"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Topics: rob lowe, Books, Californication, the west wing, The Stand, Martin Sheen, TV, Television, Movies, Parks and Rec, Evan Handler, Editor's Picks, acting, Stephen King, Arnold Schwarzenegger, matt damon, Behind the Candelabra, Michael Douglas, Entertainment News
I kissed a man recently, and with romantic intent.
I liked and admired him very much, and professionally he is as good as anyone in his field, but truth be told he isn’t conventionally attractive. In fact, he is not tall, lacks any hair whatsoever and is a bit older than anyone I would likely be interested in kissing, regardless of gender.
But I did it anyway, and not without the apprehension you would expect from someone completely new to that sort of thing. I wondered what my wife would think. Since I was being paid for it, I figured she’d be okay with it. And considering the circumstances, I took solace in knowing she wouldn’t be asking me, “How long has this been going on?” or “Do you love him?”
Before you start wondering if I’m having one of those sexual identity crises you hear about on daytime chat shows, relax. There are moments that arise in my profession that put you in unexpected and uncharted waters. For me, kissing Evan Handler as Eddie Nero on Californication was one of them.
Evan and I had worked together before, on The West Wing. I think he played a campaign strategist for Bartlet’s reelection. He too has written books, and we bonded over our appreciation for a good memoir and said our traditional actor’s good-byes: “Loved working with you. Let’s do it again soon!”
I never imagined that when we did, we would be doing a big kiss that would make A Place in the Sun’s Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift proud (Clift more so, probably).
Californication, the brilliant David Duchovny vehicle for Showtime, is the perfect example of a great actor (David) getting a part that is right in his wheelhouse. Like him, the show is subversive and smart as hell. And, like all cable shows, unrelentingly provocative. Hence my first screen kiss with a man. The fact that neither of our characters is gay makes it more so.
I play a delusional, drug-addled, pretentious, sexually carnivorous, Academy Award–winning movie star. I am not unfamiliar with the type. Although I bear a passing resemblance to at least two well-known (and fantastic) actors in my Eddie Nero “look” whom I will not name for fear of reprisal, I based the character on a mix of people. I was able to send up every pretentious contrivance of the archetypal “Method movie star.”
It’s written to be a show-stopping part, the kind that steals a movie with four scenes or pumps excitement into a series in midrun. Eddie has a number of great speeches, the kind actors kill for.
At a certain point, if you want to make a name for yourself in this business you gotta figure out your “Monkey Trick,” as a fellow actor once told me. Some actors specialize in shooting weapons and punching people. Some have the market on playing buffoons cornered, others specialize in roles that require heavy makeup or outrageous wardrobe. Some trade exclusively in a post-ironic blasé attitude. Others choose the opposite tack, taking big (and oftentimes over-the-top) swings. Everyone who is anyone has a Monkey Trick. Among mine is playing people who can speak in large blocks of dialogue and being unafraid of “going for it” in character parts.
Actors are like horses; some of us are better over long distances, some in a sprint, some for kiddie rides and some for dangerous stunt work. Like horses, there are probably some of us who should not leave the barn and probably some who should be “put down.”
I was working on two other TV series (Brothers & Sisters and Parks and Recreation) at the same time when the part came my way. Arnold Schwarzenegger once told me, “My agents never get me parts. I get them for myself or they come some other way.” True to the movie legend’s word, this part came to me from the guy who cuts my hair.
Duchovny and I share the same hairdresser; they were talking about who could play this bizarre role and my name came up. “I’ll call him now,” said my guy, Daniel Erdman. On another track, the show’s producers called my agents, who said I was unavailable. And in the end, it did take my agents to get both ABC and NBC to let me go work for Showtime. But the lesson here is never leave everything to the experts. Everyone needs oversight.
It’s funny what actors take issue with. Some won’t do parts where animals are in jeopardy; some won’t ever play anyone remotely unlikable—heroes only, please. Some won’t do violence. I have no such qualms. This part had man-on-man kissing, but what really made it stand out was some of the most jaw-droppingly explicit language I had ever read.
In my last book I quoted verbatim my favorite speech from The West Wing. I won’t be doing that here for Californication. Kids may be reading this. But trust me when I tell you it was outrageous and not for the faint of heart. Which is why I was interested. You see, I don’t confuse who I play with who I am. The minute you start making calculations about what people will think of you as a person based on your work as an actor, you’re on the road to becoming a bad one. It is the death of diversity, range and surprise—all of the things I value in someone’s body of work. If you are worried about what people think of you, you should go into politics. Real actors take chances.
