As the year winds down and old things crumble away, I find myself reflecting on what lies behind and ahead. There is a strange mix of exhaustion, frenzy and bittersweet longing in the air. It was a year of endings and transitions. It was a year book-ended with fulfilling work but not nearly enough of it in-between. It was a year of wondering how to move past the the same predictable patterns that hold me back so I can grow into person I think I should already be. It’s the same every December but these are questions worth pondering as the New Year approaches.
The best thing about this year was that I finally made my short film after thinking it was never going to happen and feeling overwhelming frustration about the process of trying to get it off the ground. I made it because my career path continues to be elusive and winding and unclear. I am older than most actresses in Hollywood with so few credits and no representation. It’s a crazy and never-ending gamble of passion and stubbornness against the odds and grim reality.
Perhaps the battle I waged the hardest this year was against jealousy and envy- of everyone’s path but my own. Everyone else seems to have an easier journey or better luck or more support behind them. Sometimes I feel like I’m wandering through the barren wilderness with no guide, no water and no sign of any kind to keep going. I’d get so angry and upset when I thought about it. Why do they get the auditions; why do they get the meetings; why do they get the beauty, the charm, the opportunities, the money… That thought process is a very slippery slope designed to take one DOWN. And what I hated most of all was when someone who cared about me would say, “Their path isn’t yours and you have to walk your own path.” I hated it! I didn’t want or like my path. It was for suckers. I wanted a different path. Why should someone else get a better path than me? Why am I stuck with the path that barely qualifies as a path? (If you type “path” this many times it starts to look really weird.)
But I thought about it because I’ve heard that “walk your own path” comment my entire life and I’m tired of hearing it but not understanding it. Everyone says it but what does it mean? What does it truly mean to walk your own path? How are we supposed to be contented with keeping our heads down and taking the crumbs Life hands us when it appears that everyone else is invited to the feast? Rilke says, “…let life happen to you. Believe me: life is in the right, always.” I think about that all the time- Believe me: life is in the right, always. What a statement! Whatever is happening, wherever you are, BE THERE BECAUSE IT’S RIGHT FOR YOU. My path is my own. I cannot walk, have, or be on another person’s path as much as I might want to. So if that’s the case, if I have to take this crappy old path, then why am I here? Where am I going and why am I going this way?
I started to realize that I was banging my head against a wall when I allowed jealousy to overcome me. Here I am, walking my stupid path, and over there someone else is gliding happily along on their yellow brick road. Nothing I do will take me over there. I can’t wish it hard enough or leap high enough. I don’t get to walk that path. I had to accept that. It’s a hard pill to swallow but it sure feels better once you do. Once you drop the “Poor Me” sob story, another story gets to emerge. It is a mysterious story and I have no idea where it’s going or how it will end, but it’s pretty damn interesting.
I found that creating my own work was incredibly rewarding, invigorating and exciting. I’ve produced many projects over the years but for some reason this was the first one that really came together the way I imagined it could. Once it started happening, I felt that every single cell in my body was vibrating at a higher frequency. I got to use my passion for great stories to find one that was just right for me and to get to know a new writer. I got to bring together a team of incredible artists to help me tell that story and meet countless other incredible artists along the way. I got to look around me the first morning of shooting with a surreal surge of adrenaline and know that I was the point of origination behind all of it. No random audition or low-level agent meeting could ever make me feel as empowered and alive as creating an opportunity of my own.
See, we are all born to create. No matter who we are, where we live, what we do, what we have or how deprived we are- we are each in possession of the innate and undeniable gift of creation. We can create our own thoughts which lead to feelings which lead to actions. We can let ourselves be whipped by our trials or we can breathe meaning into them. No one else gets to decide who we are or what we want to bring to the world. No one else gets to walk our path. Perhaps the darkest and most trying of circumstances are merely the tools in the creation of extraordinary lives. Perhaps we can put our hands on the hammer and guide it instead of cowering from it.
