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Archive for January, 2016

I first went to Ecuador in the 90s. I’d had a beard in college and kept the mustache after entering the work world. People frequently compared my looks to Sam Elliot (in Mask) or Chuck Norris. I’ve written a number of times about my experience in South America – streets lined with walls topped with glass and barbed wire, armed guards on stools in front of almost every residence, “watchimen” who collected small change for keeping an eye on your automobile while you parked, auto exhaust, heat, the sun as a physical presence with a weight like gravity. Additionally, in NY, I’d been a person who was able to put everything into a quantifiable box: this look means x, that word means y. There was no reason to react emotionally- I could very logically and unfeelingly assess and put away almost every encounter. In Ecuador, the boxes were taken away. I understood the words (Spanish), but not necessarily the meanings. The classic example: one afternoon, I was sitting around in a t-shirt when a student came by to ask me a question. After a few minutes, he stated “Me encanta su camisa.” Translates: “I love your shirt.” I had no idea if the student was being snide, making a cultural comment, or if the words were literally true. I only had the words and I could not put them into the appropriate box.

Without my boxes, I began to react to everything emotionally. There was an episode of Star Trek where Spock started to have feelings. That was exactly how I felt. I had emotional reactions to everything — people burning trash in public parks, a bank teller who sent me to see the manager at closing — and I could not formulate any significant meaning out of the events in which I found myself engaged. In retrospect, it was a remarkable learning experience. At the time, I felt confused and exhausted. When I returned to the U.S., my hair had turned 85% white. Snow white. I won’t attribute the entire transition to culture shock or third world living – there is a genetic component as well. My mother went grey at a very young age. Still, it was a shock. I’d previously had a scalp of hair that denied no color- strands of black, red, blond, brown and variant shades of each had filled my head (my body, mustache and beard retained those colors even after my scalp went white).

I was dating a woman who was eight years younger than me and she felt the white hair made me look far too old. I was not the type to dye my hair, so she bought some Clairol and offered to treat me salon style. Having always been a sucker for hands on my scalp, I caved. We dated for four years and during that time I got used to having my hair dyed, although after a time or two I had to learn to do it myself. Oddly, the white hair took the dye at different depths of tone, so it rather mimicked the hair on my eyebrows, arms and face.

It was around this time that I began to study acting and eventually audition in the New York market. My first NYC role was as G. Gordon Liddy (yes, the mustache helped). It began a string of roles in which I played “the heavy” (the antagonist, the villain). When my relationship went South (literally-she moved back to South America), I took a chance at letting my hair return to its natural color. Oddly now, instead of being seen as “the villain” I was more often called in for “the father.” Also, now that I was back in the dating world, my ex had planted in my brain the consideration that my hair color made me look “too old” (her words). After six months of not being cast, I dyed my hair. Buona Fortuna. I was back in the casting mix within weeks.

I never thought much of the dying. It was part of my job. However, it sometimes confused matters. I was doing extra work on some episodic (it was a funeral scene). I went onto the set, looked about the room and spent some time deciding on what my relationship was with various people, the deceased, etc. I’d decided that he was my cousin, that we’d known each other intimately when we were young and then hadn’t seen each other for the last fifteen years. There was a moment in the eulogy where one of the main characters spoke about distances and I let it affect me. It made me somber and sad. After the scene, I noticed one of the producers walking around – he’d noticed my face and seemed to make a mental note. A few days later, I got a call from the casting agency. “Are you blonde?” “No.” “Are you sure?” “My hair is a medium hazelnut brown, why?” There was no reply. She hung up.   It only occurred to me later that perhaps the man who noticed me on set had seen me as blond. (I was convinced my hair color was what it said on the bottle).

The hair dye was trickier when it came to dating. Was I lying about my appearance? My age? Did it mean anything at all? I had some easy answers (to myself) – either I would say it was part of my trade or that the point of hair dye, like any other appearance altering (or enhancing) item -jewelry, clothing, tattoos, etc. — was that it more closely approximated how one feels about the self. Of course, when you see the 80 year old who dresses like the 18 year old, those sort of comparisons get strained.

