Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Monday, 9:20 AM. It's Day One, and I'm late. This is what happens when one travels a New Route in LA. I'm berating myself ("Rookie move! Rookie Move!!") and am in road-rage mode against anyone not speeding but it doesn't help because apparently I'm the winner of the hit-every-red-light lottery (on Venice Blvd? Really??) so I do the side-street shuffle to Van Ness where I Dukes-of-Hazard it over those aggravating speed bumps and I'm so focused I don't even giggle at the sign that says "Speed Humps" (yeah baby!!!) and thank Christ I FINALLY MAKE A LIGHT and I blast across Melrose and into the parking structure.... And just like that, I'm back. Season four. I landed in LA on July 4 after ten uninterrupted weeks in the Northeast. The re-entry has been surreal: everywhere, reminders that this is indeed Los Angeles. Where I live. Kind of. For most of the year. This is my car; this is the bright sun; this is my favorite spot for a beer. The return to routine feels --I don't know how else to say it-- strange. Once again, swiping my ID through the studio gate. Once again, a warm "welcome back!" from the guard. Once again hustling over to stage eight, only to find they've moved our trailers to free up parking spaces for those American Horror Story-ers. (Bastards!) I've done all this before, of course, so I guess it's this: one never imagines these little wonderful things will become habit. And it ends up the setup for the first shot took a while, so I'm not even late. I take it as a sign, and relax, and let in the strangeness-- this deja-vu of the returning senior, the "new-only-not" feeling unique to one's first day back at school as a vet. Strangest, though, is how quickly the newness fades. After all the hugs, the hello's, the "welcome backs," (and a few awkward "...you're back?? I mean-- You're back!! Hey! Great!!"), it's suddenly as if we'd all been right here, doing this, yesterday. Perhaps it's due to experience, or so many familiar faces: our turnover is, apparently, remarkably low. We've got a new crew member, fresh from Mad Men, who remarks that our show is famed for its tight crew and easy days. Easy? Easy??? (Well, OK, that's true: we haven't had many 20-hour days. ) (And I cannot imagine a 20-hour day on Mad Men.) Victor (our genius DP) points out that very few people ever see Season Four on a single show. So this is how it feels four years in: at four years in, you answer questions from the New Guys; at four years in, you find you're chatty with pretty much everyone. (Except Miguel Ferrer - I still think of him as that intense dude in Traffic so he scares me a little. We just say hi.) To you, this all may seem like a given and not strange at all, but to me... I don't know. It's hard to define, beyond saying that it's nice to belong. But I can only dwell on the feeling for a moment-- rehearsal's up for the big scene. Back to work. Which feels nice too. Speaking of The Scene, a quick acting tale from Day One: After a couple of quick walk-and-talks, the first Big Scene of the day --remember, we're talking Day One of Episode One after two months off-- is a flashback. A flashback that is a CONTINUOUS LINK from a very, very tense, cliffhanger scene shot TEN WEEKS AGO. It will be the very first shot of the season for our stars, here at 10 AM after two months of travel and family and birthdays and reunions. (The script, if you're curious, came in on Friday.) Wanna know what we get for rehearsal and prep? For the first Big Scene here on a Big Network Show? A blocking rehearsal. One. Blocking rehearsal. Then it's back to the trailers, where we have twenty minutes to move from Vacation Mode to Big Drama mode. Oh, and since we're a little behind, once the cast is on set it'll move quickly. Grab a master, push in on a few closeups, move on. YES, I know: we're not talking Long Day's Journey Into Night here. It's a television crime procedural. A television crime procedural that's seen be fifteen million people a week. One's acting, for better or worse, judged by fifteen million people a week Funny, how that can creep into an actor's head right about at the moment of "...aaaaand, ACTION." The lesson(s)? Experience counts. The scene's gonna work because it will feel seamless. The seamless continuity works only because the character continuity works. The character continuity works because the actor (and the coach...) (ahem) have lived with it for so long and understand the job. You get the idea. So, finally, I leave you with my constant reminder about this work we do: think it's easy? You try it. Actually, if you haven't already, I truly hope you do. Because it's awesome. And, yes: strange.
Day Two. Emerging from the sea, take 4. Trust me, it only LOOKS warm.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

My favorite oldie


So you've started to dread holidays because you're still not a famous actor.

