Thursday, August 17, 2006

Red, White, and Blue

A rule of thumb in film and TV is that a good day is when you get 4 minutes of tape in the can from 12 hours of shooting. You can screw up all day and it's wonderful. But on stage a successful production requires 90 minutes of the most intense ninja zen concentration you can muster. And sometimes you do the whole thing twice in a day. Now that some time has passed since my play I decided to try my hand with the exact opposite experience: I auditioned for two commercials this week. One for Pepsi, one for a political ad.

There's a not so famous Seinfeld episode where Kramer auditions for a Sprite knockoff beverage. He's surrounded by all these good looking people of every physical permutation. Young, short, Asian woman. Hip, tall, 30-ish black man. Gnarly, pale, dreadlocked 20s skater dude. The director yells "Action!" and they hop and dance around in front of the camera while smiling artificially and enjoying the beverage to orgasmic proportions. In 30 seconds it's over ("CUT.") and they put their normal faces back on and leave like it was the most normal thing in the world. It is exactly like this. Except I am imitating being chased by an 8 foot Pepsi ball down Lombard street.

My next audition is for a democratic candidate for Congress. Yes, all the people in those ads are actors. Foreman in the yellow hardhat shaking hands? Actor. Tattooed inmates cleaning trash off the highway shoulder for a better America? Actors every one of them.

I am phoned by casting to setup an audition time and was given my line: "I want a government that helps small business." I am told to dress according to the role. What clothes represent small business? I wager this small businessman is barely treading water. He's working 12-hour days and any extra cash is going to Blue Shield payments and 401(k)s for his employees. I opt for a boring vanilla colored flannel shirt and khaki Dockers with scuffed brown worn leather boots. I arrive at the studio and I am surrounded by tree-hugging women in their 50s, kids kicking soccer balls, and five men in their 40s dressed in Oxfords and fancy loafers. I sign in and see that dozens of people have gone before me all vying for the 4 roles available. I sit quietly and do the radio announcers test to myself. They call my name and I enter the studio. A mic dangles in the center of the brick walled room. Shiny light umbrellas dot the ceiling corners and a camera with lots of expensive dodads is trained on me. An attractive woman dressed in black shoes, black pants, and a black t-shirt takes charge.

Casting Director: All set?
Me: Yes, you bet.
CD: Okay. Stand at that piece of tape on the floor. OK. Let me hear it.
Me: I want a government that helps small business.
CD: Good. OK, now try it with...a little smile in your voice.
Me: I want a government that helps small business!
CD: Good. Try it now like this is a wish of yours and you're just figuring it out.
Me: (looking away) I want a government...(cocks head into camera) that helps small business!
CD: OK. Last time. Any way you want.
Me: (doubly sincere) I want a government that helps small business.
CD: Thank you.

I left feeling unsure and insecure. "I am too young for the role." "I didn't speak clearly enough." "I think I have blush on my forehead."

Four days later my phone rings. They would like to see me again for round two. I return and see a familiar tree hugger. She is wearing the exact same outfit I saw her in four days ago right down to her socks. I smooth out a crease in my boring vanilla flannel shirt that I neglected to iron. One should always wear the same clothes when called back. There is now a trio of casting folks and an all-business guy in blue jeans and expensive leather shoes is running the show.

"OK. Let's hear the line three different ways."
"Now do it like you're a butcher."
"Face the wall behind you, turn, and give it to us again."
"Last time. Any way you want."

I pause for a moment because I know exactly how I want to do the last one. It's the same way I rehearsed it in the car last night.

"Would you mind if I built a little story around the line?"
"Whatever makes it work."
"I own a small software company. Five people. All of them are the best at what they do. But I can barely afford to keep them. I have to charge our clients top dollar just to stay afloat and half of them are looking at other options because we're just too expensive. I have no idea where this company will be in 6 to 12 months. I want a government that helps small business."

We shoot next Wednesday.

Friday, May 19, 2006

The show must go on

Here I sit in my apartment drinking Diet Pepsi and running lines at my couch. My couch never judges me, which is nice, but it also seldom chuckles at my jokes. I am shockingly anxious. My head feels dull from last night's Ambien. You see, tonight is the opening night of my play with Studio A.C.T. and I am one of the leads.