L.M. Montgomery wrote, “It’s not what the world holds for you. It’s what you bring to it.” I thought about that a lot, too, over the past few months. I want to stop whining and pining over what I think I should have or get… and I want to start thinking instead about what I’m here to give. If I think in those terms, my path expands into something wild, vast and unknown. It is no longer a poor substitute but rather an intriguing alternative to more conventional paths. My path is unconventional and I’m making my peace with that.
This coming year, I want to stop playing small. I want to stop following the “rules” and listening to all the other voices about “how it’s done” or “when it’s too late” or “how hard it all is.” If I’m here to create and to forge my own path, then I’m going to do just that. And in that case, there’s no rule-book and no right way or wrong way. I’m just going to start walking and see where it takes me.
A little over a year since I purchased the rights to a short supernatural thriller, I’m finally in the creative chaos of pre-production; we shoot in just a couple of weeks. Right now I’m in the throes of casting the other role in the film and I never thought it would be so difficult. For a very short film with very little dialogue, it’s still an incredibly important decision as the tone and the success of the concept are intertwined with whomever we cast.
It’s been enlightening for me, to say the least, to have cast this film myself along with my director. As actors we often have beliefs and perceptions about what’s happening in the room, during and after we leave; now I can say that a lot of those beliefs are false and that if we prepare, are professional, do good work and aren’t total weirdos in the room- we will stand out in a sea of mediocrity.
To begin with, I had over 1,300 actors submit on this short film; some actors submitted themselves and a lot of agents and managers submitted their clients. I have to think that the concept, the character description and the creative team are what garnered such an overwhelming response. All most actors want is to tell an interesting story and to work with good people.
At some point I had to find a way to sort through the submissions as quickly and efficiently as possible which meant eliminating, right off the bat, any submission that didn’t have a reel attached. If I didn’t know the actor and couldn’t see their work, why would I risk bringing them in? I had one full day of casting with a maximum of thirty 15-minute slots and I didn’t want to waste my time.
So, actors, get a reel for the love of god. You’re missing out on so much if you don’t have one. I’m of the opinion that you should just get tape however possible- pay for a reel service, shoot something yourself, whatever… I just wanted to see the actor saying some words. And then you can replace that, later on, with something better. I hated reels with montages at the beginning because it made me think that the actor was trying to hide the fact that they couldn’t act. I could see how pretty they were from their photos; I didn’t need to see it in a reel. If a reel started with a close shot of the actor, I would watch. If it started with a wide shot, group shot or montage, I would stop it or forward through trying to find some dialogue or figure out who the hell I was supposed to be watching. And I love actors and reels so if I almost never watched the reel all the way through, you can probably assume that no one else is watching it either. The only time I’ve watched entire reels is during this process of seriously considering a few actors for the role; it helps to get a feel for range.
As for headshots- there are more bad headshots out there than I ever imagined. If an actor has a good, clear, photo that looks like him- it stands out. Most of them look like they were taken in someone’s backyard with a phone. I don’t know why. I think it’s worth it to pay a reputable photographer several hundred bucks to get a pro shot. It tells me that you’re an actor who is serious about what you do and that you’re not an amateur.
When I finally whittled down the 30 guys I wanted to see- which, by the way, congratulations to you if you made it that far- then came the tedious process of contacting and scheduling. I was amazed by actors who didn’t confirm appointments within the first 24 hours. I had to chase down a few and, more often the not, the actor’s reps were the real culprits. The actors who submitted themselves got their audition script and sides much earlier than those with reps. I think it pays to know if your reps are on top of their submissions or to follow up with them if you’re especially interested in a role. I also had agents pushing a bunch of clients at once who were in no way a fit for the role, or talking up their clients well beyond the actors’ actual abilities. It didn’t help matters in either case; I didn’t bring those actors in.
I also mentioned on social media a couple of times that my actor friends should submit and I was surprised that more didn’t. I brought in almost everyone who did and the odds of being seen by me, their friend, were much better than if they’d submitted on a breakdown where they didn’t know the team.