When Steven Soderbergh asked me to do Behind the Candelabra, I hadn’t yet read the script but I knew enough to know the things I needed to know: Michael Douglas was playing Liberace, Matt Damon his doe-eyed, innocent boy toy; it was being directed by a master and written by Richard LaGravenese, one of the great screenwriters. So sight-unseen, I was inclined to say yes, unless of course I read the script and my character was blowing a donkey. And given the subject matter, I suppose that may have been a possibility!
As I suspected, the role was terrific. While not huge in screen time, I could see it having a big impact if done in an original, outrageous way. When you are the lead in a picture (as the old-timers would say), you have the luxury of time on camera to inexorably make your mark. In a supporting role or particularly in a cameo, you have to shorten the field. You need to swing at the first pitch and try to crush it, pronto. But you mustn’t be showy or unduly attention seeking. It’s not your movie. You are a guest and you need to fit in seamlessly. If you can pull off both of these competing techniques, you might just steal a movie or two. I believe all great actors should be able to do both, and my personal favorites have. They are memorable in parts of all sizes; they’ve been number one on the “call sheet” (where they list the actors according to the size of their role) and number twelve or thirteen.
After a lot of thought, and with the help of an extraordinary team, I had a very special “look” designed for my character, a seventies-era LA Dr. Feelgood. I based it on some of the guys I used to see at Lakers games, back in the day. When I walked on set the first time, both Matt Damon and Michael Douglas burst out laughing. Later, when shooting, Damon was often unable to look me in the eye.
Their extraordinary work made Behind the Candelabra the most critically acclaimed and highest-rated movie in the history of HBO. It was nominated for every possible award and it earned me my fifth Golden Globe nomination. And although I had only five or six scenes, I truly had never gotten that kind of obsessed, positive feedback from anything I had done before. My face, as Dr. Jack Startz, was everywhere, and people still ask me about that role.
I followed that performance with JFK in Killing Kennedy, which broke ratings records and earned me a Screen Actors Guild best actor nomination, and along with my work that year on Parks and Rec, I am happily able to say that I am an actor working at both edges of my range, in comedy and drama, as a leading man and as a character actor. To do that is every actor’s dream. Or should be.
* * *
My father-in-law, Norm, and I were very close. I was fond of him for so many reasons, not the least of which being that he said okay when I asked if I could marry his daughter. With the reputation I had at the time, and his penchant for gambling, I’m sure he was betting the over-under. But as Sheryl and I grew stronger and the years went by, he became an important part of our married life. He was like a character from Guys and Dolls, a lovable semi-wiseguy, part hustler and all heart. He had a unique and an adventurous past and had fantastic stories to show for it. He loved his daughter and he loved the grandsons she gave him.
When he had a massive and sudden heart attack, he was only sixty years old. I was in line in Starbucks when I got the call from Sheryl, who was distraught. We had to try to get to the hospital right away; the prognosis was grave.
I rushed home and collected Sheryl, who, in shock, was picking out the right shoes to wear for the occasion. Looking at her, pale and shaking, standing in a pile of footwear, I thought, “I need to remember this.” I pulled her out of her trance and into the car.
At the hospital, we rushed to the emergency room. A doctor who looked disturbingly young barred the door. “You can’t go in. We are fighting to save him,” he said, closing it in our faces.
I led Sheryl to a quiet corner where we could watch the ER door. Time expanded and contracted, as it seems to do when crisis surrounds you. Minutes felt like hours and yet everything happened at once. I held my wife’s hand but I didn’t dare meet her eyes.
Eventually the ER door opened. The young doctor began to walk toward us.
“I need to remember this,” I thought. His face betrayed no hint of the outcome. There was no “tell,” which Norm, the inveterate poker player, would have been looking for in this ultimate moment of truth. “This is just like you see in the movies,” I thought as he opened his mouth to speak, yet in fact, it was nothing like the movies.
“I’m sorry. We did all we could.” His eyes were sympathetic yet businesslike. He was appropriate and decent, but there was nothing more to say and so he didn’t.
I held Sheryl as her knees gave way. Norm was the moon to her, bigger than life and always somewhere on the horizon. She was a little girl who had just lost her daddy. I held her as she cried.
I hope I was a good enough husband to her on that terrible day. I’m sure I could have been better somehow, maybe stronger or perhaps comforting in ways I didn’t think of then. We got through it as well as could be expected and now, years later, I realize why my inner voice had split me off from the unfolding reality and had urged me to remember the awful details.
