🎬 Actor – Amateur Hour
I did it.
The character was Paul Pierce. “Irreverent” the Backstage advertisement read. The film was called Amateur Hour, later to be retitled I Was a Teenage T.V. Terrorist.
It was my first audition, for a lead role no less. The word “irreverent” jumped out in the character description. Irreverent I could do. Irreverence was a sweet spot.
I didn’t have a monologue prepared, and I wouldn’t have known where to find one on such short notice. So I wrote mine. Then, typewritten script in hand, I paced back and forth in the fraternity basement, jumping onto and off a collapsed sofa memorizing it, acting it out. I stopped cold from time to time listening for footsteps that might be coming down to the basement to figure out what the hell all the drama was about.
My monologue certainly fit the bill for “irreverent.” I covered clever graffiti in university bathroom stalls, leather jackets for reasons that now escape me, cigarettes on toilet paper dispensers, fire extinguishers, electric guitars, and — with a soupçon of irreverence — the heady topic of masturbation.
My monologue might have been funny. Oh, fuck it. It was funny. Very funny. They should have fired me from the starring role and hired me to punch up a lifeless script.
If I hadn’t had a fever the day of the first audition, I might have never gotten the role. The fever helped me operate at a much higher level of “don’t really give a damn” than I normally might, and the combination of fever and crude hilarity was my ticket.
My knees might have knocked, but I made them laugh.
Oh, how they must have imagined their audience laughing like that for ninety plus overprinted 16mm minutes! “We found irreverent Paul Pierce!” But to be good in the film, I would have needed a fever so powerful it toppled Paul Pierce into a coffin at the wrap party.
During that first audition the producer told me, unforgettably and with a dazzling smile, that she had “friends at Paramount” interested in her $250K film. Looking back she had her own rehearsed monologue. They were bullshitting me as much as I was bullshitting them.
“Yay! The movie business! Welcome! Come on in! The water’s warm!”
Within a few weeks I found myself on the set of Amateur Hour for the first day of shooting. I stood behind a fake apartment wall waiting for a director to call out “action” that first time. My costar stood behind me. We both carried empty suitcases. We were moving into our new apartment sight unseen.
I’d been through costume and wardrobe for the first time that morning. A beautiful Canadian make up artist dabbed me with little square sponges. An A.C. measured off the distance from my eyes to the lens without making the slightest eye contact. A sound boom hovered above me. From the bottom of my field of vision I could see my taped actor’s mark on the floor. My mark ended up bringing me closer to the camera lens than I’d expected.
There was quiet on the set.
Only actors really know the quiet of a movie set, and every film actor must remember the surprise intensity of the first time they step into it.
Your entire being needs to fill that quiet: your voice, your mind, your heart, your body, and at times your stillness. That silence is as real as silence gets. It is pregnant. And I am standing in it after a few quick weeks of rehearsals in a Greenwich Village apartment.
Everyone is staring at me, waiting for me to do my job and fill the silence with something, anything memorable. Even on a small set there are many, many people staring at you.
I am in this strange aquarium for the first time, my thoughts bubbling madly, everyone hoping to discover a beautiful fish.
“Are there lights?” Paul Pierce asked, hitting his blue tape mark.
“Lights? There must be lights. Track lights…” said Rico, the Puerto Rican superintendent.
Amateur Hour taught me that there are things I couldn’t achieve through arrogance, focus and will. I couldn’t make myself smile on cue or laugh or cry or amuse. And even when I could do those things once or twice from this camera angle, I couldn’t do them once or twice from the next. Or I could do them in the first call back, but not the fourth. Repetition became a hell.
I learned under enormous pressure with a crew standing around me that there are realms where you can’t “fake it till you make it,” and all the mustered arrogance, focus and will won’t get you there. You are either a pretty clown fish outside the little plastic castle or you are not. I was not.
Or I was, but I could not come out.
I learned in that same crucible that the movie personality I wanted to be — assumed I would become — was not at all who I would turn out to be. It was like catching sight of someone ugly in a mirror and realizing it’s you.
I thought I’d be a movie star, someone cool, someone I would have admired, punching as he punched, kicking as he kicked, screwing as he screwed, but instead I was this other guy, and one I wouldn’t have liked at that.
