Saturday, October 29, 2011

Becoming Paul

A couple days ago I was sent in for a one-liner on a major network television show. Just one line. The character even had a name: Paul. I was sent to an office in Hollywood (when I say 'sent' I mean my management set up the reading and I sashayed over for it) and upon arriving sat with ten or fifteen other men of a certain age and waited to go in and be captured on camera saying the one line. So I did. I waited and after six or seven of the other guys my name was called and in I went. Even carried my script with the one line meticulously yellowed out, so I could see it better. Highlighted so I wouldn't confuse it with another line on the page.

But before I could go in and interpret the line, infuse it with all the subtext and facial expression it so richly deserved, I had to sit and wait my turn. Apparently the line could be read by a vast ethnic quiltwork of characters. The producers were opening it up to a whole spectrum of race and age types. As I walked up the short flight of stairs to the waiting room, I noticed black, white, Asian, Latino and a guy in a wheelchair. Which made sense, because the line certainly didn't indicate one had to run or jump while saying it.

Actually, it was two lines. The first part was very short. "Um, excuse me." That was the first part. The second part demanded a little more exploration, sense-memory work, substition, varying shades of intensity. The second part was, "Is anyone else here concerned with his lack of experience?" This part of the line was obviously the chunk that would separate the men from the boys. It was the part of the line where the rubber met the road. This was the part where my thirty-some years of training would pay off. I was undaunted. I can see where a lesser talent might be intimidated by this part of the line. I was not.

Others in the room, probably not as far along as I was as an actor and not yet comfortable with their craft, wrestled with it right up to the last moment, their lips moving silently, saying the tricky line over and over, getting it JUST right in their heads, building a backstory for the character, Paul, who utters the line, finding a nuance perhaps unthought of by anyone else in the room, putting themselves THERE, in the moment, making the line their own, OWNING the line, really. One man next to me in a chair, said the line over and over to himself the better part of fifteen minutes. Occasionally he would glance back at the script he held tightly in his hands, just to make sure he didn't stray with the tense, or God forbid, add anything to the tightly constructed piece of writing. When his name was called, just before mine, he sprang to his feet and practically jogged into the room. He was ready. The line was so firmly embedded within him, it was as though he'd written it his own damn self. He was like a sleek, powerful racehorse pushing at the gate, eager to run, run like the wind, and say that line with the conviction of a Brando or a Streep or an Olivier. The line didn't stand a chance in his mouth. I've seen this type of confidence in a waiting room before. In New York once, I auditioned for the part of Iago in Othello. It came down to three of was for a major Shakespearean producer. I didn't get it. But the guy that did had the same confidence as this guy. He WAS Iago. He attacked Iago like a Tazmanian Devil. Iago was a mere hurdle to be jumped for this guy. He wanted it more than me, I guess. He became Iago. But I was younger then, and not quite so prepared for the awesome talent one has to contend with in this business. And the same was true for this guy. Paul was his. In his mind, he already WAS Paul. And that open-ended second part of the line, the part open to a dozen or more interpretations, the complicated part of the line, "Is anyone else concerned with his lack of experience?" was meat in his hands. Just bloody, uncooked, seasoned MEAT ready to be cooked in his hands, his brain, his creative soul.

There was another guy there, too. He was a little smug for my taste. He wasn't reading for Paul. No, he was reading for "The Guy at the Basketball Game." Huh? Why was he there with us 'Pauls?' And frankly, after a bit, he explained to no one in particular that he didn't particularly care to be lumped with the assorted 'Pauls' in the room. Clearly, he felt he was a little higher on the food chain as 'The Guy at the Basketball Game' than we 'Pauls' were. We all glanced about, a little wary now, we Pauls, not quite certain where this guy stood in the hierarchy of things. Not Paul? And not WANTING to be Paul? What was going on?