And it's becoming just too painful to explain why you're still not, "...after all this time?"

In fact, every time you try to justify your thus-far-anonymous existence in LA or New York to your family, well, you always leave such conversations feeling worse than when you entered them --and you enter into them, as your family does, with the best of intentions. Yet attempts to make them understand the path you've chosen result in frustration, disappointment, and, sometimes, isolation and pain.

It's not your loved ones' fault: in recent years they've been so inundated with information (and misinformation) about the inner workings of Hollywood that they engage in such discussions assuming a knowledge that they actually lack. Honestly: did you ever imagine you'd be discussing box-office grosses with your parents? And eventually the prospect of reciting your padded resume to all who ask, followed by a series of humiliating "I-know-what-you-should-do" conversations prompted by some invariably unflattering comparison to a co-worker's relative who also acts, cause you to contemplate spending your holidays alone. And that ain't right.

Next time, try offering this analogy:

You're a gold miner.

Like all gold miners, you're a dreamer. (But you don't have to tell them that. And don't ever be ashamed of it. The world needs dreamers.)

Dreamers climb the highest mountain; Gold miners mine the richest mine. Otherwise, as any dreamer will tell you, what's the point?

So, like all real miners, off to Alaska you go. That's where the gold is. Being the best gold miner in Nebraska is a tin crown, at best.

And until the world hears otherwise, you're just another schmuck on the mountain. When you strike gold, you'll let them know.

In the meantime....

Don't try to share with those back home the specifics about your days. Your little ups, your little downs. People who've never been on the mountain don't understand it up there and never will. Not their fault; they can't.

(A rare exception: some miners leave behind those who truly believe in their dream-- better, those that believe in their ability to achieve it. If you're such a fortunate soul, you can --and should-- ask your supporters for whatever support they can offer. In helping you stay on the mountain they're dreaming, too. And they're the first people you pay back when you strike it rich. And, sure, tell them about your victories, cry with them about your defeats. But tell them not to spread it around.)

As to the rest: don't listen to their story of their friend, "the lawyer," who goes down to the local creek with a plastic pan on Saturdays ("...and really, he's pretty good at it. You two should meet."). He's not a gold miner, he's a lawyer who likes to play around with the pan, which is fun and not at all risky if, like him, you know that come Monday morning you're going to be at your desk and not along a crowded riverbank in freezing water with your pants rolled up.

You know the difference; they never will. They're afraid of the mountain, and for good reason....

Life on the mountain sucks. It's cold, or blistering hot; you spend what little money you have on mining supplies; worse, because it's a mining town, prices are gouged on everything else. Eventually you will have to take all manner of demeaning work merely to survive. No Carribbean Christmas, no 401-K, no health insurance for you, no, you need that money for a seventy-dollar trip to the grocery and coin-op laundries that charge six dollars a load. On the mountain, among the other miners, this is an accepted part of the bargain; down in the valley it sounds like failure. Remember: keep the day-to-day to yourself.....

And don't ever, ever, be swayed by the advice of those next to you along the river. No one knows exactly where the gold is, especially not them. And advise they will-- on the size of your pan, the shape of your pan, your sluicing technique, your position on the river (yet they will never, ever tell you if they hear rumor of a better spot); if you listen, you'll begin to doubt your every move, and quickly grow discouraged. Remember: if any of their suggestions were effective, they wouldn't be knee-deep in mud next to you.

Any advice whatsoever from anyone who's never been on the mountain is worse than useless.

On the other hand, advice from those few who actually walk off the mountain wealthy can be invaluable, but all they'll really tell you is this: keep at it. Because they know...

There is no justice on the mountain. Some pan for years, only to see those who stake claims yards away strike it rich; others find gold their first day out. This can be crippling to old-timers still chipping away.

