An actor prepares by punching his fist through his rib cage and squeezing his heart until all the emotions spurt out, splattering the audience… Or maybe that was Wes Craven. Regardless, I had a new experience with my latest job – Criminal Minds. Forgive me if this post is a bit too “inside baseball” for some of you. I am an over-sharer.
Usually I play the A-hole Lawyer, Conservative Father, Carefree Jokster, Uptight Teacher, or Baby-faced Villain (and when I was younger, you could add “slightly gay” in front of any of them – see my 90210 episode below as an example). In my 25 years in L.A., though, I have never been asked to be the bereaved! And a good thing, too, since I always had hard time digging that deep and staying there.
But a few weeks ago, there I was, sitting in my car with the sides (script) of a character who is devastated. With 30 minutes until my audition, I should’ve been panicked. But I wasn’t, because just a few weeks before (yes, I am employing the flashback within a flashback technique never used by writers – for good reason, as it’s as confusing as throwing in a parenthetical during said double-flashback… You know?) I had spent the weekend with some long-time acting workshop friends.
In that visit, I was talking with one friend who is an excellent acting coach about how I was lucky I never got those auditions because I hadn’t mastered that acting muscle. She then shared with me the simplest notion – that all one needs to access those emotions is empathy. Throw the rest of the crap out of the window and find your compassion and empathy for the character.
Sitting in the car, reading the sides, I tried it… And voila! So deceptively simple, but effective. I walked over to the studio for my audition. As I was about to walk into the room, the casting director said, “Even though the script doesn’t say it, on that last line — let all the emotion overtake you.” Had I heard that a year ago, I would’ve locked-up. But now I was trusting in this simple thought. And I booked the gig.
Now, I probably booked it because I’m 6′ 2″ and look like the boy that was playing my son, but it still makes a good story!
The first day on set we just took “family pictures” in different locations that they would print and then place around our house. My wife was played by the lovely and talented René Hamilton and my kid was the bright and professional Justin Prentice.
Even though we just had a few scenes in the episode, they asked us to stay for the table read. Only moments after I took my seat, I saw Joe Mantegna walking over to EVERY person he didn’t know, shaking hands and introducing himself. It was one of the classiest things I’ve seen. In fact, throughout the shoot, everyone involved, from the caterers to the director and producer/writers — everyone — was very nice. It’s truly a happy set… Unlike a few I’ve worked on before.
Of course, when it came time for that scene, I did panic a little. It was after dinner and I was a bit tired. The cast (Matthew Gray Gubler and Shemar Moore) and crew were a little restless as they were about an hour behind. But as long as I stayed focused, I was still in the zone. Some “takes” more than others. Of course, I was so delighted by this discovery, that I forgot I still had close-ups to do! Had I dehydrated my eyeballs prematurely?
It took a few minutes to set-up the shot, then everyone was still. I looked over at one of the pictures of my “son” and I… And bam! I was there, ready to go! Eyes full of tears, my heart in the right place… And they called cut before they even slated. Apparently the DP needed to readjust for more coverage. By the time we went again, I was there, but not like before. The funny thing is, as precious as I was being with the scene, it probably won’t even be 1 minute of air time.
I do have to thank the director, Rob Spera, though, for being so concise and accommodating. He was gentle and respectful, which is hard to pull off with the crazed schedule of episodic directing.
The final night was spent running after a gurney in front of our house in the coldest weather Southern California has seen in a long time! It was made pleasant enough with the company we had — the episode’s writer, Jim Clemente (a real life profiler with some hair-raising stories!!!) and guest star, John Pyper-Ferguson (a expat Aussie who was confused by my admission of being a heterosexual who loves “So You Think You Can Dance?”).[UPDATE: To see the aired scenes, go to Acting My Age]
So, no punching into my chest cavity to squeeze my beating heart anymore… However, after I finished shooting, I received a DVD of a low-budget horror film I shot a year or two ago called Poker Run. Okay, a Harley-Davidson horror film. I’m pretty sure you can find hearts being yanked out of chests, though my character’s demise is much more respectful… even though I am in happy-face boxer shorts… Produced by the lovable Bertie Higgins (“Key Largo” anyone?) and directed by his very cool son, Julian Higgins. For your convenience and blood-lust enjoyment, I’ve collected my scenes below:
Now, if only I could do those scenes again using this simple “compassion/empathy” technique…
Poker Run is available on DVD from Amazon and my Criminal Minds episode should air late January, 2010.