Monday, June 9, 2014

All in the Family: The Making of Town Diary - Cast What You Know*

"The first thing you should do with an actor is not sign a contract with him. Take him to dinner. And take him for a walk afterwards." Elia Kazan 

Jack, our director,  was very much of the Kazan school; that you should cast people who are close to the type of character they are to play. I have always thought that a good actor can find the character in themselves regardless of how they lived their everyday life. In some of the roles, we had both.

The script I wrote was meant as an ensemble piece, with the two leads, David and Veronica,  being the two roles we thought might attract name actors at some level.

I've talked about putting together cast on the Modified Low,  and how you can sometimes attract quality actors you might not have thought you could on the reduced salary, which then was in the neighborhood of $248 a day or $800 plus per week.

Even before we started casting, I enlisted the some of the talented folks I knew from my local food and watering hole, West Bank Cafe. Located right on NY's Theater Row, it was a regular hangout for talented actors as well as behind-the-scenes folk.  The Stillers (Ben, Jerry, Anne et al), Eli Wallach and wife Anne Jackson,  the late John Spencer (West Wing), many of The Sopranos cast (who bartender Kaleda had dubbed "The Perfume Mafia")  as well as many other talented stage and film actors made it their home, a nice atmosphere that had a greater energy without ever being loud.

Joe W, one of the bartenders,  was an actor looking to get into the production side. I brought him on as Director's Assistant (not to be confused with Assistant Director).

For myself assistant,  I brought on a regular named Christine. Like Joe W, she was young, bright, enthusiastic and charming,  the latter a trait in men or women that sometimes can help secure needed items. With Jack, JR, and I all over 40, it also insured feedback from another generation,  something I also think is important.

Experience is important,  but, as I've said here before, it's easy for experienced people to fall into patterns that sometimes need change, or at least challenging.  Joe W and Christine would provide that often. Both also had small roles in the film.

I had never gone on a walk with talented  actress Angelica Page, but we knew each other from both drinks and dinners as regulars at West Bank Cafe. Angelica is probably best known for her role as the mother who poisons her daughter in The Sixth Sense.

The daughter of late Oscar-winner (A Trip to Bountiful)  Geraldine Page (who presenter F. Murray Abraham called "the greatest actress in the English Language) and Rip Torn (Men in Black) Angelica is a versatile stage and film actress from a family that imbued her with a strong personality and, in a mother who was not only a fine actress but legendary acting teacher, a strong sense of responsibility to the work.

One of the characters in the script explains how she, and the sheriff at the time of the young girl's drowning,  had gotten rich on viaticals.  Jack was the one who made me aware of this rather morbid practice where, at the height of the AIDS crisis, people would buy out the insurance policies of AIDS patients at a fraction of the dividend. Those patients, who basically had a death sentence at that time,  needed the money now. As the rather cold character tells the documentary filmmakers,  "They needed the money, and we made a nice profit. Worked well for everyone. "

Angelica would not need it explained to her that while she had to come off as chilling to an audience,  she needed to also genuinely be convinced of her own "noble" actions.

Jack took my word that she could do it, but both she and Jack wanted to discuss the role over the phone.  Jack called her while she was in LA and we were in Chicago. The call lasted almost an hour, with Jack's end of the conversation being mostly one word responses to her ideas for the role. When he got off the phone,  I asked him how it went.

"Good," he said.  Then, he smiled. "I think she is still letting me direct."

We both laughed. Angelica knows her craft, and prepares meticulously for every role. She can also be intimidating, which made her even more perfect for the role. She would be having her person doing a wig for her, something she offered to do at her own cost because she knew we were on a tight budget.  That is her level of professionalism.

While we had ideas for the other roles, we knew we would need a Casting Director.  More on that and the casting process in the next post.

* A reference to the old writing advice, "Write what you know."

N.B. Some of the names here, and moving forward, are changed not because they did anything wrong, but rather to protect the privacy of folks who I did not seek permission from to use their stories.

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