About a year ago, I came out of “theatrical" retirement to act in a play here in Los Angeles. During the run I was interviewed by a local arts reporter who asked which medium I like better, theatre or TV and why. It was an easy question to answer “Theatre," I said. "Because I can do it without ever having to watch it.”
Contrary to popular belief, not all actors are in love with their own images. When I’m acting on stage, I get to flatter myself that not only is the acting going well, but that I also look good doing it. Plus there is the instant gratification quotient. If the ticket buyers laugh, I'm funny. If they're are absolutely silent, I'm compelling. If they're coughing a lot and dropping their programs, I suck.
I also genuinely like working for a camera, but it’s a very different beast. Since there's no audience, your focus is entirely on creating the most truthful, intimate scene possible with just the other actors involved. The camera gets nice and close to the action and trick to it is to remember that it’s not there to judge you, but to simply record the proceedings. It can be a wonderful experience, especially with a good director at the helm.
However, unlike stage acting, where you have a great deal of personal control over your work, in TV and film you ultimately have none. In the end, your performance will be constructed in the editing room and all decisions as to which takes to use will be made by the director and editor. As any working actor can tell you, some takes are better than others and it can be a little jarring when you discover that some of your less favorite ones have been used to create the performance the audience will finally see. Sometimes, when I see myself on screen, I want to scream, hide my head between my knees and withdraw from both SAG and AFTRA. Other times, I’m pleased and often wonder if my ass was saved by a smart, talented editor.
A few years ago, I was called to an editing bay to assist a friend of mine who had directed a small feature and had experienced terrible problems with one of his actors. Not having been present during the shooting, I can’t say what went wrong, but the actor seemed to trying awfully hard to be quirky and adorable (and was instead coming off as twitchy and delusional). Slowly we sorted through his takes, looking for the ones where he seemed a little calmer. We added a lot of cut-aways” to his co-star and by the end of the day, his big scene was clicking and the actor seemed surprisingly funny and charming. My advice: If you end up liking your performance, don’t forget to thank the director and the editor.
My other problem with TV and film work is sort of an embarrassing one. I know I’m a character actor, but there is still a small part of me that expects to look like James Franco on camera. That’s yet to happen, but hope springs eternal. Most of the time, I’m okay with my appearance, but occasionally a shot will flash up on screen and I’ll be completely mortified by what I see. Is that really how I look? Is my voice that irritating? Is my posture that bad? And look at those bags under my eyes!!
Obviously, all these problems could be avoided by simply never watching any of the camera work I do. There’s no law that says I have to watch. Technically, when the scene is finished shooting, my job is done. My problem is that part of what has always driven me to be an artist is a desire to get better at my job. And I can’t get better if I don’t take a look at the work once in a while.
Fortunately, I've learned a few tricks over the years to lessen the horror. The first is to, if at all possible, have at least one glass of wine beforehand and to avoid watching my work when there is someone else in the room. The second is to watch it again at some later date, since the first time is always (without exception) going to be traumatic. Don't get me wrong. I actually love acting and I’m proud that I have a job that allows me to entertain people, but it’s also a job that can sometimes leave me feeling a little vulnerable or embarrassed – sort of like being caught romping around in your Halloween costume on Easter.
About a year ago, I watched Johnny Depp being interviewed on the David Letterman show. He is one of my favorite actors of all time and I particularly like the fact that he is a fellow Kentuckian. I’d never actually seen him interviewed other than on press junkets where he’s plugging a film. Assuming what he said was true, it was sort of fascinating to find out that he basically protects himself from the pressures of Hollywood by (A.) Not living here. (B.) Only watching films made during Hollywood’s Golden Era in the 30s and 40s and (C.) Never watching his own films. Letterman seemed suspicious and questioned him as to why he had chosen to be a movie star if he didn’t like watching his films. His reply was interesting. “I love everything about filmmaking. I love the personalities; the process of it. I just don’t like seeing myself up on screen. It creeps me out. I mean…that’s ‘me’ up there.” His answer seemed genuine and it made me like him even more. How nice to discover that Johnny and I have more in common than just stunningly high cheek bones and a rustic place of birth.
Copyright 2010 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
And in keeping with the theme of this entry… I've got a very fun cameo role on “Castle” Monday, Nov. 8th, 10 pm EST /9 pm Central on ABC. I’ll be home drunk, so don’t call.
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