THE HIGHER UP YOU GO…

images-4Often a student will say, usually after a not so good audition, “What is wrong with these people?” “That director, what a jerk!” Or, “I can’t believe she was so rude.” I’m always quick to say, “Hey, there are a lot of wonderful people in this business.” And it’s true. In fact, in my forty plus years as an actor I’ve discovered that the old axiom, “The higher up you go in this business, the nicer the people are,” is true.

After five years in New York with eight off-Broadway plays under my belt I was eager to get some TV and film experience. New York wasn’t like it is today. Now there are twenty plus television shows in production and a countless number of movies being filmed here. Back then it was a handful of soap operas and maybe a half a dozen films a year, many of them pre-cast out of LA.

So I packed my bags and headed for Hollywood. Shortly after arriving I had the good fortunate to sign with an agent but he told me, “This isn’t going to be easy, selling you. You don’t have any LA credits.”

But we agreed to give it a shot. A couple weeks later he called and said, “Look, I’ve got this thing. I don’t know if you’re interested or not but they want to see you. Howard Koch is producing and Walter Matthau is starring. It’s for the American Heart Association. It doesn’t pay anything so I don’t know if you want to do it.”

I’m not sure I even heard the last two sentences. What I heard was “Howard Koch isimages producing and Walter Matthau is starring.” Those two guys were titans in the industry. Mr. Koch had produced a slew of movies including The Manchurian Candidate (original version), The Odd Couple, On A Clear Day, Plaza Suite and two iconic TV shows Maverick and The Untouchables. Walter Matthau had starred in The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three; The Bad News Bears, The Odd Couple, Charade, The Front Page, etc., etc. AND THEY WANTED TO SEE ME!

I hustled over to my agent’s office and picked up the sides. It wasn’t a great script. It was one of those “Take care of your heart and your heart will take care of you” short films that would only play at medical conventions but I didn’t care. My scenes were with Mr. Matthau. The audition was in two days. I prepared like I had never prepared before. The next day my agent called with another audition. “It’s a decent role,” he said, “but it’s a new show. No one knows if it’ll even air. It’s called St. Elsewhere. You want to go?”

Paramount+Studios+033“Yeahhhh,” I said. I was thrilled to have any audition. I did my homework on both pieces, went to the St. Elsewhere audition the next morning and then over to Mr. Koch’s office at Paramount Studios for the Heart Association audition later that  afternoon. I read for Mr. Koch and the director. My phone was ringing when I got home. I had booked the Heart Association job. Rehearsals started the next day.

I reported to the set in the morning and met Mr. Matthau. I told him I had played Oscar Madison in a college production of The Odd Couple. He was polite but didn’t seem terribly interested. After our wardrobe fittings the AD went over the shooting schedule – I was going to shoot my scenes the next afternoon. We rehearsed for a couple of hours and were taking a break when my agent called.

“Hey,” he said. “The St. Elsewhere people, they want to see you again. Callback’s tomorrow morning at 10:30.”

“Damn” I said.

“What’s the matter?”

“I’m shooting the Heart Association film in the morning.”

“When’s your call?”

“Eight.”

His other phone rang and he said, “Let me get this. I’ll get back to you.”

Mr. Koch was standing behind me when I hung up. “What’s up, kid?”

I told him about having a callback the next morning.

“What do you want?” He asked.

I turned away mumbling something even I didn’t understand.

He put a hand on my arm and stopped me. “In this business you’ve got to let people know what you want. What do you want?”

“Best case scenario, Mr. Koch? I’d like to do both.”

“If you could only do one, which would you do?”

“I’d do this one.”

“Our little film’s not going to give you much exposure.”

“I know.”

“There’s no money here.”

“I know that too, but I made a commitment.”

He smiled and said, “Let me give you a piece of advice. You’ve got to follow the money. Actors don’t always want to hear that but as a guy who’s been around the block a few times let me tell you, that’s the only way to make this crazy business work.”

Before I could say anything Mr. Koch yelled across the set. “Hey, Walter. The kid’s got a callback tomorrow morning. Can we shoot your scenes with him in the afternoon?”

Mr. Matthau looked at me and winked. “For you Oscar, anything.”

Mr. Koch talked to the director, she changed her shot list and after rehearsal as I was leaving I thanked Mr. Koch (for like the fifth time). He said, “Thank me by getting the job.”

