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Salsa Dancing With My Eyes Closed
Right before COVID, I began Salsa lessons. The Instructor spun me around, he kept insisting, “Look for me. Look for me.” Let’s face it, Salsa done well is sensuous and sexy. However, what I didn’t realize until my Salsa lessons was that my resistance to “look for” him had everything to do with the dance, yes, and, for me, a lot more to do to with vulnerability.
“Look for me?” No thanks. It’s too personal, too revealing, too intimate.
As I began to lower my super-secret invisibility screen over my eyeballs, I realized that as an actor and human being that I had never really unabashedly looked into eyes of another or unabashedly allowed my eyes to be similarly revealed.
And I honestly didn’t know what I was afraid of. Revealing too much of myself through my eyes? Seeing his reaction (assuming the negative but even more terrifying if it was positive) to me in his eyes? Or taking in what his eyes were telling me about him.
At the same time, I needed to know. So…I decided to go for it.
And as he and I stood still, face to face, eyes to eyes for a minute or two, I gradually noticed a light emanating from his eyes. He silently showed me these tiny radiant bits of his soul, and I began to relax because I figured it meant he didn’t have a plan to annihilate me.
As soon as I decided to reveal the radiant bits of my soul, let our eyes touch and take each other in, I began to cry.
As soon as I decided to allow my eyes speak to his, I lifted from my small frightened perspective into a more expansive peaceful place.
As soon as I decided to let our eyes Salsa dance together, I swayed to the rhythm of our.silent connection. His eyes became a kaleidoscope of colors, morphing from bluer than purple, to green, to brown, to hazel, to black and back again. I saw all of humanity in his eyes. And I knew I had all of humanity in mine.
Miracles are abundant when we really see each other. Your miracle becomes mine, and mine becomes yours.
Now I relish the opportunity to partner with another human being; in film, on stage and in real life. I hear my Instructor’s voice, “Look for me.”
And I do with one small addition. I look for us.
About 5 years ago, at my first SAG-AFTRA commercial callback, I was excited and ready! I made sure that I was extra perfect that day. I got my hair blown-out, I got my nails done, I did a pretty good job on my makeup. I even got a parking spot on the street right outside the casting office! I remember thinking, “This is my day!” I was feeling 100% ready.
In my first audition for this spot, we were told to wear a bridesmaid’s dress. I show up in my dress and heels, my hair is done, I am camera ready! I sign in and take a seat. I look around and see that everyone is wearing shorts and t-shirts, except for a few middle age women who are wearing dresses. I think to myself, okay, I usually play 35-40ish and these women are 50-60ish but maybe they want a range of ages for this role. Fine.
I wait, I wait. The women in dresses go in and come out. Then they start bringing in the actors in shorts and t-shirts. The casting director comes out and looks at me strangely but he just keeps bringing in other actors. I’m starting to get worried because it’s been over an hour and my parking meter is going to expire. I really don’t want to get a ticket but hey, it’ll be worth the ticket if I go in and do a great job at this audition. So finally the casting director comes out, looks me up and down, says my name, and also calls 2 other actors who are wearing shorts and t-shirts. We go in and the entire team is there. Not just the casting team but the advertising executives, the copywriters, everyone.
Then the casting director explains that we are at a backyard barbecue and that we’re playing touch football. What?! So I chime in, laughing it off like it’s no biggie. “Oh, I thought I was called back for the bridesmaid part” “Nope.” He says. Annoyed that I didn’t get the memo, and not giving me any leeway or any heads up in advance in case I had something else to change into. I mean, I was sitting there for over an hour! I could have changed! I could have ran around the corner and bought a pair of shorts and a t-shirt. Why wasn’t I told?!
