Monday, February 18, 2013

Theory vs. Practice

Many eons ago when I was in college, I studied all kinds of feminist theory.  My senior thesis was on race and gender in two pieces of Civil Rights Era literature.  I marched in Take Back the Night rallies and went to lectures where the representation of women in media was debated.  I was -- and still am -- a feminist.

So imagine my shock when, on our first writing job that ever went into production (that'd be the not-so-great CROCODILE) I was sitting in on casting and saw some huge potbellied guy glance at an actress' headshot after she left the room.  "Looks like she had a few pints of Haagen Dazs since this photo was taken."  I was too taken aback to say anything, too unsure of my position in the production hierarchy to point out that this asshole could use a salad or two. 

Do actresses going up for ingenue roles have to contend with unrealistic body image demands?  Unfortunately, the answer is yes.  Let me put it this way: in most of the country, I'd probably be considered a thin person.  Well, I've put on some weight recently, but I digress.  In Hollywood, even at my most slender?  No way.  When I'm sitting in on auditions and actresses come in, I swear that their waists are the same circumference as my thigh.

I'm not going to lie: it's not easy for actresses.  Do you have body image issues (like me and probably every other woman out there?)  Work on them, because acting isn't going to make them easier.  Actresses' bodies and looks are judged critically by producers and directors.  Yes, male actors are judged too, but I think the bar is higher for women.  The ideal female cinematic body type today -- large breasts, slim hips, slim thighs -- doesn't occur naturally very often.  Sorry to burst your bubble, guys.  Generally we lose weight up top first.  There have been whole books written about how the ideal female body type has changed through the years so I won't try to gloss over it here, but flip through any art history book and you'll get the gist pretty fast.

Granted, there's a certain amount where an actors' "look" is always going to play into casting decisions for legitimate reasons: if you're casting a family, for example, you have to make sure the kids and parents resemble each other.  But there's an intangible element that comes into play that has always made me uncomfortable.  There's no other way to put it than to say that a producer's personal taste -- what he or she considers attractive -- plays a role.  I've seen good actresses rejected because their "ears looked weird" or their "eyes were too far apart."  Sometimes you can advocate for an actress you love, but usually it's like banging against a brick wall.  If one of the people with a say in casting doesn't think the actress is sexy enough, game over.  (It's not just male producers who are guilty of this, by the way.)

Wait a minute, you may be thinking.  If this bothers you, why not write characters who don't fall into the traditional body types?  Describe them as looking different -- problem solved!  Sadly, this tends to only work if the character's "look" has something to do with the story.  They have to feel bad about being chubby and work to get over it, for example, or be a social reject and therefore be "different looking."  If you read the script for JACOB'S LADDER, for example, the character of Jezzie is described as "a beefy woman, juicy and sensual."  Elizabeth Pena is a fantastic actress and I'd describe her as many things, but "beefy" is not one of them. 

I'll point out one exception to what I said above: shows and movies where the main character is the driving force.  Kevin James on THE KING OF QUEENS is a dumpy guy with a hot wife.  Chubby guy with a hot wife or girlfriend is something we're very used to seeing -- as is an old guy with a young, hot girl (though I still remember the shock that ran right through my bones during ENTRAPMENT when Catherine Zeta-Jones declared to Sean Connery "You've got me!"  Young Sean Connery is one thing, but old, wrinkly Sean Connery?  I could not compute.)

But what do most of us do when we see one of these fictional pairings of a beautiful woman and a not-so-great looking guy?  Shrug and say "that's the movies."  In contrast, look at the strong reaction that Lena Dunham is getting for GIRLS.  You'd think she was selling state secrets by appearing nude with a less-than-perfect body.  I'm a fan of the show, and one of the things I find interesting is how Dunham's nudity forces me to look at my own assumptions about body types.  I catch myself thinking "Could Hannah really hook up with Patrick Wilson's character?  Why's she playing ping pong topless?"  I've internalized media ideals about what kind of bodies "deserve" sexual attention or are "okay" to be put on display. 

What's my conclusion?  Sadly, none of this is going to change anytime soon.  If you're thinking of becoming an actress, know that looking at your body objectively is part of the job.  When you get work, ignore the imdb message boards, because there will be idiots talking about your body in both good and bad terms -- and it's the bad comments you'll remember.  Those of you who are actresses, I admire your strength: I honestly couldn't do what you do.  But as more women get into positions of power and can make casting decisions, let's make an effort to show different types of bodies.  We're not all cut from the same mold.

Thanks for reading,

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Screen Actors Blues

This is a hard one.  I've had so many friends who moved to L.A. to act, only to leave with broken dreams and bruised egos.  There were about fifty people in my first acting class out here.  Of those fifty people, only one is still a professional actor.

I play poker.  I'm actually pretty good at it, and I know bad odds when I see them.  And "making it" as an actor has bad odds.  ("Making it" doesn't mean being a movie star and having everybody know your name.  "Making it" means working professionally enough so that you're satisfied.)  So I'll start out by asking you, dear reader, some questions:

  • Is acting the only thing you want to do?  Is it your biggest dream?  Can you not live without it?
  • Were you the best-looking person in your high school or college?
  • Have you had years and years of theatrical training at a school like Juilliard?
  • Do you consider yourself beautiful, attractive, charismatic?  Do you have a great body?
  • Can you cope with unemployment?  Do you function well in a structure-free environment?
  • Can you live with mean people judging you on your appearance and ability?
Well?  How do you feel?  Can you answer "yes" to all of those?  Are you still reading?  Do you think I'm a jerk? Or maybe I just don't understand you and your situation.  Maybe you already feel you know all this.  

