Posts Tagged ‘Agent’

I don’t think I understood what was going on – Mom had just gotten off the phone with my agent. I had heard Mom’s side of the conversation, and I pieced together that something serious was going on – I just didn’t know what. We had a brick cell phone – I mean one of those huge, blocky things with a long rubber antenna, terrible reception, and cost a small fortune to talk on. I knew this call must have been important – otherwise, Mom would have surely pulled off and called back from a payphone. She looked at me thoughtfully.

Mom: The agency is closing its doors.

Me: What!?

Mom: They’re done. They’re bankrupt.

I was floored. The agency was huge – one of the largest in the industry – with offices on both coast and stars on their roster.

Me: What in the hell…

Mom: I don’t know. We’re supposed to stop in tomorrow and talk.

When we stopped in to the office, everything seemed different. I mean, the furnishings and whatnot were pretty much the same, but the mood was totally different. You ever watch a hive of bees when they’re slightly drugged or sleepy? They move, but it’s like they’re underwater. That’s sort of how it felt. What once was a bustling hive of activity was now a dying colony. Nobody had a spring in their step. Desks were empty. Some people were even in the process of putting things in boxes. We had heard rumors – clients were jumping ship by the truckload. Some people weren’t getting their checks, and hadn’t been for some time. The previous owner of the agency had somehow embezzled millions, or the new owners – who had taken over only a couple years prior – had run it into the ground, or maybe it was just an innocent accounting error. I had heard the owner himself was involved in some sort of insurance scam – that he paid thieves to steal his art so he could file an insurance claim. Allegedly, he paid the thieves off and kept the art for himself. Even if half of these were true, this was not what you wanted to her – not, at least, when you worked for (or with) one of the biggest agencies in the business. Besides, going belly up as an agency  – at least one this size – was nearly unheard of at the time.

We sat down across from my agent of many years, who explained to us that we should start looking for other representation. Yes, the rumors were true, and the agency was broke. Embezzlement was suspected – accounts were frozen. The agents hadn’t been paid. Big stars weren’t even getting their checks. I let the conversation break over me like a wave, and didn’t say much. I just watched the two adults – my mother and my agent – talk, and soaked in the office. I liked that office, had practically lived there since I was 8, and was disappointed. I also knew it may be difficult to find an agent – if people were jumping ship like rats from such a big agency, other agents would be flooded with too much talent to even deal with. I sensed changes may be afoot, and they were.

We ended up moving to a smaller manager – Mom’s logic behind this was that we had a history with this person, and a manager might be better than an agent. (If you sign with an agent, you’re exclusive with that agent. If you sign with a manager, they send you out through many different agents, and you can kind of get a feel for who you work well with). I guess it was a good move, or at least a move that made some kind of sense. She was worried we’d get lost in the shuffle at a bigger agency, and I suppose that was a real possibility. I was still doing a significant amount of acting work – still making a living, supporting myself and 3 other people. Work had started to slow down a bit, but I attributed that to the fact that the agency was going under. When I signed up with my manager, I did work less. But the business always went in cycles – sometimes you were up, sometimes you were down. That’s just the way it was.

Mom felt she had some sort of personal relationship with the manager – they were quasi-acquaintances I guess – and she would talk to her quite a bit on the phone. I think she may have let her in on some of her craziness – her theories about the Mafia and Russ – because I eventually started getting the impression that she thought something was funny. Not funny as in off, funny as in ha ha. Especially as things wore on, whenever we stopped in, she’d just sort of sit behind the desk and listen to Mom and sort of have this smirk on her face. You know like when someone says or does something really stupid, and you have a hard time keeping a straight face? It was sort of like that, with maybe a little bit of patronizing thrown in. I can’t explain it any better than that. When I look back on this, I feel an odd mix of protectiveness and indignation, mixed with shame. Indignation, not that Mom should have been taken seriously by any means, but that she should have been respected. At the very least, not made a joke out of. Shame that she was obviously crazy, and I was lumped into that – it reflected on me, and affected my career trajectory.

I can see why maybe the manager got fed up – Mom would call and try to pump her for information, or try to get more auditions out of her. Add in the paranoia – Mom’s fear that certain people were my “competition” and out to get me, like Joey Lawrence or others – and I can see it seriously wearing thin. She even went on a kick for a while that this band called The Moffats were my direct competition, and taking away music opportunities from me. When she presented this to me, even I laughed at her. I stopped laughing when she bought several of their cassettes and listened to them over and over in the car, analyzing them. I managed to find one of their videos, so you guys can know what I’m talking about. What pissed me off even more is when this stuff got stuck in my head (which it unfortunately did). Watch the video and weep with me over the indignity I suffered.

 

Not to long after this, SAG went on strike. There had been strikes in my time, but none this widespread. If I recall correctly, they were striking over contracts for new media – things like shows and commercials on the internet, and higher wages. What I think the union hoped for was a short lived strike that got the clients back to the bargaining table, once they realized they couldn’t live without union actors. There was one problem: The clients realized they could live without union actors.

Reality TV started to pop up – things like Survivor and Big Brother – and as the strike wore on it became more and more commonplace. Networks decided to bypass the sitcoms of old, and just do more reality TV. It was cheaper – sometimes the “actors” (who were real people, at least in theory) weren’t even paid. Total win. What that meant for us as actors was that we couldn’t work, unless we wanted to do non-union stuff. That meant crossing the picket line, which meant losing your benefits and maybe getting kicked out of the union. I had years vested in the union at this point – a great health plan and a pension for when I retired. If I was kicked out, that was gone. Plus, non union work paid chump change by comparison. Non union might give you a few hundred dollars in a lump sum, vs a union gig of a thousand plus they paid you every time it aired. I know a lot of people who weren’t able to work. Auditions dried up. When they did come up, it was for junk. Gone were the big payday bookings I had grown up with. Those were bad days.