It’s because I’m an actor. And actors play real life. Actors play doctors who give bad news and actors play daughters who lose their fathers and we play shock and horror and dismay and we can’t do any of it, not honestly, unless we have been paying close attention to those moments in our own lives.
It can make you feel like a cipher, standing outside observing, taking mental notes. Or worse, like some vacant pretender, feeling and participating in the moment only partway, while you file away the details into the ever-expanding emotional toolbox you must fill to successfully ply your trade.
It is the details of human experience that matter. And as always, what even the most talented screenwriter could write pales in comparison.
* * *
When Arnold Schwarzenegger defied the skeptics and odds by running for governor of California, I was among the first and, as it turned out, somewhat shockingly, few members of our industry to actually work for his election. Arnold and I crisscrossed the state campaigning, raising money and doing the day-to-day grunt work necessary to get to the finish. In the end it was his not-so-secret weapon, Maria Shriver, who closed the deal, convincing Californians to buy into a postpartisan candidacy.
It was a tough fight and certainly no “gimme.” California is a blue state and Arnold was going up against an incumbent Democrat. Having worked exclusively for that party all my life previously, I was putting my money where my mouth was for the first time as a newly converted independent voter. My days of being a knee-jerk supporter of any party were over for good. I now choose my candidates on any number of criteria, but never by party affiliation. Like “recreational” drug use, the idea of slavish party loyalty seems like an outdated and unhealthy concept. Certainly no one could think that the word “partisan” is anything other than pejorative.
At any rate, as the campaign drew to a close it had captured the attention of the world. Part of it was California’s standing as the world’s eleventh-biggest economy, and part of it was the attention that always follows Arnold, one of the great characters of our time. On election night every news outlet in the world was waiting in the ballroom at the Century Plaza Hotel. As with Ronald Reagan over three decades earlier, everyone wanted to know: could an actor become governor of the most important state of the most important country in the world?
Sheryl and I worked our way through presidential-level security up to the floor that had been secured for the campaign brain trust and members of the sprawling Shriver/Kennedy/Schwarzenegger clan. The hallway was thick with staffers, volunteers and huge men with Secret Service–style earpieces.
The drone of CNN and Fox News spilled from every room we passed as we made our way to the hotel’s presidential suite.
I knocked on the door, but there was no answer. After a moment I saw that it was unlocked, so I opened it for Sheryl and I followed her in.
It was a huge suite, with a living room and hallways leading to additional seating areas and bedrooms. Few lights were on, so the giant glass windows glowed with a breathtaking panorama of the Los Angeles skyline. Unlike the crackling energy of the hallway outside, the room was as quiet as a tomb. A huge flat-screen TV was dormant, probably the only one in the hotel and probably one of the few in the country not in use at that moment, as the votes were almost in.
Sheryl and I looked at each other, wondering if maybe somehow we were in the wrong place. Then I saw a woman whom I hadn’t noticed, sitting alone in the shadows. Although she was frail and old, her posture was ramrod straight. She had likewise not noticed our entrance. I moved closer and recognized her steel-blue eyes, which were gazing into the cityscape outside the suite’s windows. Her eyes were afire, blazing with a passion and a sort of emotion I couldn’t name. It was Eunice Kennedy Shriver.
I wondered if we should leave and not interrupt her private moment.
“Where is everyone?!?” she asked with authority, turning her gaze finally to Sheryl and me.
“I don’t know, Mrs. Shriver,” I replied. “I hope we aren’t disturbing you.”
“Not at all!” she said, crossing to the giant TV. “We should turn this on,” she said, trying to navigate the remote.
I thought of all the elections she had watched before, for her brothers, for her husband. I was overcome with emotion to be so close to her, she who had been so close to history, she who had played such a role in creating it for so long.
Although I had spent time with her over the years at various family functions, it wasn’t until very recently that we had gotten to know each other. Every year Maria and her brother Anthony hold a bike race as their fund-raiser for their Best Buddies charity for individuals with intellectual disabilities. One of the highlights being an extremely competitive bicycle-built-for-two race along a tight and dangerous course where a number of teams have gone ass-over-teakettle. At the last race Eunice had insisted I be her partner. I was shocked. I wasn’t about to put her, at eighty-three years old, in a crash helmet on the back of a race bike.
“Come on, let’s go!” she said, grabbing me by the shirt. Desperately I looked to Maria for help. She gave me a look that could not have been more clear: “You see what I deal with?!” along with underpinnings of a huge and prideful love.
Mrs. Shriver and I finished second that day.
Back in the presidential suite, I knew to hop to it when Mrs. Shriver wanted something.
