Dear Jaqui, A Letter to An Actress
by Marvin Payne
I knew I would like this kid just from her e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org (domain changed to protect the innocent–it was the screen name I liked. It wouldn’t work for everybody, though, like if your name was maybe “Vera.”) The subject line was “Eternal Dilemma,” which I found kind of compelling–compelling enough to open it, anyway. This column isn’t as goofy as most of what I write for Meridian. Call it a manifestation of my Kieth Merrill envy. Maybe you can find your “Backstage Graffiti Humor Quota” in my general presumption and high-horsedness. I hope the actress whose dad suggested me as a fountain of advice will forgive me.
The encouraging thing about most dilemmas is that they’re not, in fact, eternal. But I can feel your frustration in the here and now. I’m flattered that anyone at your house thought I might be helpful. But at least I’ve been hustling a kind of a living out of being a song-and-dance man for about thirty years, so what the heck.
[This is you, Jaqui, in brackets. (Sounds like an album title, “Jaqui, In Brackets”–have you thought of a career in songwriting, instead?) You began with something about “how difficult it seems to be Mormon and a passionate artist.”]
Once I was asked to address a retreat of hot young performers from BYU, kids who would (and have) gone on to Broadway gigs and national theatre tours. I’d been in shows with some of them, plus I have this kind of local reputation, mostly for longevity. They’d asked me (not in these words, precisely) to talk about how it is to work in theatre pretty much in spite of being LDS, because they saw those two states of being at variance with each other. I think I kind of surprised them by talking instead about how I earnestly believe that their spirituality (not just “spirituality,” but their spirituality, Restoration of the Gospel spirituality) is and ever will be their competitive advantage as performers.
Two folks are auditioning for the same role. The look of each would work fine; they have the same level of artistic chops. The part will go (if the audition is fair) to the player who is both more deeply rooted and more bravely and eagerly reaching, like a tree. The believing Latter-day Saint has a span of roots and branches that make other players of equal skill look like bits of tree-trunk floating in mid-air. (Maybe very devout Jews could come close, but mainly in the roots part of the metaphor.)
Shakespeare wrote plays with complex, uprooted tragic heroes whose destruction moves us. But in each of his tragedies, there are also characters of constancy, simpler characters who will not be “tossed to and fro with every wind of doctrine.” There are lots of modern Hamlets cluttering up the industry, but Shakespeare was able to resonate so truly and deeply because he was, himself, part Hamlet and part Horatio. Shakespeare was, himself, the nutty Lear and also the steady Edgar. Without goodness and truth clearly present on stage, the misunderstanding of goodness and truth isn’t interesting, only confusing. A very high level of Horatio-ness and Edgar-ness kind of comes bundled with genuine church membership.
[“It seems incredibly naive of me to imagine that I can get anywhere doing anything except “Singles Ward” and Seminary film genre…and maybe a voice-over for veggietales.”]
(Actually, I would consider a voice-over for Veggietales a pretty cool gig, but instead I wrote,)
This is hard to address because I don’t know where you mean by “anywhere.” Let me just recklessly address it anyway. I have a resume that I feel great about. I couldn’t make a living by merely acting–I have to write, make music, and help people with their creative projects as well, with consultation, critique, and simple production logistics. But I have a resume that I feel great about.
Not long after I stumbled into acting (about age thirty-three) I began to be taken seriously by agents and wondered if I should move back to Los Angeles, where I grew up. But in my conversations with folks who had done just that, it gradually became apparent to me that the general definition of success down there is landing a recurring role in a sitcom. Or as the mayor who walks on in a network movie and makes a speech and then disappears. Or, if you’re really lucky, a player in movies that your agent thinks are good for you but that you might feel embarrassed about if anybody actually saw them, plus lots of commercials. So I didn’t go. That was a while ago–now you can stay right in Utah and do all that same stuff, and I did some here. But I’m fifty-five years old–I’m not rich, by any means, but I can do other constructive things (most of them artistic) to keep body and soul together, and so I suddenly find myself not looking forward to my agent’s phone calls, because most of them will be to ask if I want to be part of something that, at best, will have very little value, will have very little purpose beyond providing an attention-holder between commercial messages on network television.