Mom didn’t know what to do. We had depended on my income for so long. She was afraid to get a “real job”, because it would tie her down for driving me out to auditions. So she tried things like stuffing envelopes, and get rich quick scams. When they didn’t work – and things became more desperate – she decided to deliver phone books. She took Tim and I along to help. I remember the interview process. The boss – I can’t remember his name – looked at the three of us skeptically. Me, my little brother, and my Mom.

Boss: You guys want to deliver phone books…?

Mom: Yes. My sons are actors – very famous actors, actually, you’ve probably heard a lot of their stuff on TV. Timmy was just in a movie…

Boss: Okay…

Mom: The union is on strike and they can’t work. So, we’re making ends meet right now. Yes. We’d like to deliver phone books.

He shrugged. I don’t think he much cared about our life story. We were just warm bodies to get the job done. We loaded up our car with phone books and drove our route. As per instructions, he didn’t want them tossed at the bottom of the driveway, but actually delivered to the door. It was my first real job – Tim’s too – that didn’t involve doing something we loved doing. I was game for it – I understood it was short term – but Tim was deeply unimpressed and complained the whole time.

The system was that we did the deliveries while Mom sat in the car. I remember one house we went to, and it had this really long driveway. Tim and I got out of the car together, and marched up towards the house. I watched him freeze in mid step. I was about to turn and ask what was wrong, when I heard a low growl. Across the yard was a huge behemoth of a dog – slobber was dripping from its jaws, and it was baring its teeth. It looked like it would eat us feet first if we came any closer. I was pretty freaking worried, but at the same time, I knew we were supposed to drop the phone book at the door of the house. It looked incredibly far away, though. I glanced from the house back to the sanctuary of the car – we were sort of between the two. I took a tentative step forward, and the dog let out another unholy growl.

Me: What do we do?

Tim: Fuck this. I’m going back to the car.

I was about to argue with him, when a second dog – not quite as big, but looking every bit as eager to consume human flesh – rounded the corner of the house.

Me: You’re right, bro. Fuck the phone book.

We backed slowly away, and at first it seemed like the dogs would stay put. I don’t know what it was – whether it was some arbitrarily determined distance or the sound our sneakers made on the blacktop – but the big dog decided to go for it. He started loping towards us and Tim and I broke into a dead run back to the car. We got in and breathlessly slammed the doors.

Mom: Did you do it?

Tim and I almost shouted in unison.

Me and Tim: NO!

Mom: Why?

Tim: There’s two freaking huge dogs. I’m not going to that door.

Mom leaned forward in the driver’s seat – she had been reclining it to shut her eyes – and saw the two dogs about halfway up the driveway. They never made it all the way to the car, but they were clearly pissed – growling and snapping.

Mom: We need to deliver it to the door, or we don’t get paid.

Me: There are worse things than not getting paid.

Tim: If you want to get paid so bad, you deliver it. I’m not going out there again.

Mom could see this was a losing battle, but I don’t think she really wanted us to go back out there again. To end the debate, I rolled down the window and chucked the phone book halfway up the driveway. I didn’t have a very good arm – it landed several feet in front of the dogs, and a little in the grass.

Not long after, Tim started refusing to go on deliveries. Although I dutifully went along for a while, I wasn’t much use to Mom other than as company – I’d usually get out of the car only with great reluctance. When she started delivering at 5 AM, I started refusing to go at all. It wasn’t long after this that she stopped delivering phone books altogether.

I’d like to tell you that things went back to the way they were – auditions once again became plentiful, and money rolled in. I’d like to tell you that Mom was wise and saved up the money Tim and I had made over the years – that it was somewhere safe, perhaps in a savings account or something. I can’t. The industry- or at least the part that I was involved in – did come back, but it was drips and drabs. There would never again be 5 auditions in a day. We’d be lucky if we went into the city a couple times a week. I worked, a little – my audition to booking ratio was still rather good – but it never did recover. Perhaps the title is a little misleading, in any case. It wasn’t the end, but rather the first couple serious body blows that would change things irrevocably. But if you think about it, you don’t wake up one morning and find all your plants dead. You wake up one morning and find them dying. You think to yourself “Oh…they’ll come back. Let me water them a bit.” But they don’t come back – they continue to wilt, little by little until they’re gone.

Life defines us, not always but what happens, but by what doesn’t happen. When I look back, a lot of things almost happened to me – some good, some bad. My dad almost killed me a couple times. He didn’t. My grandfather almost took a hot stock tip back in the 50’s that would have made us all millionaires. He didn’t. We almost moved to L.A. – according to Mom, at least one agent begged us to go out there. We didn’t. I always liked the West Coast, and wonder what might have been different. When I was 13, I almost made music and film history. Almost.

After Tim wrapped up Les Mis, he ended up booking a movie – his first. Uncle Richard was so proud he could have burst, and I thought he was already proud as hell he to see Tim on Broadway. I remember him coming out to see the show one winter. He was bundled up in a long black topcoat and scarf – he looked like a gentleman who stepped out from a different time. Anyway, I was writing everything back then – I wrote songs based on books I was reading, on movies I watched…I literally was writing anything and everything. Sometimes I was inspired, sometimes I was just trying to fill my quota of writing a song a day, and naturally needing something substantial to show Mom and Russ. Anyway, I don’t know how this got into my head, exactly, but I got the idea that I could get my foot in the door by writing a theme song for a movie. Theme songs were kind of a thing at that point – not every movie had them, but a lot of them did. It helped sell soundtracks, and movie tickets. Anyway, I read the script for the movie and I loved it. In a brief fit of inspiration, I wrote a song loosely based on the movie. At the time, it was one of the best songs I’d ever written (I was 13). I played it for Russ, and he flipped.