For two months myself and a cast of 9 other actors have been rehearsing at a seedy, boxy studio in San Francisco's Tenderloin district (motto: your money or your life). And now with all that behind us, tonight is the night. The show is sold out, standing room only, all 117 seats with butts reserved for them. People from every facet of my life will be there. Coworkers, fellow actors, family. My orthodontist just left me a message saying "don't forget your appointment with us at 4PM on Monday. Oh and did you know your show tonight is sold out?! We couldn't get tickets!"

Acting is a juggling. You must keep all these balls going in the air without blinking: your lines, your body position, your face, maybe a cello or fist full of spoons, all to make the illusion complete. And it looks so easy because you've rehearsed it 50 or 60 times. But every time it comes out different. And you wonder. How will it come out tonight? Maybe the audience will laugh and then you give them room to laugh, but ultimately you ignore them. Which is a lot harder when they are NOT laughing because then your head fills with doom and gloom and suddenly you drop the spoons and miss your cue and you've blown it.

I did something this week I've never done before and do not wish to do again: purchase cosmetics. I ask a 30-something woman in my office how I should proceed and get a 20 minute lecture about the pros and cons of Covergirl. Ultimately I decide this is a subject I do not need to know deeply about, so I solve the problem by throwing money at it.

It is my lunch hour and I spend it sitting quietly wincing in the Macy's chair while the MAC girl dabs a combination product on my cheeks and forehead and my girlfriend oooh's from the sidelines. I look in the mirror and see absolutely zero difference. Except now I feel incredibly imperfect and sympathize with little girls who grew up with Teen Vogue telling them ever-so-subtly that their natural face just isn't good enough, their eyes not popping enough.

I return to the office fearful the techies will notice the circles under my eyes have all but vanished. They don't notice.

But the secretary does.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005


The Evidence is a new TV crime drama set in San Francisco. Except that it films in Vancouver. It's cheaper that way. For obvious reasons like Canada doesn't have an orange vermilion Art Deco suspension bridge or a pointy bank building, some scenes must be shot in SF.

Where CSI finds a fragment of fabric, a spent 10mm bullet, or a tri-lobal fiber (my personal favorite); they then piece the mystery together one scrap at a time. In The Evidence all of the forensic bits are given to the viewer up front and the solution is worked out backwards in time.

Today we are shooting exteriors, scenes that must be filmed out of doors. My call time is 6:00am. I arrive at a rented parcel of PacBell park (the "crew lot") at 5:58am and am told by the guard to stand and wait for the min-van to take us to set. "It'll be here any minute," he assures me. More actors arrive. We stand. At 6:30am Pinkerton's radio crackles and we overhear that there is a big problem. The trucks carrying the gear needed to be in place at 5:00am and they are nowhere to be seen. It is declared we are an hour and a half behind schedule and I haven't even left the parking lot. Show business is very glamorous.

By 9:00am we have been fitted by Wardrobe and are stationed in a cold, dank alley underneath a freeway overpass. I am dressed in a starched white lab coat with a blue stethoscope draped around my neck. A very official red and yellow laminated badge is clipped to my shirt pocket. It tells me that I am a physician at a non-existent San Francisco hospital, my name is Nick Pallo, and the photo ID is that of a 30-year-old Asian man who looks like he needs a cup of coffee.

In the scene we are about to shoot our hero detectives are called in to investigate a dead woman laying in the street. All the actors are jealous of who is playing The Dead Body. She's a fragile looking 20-something blonde wearing a sweater with the biggest red splotch that I have ever seen except for that time I barfed spaghetti sauce into my bookcase. We all admire her ability to lay on the pavement and not blink.

