Confessions of an Actor-holic

guitar pic

Photo by Sean Kapera Photography

Committing to a new film is a little like committing to a new relationship. Some last for a few short days, some last for months. but each leave a lasting impression on who you are and shape the choices you make for future selections. Through these commitments we learn a lot about ourselves, what we want, what we don’t want, what we find acceptable or unacceptable, who we work well with together or who just doesn’t understand us and based on those experiences we start to build a structure of who we are as actors, not just a representative body of work, but a framework for what we will and won’t do.

I often spend a lot of time conversing with actors about there on-set horror stories. I am blessed to say that in my career I have now had the opportunity to work with a wide range of directs and on varying degrees of levels of professional film sets from very controlled environments to what felt like a f@#$^&* free for all. I’m torn on this idea of the “abused-actor” and hope you will let me venture and explore it more in-depth here.

When I jump on board a project I usually have a fairly good idea of what it is I am getting myself into. I talk to the director, ask questions, talk to people who have worked with them previously, do a little trolling, watch their work, etc. I’ve worked on the 2nd floor of a warehouse in August in Arizona with no air-conditioning while wearing full Victorian era costuming, I’ve laid in a bucket of ice water, then gotten out of it and stayed in wet clothes, then gotten back in to said tub of ice then back out, then in and so on without having a heated blanket or probably a medic on site would have been appropriate for that one, I’ve filmed while deathly ill, I’ve filmed after blacking out and throwing up, I’ve filmed on sets that had no food or water but I can trace those circumstances 99% of the time back to my own stubbornness, lack of resources, lack of experience (which I was aware of) or some other reasonable source. It is those times when it is a blatant lack of care, respect and professionalism on behalf of the director that one needs to worry about entering into the realms of being abused.

There are directors, famous directors, notorious for using torturous and unethical methods to draw out a particular response or desired performance from actors. I was sent this article by a friend who bravely confronted a director who she felt had exposed her to unsafe conditions and as I was reading about Alfred Hitchcock tying birds to Tippi Hedren and Kubrick driving Shelley Duvall nearly to the point of insanity and baldness and early directors before SAG literally getting away with murder or beastly antics to achieve realism I kept asking myself, why would these actors continue to subject themselves to this?

Then the second thought came into play, “Oh come on, like you wouldn’t?” I swear sometimes I genuinely am crazy and just hide it really, freakishly well. I can see the split sides of anything at one given moment and there is so often this internal battle between my two selves. I do know that actors often feel proud of their harrowing tales and will talk about the time they actually got kicked in the face during a fight scene or the time the candle actually caught their hair on fire or the time they had to film an emotional scene but there was delay after delay so they lay sobbing on the floor in a puddle in character for i6 hours, like they are showing off proud battle scars.

As actors we all strive for realism. What better way to achieve realism than to just make it be real. This actually feeds into a conversation I had last night with local director Roze about the future of cinema being highly sexual and how some filmmakers have already crossed over into asking their actors to have real sex. It is not a porn, most of the time the angels are actually kept on the face or at a wide, but the physical movement, the facial expressions, the genuine guttural impulses and responses are undeniably different when having real sex as opposed to faking it.

Even on a G-rated path, ok maybe PG, I can think of countless examples where risks were taken to enhance a film or achieve a sense of realism, from the water being dropped on what’s her face in Flashdance (apparently that was enough to snap her neck possibly) to documentary-style type dramas where actors are asked to go into unsafe locations or deal with “real-people” on film such as prostitutes, drug-dealers and other questionable characters.

So there in lies the question – Do you buy a bunch of fake props, dirty and grunge them up, build a set that looks like a crack-house and have a safe, clean environment for your actors to work in or do you hit the streets and get down to the raw, grittiness of reality? I guess that depends on your personal comfort zone and what you are willing to do, but either way those terms should be communicated prior to filming so those expectations are not a surprise to either party and to ensure that you are working with the right people who have the same mission and the same purpose as you do.

