Friday, May 23, 2008

On Film

My experience on film has been limited, considering I've been acting professionally for so long. I spent decades in LA, but while there, though I appeared in scores of theatrical productions, I worked only once on film.

The movie was called Red Nights, and I worked only one day on the thing, actually one night. All night. I had one scene with the leading man and leading lady, neither of whom you would ever have heard of, but the director was so charmed by my performance, he decided to add another scene to the movie. As we were on location in someone's Bel Air mansion, and we had to vacate by dawn, this additional scene was tacked onto the end of the work day. Thus, though my original scene was done by 9 PM or so, I was kept hanging around all night long. When the sun was beginning to lighten things up, they blacked out the windows of the upstairs hallway, and finally shot the new scene, which consisted only of my walking down the hall and passing the leading man.

Ever hear of Red Nights? Neither has anybody else. Shot in 1987, this independent film failed to find a distributor, and failed to pay their actors. Several years after this horror went straight to video (it's never been released on DVD), Screen Actors Guild got involved and finally, around 1990, I received payment of a whopping 500 dollars.

The leading man of the movie was a young guy named Christopher Parker (I can't claim to have remembered his name, I just checked the VHS cover), and the credits on the box include "Jack Carter as Uncle Solly." I did not work with Carter, an old-time borscht belt comic, and I wasn't even aware he was in this thing. The film was written and directed by Izhak Hanooka, and produced by the team of Gad and Amnon Lesham. Big names, eh? Red Nights was their only film, and my only LA film appearance.

While living in Los Angeles, I would never have considered working as an extra; conventional wisdom was, once you worked "background," you would never be considered for a speaking role in a film. But once I landed in DC, that "conventional wisdom" was non-existent. Most local actors here do extra work from time to time, if only to try to keep their SAG insurance. I've done my share over the years, including huge crowd scenes in flicks like Contact (starring Jodie Foster) and 1600 (that one had Wesley Snipes, way before his tax troubles). Though I have never seen the film (it flopped), I sat in a courtroom right behind Kirstie Alley and Tim Allen in For Richer or Poorer, so I have a hunch I can be seen in that one.

I KNOW I can be seen in one of the several episodes I filmed of the TV series Homicide. The series made its home in Baltimore for 6 or 7 years, so most of the locals turned up in various crowds over the years. In one particular episode, I was one of only two extras working as technicians in the morgue. We spent a full day hauling around carcasses while the principal actors did their shmacting for the camera. I never saw this episode, but I heard from a friend who called from South Carolina, moments after the show aired; he went on and on about how those scrubs I wore really accentuated my biceps (this was during my gym-bunny period, now loooong gone...that's another blog altogether).

Homicide was not the only TV series which gave DC locals employment. The West Wing visited the city several times a year to shoot their exterior scenes, and in one flashback episode, I was wandering around in the background of the campus of young Jeb's boarding school.

This background work sounds pretty lame, and the fact is, it's deadly dull to do. But the casting directors who supply these visiting productions with extras also cast most of the day player roles in these projects. A day player is exactly what it sounds like, a speaking role in a scene which will be shot in one or two days (or less). I've had a couple of those gigs come my way, including two episodes of The Wire, which shot its entire series in Baltimore. I played the small, inconsequential role of "the architect" in season three of the show. Even my friends looking for me missed my one-liner which took place in a restaurant during lunch. The scene took many hours to shoot, and the director was very concerned with authenticity (that was a trademark of The Wire), so I spent the day eating Maryland Crab Cakes, over and over and over and over again.

I was glad to have the work, but I haven't had a crab cake since.

The highest profile film work I have done to date is in the John Waters' film, Pecker. Actually, the official title of the movie is John Waters' Pecker. I have no doubt this was John's not-so-subtle birdie at the traditional Hollywood establishment, which never, until he hit Broadway with Hairspray, treated him with any respect. With his movie's title, he was able to poke the stuffiness of The Industry. All the movie's promotional materials trumpeted the arrival of "John Waters' Pecker." Bus and Billboard advertisements all declared "John Waters' Pecker is coming soon!!"

Film critics were forced into phrases such as "I enjoyed John Waters' Pecker last night." Siskel and Ebert? "Two thumbs up for John Waters' Pecker!"

I played a small part in this flick, appearing in one scene which took place in a thrift shop. I worked with famous photographer Greg Gorman, making his acting debut, as well as with the film's stars Edward Furlong (he had four lines, but couldn't remember them) and Mary Kay Place.

It was a long but fun day of filming, and the resulting scene was funny enough to be included in the theatrical trailer for the film. So, while the movie was only a moderate success, I was seen on many, many big screens across the country during the Coming Attractions, uttering the now famous line, "EVERYBODY wants to be in Vogue!"

I hope I have as much fun on my next film project. I've been offered a day-player role in an upcoming comedy to be shot in Maryland, My One and Only. Based, loosely, on a childhood adventure of George Hamilton's, the flick concerns a divorced mother in the 1950s, on the hunt for a rich husband. I was pleased to be invited to audition for the role of one of the leading lady's ex-boyfriends, a role for which I was, unfortunately, too old. (The leading lady is being played by Renee Zellweger). But a few weeks after my first audition, I was called back in to read for another role, that of a drama teacher. I apparently nailed that one, as the call came today to secure my services.

I can't hope to be in the final theatrical trailer for this one, even if my scene survives the editing room (my scene does not include the star, so is probably ejectable). But because of the presence of Oscar-winner Zellweger in the cast, the project may attract some major attention.

Who knows? It could turn out to be bigger than John Waters' Pecker...