I went to the callback the next morning and when I finished I reported to the Heart Association set. I shot my first scene with Mr. Matthau and while they were setting up our next scene my agent called to tell me I had booked St. Elsewhere. Mr. Koch didn’t get to the set until about four that afternoon. The first thing he said to me was, “How’d it go?” When I told him I booked it he gave me a thumbs up.

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Now whenever I hear an actor complain about how somebody screwed them over, I’m quick to remind them that our business is filled with wonderful people. And sometimes I tell them the story about the day two giants went out of their way in order to give a new kid a shot.

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What I want is you.

On the set preparing to shoot.

On the set preparing to shoot.

One of the best pieces of acting advice I ever received happened in an agent’s office. I had been in New York just a few months when I managed to get an appointment with J. Michael Bloom. At the time, although I didn’t know it when his office called to arrange the appointment, he ran the biggest commercial agency in New York.

Prior to seeing him I had been in one other agent’s office – five, people, three decks crowded into a ten by twelve foot room – so I wasn’t prepared for what awaited me. His office was at 400 Madison Avenue. In the elevator on the way up to see him I noticed the Bloom Agency took up the entire 19th floor. And the 20th as well.

I checked in with the receptionist certain that my appointment must be with some underling. After waiting a few minutes I was ushered into J. Michael’s office. We barely had a chance to say hello when people began bursting into the room. “I’ve got Gray advertising on the line. They’re offering $50,000. Should I ask for $75,000.00?” “The Dove spot is up for renewal. I think we should ask for a $10,000 holding fee and double scale on the residuals.” “The Tide people really like her. I’m going to ask for $60,000.00. That okay?”

The intimidation factor grew exponentially; I was working off-Broadway making $137.50 a week.images-7 In-between interruptions J. Michael tried to engage me by asking long leading questions. I was so freaked out all I could do was nod or shake my head. We talked, or rather he talked, for an hour. I realized I was blowing my opportunity so I asked him if I could come back next week and read copy for him. Waiting in the lobby I had seen some other actors preparing to read copy. He graciously said yes and I made an appointment to come back.

One thing led to another – he had schedule conflicts, the show I was in closed. I got cast in another show – an English play, The Winslow Boy, playing John Wathersone – and it was a couple months before I got back in to see J. Michael.

I was a little less intimidated this time but only slightly. Again, a slew of agents barged into his office to get advice on various issues, most of them involving sums of money I could only dream of. When things finally settled down I did my reading. Or, rather I started to do my reading. Three lines into the copy he stopped me. “John,” he said. “If I want an Englishman, I’ll get an Englishman.” In my defense, I had been rehearsing The Winslow Boy for three weeks.

“Start over.”

So I re-grouped and did what I thought (at the time) a good actor should do. I read the same piece of copy as if I was a Brooklyn cab driver. I only got two lines out this time before he stopped me. “John, if I want a Brooklyn cab driver, I’ll get a Brooklyn cab driver. What I want is you.”

images-8Terror shot through me and I thought, “Oh, god. Anything but that.” Because up to that point I thought acting was about escaping and becoming someone else. I didn’t realize acting was about reaching deep inside yourself and discovering the aspects of the character that already exist in you. I thought acting was working from the outside in, not the inside out.

I’m not sure what J. Michael saw in me but he gave me the name of a commercial acting coach and told me to check in with him after I worked with her. I was grateful but when I left that day I vowed I would not step foot back in his office unless I was invited.

Two years later, after booking a lot of jobs his clients had been up for, he called.

I’ve had a rich and rewarding career and it all started that day in J. Michael’s office.
“What I want is you.” That’s what every agent, what every casting director, what every director wants – they want you. And the sooner you can give them YOU the sooner you go to work.

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Staying in the Game

You may have noticed I haven’t posted anything new on my blog for the past couple of months. It’s been a glorious summer and I’ve working exclusively on my 2nd novel. The following post came from a former student of mine and I feel it is well worth reading.

 

To be an actor is to be a hunter. You are constantly in pursuit of the next job and the next b0b0df23-2e8d-405d-a03c-bac4329f5703one after that. When your hair starts turning silver (like mine), hunting gets old.  You start wondering if it’s time to leave the business, move upstate, and open that dress shop you’ve always dreamed of. You have a choice to make: stay in or get out!  
 
For me– I’ve opted to stay in– ALL IN. Why? Because within the pursuit of acting work are thousands of  life lessons that feed my soul. Searching for learning within the highs and lows of my career has been a complete game changer. I’m not just a huntress anymore. I’m a spiritual warrior on a quest for joy and meaning.
 