Did I say I have a resume that I feel great about? That’s because I’ve learned three questions that I ask myself before taking anything on. They are: 1) Does it pay well? 2) Will the piece make a difference for good? and 3) Will I grow as an actor? If the answer to any two of the above are “yes” maybe I’ll take the part. One “yes” doesn’t make it worth time away from my family.
I recently did 56 performances as the King in “The King and I” for (a great deal of money that I can’t, by contract, reveal) and loved every minute, eight shows a week. It was a wondrous experience, stretching me enormously as an actor. I recently did about 20 performances of a new play about the trial of the murderers of Joseph Smith, plus made a video version of it several months later, for (a fraction of the “King and I” check). It was a more wondrous experience. And few roles come as close to the wondrous kick of conducting the annual Alpine Community Christmas Choral Concert, which is lots of planning, lots of rehearsals, and a production at the stake center, which I do for free.
But we’re talking here, all the way through, about, in your words, “the stuff that makes you thirsty for more. The stuff that either makes people’s sides hurt from laughing, or eyes wet from crying, or just leaving the place with a general appreciation for the beauty of life and the arts.”
(Quick tangent: I have the feeling that anything that sends people from the theatre feeling primarily an appreciation for the beauty of the arts is like gathering people around a beautifully proportioned and finely crafted window and forgetting to point out the breathtaking reality it allows them to see on the other side of the glass. Art is a window, and windows are to look through, not at.)
[“I mean, it’s hypocritical, isn’t it? Theatre is meant to reflect life. The watered-down flowery stuff can’t really be called a masterpiece. LIFE is full of things we shouldn’t do and say and think. To perform with integrity is to acknowledge those human faults that make us.human–the stuff like swearing and nudity and vulgarity and homosexuality. And so I say, ‘Alright. I won’t do that because of my religion. But SOMEONE has to, so YOU do it and I’ll pretend that I think you’re evil for it.’ It just doesn’t seem to quite work.”]
You asked a direct question in there. Let me dance around, suggesting indirect answers. “Human” is good to be. Lots of things make me glad to be human. There are certain things which make me feel somehow “more” human, in terms of understanding who we are, what we have to overcome, what amazing gifts are sown in us to help us realize glory. Swearing, nudity, vulgarity, and homosexuality have never made me feel more human, with the possible exception of nudity. These things have, in fact, invariably made me feel less human. C.S. Lewis contends that the Adversary will point out to us everything that is miserable, temporary, selfish, and ugly, and say “See? That’s reality!” whereas the Savior will point out to us everything that is gentle, lasting, giving, and sublime, and say “See? That’s reality!” Of course, the second chapter of Second Nephi helps us understand the necessity of opposition in all things, and evil in the theatre has no value if it’s unreal or merely parody. But I have little patience with art that’s “about” evil. Maybe that’s just a taste thing–I’ve been pretty subjectively personal in this paragraph.
[“I’m writing to you because… in school I am beginning to be faced with the sorts of situations where I am confronted with.say a script that calls for me to say the ‘f’ word or something.”]
Eddie Murphy is not the guy I go to to learn how to speak good. Seldom does the Eddie Murphy word really help anybody in the audience understand anything on stage. But playwrights who don’t even speak it in real life think it’s fun to write. (Pardon me for thinking that this is hopelessly puerile. The last time a warning came onto the screen while I was watching PBS that “the following program contains adult language” I wanted to fire off a letter saying, “How dare you call that ‘adult’ language? It’s junior high school language! It’s Eddie Murphy language! It’s adolescent language!”)
Jaqui, this is a tough thing to say, but the problem here is not between you and the world of theatre. How many of the scripts you are required to do in college are actually attended by people who go to plays? And are those people the kind of people you are?
Nope. What people are coming to see are me and a bunch of cute little kids in “The King and I.” And my job is not to give them a Yul Brynner xerox. My job is to give them a person so alien to their western experience that they fear, dislike, and distrust him–but by the time his conflict with inner change actually kills him, people understand why, and cry a little bit, and go away from the theatre wanting to repent of whatever it is inside them that might kill them when they confront mercy, forgiveness, and humility.