Russ: This is pretty good, Danny! You should change this…

He leaned over with a pencil and crossed out a line. He wrote something new above it.

Russ: I think that looks better.

Mom was excited, practically bouncing up and down in her seat.

Mom: Do you think it could get in the movie?

Russ: Maybe! We should record a demo and pitch it to them.

We went into the studio the very next week and recorded a demo. I was “handling” the business end of things myself by that point, so I talked to the director personally. When I say “handling”, what I mean is, I made the decisions and the phone calls, and Mom second guessed them and/or suggested things I should have said instead (Did you tell them you’re a genius? A prodigy?). I explained to the director that this song would make music and film history, in one fell swoop – it would put his movie on the map, at least in terms of the record books. He was very intrigued, and began to seriously consider the song. Granted, he had so much going on – hell, he was directing a film for God’s sake – and I don’t think a theme song was on the top of his mind. But I was flattered and emboldened that he even considered it seriously.

He eventually came back and suggested we do some different things with the song – maybe make it more general, maybe not have the title of the movie in the song, etc. Thus began a series of rewrites and different incarnations of the song. I tried a full on gospel version, sung by an African-American choir. I tried a blues/gospel version, with a semi locally famous soul singer. I tried a country version, a pop version…you name it. Mom had even decided – for whatever reason – that we should do one with Tim and I singing together as a duet. It was horrible. I mean, really horrible. Tim and I hated doing it, and he objected the entire time. We finished the recording, shoved along by Mom and the fact that we were actually paying for studio time – time spent arguing on the clock was money wasted. Still, that recording haunts my dreams. I don’t wake up in a cold sweat over it anymore – thanks to years of therapy –  but trust me, I am mentally and emotionally scarred.

Anyway, none of these versions seemed “right” to the director – who definitely seemed interested in doing something with the song. He pointed us to the movie studio, who gave us some insight.

Studio Executive: We don’t really want to put any money into this.

Me: Okay…

Studio Executive: Basically…if you find a big name artist who wants to sing it…we’d be interested.

So, essentially, they wanted it gift wrapped, with a bow on it and delivered to their door. I had zero contacts with “big name artists”, so how the hell was this going to happen? Still, that didn’t deter me – I was a ballsy little fucker. I spent hundreds of hour tracking down info on people – specifically, managers of artists who might be interested in singing the song. It was risky – most artists don’t want to be pitched to directly. They want to hear from a reputable publisher or record label guy. They don’t want some 13 year old off the street to throw a demo in their faces, explain what a genius he is, and ask them to sing his song. Still, that’s what I did. And – amazingly – I had some success. I’m not saying it was easy. For every 30 people I called, I got 1 “maybe”. But I worked the hell out of those maybes. My “script” for talking to people went something like this.

Me: Hi, I’m a 13 year old genius songwriter trying to make music and film history. I’m writing the theme song for an upcoming movie starring my brother and released by a major Hollywood studio. I’m currently looking for a high profile artist to sing it. Would you or your client possibly be interested?

I got it all in in one breath, if I could – if you gave them an opening to say “no”, the game was over. I had no shame. Of the people that asked me to send them a demo, only about half took me seriously. Keep in mind, I was negotiating directly with adults – seasoned entertainment attorneys and agents – and I wasn’t even shaving yet.

Of the people I met with, a couple stick out in my mind. The first was an agent out of Nashville, who worked with quite a few singers. I don’t remember how we got in touch with him, exactly, but he listened as Mom and I sat across the desk from him.

Agent: I’ve got a couple people I want to pitch this to. Let me see what I can do.

He played it for Bob Carlisle – of “Butterfly Kisses” fame – who loved it and wanted to cut it. Unfortunately, he had just finished cutting an album so there was no real way for him to record it. Still, it was an open door for me in Nashville.

In the meantime, Mom invited the director over for dinner – Grandma was a hell of a cook – on the premise that we would discuss the theme song possibilities with him. We asked Russ if he would be there – he had a lot of musical experience, and he had several hit songs under his belt. Him being there and talking to the director may have made an important impact.

Russ: This is a great idea. Yeah, I’ll be there. When is it?

Mom told him.

Russ: Great, great. I’ll clear my schedule, guys. Hey, by the way, do you have the number for the studio executive you’ve been talking to? I might want to give her a call…

We passed along the info to him.

The night of the dinner, the director and his wife showed up – we had a lovely time. A place was set for Russ, right near the head of the table – between me and the director. It was empty the entire night. Mom called Russ several times, and got no response.

Mom: I’m sure he’ll be here soon.

I don’t know whether she was assuring the director, or assuring herself. For my part, I didn’t feel terribly assured. I tried to call him, too…left a couple messages. We never heard back.

I soldiered on the best I could, but I was a kid who had literally done nothing in the field – it was hard to be taken seriously. Especially when the director kept staring at the place setting where Russ was supposed to be. Whether this was true or not, I felt Russ’s silence damning everything I said. It was almost the opposite of a ringing endorsement, and I felt judged. Inch by inch, I shrank in stature throughout the night – or at least I felt I did – in the director’s estimation. I’m sure he wondered, as I did, just where the hell Russ even was. Besides, if this was such a good thing, wouldn’t someone of Russ’s caliber be there endorsing it?

The night ended pleasantly – the director and his wife were very nice. But what started out earlier in the evening as a positive tone regarding my song ended with “Maybe, we’ll have to see.”

The following week, Mom asked Russ what happened.

Russ: Oh, was that last weekend? I thought it was this upcoming weekend.

Mom: But you cleared your schedule for it. Remember?

