October 2010

TRICK OR TREAT–OR–WHO WAS THAT MASKED MAN REALLY?


Whenever I hear “Trick or Treat” I think, of course, of Halloween and dressing up in costumes. For many people it’s their favorite holiday. That’s always puzzled me. I personally have nothing to do with Halloween. That seems to mystify people until I explain to them that as an actor I get to put on a costume and play make believe with each and every job. It’s no stretch to say that when people wear costumes they feel different and many times act differently. Halloween, I’ve come to realize, gives adults permission to engage in a socially acceptable fantasy life.

But, again, Halloween just doesn’t do it for me. Not even when I was a kid. Honest. I would have been perfectly content to wear my Lone Ranger costume around the house and backyard while imagining I was fighting off bad guys. But going out in public? That just felt weird. Plus, I was compelled by the rituals of Halloween to knock on stranger’s doors yelling “Trick or Treat!” This was something that the real Lone Ranger would never do! And when I wore the costume, I felt like the real Lone Ranger. See the conflict? Well, I’m certain many a psychologist would have a field day here…
Anyway, this got me to thinking about how an actor goes about pretending to be somebody else. When I started out acting, I found that putting on the costume really helped me create the character. Essentially, I felt more like the Lone Ranger when I dressed like the Lone Ranger (not that I continued dressing as the Lone Ranger, you understand… this is just an example). As an actor, this process of creating a character is referred to as “working from the outside in.” Developing physical affectations during the rehearsal period such as a particular walk or voice or posture falls into this realm. An example might be walking like a hunchback as the first step to discovering how to play Richard III. Early in my acting career this process seemed to work best for me. But I soon realized that my performances were only scratching the surface. I needed to work harder and go in the opposite direction. I decided that I needed to “work from the inside out.”
This process is all about discovering who the character is through his past actions, his likes and dislikes, and finding out / deciding what motivates them. Why do they behave the way they do? This often involves writing a brief biography of the character starting with what the playwright or author has given us in the text. From there we have to decide what things are true and what things are false — as seen from the character’s point of view. The character’s point of view is everything! For example, even if the script says that the character was the son of a coal miner, you can still decided whether this is a fact, a lie, or an assumption by others. This is how you create layers of subtext, the meanings behind the actual words spoken, giving your portrayal more depth and complexity. Always be as specific as possible when discovering motivations. Avoid things such as “He doesn’t trust women because his mother never loved him.” Okay, but try this: “He doesn’t trust women because his mother used to smile and gently stroke his face before slapping him hard and eyeing him with disgust.” Feel the difference? I’ll say! The more specific you can be, the stronger your portrayal will be.
Working from the inside out can be tough and it does involve homework, but if you’re a serious actor, that ‘s the price of doing your very best work. Working from the outside in, as I used to do, is a quick fix and restricts your performance; it becomes all surface and no depth.
So now whenever I dress up as The Lone Ranger, I have first created his history as lawman John Reid of the Texas Rangers. I have examined, in the first person, how I feel being the sole survivor of an ambush by Butch Cavendish and his gang of outlaws. And I have decided what the word “Kemosabe” really means whenever Tonto calls me that. So, when someone asks, “Who was that Masked Man?” You can be sure that I know!
And I wonder why I don’t get invited to Halloween parties…
I’m just saying…

WHEN YOUR BEST AIN’T GOOD ENOUGH


There are times when we hit a wall and can’t imagine how we are going to get through it or around it. But the truth is, we’ve been here before. Sure, a different point in our life and a different wall, but we’ve done this before. We overcome obstacles each and every day. Some are rather small, like getting through the checkout line at the supermarket. Others are more weighty, say for example, dealing with a personal conflict with a friend, child or spouse. We usually get through these obstacles instinctively. But what about the really big obstacles in life? The ones that stop you dead in your tracks? The ones that glare down on you, instilling fear and insecurity? Man, those just suck!

