I Can't Act: A Revelation
With age comes self-awareness and I have finally become aware of one thing about myself. I am not a good actor. If you would have asked me a week ago, shit, two days ago I would have answered, “Of course I can act!”. I was a fucking Thespian in high school. Then came shooting a commercial yesterday. The revelation hit me like a ton of bricks.
First I want to give a shout out to my friend and fellow comedian Kathryn for recommending me for the role in the commercial. I thought it would be a breeze to come in there and do my thing. But my thing is making people laugh on stage. I never thought about it, but my Thespian days were on stage as well. On camera is a different animal. I found that shit out the hard way.
I got to the set in a good mood. This would be a fun time. I brought all the swag an aura I could. The star had stepped in the fucking building. I hung my jacket and shook hands with the soon-to-be-impressed producers and director. They directed me to the makeup chair. I walked up and fired off a quip.
- Y’all got makeup for black people?!
Boom! I had arrived. I got my makeup done and sat. And waited. The camera and light people mumbled different things to each other. They moved seemingly pointless things around in order to get just the right effects. Right away I felt a little intimidated. If moving that white tarp a few inches over makes a noticeable difference then what happens when I have to do something? What if I am supposed to cry. I mean that’s not likely on a game commercial, but what if this is an emotional commercial? I sat in my chair and tried to remain confident.
Then the cameras came on and it was time for Kathryn to perform. She lit up and did extra shit and everybody fawned over her. The director seemed to love it. It was awesome to watch! The director gave instructions and Kathryn followed them without hesitation. It was impressive to watch. At first I thought:
- I can do that!
Then I started thinking about the cameras and the people and then my character. My guy was supposed to react to her. I felt like I needed more information. I was all in my own head. What’s my character’s backstory? I’m I normally a patient man? Is this situation something I’m used to? There were no lines either. Speaking is my thang! I can’t be funny through lines? I have to… pantomime? I was done now. Just waiting for my turn so I could get the firing done with. The director would surely can me after one take.
But he didn’t can me. He did worse. He TOLERATED me. In my head his patience was being drained. We’d do a take. Cameras rolling, I give my pantomime and then he’d give me some direction.
- Okay, you’re not angry at her. You’re surprised. Roll… Action!
I could feel myself making the SAME EXACT FACE. I couldn’t stop it. I guess I have one face. Furrowing my brows. I tried to furrow the way that matched surprise. We did the take. The director and cameraman looked at each other. It was silent. All of a sudden they weren’t fawning over Kathryn and her improvising with the movements and whatnot. Now the vibe was serious. Was I fucking up this commercial?
- Okay… You’re trying to take a picture. Then you’re like “What the?… What are you…?”
Then one of the producers chimed in:
- “You’re like, “WTF?”
- Oooooh! Okay, I gotcha.
I had no idea how to “WTF” with my face. They rolled again. Kathryn did her magic and then I made the EXACT SAME FACE again. I felt it. Muscle memory. My face was comfortable the way it was and that didn’t seem to be right. WIth my small arsenal of faces, the RIGHT face should have felt weird. The take ended with my confidence sagging as low as ever. The director and cameraman locked eyes again. They mumbled something. I stumbled through a couple more takes and then they seemed to give up. I read from their body language that it was good enough to fix in editing. My performance was going to be HIDDEN through editing.
We moved on to the next shot. That would be… THE CLOSE UP. I was not looking forward to this one. Kathryn must have sensed that I sensed that I sucked. She kept whispering words of encouragement.
- You’re doing great, Jon!
No I wasn’t. I couldn’t have been. The silence was telling. My furrowed brow was telling. The cameraman got mad close to my face as I did my one look over and over. I had started trying to experiment with different things so that I could get some kudos from the director. Nothing. The laughs and fawning were all reserved for Kathryn. Was she still my friend? I didn’t really know anymore.
We broke for lunch and I called Swedie. It was good to make her laugh about my awkward feelings. She assured me that if it’s bad then they will tell me. Basically she was saying:
- Keep being mediocre, baby!
Thanks! Just what I needed. This was a shot to my ego. I used to steal scenes on stage. Once I wrote a scene in which I portrayed a drunk. I will never forget that feeling when the audience laughed hysterically at me and began chanting out “Jerry! Jerry!” during a scene that I had written. Now I was here. Feeling like a stranded puppy. I had auditioned for a few things in my adult life. Never got any of them. Not a one. This was why. I’m just not good at acting.
We relocated to a beautiful home on the water. Oh my freaking goodness, this house was amazing. Who lives like this? Probably a really good actor. Now I knew I would NEVER live like this. I couldn’t even be a “surprised” husband at a restaurant.
The next scene didn’t require much pantomiming. I just had to do tasks. I think the director figured out my strong point. Follow non-acting directions. I moved around kitchenware in the background while Kathryn acted her butt off. I had been demoted to extra!
I had one more scene. I actually think I did well on that one. I was supposed to show some excitement after playing a game. As the fan of a perennially bad football team I know the feeling of finally being able to celebrate a score of some sort. I channeled that feeling for this shot. Look at me acting! There was no mumbling this time. I got through these takes with my ego intact.
The last shot would be me asleep on a couch. I could definitely do this! I got nice and comfortable. They even put a blanket on me. I thought I was doing it right until the director chimed in:
- Could you adjust your arms? Put them under your head or pillow. Right now you look dead.
Damn. I can’t even sleep right? Come on, Jon! I got my sleep position right. I actually even got a “Good job, Jon” on my expert sleeping after a bit. I was so in character that I felt myself dozing off. This was method acting at its finest! The scene was ended and I was almost done. I was asked to keep sleeping while they did some special effects stuff. The guy did what he had to do as I lay there. I had the worst itch on my left cheek.
I was going to be the consummate professional and not scratch my face. Basic Training had prepared me for this moment. I used to get an itch on my face at the beginning of every march. I scratched zero times. This would be easy. Time passed and the itch intensified. Nope, not gonna scratch it. Military discipline, Jonathan. Channel it. It will all end soon. Things were quiet. I kept coaching myself through this acting moment. The crowd had seemed to be moving downstairs. The technical guy wasn’t saying anything. I peeked out of one eye. Everybody was leaving. Nobody said shit to me! I was the forgotten talent (one of the staff referred to Kathryn and me as “talent” today). I slowly got up and scratched my itchy cheek. Oh well, I tried my best. You can’t be good at everything. This was a fun opportunity and I can’t wait to see the final product. I bid the crew adieu and hoped I had faked my way well enough to a good commercial.
I consider myself good at a lot of things. Now I found something that I’m not good at. It made me want to laser-focus on the things I am good at. Let someone else do the on-camera acting. I’ll focus on making people laugh on the stage. It’s safer up there. Until next time…