I never considered the expense – since my hair was short, I would split one bottle of hair dye into thirds and that would last me for six weeks. Due to the white roots, I had to dye pretty much every 10-14 days. Once I had a child, it became much harder to keep up with the procedure. Working a day job for rent, going on auditions, taking care of my son (doing homework, making school pick-ups and drop offs, cooking dinner), I would sometimes go until my roots almost rivaled my dyed-hair in length.

I admit, when I showed up at auditions and saw the other actors who had obvious dye jobs, I began to reconsider. I generally did a good job on my hair, but the doubt creeps in that one lies to the self if the truth hurts. There weren’t too many role models out of Hollywood. Steve Martin was a young white-headed dude who let the hair come in as it was. Terrence Stamp – but that came with time. And forget rockers – do you really think Steven Tyler has long dark hair at 67? In pop culture, there is no such thing as aging gracefully and therefore any sign of what is seen as “aging” is shunned – even if it comes a bit early.

In 2013, I had the good fortune to work on Birdman. It was an small part as a stage hand at the theatre where “What We Talk About” was being staged (part of the film). It was fifteen days work and I went through a battery of auditions to get the part, even though it was technically background. The turning event for me was watching Michael Keaton. He is in the decade ahead of me now, but while he was in decent shape, he didn’t buff up for the part knowing he’d be in his underwear. In fact, there was something akin to raw courage in the way he confronted the role of an actor trying to make a comeback and all of his physical changes were on display- his hair had largely left him, his skin wore his age, though his body sported almost no extra weight. He legs were thinner-the legs of an older man. There was no effort at pretense- he went for raw truth. I felt it in the studio, but it was even more evident in the movie theatre where the large screen magnifies all our human blemishes and stands them before audiences like neon signs. There was truth on his side, and it overpowered anything else you might think about his physical being. Truth. Isn’t that what we’re after? As actors? As human beings?

So the performance stayed with me. And I began to think again about the purpose of hair dye. Is it, like fiction, a lie that tells the truth? Or does it cover something even more frightening because it’s true – age. Mortality. You are not 18 any longer. Satchel Paige is credited with saying “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?” In the U.S., if you look at the behavior of most of us, we are teenagers. We loathe aging and we make old people go away to Florida (only half joking; the other half go to Arizona).

I had a few projects lined up, so changing my hair color was not an immediate possibility. I had also spent hundreds of dollars on my headshots and business cards. Replacing those would be unnecessarily expensive. And yet the voice grated at my ear. Truth. And finally, this past summer, when I had several months between jobs, I let it grow out.

It took me a long time to get used to my reflection in the mirror (I can’t say I’m still 100% adjusted). As soon as my hair was more white than dye, people started offering me their seat on the bus, even though I might be wearing a NYC Marathon jacket. They were clearly not looking at my frame, my clothes or my face -the hair alone had determined for them how old I must be. At first I found this daunting: “do I really want the white of my hair to be the only thing that people see?” “Will it be the same in the casting session?” “Will people suddenly add 20 years to my age?” “What about women? Have I just surrendered the possibility of dating anyone under 70?”

So far, the hair hasn’t made a difference in the casting. I played a Vietnam vet in a comedy and an organ harvesting doctor in another short film within months of letting my hair return to truth. I have two more projects coming up early this year, as a dying man who asks for a heart and as a prison guard who runs a gang inside the jail. I no longer have to worry about matching my hair dye for continuity if we shoot for more than two weeks or if the roots are growing out enough for the camera to see. And the look is growing on me.  But the biggest change has been the willingness to let the raw truth be on my side.

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Christmas eve, I walked to the post office. On the way back, I saw a woman crossing the street toward me. I only noticed her briefly from the corner of my eye. But I felt her come up alongside of me. As she passed, I felt this pulse of energy – crazy, swirling energy. I had planned to walk back to work through the passageway between Seventh and Sixth Avenues, but I felt compelled to follow her down Eighth Avenue. She was a few inches shorter than me, wore leather pants and a loop-knit sweater (the kind that looks like it is more air than sweater and skin is vaguely visible beneath).