So…here is what I learned this month in the acting trenches… MAKE THE ASK. It’s scary. You don’t feel worthy. There is no guarantee you’ll receive what you’ve asked for. But just asking increases your self esteem AND you just might realize a dream.
83a77906-e49b-426e-a636-9558ba8de930An exciting new musical, The Circus in Winter, came on my radar recently. It is being produced by The Goodspeed Opera House, written by Hunter Foster and Ben Clark, and directed by Joe Calarco, (a director I’ve admired greatly for years and have slowly been getting to know, but not yet worked with). Just thinking about project, the creatives, and the theatre thrilled me! Great, right? No–not great. The audition was coming and I didn’t have an appointment.
 
So, choice time–I could sit at home and stew about how unfair the industry was, or I could put on my big girl pants, write the director and ask for an audition. Which is what I did. Within minutes he wrote back and said I’m right for one of the roles and he’d put my name into casting…. And I’m here to tell you–after an audition and callback–I booked it!
 
So the lesson I learned: Honor your desires. Even if you feel scared, even if putting yourself out there makes you feel vulnerable, ASK for what you want. You have nothing to lose and you just might make your dreams come true!

Thank you, Sarah. Inspirational words!! Enjoy the rest of your summer. I’ll be posting again in a couple of weeks.

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Casting Director Shout-Outs

Last week actors who follow this blog had the opportunity to participate in one of two casting directors’ workshops. A few got to do both.

donna-grossman-donna-grossman-castingThe first shout-out goes to Donna Grossman. She is a critical and vital component of the on-camera commercial class I teach. She is the instructor for the seventh week and does an outstanding job. Here are a few comments from the class she taught on July 14th:

Having the ability to get feedback from someone on the casting side and be given adjustments/constructive criticism is so important; we as actors rarely get that! It 10151165_722348337815425_2679753837388749358_nboosted my confidence knowing that I was able to take her adjustments and give her what she asked for. John’s class definitely prepared me for that. IH

Donna was extremely approachable, gave great feedback and really had a great way of looking at copy. It is important to have that “real world” experience in a classroom.  And very rare too. SE

Donna was very honest when it came to giving feedback.  She and John both instilled a knowledge about commercial acting that I had never learned before. SH

Getting Donna’s feedback was very constructive. Having her there was a lovely way to wrap up John’s class. BL

 

IMG_6599.JPG - Version 2The second shout-out goes to David Cady. David’s workshop on July 16th was the latest in the series of free industry workshops we offer in New York. David did a great job. Here’s what a few of the actors who attended had to say:

I wasn’t sure what to expect. Walking into the room I was a bit nervous, but David and John set a wonderful tone for the evening that was positive and encouraged growth. LB

Actors listening to David's critique

Actors listening to David’s critique

Pragmatic, succinct, and extremely clear, David certainly has his finger on the pulse of the industry – I learned how important naturalism and honesty is, and how crucial NOT-selling is to a commercial performance today. Totally excellent workshop – thanks David, and John!!! AH

The concise criticism offered by both John and David helped set the tone for the evening. David’s guidance helped to clarify what the expectations would be in a professional audition scenario.  LM

John and David watching an actor's work

John and David watching an actor’s work

 

What a joy it is to meet casting directors in such an open and supportive environment! IS

I love how respectful David and John were. It felt like they really were collaborating with us to get the best results. MC

 

We’ve just finished our first full year of hosting these free industry workshops. So far we’ve had casting directors Judy Bowman, Donna McKenna, Kimberly Graham, and David Cady plus indie film producer Summer Crockett Moore and agent Jamie Harris as our guests. Almost 200 actors have been able to showcase their work.

Our goal is to do one of these workshops per month. In order for that to happen we need to increase the number of people following this blog. If you’d like to have more of these workshops, help us spread the word. Let your friends know what we are doing and ask them to sign up.

Okay, we’re on hiatus until September. I’ll be posting a blog every now and then but the rest of the time I’ll be working on my latest novel. Have a great summer!

Ciao,

John

 

 

 

 

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Correction to last post

My bad! The last post should have read: “the invitations will go out at 12 noon on the 14th of July. ” Everything else is correct. commercials

 

 

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David Cady’s Workshop

images Okay, only six days left until David Cady brings his expertise to our FREE industry workshops. This is the first time we’ve had a commercial casting director as a guest instructor so dust off your commercial skills and get ready. The invitations will go out on Monday the 14th of July at 12 noon. If you check your email at precisely 12 and the invitation hasn’t posted yet check again (this a Constant Contact issue). There are a limited number of spaces available so don’t dawdle.