“Can you help me with this remote?” she asked.
At that moment the door burst open to a raucous crowd of supporters and family members led by the great Sargent Shriver, brandishing his cane like a drum major.
“Woo-hoo!” he yelled, as Maria, beautifully dressed for the occasion in a white and black Armani dress, helped him to a chair.
The technology gods, who so often forsake me, smiled this night, and I managed to click the remote to CNN.
Now the room was filling in earnest with the big donors, the campaign brain trust and every member of the family. Other than Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman, there were few members of the entertainment community. The vibe was quiet, filled with tension, but with an unmistakable sense of occasion. I found Arnold’s campaign manager, Steve Schmidt (later to be played by Woody Harrelson in HBO’s Sarah Palin movie, Game Change). “How’s it looking?” I asked.
“Good,” he answered tightly. I awaited some evidence to support the assessment but got none. Maria sat with her kids and her cousin Caroline Kennedy on the big couch staring intently at the TV. I looked at my watch—it was seven p.m. and the polls had just closed.
The CNN breaking-news theme played.
“We can now project that Arnold Schwarzenegger will become the thirty-eighth governor of the state of California.”
Now, in a movie, the script would have had the room erupt, like New Year’s Eve, with lots of shouting, hugging and victory fists in the air. But in real life, it turns out, the celebration, if you could even call it that, was subdued, dignified, quiet and imbued with a dreamlike quality that made you begin to doubt that it was really actually happening. There was happiness and there was giddiness, sure, but it was way, way down deep, covered over by the dawning realization of the scope of what had transpired and the almost incomprehensible level of responsibility now at hand. As my mother used to say, “Be careful what you wish for.”
There was still no sign of the man of the hour, and now people really began to notice that Arnold had been AWOL, undoubtedly in a back room working on both a victory and, if needed, a concession speech.
“Can you fucking believe this?” said Ivan Reitman. “From Kindergarten Cop to governor.”
And now everyone was talking excitedly, in a low buzz, the room animated by a collective desire to put the moment in context. It became hard to hear.
But it was quickly, deathly quiet again as someone holding a phone said, “It’s Governor Davis calling.” CNN can declare winners all they want, but as anyone who watched Bush-Gore remembers, it ain’t over until someone cries uncle.
At the end of the big room’s hallway, a door opened. It was Arnold, suddenly and improbably looking like a governor. I studied his face—again, the truth vampire in me wanting to file this away for the moment when I might need to play a victorious candidate, as I indeed would in Brothers & Sisters and Killing Kennedy. If I’d have played the candidate as beaming, acknowledging all my supporters with a smile, wink or handshake, luxuriating in an energetic and triumphant trot to the vanquished waiting on the phone, I would have gotten it completely wrong. The governor-elect’s walk was purposeful yet slow. He met no one’s eye; he stared straight ahead. There would be a time to hug his family and acknowledge friends, but that would be later.
This scene was not playing out as I had expected and I was trying to understand what I was seeing. People stood on either side as Arnold walked to the waiting phone. The wait felt excruciating, at least to me, but Arnold was in no hurry. He almost seemed unsure, a quality I never associate with him.
An aide handed him the phone. For a brief moment Arnold held it at his chest, almost on his heart, but I knew it was subconscious. I knew what I was looking at; I finally got what was happening here. I was watching someone step into their future, a man aware enough to understand that his life would never be the same and changes he would never see coming were part of success’s bargain.
“Governor Davis, how are you?” Arnold said.
It’d been a fairly tough campaign and not without its personal vitriol in the final days, as is common, so I could only imagine that Governor Davis, if he were to be truthful, would have answered, “Not so good!”
I tried to get a clue from Arnold’s face or body language as to what was being said on the other end of the line, but there was no indication. But clearly Governor Davis was doing all the talking.
Then after a moment, from Arnold, “Thank you.”
Another shorter bit of listening, then, “Thank you … thank you so much. Bye.”
Arnold hung up the phone. For the first time he looked around the room. “Governor Davis wanted to offer his congratulations on the victory and was very gracious.”
In a TV show or movie, theme music would have played now, and finally the winner would have smiled and people would certainly have rushed to him for the beginning of a huge celebration. But I noted that on this night, in real life, the crowd didn’t know how to react. It waited to take its cue from how the winner would react, and he, unlike an actor playing a made-up governor-elect, had to focus on the next piece of business at hand. The victory speech was now moments away and would be seen all around the world. So Arnold and his staff headed back down the hallway to prepare. Nothing tangible, in fact, had really happened.