The scene is very impressive looking. There are three fake police cars with their red and blue flashers strobing, a fake news crew being fake held back, and a fake ambulance that I am manning. Every couple of takes the dramatically wet asphalt dries a little and a man wearing a portable water tank spritzes the ground with a mini-hose and makes little puddles. This is his job. I call him Aqua Man. Much of the water runs off to the curb where my ambulance is parked. Over time this accumulates into a deep pothole, and in a clumsy moment my left foot steps into this pothole and I am soaked to the sock. I grab a towel from the ambulance and wipe my shoe off. The prop master sees this and comes over and yells at me. "These are not towels for your personal use, they are PROPS." I apologize to him for my misuse of the stunt towels.

Ten takes and two hours later the camera is being repositioned for a reverse angle of the exact same scene. The fake E.R. nurse and I are chatting. We have invented a game whereby during takes we speak very doctorly and see who can make the other person laugh. She won on the previous take while asking urgently for "a 20cc anal swab". We laugh some more and the director yells at us.

Should you ever need to ask for my medical advice, please remember that I am not a doctor, but I do play one on TV.

The Evidence will premiere on ABC on December 1st.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Pay Dirt

I have received my first check from the studio. $110.10 for 13.5 hours. In addition to the usual suspects like SDI and FICA there is a little bonus with the entry of "Smoke". This is combat pay for working on a set where people are smoking. Since we all know that second-hand smoke kills millions of cuddly puppies, rainbows, unicorns, and orphans, the least the studio can do is kick us an extra twelve bucks. This was known to me during the casting call, but I wagered I wouldn't have to smoke. Perhaps I will have stunt cigarettes.

On the set of our 1981 Dean Witter brokerage house the two traders to either side of me are chain smokers in real life and are looking forward to getting paid to puff. Think about this. Your greatest consumptive vice, Abba Zabba, egg rolls, Rolling Rock...and they PAY you to consume it.

The call goes out from the assistant director ("background talent smoking please!") and they click open their Zippos and light up. From the AD: "Cut. Reset back to one. We're going again." Over the course of 40 minutes and five takes I watch them split a pack of Camels. It isn't their usual brand, but they wanted to be true to the period. You have to admire that kind of dedication. There's a lighting problem so we sit for 20 minutes and chatter. They smoke. A tubby prop man walks around to inspect ashtrays. Ours is squarish and fashioned from crackley, amber glass. It is remarkable in its ugliness and I loved it immediately because it is exactly what I remember my parents using. Prop Guy stops between our desks and eyes the ashtray like a college physics professor proctoring a mid-term. He inspects it carefully, thinks for a moment, then reaches into a large, 1-gallon sized Ziploc bag filled with cigarette butts, fills his hand like he's fishing for correct change, and drops them into our ashtray. He walks away satisfied.

Then the ironic happens. The AD commands all smokers to extinguish and to only smoke what is being doled out to them by Props for the rest of the shoot: nicotine-free, herbal cigarettes. They smell like Cloves rolled in potpourri. Their wine has turned to water.

And now each day at lunch the smokers bum rush our 27th floor elevator because they've spent all morning puffing away and have yet to have a single cigarette.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Continued Pursuit

The assistant director tells me to hold some folders, walk right, pause, then traverse the room with purpose. Assistant directors are always telling you and 17 other people what to do. His Motorola WalkAbout crackles in his hand and he hustles away to direct an additional gaggle of Wall Stree extras. Another actor leans to me and asks if I intend to do what I was told to do. "If you mean cross in front of Will Smith, go around Dan Castellaneta - while he's speaking - and then walk two feet in front of the camera, which will surely ruin the shot, then no. I am not going to do that because the A.D. told me to." Instead I do what feels right and the shot works out. "Moving on!" someone shouts and the camera is already being broken down for the next scene.

It is the third day of filming and we've logged 40 hours of work for the week. Did I mention it is day 3? My beautiful brownish, salmon colored suit and brown and yellow tie are sucking the life out of me. We are dressed in 2 and 3-piece vintage 1980's suits, every item of which have Sony and Universal Pictures barcodes hidden somewhere. Today included six wardrobe changes. Global costuming orders are given to all of us. "Go back to what you had on yesterday." "Now change something minor." "Put on the first outfit you wore today." One actor refuses to change anything but his tie. No one notices. I am tired of eating, noshing, and nibbling on fun-sized Milky Ways, trail mix, peanut M&M's, bagels, fake buttered popcorn, bear claws... The pay is awful, the hours are worse, but there's no chance of losing weight.

