Originally published backstage.com.
February 19, 2013
My former acting teacher, guru, and dungeon master Ed Kaye-Martin gave a piece of advice that revolved around finding the place we call “Zero” when you act. He said that it was essential for an actor to remember to go to Zero when you rehearse or perform. We asked for a translation into English. Ed said, “Actors have to understand the first moment of a scene – where you start – that place is called Zero. When you rehearse a scene over and over again, it’s easy to get stuck in the emotional place at the end of the scene instead of rewinding to where you were at the beginning.”
I understood what Ed was saying in a theoretical way. Now, thirty years and two hundred television shows later, I have seen the practical wisdom of his advice. In television, one of the greatest challenges you have is working quickly while shooting multiple takes. The great television actors have the ability to snap back to the first beat of the scene instantly, ready for the director’s call of “One more time from the top.”
Conversely, I have seen several actors play a scene beautifully only to get lost on his or her way back to Zero. They’ll start take two in tears before they hear the bad news that their son was kidnapped. They’ll be angry at their boss before they’re fired. It can be a mess. Finding and returning to Zero is a skill that cannot be underestimated. It’s central to almost every project I’ve worked on.
Many actors use something physical – a prop or a simple activity that is repeatable – to ground themselves to the opening beat. But even doing that is unreliable. I would add my two cents to Ed Kaye’s rule. The only way to be consistent in getting back to Zero, is finding the moment before Zero.
The moment before Zero is the key that unlocks every scene. It is the imaginary world that informs you where your character was before a scene started and where he’s going after the scene ends. It instructs you as to what your character is thinking when you’re silent. It grounds all improvisation in truth.
Last summer, I was invited to be a guest teacher at a master class with fifty young acting students from all over the world. Before we got into any of the exercises I had planned to do, I opened with the standard, “Before we start, does anyone have any questions?” (In my teaching experience, I have found this ploy invaluable in killing time.)
A young Australian actor eagerly raised his hand. I pointed to him. He asked, “How do you play drunk?” I was stunned into a moment of silence by three things: That this was the first question, the urgency of the question, and that it was asked by a young Australian. In truth, I thought I should be asking him.
I was about to answer when a little voice inside my head said, “Stephen, think before you speak.” So I pulled out my second favorite time-killing tactic used by teachers, I turned the question back onto the class and said, “What would YOU do if you had to be drunk in a scene?” The students looked around to one another for inspiration. Hands sprung up in the air.
The first answer I got was – “You don’t play drunk. When people are drunk they always try to appear sober.” That was a nice answer. It sounded like the voice of experience.
Someone who was an obvious devotee of the great director and acting teacher, Stanislavski, said they would think back to other times when they were drunk, observe drunk people around them, develop a sense-memory of it, and then, bring that memory to life in the scene. Sounded like a lot of work, but it was a reasonable answer.
One fellow was more into the physical and said he would simulate drunkenness by slowing down his speech and making his movements slightly uncoordinated. Without invitation he got up and demonstrated. Rather than appearing drunk, he looked like a character in a Claymation movie.
The real answer resides in the moment before Zero. How do you play drunk? The answer? It depends on why you got drunk in the first place.
In my experience people get drunk for four main reasons: To celebrate, to mourn the loss of someone or something, by accident, and by habit.
As an actor you can decide which one it is. By focusing on why you got drunk, the behavior will take care of itself. You will always be able to find your starting place, handle multiple takes, and to improvise if need be. The moment before Zero informs it all. This process applies to all character work.
In a few days I’m off to San Francisco for a couple of public appearances. Sunday, January 27th, 8pm, I’ll be at Yoshi’s San Francisco. Here’s the SF Sketchfest website (The San Francisco Comedy Festival) with more details and how to get tickets.
Monday, January 28th at 6 pm I’ll be at Book Passage San Francisco, 1 Ferry Building, San Francisco, CA 94111 for a story and book signing. For more information, here’s the Book Passage website.
If you are in the area, I hope you’ll come by one or both!
And finally, below is another article just published for Backstage.com and I have gotten a lot of positive feedback, so I am re-posting here as well. It’s also here at their website.
How to Read a Script As an Actor
I have spent my life reading scripts. Some of them have been good. Most weren’t. But it didn’t matter because I wanted to be in all of them – even the one with the bionic dog. For years, I have taken acting classes and read advice on how to do well in auditions.