Russ: Oh, yeah…

He made some jokes, and Mom quickly forgot that she was upset in the first place. I didn’t forget. I hadn’t decided yet if Russ was completely unreliable or actually trying to hinder my progress, but the wheels were turning in my head. Looking back, I see a third possibility: He wanted nothing to do with my loopy mother. If I had asked him to come along to a one on one meeting between me and the director, I think he might have – provided Mom wasn’t involved. Considering, though, that Mom was a helicopter parent of the worst order – and obsessed with Russ, to boot – that wasn’t going to happen.

Anyway, I somehow managed to get through to LeAnn Rimes’s manager, who expressed an interest and wanted to meet. He invited me backstage to meet with him before a show. Again, Mom put her faith – wrongly – in Russ. She told him when the meeting was going to take place, and where.

Mom: Will you be there this time?

Russ: Oh, yeah. This is a big deal.

Mom: Will you be there for real?

Russ: Yeah.

I asked too, but my faith was shaken. I fervently hoped he wouldn’t let me down again, but I had a feeling he would.

The day of the meeting came, and Russ was nowhere to be found. We went to his studio, but his car wasn’t there. Hoping for the best, I knocked on the door. No answer. The lights were off, the doors were locked. How could he forget such an important meeting? We called him, no answer there either. Mom left a few long winded messages – I tried to tell her that wasn’t going to help, but she did it anyway. Mom made me leave a message of my own, and I did so with great reluctance. I was pissed and disappointed. Stressed, I did the only thing I could think of to do – I called Uncle Richard.

Uncle Richard: I can be there in 5 minutes. Just let me get ready.

Me: Really?

Uncle Richard: Yes. I can tell them I’m your agent. That way you’ll at least have someone credible. I don’t know much about the music business, but it may help.

Relief flushed through me. Whatever came, I knew I could depend on Uncle Richard. I told him I’d talk about it with Mom and call him back.

Mom: I don’t think it will help. Besides, it may be a test.

Me: A test?

Mom: Russ and the Mafia might want to see how well you do on your own.

Me: …

Mom: Unless you want me to come…

Me: NO!

I knew this was no test from Russ – and I doubted the actual Mafia cared enough to orchestrate one.  This was negligence, as far as I was concerned – I hadn’t yet decided whether it was malicious negligence or Russ was simply down at the race track or something. I called Uncle Richard back. Though I really wanted him there, I did as I was bid and declined his offer. He wished me luck, and gave me some pointers .

Uncle Richard: Look them right in the eye. you’re their equal. You’re not some snot nosed brat…you know what you’re doing.

I didn’t feel like I knew what I was doing – not having any backup shook me. Still, cancelling the meeting was out of the question. Excited, scared, and disappointed, I walked into the meeting backstage. I asked for the manager, and waited amongst crews moving equipment. When he appeared, he seemed perplexed. I think he was looking for an adult – an agent or manager or some other representative. I don’t think he wanted to deal with a 13 year old kid, and I don’t think he took me seriously. Taking Uncle Richard’s advice, I squared my shoulders and went into my speech: I was a 13 year old boy genius and this was an opportunity to make music and film history and the studio wanted a name artist attached to the song and LeAnn would just be perfect, and blah blah blah.

He was polite enough, but I could see the wheels turning in his head. He asked for some lyrics and a demo tape – which I was obviously prepared with. He said he’d listen to the tape and think about it some more. I walked away hopeful, but I had a feeling it didn’t go as well as it could have. When I tried to make followup calls, I was shunted right to voice mail or told he was unavailable, and never got a phone call back. After a few weeks of this, I got the picture and stopped calling. To the uninitiated, this may seem rude, but it actually wasn’t. That’s how business is – if they’re interested, you hear. If they’re not…they’re not going to waste their time calling you and telling you “no”. I didn’t take it personally, I just moved on.

At the next lesson, we again asked Russ where in the hell he was.

Russ: I had something come up.

Mom: Oh.

Mom never held his feet to the fire, never asked him hard questions, never took him to task for things like this. It didn’t matter how pissed she was, when she saw him, she just melted into a puddle of puppy love.  I’ll be honest, I didn’t really hold him to account either – and when I did, it was extremely polite and in a roundabout way – but that’s because I was afraid of reprisals from Mom for upsetting Russ. I was genuinely upset this time, though, and I really wanted to know what was so important.

Me: So what, uh, what did you have going on? Nothing bad, I hope…

He took a moment to consider.

Russ: Uh, my brother Joe had to go to the hospital.

Mom: Oh, I’m sorry to hear that!

I mumbled that I was sorry. Not that Joe wasn’t sick – he may have been – but Russ had three go-to excuses: Either Joe was sick, or a pipe burst in his basement, or he twisted his ankle going up the stairs. In the 20+ years I knew the guy, I probably heard each excuse hundreds of times. Mom – who had been so agitated before the lesson – was now as calm and meek as a sunbathing kitten. She sat there making googly eyes at Russ throughout the entire lesson.

Russ: Oh, hey…do you have LeAnn’s manager’s number?

I kept a poker face, but I was incensed. He had nothing to do with the meeting – I had gotten that contact myself, worked for it myself, and even met with the guy all on my own. And Russ wanted to piggyback off my success? Fuck him.

Me: I may have lost it. He never called me back, so.

Mom and Russ both looked shocked – they expected me to jump and say “of course!”. Anything less – at least to Mom – was heresy. I could see the panic in her eyes. She was worried about not giving Russ what he wanted. It was all in her mind, though, because really…what was he going to do? Her fear, I think, was wrapped up in her delusional world – that the Mafia was connected with Russ and could make or break my career, that we needed to watch our Ps and Qs, that we were being watched and tested, etc.

Mom: I can dig it up. I’ll get it for you.

