Thursday, August 2, 2012

Working with actors

I've had many opportunities to work with actors, mostly on episodic TV and on a few movies. They come in all shapes and sizes and attitudes.  Some are nice, some aren't and some are just hard to get along with.

I always thought that of all the jobs in film, actors have it the hardest. They get picked for a variety of reasons, they're good, they're pretty, they're not pretty and a whole lot more things that directors and producers are looking for.

And when they're working, sparks can fly and not the romantic ones. Rather it becomes a game of topping the other one. I watched two comedians on a show I wrote going at each other, trying to be funnier. It was funny for awhile and then it changed into something really dark as they hammered at each other with lines that cut harder and harder.

Working on a series brings a writer into the world of politics and power. I worked on a series about a waitress who helps a private detective (remember that genre?) in her off time. The role of the detective was played by a well-known character actor. It was evident from the beginning that the character actor was a far better actor than the star.

The star became "difficult" to us, which really was her way of getting attention. In table readings, the character actor was really good and the star attempted to do what he did but it didn't really work at all.

Not all actors can act well and character actors are a saving grace for writers because they not only can act, they can help you write better. Table readings happen when you get the entire cast together to read a new script around a table. There's usually questions and discussions.,

It became apparent that the character actor was liked by all the actors, especially the ones who were there for just one show. What happens in these readings can really be difficult when one actor says his line doesn't work. Immediately the other actors feel they also have to question the screenplay.  This can become a battle.

The character actor was smart, since everyone looked up to him, he'd say he was fine with the script and leave it at that. That way competition for attention didn't really occur. But afterwards the character actor would see the writers in their office and offer his notes.  It's a little sneaky, but saves discussing dialog for hours with every cast member.

Working on a series gives a writer an idea of which actor is better, which one they can count on and which one to avoid. You learn who can handle the dialog better and you tend to write for them more. Competition among actors is brutal sometimes.

On the other hand, actors can save a writer. It happened to me on a movie we filmed in Europe with an actress who played captain in a Star Trek series. I had seen her in the hotel restaurant and introduced myself and she asked me to join her. She was smart and good and she knew the business and didn't have to prove anything.

Later in the movie, I wrote a big dialog scene for her and with her, it was around 7 pages which is a lot for an actor to learn. Most scenes are half a page or a page or two. We worked on it for a few days and then it was ready to shoot.

However the executive producer thought it was too long and told me to edit it. I said it wasn't and that she and the network were fine. This became a disagreement with him and I. I would not change it.  To spell it out more, I was working for the network not him.

When the day came to shoot the scene I was in the hotel lobby when the actress saw me and approached. She asked why I changed the scene. Someone had rewritten the scene from 7 pages to 2 pages. She was furious. It didn't take me long to figure out it was the exec producer who actually had his secretary write the new scene and place it with the 1st assistant director who handles the scenes.

The assistant director then called me and asked why I changed it. I told him I didn't. Now they were almost ready to shoot and didn't know what to do, obey their boss or me and the woman.

There's something I left out about the actress. She was the star, and she was also the lead in a Star Trek series. What this means is she has power. 

She showed up on set with my original pages and said those were the pages we would film. Needless to say the director listened to her.  I burned a bridge with that executive producer and to this day,  I was never sorry. 

There are a lot of egos in this business on all sides and it all comes down to one thing; we're all chasing that dream and when you consider that the "dream" is something you can't touch or see or feel until it becomes real.

Kind of silly, really, we're just a bunch of kids who never grew up.  But without us, it would be a boring world.


  1. I enjoyed reading this post. It's like a glimpse of a life that many scriptwriters only dream about. I am curious though - you seem to be fond of character actors. Do you like most character actors? Are they generally like the character actor you're describing in this post?

  2. Theresa, thanks for the idea, I posted a piece on character actors on Aug13