Monday, February 18, 2013

Opening the Door

I was sitting in Kerbey Lane Cafe on Guadalupe on a recent Thursday, having lunch with my brother when a man came up to me and asked if I was an actor. I said no, but then he asked if I was interested in being in his film. He said I have "the perfect face".
Naturally I was flattered by his request, and just a bit skeptical, since I had no idea what kind of film he had in mind.  Curiously I didn't even ask.  What I did ask, to his surprise, was whether or not he would have picked Stephen, had we been sitting in opposite seats, since I have the idea that we look so much alike, but he averred that I was his choice.  
The director, a young man whom I'll call JP, told me he was an MFA film student at UT and this was going to a short film for a class he was taking.  He seemed nice enough and I was just egotistical enough to think that I could pull something like this off, so I said yes, I'd give it a try.  He was pleased and offered me a notebook in which I wrote my email address.  He said thanks, we shook hands and that was that.  I had no idea what to expect.  To be honest, I was excited and flattered, but really didn't think it would come to anything.
Later that afternoon, I got an email from him, inviting me to audition for the lead in the film, to be called "Noon".  He sent a script along with the audition invitation.  This was my first indication of what it was all about, and I was not only shocked to see what part he had chosen me for, but astonished to realize that it was part that was perfect for me.  Or perhaps I was the perfect person for the part.  Either way, as soon as I read it, I realized that I was going to do it.  Not just the audition.  I just knew I would get the part.
The audition, held on a Saturday morning in the Communication building on the UT campus, was an interesting but brief experience.  I met JP and his wife just outside the room and the three of us went in and sat down.  It was a small film screening room, with a few rows of seat arranged like a theater with an open area and a screen down front.  We sat on the front row and talked.  
In brief, the film is about a man, Patrick, whose wife has just died.  He has to get ready for the funeral, to be held at Noon, but he cannot find his shoes.  It's a bit more complicated than that, but not too much.  It's a short film, just eight minutes long, so there's not a lot of time for extended exposition.  Patrick is disoriented and a bit lost.  He sees a vision of his dead wife, who tells him to get ready, but when he goes to the closet to get his shoes, he can't find them.  He finds many shoes, just not the ones he needs to wear to the funeral.  Finally, his daughter comes over to help him get ready and finds his shoes neatly arranged in his closet as always.
JP was particularly keen to know what I thought of the film, and I was happy to oblige his curiosity.  Now, I know he had no idea that I would relate to his vision or even be able to articulate a critical opinion of his work, so I think he was both surprised and not displeased to find that I was both captivated by his vision and had already formulated a critical response to it. More than that, really, I had formed an emotional response to it, and although I was careful not campaign for the role, I told him that I felt I was in some ways destined for it.
Watching his eyes get wide with interest, I began by telling him about my strong belief in synchronicity--the force that always seems to bring us to the right place at the right time--and that his approaching me in the cafe that day was in itself proof of the power of that force.  I told him that I not only understood the meaning of his film, but that I felt it deeply, personally, every day of my life.  The film is about loss and grief, two emotions that both Readers share with me and will understand how it is that I seemed somehow destined for this role, and by extension, this experience.
To explain why I felt the film resonated with me, I told him about Pierre.  His reaction was remarkable, in that he didn't say "I'm sorry" as so many people do reflexively.  His eyes widened, and I could see that it affected him, but he didn't actually say anything.  After hearing the cliche so many times, I found his reaction refreshing and, in an odd way, inspiring, as if he knew that this would be the benefit of the film.  And that's not a callous or self-serving reaction, I believe, but an honest appraisal of what my resources for finding the emotion necessary to play the part actually were.
I think I said that I thought this experience would give me 'something to draw on' as he nodded slowly, taking it in.  He explained that the part didn't have a lot of dialog--mostly what would be required of me would be a lot of 'looking'.  Having read the script, I agreed with him, knowing full well already what that look was all about.

We read a couple of lines from the script, with his wife reading the lines from one character, and me simply 'looking' one way or another.  Next he did a small exercise where he took my hat, placed it on the doorknob across the room and asked me to walk over, put it on, then come back and sit down in a chair.  I did this while he watched, and when it was over, he said simply, 'That was great.'  
What he didn't say, however, was whether or not I had the part.  He said thanks and that he would be in touch.  I left the building walking on air, as if I'd just convinced Valery to go out with me--thrilled to have done something new and altogether different than I have ever done before, still certain that the role was something I was just destined to play, even if I had to wait another week to confirm it.
It wasn't a week but just two days later that he wrote me and asked me to come back and read with an actress who might be playing the part of the daughter, Mary.  This 'callback', one of my Readers will confirm, is a very good sign, if not an outright confirmation that the role is set, but at this point I was unaware of this positive spin on the situation.  I assumed that I still had to compete for the part.  I imagined that he somehow had it down to a couple of candidates and was interested in seeing how we played off on each other.
It turns out that I was both wrong and right about that.  When I went in for the callback, there were only two candidates there and I was one of them.  The other person was a woman of about 35-40 who had apparently been chosen for the part of the daughter, Mary.  We actually met in the lobby when she approached me and asked if I was waiting for the audition.  When I said yes, she said, "You look just like I imagined Patrick."  I am sure I blushed at that and had no witty response at hand, but I took that comment to heart.  Even though at that moment I was still unsure as to whether or not I had the role, at some level, I felt I was Patrick.