I was openly glaring at her.

I sincerely hoped that she’d forget about the whole thing, but she didn’t.

Mom: Russ wants that number…did you get it for him?

Me: No.

Mom: He wants it to help you, Danny!

Me: I doubt it. He probably wants to try to pitch his own stuff. He couldn’t even be bothered to come to dinner, let alone a meeting with this guy. No. He’s not getting the number.

Mom: But he could be calling to help you! To make up for the fact that he wasn’t there!

I sincerely doubted it.

Me: Mom, just no.

At the following week’s lesson – despite having several private discussions with her about my wishes – I watched in horror as she opened the address book and recited the number to Russ. I was freaking furious. In the car, I practically yelled at her.

Me: What the hell do you think you’re doing? I asked you not to give him the number!

Mom: I know. I couldn’t help it.

Me: You couldn’t help it? Oh my God, Mom. It was so easy. Just don’t give him the number.

Mom: I know, but when I get around Russ….you know.

I knew. I shook my head and glowered the entire ride home.
In the end, I almost made music and film history. Almost. The song didn’t get picked up by anybody, despite my Herculean efforts. Even if it had, I don’t think the movie studio would have been down with putting it in the movie – turned out, the movie sort of bombed. They knew it was a bomb, and put off its release for several years. I wouldn’t have admitted it then, but I was pretty crushed it didn’t happen. I was only going to be 13 once, and only going to have this chance once. I’m not going to lie and say I don’t think about this stuff. I do. But I think of it less often than I used to, and I guess that’s good. I’ve also started to think of it more positively – it got me experience, and certainly allowed me to cut my teeth in the adult world. You don’t always get what you want, I suppose, and maybe my life would have been totally different – in a negative way – if I had.

Whenever we were in New York (which was often – several times a week if not more) we would run up to my agent with flowers or candy or whatever and just kill some time chatting. Very rarely did they have any time to chat – or at least not much. Phones were ringing off the hook, and people were running back and forth to fax machines or meeting with clients. Because I booked a lot of stuff, I got a little more face time than the average Joe Schmoe, but it was still limited. We might sit in the office for half an hour to talk to our agent for 10 minutes while she scarfed down an egg salad sandwich. If they got too busy, we just excused ourselves and left. A lot of people might consider this a waste of time, but it was essential for staying on top of their minds and growing a working relationship. It is a fine line, though – you need to not be a pest. And yes, there were “those clients” who called constantly, dropped in unannounced on a regular basis, and just beat the bush to try to get some extra auditions. If you did it in the right way though, you could ask without asking, if you know what I mean.

One of the things a lot of actors freak out about is being type cast. Some people just are naturally type cast – if you look like a big, hulking goon, you’re probably going to go out for roles as a big, hulking goon. Someone with a more “average” look might be able to fit into several different roles, and these people had the most to worry about I think. If they booked a role where they played a serial killer, and they did it really really well – they might only ever get cast a serial killer. I know of some actors who did their jobs so well that casting people were only able to see them as that one, iconic role. They were never able to do anything else. It happens. Anyway, as I think I’ve mentioned before, I referred to as “charactery”. In agent-speak, this meant that I had glasses and was bookish. I could be cast as a brainy prep school kid, or a boy genius, or a nerd that gets picked on, or…well. You get the idea. I wasn’t going out for roles as a surfer. I was one of those people who was typecast because that’s what they were. People always saw me with glasses and a book in my hand, and thought “Oh, that’s the smart kid. Let’s have him play the role of the kid who discovers a new chemical element.” I didn’t mind being seen as smart – in fact, I was secretly very proud of that – but as I got older, the feedback started to shift. I started trying out for more “normal” roles, and the feedback was basically this: He’s not credible as a “real” kid. He’s not a real boy.

I couldn’t disagree with them. I didn’t know how to play, at least in the sense that other kids did. In general, I didn’t know how to relate to other kids – at least the ones that weren’t actors. Actors, at least the ones I’ve ever run across, are usually pretty smart. With rare exception, I’ve never had problems connecting with them – maybe because we had at least acting in common. But put me in a room with “real” kids, and I had no idea what to do. They thought I was weird. I thought they were dumb. A typical conversation might go something like this.

Me: What’s your favorite Shakespeare play?

Kid: My what?

Me: You know, Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet and stuff.

Kid: We had to read it for school. It was alright I guess.

Me: Oh. Well, have you read any Micheal Crichton?

Kid: No, but my Mom read one of his books I think.

Me: Oh.

Kid: You skateboard?

Me: Not really.

Kid: Oh.

After my interactions with them, I’d feel odd and isolated – almost like an alien having just observed an entirely different race and culture. I couldn’t understand people who didn’t discuss politics, or books, or didn’t have intellectual curiosity beyond hanging out at 7-11. I’m not trying to bash normal people here. I’m just saying that as a kid – with little social skills and living in a bubble – I had little time or patience for them. I was a bit of an elitist in a lot of ways. So no, when a role demanded I “just be a kid” I was utterly lost. I’ve been 35 years old since I was 6.

One of the ladies that worked in the agency once pulled my mom aside.

Agent: You should have him play with real kids sometime.

Mom: Real kids?

Agent: Give him as normal a life as possible. He’s going to need to draw on that for his roles.

Whether Mom had taken this advice to heart or not (she didn’t, by the way), it simply wasn’t going to happen. Public school was out – mostly because I’d have to be pulled out of class on a regular basis. And where to find friends and connect with so called “normal” kids, let alone normal people Mom would trust? Even if I did, where would I find the time to hang out? Add Mom’s paranoid fantasies about Russ and the Mafia into the mix, and the chances of a normal life just slipped to zero.

