Tenspeed & Brownshoe

Saturday, March 04, 2006


In an earlier column I stated a fact about the number of Creatives. The number was 4 million. For the sake of this article I’m just going to include ACTORS so I’ll be conservative and lower that number to 3 million. If I excluded your particular profession, don’t be angry. You’re just being spared my wrath. Why wrath? Because that number, 3 million, is the one of the very things that is wrong with this industry. Put it this way, on the last Oscar telecast do you remember seeing 3 million people? Of course not. Otherwise Mann’s Chinese Theatre would actually have to be located in China. No, 3 million there was not. But then why is that number so high?

Because Acting is self professed.

That’s the big problem. I don’t know who started this but there’s this bizarre dictum that if you want to be an actor, all you have to do is say it out loud. Really? Is that it? All you have to do is say it out loud? If I say it three time can I conjure up Michael Keaton and watch his head spin? It is this ridiculous way of thinking that has bloated the number of actors in the US, just the US, to 3 million weak. Acting is the only profession in the world that can be anointed simply by proclamation. Sure, there are other self proclaimed Creatives. Lord knows I’ve met my share of self-proclaimed writers who’ve never written a thing.
But it’s nowhere near the same.
Because eventually, writers have to deliver a tangible product. They may not be famous; they may never even sell a thing. But you can hold it in your hands. It may be crap but it is real.
Directors deliver a tangible product. It may be crap but it is real.
Actors can’t do that. Acting is beholden to another entity. Actors can not exist without the product of others. I know what you’re thinking. Directors need actors just as much as actors need directors. Directors are beholden to actors. Not true. The Kid Stays in the Picture was one of the best documentaries I’ve seen in recent years and there wasn’t one actor in the flick. Truth is, actors are people who need people.

“Just because I’m not famous doesn’t mean I’m not an actor.” A friend of mine said that to me when he was just starting out as an actor. He’s a lawyer now, a damn good one by the way. But he was right. There truly is no correlation between “good” acting and fame. Freddie Prinze Jr. was famous, although I’ve never read a single review or article that ever described him of being a good actor. But big BUT, that doesn’t excuse actors from being (as my friend Larry puts it)…UNgood. Most actors are pretty horrible. Some of them even have a career. Of course I realize that good is subjective. My good is different from your good. You might even say that your good can beat up my good but I think we can generally agree on what excites us in a performance and what disappoints us. Put it this way, I’ll bet two years salary that Paris Hilton will never win an acting award; MTV excluded.
So if we can all agree on that then we can all agree on this: Bad is bad.
What makes me an authority? Nothing. There is no such thing and you should be aware of people that claim to be an authority and don’t have a uniform and a badge to back it up. The only things I can tell you, however, are the experiences I’ve had as an agent and a manager.
One of the ways an agent or manager finds his talent is from attending acting workshops, or seminars, or conservatories, which is all pretty much the same thing. Basically, a ten percenter will sit in a room and actors will stroll in, one by one, and perform a monologue. Actors pay good money for this so accompanying the monologue is usually some chitchat, like where they were born or how they just discovered yoga as if it hasn’t been around for centuries. Sometimes these actors were born in the 80’s, sometimes these actors are in their 80’s, but the most interesting thing is that they all say the exact same thing. I just know I’m gonna make it! I can’t begin to tell you how bad I want to say, No…you’re not.
Hey, optimism is a good trait. It can also be a dangerous trait. Especially if you’re dangerously optimistic. I’ve sat through literally thousands of what is supposed to be sad monologues. Dreadful, dreadful soliloquies about people having cancer, or people having AIDS, or people having cancer then AIDS. These monologues have less to do with acting and more to do with actors wanting to say, Hey, look at me! I’m crying! Some of these workshops are a little on the scammy side but there are others that are truly reputable. Susan Batson, working on the side of good repute is an amazing acting teacher who’s coached celebrities from Nicole Kidman to Chris Rock. Batson, a woman who is delightfully from another planet is incredibly tough on her students and only wants the very best and actor can give. *As shown in the first five minutes of the film, Girl 6 and in my opinion, the only watchable part of that film. I had the pleasure of being invited to her beautiful space to hear these Best of the Best thespians deliver what was supposed to be, great performances. Supposed to be. The reality was that they were terrible. Every last one of them. But this wasn’t Susan’s fault. The blame lies in a completely different area. It’s called reality. And the reality is…not everyone can be an actor. And why do I believe this to be true? God help me if this sounds mystical or wishy-washy but I believe that acting is special. It’s not a trade. It’s a talent. Not just anybody can learn it. Sure, coaches are essential to honing an actor’s skill but you have to born with it. That’s why I come down so hard on these self-professed actors. The sully the very notion that people like me hold true in our hearts.

