Monday, October 25, 2010

Inside the (crappy) Actor's Studio

Early last year, I remember listening to a podcast where Mike and Jerry from Penny Arcade were discussing the ads for the then brand-new Guitar Hero World Tour.

The ads featured people like Tony Hawk and Paula Abdul and were generally terrible. At one point in the discussion, Jerry said:

“What these people never realize is that we’re our own specific sub-culture. We have our own celebrities…and Paula Abdul is not among them.”

I think Jerry was exactly right. If I had to write a list of the ten famous people I’d like to meet, the only people on that list the average person would probably have heard of is Adam Savage from Mythbusters and Wil Wheaton.

The main thing you’d notice is that the majority of people on my list aren’t on TV or in movies…the vast majority are only famous on the internet…and probably don’t count as ‘famous’ in the traditional sense of the word.

This was brought home to me a couple days ago when I got to be on ‘Tweet Me Harder’.

Ok, so TMH is a podcast hosted by Kris Straub and David Malki who are best known for their popular webcomics. Malki is the artist behind Wondermark, and Kris is the artist behind Starslip, Chainsaw Suit as well as the ‘Blamimations’ he makes with Scott Kurtz over on the Penny Arcade site.

These guys are my celebrities. In my ‘Dream Dinner Party’, Kris and Malki win out over any tv or movie star you can name…which was why it was a massive thrill when I got to be on an episode.

Before I make this sound any grander than it is, let me explain the circumstances.

TMH is a comedy podcast, and for the past month, Kris has been away on vacation travelling around Europe. Rather than just say Kris is away, they cooked up a storyline where Kris had been kidnapped, playing pre-recorded ‘phone messages’ from him…there’s more to it than that, but it’s absolutely hilarious. I highly suggest you go listen to it.

Well, anyway, with Kris’s return from his trip, Malki ran a contest where you could call into the show and leave a message with your plan to rescue Kris, and the three winners would get to ‘help Malki on the rescue mission.’

Well, I called in, left my message…and I was disappointed when the three winners were announced and I wasn’t among them. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting to win. TMH has an audience of thousands and they must have got hundreds and hundreds of calls.

Then I jumped out of my chair and did a happy dance when a few minutes later, the following tweet arrived:

“@Tweethard: And I have a SPECIAL ROLE for @Paulius1981 if he's interested.”

Interested? Are you kidding me? I didn’t care what the ‘special role’ was. It meant I got to be on my favorite podcast with two creators that I’ve been a fan of for the better part of a decade.

A short while later, I got an email from Malki with the script for the part I’d be playing and a time he’d call me on Skype to record…if I wanted the part.

Let me explain this to the non-geeks. To me, this was the equivalent of the star of your favorite TV show giving you a call and saying “Hey, we’re doing a special episode and we need someone to play this character, let me know if you’d like to be in the show.”

I couldn’t have been happier with the part. Firstly, I got to play a bad guy. The story’s ‘big bad’ had already been established, but I got to play his ‘head agent’, a shadowy, deeply evil guy who does some awesomely evil things I don’t want to spoil before the episode comes out. I will say I got to use my evil laugh, which I was quite proud of.

…and yes, I’m deeply aware that I probably only got this part because of my English accent…the big bad guy is a Brit as well.

The funny thing was, while I was sitting at the computer, waiting for Malki to call…it suddenly dawned on me that it was Saturday, and that’s the day I usually talk to my parents over Skype. I knew that with my luck, my parents would call right in the middle…and as I mentioned in my last post, when one of your favorite creators calls you to give you an opportunity to appear on your favorite podcast that’s going to go out to thousands and thousands of people…the last thing you want to do is put them on hold.

Don’t get me wrong, Malki wouldn’t have complained, while I consider him a celebrity, I think he thinks of himself as a perfectly regular guy who does stuff on the internet.

But just to be sure, I dropped my parents a quick email explaining the situation and telling them not to call if they see me on Skype. I’ll completely honest, I also just wanted to tell them I was going to be on a really popular podcast. Yeah, I totally regressed. I was like a 10 year old with straight A’s on my report card.

