Thursday, December 22, 2011

"The Big 'I'"

Actors always made me feel good. Why was that? Because they were the only people I encountered who were more insecure than writers.

A lot more.

This nugget of comfort resurfaced in my consciousness when, in a response to Zaraya’s query about pauses, (the query, December 12, the response, December 14, for those of you scoring at home), I mentioned that some actors indignantly object to the stage directions written in the script, to the point of taking a “Magic Marker” and blacking them all out.

This always seemed a little weird to me. The stage directions these actors resisted so vehemently were written by the same writers who wrote the script’s words. The actors may not have approved of the words, or at least not all of them, but they didn’t bury them in black!

Actors who object to being told how to read a line (or when to take a pause) may feel they are justifiably defending creative boundaries, and who knows, maybe they are. I recently watched an interview with Morgan Freeman where he criticized directors who interfered in his acting process, explaining, in effect, “They hired an experienced actor who knows what he’s doing. Let the guy act.”

Point taken. I would happily “let the guy act.” If “the guy” was Morgan Freeman. Morgan Fairchild? Not so much.

It occurs to me that some actors’ objections in this regard may have less to do with the rightful safeguarding of creative autonomy than with an insecurity-driven need to protect the “Circle of Certainty”, a term I just made up.

Out loud – often very out loud – the actor is proclaiming, “Don’t tell me how to read a line or when to take a pause. I’m an actor. You write the lines. I’ll act them.”

Deep down, however, there’s the possibility, that, inside the actor’s brain – and we will steer clear of any evaluation of that particular organ – there’s a little voice, perhaps a not entirely confident little voice, saying to the actor,

Telling you what to do means they don’t trust you to do it right on your own. As an actor, who can never be sure about the choices you make, because acting is not math and there’s no definitive “right answer”, you must oppose any intrusion on your “Circle Of Certainty” with the adamant insistence that you know everything, because, being vulnerable to the possibility that you might not know one thing opens you to the possibility, not only in your employers’ minds but in your own mind as well, that you may not know anything.”

It’s like the clerics of old, who dug their heels in on the issue of whether the sun revolves around the earth, or vice versa.

“To be honest, we don’t really care what revolves around what? The thing is, when people start questioning our certainty, the whole operation come apart like a cheap cassock. The next thing you know, they’re questioning paying us money for their guaranteed entry into heaven. I mean, where would it end?”

So you nip it in the bud.

“Don’t tell me, Mr. Writer Man. I know!”

That’s one kind of insecurity. Where an actor can never admit to uncertainty. When you’re running a show, it’s a giant pain wrangling such nuisances. Truth be told, however, it could actually be worse.

It’s after midnight. I am fast asleep. Because it’s after midnight. And because I’ve been working myself to exhaustion, getting a pilot ready for the filming scheduled for the following evening.

The phone rings. Dr. M, who was also fast asleep, answers it. I deliberately sleep on the other side of the bed because of just such occurrences. In all my years, I have never received a “good news” phone call after midnight.

Dr. M says it’s for me. I roll over and take the phone, though not without a put-upon groan, which I hope the person on the other end of the line doesn’t hear, but on the other hand, the heck with them, they’re calling me after midnight.

It turns out it’s the star of the aforementioned pilot. The actor apologizes for the late night intrusion, but he’s been wrestling with a line reading and he needs me to tell him what to do. I immediately provide the answer.

“Go to sleep.”

But the actor’s insistent; he needs help. What he really needs, of course, is reassurance. Though likable and attractive, the actor ranks below the highest echelon of comedy practitioners, and he knows it.

“How do you want me to do it?”

“The way you think best.”

“I need you to tell me.”

So I tell him. Right, wrong, it didn’t matter at that point. I just wanted to get back to sleep.

“What did he want?” inquires a half-conscious Dr. M.

“He wanted his mother,” I replied, making a note to henceforth have a greater appreciation for the actors who obliterate my stage directions.

At least those guys never wake me up.


Mark in Santa Monica said...

Enjoyed your post today as always, but feel compelled to offer -- as someone who used to do it for a living -- an alternative reason why actors marker over stage directions and parenthetical performance indicators:

Because it messes up their creative process. For many actors, the result is not a good place to start. They start with using the words to get at the ideas and meanings and intentions behind them.

And some of the best of them, past all that through the imagination, exploring all the alternatives (for words, images, intentions and meanings) and sometimes that leads to surprises. And then they work their way back to the written words, owning them more organically, as if the character just found those words in the moment.

Often they end up with the same pauses and directions a good writer wrote in the first place.
And sometimes wonderfully and surprisingly not.

Seeing those "results" straight out like: (he sighs) or (she begins to cry) or (long pause) can short circuit the process of finding the internal juice and rhythm that prompts the character say and do the stuff that's written.

A lot of wonderful actors don't do it this way at all. Or they used to but don't need to anymore. Others still work this way when they are first finding the character and then the rest comes more easily.

Sorry to go all touchy-feely-actory on you... but that's the typical thing going on in an actor's head when they cross out your reasonable and helpful directions.

Of course, you are right about insecurity. When I was an actor, I worried that if I didn't do every single bit of homework, my work would suck and I'd get fired.

Zaraya said...

Dear Mr. Pomerantz; I feel honoured whenever you mention my pseudonym. Reading your war stories makes me wish I'd thought of a show business career. Alas, I get the feeling I'm too old to start.

Your posts showing the foibles of the human condition, either a script or reminiscence, are the funniest. What's funnier than real life?

I'm sure early on you had the feeling that, "this may be my last job in the business," did you ever lost that feeling? If you did lose it did it come back later on, or do you still think there are more writing credits in your future?

Ah, I've made an interviewer faux pas, asking more than one question in my question. I'll let it stand.