Wednesday, July 30, 2014

All in the Family: The Making of Town Diary - It's Going to Be a Bumpy Night

"We all have abnormalities in common. We're a breed apart from the rest of humanity, we theater folk. We are the original displaced personalities."
-Addison DeWitt, All About Eve

There is something that happens to some actors, actors who have struggled as supporting actors, once they finally get to be a lead. I call it the Eve Harrington syndrome. More about that in a moment.

For all the success we had with supporting roles, casting the leads was tough going on a number of levels.

We would have liked a name for the lead role of Brian, but if not, we wanted a very solid actor. Once again dipping into my past, I thought of an actor named Dan*

Dan was a member of the first theater company where I was the production stage manager. He was short, with red hair. The company was an ensemble, and Dan was the lead in a play called Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone by Terence McNally. I remembered being enthralled with Dan's performance as the provocative Tommy - great energy, and a real ease on stage. Like everyone else in the company, Dan was acting on a popular soap opera, and the theater company was a way for them to get back to their legit theater roots.

Over the years, I had become amazed that Dan had never really succeeded as an actor; in fact, years later, I remember running into him waiting tables at the same place he waited tables when I first met him. Ironically, one junior member of that cast did go on to success. The role of "the women" (playing multiple parts, as the name suggests) was played by an actress who was less experienced, but always real and engaging on stage. Her name was Mercedes Ruehl, and she would go on to win an Oscar in The Fisher King.

I was not having much luck finding Dan, so, on a whim, thought I would make the trip to that same Greenwich Village restaurant. Sure enough, he was there. This should have told me something.

I gave him the script.

I did the first series of auditions while Jack was in Chicago. Dan auditioned for me, my assistant, and the casting director.

Nothing. His take on the character was wrong, the delivery was dry. He was a completely different actor than I remembered.

I had told Jack about Dan, and Jack, being generous, said maybe he had a bad day, and he was willing to see him when he got in. I met with Dan and gave him some insight into the role. He came and auditioned for Jack as well.

Again, nothing. 

The only saving grace was that he knew how bad his audition was, so it was no surprise that he didn't get it. To this day, I don't know if I remembered him better than he was (the reviews of him in Tommy Flowers were very good, so I wasn't all wrong) or if years of toiling as a part-time actor had finally taken its toll on him.

After seeing many people, we saw one great audition. It was by an actor named David, who had played a major supporting role in Apollo 13, as well as recurring roles on a number of television series. Since, he as continued to have success as recurring, supporting characters on shows like Covert Affairs, Justified, and Necessary Roughness. 

David gave a great audition for me. I liked him a lot. My casting director and my assistant were not so sure. Specifically, they felt it was more calculated; I saw it as genuine.

In retrospect, he gave the same audition when Jack was there. Jack loved it as much as I did.

My casting director and assistant were still unswayed. However, already Jack and I had gotten into a bit of a rhythm where one of us would like one performer, and the other would like someone else. Here, we agreed! That had to mean something!

Eve Harrington.

For those not familiar with the play and more famous movie, All About Eve, the title character is a conniving ingenue who flatters and woos until she gets to the place of Margo, an established but aging star.

There are many talented supporting actors who spend years watching lead actors get all the attention: superficially, the nice trailer, the better car service, and other prima donna perks; on a more professional level, getting input on dialogue, wardrobe, hair, "motivation," and even how they are shot (a word that comes to mind for different reasons with David).

They understand that as supporting characters, it is not their show. While they might offer an opinion, in the end, they will do as they are told and serve the greater good.

When and if they finally do get to be lead, then, they think, all good things will come to them. I think of Shakespeare characters who think they have been wronged and feel a need to put things right, specifically, Richard III, and how unfair that he, the better choice, has to stand by and watch his more handsome brother be king.

Ok, David didn't kill anyone. However, the two ladies with us, casting director Susan and assistant Christine, were right. David would never be better than that day at the audition hall, and, to boot, he would be difficult. Specifically, he did not respect Jack, as a first-time feature director, and as their takes on the character grew farther and farther apart, David would descend into subtly mocking Jack on set. But, that was later.

In fairness to David, I had seen this before, and I've seen it since. I produced a short for a first-time director who cast his dear friend of many years, a supporting actress in soap operas, to a lead. All through rehearsals, they were wonderful together. Once we got on set, the demands started, and, again, the clear suggestion that she knew more about how the role should be played than the writer/director. Also, she would not be rushed out of hair and make-up, and she balked at wardrobe that we had all approved at the last minute. The same with a female lead in another short who had experienced some TV success - the female writer/director on that film would have to step outside with me and scream in order to not blow up at her on set (or worse).

Much like Richard III above, All About Eve references Macbeth, where what my Shakespeare teacher in high school referred to as "vaulting ambition" becomes the otherwise valiant Macbeth's fatal flaw. After all, it was Macbeth and Duncan who had won the battle, but, through nothing but birthright, it would be Malcolm, King Duncan's son, who would be the next king.

"Stars, hide your fires
Let not light see my black and deep desires."

*Not his real name - you know what that means.