I noticed an interesting social phenomenon taking place. (Recap: 60 of us are playing various roles in a 1980's brokerage house: interns, board members, traders, clerical). Between scenes we are hanging out with those who are playing in similar social structures. The actresses playing secretaries chat amongst themselves. Almost no one seeks them out for conversation. The dozen interns break off into a corner. The exception is the one Asian guy playing a Chinese food delivery man. He talks to a board member.

Late in the day I overhear the following phrase: "Today just feels different doesn't it? Darker. Less fun. Moody? Moody. Do you feel it too? Maybe I slept weird. But it is a Gemini moon and I was raised by Leo's so it kinda makes sense. I am a monkey and this is a very non-monkey shoot. I'm getting bad vibrations from this wall."

And now, suddenly, so much of Los Angleles is no longer unexplained.

Monday, August 29, 2005

On the set of Pursuit

A make-up artist is applying glamorous anti-glare to my imperfect forehead. She dabs concealer beneath my eyes and I start to blame the cosmetics industry for digging into people's self-worth with their products. I spot Will Smith's stand-in across the room. He's wearing a dirty gray Member's Only jacket torn wide at the elbow. He's extremely thin and sports a tight afro and a mustache that no father would dream of letting his daughter near. He speaks to the director and I now realize, of course, that this is Will Smith dressed in 1981 homeless wardrobe.

As a group of 30 actors we gawk without looking like we're trying to gawk. "Fly casual, " Han Solo might advise. In between shots he walks, jumps and keeps almost completely to himself. With the director as the exception, no one speaks to him.

In a boardroom scene with four board members WS makes a point of shaking each of their hands and introducing himself.

In my seven hours spent on-set, I never once see him crack a smile. Surprising, I think, given the friendly, likeable persona he works hard to maintain. The director asks him to do many takes of a difficult scene and Will's reply is curt and courteous: Yes, sir.

After fourteen hours dressed in bad ties, wool jackets and plenty of polyester, we finish the final shot of the day (the "martini") . Will Smith comes out and says:

"Can I have your attention please? Everyone? Your attention? I just want to say...thanks for being here. This is really all about you. Because without you...well, we would have had to hire some other guys."

Sunday, August 28, 2005


My latest project and my specific role are detailed below. I play a stock trader. My 1981 sideburns are coming along nicely as are my recovered Rubik's cube skillz. My hair could be too short for this part and I am certain there would be no hesitation on their part to cut me.

The wardrobe fitting detailed below has already taken place and I asked for garrish, tacky outfits so horrible they could be great. They delivered. For these two hours I was paid the princely sum of $13.50. Clearly I'm in it for the money.

What's interesting about a project like this is that people ask me the exact same three questions:
- Will you work with Will Smith? (Yes.)
- Do you have lines? (Probably.)
- Do you have an agent? (I am already working to capacity, so I do not need an agent to find work. I only see a need for an agent to get better work.)

Plot Synopsis

Pursuit of Happyness [sic]: a true rags-to-riches story of Chris Gardner, who turns his life around; from being homeless to becoming the head of his own brokerage firm. The story is set in 1981 San Francisco. This film is being directed by Gabriele Muccino & stars Will Smith.

Casting call text

Repeat DEAN WITTER Staff / Male or Female / Asian, Caucasian / 24-60
These are featured & repeated extra roles - Dean Witter employees: Interns, Secretaries, Stockbrokers/Traders, Partners. *Some to be selected by the Director, and will be needed for MANY scenes. All corporate types, Upscale, mostly appearing to be Caucasian. Think "Wall Street" Michael Douglas, Charlie Sheen.

Smoking Status: Men & Women, if you smoke cigarettes, note "smoker" or willing to for background purposes include "I am willing to smoke"

Wardrobe: FACIAL HAIR STATUS: Note if you "have a mustache" or would be "willing to grow facial hair." WARDROBE FITTINGS to be scheduled week of Aug 8!!! If you are not available 8/8-8/12, include a note.