After a bit the casting associate came out. I'll call her Susan, although that was, in fact, her actual name. Susan was about 12 or so. So 'Susan' comes out and tells us a little about 'Paul.' Turns out, according to the breakdown Susan got, 'Paul' is maybe a college professor, maybe a tweed jacket kind of guy, an intellectual of sorts. I glanced around the room. A few crestfallen faces. I could see their pain. They owned tweed jackets, they had outfits that indicated an 'intellectual' Paul, but instead they had worn 'business' jackets. I could see the five stages of grief wash over them. Clearly some agents were getting some speed-dialed calls immediately after the reading. "Bob Jones, please. What? No I will NOT hold! I just walked out of this audition for 'Paul!' Yeah, over here in Hollywood. I'm wearing a suit. A plain, gray suit. Neutral tie. And guess what the casting lady just told me? Okay, I'll tell you. She said Paul was 'A College Professor!' Maybe. She said, "MAYBE Paul is a college professor." And I'm sitting there, I'M SITTING THERE, in a business suit! You tell Bob, I HAVE a tweed jacket. I HAVE a bow tie. I COULD HAVE combed my hair to indicate a COLLEGE PROFESSOR. I have fake glasses. Horn-rimmed! HORN-RIMMED, COLLEGE PROFESSOR GLASSES! But tell Bob it's too late now. Too late, I say! I read the goddamned line looking like a BUSINESS GUY! What? No, I can't hold. Just give him the message, okay?"


The guy waiting to read for 'The Guy at the Basketball Game' soon revealed why he was disdainful of the Pauls in the room. As Susan finished her quick speal about who Paul 'maybe' was, he quickly said to her, before she could exit into the room with the camera, "Uh, excuse me. I'm not here for 'Paul.' (I swear he smirked) My agent said she called you and you said I could come in and read early for 'The Guy at the Basketball Game' because I have another audition later. 'The Guy at the Basketball Game' has three lines so I'll probably be taking a little more of your time than the 'Pauls'"

Ah! There it was. He was there to say THREE lines. Not just the measly one and half that we Pauls had. You could smell the superiority on him. His arrogance permeated the room of Pauls. Some of us, the less confident Pauls, visibly shrank in their seats. They were in the presence of someone who had THREE lines. I, of course, was unfazed. Even though, and I'm only saying this because it's true, I WAS a little intimidated by 'The Guy at the Basketball Game.' He, in some earlier secret meeting of the casting associate and the casting director and the producers, had been chosen as someone who deserved THREE lines instead of the ONE AND A HALF that Paul had. And he had just spit out all that information IN FRONT OF US right into the room there. The information laid there on the threadbare carpet like a sizzling piece of star power. I can see how a less confident actor would blanche at such an admission. And even though I suddenly felt a little awe-struck at the additional two lines The Guy at the Basketball Game had, I tried to stay focused. I fantasized, just a little, about what his lines might be, The Guy at the Basketball Game. But I MADE myself snap out of it.

Eventually, Susan called my name. She came out, glanced at the sign-in sheet and said, deceptively casually, 'Okay, uh, Clifford?'

I got up and followed her, not too closely, not too eagerly, just a simple, medium distance follow. My face revealed nothing. I specifically didn't glance in the direction of The Guy at the Basketball Game. Now was not the time to suffer a crises of confidence. Just stay focused, go in, be peppy but not inferior, strong but not overbearing, eye on the prize, eye of the tiger. Plus I had an ace up my sleeve. I had on my 'college professor' glasses. Entirely by coincidence! Not thought out, just something I decided to wear at the last second! Oh, ho, a delicious moment. I had beaten the odds, fate had intervened. I, through no deliberate action of my own, had DRESSED SORT OF LIKE A COLLEGE PROFESSOR!

When Susan had mentioned that 'maybe' Paul was a college professor I don't think I'm imagining anything when I say there were SEVERAL clandestine glances my way. "He's wearing something that might be construed as a 'college professor,' the faces said. What information did HIS agent get that mine didn't? Is he pre-cast? Is he the 'Paul' they wanted all along?' No, I don't think I'm making any of that up. I could see it in their eyes. Even The Guy at the Basketball Game looked at me with a little new-found respect.

I don't usually boast in this blog but this one time, I'm gonna let it out...I ATTACKED Paul. I SLAM DUNKED Paul. I would put my Paul up there with any fucking Paul ever done, anywhere, anytime. I mean that, too. I'm not just blowing smoke. I fucking NAILED Paul!

When I finished (Susan: "I don't think I need to see any more." I swear by all that's holy, that's what she said: "I DON'T THINK I NEED TO SEE ANY MORE!" Huh? Huh?) I strolled from the room, not too smugly, but with a nearly imperceptable smile on my face, strolled past the 'business dressed' Pauls, past The Guy at the Basketball Game, past the smell of fear and defeat infesting the room, past all the 'wannabe' Pauls and swaggered, not overtly, just a HINT of a swagger, and down the short set of stairs and into the welcoming, cleansing, heat of Southern California. It was done. As Luke, the physician, said when our Lord Jesus Christ took his last breath, "It is finished." And it was. It was. Paul was mine.

There are days I really hate this fuckin' town.

See you tomorrow.