Sure, there are coteries in New York who eagerly gobble up the kind of writing you are being dragged through in class. But I have long ago abandoned any loyalty to the idea that New York, or all the little New Yorks around the country, are a very big part of what might be called the real world. The problem is between you and your school. I can’t help much there, because I never went to school to learn any of what I’m doing. (And no one who has cast me has ever asked if I did.)
[“You can say that acting is acting, but I don’t think it really is. Regardless of how convincingly you play the character, you’re still YOU underneath.”]
This is a beautiful thing you have written. I believe it. As Sweeney Todd, as Chieftain of a murderous neo-Nazi band, as the drunken, swearing, corrupt attorney who prosecuted the killers of the Prophet Joseph, I believe it.
[“Where do you draw the line? Why do you draw it there?”]
I don’t know. Anecdote: I’m playing a factory executive who won’t let his employees have Christmas off. I meet Santa Clause (Charles Durning) and I’m supposed to say “Oh my (Lord’s name in vain)! You ARE Santa Clause!” I pulled the director aside and asked “Is this the best way to articulate what’s going on inside this character?” He looked at it and said, “Of course not, what were they thinking?” And I ad-libbed something in the scene that was actually both revealing and entertaining.
That doesn’t always work. I have a young friend, daughter of a professional actor, a kid whose family I used to home teach. She’s in the throes of a several-years-long lawsuit with the University of Utah because they couldn’t get themselves to say “Of course not, what were they thinking.” Of course, that was university classes. Mine was an actual movie. Hmm… can you say “real world”?
Another anecdote: I was cast in a healthy little role in a film for national theatrical release. The directors at the audition seemed like really nice guys. The scene they gave me to read was a high school coach who at the bench right before the game says some pretty fine things to his team and even leads them in prayer. It wasn’t hokey, it was kind of beautiful. I took the role with a grin. Then they sent me a whole script. I turned the page and the very next thing he shouts at his team (after the “amen”) encouraged the team to do something to the other team that was anatomically impossible, let alone embarrassingly crude. I handed in my script at the costume fitting. Like I said, I have a resume I feel great about (the Charles Durning movie is near the bottom of it). I want to keep feeling great about it.
[“Do you think it’s possible to be a faithful Mormon actor without being a flaming hypocrite?”]
Yes. Just remember the guy in “Chariots of Fire” who could run like thunder when he felt God’s pleasure. Very few of your colleagues will understand that, but that’s their problem. Your problem is to remain you, while being kind to them.
[“Is it nave of me to dream of “succeeding” (whatever that means) in a non-Mormon culture in what seems to me one of the most morally-destructive professions?”]
One of my favorite directors, war-weary and daily more interested in gardening, stays in theatre because she finds it to be one of the most moral ways to make a living. You produce, the audience pays. You tell the truth, the audience hears it. I look to theatre, and my life in it, to be a most morally-constructive profession.
You do, though, have to figure out what you mean by “succeeding.” For me to call myself a “success” would make a lot of people laugh. Others would say, “Well, heck yes! I came to that one thing you were in, and…”
[“How do you love the art and the religion at the same time?”]
Maybe you don’t. Maybe what you love is the light playing on the peaks, and you’re merely grateful and really glad that God lent you such a nice camera and that you’ve worked hard to learn how to operate it so well. After all, when people see the picture you took, they won’t say, “What a nice camera you must have had!” or “You’re a heck of a photographer!” What you want them to say is simply, “Wow! Look at that light!”
Jaqui, you’re a precious soul. Remember what you dreamed aloud to me about, and hold up all that you’re asked to do against that dream:
[“…the stuff that makes you thirsty for more. The stuff that either makes people’s sides hurt from laughing, or eyes wet from crying, or just leaving the place with a general appreciation for the beauty of life…”]
Break a leg,
“…come unto Christ, and lay hold upon every good gift…” (from the last page of the Book of Mormon)
2004 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.