 

If you are one of the people who get a spot – you will receive a notice. Part of that notice will include a link to a page containing a number of commercials. Those commercials will be divided into gender and age. You need to pick a spot that is appropriate for your age and gender (obviously) and prepare that copy for the workshop. David and I both will critique your work.

David works with Donna DeSeta and has been  a casting director for over 20 years. images-1He has worked with such notable directors as Joe Pytka, Spike Lee and Barry Levinson and has cast over a thousand commercials.

 

Don’t miss this opportunity to showcase your work for David. Hope to see you there.

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Finding the Humor in Our Roles, The Sequel

This concludes the previous post: Finding the Humor in Our Roles. If you haven’t read it I suggest you do before you read this.

There are four elements to finding the humor in a scene. The first is absurdity. What does your character find absurd, despite the seriousness of the moment, either about himself or the other character(s) or the situation? What makes him think, “I can’t believe I’m doing this,” or, “I can’t believe she just said that,” or, “I can’t believe this is happening?” Once you’ve identified what’s absurd, then your ability to laugh at it, regardless of how serious or sacred it may be, becomes easier.

The second thing to look for is escalating tension. Tension is a good thing and in our work oftentimes we want to escalate it to the max. There are other times, however, when there’s a need to ease the tension. When things start to get too intense in our real lives, most of us have an automatic release valve, like a pressure gauge, that allows us to blow off steam. We may laugh, often in an inappropriate place, or do any number of other things all designed to discharge some of the mounting pressure. If we do that in real life, then it is only logical our characters would do it, too.

The third way our characters can exhibit a sense of humor is in their desire to express irony. We respond to another character with a glib or sarcastic remark. We repeat what another character says under our breath or twist the verbiage to emphasize our character’s point of view. It’s important to point out that expressing a sense of humor isn’t merely just about laughing at what’s going on around us. Sometimes your character can’t laugh—he may not even be able to speak—but it doesn’t stop him from expressing his sense of humor. A raised eyebrow can speak volumes.images-1

The fourth way our characters express a sense of humor is through self-deprecation. We mock ourselves in order to divert attention away from ourselves, or we point out to the world for whatever reason, real or imagined, we think we’re less than what we really are.

All of these examples are the things we do in our real lives. Actors, however, for some reason, have trouble incorporating these truths in their work. If the scene is a tragedy then we want to wring every bit of tragedy out of it possible. The problem,when we do this, is we end up beating the audience over the head with the message. The screenwriter has already written a tragic scene, i.e., your friend is dead. If you play it tragically, heaping calamity upon calamity, then the audience, in order to protect itself, will start tuning out; it becomes too damaging to their psyche to stay engaged. If you won’t do anything to relieve the mounting pressure, they will—they’ll check out.

When I first moved to New York City I had the opportunity to study with Herbert Berghof, the founder of HB Studios. For my second scene I played Creon in Antigone. When I finished, he said to me (in his very thick Hungarian accent), “John, what is it? When you’re sitting out here”—he pointed to the classroom—“you are so interesting. But, when you get up on stage, what happens to you?”

What happened was I wasn’t incorporating a sense of humor in my work. In wanting to deliver the essence of the scene, I left out my character’s humanity; I failed to find his sense of humor. What I ended up with was a stiff, unrealistic character who was boring the hell out of everyone.

If you want your work to be real you need to learn how to develop a sense of humor for your character(s). You have to train yourself to find the humor and insert it into the scene. Often times the writer is smart enough to write the scene in such a way that the character’s sense of humor is obvious. But if he hasn’t, then you need to make sure you create a sense of humor. If not, you’re setting yourself up for an unpleasant ride. A character without a sense of humor is tedious and uninteresting to watch. Nobody, and I mean nobody, wants to spend an evening with someone who takes life so seriously that he can’t laugh at himself.

QUICK REMINDER

David Cady from Donna DeSeta’s Casting will be the guest instructor at our next free industry workshop. This workshop will be held on the 16th of July. More details soon.

At least five actors who attended the workshop with Summer Crockett Moore have been called in on various projects. Yahoo! That’s why we’re doing these workshops.

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