And sometimes those who strike a little gold can be the harshest of all on their fellow miners. That's okay; they're just afraid their vein will dry up. And they're ashamed of all their days as a failure, which is a pity (more on this later).

All miners are, more or less, offered the same deal: in most cases, the mountain will win. (But you know that long odds never deter the true dreamer.) What your friends in the valley will never know is the cruelty in that bargain, how, as time goes on, every day becomes difficult. Every day there's a summoning of energy that must occur for you to crawl outside and return to the river. Every day you'll curse your tiny, decaying tent, you'll find it harder to smile when someone just above or below you strikes gold; every sunny card from friends and family not on the mountain announcing a new home, a new birth, will cut a little deeper, and every day you'll find it a little harder to ignore the gnawing thought that perhaps it isn't the mountain, it's you. And if you manage to survive up there for years without even a nugget (and you might) a funny paradox takes root inside you, paralyzing you as it grows: the longer you're on the mountain, the harder it is to stay or leave. If you stay, the hardships are harder, the sacrifices seem more meaningless; at the same time, well, you've been up here this long, and so you cling to the miner's one life-preserver thought: just one big strike and all this will be worth it. Then, if I want to, I'll leave.

And yet every day you'll see fellow miners leave the mountain. Some just walk off at night, under cover of darkness; others, overcome with exhasstion and grief, must be carried by family who load them into Volvos and Audis, triumphant in their sympathy. Young miners will scoff at such sites, for surely, they think, they share nothing with this weakling who simply doesn't "have it;" older miners either stand quietly, offering a moment of understanding and respect, or turn away, haunted by the thought that that spectacle should be, and perhaps soon will be, them.

And once in a great while, one of two things happens: the first, of course, is signaled by a banshee whoop!, an animal cry instantly understood by all miners: someone hits it. This is followed by a breathtaking stampede of hangers-on, well-wishers, gold-diggers, photographers, even, all wanting nothing more, ultimately, than proximity to the Winner and with it the possibility that some of that gold dust will rub off onto them-- or at least will buy them some six-degrees-of-fame free drinks or sex at the saloon. Depending on a fellow miner's frame of mind that day, such spectacles can be heartening ("see, it does happen"), or heartbreaking ("... but not to me.").

The second thing? That's the rarest of all:

someone walks down off the mountain, empty-handed. And smiling.

Something happened to them, one night.... maybe the newest young miner to earn the affections of the local suppliers did them in,,, or the latest baby shower invitation from a friend down in the valley... something... and some switch flipped, deep inside them, and they realized, awake in their raggedy tent as the sun comes up, the secret the mountain holds closest and reveals only to those who can become still enough to hear it: although they're leaving empty-handed, they didn't fail. And even though they can never explain this secret to those in the valley, they won't have to. That this strange, draining, heartbreaking life that they knew, this struggle, had its own awful beauty that those who stayed in the valley (and even those who struck gold right out of the gate) can never know. Bittersweet, too, that all those days that they'd cursed themselves and bullied themselves and agreed with all the whispers of failure that seemed to surround them, they'd failed to understand that they'd already won. They won the moment they'd staked their claim and set up their tent and waded into that cold water not even knowing how to hold the damned pan.

Or, maybe, they won the moment they stepped onto the bus to Alaska.

What did they finally, finally hear from that quiet voice that morning as they watched the sun come up? That through those scorching, humbling days and freezing nights, they'd been living a dream, and that dreams have lives, too, and deaths. And that while their dream slipped gently into the night, it lived a full life, and that smile they wear as they walk the trail off the mountain comes from a lack of regret, and peace.

None of us has any way of knowing whether we'll leave the mountain rich or poor; my hope is that either way you walk off happy, or at least content. In the meantime, whenever friends or family or boyfriends or girlfriends or neighbors ask "how's it going," tell them this:

"Think of me as a gold miner. When I strike it rich, I promise you, you'll know. Until then, you don't even have to ask. Just assume I'm still on the mountain with a pan in my hand, digging around in the mud for a dream. Wish me luck."

Peter Kelley
New York, NY
November, 2002