N.B. Sorry about the delay in getting this post up and the long time between posts. I've been busy with work and other personal responsibilities, and taking the time to get this right took some time.

Monday, July 14, 2014

All in the Family - The Making of Town Diary - Corner of First and Exes

"Whenever you want to marry someone, go have lunch with his ex-wife" 
-Shelly Winters, who had three ex-husbands and a lot of ex-lovers**

Around the time I met my ex-wife, Maureen, I also met a young actress named Annie. She had auditioned for the first play I directed,  a silly whodunit called  Kidnap Kaper.  It was written by a bitter older British actress, whose name I have thankfully forgotten. We'll call her Brit.

Brit was one of those actresses who clearly had been known for her looks at one time, but that, her only real asset,  had faded. Now, she ran this hole-in-the-wall theater in Hell's Kitchen,  and tried to relive glory days that weren't all that glorious.

I had already cast a girl as the young ingenue when Annie walked in. Annie's headshot was so bad I thought she was more like forty than the 24 year old beauty she was, all red hair and energy. The other girl was good; Annie was perfect.

Unfortunately,  Brit was also a redhead,  and Annie clearly reminded her too much of the young starlet she no longer was. She hated my choice, and proceeded to make Annie's life miserable during rehearsal. It got so bad that I insisted she put a stop to it, which led to a blowup about a week into the show. When she tried to fire Annie,  myself and the entire cast quit.

Annie, like Maureen, was Canadian by birth, and they  grew up pretty close to each other (albeit years apart) in  Southern Ontario.  We all became great friends, the three of us going out together whenever Maureen (who still lived in Ontario at this point) was in town.

Annie went on to study with famed acting guru Sandy Meisner in Bequia, and later LA.  It was near the end of his life, but the training clearly made Annie not only a better actress,  but eventually, a very good acting teacher herself.

Annie had moved to LA, and we would hang whenever I was out there. This was before Facebook,  but we kept in touch the old-fashioned way,  by phone or, later, email.

I wrote the character of the lead character's ex-wife from personal experience.  Maureen and I are great friends to fhis day, but in the script,  I wrote her from the tempestuous days leading up to our divorce.  I also added kids who were not big fans of their mostly absent dad, something Maureen and I did not have.
I sent the script to Annie without telling her anything.  The phone rang a few days later.

"She's Maureen, " Annie said, referring to the  characters. I explained that it was based on Maureen,  but that I had tried to hide it. Annie laughed.

"You did a bad job of hiding it," she said. "Don't worry. I can definitely play Maureen."

Indeed,  she went on to do a great job. We flew her in from LA,, and it was worth it the days we shot her scenes. It didn't hurt that she (like some others) did not particularly like our lead (much more on that later), and the Method actress in Annie made her avoid any 'friendly' contact with the actor beforehand.

The scenes were tough for me. I had to push Jack to shoot them more sympathetic to her than he would have, as his experiences with exes were not the same as mine. They are among the best scenes in the film.
Another 'first' was John S, who would play the reckless younger brother of the lead character's best friend, Frank Ryan. Jimmy Ryan was the younger brother dependable Frank always got out of trouble.

My first theater company as Artistic Director was in Allenton,  PA., where I did three one-acts around Sam Shepard and Patti Smith. The main part of the evening was Cowboy Mouth,  which Shepard and Smith co-wrote and performed together at times around their crazy days living together at New York's Chelsea Hotel.*

The Chelsea Hotel came up a few times in my life.  My good friend Kevin O'Conner lived there, and I dated an actress who lived there who had an "imaginary friend.'  What can I say? She was cute, funny, and though we had to set  place for him when we had dinner - in or out - at least I didn't have to feed him. Besides,  a life spent with actors and film people makes you a lot less judgemental.

There were "favorites" at the local theater company,  but I passed them all over to cast John S. as Slim, the Shepard character described as a "rock and roll hero with a cowboy mouth."

John S. was then a student at Muhlenberg College under a truly under-rated theater teacher and director,  Charlie Richter.

I had seen John S. in a student production and been impressed with his charisma and energy.  His background was as an athlete,  but his instincts were great.  Although he was a raw talent at the time, I knew he would be worth a little extra coaching. He was.  Every performance was fresh and real.

John S went on to work in other film and TV, and eventually,  Broadway. My only regret in casting John S. is that, in retrospect,  I gave his character some of the cheesiest dialogue.  He overcame it, for the most part, but his talent would have come through more if I'd done a better job.

It was great working again with John S. and Annie, but I went to the well once too often when I reached back into my past to try and cast the lead with an excellent stage actor I had met years earlier. In fact, casting the leads proved difficult on a number of levels.  While I had planned to address that casting here,  explaining the background on John S. and Annie took up more space and time than I thought, so it will need to wait for the next post.

Brevity,  you are no friend of mine.

* Ok, I did cover much of this story of working with John S back in a 2009 post. However, I find that readers don't like flipping back and forth, and I won't assume that every reader was around when I posted the original over five years ago. A little about my time with Actors' Collective, which will be covered in next post with actor Don, is also covered in that post. Besides, here, it is about both of these folks working with me on Town Diary.

**Shelly Winters had an interesting relationship with my mentor, Stan.