But I smile like the good little actress I try to be. Compliant and easy going. Easy breezy. And I say, “Okay.” So I begin to play catch in my dress and heels… and let me tell you that I also cannot throw a football. I’m pretty athletic but I cannot play touch football or any football. But I would have done my research had I known that my callback was for a backyard bbq football game. I would have worked with someone to teach me how to throw and catch a football! Because that’s my job. So there I am making a fool of myself and shrugging my shoulders. I decide to try to make it funny that I’m wearing this dress and no one is laughing. No one. I am met with icy stares and a big thank you without a smile. Which means, get out. You suck. (Sigh)
So I leave, and as I’m leaving I suddenly remember that my car will most likely have a ticket and I say to myself that’s okay. It happens. I walk outside, it’s raining and I’m still in a dress, with heels, and I don’t have an umbrella. I walk over to the car and not only is there a ticket but there is a CLAMP. A clamp on my tire! Apparently not only did I go over the time period, I also was parked too close to the hydrant. It’s starting to rain harder now and don’t know what to do. I see a police car and wave them down and they look at me with some pity and some disgust, this privileged looking lady in her dress complaining about her little black Audi being clamped.They want to laugh. I want to cry. They tell me I have to go pay the $300 ticket and then come back to the spot and they will remove the clamp. My mascara is running as I walk up the window at this god-forsaken place and they have no pity and no sense of humor. I pay and cab back to my car. It gets unclamped and I drive home. But when I pick up the kids and we go grab some dinner, I look at them and tell myself it doesn’t matter. There will be better days. And there are and have been and will be. And no, I didn’t book the job, but hey, I now know how to play touch football in heels!
Acting Outside The Box
Several years ago a friend of mine was casting a pilot and wanted me to read for one of the roles. He sent me the script, I opened it and said, “This role is for a man.” He said, “Hear me out.” He wanted to cast this role outside the box and told the director he wanted to bring a woman in to read for the part. The director wasn’t sold on it, but was apparently intrigued because he agreed to see me. The character was really wacky and out there (think Chris Meloni in Wet Hot American Summer) and the casting director thought I could bring something different and completely unique to the role. So I agreed to give it a shot. As I prepared for the audition, it dawned on me that I had infinite freedom with this. They weren’t going to have any expectations whatsoever because I didn’t fit the role description…on the most basic level. So there was no bar. What a glorious feeling for an actor to have such an immense amount of room to play. And as I leaned further in to that, I fell madly in love with the role. I was having such a wonderful time creating it that I suddenly wanted it really, really badly. But I reminded myself that this was a long shot and they would probably ultimately go with a man in the role and I should just do my best work, book the room and let it go. So I made my choices, did the work and headed to the audition.
When I got to the studio my actor brain took over and I was suddenly insanely nervous. I went to “that place” where I was convincing myself that I wasn’t what they wanted and that I definitely didn’t belong there. In an attempt to calm my nerves, I reminded myself how much I loved this role and how much fun I was going to have performing it…even if the two minutes in the room was the only time I ever got to do it. The casting director came out to meet me and said, “I can’t wait to see what you do.” I took a deep breath and went into the room.
Ten minutes later it was over. And it was the best audition of my life. No audition before or since has gone that well and I will never forget that feeling. In that instant I subconsciously gave myself full permission to let go of everything and just have fun. And I did. We all did. It was an incredible team and we had such a blast together in the room. I got the call later that day that they loved what I did. “You blew them away. The role is yours.”
The moral of the story? Never doubt the power of your unique self. Never doubt that you can change someone’s mind. Sometimes they really aren’t sure what they’re looking for and it takes you and your work to show them the way. Always be open to outcomes, even if they’re outside the box.
…and sometimes you need to send a woman to do a man’s job.
Blacklist Faux Pas
Have I ever told you my Blacklist faux pas? If you know me then you know I’m filled with faux pas, as a matter of fact the words “Jesus f*ckin Christ Jimmy!” exit people’s mouths more than I care to admit, but oh well, it makes for good antidotes. So after like 13 or so auditions for The Blacklist I finally book it. Many of the auditions I did for them ranged anywhere from a 10 sentence paragraph to a 2 page scene, but what did I end up booking? One line, “Son of a b*tch” as SWAT commander. Ok cool, a gig is a gig and with the news that The Blacklist was ending I was happy to get it.