And yet… we’ve been there before. Search your mind for the very first time when you did the impossible. Maybe it was in high school or college or even last week. Think about a situation you found yourself in when, deep down, you feared that your best “ain’t gonna be good enough.” What do you think my first impossible moment was? Completing my first film? Getting my first professional acting role? Having my first nationally published cartoon? Nope. None of those “impossible” things would have ever happen if it weren’t for 30 pushups…
I enlisted in the US Army right after high school. I wanted to go to college. I wanted to be an actor. But… what if I failed? That was something I deeply feared. So, at 17, I begged my parents permission to become a soldier. It was not what they wanted for me. It was not what my friends wanted for me. I couldn’t articulate the reason for my choice at the time but it was this: I figured if I could survive Army Basic Training, I could survive anything!
And so my eggs were in one basket. I reported to Fort Jackson and submitted to the hardest eight weeks I had even known. We marched, ran obstacle courses, and trained for combat in sweltering heat and oppressive humidity. One member of our platoon collapsed due to heat stroke, complete with convulsions. He left our platoon and never returned. Still, I did everything that was asked of me. But, by the fifth week it was apparent to my drill sergeant that I would not be able to pass the End-of-Cycle PT (Physical Training) Test. Specifically, I could not do 30 pushups. Not even close. Sure, I earned an Expert Badge in marksmanship, I could run 2 miles wearing combat boots in the allotted time and I could do more than enough sit ups. But 30 pushups? That was impossible for me.
I was summoned to the Captain’s office at the end Week 6. Only two weeks left until graduation. The captain calmly explained the situation to me: I would be recycled to Week 3 with another platoon and repeat the past three weeks. Or I could quit and go home. He made it clear that he was not going to let me stay in his company if I was not going to pass the PT Test. I had hit the wall. I hated the thought of leaving my company to join another. I hated even more the prospect of returning home as a failure. The captain had a Vietnam unit combat patch on his right shoulder. He was here to make soldiers and weed out any weak links. After a long pause he told me, “Drop and give me as many pushups as you can!”
I dropped into the front leaning rest position and began doing pushup after pushup. I had never been able to do more than 20 before. In the stifling heat of the captain’s office, with failure and humiliation staring me right between the eyes, I managed… 24. Not good enough, I knew. But I stayed in that front leaning rest position, my weak arms shaking now. He watched me do nothing. Not another single pushup. Nothing. I just stayed in that position until he ordered me to “recover.” I snapped back to attention.
The captain looked long and hard at me and then said, “I was going to recycle you today, but I’m going to keep you in my company. You know why, private? Because you never dropped to you knees; you never quit.” Just like that, I was dismissed.
However, I could still only do 24 pushups… How could I get to 30? I owe that feat to a guy named McKinney. When he saw that I was still trying in vain to do 30 pushups only two days before the final test, he pulled me aside and said, “I can guarantee you’ll pass if you do what I say without question.” McKinney had never spoken to me before. “Okay,” I stammered. All of 5 foot 3, McKinney took me into the latrine and had me do pushup after pushup until I my arms gave out. Then he’d thrust me between two sinks and stretch my arms out before making do more pushups. We repeated this ritual until I reached 100 total. McKinney, it should be noted, did 100 consecutive pushups each and every night! He told me not to do any pushups the next day (Sunday) in order to rest my muscles. Only on Monday morning, when I took the actual End-of-Cycle PT Test, would I know if I could do 30 pushups.
I did 37 pushups that morning. Next, I passed my sit ups with flying colors. But, inexplicably, I was falling behind the pace for the minimum two-mile run portion. This was the final part of the End-of-Cycle Test and I was about to blindsided by failure. Then another guy in my platoon, Schwimmer, slowed his pace and dropped back to me. He got me breathing right and pushed me to go faster and get back on pace. When he saw I was good, he sped off. He finished with a much slower time because he came back to help me. And so I passed. I did the impossible for the first time in my life.
I’ve never viewed any problem or situation the same way since. When people remark about my tenacity or my relentless drive to succeed, I owe it all to five minutes in the captain’s office when I refused to quit. And also to a little tough guy named McKinney and a kind-hearted fellow named Schwimmer.
So, whenever you think your best ain’t good enough, remember that you can do the impossible. Just don’t ever quit and don’t refuse help if a person feels kind enough to offer it!
I’m just saying…