It’s this kind of life detail that you can’t write or act with total authenticity unless you’ve experienced it. You literally can’t make it up. And if you try to, it will look, feel and play like you did.
Whether it’s a death of a loved one or a life-changing event with the world watching, these are the kinds of big moments that are often the turning points in stories and performances. With a knowledge of life’s details, the performance becomes the next challenge. And to do that, you have to build your “character.”
I never had an acting teacher, unless you count my drama classes in junior high. I was fortunate to work at a high level from the time I was fifteen, so I didn’t have time or need for the kind of traditional acting classes that most actors attend at some point. I learned by doing the actual deed, which I believe is the ideal.
* * *
In 1993 I found out that one of my early favorite books, Stephen King’s The Stand, was finally coming to the screen as an eight-hour miniseries for ABC.
I took a meeting with the executives at ABC and they offered me one of the great roles, Larry. The romantic wannabe rock singer and major hero.
I had other ideas.
“I want to play Nick Andros.” “The deaf-mute?” asked the exec. “Yes.”
“But he has no lines!” said the exec.
“Sure, I know, but I feel like it would be more of a challenge and for sure less expected than playing a sort of traditional romantic lead.” “You know he gets killed before the end? It’s a smaller part than Larry.”
“I’m okay with that,” I said.
The group shared a look that said, “Hey, if that’s what you want, what do we care?”
Later that week I got an offer to play the part.
And it is a great one. Nick is a bullied underdog, a lonely, sweet-natured survivor of the plague that has destroyed most of the world’s population. And indeed, his lack of dialogue would force me to find new ways to communicate on-screen and bring focus to him in a cast of other standout parts.
One morning as I sat with my coffee, going over the voluminous screenplay written by Stephen King himself, Sheryl offered some advice.
“Why don’t you get an acting coach?” she asked with the perfect amount of seriousness and guilelessness. Coming from anyone other than the one person in my life who I know without question has my best interests at heart, I might have taken offense, thinking, “After everything I’ve done, after all this time and success, you think I need an acting coach?!” But instead I stopped to consider what I had never considered.
“Like who?” I asked.
“Well, how about the one Michelle Pfeiffer, Geena Davis and that new kid Brad Pitt use?”
“Roy London?” I asked, referring to the current state-of-the-art acting Svengali.
“Yeah, that’s the one.”
I didn’t overthink it. After all, what could be the worst that happened? I got nothing out of it and prepared the same way I had for years? I called Roy the next day and booked a meeting.
I saw him at his Hollywood apartment, in one of the great old buildings that stand as a reminder of a time when there was true glamour in that part of town. I was nervous. I had no idea what would unfold, how Roy liked to work or what the day’s process would be. We sat at the kitchen table.
“I’ve read the entire miniseries, but I’d like you to tell me how you see yourself in this part,” he said in an extremely casual way. As we sipped our coffees, there was no pressure or any sense that this was a “lesson” or “session” of any sort.
“Well obviously the challenge is playing a deaf-mute” (today I believe the proper term is “hearing and vocally impaired”).
“Yes,” said Roy, absently looking out the kitchen window. “Clearly, I have no experience in this area, nothing to draw on, so I will probably do a lot of research. I need to know what it is like to not be able to communicate, to live without hearing.”
“I see,” said Roy.
“I’ve gotten the contacts to a number of schools for the deaf, I should spend time there, really immerse myself,” I added.
“But here’s my big idea. I have been deaf in my right ear since I got the mumps as a newborn. I’ve talked to some folks at UCLA and they can design a hearing-aid-like device that will put white noise into my good ear. I won’t be able to hear at all! I could live like that for a few weeks and maybe even throughout the shoot.”
“Or you could just consider the times in your own life when you are unable to hear,” he said simply.
“What do you mean by that?” I asked. He sighed deeply.
“Look, if you want to wear a blindfold and stumble around your house bumping into things to learn how to play ‘blind,’ you can do that. A lot of actors do. You can block your hearing and not speak. But great performances are based on truth. And the truth is that you, Rob Lowe, can hear and you can speak. To play otherwise is only adding a layer of falsehood to your performance. What you must do, in my opinion, is play this character as someone who hears and speaks, as you do, but chooses not to.”
I was completely taken aback. “Wait a minute. You don’t think I should play this character who is a deaf-mute as a deaf-mute?!” “Exactly. Because the actor playing the part is not a deaf-mute.” “But that’s the way it’s written!”
“Who cares! The writer isn’t playing the part. You are. And you hear and you speak and you need to be truthful. Actors should never play ‘ideas,’ ‘concepts,’ or even ‘characters,’ they play the truth and that’s it. Believe me, that alone will be hard enough as it is.”