At the corner, waiting for the light (as I was catching up), she flicked her dark hair from the right side, revealing the pale, light skin of her neck. There was a kind of madness in me – I wanted to grab her from behind and kiss that neck. The light changed and I started to feel like a stalker. She wore low-cut boots and she seemed to walk on the side of the left boot (more than on the sole). Her clothes were not sloppy, but at the same time were not fastidiously groomed — they had the look of clothes that were put on after a dance class or that had been worn during a short nap. Everything about the woman felt intimate and familiar to me.

At 44th Street, I forced myself to turn away, to walk across Eighth Avenue toward Times Square (toward where I work). I was almost hyper-ventilating with crazy energy. Once I was away from the woman, I realized I was chasing a ghost- she was a doppelganger for someone I’d dated. Now, some fifteen years later, one tries to make sense of things, if it is possible to make sense of that dramatic pull of energy that comes through the senses.

Mystical writing from many cultures indicates that what draws or repulses us in others is mostly a form of our own character — we are often drawn to those who are like us or seek to complete ourselves in those who are of an entirely different mold. These kinds of relationships highlight our own personality. Thus in reviewing the effect of a relationship, we may actually come to understand ourselves better. Krishnamurti insists that the mirror in which we see ourselves in the mirror of relationship.

I met L when she was auditing a voice class. I didn’t expect to meet her- or anyone like her. Some years earlier I’d come to the conclusion that most “love” is simply a form of convenience or addiction. I’d been in a long term relationship when I came to that conclusion. I wrote a short story about a man watching a woman sleep and being unable to come to terms with the fact that she was not the one he’d anticipated, hoped for or imagined. She was the one he’d found. And despite the fact that she was allergic to his sperm – a cosmic warning if there was one -they were trying to make it work. I’d come to believe that people formed alliances or treaties when they wed and the other thing, “infatuation” or “lust” if you will, was the central ingredient in “falling in love.” I didn’t see much room or evidence of anything much else.

So, yes, I was already in a relationship that was “practical,” for lack of a better word. I was helping her get a green card; she was helping me …do something. I haven’t figured out yet what that was. I kept thinking I would grow into the relationship, even if it was awkward at every turn. I would be patient. I chided myself- I’d never lived with anyone before. I just needed to adjust. Besides, there was no such thing as “love.”

I went to class and I heard L sing. There was a lot of passion in her singing, though I didn’t pay that much attention to her otherwise. Later, in the hallway outside of class, we started to talk. Quickly it appeared as if I’d known her for a thousand years or more. There was this ease and comfort of dialogue. We walked together to the subway with some other classmates. I played an impromptu joke on one of the singers who’d gone into the supermarket, banging on the window as in “Mrs. Robinson.” L joined right in. All of us laughed to the subway and at one point I swear I heard her say, “you’d better be single.” (She later denied having every said such a thing).

When I got home that night, R, the woman with whom I was in a relationship said, “what happened?”

I shrugged. “What do you mean?”

“You seem joyful. That’s not an emotion I’ve seen in you before…”

At this point I could spill all of my journals – the self-recriminations, the mistakes, the roads not taken – but what I want to recount is not necessarily the personal journey through these relationships, but the discovery of my character on those axes — the poles between “practical” and “passion.”

What is it that Pascal says in the Pensees – “the heart hath reasons that reason doth not know.” If reason is the tool of the practical, passion and love incite in us the irrational. I have infinite gratitude for L, as I have often said, “she woke up my heart.” I had stopped believing love was possible until I met her. What I experienced was sexual – I’m not going to deny that aspect of things – but it was more too. There was this uncanny sensation of having spent multiple life-times with L, as well as a unique energy exchange. I can distinctly recall more than one occasion on which L simply placed her hand on my back and a charge of electricity shocked through my body (and no, it wasn’t static electricity). I always felt like I could tell her anything and I made honesty my number one commitment- Of course, this was merely my perception -there were times we talked (after we broke up) and she intimated that I should never have told her x or y. “How did I think that would make her feel?” she asked. I always assumed honesty trumped smaller concerns.

The primary effect of L’s entrance was that I understood I would never be happy focused only on a practical life. I am an actor and I’ve had the same struggle through the years with work as during the time I tried to balance what I owed to my practical relationship versus what I owed to passion.  While ultimately passion may not be love, it is not lust either.