When JP and his wife arrived, it was clear that there were no other candidates there for the audition, just T and me.  JP found an open room and we went in.  It was a small conference room, with a large table in the center with chairs all around.  During the first audition, JP has just observed me, looking and walking around.  This time, though, he had brought a digital video camera and told us he was going to shoot a bit today just to see how we looked on camera.

First though, we talked about the script a bit.  JP had made some changes and still had a number of things to put together, like finding a cemetery in which to film the final scenes and casting the part of Martha, who is Patrick's deceased wife and appears in Patrick's imagination, so we talked about that and some technical details like how long the shoot would take and who some of the support staff were going to be.  Still, though, I didn't feel as though I had actually landed the part.  We still had another audition to do.

If I was wrong about still being in contention for the part, I was right about JP wanting to see what the 'chemistry' between me and T.  There is a scene in the film where Mary comes to Patrick's house to pick him up for the funeral, but she arrives to find him sitting on the edge of the bed, still not dressed.  When she asks him why he's not ready, he tells her that he cannot find his shoes.  She looks at him quizzically then goes to the closet and shows him the neatly arranged rows of his shoes therein.  She then realizes that he's lost and needs her help getting ready.  She comes back to him and kneels in front of him and tells him that she'll help him get ready.

JP set this up by showing us where the door to the room would be, the bed and the closet.  I took a seat on the 'bed' and Mary came in to find me sitting there, staring into space.  When she comes in, she makes eye contact with me, and this is where everything changed.  Up until that moment, I had been concerned about my performance.  And it wasn't so much of a performance as it was about my ability to open up that door inside my head and heart that holds back the grief and sorrow of loss and use those emotions to become Patrick.

Actually I knew I could open the door.  It was the closing of it that worried me.  Experience has taught me these past five years that going there is easy, coming back is hard.  Consequently, I try not to go there.  I keep the door shut, passing by it every day, feeling the twinge but not the full throated roar of pain that is on the other side.  So it goes, Mr. Vonnegut would say.

So there I sat, with the door to that secret room in my mind wide open, with my heart full and my eyes no doubt fairly on fire when Mary entered.  I don't know why it took me by surprise, but it did.  The woman who approached me was no longer T, with whom I had been chatting a few minutes before.

Just as I had allowed myself to become Patrick, she had somehow found a way to become Mary.  Her eyes were red and full of tears.  She was kind and open and strangely full of sorrow and grief herself.  I was shocked, and reacted as if she were really my daughter.  I saw the open closet and the neatly arranged shoes.  When she came to comfort me I felt the same desire I had so many times when seeing people torn up with grief--I wanted to comfort her as well, to tell her that it was going to be ok.  And I did, with my eyes and a simple hand-on-hand gesture on my knee.  The whole thing took thirty seconds or so--I don't know.  I really was not conscious of anything but the moment.  JP had been taping us but I never noticed.

When it was over, I felt oddly vulnerable, as though I had just had some sort of 'moment' there with T/Mary.  This was an entirely new feeling for me, and it washed over me in a light wave.  I told T quietly that she was very good, and that she had really taken me into the moment.  She said I'd done the same, and that felt good.  JP was pleased and told us so.  He said he really had no directions for us, that we'd done it just as he'd hoped. As we broke out of character and took our seats at the table again, I was lightheaded and flushed with deep emotion.  As I expected, closing the door was not so simple as sitting in another chair.

We talked a bit about Patrick's character, how he was dependent on his wife and how the feelings of loss, sorrow and grief manifest themselves as confusion, fear and anxiety.  Since both JP and T knew my story, they knew why I felt so close to Patrick.  But even at this moment, I still wasn't sure if I'd gotten the part.  So I asked directly.  JP smiled and said yes, of course.  I told him that I wasn't sure until that moment, but I was glad to get it.  Moreover, I said, I was aware of my responsibility to get it right, to bring Patrick to life in the way that JP had envisioned.  He told me that I needn't worry, that I was the right person for the part, and that there would be many people, including him, who would help make the vision a reality.  We would work together, he assured me.

That was it.  As we walked out, I was still in that fog, a mixture of old grief and new elation.  As I contemplate these events, I come to the conclusion that as ever, the river of life has taken a new turn.  The opportunity to turn my eternal feelings of grief into art is no small matter.  Of course I will never find relief in a way that returns me to the day before February 20, 2008, but in this effort I feel I may make use of that powerful energy, releasing it from my heart like the way the Sun throws off massive flares.  The fire itself will not die down, but the flare will come as a temporary relief, perhaps.

Perhaps others will feel that fire.  They may not be burnt the way I have been, but if they are even slightly singed by my portrayal of Patrick I feel I will have pulled it off.

1 comment:

valgal said...

nicely said, phillip...whew!