Showing Up to Be Set Free

When we were putting Showing Up together, Riad and I decided we would not appear in the film. It was more important for us to simply be the messengers; the “invisible” characters in the telling of our story, whatever form the narrative took. Several people have asked since it was released why I didn’t tell my audition stories or share how I feel about the process and the answer has always been the same: I told it through the actors I wanted to honor in the film. We also didn’t want to be tasked with the added burden of deciding which and how much of our contributions were worthy of inclusion. It was hard enough to cut 100 hours of interviews of actors down to 80 minutes. Like any other actor who has been at it for awhile I’ve got my “war stories” and moments of inspiration, success and failure, and I’m certainly not shy about relating them. But I felt it was more important to be the listener in the conversation – one of the most important things one must be as an actor, as those who do it well know - and it turned out well for the story but I do have one I’ve always wanted to share.

In 1989, I auditioned for and was cast in what I was told would be a recurring role on the series L.A. Law. I was to be the lawyer in the divorce trial of a couple of married series regulars. In a nutshell, the job went like this: I showed up for work on the first day and found the director to be in way over his head. Many guest episodic directors are put under the added stress of series regulars and producers treating them with disdain and they pick guest actors or crew members to take it out on. After each of my takes he would approach me with the most absurd and impossible to incorporate notes and it soon became clear I was his scapegoat for the day. On a couple of occasions, after I’d realized what he was doing, I actually laughed at him – my “defense mechanism” - which didn’t help matters. Finally, after a few takes, one of the producers approached me and said, “We’re going to have to cut your hair. It’s too long.” That’s when I knew it was over. So I said, “Why didn’t we decide this when I was in the make up chair before we started shooting? Now it’s not going to match.“ 

“You let us worry about that,” he replied.

“No, I’m happy with it the way it is.” 

To which he replied, after a long look of disbelief, “Okay.”

And he walked away. Next thing I knew I was wrapped for the day and sent home to find a message from my agent. They’d fired me. And who could blame them, really? It was one of the worst days I’ve ever had on a set. And I’d kind of asked for it. In a way I was relieved but mostly I was devastated. Lost income aside, it was the first time I’d been fired and my ego was shattered. Dann Florek, one the actors playing my character’s clients in the episode, called me and was very sweet about how he thought the day went down, assuring me it had nothing to do with my work, that the director was taking his frustrations out on me and that “Like Olivier said, ‘You’re not a real actor until you’ve been fired at least three times.’” (Since then, according to Olivier, I have become a “real actor” and then some) I felt better after Dann’s call and will always be grateful to him for putting that in perspective for me. But the story gets better.

Three years later, 1993, I got an audition for L.A. Law, this time to play an incarcerated marijuana farmer on trial for murder. I briefly considered the possibility that they must have made a mistake. I thought, “Why would they ask someone they’d fired to audition for them again?” But since, in war and auditions, ours “is not to reason why” I took the appointment, went in to audition for them, and got the job. It was a great experience and I enjoyed working with Broadway director, Tom Moore, someone who appreciates actors, knows what we do and how to talk to us, which is always a treat no matter where or when it happens. 

After the job was over, I was talking to my friend, mentor and spiritual advisor, the late, great Jack Kissell, about how, as I put it, “the circle had been completed” by “getting and completing a job for people that fired me.” 

“Getting the job, completing the job didn’t complete the circle,” he said.

“What do you mean? I was fired before I could finish the first one and was able to get through-“

“No, it had nothing to do with getting the jobs or doing them.”

“What was it then?”

“It was having the humility to audition for people you felt had wronged you. You put your resentment and your ego aside long enough to forgive them and do what it is you’re meant to do. You let go, saw it another way, saw what your job was, and it set you free. You set yourself free. That’s the circle.”

I’ll never forget that. Whenever I feel constrained, inhibited, resentful or bound by what I or others think about what my real job is as an actor is – or far more importantly, what being a human being is – I remember that completed circle. It saves me from myself, keeps me going to the next stop on this journey. It sets me free.

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