Actors also submitted several days after the breakdown went out and well past the submission deadline. I find that to be a waste of time for the actor because by that point I already had a full audition schedule and a good idea of who I was most interested in casting. Production moves quickly and you have to jump on board as soon as you can.
Sometimes actors think that auditions don’t really count, that only booking matters. But auditions count! Consider if you were one of 30 men who made it to an audition out of 1,300 submissions. That means you’re already good, you’re already plausible in the role, and you already have fans in the casting room. After this process I will never again take an audition for granted. It truly is a validation of the actor and your work, and also a hope that you will be the one. If you think you’re going into a room filled with judgement, it’s YOUR judgement about yourself. The casting room is waiting for you to be brilliant, exciting, interesting and unique; there’s no judgement about you going in. I actually felt like I was waiting for Christmas the day before auditions; I was so excited about meeting new actors and bringing in friends whose work I already admired.
As for the auditions- they were in some ways really fun and in some ways really tedious. I had a lot of actors running late and a couple who didn’t show up at all. Those things throw a wrench into an already tight schedule. Lateness was usually forgivable if the actor gave me a heads-up, had a good reason, and apologized in the room. But I found myself really put off by those who just showed up when they wanted to without a word of apology. We had already decided, before they came in the room, that they were not under consideration. On any film shoot time is of the essence; if you’re not early or on time to your audition, how I can possibly depend on you to be on time for work? It’s a risk I’m not willing to take. I was especially angered by those actors who expressed a great deal of interest in the role and who I felt I did a favor by bringing in, and then who turned out to be late or ill-prepared. One actor had no idea what he was supposed to be reading and it was mind-blowing. If you can’t read the audition e-mail all the way through and figure out what your sides are, why on earth would I entrust you with a project I care so deeply about? On the flip side, I was happy to see that most of the actors I knew beforehand were early, prepared and easy-going in the room. It made the audition a pleasure and it made us feel that we could relax.
When it came to reading for the role, I really responded to actors who had a strong point-of-view, who made clear choices and who didn’t take anything in the scene for granted. I know I feel this way myself sometimes, but a lot of actors think that casting has an idea of what they want and that the actor is there to figure it out and fulfill it. False. We don’t know. We have ideas but we’re counting on the actor to do their job and show us what that actually might look like. Your idea could be way more interesting than ours and, if it’s not, we’ll give you some help. But an actor is there for a reason- because a character cannot come to life without them and certainly a casting director’s idea of a character is not the same thing as a fully-realized flesh-and-blood human being standing in front of us. The actors who tried to fulfill some idea of the scene were boring and forgettable. The actors who made choices- even outlandish ones- stood out and were discussed at length as possibilities for the role. Don’t be afraid! If I’ve learned anything, it’s not to be afraid to do my job. It’s why we wanted to be actors in the first place.
So now it’s crunch time and it’s been days of back-and-forth over audition tapes and discussions about actors. There is so much more that goes into the casting process than we may realize. If an actor has made it to this point, it has almost nothing to do with talent. It has to do with look, age, tone, location (do you live in L.A. or do we have to fly you in?), physicality, your take on the role and how that will influence the direction of the film, how we get along with you, if there’s a true connection with the material and the rest of the creative team, etc., etc. I had a minor panic attack the other night when I realized that a decision was imminent and that, whomever we chose, there was really no turning back and the film would be changed forever with that decision. Last night I dreamed that my teeth were falling out- stress! But most of all, I genuinely adore good actors and it breaks my heart that I can’t cast each one. This film has been imagined and re-imagined in my mind many times, each time with a different actor. I look forward to deciding who will make this character come alive for good but, at this present moment, I have no idea who it’s going to be.
This past week two outside-the-Hollywood-box actresses made entertainment news headlines as critics and audiences debated their worth as women, artists and sexual creatures. Melissa McCarthy’s appearance was viciously and unfairly attacked in Rex Reed’s so-called “review” of her latest film, Identity Theft, and Lena Dunham stirred wild controversy as she dared to explore female fantasy, longing and loneliness in her latest episode of Girls. A forgettable film and an unconventional episode would not have made the news aside from the fact that both McCarthy and Dunham are physically overweight.