When I first came to NYC, my primary focus was to study acting. I’d come to the game late and was fortunate enough to have friends who’d studied at NYU and Monclair- they opened to door for me to terminology, various teaching methods, etc. When I began studying, I continued to teach writing at a Community College. It surprised me a little how quickly I picked up technique, but beyond that, how my years of meditation actually gave me a distinct advantage-the ability to focus and the ability to be in the moment (and yes, I’d heartily recommend meditation to anyone who considers acting simply for those two benefits). I was still dating the woman about whom I’d written my short story- she was thrilled by the idea that I might turn into someone famous; however, she disliked that I left on weekends to take classes, to rehearse with acting partners and all the work involved in learning a craft.

I made acting important and tried to balance it with the demands of my job (grading papers, preparing classes) and my relationship, what you might call the practical aspects of living. Had I been passionately in love with either -the woman or the teaching -who knows how I would have felt. As it was, I continually felt that time away from acting was time lost. After a year of technique and a year of basic and advanced scene study, I went to my first audition. I was cast as a lead. The play was “American Success” – a musical about the inter-twined careers of Timothy Leary and G. Gordon Liddy. It probably helped matters that at that time I sported a mustache and looked like Clint Eastwood’s younger brother (or Sam Elliot in Mask, as people often told me). The play debuted at the American Living Room series at HERE. On opening night, after my family left, I was incredibly aware that my girlfriend of the last four years had gone abroad. I stood in the triangle facing Sixth Avenue and loneliness welled up within me.(1)

My immediate thought was to blame acting. “I put acting ahead of people – and when the play was over all that I was left with was myself.” I raced off and tried to resurrect my relationship – it would involve moving to South America, giving up acting, but hell – people were more important! Even if it wasn’t what I thought of as love, I was incredibly attached to the woman.

I flew to South America, proposed, and was offered a job by my fiancé’s father. I finished the year teaching while training in Manhattan to become an import / export sales executive. And I was bored out of my mind. I kept thinking – this is a job a monkey could do. The prices are on a chart- there’s no negotiation – all I do is answer the phone (“How much does it cost to send a container of — ?”) and I’d look at the chart and read off the price. But the money would be more than I’d ever made. I struggled – could I be content with money? And a family? And what about acting?

I don’t want to get into much more personal history, but this is the lesson I’ve relived for most of my life — being forced to try and balance what I am passionate about with the more practical demands of survival in a capitalist society. In my pre-acting career, when I began writing and assumed I’d make my living as a poet (delusions of youth), I’d work for six to eight months and save enough money that I could spend the next four to six months writing. As a result, my work history has more entries than Burke’s Peerage. So this challenge has been present since I graduated from college. I understand now, however, that passion and love are not as synonymous as I once thought.

A few years ago, I re-connected with a woman who seemed to span both ends of the scale. She was a responsible young mother but also an artist. I could mention Sophocles or a minor character from Shakespeare without having to explain. I could pull out my Oedipus (ex-Rex) joke without the footnote. While it didn’t feel like I’d known her a thousand years, I could spend the afternoon walking with her and not feel compelled to invent conversation. Dialogue came and went and there was a gentle ease simply in her presence. I was patient- perhaps too patient – but I recall having walked her to her apartment. Her son was asleep in his stroller and I thought “Do I kiss her?” I leaned in close, and maybe it was the result of the stroller or my own expectations, there was suddenly no burning passion. In some strange moment of crisis, I felt that I should at least feel the compulsion of passion if I was going to kiss her. And so we hugged and that moment passed. Over time, I realized that was my one opportunity – though we’d later spent some time together and I grew more entranced each time, the kiss remained unshared.  When I was full of passion, I found myself without the opportunity.  I had yet to learn that passion comes and goes, but something else endures.

My son is now twelve and one of the great lessons I’ve learned is that I always love him. There are days I want him to be quiet, or to leave me in peace while I work, but it is never without love. The idea of a scale balanced between passion and practicality was simply something in my brain when it came to love. While love can begin at any intensity, it grows over time. It’s not really a feeling, it’s a connection, or a commitment — many times, it’s simply putting the good of the others ahead of yourself. Or at least putting yourself out for the good of the other.