Like most people in Hollywood I had believed that the tradition of immersing yourself in a foreign world was the highest form of character preparation possible. To do so was the hallmark of being a “Method” actor. Even the most inane gossip-TV tabloid entertainment reporter or actor-hating entertainment executive cowers in awe of the “Method actor.” The “Method” is the last bastion of fear and respect for the craft. But like anything, it has been misused, trotted out in self-congratulatory movie-star magazine profiles for attention and, I suspect, led to a uniform style of performance that in the wrong hands can come across as extremely mannered and absolutely humorless.
Clearly, Roy London agreed. “Have you seen Reservoir Dogs?” Of course I had; it had been Quentin Tarantino’s debut sensation a year back.
“Well, one of my students played the guy who was tortured to death and spends three-quarters of the movie dead and tied to a chair.”
“Sure, I know the part.”
“Well, I told him since he has no experience being dead, and is in fact a healthy, live, wonderful actor, that he must never ‘play dead.’ He can truthfully be someone tied to a chair trying to look dead. Believe me, the difference is huge, and he got reviews actually mentioning his ‘presence’ on-screen, even as a dead body!”
“What did Quentin Tarantino think of his choice to not be dead?” “Oh you must never tell anyone. Particularly the director!”
I am of the school that believes (oftentimes in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary) that the director is the most important person in filmmaking. My first boss was Francis Ford Coppola, after all. The idea of keeping a director in the dark on how you’re going to tackle a role was unthinkable. But I was so blown away by this revolutionary and subversive idea that I began to warm to it. Roy and I planned to meet twice a week to dig deeper into the script.
Eventually, I found myself on location in Salt Lake City, playing a scene with Gary Sinise. I had determined that my character could speak and hear everything but led people to believe otherwise as a survival mechanism in the postapocalyptic world he was struggling with. Watching from the monitor, neither the director nor Stephen King had any idea their beloved Nick Andros, in my hands, could hear and speak. And I never told.
When The Stand aired, it broke ratings records, becoming one of the most-watched miniseries of all time. And Roy London was right.
Using our little secret, I received some of the best reviews of my career. And most importantly, I learned yet another technique to stow in my professional tool bag.
And all actors have their tricks. Since the Greeks grabbed the masks of comedy and tragedy, any thespian worth a lick has been figuring out ways to shine, to stand out and sometimes sandbag fellow performers. Our little weapons can be used for good or ill, to make a character more authentic or to throw someone else’s under the bus.
It was always a surprise and a source of some consternation among both fans and the folks responsible for making The West Wing that Martin Sheen never won an Emmy for playing one of the landmark roles in TV history. Martin even began to refer to our annual pilgrimage to the awards as his “Passover.” But everyone realized that Jed Bartlet had the bad luck to inhabit the same airwaves as another titan of characterization, the late James Gandolfini, who was playing Tony Soprano. And pound for pound (no pun intended), there was no comparison.
With no disrespect to Martin, if you try hard enough, you can almost imagine a West Wing without President Bartlet (in fact, toward the end there was one, with Jimmy Smits center stage), but The Sopranos without Tony is a nonstarter. James Gandolfini’s performance made that show, just as Aaron Sorkin’s writing made The West Wing. After all, who wouldn’t love a Nobel Prize–winning, multiple sclerosis–conquering, Latin-speaking, chain-smoking president of the United States, who also happened to love his staff like his own family? But to make a mob boss who interrupts his daughter’s college tour to strangle a man to death with his bare hands empathetic, that requires some heavy lifting. Gandolfini won a boatload of awards and got the reviews of a lifetime (as well as the paychecks) because he humanized a monster. He made us love Tony Soprano in spite of Tony Soprano.
And he did it in a number of ways, from tapping into a reservoir of complex inner pain, sadness and kindness, to being sneaky funny with his hilarious malapropisms. But I think the key to humanizing Tony Soprano was his use of one of the great and surprisingly difficult actor tricks of all time, which is also the simplest: eating food on camera.
Tony stuffed his face at every opportunity. Cannoli, calzones, ice cream—there wasn’t an episode where he didn’t eat and eat a lot. And here’s the secret: when actors eat, it subtly says to the audience, I have hunger, like you, so I am eating, like you. Like you, I am a real human being. It’s very simple and it works every time.