In McCarthy’s case, she has public opinion on her side. Anyone who knows her work understands that Reed’s comments are strictly about him- a sad illustration of his own self-loathing and hatred of other people. He doesn’t adhere to the standards of true film criticism. For him, it’s not about the film; it’s about tearing down a woman whom he believes doesn’t deserve to be where she is because of her appearance. McCarthy is not alone; Sarah Jessica Parker was also on the receiving end of his venom and probably many others but I never read Reed’s reviews because he’s simply an inferior critic and isn’t worth the time. The fact that McCarthy is one of the best and most critically acclaimed comediennes working right now doesn’t seem to occur to him. Her talent means nothing because it comes in a form he doesn’t like. Thankfully, audiences will have the last word here and McCarthy will continue to be a top box-office draw because she is simply too good for one unhappy little man to sabotage.
Now on to Lena… another groundbreaking artist whom I adore. This young woman grew up in an artistic and unconventional family and been writing scripts and creating avant-garde videos well beyond her years for quite some time. Her average, not-in-great-shape body has been a canvas and vehicle for much of that expression and in that self-exploration she is FEARLESS. Yes, she is writing with a 20-something year old voice that can be indulgent at times but she is also writing with insight and wisdom that is ageless at times.
Dunham started out making short films, experimental videos and one feature before she blew up HBO by creating, writing, directing and producing Girls. So it was a great treat for me to watch this week’s controversial episode where she crafts what is essentially an exquisite short film co-starring Patrick Wilson.
Why has one episode of this highly acclaimed and popular show stirred up so much controversy? Because Dunham dares to cast her physically average self opposite the classically handsome Wilson in an episode that explores sexual fantasy and a longing for happiness. Many people have said that they can’t buy into the premise; a man like Wilson could never be attracted to a woman like Dunham. Or that it wasn’t a realistic story anyway. Or that maybe they could buy it if the episode had starred any of the other female actresses on the show besides Dunham. But, no, in this world… even in a FANTASY world… Patrick Wilson could never, ever, ever want to have sex with Lena Dunham. And, once again, I think this response says far more about the viewer than it does about an actress who dares to be naked on screen, with a handsome co-star, weighing more than 110 pounds.
We’ll accept a show that partners the nerdiest, oldest, or crassest of men with the youngest, hottest and most unattainable of women but why is it not okay for a simply normal woman to partner with a handsome man? Why is that so mind-blowingly unacceptable? In biological terms, we are definitely attracted to the strongest, most attractive and physically fit specimen we can find- the better to reproduce and survive with. But biology doesn’t have to dictate all aspects of life and indeed it doesn’t.
I find it pretty illuminating that we are so threatened by a regular woman creating a thoughtful piece of art that draws on her own fantasies, desires, challenges and pain. It’s too real. We can’t handle it. And it is a work of art. Dunham didn’t direct this episode and I think that was wise. It is beautifully lit and shot. The music is gorgeous. The pace is sublime. Patrick Wilson is phenomenal, as usual, and right at home in this brave new world. Dunham is believable, vulnerable and walking a tightrope of risky, brave and dangerous acting. She may not possess Wilson’s acting range but she holds her own and absolutely deserves to share the screen – and the story – with him. Watching it, I was reminded of the French and Italian cinema that I so passionately love. I was reminded of Sofia Coppola’s explorations of quiet, inner worlds. I was reminded of my own past, my own pain and my own desires. I was deeply moved.
When we start condemning an artist’s imagination and vision as unrealistic or unworthy simply because it’s uncomfortable- I fear we have become nothing more than pedestrian censors of our own humanity. Thank God there are artists like McCarthy and Dunham… and Hattie McDaniel and Chris Burke and Barbra Streisand and Danny Devito and Kristin Chenoweth and Chris Farley and Tina Fey and Denzel Washington and Hilary Swank… who can pave the way for the rest of us.