I show up for the shoot, check in and head straight to the most important spot on set, CRAFTY! As I’m filling my pockets and plate with goodies I see what would be my “SWAT team” already in full SWAT gear wardrobe. Hmmm, they got the background guys already dressed up I thought… Let me go over and introduce myself.
“Hey guys what’s up?”
Cold nods hello.
“So I’ll be your commander today, haha”
Still cold nods and stares of acknowledgement.
Hmmm, these guys are a little standoffish, usually background actors are pretty engaging and jovial and like to mix it up and converse with other actors. Maybe I should break the ice with some humor?
“So I’ll be your commander today, don’t worry I’ve led many men through battle”
AND… more cold stares with some “Yeah ok” smirks.
Ok, tough crowd. Maybe they’re in character or crafty isn’t that good?
I get into wardrobe and head to lunch before we shoot our scene. I’m sitting with my “team” and I start talking to one of the guys, nicer fellow a lot more engaging (phew). He starts telling me a story about his train ride to set and how there was an altercation and how he thought he was going to have to make an off duty arrest.
“Wait? You’re a cop?”
“Yeah, we’re all cops.”
I look at all of them now looking back at me. One of the other “team” members states,
“Yeah we’re an actual SWAT team from Yonkers.”
Another team member adds “and tactical consultants”
Me, “Guys! I’m am soooo sorry I thought you were…. you’re not gonna snap my neck or anything are you?”
Turns out most of them were special forces war vets as well. Once I acquiesced to beta male status and let them make fun of how wrong I was wearing my swat gear (I honestly thought the helmet went on that way!) they turned out to really awesome guys. They totally let me do my thing as SWAT Commander and even taught me about being a “Hall Boss” and showed me actual insertion tactics and treated me like a team member. You can see part of that scene on my latest reel edited by the very talented Jessica Green (yes it’s a plug!). Moral of the story? Ask first, assume nothing!
My particular journey for many years has been to excavate, encounter and release the hidden about myself. Those things I have collected and stored away under lock and key or sometimes even proudly displayed on my super-secret trophy shelf of self-righteousness: the fear, the shame, the grief, the anger, the regrets, the self-abuse, any part of myself that I am secretly proud of but would prefer not to be made known to the general public.
I have been in the process of shining a light on what I have hidden in my corners or what scurries up my cellar wall in an attempt to escape detection as my divine flashlight approaches. I realized a few days ago that my specific journey in life with this process is being renewed and reborn through the writing of my film script.
This particular stretch of time since April 2019 when I began writing, I know now, had already been preordained before my newborn baby feet hit the planet. I see that now so clearly.
I know now that the writing of this movie was an agreement I made before I said “yes” to Buzz and Claire’s (my parents) desire to have a second child. I had surveyed their territory at 31 Ayrault Street in Newport, RI from the Waiting Room of Reincarnation, and I knew going in (and coming out) what to expect. I knew that even though it was not what I may have wanted; it was exactly what I needed. My life with my close family members became the fodder of the seed of my script.
Forgotten life events, stashed away feelings, thoughts, emotions, and even my dream life from the past have come together to be re-known and re-claimed in an astounding way in the writing of this screenplay.
This rewriting and reclaiming of my life had been on my Cosmic-Divine-To-Do List for 20+ years. Every once in a while, I sauntered up to the home of my characters, knocked on their front door, and asked them to come out and play with me. For 20 or more years they yelled from inside their home that they hadn’t finished their homework yet , to “go away” and to come back another day.
In April 2019, the characters showed themselves to the doors of my mind, my heart and my soul and said they were ready. Since then, we have been playing, laughing until it hurts, crying until we felt our bones finally dry out from overflow tear storage, and astonishing each other with our new-found open-heartedness and lightness of being.
This has been the joy-love ride of my life. The script is finished and headed for its first Table Read in a week. It’s somewhat difficult to let my characters and the story be birthed into a larger arena because it’s provided me with so much joy while requiring me to be a human spelunker, diving deep through the layers and exploring the underwater caverns of my inner most me to get as close as I can to finding my truth. That part hasn’t necessarily been easy, but it’s been incredibly freeing.