Any success I had in film and TV work was basically because I played a brainy kid well. My role in a Babysitter’s Club episode was basically as a smart (but very smarmy) kid of dubious moral character who was running for class president. I auditioned for a lot of roles that I ultimately didn’t get – Jumanji, Newsies, The Good Son. I came this close to landing the role of Reggie in Richie Rich. Basically, they were looking for someone to really build the character of an aloof, slightly evil genius. Not that I was necessarily an evil genius (though I admit, I did admire some comic book villains), but it wasn’t a stretch to play someone who was aloof, intellectual, and un-relateable. I got to 3rd callbacks to play this role – everyone really seemed to like me, from the director on down. We even got a call directly from L.A., asking us to send them some candid shots. I didn’t really do anything candid – I was far too tightly wound for that – but in this case it probably worked in my favor and made me seem more like the character. In the end, the role I was auditioning for was cut down from being the major villain in the movie to almost nothing, and they ended up going a completely different way with the character. The kid that booked it had frizzy red hair and wore bow ties – he was actually a friend of mine, and I was really glad to hear he booked it.

It followed me all throughout my life, at least until fairly recently (again, therapy – it helps) – that feeling of being separate, of not being “normal”. Ironically, in my teenage years I would have given anything to be “normal” – to go to the mall or school or movies. To have friends to hang out with all the time. To be not a real boy meant being out of place nearly all the time, except in a very limited set of circumstances. It took me a long time to realize that even if I could relate to so-called normal kids, I would never actually be normal. They would always look at me as an oddity – maybe because I was jumpy and twitchy (I could be assassinated at any moment, after all), maybe because my mother was eccentric, or because I used big words and talked about books. Or because I was “famous” – I insisted to them that I wasn’t, that it was all just a job but they didn’t understand. I told them I was just like them, but they didn’t believe it. I can’t exactly blame them – neither did I. I couldn’t even begin to act like one of them for a 2 minute audition. So I sighed, shook my head, and went back to reading. And when the calls came in for the nerdy kid, for the socially awkward brainiac, I gladly took them. I knew what they were asking for, and it was a part I could play.

Hustle

Posted: April 26, 2013 in Acting, Life, Mom, Music
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

One word that comes to mind when I think of those days is hustle.  We hustled a lot. Not just back and forth to auditions and lessons, but we had hustle. I mean…I was pitching demos left and right to anyone that would listen. When I started writing and recording on a regular basis, we’d basically give out the demos to our industry contacts and friends. I mean, if I was meeting you and I shook your hand, I would pass you a demo tape. Most didn’t get listened to, I’m sure – as Grandma might have said, they no doubt wound up in File 13 – her word for the office trash can. Some probably listened out of curiosity. I was a savant, a boy wonder (or whatever…pick your word) and they wanted to see exactly how good a 10 year old kid could write. I enjoyed the attention – almost all of it was supportive and positive – but it wasn’t long before I started to wonder if they were listening because it was good or because I was a novelty. I thought it was probably the latter, and that depressed me. Listening back to my old stuff now is a cringe inducing experience. I imagine it is for most writers. Some, like myself, are bound to have a book or a room or a case where they put all their bastard children (artistically speaking, of course). If they’re anything like me, visits are difficult and rare. Songs I thought were great when I was 8 or 10 I listen to at 30 and cannot believe I wrote such a tremendous mound of dung, let alone peddled the demo tapes to everyone who would listen. They were good for my age, but I realized very quickly that in order to not just be a novelty, I had to be as good or better than the adults who were writing (and who already had dozens of years more experience than I did). I saw this, and worked harder. I put my nose to the grindstone until it was bloody and raw. I don’t like my old work, with only one or two exceptions, but I’m proud of it because it allowed me to cut my teeth and develop as an artist. Someone once said that 90% of the stuff you will write is useless junk, if you’re lucky. The other 10% is hopefully worth something.

Anyway, I used to do a lot of jingles – don’t know if I mentioned that before. It’s an industry that is all but dead now, but in the early 90’s it was still booming. We would get calls (sometimes from jingle houses, sometimes from agents), I’d run in with maybe 3 or 4 other people, we’d harmonize a few times and crank out something great. I’ll see if I can’t find a few jingles that I did and link them at the bottom of the post.

Somewhere along the line, I got the idea (or Mom got the idea) that I ought to write jingles. I hit every jingle house I knew with demos, and most of the ad agencies too. In retrospect, they were never going to hire a kid to do anything like that – it was too much of a gamble – but we didn’t know that. What Mom also didn’t know – or at least didn’t put together properly in her head – was that giving demo tapes to the jingle houses created a conflict of interest for them. Let me explain. Most of the people who worked at the jingle houses were writers and musicians – hired by an ad agency or other client to write, play on, and produce a jingle. Giving them a demo of some songs was in and of itself not a bad idea, but giving them a demo and asking if they were interested in having me write jingles was in poor taste. It would be like walking into a store, handing your resume to the manager, and trying to apply for his job. Rather futile, somewhat offensive, and mostly dumb. But since we didn’t know what we were doing, at least in regards to the music business, we ran around acting like a couple of rubes. Everyone was very gracious in accepting the demos – I never heard anyone say a bad word about it. But in the end, I don’t think they knew what to do with it, even if they wanted to help. I did, somehow, come into contact with a very nice guy who ran a major ad agency. I had done some work for him in the past, and had handed him my demo. Not only did he very graciously listen, but wrote a letter to tell me how much he enjoyed it, and how he would gladly consider me as a candidate if I wanted to apply for a position there in the future. The guy was a giant in the industry – he coined the phrase “It’s everywhere you want to be” for Visa, for instance – there was no reason for him to take the time to listen to some kid’s tape. But he did, and I still have the letter.