15 minutes later I got a reply. It said “Don’t worry, we’re not going to be on Skype anyway today. Talk to you sometime this week.”

That’s what made me think of Jerry Holkins’ quote that we have our own celebrities. My parents didn’t even mention my ‘news’, and it got me thinking.

If I’d emailed my parents and told them I was going to be on a crappy local radio station at 3am, they’d have got excited for me. The fact I was going to be on a podcast, which was the internet, even though the show has a listenership of thousands…I don’t think it was ‘real’ to them. Hell, I think they’d have been more impressed if I’d been in the background of a news report.

I’m not complaining. As I’ve said, my celebrities aren’t their celebrities. If I’d told some people attending a comic convention or PAX, they’d have understood my level of excitement…my parents? Not so much.

But, anyway, the recording session went as well as I could have hoped for. As I mentioned in my previous post, I’m not an actor. I think acting is one of those things everyone thinks they’re good at…but when you’re playing an actual character and having to say someone else’s words, it’s a whole different thing.

It never really occurred to me the sheer number of different ways there are to say a simple line of dialogue. For example, one really simple line was ‘let go of him’.

It seems really simple, but how do you say it? In that scene, a fight’s broken out and Malki’s just grabbed my boss. Do I growl it like I’m in control and threatening him? Do I shout like I’m really angry? Am I scared that everything’s just gone wrong?

That’s just four words. When I have a full on speech…well, let’s just say I suddenly know why directors are the most important people on a set. You really can say the exact same words five times on the run and end up with five entirely different scenes.

Malki was awesome, though and gave me some great tips. For example, one of my lines was “Oh, and by the way? You owe the military half a billion dollars for a new hyperjet.” And after a few attempts where I was basically just reading from the page, he said “Ok, so I’ve just got in this jet, messed around with the controls, it’s gone through a wall and I’ve spread it all over the airstrip doing a ton of damage along the way. The audience doesn’t know any of that and we’re never going to explicitly tell them, but your character does know that, so try and get it across in the line…I know that sounds impossible, but just keep that in your head while you read.”

It sounds odd, but it made perfect sense. Suddenly I knew exactly how I’d deliver it. This guy just destroyed something of mine that was very valuable. I would be angry and really hate the guy…and it really effected how I delivered the line.

In fact, that same line also showed how awesome Malki was at letting me interpret the script myself. After saying it a few times, almost spitting the words at him, I thought it might be a little funnier if I just tossed the line out really matter-of-factly. I thought the character would see Malki as almost beneath his notice….and rather than be angry, he’d enjoying knowing that Malki was in deep shit…he’d feign indifference and take a sadistic pleasure in watching him suffer. So I tried the line once in a way that was more like “Oh, and by the way? The cat’s out of food, you need to stop by the store.” I knew I’d hit it when Malki laughed and asked me to do it again, even more indifferently.

The other big factor was that I only had about five minutes to read the script before recording. As I mentioned in my last post, time was a huge factor so I didn’t feel right asking for half an hour to actually learn my lines. In fact, after recording, and sitting down and properly reading the script, I got a much better feel for what was going on and wished I’d done a lot differently…but then again, who am I kidding? On a scale of one to ten, I’d rate my performance at about a three. If I’d had a few days with the script, I probably could have got it up to a three and a half… maybe.

Well, anyway, the whole experience was awesome, even if only because I got to talk to someone who’s work I really admire for half an hour.

I’ll tell you one thing though…it really gave me a new found respect for actors, acting really is a hundred times more difficult than you think.


Sunny(aka Lavada) said...

Well, first of all -CONGRATS on the job and getting to "meet" one of your heros!
And second- acting's not all that hard- i act like a normal person every day I go to work and so far I've fooled everyone! Or maybe they're just too scared of my insanity to say otherwise!
I can't wait to hear the podcast you guest-stared in!

Evan 08 said...

Congratulations on reaching one of your life goals. Isn't audience participation the shiz-nit?