While I work a great deal as an actor and a writer these days, I’ve also gone back to a “day” job. It’s hard to raise a kid without a steady income. And maybe it isn’t so opposite – maybe the work I do gives me the leisure to make films when I so desire. And at this time, it’s all about the work – doing the work, serving the script, living the process.  Passion for scripts comes and goes, but the love of the work is constant.  This is something I have only learned with time.  Still, I dream of the day I can quit and devote myself entirely to what I love… 😉

(1) One of the things I learned after years of acting is that the sensation of “being in the moment”- one of the requisites for good acting – is that when you return to the quotidian, there is a sense of being unplugged. In my case, I’ve learned over time that this post-acting phase manifests itself as a minor depression, a deep feeling of sadness coupled with loneliness. However, at the time of this show, it was my first such experience and I did not have the wherewithal to consider that it might be something related to acting and not my life.

 

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I’ve had the occasion to perform readings of new works – in early drafts just for the writer and when the work is more polished in front of audiences. One of the more frequent “mistakes” I see novice writers make is to have too many circumstances come to the aid of the protagonist. Some years ago, I read for the writer and later in front of an audience a play called “The Iron Bear.” After the first rehearsal in the writer’s living room, I tried to find a metaphor for how the plotline appeared: “It’s like watching a swimmer in a strong current, but each wave is pushing the swimmer to shore. There are no obstacles. It’s much more interesting to watch a swimmer fight the current than to see one simply washed ashore.”

Recently, I started re-reading Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. I have no idea how many times I’ve read this novel (or any other Graham Greene novel). I own them all and when I can’t remember the plot any more, I pick it up again. Oddly, I forget the plots and characters rather quickly. This is unusual – W.H. Auden described potboilers as the book “you can’t put down at night and can’t remember in the morning” (The Dyer’s Hand). Greene’s novels are compact structures of plot and character. The plots move like a potboiler, but the writing is on a literary par with The Great Gatsby. Oddly, I can discuss The Great Gatsby in great detail – even if I haven’t read the book in 20 years (I don’t think I’ve ever gone 20 years without reading it, but the point is I remember all the details). Greene’s novels, however tend to fade like old curtains -the outlines are clear, everything else has been bleached by time and the sun.

Greene’s characters are never superheroes. They are extremely flawed men (usually) with the odds stacked against them. Fowler, the protagonist of The Quiet American has one expressed desire: he wishes to stay in Saigon with his young female companion Phuong. One of the immediately apparent obstacles is simply Fowler’s age – although Greene never specifies Fowler’s exact age, the character himself frequently refers to the “decade” or so he has left to live. To complicate matters, Fowler has a rival, a young American Economic attaché named Pyle. Pyle is as innocent as Fowler is jaded, hopeful where Fowler is resigned. They are a contrast in character – foils, if you will. Pyle boards Fowler at a restaurant and as his first contact, assures himself that Fowler is a friend. Not that any of this seems to matter to Phuong. She is happy with Fowler, but she is concerned about her future.

The matter would be settled in a minute if Fowler could marry Phuong – but that would be too easy. So the next obstacle is that Fowler is married. And without marriage, can Phuong’s future be assured? Greene ups the ante – not only is Fowler married, but his wife is a devout Anglican who told her fiancé before they married that there’d be no chance of divorce. It went against her beliefs. Pyle, on the other hand, is not married and is idealistic enough to fall in love after one dance with a woman who cannot speak his language (Phuong speaks Vietnamese and the local brand of French) – even to the point of marriage.

The location itself creates obstacles. Fowler, Pyle and Phuong are all living (or stationed) in Saigon shortly before French Indochina collapses at Dien Bien Phu. Fowler is a foreign correspondent who occasionally travels to some of the less secure locations in Vietnam-thus both his and Phuong’s future are threaten simply by his manner of making a living. Even Saigon, where things are relatively safe, has bridges that are occupied by the French during the day and the Vietminh at night. The restaurants foreigners patronize are on second floors-with grill work to guard against hand grenades.