I am so profoundly humbled.
And all I can say is thank you to the characters who talked in my ears. They were all quite bossy (the apple falling from the tree thing). They described the scene to me and told me what they wanted to say. I was a stenographer. I took dictation.
I wouldn’t have wanted to have done anything else.
Winning Sundance- Against All Odds
Every time I have a film in competition at a film festival, I can’t help harkening back to the 10 days when The Brothers McMullen, our tiny little $15,000 feature ~ the 18th and final pick in dramatic competition ~ took the venerated Sundance Film Festival by storm and altered forever the course of low budget indie filmmaking.
It was the 10th year of Robert Redford’s Park City party, and the festival itself was beginning to get crushed under the weight of its own fabulousness; it was losing sight of the appeal, and essence, of what low budget filmmaking was all about.
Truth be told, the festival needed a film like McMullen, as much as McMullen needed a festival like Sundance. And considering we’d been rejected by every-single-film-festival up until that point (including Long Island and the Hamptons ~ go figure), this was most likely our last shot.
We made the most of it.
Among the wonderful films in dramatic competition with us that year were Party Girl, Safe, Once Were Warriors, New Jersey Drive, and Living in Oblivion, some of which had budgets upwards of $30M.
After the first screening at the venerated 400 seat Egyptian Theater on Main Street, the buzz was real and it was deafening, and, quite honestly, a little overwhelming. Our lives, as we knew them, were about to change.
The momentum continued to build with every subsequent screening.
After the second one, it was rumored that 20th Century Fox’s new art house division, Fox Searchlight had already negotiated a deal to buy the film for $5M. What!? The reviews from both the NYT and LA Times were glowing. Film critic Roger Ebert called me by name and stopped me on Main Street to congratulate me.
Not two minutes later, I ran into Samuel L. Jackson (who I’d played softball with in the B’way Show League a couple of years before when he was doing Once on This Island). I started to introduce myself and he cut me off with: “I know who you are, motherfucker!” We both laughed. Knowing he was a judge on the Grand Jury Prize commission, I tried to get some sense of how our film was faring. He looked at me, winked, and said, “Good luck, Jackie!” And he was gone.
And so, when Saturday night finally came, we were all huddled in this massive tennis bubble. 2500 of us. The air, electric. The tension, palpable. Stars of the indie film community were everywhere. Steve Buscemi, Cathy Keener and the Lost in Oblivion crowd sat directly behind us. Parker Posey was all over the joint.
Personally, I thought we were a shoo-in for one of the lesser prizes like the Audience Appeal Award. Never in my wildest dreams did I think … the unimaginable.
Finally, Samuel Jackson took the stage, and announced that we were indeed the winners of the Grand Jury Prize for Best Film. Absolute pandemonium!
As I shot out of my seat, both arms raised to the heavens, a pin-light in the ceiling hit me directly in the eye. And I knew in that very moment it was my mom, acknowledging that her boy had done good. The tears were tears of great joy.
I would wish those feelings ~ of achievement, of possibility, of validation ~ on every actor and filmmaker who dares to make the effort, who hangs in there, against all odds, and succeeds. At least once…
This week I found myself pissed off at everything and everyone, experiencing a lot of resistance and unidentified anger. One thing I know about myself is when I’m feeling homicidal because a paper bag won’t fold the way I want it to, I’m in the middle of some kind of a shift. I’m releasing something, an old belief about myself.
And as the universe loves to do, at the very same moment I was looking for my sharpest knife to shred said paper bag to smithereens, I received a casting notice from an agency. They asked me to send them a selfie for a potential photo shoot. The requirement for this photo shoot was a full body shot of “the most glamorous me in my most glamorous clothes.”
The “glamour” shot really shook me up because the last thing I think of myself as is glamorous. To the point where I felt that even doing the selfie would just be friggin’ embarrassement . A real imposter trying to be somebody she would and could never be. Not sophisticated enough, not cultured enough and definitely not pretty enough. In other words, a circus clown in a dress.