There are some things that should never, ever be done by directors especially if you can’t introduce yourself as Mr. Coppola who if you read the article above filmed in a literal war zone in the Philippines. Those things come down to basic trust and respect.

Please have water and some form of nourishment on set. We are working hard for you. We give tremendous amounts of energy, time and physical dedication to our craft to make your vision come to life and we deserve to be hydrated and kept functioning if nothing else.You would bring food and water for a dog if you were taking one on outing with you, are we not even deserving of this?

Take into consideration the environment – if it is hot then get together a collection of fans, coolers, ice chests or even just extra water on hand or if it is freezing then have blankets available, heaters, jackets, etc. I know we all don’t have budgets to rent equipment but I could rummage through my closets and find at least 10 blankets, if I ask friends to contribute or even go to the dollar store for additional blankets, we’d be golden. It’s a simple gesture of courtesy to keep your actors comfortable.

Give actors a full 12-hour turn-around. Let me correct myself, not just actors but the entire crew, including yourself. Acting can be physically straining as well as mentally and emotionally exhausting. I often experience what I like to call “emotional-hangover” after very intense days of filming. Plus there is planning and character prep for transitioning to different scenes, transportation time to and from locations, etc. Why would you think you can get the same level of quality, coherent, fresh material from me if you only allowed me to sleep for four hours before expecting me to set foot back on set? I’m all about 10, 12, even 14 hours days… as long as you stick in there, I’ll stick in there right with you, but for goodness sake, give me time to wind down, decompress, rest and refresh so I can come back on set roaring and ready to go with renewed spirits and ferociousness.

If there is something in the contract HONOR IT. If you promise a copy, credit, pay, whatever then do it. It is very rare that someone actually will go as far as to take legal action against someone here if they don’t fulfill the terms of a contract but I can tell you this, it is a testament to your character and reliability and I remember that. Don’t bate me in with false promises – if you can’t deliver IMDB credit or you won’t ever get me my footage, then don’t tell me that. Let me make my decisions to work with you  you based on truthful circumstances. This is one of the reasons why so much is gotten away with here. Most work is not Union and not under contract so there is no one to protect the rights of actors. Heaven forbid an actor speak out and say they’ve been misled, abused or not given what’s owed to them because often times that actor is ignored and cut off or … well that’s pretty much it, just neglected like an unwanted stepchild that once served a purpose but no longer does.

Don’t misrepresent your film or lie to actors. A lot and I do mean a lot of actors disagree with me. They couldn’t care less what the film actually turns out to be, who’s in it, how they got to film at a certain location, just as long as they walk away with a paycheck and a credit under their name. I am not one of them. I want to know if you’re getting funded by a an adult film company because that impacts my image, I want to know who the cast is in the film before I sign the contract, and I certainly do not condone lying to investors or third parties to secure shoot locations or any other amenities for a film. I will not align myself with a dishonest production company because if you choose to do it on a grand scale, then you are certainly capable of doing it on a smaller scale. If you are lying to a corporation about what you are using their facilities for then why wouldn’t you lie to me about what you’re going to attach my name to. No thanks, I wash my hands with that, I’m done. I need to trust my director. I may be nervous about certain things or feel insecure or emotional, but as long as I know I have a director and I team that I can fully feel safe with then normally I’m game for just about anything.

Show a little loyalty.. I observe who works with who, who hurts who, who screwed over who and so on. There was a film that I was supposed to work on that originally I was cast as a minor role but at some point the guy contacted his lead and pretty much said “You’re out, Melissa is in.” Everyone kept telling me how exciting that was and how lucky I am but I kept thinking, if he’s willing to turn his back on her and cut her off like that, why wouldn’t I think he’d be willing to do the same to me? In a few short months I’ll be damned if that exact situation didn’t come into fruition. I hear stories all the time about directors who cast somebody in a film when they had no budget and suddenly the Gods smiled upon them and the heavens opened up and an outpour of money rained down which meant they had the option of enlisting A-listers and replacing the original cast but because these individuals exhibited loyalty, they stayed true to their word. Nobodies become somebodies from opportunities like that.