A friend in the business told me once “If you were sitting in a theater, and somebody like Madonna was sitting behind you, you’d reach under your seat and hand her a demo tape.” He was joking (kind of) but he wasn’t wrong. I would have. And if I didn’t think of it on my own, Mom would have insisted I do it. I remember sitting in a diner once in rural Pennsylvania, and Mom and I overheard a conversation at the next table. The guy had worked for Pepsi or something, and somehow Mom got the impression he was important. So she sent me over to ask him what he did for Pepsi. This was very rude,  since it would have been obvious we were eavesdropping, but it was also tactless. You just don’t do that sort of thing, you know? Anyway, I did as I was bid and found out the guy was a truck driver for Pepsi. We had a polite (but very confused, at least on his part) chat. He seemed to have no idea why I was explaining that I was a songwriter. I sat back down in the booth, and related our conversation to Mom.

Mom: So he wasn’t important?

Me: I guess not. He drove truck for Pepsi, he wasn’t like, in an ad agency or anything.

Mom: Oh.

I went back to my food.

Mom: Well, hand him a demo tape anyway. He could know somebody.

And, once again, I got up from the table and trotted over to where the poor bewildered soul sat. He thanked me for the demo tape, handed it to his wife who put it in her purse, and smiled at me oddly. He probably thought I was the strangest freaking kid he’d ever run into. And he was probably right.

When I look back on these times, I do feel embarrassed. True, we didn’t know any better, but we could have had a little more tact. Somehow, I blame myself the most, even though I really was just doing what I was told. Mom supposedly knew best, in most if not all cases. In my 30 years on the planet, I’ve learned that if you’re nice to people – really genuine – they want to help you. I’m not saying I wasn’t genuine, but basically walking around asking people to listen to my demo all the time wasn’t ideal. It didn’t make them want to listen. I was some snot-nosed brat off the street, flinging tapes around like a mad man. I didn’t care about them personally, just what they could do for me. Granted, that attitude was learned behavior, but it is a very sorry attitude. I’m embarrassed to have ever had it.

At the same time, although we wanted people to listen, we didn’t know what to do when offers of help came. We didn’t want to seem overeager or rude (ha ha) by asking for help directly, so Mom’s plan was to simply ask for guidance and advice, rather than direct help. Once, we had a meeting with a fairly famous songwriter.

Songwriter: Okay. So what do you need me to do? How can I help?

Mom and I looked at him blankly.

Mom: I guess…just…offer advice.

And he graciously did. But Mom’s plan of asking for “advice” and hoping to get actual help failed 100% of the time. We simply didn’t know how to be direct when the chips were down. Quite literally, we flopped around like a dying fish – hoping that merely by moving and acting the desired outcome would materialize.

Nowadays, I have the opposite problem – probably because of how I feel about all that stuff. I hesitate to give people a demo, and frankly feel a little chagrined about it when I do. I take very specific opportunities, but they’re ones that I ponder carefully and execute with precision. I no longer crassly walk around asking people to listen to my music, or force demo tapes on them. Mom shakes her head at me these days and tells me I don’t have the drive, that I don’t have hustle. And she’s right – at least, by her definition, I don’t. I learned from carelessness, and it has made me careful. But sometimes I miss the frenetic energy, the constant buzz of doing, and I wonder if there isn’t something to it after all.

 

Kool-Aid, Pink Swimmingo

Sprinkle Spangles

 

One of the privileges of growing up in the business is having access to things other people – particularly people my age – didn’t have access to. I’m not talking about rubbing elbows with important people (though there was that), and I’m not talking about money (there was that, too – though I didn’t really care about it at that point). I’m talking about getting into places or doing things you have no business doing when you are that age. The moment you say you’re an actor, or that you’re researching a role, or that you’re there because you’re a part of the show, it’s almost like you have carte blanche. Let me give you some examples.

When I was still quite young – perhaps 7 – I was doing a lot of singing appearances. This was mostly with the variety show I was on. Most of their stuff was fairly kid friendly – malls, the piers at the shore, that sort of thing. At least once, I went to a casino. I remember being led by my dad past slot machines and bright lights. They made me think of my Nintendo back home, and I really wanted to play with them – of course I wasn’t allowed to. Perhaps my access at that age didn’t extend beyond all reason, but I can’t imagine many kids my age getting to see the inside of casinos (maybe the eating areas, I suppose).

Another time, we played at a race track. I’ve never been back since – never saw the need to gamble, at least not on that – but when I was still pretty young, around 6 or 7, I played a show at a race track. I was semi interested in the horses running around, and in the frenzy of activity from the gamblers. Dad decided he wanted to gamble, after pondering his choices. I asked him to explain what was going on, and he did. It was a largely unnecessary, since I understood the gist of it. I didn’t get the idea of odds, or what amount you might get if you won, but I understood that people were betting on horses. I don’t know why, but I heard the announcer boom a name and it caught my ear.

Announcer: IT”S CHOCOLATE SIS!

I lit up. I decided that was my horse. There are some obvious racial connotations to that name, but I didn’t get them at the time. I just thought it was referencing somebody’s sister who was literally made of chocolate. For me at 7, that was a pretty badass concept. I insisted to Dad that he place a bet on Chocolate Sis for me. He ignored me. I pulled his sleeve and pestered. And pestered. He finally quieted me by assuring me he had placed a bet for me (whether he actually did or not, I have no idea). I think he must have won, because we went up to the counter afterwards and he turned in his ticket. I watched other people irritatedly throwing their tickets on the ground – it kind of looked like a sudden explosion of confetti. I saw a guy running behind them, picking them up. I had assumed he was just on cleanup, but I didn’t find out the purpose until years later. Evidently professional gamblers pick up losing tickets to use as tax write offs, since it’s considered a loss.