And as it happened my friend, Barb, asked me how the acting was going. I told her about the casting call and how disappointing I was that I didn’t have any “glamorous“ clothes. Then boldly proclaimed, “What a bummer! Can’t do the shoot!”
Next thing I know she has me stuffed into her daughter’s 2 sizes too small prom dress, held together in the back with clothespins (a big shout out to “Say Yes to the Dress” for that clothespin idea) and sparkly silver shoes (also two sizes too small). The shenanigans began from there. We went to her patio. Between the snow flurry and the wind, she shot pics and I twirled and danced like a lavender fairy. It was playful. It was, in fact, a (s)hoot and a half.
The too small dress was a big fat photographic illusion, but the lesson the Universe sent to me wasn’t an illusion at all. I was stuck in an old belief about myself that didn’t serve me anymore. I realized that I have my own special glamorous flavor. I thought, “Own it Sister!” And I did.
I played. I was free. And I allowed myself to be my specific and, dare I say, unique and glamorous 69-year-old Self. And when all was said and done, I did it all for me (except for a few broken-doll poses I had to do for Tyra Banks, just because.)
Sometimes my spiritual curriculum shows up as huge upsets and turmoil in my life. And sometimes the curriculum is about finding those tiny hidden beliefs that I’m just not quite good enough, showing those beliefs the door, putting on a lavender prom dress and bedazzled shoes and being free.
That Time I Worked for Martin Scorsese
I don’t always do background work, but when I do it is usually because it’s for a project I want to work on, or it’s with a director I want to work with, so when I got a call to come in for some work on the pilot of Boardwalk Empire directed by MARTIN FRICKIN SCORSESE, how could I refuse? I couldn’t have said yes quick enough. Even if I never even saw him on set, I could always say, “Well, I worked for Martin Scorsese” for years after.
Got fitted for my costumes. Got a period appropriate haircut at the studio. And then the big day came. I found out, on the day, that I would be an FBI cadet in, not one but, two scenes for the pilot. The first scene would be a bunch of cadets doing various training exercises. Some would be firing guns, some would be working out, some would be running laps… At that point in time, I had been a bit of a runner, so when they asked, “Who wants to run laps?” I raised my hand. Why not?
Got my costume on shortly before the scene, and it was a little big, but it fit. If the scene was a walking one, I would have been fine… But it was a running one. Have you ever tried to run in pants/shorts that are too big? They fall down. So, I told the costume person, and they didn’t have much time, so they pinned It a bit tighter and sent me out to set.
I got outside, and even though this was a bunch of extras, MARTIN FRICKIN SCORSESE was directing the scene. I was directed by Scorsese! Bucket list item achieved. I started to run, and even though I was doing my job, the pin wasn’t doing its job… and my pants started to fall down. Right. In front. Of Martin Scorsese. I wanted to make an impression… That wasn’t the impression I wanted to make.
And there was no scene in the finished pilot of the FBI cadets training. It got cut.
Guerrilla filmmaking, even at its best, can be challenging. Case in point: Day 14 out of 16 shooting the Brothers McMullen…
We desperately needed to get the two graveyard scenes – the opening scene where Mom tells Barry (Ed Burns) she’s going back to Ireland to find her one true love; after having just finished burying our father. And the second scene where I am standing at dad’s grave, on St. Patrick’s Day, telling him I wasn’t going to be the same kind of lousy man he was.
Well, we were supposed to shoot the scenes at Calvary Cemetery in Queens, which is so massive it has actual streets running through it! One problem was we were chasing light after shooting all day on Long Island. The second problem was…the gates to the cemetery were closed!
Thinking on his feet, Eddie decided to scrap my scene, figuring we would get it at some other time, and we would just set up on the sidewalk and shoot the scene with mom, having the headstones serve as the cemetery background.
