I was watching a short film on videotape the other day that featured a man playing the part of a dog. My real dog Barkley was lying on the floor next to me. When the man-dog whined, Barkley, who'd been sleeping, looked up instantly and began barking like crazy. It was a form of applause most actors never receive.
Spencer Beglarian is the man-dog. By calling him that, I do not mean to imply that he was abandoned by his parents and raised by wolfhounds. It's just that as an actor, Beglarian's specialty seems to be playing the role of a dog. He's done it three times in a row, and it's beginning to feel a little like trans-species typecasting to him. Or dog-casting.
The videotape was an independent film called "Dog Days." In it, Beglarian is a homeless man who, for reasons never fully explained, thinks he's a dog. He crawls around on all fours, cringes, fetches and pants. The role is played with such conviction that, days later, Barkley is still convinced there is a real dog somewhere behind the television set. He sits for hours staring at the corner, waiting.
After watching "Dog Days," I played a tape of an episode from "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch," in which Beglarian takes the part of a talking dog named Sparky. Unlike the forlorn man-dog in the previous film, Sparky bounces around the room like he's on doggy speed and barks out words like "Food!" and "Walk!" and, when the doorbell rings, "Someone here, someone here!"
Barkley, thank God, was outside chasing the wind or he'd have gone bonkers watching this guy. Talk about getting into a role. Beglarian did everything but urinate on Sabrina's rug.
I met with him in his small Westside apartment after learning of his specialty. It was later that I viewed the two videotaped shows. In addition to them, Beglarian also played the part of a dog in an L.A. theater production of "Stray Dog Story." The fact that he has thrice starred as man's best friend on stage, screen and tube earned him recognition in the New Yorker magazine's Talk of the Town section, which, to an actor, is the emotional equivalent of canonization.
Beglarian is a slightly built, amiable young man who takes acting very seriously. While his master of fine arts degree from Yale probably hasn't been a requirement for the level of acting he has thus far achieved, I'm sure it will help him in the future, whether or not he remains on all fours.
While speaking with Beglarian, I decided there was something slightly canine in his manner, a trait no doubt perceived in the first place by a smart casting director. Not that he slobbers or wags his tail, but he does project a kind of easy, offhanded mannerism that some dogs (not mine) possess. You want to pat him and say, "Good dog." Or, "Good Beglarian."
While he doesn't own a dog now, he had one all of his growing-up years in Hancock Park and felt that, as a kid, he communicated with them. It wasn't a mind-meld, like Spock on "Star Trek," but an emotional link that children often share with their pets. Today, Beglarian walks the dogs of pet owners in his apartment building and studies them to prepare for the roles he plays.
In "Stray Dog Story," he adopted the "physicality and rhythms" of the director's high-energy Jack Russell terrier. As I sat and watched, Beglarian demonstrated his interpretation of a terrier by assuming an eager and expectant expression. His body quivered and his eyes widened as his gaze darted around the room, diverted dog-like toward every ambient sound. Then, sensing food, he cried "Meat!" in a panting, begging voice, "Meat!" It was an amazing performance. If I'd had a dog biscuit, I'd have given it to him.
"I fought for that role," Beglarian said, slipping easily into his human mode. I was going to ask if, after a number of years playing a dog, it is becoming more and more difficult to become a human again, but I didn't. "It was a challenge. I'm a character actor, and if I must be typecast, what better role than the symbol of man's best qualities?"
Beglarian's interests go far beyond dogs. As a screenwriter, his short film "Audit" premiered as an official selection of the L.A. Film Festival recently and was reshown in an encore presentation at a Laemmle theater. A feature screenplay he wrote has been optioned by a Hollywood production company. He also teaches and directs.
But it is as a dog that Beglarian triumphs as far as I'm concerned. While I regard "Sabrina" as one of the less challenging shows on television, I nonetheless appreciated the furtive, frantic Sparky that Beglarian portrayed. He reminded me of my own dog, a happy, enthusiastic, misdirected and loving English springer spaniel whose primary function in life is eating. For Barkley, it is always lunch time.
Beglarian sees "Dog Days" as symbolic of how we treat each other. The homeless man becomes a dog because as a dog, someone will feed him. As a homeless man, he too often goes hungry. "I wonder," Beglarian muses, "do people treat dogs better than people?"
I treat man and dog with equal generosity. If Beglarian should come to my door on all fours, whining and cringing, I'd figure that he was just another down and out Topanga cowboy thirsty for a shot of Jack Daniels with a beer back and ask him in. Here's looking at you, Fido. Woof, slurp, right out of the bowl.
Al Martinez's column appears Mondays and Thursdays. He can be reached at email@example.com.