I would like to share with you some of the things I’ve learned along the way – tips for auditioning and performing. I hope they help. If not, I hope, at least, they’re not annoying.
The first problem I always have is reading the script. It’s never easy. It’s not that the language is difficult. Good or bad, scripts are always filled with things that are incomprehensible.
For example, I have read many television dramas where the writer has described a character as LAWYER, 40. That’s if the part was written for a man. If the same part was written for a woman, the script will say LAWYER, 34, ATTRACTIVE.
As actors, we read that and move on, not even aware that we are already lost. Personally, I have no idea what any of those descriptions mean in terms of auditioning or playing a part. I don’t know what “LAWYER” means. I don’t know what “40” means. I certainly don’t know what “ATTRACTIVE” means. I’m not joking. This is a first real challenge in working with a script.
Take “LAWYER.” Am I a good lawyer or a bad lawyer? Do I come from a long line of lawyers, or am I the first person in my family that got a college education? The answer may not be in the script. It not only makes a difference, it makes all the difference in the world.
Often the writers and directors aren’t aware of the pockets of nothing that are in their projects. It is the actor’s job to find them and fill that nothing with something – hopefully something truthful. I have found that true always trumps clever.
To do that, we have to be aware of what questions to ask. Then, we have to ask them. None of that is easy. I had an experience that opened my eyes to the power of positive questioning.
I was working on a television movie where I was playing LAWYER. Because it was one of those scripts that was “based on true events,” I was able to do research by calling the real lawyer I was playing. Lucky.
I didn’t think it was appropriate to ask him if he was a good lawyer or a bad lawyer. Instead, I asked him if he always wanted to be a lawyer. He laughed and said, “God, no. Never. I always wanted to be a country-western singer. I always had my guitar in my office. Everybody made fun of me for plucking a tune when I was interviewing my clients.” Talk about a goldmine.
I showed up on the set with my guitar the next day. I talked to the producer and director about my new plan for LAWYER. They were happy to fill in the blank with something that was real.
That was a fluke. Actors almost never get that lucky in creating a character.
So what questions can you ask to try to find your inner “country-western singer”?
When I read a script, I find a good starting place is. What is my profession? Simple. I know. It is not so simple to get at answers that are specific enough to help you create a character. Start with the obvious. What do I do? Then move to the less obvious. Do I do it well? Where do I excel? Where do I fall short? What did I think this job would be? What did it turn out to be? (The honest answers to these questions can also be a good source for comedy.)
If you prefer a more emotionally-based way into a character, there is one I use that never fails. What is my greatest hope? What is my greatest fear? If you can read a script and answer these two questions, you can play anything from Romeo to Juliet. You will be able to improvise, adjust to a director’s notes, and have a good time whether you are attractive or not.
January 12, 2013
The end of one year and the beginning of the next means holidays, Academy screeners, Christmas movies on TCM, and above all, varying levels of discomfort. There are many reasons for this—everything from too many people going exactly where you want to go to getting Christmas cards from realtors.
There are hours of programming already devoted to the pressures of the holiday season. I will keep my comments directed at the uncomfortableness for actors in particular:
1. This is the time of year when auditions dry up.
2. This is the time of year when you look back and wonder what might have been.
3. It is the time of year we look ahead and wonder what pilot season will look like.
4. It is the time when parents and loved ones ask if you are making a mistake with your life.
5. It is hard to enjoy time off when you are already unemployed.
All of this creates doubt. Doubt is a close cousin to fear. It tends to diminish us. When the days grow dark and cold, when the future seems as uncertain as it did last year at this time, I recall the words of an old teacher of mine, Ed Kaye-Martin: “Comfort is the enemy of the artist.”
One thing I tell my students: In improvisation, you have to be your own writer, director, producer, technician, composer, and support staff. However you are not allowed to be your own critic. Being your own critic attacks your will. Stanislavsky said the primary element involved in the creative process is not talent but will.
My New Year’s wish for you all is the gift of will.
December 1, 2012
(Photo here by David Chen.)
September was the Jewish High Holy Days. This is the period of time you are supposed to search your soul and take stock of your life. I was concerned that The Mindy Project was going to have me working on Yom Kippur. I wasn’t sure how to navigate it. The show was so new. I didn’t want to seem like Elton John making demands. As it turned out, all of that worry was for nothing. Before Yom Kippur, I was written out of the show. Yes. The dream job. The moment of “actor heaven.” Now gone. It was devastating—but perfect for Yom Kippur.
