An Older Actor Follows a New Script
A background performer adjusts to early hours and unexpected perceptions
The cliché of becoming stuck in your ways as you age was never true with me. I've been like that since birth. Boundaries were my friend, the narrower, the better — no improv for me, thank you. Just give me my well-worn script to follow. Why take a chance on something new when the familiar was, well, so familiar?
My laissez-faire approach was put to the test when, at age 60, I became a background actor in New York, reporting to different worksites with new tasks, colleagues and supervisors each day. But as time passed, I realized that I was perfectly capable of things I once thought impossible — and I'm not talking about pretending to be lawyers, doctors or State Department officials (on prime time television only, for the which the world can be entirely grateful).
Admittedly, none of my victories compare to, say, parachuting, skiing the black diamond lanes or even a weekend driving trip (don't get me started on reading maps). However, for me it's like raising the flag at Iwo Jima, only in a television studio in Brooklyn, with the sound of gunfire added in post-production.
New Subway Routes
Let's start with the simple act of just living in New York. Having moved here in 1981, my knowledge of the city consisted primarily of the Upper East Side, Midtown West and Greenwich Village. Of the city's 10 subway lines, I regularly rode only two, and always in a straight line.
In other words, Vasco da Gama I was not.
That all changed with my career jump. Without exaggeration, I've traveled more subway lines and visited more neighborhoods in the last two years than I did the previous 35. Orthodox Jewish areas of Williamsburg that resemble Eastern Europe circa 1850; up-and-coming hipster neighborhoods like Red Hook; from Queens to the Bronx, Harlem to Prospect Park — I'm finally knowing the city I've lived in for over half my life.
Need some directions before you enter the subway? I can give you four choices, advise you where to sit to access the closest transfer or exit, even which stations offer the loudest live music (Union Square and Times Square; don't say you weren't warned). This from a guy who got the shakes when going beyond a 20-block range of my neighborhood.
Major Change in Work Hours
Another drastic change concerned the working hours in a profession where the phrase “9 to 5” is strictly a movie title. Being a morning person, I didn't have a problem getting up at 6 a.m. to arrive on the job at 7 a.m.
But talking with other background actors, I heard horror stories of 4 a.m. call-times, 15-hour workdays, and frequent overnight shoots. And then there were the early mornings when the production provided transportation for shoots 90 minutes upstate.
No way, I thought. I was going to keep as close to regular working hours — and home — as possible.
Until I didn't.
Waking up pre-dawn or returning home at 2:30 in the morning became, if not the norm, at least the expected. My greatest triathlon came when I worked from 4 p.m. Friday to 4:45 a.m. Saturday, followed by a 3:30 a.m. call (under a rain machine!) on Sunday, then waking at 4 a.m. on Monday for a 6 a.m. call in Queens, where I spent 10 hours outside on a cold, windy, overcast day.
If I had heard about that kind of a long weekend, I'd have thought, I couldn't do that. And yet I did, and lived to tell the tale — over and over again, as my wife could attest.
A Shocking Experience
But there's one “learning moment” that's come as the biggest shocker. Once in a while, I've played one-half of a couple walking down the street. And each time, I've wondered why the assistant directors kept pairing me off with such old women. What was the matter with the young redhead?
To my old, bespectacled eyes, it was a severe case of miscasting. To the young 20/20 vision of the assistant directors, however, we looked perfectly normal together. You know why? These women were all my age.
That's actually the drawback of feeling younger than you are; you're under the impression that you are younger as well. After doing this job long enough, I finally realized how I look to someone else. Make that how I look, period.
The thinning hair, droopy eyelids, the sagging skin under the chin all make themselves quite loudly known the minute I step on the set. And I suddenly go from what I thought was a swinging 40-year-old to a codger chasing those darned kids off my lawn.
Setting the alarm clock for 3 a.m. or working through the darkest night; traveling to faraway neighborhoods or towns I've never heard of; standing around outdoors in a 17-degree wind chill all day — no problem! But accepting how I really look? I couldn't possibly do it.
Until I could.
I'll let you know when it happens.