Monday, January 7, 2008

Hollywood Update #18: Convenience Store Hold-Up Guy #3

October Something, 2005

…come sit down here beside me, honey.
Let’s have a little heart to heart.
Now look at me and tell me, darlin’,
How badly do you want this part?

-The Eagles, “King of Hollywood”

The Southern California rainy season began in mid-October with a crashing thunderstorm and dense, tropical, roof-threatening downpour. It felt like home, only warmer. The cooler weather meant finally being about to run outside at a reasonable hour. The early-morning rain left the streets and sidewalks shiny, especially on Hollywood Boulevard’s Walk of Fame, part of the regular route I take from my apartment on Sunset and Vine past the Capital Records Building, the various Scientology Outposts, and the Chinese Theatre. The stars are embedded in a slick, linoleum-like concrete, and a typical morning run after a rain means skidding across the wet pavement, sliding across Burt Reynolds and landing unelegantly on Spencer Tracy or Spike Jones.

Future Veronica Mars stars are discovered by a company that reads our scripts and sends the casting call to talent agencies, who send us actors matching the request (elderly Hispanic male; deaf teenage bimbo, retarded Caucasian librarian etc). Auditions for VM take place in a tiny, wood-paneled room with fluorescent lights and a 70’s-porn-office feel. Actors are provided with sides (usually two pages from the script, but occasionally fake scenes written specifically for the audition) a few days prior and then perform before the two casting agency reps, the show-runner (Rob), and the writer(s) of the episode. Usually five or six people audition for a given role, but sometimes as many as ten or twelve will read for a part if the casting agent is unsure what we’re looking for. All of the actors read the same pages from the script (about 10-15 lines), so it’s actually preferable to have fewer actors auditioning, otherwise you quit paying attention to the acting and just start thinking how much you hate hearing “My wife and I loved our son, Mr. Mars!” and “I know she lied about the electroshock therapy!” again and again.

Casting usually attracts unknowns, but periodically we’ll see recognizable actors whose roles on other shows have ended. Christine Estabrook, who played Martha Huber in half a dozen episodes of Desperate Housewives until she was killed by a shovel-wielding neighbor, auditioned for—and got—the role of Madame Sophie in episode five. We also recently cast John Bennett Perry—father of Friends’ Matthew Perry—as Principal Moorehead. Major roles, or recurring parts for which we want a known name, like the roles filled by former Playmate Charisma Carpenter, Police Academy alum Steve Guttenberg, and L.A. Law’s Harry Hamlin, are filled without auditions, and instead are negotiated with the actor’s agent. The same goes when we arrange a one-time appearance by someone like Kevin Smith (episode 2) or the Dandy Warhols’ lead singer Courtney Taylor-Taylor (episode 3), or Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s creator Joss Whedon (episode 6).

Unknowns or minor celebrities bring with them a headshot and a resume. The best headshots show what the person actually looks like; the worst show what the person wishes he looked like—or what he looked like ten years ago, before the tattoos, the alcoholism, the male pattern baldness, or the Krispy Kreme excursions. Appearance does matter—but not always the way I had expected. Being attractive is certainly an asset in many cases, but it doesn’t guarantee work—a heavy, scarred, balding guy might be perfect for a role that a Calvin Klein underwear model would look ridiculous performing. Try to imagine Matthew McConnaghy as George Costanza and I think you’ll see my point.

Many actors include on their resume a list of their special skills. These include the banal (“has valid California drivers’ license and U.S. passport”), the useful (“speaks fluent Spanish and Hindi; reads Braille; NRA-certified pistol whipper”), and the bizarre (“concert whistler, swashbuckler, can juggle knives”). We’re really more interested in whether the person looks the part and acts well than whether or not they can whistle “Ring of Fire.” Also, because we often don’t know whether an actor will be needed for future episodes, we cast carefully, no matter how small the role. We don’t want to hire someone who sucks, only to learn later that we really need the character for a plotline But. They. Deliver. Their. Lines. Like. This. More often than not, getting cast in a small role works in an actor’s—and our—favor. Logan was originally intended to be a much smaller part, but Jason Dohring’s acting, and the audience response to him, was so positive that he’s now a major character. An even better example is Ryan Hanson, who plays surfer dude Dick Casablancas. Originally cast out of San Diego for a tiny, one-episode role, Hanson was so good, and so well-liked, that he’s now a series regular.

Many of the seasoned writers look forward to casting sessions as much as impending gum surgery. I’m unseasoned and therefore enjoy casting—I like to see my words performed in various ways, I like being in on the selection, and it’s entertaining and inspiring to watch talented people enjoy their craft. We just cast episode 8, “Ahoy Mateys,” which I co-wrote with John Enbom, and fortunately for the ladies in the casting audience (me), one of the parts requires the actor to lift his shirt to reveal a scar on his belly. Two of the actors lifted their white ribbed tank tops to expose hairy flab. The other one—who not-so-incidentally got the part—revealed the most the second most anatomically perfect abdomen I have ever seen. It was a thing of beauty.

Like so many of my experiences in Hollywood, watching the auditions has given me yet another aspect of the industry to admire. Spencer Tracy, on whose star my ass was so recently planted, advised actors, “Know your lines and don’t bump into the furniture,” but it really is so much more difficult than being able to walk upright and memorize words. Acting well requires enough confidence to believe that despite not being cast for hundreds of the roles you audition for, you’re still good enough and likeable enough and talented enough to make a living at it. It requires an ability to examine a script carefully and detect the writers’ intent. It means experimenting with the different ways a line can be delivered. Most of all it means pretending, convincingly, to be another person for a tiny period of time in a cold, creepy office, in front of a group of strangers. In some ways, I think we all know a little bit about what that feels like.

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