Listen to your actors. Your actors will tell you what they are comfortable doing and not doing. It is your choice as a director at that point to help them grow comfortable to fulfill your request, to make adjustments or changes to accommodate their feelings or to push right on through because you might genuinely believe and have faith that your actor is more capable  than what he or she sees in themselves. This is one of the secrets to being a great director. If I can feel like I can come up to you and say I’m scared to do X Y or Z or I have reservations about this or that but we have the type of working relationship where we can talk about how to tackle these things together, then I’ll be a trooper about getting you what you want. I want to feel like you’re in the trenches with me, ready and willing to get your hands bloody, not just hiding behind the safety of your monitor and calling out random directions occasionally. NO!!!! Come play with me, come work with me, come listen to me . . .

Treasure the process. One of the most rewarding things about being a part of a film family, no matter how temporary, is creating those bonds, completing something extraordinary and artistic and human together that took massive amounts of effort and time from everybody involved that poured in their love and lives into this. Why not celebrate it?! Host events to mark release dates and screenings and awards won, it is worthy of being recognized and the cast wants to feel important and remembered for their work, not just abandoned out into the wild.

I’m not trying to tell anyone how to do their job, but I feel like there should seriously be an ethics class for filmmakers or at least a class where actors and directors can collaborate together to better understand each other’s needs on a professional and personal level. I hear the same stories and accounts of regret and complaints over and over again, yet no one will actually go to the source and confront the directors or filmmakers to directly express their needs save for a rare few like Jane Fendelman who is now working with Kevin R. Phipps to talk about these kind of working relationships in a book called “Kiss the Rat” based off of her own personal experiences on set.

It truly is the same as many things in life – to get good you must first give good. You catch more bees with honey. And all of those other cliché’ remarks about how much more efficient and effective actors would be if only treated well. After this last weekend I was almost tempted to created an actors anonymous group where we could stand up and confess the different ways we have been victimized, but there comes a time when each victim has to stand up and take responsibility for themselves and choose to be a victim no more; choose not to work with that director again, choose not to remain on set if presented with unsafe or unreasonable working conditions, seek out protocols and measures you can take to receive payment or other contractual obligations and do everything you can to raise the standards of what is acceptable.

Don’t get me wrong, if I feel like being trapped in a box for two hours to reach a suffocating, schizophrenic state of mind for a character development process, then I will, but you can bet your bottom dollar that it will be my choice to do so, not the result of someone else telling me what should or shouldn’t inspire me. We must always protect ourselves, but never be afraid of expanding our frontiers of learning even though others approaches may seem drastic, bombastic or absurd. Sometimes it is in those moments of insanity that a true pure second of reality is captured.

Here is the link to the article I made reference to. It is a really disturbing and incredible read, if these accounts are all indeed true:




One thought on “Confessions of an Actor-holic

  1. Hi Melissa,

    I read your article and truly appreciate your honest candor. I had to laugh and nod my head in agreement on this statement: “…… if nothing else.You would bring food and water for a dog….”
    Of course!

    “.I want to know if you’re getting funded by a an adult film company because that impacts my image,…”
    I personally would like to know too!

    ” I will not align myself with a dishonest production company because if you choose to do it on a grand scale, then you are certainly capable of doing it on a smaller scale” I concur and if you can flip this and know that if the company is capable of doing it on a smaller scale they will on a grand scale too.

    Nice shout out for Jane and Kevin. “Fendelman who is now working with Kevin R. Phipps to talk about these kind of working relationships in a book called “Kiss the Rat” based off of her own personal experiences on set.”

    Thursday night, I attended my first class, The Meisner Method, that Kevin R. Phipps teaches and was over whelmed with joy because I believe my path was guided there. Gratitude! Your article Melissa validated that gut feeling I had last night.

    If ever there is a director to be deserving of accolades, it is Kevin.

    ~ Chris ‘Wolfeagle’ Thompson

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s