Greene is not satisfied with letting the obstacles halt at this pass. We learn that Phuong has a sister who exerts a lot of influence and wishes to see Phuong married. She had accompanied Phuong to the dance where she met (and continued to meet) Fowler throughout their courtship. Phuong was never let out of her sight and the couple were never allowed to be alone – until the sister came down with a fever. One night. And then Phuong was with Fowler. The sister never forgave them and is still looking for marriage prospects.

One of the more bizarre twists of the story is that as a romantic idealist, Pyle never goes behind Fowler’s back, but insists on informing the journalist of his intentions at every step. Once Pyle discovers that he is in love with Phuong – he makes an arduous journey to find Fowler at the front. Moments prior to an artillery attack, Pyle informs Fowler that he’s in love with Phuong. Once he’s made his secret known, he is relieved. Pyle keeps insisting that he has Phuong’s best interests at heart. Obviously there are parallels in the personal relationship with the colonial and “democracy bearing” powers and the native culture-who for the most part simply wants to be secure and go about her daily business. Is this an obstacle? Think about it – someone is in love with your girlfriend and insists on telling you their every move because you are their friend. Enter conscience – it becomes harder to strike someone who shares their thoughts with childlike simplicity.

Complication next: a telegram comes for Fowler when he’s returning from the front – he’s to be promoted to editor of the Southeast Asia segment of his newspaper back in London. So not only can he not offer Phuong marriage, he may not be able to offer her much more future than a few months. It may be possible to take Phuong with him, so out of desperation, Fowler writes to his wife to ask for a divorce.

In the meantime, Pyle wants Phuong to meet with him and Fowler and to choose between them. Fowler has to translate as Pyle doesn’t speak enough French of Vietnamese to communicate himself. Fowler has not yet told Phuong of the telegram. She listens to the discussion, then chooses Fowler. Pyle is defeated. He will apply for a transfer.

Fowler writes to his editor- he is a reporter, not an editor. He tells Phuong of the telegram. She imagines going with Fowler to London – but mistakes the location of skyscrapers and the Statue of Liberty.

On the road from a religious festival, Fowler and Pyle run out of gas and are wounded by an attack. Pyle more or less saves Fowler. While he recovers in the hospital, a letter comes from his wife. Phuong’s sister has gotten a position at the American Embassy (whether through the influence of Pyle is left up in the air). She speaks English.

Up to this point, Fowler has been honorable – he’s told the truth. Perhaps not immediately, but in his own way he honors Phuong with the truth. When he reads the letter from his wife, the answer is a resounding “no.” She will not divorce him. Phuong sits at his side with hope. And? “No definitive answer.” Fowler is desperate enough to lie.

My intention is not to create a plot summary, but a study of a character with desire confronting a series of obstacles. What Greene does so remarkably well, not just in this novel but almost every book he’s every written is to create a character so human – a character with a strong desire who is weak enough that surmounting obstacles takes tremendous effort. Imagine, if you will, that Fowler is standing on the block at a swimming pool. Phuong is sitting on the other side of the pool. He dives. He doesn’t swim well, so he moves slowly and with concentration. Pyle dives into the next lane and begins to ask if the water is safe. A few hand grenades explode in the pool, cascading spray. Phuong hands him an opium pipe while he’s trying to recover from the waves. He smokes (one of the other obstacles I haven’t touched upon). His editor starts to drain the water from the pool. Pyle claims if he gets to the other side first he’s going to take Phuong and marry her. Fowler swallows water and begins to drown. Pyle saves him and resuscitates him, then they are back in the pool again. Fowler’s wife starts to through rocks on his back.

None of this is true in an exact sense, but what I’m trying to communicate is a character trying to pursue his desire in a direct line – and that the more obstacles that come between the character and the goal -the more compelling the plot becomes. I didn’t learn this lesson until later in my writing career. I have early plays with a lot of obstacles and no matching desire. I have characters who are blown through a series of events that happen to them- not the result of their pursuing a goal. Much of the writing is good -smart dialogue, astute characterization – but what makes a story dramatic is the pursuit of a goal through a series of daunting obstacles. Hollywood actors have ruined much of the scripting possibility by insisting on characters without weaknesses, superheroes – when the more severe the weakness, the more daunting the obstacle, the more compelling the story.

 

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