Hang on a second.  Are you a woman?  Let me turn the blog over to my wife so she can tell you how women are treated in the acting business:

Hey everyone.  Jace here.  Let me just repeat things I've overheard over the years.  "Her eyes are weird -- they're too far apart."  "Absolutely not -- I hate her forehead."  "Her thighs are too big."  "I wanted a brunette."  "Wow.  She ate a lot of ice cream since this photo was taken."   You know what?  There's too much I want to say about this to limit it to a guest paragraph or two.  Come back to the blog tomorrow and I'll have a whole post on it.

OK.  I can't stop you.  So first the good news.  Every single person I've known who has wanted to act professionally and has stuck with it for at least five years has booked at least one job.  So it is possible.  And the truth is, you don't have to be beautiful, exceedingly trained or well-connected (not that this stuff hurts).  

But you do have to be persistent, disciplined, and have very thick skin.

I will also tell you that I have had no better feeling in my entire life than when I booked my first acting job.  It felt fantastic -- like I was floating on Cloud Nine.  I seriously was hoping no one would pinch me, because I didn't want to wake up.  

So, what's the best way to begin this often-uncomfortable journey?  

First, be realistic.  Ninety-five percent of Screen Actors Guild (SAG) members are unemployed -- well, 85% if you ask SAG, but I don't believe anything they say.  It takes a long time to get your acting career going.  Five years is a good way to think about it.  Five years of trying and failing and trying and failing...and then trying and succeeding.  

Also, try your best to be self aware.  To give you an example: when I moved here, I thought I was a normal, good-looking guy.  I got headshots taken that made me appear to be a normal, good-looking guy.  They didn't fool anybody.  The first four jobs I booked, my character was either mentally handicapped or inbred.  

I'm not joking.  I had no idea I was so funny-looking.

The plus to this was, I got work based on my "look."  It just wasn't the look I thought I had.  

So look at yourself in the mirror and really think about how other people perceive you.  Then watch a bunch of movies and see how people who look like you are perceived.  I bet there's a difference.

What else?  Make sure you have a good, cheap apartment to live in, a flexible day job (or generous parents) and get your ass to acting class.  And not just any fly-by-night guy that says he can teach you acting: I'm talking a GOOD teacher, like Ivana Chubuck, Howard Fine, Larry Moss...there's a handful of them.  They're expensive but mandatory.  And once you get to class, don't quit.  Stick with it.  Learn.  Practice.  Study.  Make friends.  I found my wife because of acting class.  I was studying with Jeffrey Tambor and Jace was my scene partner's roommate.  I can't stress how important it is to develop relationships while you're studying.  These people are going to be your lifeline, your support system, your connections, your friends.  No matter how hard or frustrating it gets, don't quit class!  Know that in the beginning, the actors you're going up against in auditions are going to be better than you.  You need to keep working on your skills.  Period.

So that's the first step.  Do it.  Be persistent.   Don't give up.  If it wasn't for acting, I never would have been able to become a writer or a director.  It was a crucial part of my development as an artist and a man.

So just remember: the beginning is the hard part but if you really want it, you can do it!

In the next post I'll get to the fun part of showcases and getting an agent.  Trust me, it's a blast.  In the meantime, keep studying, keep training!

Monday, February 11, 2013

So You Wanna Be A Stah?

So you wanna be a star, move to Hollywood, pursue your dreams?  Be an actor, a writer, a director?  Make money?  Make art?  Go to fabulous parties and meet fabulous people?

Well, this was/is my dream, too.  I only wish that someone would have told me exactly what I was getting into.

I moved to Hollywood in 1991.  I was a theater major in college, but wanted to pursue film directing.  The problem was, I had no idea how.  No matter where I looked or who I talked to or what I read, I couldn't seem to find a way in.  Finally, I got a tip.

A friend from college (Shawn Paper -- he's now an editor on the HBO show, "Girls") said he had been an extra on "Roseanne."   I asked him if I could be an extra, too.  He said that was easy.  He told me where to sign up and I did.  Soon I found myself wandering the corridors of the fake high schools from "Beverly Hills, 90210" and "The Wonder Years."  From this point on, my story gets messy and long, and to be perfectly honest with you, it's sort of dull.   You don't want to hear all of it.  And besides, how to be able to become a writer/director/actor is what this blog is going to be all about from now on, anyway.

I can hardly be called a star.  But somehow -- with varying degrees of success and with a lot of frustration, humiliation and setbacks -- I've been making a living as an actor/writer/director for sixteen years.  Along the way, I've seen a lot of people get hurt, crash and burn, give up, move home and not be able to fulfill their dreams.  And believe me, dear reader, I don't this to happen to you.

I want to make one thing clear:  I am not an expert, I do not want your money, I have never had a huge hit film, starred in a TV show, or gotten into Sundance.  But I do work, I do make money, and I do not to hold a day job.  And that, I am extremely proud of.  So hop on the bus, let's go for a ride, and I guarantee you that by the end of this journey you'll have a much clearer idea of how to make it in this weird, jaded, annoying and beautiful city we live and work in.

The next post will be about...dun dun dun dun....ACTING!