Men"); two openly out actors who have rarely played "gay" characters, but have enjoyed long and extraordinarily distinguished careers. Does he find them convincing? How about Dan Butler as “Bulldog” the macho sports caster on “Frasier?” Did he buy Jane Lynch as Meryl Streep’s lonely straight sister in “Julie and Julia?” How about Lily Tomlin as the presumably heterosexual matriarch of the Tobin clan on this season's “Damages?”

Of course not every actor is right for every role. That's a given. But to add fuel to the ever-smoldering fires of Hollywood’s casting homophobia is sort of a small-minded pot shot, if you asked me. I have tremendous admiration for actors who come out. Everyone knows the risk. Everyone knows there will be people like Mr. Setoodeh who will not be able to resist calling you too "queeny" or too "butch" to be believable playing a straight person. That's all that's required to subtly shift the focus of nervous producers and casting people away from your actual abilities and onto your private life. I've seen it happen. "Let's keep looking" is code for "I really don't want any grief for this decision."

Believe it or not, most actors (straight or gay) come to our profession not because we want to be rich or famous, but because of a very real desire to experience, even for a short time, the lives of other people; people braver, smarter, sexier, richer, poorer, meaner, kinder or funnier than we will ever be. It a tough gig. Many are called, but few are chosen. And those who are chosen struggle to do their work well and stay employed in a highly competitive and very skittish industry. It would be nice, if those who write about the entertainment business had a little respect for those realities -- especially in these days and times when gay and lesbian actors often find themselves caught between staying employed or joining the urgent and historic fight that’s going on right now for the basic civil rights long denied to our community.

Sadly, there are still a few very well-established (and in some cases, quite famous) actors, musicians and even news anchors, who have not yet come out as being gay. And that’s their business. As much as I personally would appreciate their going public, opinion pieces like this one make it clear why they don't. I'm not sure why Newsweek would publish something like this since it seems to further no one's agenda except maybe Mr. Setoodeh’s, who I'm guessing wants to be considered a "cool gay”; someone who has the guts to point out the “elephant in the room” as he puts it. Personally, I think the “elephant” here is actually Mr. Setoodeh, whose tone seems to suggest he rather enjoys playing the role of long-awaited “truth-teller,” when in fact, his article comes off as little more than a thinly-veiled, juvenile attempt to embarrass some very accomplished and quite courageous people.

Sincerely,
David Dean Bottrell

Copyright 2010 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.

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

Twitter:
http://twitter.com/QuitcherBitchyn

Monday, May 3, 2010

Sign Language

After several anxious months, the Hollywood community breathed a collective sigh of relief last week when it was announced that the land above the world-famous “Hollywood” sign had been saved from the clutches of developers who had planned to construct a series of luxury homes along the sight.

When the plan to build "McMansions" around one of L.A.’s only recognizable landmarks was announced, there was a panic. The Trust for Public Land quickly launched a campaign to raise the 12.5 million needed to save the hillside. I remember being in my car when I heard the news and vowed that the second I got home, I was going to write a check for the “Save the Peak” fund. However, when I got home and looked at my bank balance, I decided that perhaps I should leave saving the sign to some of Hollywood’s more famous and better-funded citizens. After all they had saved the sign once before in the 1970’s when it had fallen into terrible disrepair. Surely, this would all be resolved by the end of the week.

It wasn’t. Things started getting serious. A deadline was announced and gradually a few heavy-hitters started chipping in, but it wasn’t looking good. However, this being Hollywood, there was a happy ending when last week Hugh Heftner stepped up (at the last possible second) and saved the day, donating the final $900,000 needed to purchase the adjoining land. As my friend, Phil put it, “Ah, the power of naked women.”

When I heard the good news, I was again in my car on the east side of town, so I decided to swing over to Gower Avenue which when you’re traveling north, has a spectacular view of the sign. I flashed back to my first (and only) real encounter with the sign back in the mid-1980’s. It was my first scouting trip to Los Angeles. I was a young idealistic guy who’d put down roots in the theatre community in New York, but the allure of L.A. was hard to ignore. I’d decided to check it out.