Actors are magical.

How else do you explain what they do to us? Forget about laughing and/or crying. That’s a given. I’m talking about power. Actors have power over us. They can make a good day better of a bad day worse. They can make us scream—out loud—in fear or in anger. They make us believe the impossible. I’m not insane so I know that a man can’t fly but whenever I see Christopher Reeve in that skintight red and blue, I can’t help but look out the window. Actors can even drive us to make changes in our lives. This may sound cheesy but when I saw Jerry Maguire on a Friday, I quit the fashion industry the following Monday. I had forgotten how important it was to be inspired by the work that you do. Tom Cruise and Cuba Gooding Jr. reminded me. I know, I know, I’d roll my eyes too if I just read that previous statement. But didn’t you believe that it really was Ray Charles up on that screen, singing Hit the Road Jack? Or that Indiana Jones really could outrun a fifty-ton speeding boulder.? Actors, good actors, make you believe in things that are unbelievable. Magical dramatists that use their talent as a magic wand. Bad actors are charlatans who promise greatness but deliver cheap tricks with exaggerated eye movements. There’s just no reason for there to be 3 million actors in the US. Never mind the fact that there is only 120,000 SAG members in the entire nation. However, there is another reason why that number is so high:

Extras are the people who appear in the background of a film or television show. That way when the main characters enter a diner, it doesn’t look like an episode of the Twilight Zone. In recent years I’ve actually become quite obsessed with checking out the extras in a film. Sometimes it’s even funnier than the film I’m watching. In Braveheart, during a battle sequence, I spied two extras that were supposed to be fighting each other to the death, laughing and playing what looked to be a rousing game of leapfrog. In Teen Wolf, during a basketball scene, an extra actually pulled out his, uh…reproductive material. And that in itself poses a question. Are extras really actors? Well…yes and no. The only people that I would be inclined to give the mantle of Actor to are what I call Career Extras. Career Extras are actors that do one and one thing only. Appear as background performers. They’re very professional, eerily serious about each project they do, and they work constantly. Career Extras can rack up more than 20 films and television shows in a single year. That even beats Jude Law who was in every single film last year. I just love watching Law & Order and finding my favorite Career Extras. Every once in awhile when I don’t see one of them, I’ll be like, “Hey, where’s Guy who likes to pretend he’s on the phone?” Although pretending to be on the phone may not be Macbeth, it is sort of acting. The television show, 24, has the best extras in the business. I don’t know why but they do. Extras in real time. There’s even a new show premiering on HBO entitled, “Extras” starring Ricky Gervais (star of the original and funnier UK version of The Office) so there must be something to them.

This all falls on deaf ears of course. The glutton of actors will continue to rise and the expected level of talent will continue to plummet. Half of the working actors today would’ve been unemployable in the 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s. Gone are the days of Pacino, Streep, and Newman. Redford pretty much retired, Bancroft just passed, and De Niro has now relegated to appearing in silly comedies and hokey thrillers. So now the door is open to any Tim, Rick, or Larry who watches waaaaay to much Entertainment Tonight and thinks fame is right around the corner. And that’s how I weed them out. When I hear an actor talk about money and grosses rather than craft and technique, red flags all around. These people think that the entertainment industry is like a gas station where they can just stroll up to the Self-Serve island and help themselves. But like the gas station, there’s a price. And that price is talent. Sure, some people have made it without paying; Lord knows Pauly Shore is on fumes.
For some, like Marlon Brando, talent is like solar energy. It can run forever or you can you can squander it away. But we know he had it. And his was as bright as the sun.