So, I’m leaning against the DP’s car watching them start the scene when something catches my eye and I actually had to yell: “Eddie, you gotta cut!!” Mass confusion! I said: “Look at the headstones behind you! They’re in fucking Hebrew!!” Well, that wasn’t gonna fly (although, in retrospect, it would’ve been hilarious)!
So, we packed all our stuff up and just as we were about to chalk it up as a lost day, another thing caught my eye: a small section of wrought iron fence had been replaced by some cheap temporary fencing. I told the DP Dick Fisher, to back the car up, cut that fencing open, shoot both scenes and get the hell out of there. A bit ghoulish, but that’s exactly what we did. Both scenes made the final cut, and the rest is independent movie history.
My Momma, The Self Tape Queen
“Momma! I just got an email from my agent to ‘put myself on tape’ for a movie shooting back home! Take the paintings off the wall, make sure the dogs stay quiet, read these sides and get familiar with them and look at my teeth really quick, do I have spinach in them?!?!?!”
I had been preparing for self tape auditions long before the self tape trend became not just a trend but a necessity during these times. I jumped on the Hollywood South local hire bandwagon several years ago so auditioning this way was to become par for the course. This was my first self tape and all I knew was I needed some smoke and mirrors to make our quirky 1880’s row home look as sterile and well lit as possible. Oh and also I needed someone to record me and read with me – enter Momma. Twenty-four hours later, I was en route to New Orleans for the callback and a month later, I was back home again for the shoot.
That’s one of the success stories. Not mentioned above are the hours Momma and I spent frantically trying to create perfect three point lighting by propping lamps on top of yoga blocks and recipe books, cursing why we ever tossed our Encyclopedia Britannica collection. The amount of T-R-E-A-T-S given to our dogs to keep them quiet while I was self taping. The times I told Momma as the reader to, “Tone it down Momma and just talk like a normal person!”
With self tapes, my Type A self becomes Type A Plus – a neurotic actor, DP, director and stage manager all rolled into one who barks orders at my momma like she’s a dutiful unpaid PA “doing this for copy and credit” who’s also supposed to read my mind. Momma will only take my ridiculousness to a certain extent. So, during every self tape escapade, we do the dance of Momma saying “stop taking this sh*t so seriously, baby!” and me ever so dramatically catting back, “Momma, I have to take this sh*t seriously. This. Is. A. Business!!!”
Enter COVID-19. The world got quiet for a hot minute. We got terrified, watched the news non-stop and reflected on what was important. And, then…everyone started talking about self tapes and posting photos of themselves in front of blank walls. Ring lights became as coveted Tickle Me Elmo back in the mid ‘90’s. I was thankful I already owned one (a ring light, not a Tickle Me, Elmo) even though it is incredibly top heavy and we have to anchor the bottom with dumbbells while Momma holds the actual ring part while reading the sides with me.
I realized if self tapes are a part of our new normal, I have got to work on making them joyous. (Doesn’t that sound like a word all of these actor guru people popping up would use?) I had to start trusting Momma and her abilities. She birthed me naturally, lived on top of a mountain solo for a decade and hand fed exotic birds from eggs. Surely I could entrust her with framing me appropriately, telling me if my makeup was too whorish for a secretary or if my hair was too crazy for a detective. I encouraged her to give me acting notes, which often were: Don’t do that GD theatre voice, Brooke. Maybe do it with an accent this time. Baby, do it this way. (Man, I love line readings. Really, I do. They’re refreshing.)
The first self tape audition during the pandemic I got pinned but then was released. That doesn’t matter because the self tape process itself has just become more fun, more free. I am letting Momma handle the what used to be the hours long set-up like the bad-ass stagehand she has become and I am focusing on grounding myself in the present moment of the scene – with Momma standing right across from me holding up our Godforsaken ring light.
In this self tape world, home turf advantage doesn’t always apply. I have started focusing on the things at home that are working for me instead against me. One of those things, or, people rather, is of course Momma. In her, I have a wonderful PA, hair and makeup artist, wardrobe assistant, DP, director, reader and support system. Even if she gives me line readings.