Being fired always is embarrassing, financially debilitating, and did I mention embarrassing? The one good thing about it is all of the free liquor you get from friends when you tell them the news.
Fortunately, I still had something to do. I called my publishers in New York and told them I had more time to promote my book, The Dangerous Animals Club. I went back out on the road. I performed in Seattle at the beautiful Moore Theatre for 1,100 people. I performed at an old movie house in Gloucester, Mass., for a couple of dozen hearty souls. I was on my way to the International Storytelling Festival in Ottawa and then off to perform in San Francisco. I recognize this sounds romantic. It is if you like laundromats.
While my wife, Ann, and I were in Gloucester, we wandered into the only place that seemed open early in the morning. It was a Sicilian coffee shop. We ordered cappuccinos and a slice of ricotta pie, for which it was famous. One bite and I was transported. After a sip of the perfect cappuccino, I realized I hadn’t felt heartsick over “Mindy” for at least two weeks. In fact, the show seemed like ancient history. Time can be a great ally. It can make the end of a dream of plenty in the future pale before the joy of really good pie in the present.
I had a lot of time on my hands when I broke my neck. I couldn’t do much but sit in different rooms. If I sat outside I became a bird watcher. If I sat in front of the piano I became a struggling musician scaring the cat. If I sat in front of the computer I became – what? No idea.
Enter David Chen. By chance he asked me onto his film podcast, slashfilm.com for an interview. He seemed like a personable guy. He was a fan of the movie Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party, the storytelling movie I made with Robert Brinkmann. David asked me if I wanted to continue telling stories in a different format. A podcast. Now I knew what I could become sitting at the computer.
David said I could swear. I could be outrageous. I could do anything I wanted. I figured the Internet had plenty of the first two and not nearly enough of the latter. I wrote a story that night. I was happy with it. Then I got another idea: What did I really want to do?
I was almost killed in Iceland on the son-of-a-bitch horse “Little Red.” In an instant I could never have seen my boys again. They would never know who I was. What if I wrote stories about my life – to introduce myself to my children. And tell the stories in a cycle. Stories that overlapped past, present, and future. Nothing sci-fi about it. It’s how we tell a story at a bar.
I began to see three arcs:
1. The beginnings of things.
2. What happens when things go wrong and you have to resort to Plan B.
3. And finally children – the biggest Plan B in anyone’s life. Even if you expect things to change you can never expect how much they will change.
The podcast began forming around these arcs.
Enter Ben Loehnen from Simon and Schuster. I made a book proposal. It got into the hands of several publishers. I had a feeling about Ben. He understood the stories from the git-go. He said that he wanted me to move away from movie-related stories and focus on the larger themed ideas of “The Alchemist” and “Conference Hour.” I began to put the book together from the stories that basically made up the first 25 podcasts of The Tobolowsky Files. The first cycle, the beginnings of things.
As I wrote and re-wrote, I wanted to preserve the ideas that people loved in the podcasts and add any new ideas I had to the stories. That process took almost a year. People who love the podcasts will love the book because they will have many stories they have loved in a readable form with some new material. Readers who know nothing about the podcast will be able to enjoy the stories for the first time.
I am very proud of this book. It always surprises me. Because of the way it moves back and forth through time, it never gives me a chance to settle, and a new part of a story, a new connection between past and present materializes. I end up seeing with clarity a part of my life I never understood before.
I believe that if I tell my story as honestly as possible, we can all relate to the broader truths of things I experienced. That was the theory. If it failed I hoped it would be funny enough to make up the difference.
With love to you, my listeners who have heartened and supported me in telling the stories, to David Chen – good friend and chief goader who kept driving me bigger venues, to Ben Loehnen, my editor, who worked with me to bring the best out in each story, to my agent Jud Laghi who pushed to get the book published, and primarily to my wife Ann – who dealt with me writing at all hours of the day and night for the better part of a year.
I offer this book to you with a lot of joy and a lot of love. We made it to the finish line kids!
August 19, 2012
When you are an actor you get used to long periods of “the same.” If you work in the theater, your life becomes all about getting ready for the opening curtain. During pilot season you get used to the routine of working furiously on auditions—and then praying. The worst are the horrible stretches of “the same” when nothing is happening at all.
