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.
Simulated Sex and Laughs on the Set of ‘Californication’
JUNE 9, 2012
This week I got to work on “Californication” again, which means I got to shoot another simulated sex scene with Pam Adlon. I’d have to say out of everyone in the world I would want to have simulated sex with, Pam is at the top of the list. We have a difficult time getting through a scene. We’re laughing too hard. There’s nothing wrong with that. Unless you are laughing during simulated sex, you’re not doing it right.
But it brings up an interesting problem — besides signing the legal document beforehand stipulating that no part of me will enter any part of Pam at any time or I will be sued. What about the problems actors have on the set when they are having too much fun?
These problems are a lot sneakier than dealing with shooting under difficult conditions, be it a night shoot, a confused director, an ego-driven star, or a trained dog. When times are tough, it is easier to marshal your concentration for the tasks at hand.
Take my unique situation on “Californication.” This is the sixth season and the third season I’ve worked on the show. It’s the same cast, crew, writers, and directors — a big family. When I showed up on the set for the first time this season, everyone came up to welcome me. It was a wonderful feeling. They called us in to rehearse. The cameramen and sound technicians hugged me or patted me on the back. When she saw me, Pam screamed, ran up, and gave me a huge squeeze.
I had worked with the episode director, John Dahl, several times in the last two years. He is clear, fast, and fun to work with — like all of the directors on the show. He greeted me warmly and asked how everything was going. I talked about my wife, Ann, and what the kids were doing. He talked a little about what he had been up to the last few months. Then he said, “Shall we rehearse one?”
Oh yeah. Work. I forgot.
Pam and I went through the first part of the action for camera positions. I realized I wasn’t in the right place to do the scene — the right place in my head. My focus had been sabotaged by comfort. In spite of the good times, I had to find the beginning of the scene.
John came up and said, “Do we need another rehearsal? Want to just shoot one?” Pam yelled out “Shoot!,” which I totally agreed with on a theoretical level. You don’t want to overrehearse a comedy scene, even if it is a scene that is filled with grief and remorse, like the one we were about to shoot.
I stood outside the front door and got ready to make my entrance when more crew people came up, shook my hand, and told me how happy they were to see me back on the show. It was hard not to feel good from all of the love, but in this case it was counterproductive.
I had to pull out one of my oldest but most tested techniques for focusing: I said I needed to run to the restroom. No one will ever say no.
I ran to the bathroom and locked the door. I took a moment to feel the quiet and mentally get to the moment when I knock on my ex-wife’s door to apologize. I secured the starting place in my head and ran down the stairs and called out to John, “Thanks. I needed that. I’m ready to go.”
He called “Action!” I knocked. Pam opened the door. I looked into her eyes and said my first line. And the rest is part of Season 6 — simulated sex and all.
A month has passed and I have doubled the amount of auditions I have had since my last entry. Now I have had two. Two. Two auditions since the beginning of the year. These are the times that drive every actor crazy.
I called my manager and asked how things were going. I guess I was putting out the scent of desperation because he immediately cut to the chase and said, “Slow.” I said, “Slow. Or slow for me?” He laughed and said, “Slow for everyone!” (which in manager-speak means slow for me).
I try to tell myself that these times can also be an opportunity. It is a chance to focus on things that you can’t focus on when auditions are falling out of the trees. It just takes a while to remember what those things are.
Here is a quick list of some of mine that I have worked on recently.
It is a chance to read. Not just for pleasure but for research. I try to read a great piece of literature I missed in my misspent college years. In great writing, there are inspiring themes that have come in handy on auditions. Can the works of Seneca help on a sitcom audition? Can Charles Dickens help on the first day on a “Law & Order” set? The answers are yes and yes. It’s strange but true. You are what you eat, and George Eliot has almost zero calories.
It is a chance to review my teaching. I teach improv and comedy for Kalmenson & Kalmenson, the voice-casting agents. When I have downtime, I review the notes on past classes and think of things to try in upcoming classes. It keeps me fresh and hopefully enables me to bring something new to my students each session.
I try to take an honest look at my strengths and weaknesses. In the heat of battle, when you are auditioning and meeting producers and directors, it is not the best time to criticize yourself. You need all of your strength and confidence for the tasks at hand. A lull is a perfect time for gentle self-evaluation. I ask myself: What is easy for me to do? What is hard? Why is it hard? Is it hard because I am not working on something I should be working on? What used to be easy that has gotten more difficult? Why?
This month I realized I have changed in the way I approach an audition. It has been harder for me to get out of my writer-director head and just work on the script I have in front of me. I can’t think of a single producer who wants to hear script notes from an actor on a first audition. Things like that will get you put on the “naughty list” when pilot season comes around again.
I have focused a lot of energy this month on my book, “The Dangerous Animals Club.” Word of advice for future authors: Writing is hard. Rewriting is a killer.
The book will be out in August. That’s when I am supposed to start a book tour. I am accepting prayers from any and all denominations. Until we meet again …
March 2, 2012. I am headed back to Los Angeles after performing the Tobolowsky Files live as a fundraiser for the International Film Festival Boston – and at the Bell House in Brooklyn – as a fundraiser for me. The Files are stories I began writing when I was recovering from a broken neck four years ago. The project is a portrait of what actors always have to do: make lemonade when you have lemons. In my case it was making lemonade in a neck brace.
Following the theory that one thing often leads to another, David Chen at Slashfilm.com recorded the stories. They became a popular download on iTunes. They were picked up by public radio, most notably KUOW in Seattle and WFPL in Louisville. That led to a book deal with Simon and Schuster. Now they have become a one-man theatrical performance.
The actor has a series of interesting problems in performing a one-man show. The most inescapable one is that you are the show. Everything. The audience becomes aware of this after about eight seconds. The performer must stay ahead of them. There are several ways of doing this. Some actors rely on technical elements like changing lights, costumes, sets, or props.
I choose not to do this for one reason: I don’t want the success of my performance in the hands of an unknown technical crew with a one-hour mike check and lighting rehearsal right before the house opens. I want the burden of the show’s rhythm in my hands.
Financially, I am returning home with a box office percentage in my wallet. After paying hotels, meals, airfare, the theater’s cut, and David Chen’s cut I have netted a negative $200.
However, at the Boston show I was given a set of Davy Crockett drinking glasses from Nancy Campbell, one of the directors of the fundraiser. At the Brooklyn show, I met several of the fans of the podcast who have been ardent listeners for the last two years. I had a beer with my editor from S&S and my literary agent. I met a man who flew from Poland to meet me because of the story I wrote about Auschwitz, where his grandparents were killed.
So when you add it all up, I figure I am deeply into profit. An actor can never discount the value of experience. It can keep you warm on cold nights, too.