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Learn to Act Like the Person You Really Want to Be

October 22, 2006|Michael Raysses | Michael Raysses is a writer, actor and NPR commentator.

Seventeen years ago, I unloaded my worldly possessions from my tiny Toyota into an even smaller apartment and began to pursue my dream of becoming an actor. I imagined the kinds of roles I wanted to portray: the Wacky Ethnic Guy, the Mercurial Ethnic Guy, the Wacky-but-Potentially-Mercurial Ethnic Guy. But I wasn't being offered any roles, so I jumped at the chance to do a small part in a large studio film. My character's name? "Guy in Elevator." Close enough.

I was going to make my big-screen debut in a scene with Gary Oldman. The scene took place in an elevator, and though there were several extras, it involved just the two of us.

As we were introduced, I wasn't the least bit nervous about working with a man whose dramatic gifts could have been daunting to a newcomer like myself. I must be a good actor, I remember thinking, because you can't act with someone if you are intimidated by them or their talent.

As it turned out, the first shot of the day was my close-up. I was flattered--I got to go first. I found out later that I was first to give the other actors time to wake up. Not a problem, I thought. I welcomed the chance to flex my untested thespianic muscles. Before I knew what was happening, though, I was on set, the sticks were up and we were rolling. In a swirl of noise and motion, we did a first take so quickly that I felt like a spun top. Just as we were about to do a second take, though, Oldman leaned in and whispered in my ear.

"This is really hard to do first thing in the morning--you're doing great!"

I don't know that I have ever wanted to kiss a man, but in that instant he validated what I was feeling, liberating me to excel.

He later asked me to join him for lunch, and I gladly accepted, thinking we'd eat in his trailer. But he wanted to eat on the studio lot instead. So we went to a concession stand and ate while sitting at a picnic table. Tourists drifted by, staring at us, thinking, "Gee, there is Gary Oldman with no one famous." While we ate I got the urge to confess how over my head I'd felt earlier that morning. I had working-class roots and had never formally studied acting.

Oldman told me about his childhood--how he grew up in a home that didn't have an indoor toilet, how he'd never set foot in a restaurant until he was 16. But all that changed when he made his screen debut in "Sid and Nancy." Virtually overnight, he became a star--jetting around the world, marrying Uma Thurman. And the entire time all he wanted to do was scream in the faces of all those people who were now clamoring to hear what he thought on any given topic merely because he had become Gary Oldman, Famous Actor Guy. He knew not one of them would have given him the time of day if he hadn't been plucked from obscurity by dint of Lady Luck's random touch.

From then on, all the images of the various roles I had devised were drained of any meaning for me. Instead, I began to contemplate a role that had never crossed my mind until that moment--myself. I could just choose to be me. Because isn't that every human being's ultimate role, actor or otherwise--to find themselves while living with the consequences?

And if that's hard for you to do, try acting like you understand. Take it from an Ethnic Guy Who Knows--you may be pleasantly surprised.

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