There is one catch. It’s an absolute nightmare to do. Next time you watch a movie or a TV show and it’s one of those endless dinner scenes (Brothers & Sisters, anyone?), notice that almost never do you actually see food entering anyone’s mouths. There’s a lot of knife and fork holding and what I call “napkin acting,” but almost no one ever eats. If you are lucky you might see someone on-screen take a drink.
On a certain level you don’t connect with the noneating actors because you can’t relate to a dinner where no one eats! And let’s be plain: performances are made and broken in the audience’s unconscious. So when Jimmy Gandolfini wolfs down a sub while planning a hit, you believe someone’s gonna get whacked.
But this is a hard trick to pull off. Very few of us could be one of those professional eaters. I know I couldn’t. I wish I could be more like Brad Pitt, who munches his way through many of his movies and has an Oscar nomination for Moneyball to show for it. But I’m a pussy when it comes to eating. An average scene takes anywhere from three to six hours to shoot. (I once shot one scene for Forrest Gump’s director, Bob Zemeckis, for three days. On-screen it played for maybe ninety seconds.) Over that time, multiple angles of the same activity are shot, so if you take one sip of water and you want it to be on camera, you will have to take that sip every single time you do the scene.
Very few can eat or drink for hours on end. I still laugh out loud when I watch one of my early movies, Class. There is one of those dinner scenes, and Jacqueline Bisset puts a bit of salad in her mouth that is literally the size of a newborn baby’s pinkie nail.
But there was also Danny Glover, whom I had the pleasure of working with on Brothers & Sisters. Sitting at one of those torturous and never-ending Walker family dinners, one of my favorite actors divided his time between cell phone calls to third-world leaders and gobbling every single piece of food that wasn’t nailed to the floor. At one point, after eating his entire “fake meal” for the umpteenth time, he leaned over to his assistant.
“I heard there are going to be some chili dogs at catering. Can you let me know when they’re ready?”
I couldn’t believe it; this guy was in terrific shape. He must have a hollow leg. He took on-set eating to Oscar-caliber levels.
* * *
There are many hallmarks of bad acting, but one of the most common is when actors stare unblinkingly into each other’s eyes, rooted to the spot where they stand as they play their scene. Turn on a daytime soap and you will see this style. In real life, we rarely “eye-screw” each other while we talk, unless we are arguing heavily or flirting passionately. Instead we live our lives while we talk, we move, we turn away, we read the paper, unpack groceries or check our phones. Nine times out of ten, in real life, what you are doing is much more important than what you are saying.
For some reason, some actors (and a lot of bad writers and directors) believe otherwise. The writers think their “words” are the most important part of any scene and the actors want to make sure nothing interferes with how clearly they can be seen on camera, preferably in close-up. So you see actors standing around, “acting.”
But look at your favorite movie moments and I bet you see scenes played while folding laundry, making breakfast, doing office work or “walking and talking” down hallways. Life has tasks. If you perform them on-screen, you look real.
Working with everyday objects is called “prop work” in acting parlance and most of us are good at it. It can be harder than you think; the cast of ER was among the best ever, with IV bags being hung, rubber gloves snapped on, electrodes placed, all while they delivered some pretty complex dialogue. No standing around for them.
On The West Wing, Richard Schiff, one of the best scene stealers of all time, would routinely enter what was ostensibly someone else’s scene, carrying seventeen files, a briefcase, a thermos and a half-eaten sandwich. I don’t think he ever entered on a unicycle spinning plates, but he may have.
And the result? You can’t take your eyes off him. If he dropped a file and picked it up, you could have been delivering the Gettysburg Address and no one would have been looking at you. The masters of “prop acting” can kill you with one flip of a spatula or one perfectly placed puff of a cigarette.
Don’t kid yourself. Acting is both a symbiotic team sport and also a kill-or-be-killed individual death match. To the victor goes the bigger trailer.
I once had to face down the legendary Dame Maggie Smith. She is world-renowned for stealing every scene she is in, sometimes with no lines needed. Just an arched eyebrow and grown movie stars lie in piles like the aftermath of the Battle of Bull Run. (Watch her in Downton Abbey to see what I mean. She’s genius.) I was determined that I wouldn’t get mauled by the great Dame. So I plotted.
The amazing Richard Eyre was directing us in a filmed version of Tennessee Williams’s classic Suddenly, Last Summer. Maggie had the throw-down role of Violet Venable. I had the incredibly one-note part of Dr. Cukrowicz. (Played by Montgomery Clift in the movie version.) My part consisted mainly of investigating her role in the death of her son.
“How did it happen?” I would ask. She would then have a four-paragraph aria.
“Tell me more,” I would reply, and another brilliant monologue would follow. And so on.
