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.

1 comment:

Kangas said...

How DARE you take time off from entertaining us for free! The nerve! :)