It set my mind spinning back to my time in the Screen Actors Guild and the interminable hours I used to spend standing around on sets. I tore up my SAG card over 15 years ago after I redefined myself as a live performer. While I have occasionally stepped before cameras and microphones since then, I feel that it’s been more on my own terms. Having said that, I must admit I’d have gotten a kick out of doing extra work on this current Chicago shoot, but, well, it didn’t fit into my schedule, which is fine.
The job that finished me off as a SAG member was an extra job I did on a commercial for the Michigan State Lottery. The set was one of the grandest I’ve ever worked on – they built a replica of a three-story courtyard apartment building, complete with sod, bushes, and sidewalks, all within the confines of a very large studio. Our job as extras was to lean out of windows intermittently screaming things like, “I won! I won the lottery…” There were a couple dozen of us performing that task. I myself was positioned on a rickety catwalk behind one of the 3rd-story windows, on a shoot that went overtime. In fact, the shoot went on for about 16 hours.
The main hangup was one of our principal performers, located in a mocked-up ground-floor apartment. Here’s the deal – the Michigan Lottery ad folks, at least at that time, were notorious for casting most of their advertising principals out of New York. I once heard one of their people explain that you “have to cast it that way, to make sure you’re getting good people.” Um, a couple of comments about that – first of all, the Detroit area has a pretty big ad business itself and has developed quite a capable community of screen actors. Second, you should have seen this idiot (from New York) they had playing the female lead. She couldn’t remember her line. That’s line, singular. And though she couldn’t seem to learn it, I still remember it quite clearly, thank you. She was supposed to approach her husband and say, “Honey? Guess what? WE JUST WON THE LOTTERY!!!” That’s it. That’s the whole friggin’ thing. She couldn’t remember it. For take after take. I’m talking dozens of takes here. She would typically say something like, “Honey? You know what?…” – at which point we would hear the director bark “CUT!” and give her the correct line. Or she might say something like, “Honey? Guess what?…” Then there would be a long pause while she tried to remember the rest of the line and she’d suddenly guffaw and apologize between bursts of embarrassed (?) laughter.
It was very weird to be on a set with many dozens of other people – counting all the actors, technicians, etc. – and to realize that every last person there knew the line by heart EXCEPT THE ONE PERSON WHO NEEDED TO KNOW IT.
We finally finished that long dreary shoot and I knew that I had come to a crossroads. I realized that I’d rather work in an office than do this kind of crap. The fact was, I’d always been more dedicated to live performing anyway. I’d worked a lot harder on bettering myself as a stage performer than I’d ever done to better myself as an on-camera performer, and that was ultimately because the on-camera stuff gave me no joy. Its one great virtue was that it could occasionally generate a dazzling payday, but even that was maddeningly inconsistent, and I didn’t have enough of a dream of being a movie star to sustain me through all of that. I suppose that actually being a movie star would be all right – it could then be ME being the prima donna who didn’t know his lines. But I wasn’t willing to traverse the wide and uncertain desert between where I was and that doubtful promised land.
The payoff for deciding to stop doing commercial work was surprisingly immediate. I found that overnight I was newly enthused about my identity and my work as an actor. That feeling confirmed for me that I’d made the right decision.
As for movie stardom… well, I wouldn’t turn it down if it came knocking on my door, but I’m not inclined to set out on a quest to achieve it. So if some top director – say, Christopher Nolan – came knocking on my door to offer me a lead in whatever he’s working on, I wouldn’t turn it down. But until then, I will be the content, hard-working live performer.