But at one point, she asked my character to hand her a lighter for her cigarette. I used this tiny part in the script to have my little bit of fun.
I asked the prop master to supply me with a book of matches that was empty, save the last two. About a page before she was required to ask for a lighter for herself, I chose to pull out a smoke, light one match to no avail and then light the last one. Unable to light my smoke, I let it dangle in my lips sadly until the next page, where she asked for the lighter.
Now I had created a new moment out of this bit of prop work where she watched me struggle with my matches without offering her lighter until she wanted it herself. It gave my character a little added conflict with hers, where before there was none. In a scene that was all about her, I created a tiny moment for me.
When people talk about the “craft” of acting, it’s these sorts of techniques they mean. Like any other artisan, actors who have the tools use them to accomplish what they are paid to do: build interesting, entertaining, honest, believable characters who tell the story in the appropriate fashion.
I once made a very successful love story with an actress who went on to become a great star. Like any potential star, she knew her way around her craft as well as her strengths and weaknesses. At the climax of the movie, she had a very long and emotionally demanding scene where she confronted me about our relationship’s future. The screenplay had her start vulnerable, become angry and finally be almost incapacitated by tears. Knowing that we weren’t making a play, that movies and TV are beholden to the god of editing anyway, she never, not once, gave all three of those emotions in the same take.
She did a version vulnerable. She did a version angry, and finally, she did a version weeping from start to finish. She let the editors cut all three takes together, making her look like Meryl Streep. I’ve never seen anyone do that since, and you can’t get away with that onstage, but in that instance it worked and worked brilliantly, so who the hell cares how it was accomplished?
Directors have their own tricks as well.
I had been romantically involved with an actress I was starring opposite, but it had ended well before we began shooting. In fact, she was already well into a painful on-again, off-again relationship. Our director knew this history.
We were deep into shooting a pivotal scene but hadn’t captured any real pain; in spite of some very good writing, the scene had no explosiveness. The director, inexperienced but very smart, pulled me aside and said, “Wait until we do her close-up and then tell her you don’t love her anymore.” Just his saying this to me made me emotional. The breakup dialogue was nuanced and subtle. This ad lib would be a cruel hammer. My former lover and costar didn’t know what I was wielding as the take began. I waited for the moment. “I don’t love you anymore.”
Her face quivered slightly. She tried to shake it off, but she was clearly stunned, like she’d been slapped but didn’t want anyone to know it hurt. But the camera saw everything, as always. She was in a big “Warner Bros. haircut”–style close-up, so as she lost the battle for composure and dignity, the glacier cracked wide open and she sobbed.
The trick opened her up. It’s the best scene in the movie.
Ad libs, in my experience, are either great, out-of-this-world additions or horrific, borderline-embarrassing utterances that send a scene to the bottom of the ocean. Some of the most renowned and talented actors I’ve worked with were terrible ad libbers. I’m not sure why this is, but when it comes to making verbal adjustments on the fly, many are called, few are chosen. You need to learn to be self-reliant. The script may be weak; a scene that seemed great on the page may suddenly not work on the set—you never know what obstacle will be thrown in front of your performance. I once starred in a big miniseries that culminated with the villain giving a two-page monologue trying to goad me into killing him. The actor playing the bad guy wanted to ad lib his own version of the movie-ending speech. Although he was playing a vampire, he went into a soliloquy about being a cowboy.
The director was not impressed.
After a very tense negotiation, the actor was forced to shit-can his self-penned opus and stick to the original script. There was only one problem: He hadn’t bothered to learn it. Cue cards were made and placed next to my head while we filmed his part of the scene. When it was time to turn the camera onto me, he was sent home. My part of the scene called for me to listen to this very intricate two-page speech and run a wide range of emotions at very specific times. The director offered to have the script supervisor read the departed actor’s lines.
I’ve long since learned that when faced with a problem, you should rip off the Band-Aid, acknowledge the problem and cut your losses.
“Just turn on the camera, I’ll do it without anyone.”
I did the two-minute pivotal close-up reacting to my own imagining of what the speech should have been like while staring at a strip of duct tape marking where the actor should have been.
Like life, moviemaking is never exactly what you think it will be. Sometimes it’s great when you think it’s gonna be a turkey, and sometimes even a ship of fools becomes Battleship Potemkin. You can go to all of the acting classes you want, you can be first in your class at the fanciest film schools, but you’re never going to know what to expect until you do it. And then do it some more.
Excepted from “Love Life” by Rob Lowe. Published by Simon and Schuster. Copyright 2014. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)