What I Think I Might Now Know About Screen Acting

This comment was originally posted in April 2010 on another site but was withdrawn for a variety of reasons. Now that some time has passed, I repost it here…

Film-acting is something I think about (and write about) a lot. Recently, however, I (for the very first time) saw myself doing something akin to acting on the big screen.  See, a week or so ago, I attended the sneak preview of an independent feature film for which I had filmed two brief scenes about eight months ago. (I agreed to do the role in order to be of service to a friend who co-wrote and co-produced the film.) In a small part, I play the mildly antagonistic “boss” of one of the film’s central characters. Two stand-alone scenes featuring my character were combined during filming and editing into a single episode that lasts a handful of minutes in the finished film.  But this experience of doing the fairly simple shoot and, months later, screening the completed film with a full audience delivered some unexpected insights that I don’t want to misplace.

I thus offer this summary of “What I Think I Might Now Know About Screen Acting.”

:: I have really weird-looking hands. A high school friend used to say I had “boneless fingers”; I now understand what she was talking about. If I was a studio exec, I can hear myself opining, “He’s fine, but those hands — they look like foam rubber paddles — can’t use him or his weird muppet hands.” Yup, I said it: I’d fire me — based solely on the fact of my boneless fingers. (And how is it that my many gray hairs dissolved under the film lights; my hair wasn’t salt&pepper or silverish at all…just brown).

:: You gotta land prepared. We filmed the two scenes I memorized in overlapping succession over the space of about five hours. And I was amazed that the fact that I was completely lost at the beginning of the shoot sorta shows. I recall being pretty overwhelmed by the situation in those early moments, reaching a little for my lines and being very self-conscious about my vocal levels. And those seams do show. As the scene progressed, however, things settled in somewhat. And that sorta shows too. I totally knew that there is no warm up and little time to settle in on a film shoot. But still it caught me. You really do gotta land, ready to hit it, right then, right there, right now. Which ain’t as easy as it looks.

:: I forgot pretty much everything about my own scene. Normally, I have a fairly precise memory for experiential detail, but I was surprised to realize I had no memory of what I wore, what necktie they chose, or what my character’s name was. I know I’ve often scoffed at those actors who said, in interviews about films that became cult phenomena especially, how they barely remembered even playing this or that part. How could you forget? Well, I completely did. I barely remembered anything about the scene until it showed up on the screen.

:: You gotta think to act. What I do remember, most vividly, from the experience of the shoot is just how many teensy technical things you must attend to as you do the acting thing (or, in my case, the so-called acting thing). I’m pretty attentive to detail, but remembering where I placed a pen on the desk or which angle I held my neck on this or that beat…that’s hard. I know how to remember lines, and I’m pretty good at being in the moment, and doing my blocking. But to do all that and track everything else so that you can do it all again? And again? And then again? It’s a particular kind of braintraining that I’ve never had, and perhaps a skill you can develop, but golly.

:: The performance is yours, but really it ain’t yours. There’s this moment, right at the end of the scene, when I give this “whatchu talking ’bout Willis” kind of look that stirred every bit of self-consciousness in me. Watching myself, I worried that that last look might be a little queeny, a little over the top, a little…something. I don’t remember making the choice to give that look, nor did it make a lot of sense to me watching it. I do vaguely remember the director asking me to shoot a skeptical look at the principal character. Which I also vaguely remember doing, and I do remember him liking it. (I also totally know that the director asked me to look over the tops of my glasses when I got all skeptical earlier in the scene — a move that caused my sweetie to stifle a laugh during the screening for unknown reasons that I’m afraid to ask about.) Neither look is bad. Indeed, the scene works quite well, in part because of the way each of those skeptical looks underscores the scene’s main arc. But watching it, I couldn’t help thinking, “That’s not what I would have done.” But, of course, that is exactly what I did do. The proof’s right there on the screen.

:: It’s totally cool to see your name in the opening credits of a movie. I mean, they probably listed most everybody who spoke in the film, but it was a surprise to see my name up there, and honestly…it was pretty exciting.

All told, I’m so glad I embraced the opportunity of this brief experience. I learned a lot, in just a tiny scene in this full-length film. True, I’m not sure I want to pursue any more such learning experiences. Or watch myself on the big screen ever again. But I’m grateful for this chance to glimpse an entirely new perspective on the art and craft of screen acting.

And don’t worry. I’m not thinking of quitting my day job. Not with these muppet hands.