I was staying in Laurel Canyon with an old roommate of mine who, unlike me, was always up for an adventure. It was the morning after one of her famous kick-ass parties and several of the party guests were still there; sprawled out over on various couches and chairs, when our hostess announced that, hung-over or not, we were all going to hike up to the Hollywood sign. Being new to these parts, I had no idea what that entailed.

As it turns out, you’re not actually supposed to hike up to the sign. There are fences and sternly-worded signs that make it pretty clear that the steep footing around the sign is not safe and the city is uninterested in hauling your broken corpse up from the canyon at taxpayers’ expense. That however, didn’t deter my friend or her posse. Up we went.

Once there, I have to admit it was pretty magical. The view was amazing and to a young, but already jaded East Coaster like myself, the whole concept of movie-makers having come to this rugged landscape, and carved out an empire was sort of thrilling. A couple of members of our party managed to climb up into the “O” next to the “H” and pictures were taken. It was then decided by our fearless leader that we would continue up the hillside to explore what appeared to be a radio station at the very top of the peak.

Just as we reached it, one of our party took a tumble and got a nasty gash in his leg. As we leaned him against the chain link fence around the station to examine the wound, I began to notice signs posted on the fence that were even more ominous the ones we’d already ignored. These signs were bigger and used phrases like “penalty of law” and “you will be arrested.” Then suddenly, a loud electronic voice blared at us; warning us that we were trespassing and that the police had been called. This scared the shit out of us, since the small “station” appeared to utterly unmanned. Clearly, we were being watched on hidden camera. My former roommate, never one to be easily intimidated, yelled back at the disembodied voice that one of us was injured and he needed to “cool his jets” (a phrase that was popular in the 80’s).

As we tried to determine if our friend was going to be able to hike back down the mountain, a figure emerged from the station and approached. If we were anxious before, this guy took things to a whole new level. Disheveled and overweight, with stringy, longish hair, pasty-white skin and beady little eyes, he looked like something out of a horror movie. His appearance could best be described as “mole-like.” Covering his eyes with his hand, he squinted at us as if he hadn’t seen human beings (or the sun) in quite some time. Ambling up, he began to quiz us from his side of the fence in a strange gravely voice.

We explained our situation and said we’d be off the property as soon as our friend (who was suddenly feeling much better) could walk. Pasty man began to back off his defensive stance within a minute or so, and launched into a rather lengthy explanation of the history and purpose of the station – an explanation none of us had asked for. Apparently, it was one of several underground, emergency communication centers for the city of Los Angeles and was staffed 24-7 in case of a big disaster like an earthquake or a terrorist attack. I remember at the time, thinking “terrorist attack?” But this was the 80’s when such things seemed utterly ludicrous to most Americans. To me, the guy seemed a little lonely. He was clearly the only person on duty and appeared glad just to have somebody to talk to.

Eventually, we got our injured soldier on his feet and started back down the hillside. Pasty waved at us, then oddly stood at the fence, his hands jammed in his pockets, and watched us for quite a while as we made our way down the hillside. The image of the station, the weird pasty guy and the towering letters spelling out “Hollywood” sort of embedded themselves into my consciousness. I wondered if I could ever really fit into such a strange place; a town almost entirely made up of optimistic newcomers. A place without much history and no discernable weather. An arid patch of mountainous desert slammed up against a massive ocean. A teaming city of cars constantly in motion; going somewhere; in pursuit of something. And all of this nuttiness perched atop a massive ever-shifting fault line that could reduce it all to rubble at any moment. I told myself I’d have to be crazy to move here. Six years (and two failed attempts later) I did. Eighteen years later, I’m still here. Still a newcomer. Still optimistic. Still nervous.

Copyright 2010 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.

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

Shameless self-promotion:
http://daviddeanbottrell.blogspot.com/2010/04/thank-you-los-angeles-times.html