This month was not that. Nothing was the same. It was a month unlike any I have had in my life. I was invited to England to sign autographs at a Glee convention in Birmingham. I was given the opportunity to go over early to perform one of my original stories with Cedering Fox’s WordTheatre. I was on a bill with David Soul, Dame Harriet Walter, Alastair Mackenzie, Guy Paul, Damien Molony, John Schwab, and Rebecca Hobbs presenting readings for the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire and an audience of about two hundred at their private estate. Wow. This place was unlike anything I had seen. It was used as a set in the movie Pride and Prejudice. Queen Victoria danced in the ballroom. The stables were bigger than the Glendale Galleria. You had to take an elevator to go to the men’s room.
While my wife and I were up on the windswept moors of Wuthering Heights, we encountered a miracle. We got Internet. While on the Internet I received a Google Alert that I had been added to the cast of The Mindy Project on Fox. Yes, I got a job! Not only a job, but a job with Mindy Kaling, whom I have been a fan of since I first saw her on The Office.
How does an actor celebrate when you are in an isolated, rain-soaked corner of the world? You tell a sheep you got the job. Which I did. This was something else I had never done.
I got back to America on a Monday night with jet lag and a cold. Tuesday, I pretended I was well and started full throttle on The Mindy Project. I went through a sea of publicity, culminating with the Fox upfronts at the Beverly Hilton hotel. Upfronts are like any other loud party except all of the drunk people write for newspapers. I was ushered through a gauntlet of photographers. The first one aimed her camera at me and said, “Just be you.” She focused, refocused, and then lowered the camera with a touch of dissatisfaction and said, “Can you just be you—but more?”
I am working on the show now. What a wonderful group of people. I keep thinking I must have died in the sheep meadows and ended up in actor heaven. The work is hard, but we all look forward to coming back the next day. It doesn’t get better than that.
It’s lucky I got the job, but it’s a blessing to get the opportunity to bring the words of that poor photographer to life. In a way, I guess, it’s the actor’s creed. I get the chance to be myself—but more.
The Human Face of Hollywood
July 14, 2012
This has been a month of many questions and few answers. I have worked on two more episodes of Californication since my last dispatch. I have had two auditions. The results are still floating in the ether and could lead to a job if I’m lucky. My book of stories, The Dangerous Animals Club, is being published by Simon & Schuster (new release date September 25). All of that is positive. It is also only one side of the coin.
The things I’ve mentioned, as wonderful as they sound, have much of their wonder rooted in the world of speculation: the ghostly world filled with dreams of success and the blessed escape from the fear of house payments.
Reality is different.
I am never told if my character on Californication is continuing. I never know if I am in the next script. I usually get a phone call a week before the start of shooting. There is no time to learn lines and prepare with any sort of comfort.
I am certainly out of control on the audition front. I never know when I will get one, and when I do, there is rarely time to prepare for it. It becomes an exercise in controlled terror.
For my book, the publisher is organizing a series of performances. I am trying to put together one-man shows on my own while working on the other projects. It’s overwhelming.
And then I get a call that puts everything in perspective. My father fell in his living room. He broke his leg and needed immediate surgery. I had to drop everything and fly to Texas to be with him.
I called up Tom Kapinos, writer and executive producer on Californication. I said, “Tom, I hate to ask you this, but am I in the next show?” Tom laughed and said, “Yes! You are!” thinking he was giving me an island of relief in my sea of insecurity.
I said, “I have a terrible question to ask you.” Tom said, “Go for it. I love terrible questions.” I told him about my father and that I would have to leave town. Tom instantly responded with a different voice: not the voice of a producer but the voice of one son talking to another son. He said not to worry. They would work around what I needed to do.
The human face of Hollywood is surprising when you see it. But it is always there. It is usually hidden behind the layers of stress that come with last-minute rewrites and continual disappointments. All of us, from the actor to the casting director to the producers to the heads of studios, are driving under the influence — the influence of the madness that comes with this business.
It is comforting to know that the people on the other end of the camera want you to succeed. They want you to have a good day. They have fathers and loved ones and cats and car repairs that are driving them crazy too.
In a month of more questions than answers, I was reminded that the answers I thought would give me peace of mind aren’t answers at all — and the questions aren’t real questions either. They are all part of the noise that distracts us from who we are. Sometimes it takes a phone call to remind us of what that is. In a call from a hospital in Texas I was reminded of what matters. In a call with a producer in Hollywood I was reminded that we’re never alone. It just feels that way sometimes.
And my dad is doing better, thank you.