Like with any good crime fiction, a little background can be helpful. Here’s mine.
I was living with my sister outside of Washington, D.C. after my first marriage mercifully fizzled out after ten months of hijinks, low-blows, and bad tempers. Having been fired from my job at an Alexandria, Virginia ad agency, my current employment was working weekend graveyard shifts at a local 7-11, where drunk locals would red-eye stare at me at 3:00AM and ask “Where the hell did you go wrong in life?” Where, indeed, Jethro.
I majored in Theatre at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and even won Best Actor in my senior year. I’d spent years working in jobs I hated because that’s what I thought people did. Formative years were spent learning businesses I had no interest in pursuing. If I had to spend my time learning and apprenticing in a business, I figured, it should at least be a business I liked. With few prospects, marginal talent and six hundred dollars, I did what a lot of delusional people do. I hopped on a plane and moved to California to become an actor. It was 1996.
You don’t get anywhere without representation. Friends told me that a local talent agent named Sergio was open to accepting new clients. After he found out I’d done stand up comedy, Sergio had suggestions for the headshot photos I’d need to get done.
“What you wanna do is, you want to make the funny face.”
“Funny face?” I asked. “What do you mean, funny face?”
“How about you cross your eyes?”
“You want me to get pictures taken with my eyes crossed?”
“That way people know you’re funny, that you a funny guy. They see this picture and say, ‘This guy is wacky, this guy is funny, he a funny guy’.”
I protested. “If they pick me, they’re going to want me to cross my eyes in whatever they hire me for, aren’t they?”
Sergio lowered his brow and glared at me with a look he’s probably given thousands of petulant actors over the years and asked, “Do you want to work in this town or what?”
Next, my network of actor friends put me in touch with this overweight, sweaty mess of a man named Michael, a casting director who was starting up his own business as a Talent Manager when he wasn’t smoking too much or sleeping too little. Michael was casting a movie, so I’m thinking that I’ve really hit the jackpot. Michael was responsible for casting decisions on an actual movie! Actors go years in this town and can’t even get a lousy meeting, but from all appearances, it looked like I’d actually made it, and in record time. That dream ended half a minute later.
“You’re not reading for any of these roles,” Michael told me.
Michael was a casting director for softcore porn, the sort of late night cable bump and grinders found on subscription movie channels that used to air after midnight. It wasn’t something to be involved in if you wanted to be taken seriously as an actor. And let’s be honest, they weren’t exactly looking for guys with my pasty complexion and one-pack ab. I had bigger issues.
“I’m concerned about my lack of professional credits,” I admitted.
“Don’t worry about it,” Michael answered.
“How can I? Aren’t credits important?”
Michael threw over a stack of headshots and resumes from his desk. “Look at these,” he said, taking another call and turning his chair around to face the wall.
I couldn’t get past the very first headshot. Here was this actor, roughly the same age I was. He looked like the kind of handsome tough guy that men would want to be like and women would want to be with. He and I were on completely different playing fields, the advantage to him.
I read down his list of credits. He was a veteran of national touring companies, Shakespeare-in-the-Park, and had an enviable list of movie and television credits. He knew languages, regional dialects, and things like fencing. If you could have wrapped up all of my professional insecurities on one headshot, it was this one. Michael got off the phone.
“This is it,” I explained. “This is what I’m talking about. Look at his credits! How do I stand a chance out there when I’m competing against guys like this? What is going to have me stand out when at the same time they’re looking at someone with this kind of experience?”
Michael stared impassively. “It doesn’t matter,”
“Why doesn’t it matter?”
Michael smiled. I liked Michael because, despite the drek that he worked on to pay his rent, he really did like actors. He appreciated good acting and what it takes for someone to subject themselves to the kind of abject humiliation involved with being an actor on a daily basis.
“You want to know why it doesn’t matter?” Michael asked. “Do you know what part Mr. Shakespeare-in-the-Park is reading for today?”
I shook my head. “No, what?”
“He’s reading for the role of ‘Penis Number Five’. The man is auditioning for a role as a six-foot-tall talking penis.”
I tried not to laugh. After all, this is what Michael did for a living and I didn’t know him well enough to know how equally ridiculous he thought it all was. Finally, I said, “Wow. He isn’t even reading for Penis Number One.”
We both laughed heartily. Michael confided, “Credits don’t matter, Jeff. What matters is how well you do when you’re right there in the audition. They don’t care what you did or didn’t do before you got here. They want to see what you can do now.” That made sense.
“What’s the pay rate for playing a six-foot-tall talking penis?” I asked.
Michael smiled. “Surprisingly good. Work is work. In this business, you have to take it where you can get it.”
It was the first time I remember thinking, “Maybe I’ll be a writer.”