Sunday, 26 August 2007


Spotlight is a directory for casting directors filled with actor's photos and agent details and divided into big volumes by categories of Gender, Age and Type (Leading, Character). It's a forbidding tome and I try not to think about it between the yearly ritual of sending back the photo (old) and a cheque. Spotlight also offers an on-line service that lists an actor's credits and while you're updating those, you're invited to fill out the section named 'Special Skills'. It's a minefield.
Of course, if you really have an accomplishment, then away you go. Concert piano, pilot's license, tap dancing, fencing awards, these would all be both useful and interesting skills to have mastered. But what about driving a car? Or swimming? Most people can do those things, you probably don't need to put them in, though it can be a problem if you can't drive or swim and most companies don't think to ask until the day comes on the set when you're supposed to reverse your car along the marina and dive in to save your screen son. Stunt doubles do amazing work but directors, not unreasonably, expect to be able to get a shot of their actor actually driving the car, or in the water, at some point. And when would be the good moment to confess that, no sorry, you never passed your test, as such, and you can't really swim, but you can float, like really well, on your front, with a very small inflatable?
Still, if you put in driving and swimming it might look a little desperate, next to all those sword fighters and opera singers. What about horse riding? Just how expert a rider should you be before you offer it up as a special skill? Who, while auditioning, would allow that they couldn't ride a horse, had never actually been near a horse growing up in Hackney. Get the job, and then worry about the horse. I do have some horse riding experience but I'm not very good. I've ridden side-saddle in a corset in a forest for a film and waited until I was well out of sight before sliding off onto the one good leg I had left; trees plus horse plus side-saddle plus corset plus bad rider equals bruises. So, I wouldn't put riding horses down as one of my special skills but I'd be absolutely willing to learn.
The most difficult skill I have had to master for filming was the illusion of playing the piano. Most of the time it is the upper body that the audience will see and that can just take a lot of time listening to the music and learning from an experienced pianist the direction and force of the hands and movements of the body. But if there are some chords you can master, some way of learning a piece by rote, then the director will have a better choice of shots. Romain Duris does this brilliantly in 'The Beat That My Heart Skipped' and 'Moliere' and apparently he was taught by his sister specifically for 'Beat', although he was already a musician. The effect is so seamless that you do not question his ability to play. When I was filming 'A Summer Story' there was going to be a scene of me playing a simple song on the piano while my visitor sang along and I set out to learn the piece. Week after week that summer I sat down at a dummy keyboard in my hotel room or in a lesson with a professional, trying to master the notes. Bit by bit the song came together, but I noticed that my wrist started to ache when I played and eventually it hurt all the time and I ended up with a splint. I had some sympathy from the unit nurse and the general feeling was that I must have been practising very hard, poor thing. In the scene that was filmed I played a few chords and then the camera pans away, but I was proud of those chords and didn't mind wearing my arm in a tea towel even after filming had finished. Some weeks later I was on holiday when the batteries on my Sega Game Gear died. Within 24 hours I was free of the splint.
So, I guess I do have a Special Skill after all. I can play 'Lemmings' 'til my wrist breaks.

Sunday, 19 August 2007

Advertising Space

At some point in an actor's life they will be confronted with various advertising interfaces with which they may choose to engage. Between voiceovers, commercials, product placement or ad campaigns it is hard to avoid making economic, moral and career decisions about whom, what and where to sell. At drama school the choices seem easy; sell your soul for brief financial reward and repent in obscurity while your wiser classmates achieve theatrical acclaim. Later, the lines get blurred. "It will only show in Southern Europe", "It's a 20 grand buyout, 2 day shoot" can sound like "No-one will ever see it, it's a lot of money for old rope, it doesn't count". After all, Hollywood movie stars advertise in Japan. Next thing you know, you're on the commercial audition circuit, holding up bits of paper with a number on for a Polaroid and pretending you're skiing in a tube made out of light.

A Small Film About Advertising Casting (Warning Adult Content)

In my teenage years, I was a model. I sold a lot of stuff. I did a commercial for Boots No 7 with a fantastic photographer called John Swannell and a disastrous one for Revlon where my hair was taped to a board to look like it was flowing. Then I was advised that models could never really be actors and I stopped modelling and painted window frames while I looked for acting work. I found it, so maybe the advisers were right, but it was hard giving up the financial security. I didn't miss the auditions though. In New York once, I went up for a scent campaign and they wanted a jazz dancer. My ballet training was no preparation for the excruciating 10 minutes of top hat and cane miming that I stumbled through in a sweaty studio in Manhattan before an incredulous casting director. "That's great!" She said, as I tried to catch my breath. "Only we're really looking for a dancer who can model rather than a model who can...model." I got my coat.