Worse was the rising and very real possibility I was that guy off camera, too. It was disorienting and brutal. Imagine watching your every recorded movement and sound with the same confused, even repulsed sensation that you might feel hearing your recorded voice played back. Is this really me?
(Yes, that is really you. Now you know.)
Amateur Hour, and my acting experience at large, taught me, cruelly, that failure can be public and permanent. Shame is waiting in the wings. When you get yourself that far out on stage in anything in life really, and certainly in film, that you better be really good, because if you are not — and when you know it — nobody in the world will be crueler to you than you will be to yourself. It doesn’t even matter if it is true.
I was horribly cruel to myself, and cursed the arrogance, focus and will that got me there. Praise for my acting from any quarter was like being splashed with hot acid. That someone loved the ugly, uncool guy was further insult to the injury. “That’s exactly what your voice sounds like, Adam.” He is you. That actor is you.
And there are no actors. Isn’t that right, Adam? Wasn’t that the game that we were playing? That he would be you, the audience punching as you punched, screwing as you screwed?
Somebody who doesn’t get this will let me know after reading this that I was actually wonderful, and they will try to prove it to me and prove to me that they loved me.
Worse, there were people who saw me exactly as I saw myself. They didn’t like me either. All of this was a dark confirmation. Imagine the vulnerability.
There was a stretch after one movie opened when I was so ashamed of a performance that I hid in my fraternity room for a month, failed classes for the first time in my life — including, laughably, a Pass/Fail acting class — and a concerned dean placed me on academic probation. For a decade I could have given a valedictory address on Shame and Never Taking Chances.
“When you’re out there, Class of ‘87, I mean when you’re really, really out there — the price of failing will be very high,” I would tell the openhearted.
But now and here — for a single time and publicly at that — let me recognize the pure, youthful audacity of it, the bet, the monologue writing, the bullshitting, and the pulling it off. Because it is amazing I did it on arrogance, focus and will, and the life experience from it, by any reasonable measure, was exceptional. I won the bet not once but twice in those first few auditions. Two roles in the first five auditions. My God, I pulled it off.
But my acting career has to be more than winning a bet. It has to be. I still must be missing something right in front of me.
Somebody please help me without scalding me with hot acid.
You were first in one movie, and then you were in a bunch of them. You were the movie sidekick of a Golden Globe winner for Best Supporting Actor in a boxing film by 20th Century Fox, and then you had a 1:1 scene with Michael Jackson, the most famous man in the world at the time. You high-fived Michael Jackson.
America’s greatest director, Martin Scorcese, asked you if you were happy with a take when you worked with him — in a brief way, you could say “collaborated.” Quincy Jones watched from the sidelines.
Woody Allen told the best casting director in the business that you were great in an audition for him, perfect for a part. The whole reason you were there was simply because she wanted him to meet you.“ That was great, Juliet, right?” Allen asked.
You signed autographs for strangers whose hands trembled passing you pens. You co-starred and then dated the sexy red-headed girl you’d seen in an R-rated movie in high school.
You opened fan love letters from Argentina and Japan. At your old prep school, a former teacher sent you a delighted letter that he’d seen your picture pinned on a cork board in a student’s room.Your agents battled to sign you, and then they told the losing agencies to keep their distance, and then eventually to fuck off in an irate call you watched from the sofa in their office. Afterwards you laughed with the promise of a star-bright future.
You were reviewed in the New York Times by Janet Maslin — in passing, but warmly enough to clip for posterity. To this day, a few last stragglers on the Internet wonder what happened to you and marvel in the comments of stray online posts at “how someone so talented could have completely vanished.”
And finally, and most importantly, you were sent two different letters years apart from fans that told you your performance in Parting Glances — your groundbreaking film on the AIDS crisis — kept them alive through the hopeless agonies of being unloved and desperate gay teenagers. Somehow they found your address and wrote you because they needed you to know that. They wanted to thank you. Both times. Same story.
How many others? One? A hundred?
A fire blanket of shame extinguished pride in any of it, but it all happened. And it’s not nothing.
Good for you, Adam.
You did it.
Feel something. Twice a week.