I have dozens of stories like this, but I’ll just tell one more to illustrate my point. When I was about 12, I had to audition for an anti smoking commercial. The idea behind the commercial was this slob of a kid – undoubtedly a “bad seed” – smoking cigarettes. Clearly the role called for somebody comfortable with smoking, and I clearly was not. I don’t know where this came from, whether Mom or the casting director or the agent, but supposedly they wanted you to bring cigarettes to the audition. Mom pulled over on an NYC street corner and told me to go buy a pack. I looked at her incredulously.

Me: I’m twelve.

Mom: I know, but I don’t have change for the meter.

Me: Um. Aren’t they not allowed to sell to me?

Mom rolled her eyes.

Mom: They’ll sell them to you. Tell them you’re an actor, and it’s for a role.

And damn it if she wasn’t right.

I walked in and asked for a pack of cigarettes. I told them it didn’t matter what kind. The guy behind the counter gave me the eyeball.

Cashier: Uh. I no do dis.

He pointed to a sign – we’ve all seen them – “If you are born before this date you can’t buy cigarettes”.

I sighed, partially because this was kind of a hassle and also to show that I wasn’t trying to put one over on him. Sort of like, sorry we’re both in this position, buddy, but I gotta do what I gotta do.

Me: I know, I know. It’s for a role. I’m an actor.

His face lit up.

Cashier: Actor?

He emphasized the “or” at the end, so it sounded like acTOR?

I nodded.

Me: It’s for an anti smoking commercial.

He seemed swayed, but a little suspicious.

Cashier: Is for TV?

I told him it was.

He pushed a pack of Kools to the middle of the counter, considering. Then he pushed it the rest of the way, beaming. I guess he thought I was famous or something. Anyway, I got the cigarettes. I didn’t smoke them – didn’t even like having them in my mouth, actually. I was scared to death I would get addicted, get cancer, and die. (I didn’t get the gig, by the way).

I would argue that people who have grown up in the Business are a bit more worldly than others – as a general rule, they tend to be more mature, in my opinion. It’s one reason I didn’t “rebel” like a lot of teens did – I had already tasted alcohol and didn’t like it. I had bought cigarettes, had them in my mouth, and didn’t like it. I thought drugs were possibly the dumbest thing you could do to yourself. I would never have dreamed of shoplifting. I did act out as a teen, but it was in other ways that were much more subtle. Nothing illegal, at any rate.

That experience thing went both ways, by the way. Sometimes you had to audition for a role so far out of your depth you had no idea what to do with it. I was supposed to audition for this one project – can’t remember the name off the top of my head – but it was a movie about a kid who discovers he’s gay. The script was extremely explicit. Not pornographic or anything like that, but extremely frank sexual talk – very graphic. Anyway, even though I was worldly in the sense that I had experienced things most kids my age didn’t, I was also sheltered to a woeful degree. Hell, my Mom never had a birds and the bees talk with me. By the time I was old enough to sort of figure things out, her advice was very forthright.

Mom: Do not ever have sex with a girl. Do not get her pregnant. You will ruin your life.

And that charming little thought has done wonders for my sex life, let me tell you. Anyway, being so sheltered and reading a script that was so frank and openly sexual made me extremely uncomfortable. Hell, I couldn’t read the thing without getting beet red and stuttering. Mom insisted that I audition for it – even though I told her I didn’t want to. It felt so weird that I was in no way comfortable auditioning, let alone performing the role. Evidently, I was in good company – there were a lot of kids who wouldn’t even consider auditioning for it. Mom thought that meant I had a good shot, since competition would be low. Still, it was a very tough role to even read. She made me bring it to my acting coach (I had gotten one in NY, in addition to Uncle Richard – besides, by that point he had moved well beyond the sphere of simply an acting coach). I gave it my best, but I just couldn’t do it. After only a few minutes I was red-faced and embarrassed. I could not even meet the eyes of my acting coach. At best, I could only spit out the lines. Ultimately, my acting coach pulled Mom aside and told her there was no way I could reasonably audition for this. I just wasn’t even remotely comfortable with the sexual nature of the script. Mom was a bit deflated, but I was relieved.

At some point, Mom became convinced that kids in my age group were taking pills to stay small. I guess that’s feasible – I’ve heard of this happening with child actors, but I can’t imagine a parent wanting to do that to their kid. I wouldn’t think it was a common practice, though Mom seemed to see it everywhere. Supposedly (in Mom’s view, at least) they were doing this to be more competitive – they were older, but they were small enough to still play younger roles. Mom pondered at one point trying to obtain such pills for me, but was quickly discouraged by my doctor and agent. Her next thing was trying to make me taller – I don’t really know why. She had me put lifts in my shoes, or wear shoes with tall heels. I guess she thought if I was taller I could look older and go for older roles. Again, she turned to medical science – she asked our doctor to give me growth hormones. He didn’t exactly refuse, but he didn’t exactly endorse it. In the end, it was dropped – though I do kind of wish I were taller.

 

 

She threw the fabled Red Book in my lap – the book contained the phone numbers of important people we had come across; agents, managers, casting people, directors…whatever.

Mom: Here. You call.

I felt a little panicked.

Me: Me? You want me to call?

I was like, 10 or 11. I had talked to these people, of course, but hadn’t talked business with them – I had never negotiated before in my life, that was Mom’s job. And I had certainly never seen them in the context of anything more than a social call. Sometimes Mom would tell me to bring up cookies or flowers to my agent’s office and I would do that. It mostly involved me talking about whatever book I was reading, or asking them how their families were doing. (Take note, readers – that stuff goes a long way).

Mom: I want you to be the one to talk to these people from now on. You negotiate the deals.

Panic fluttered in my chest. I didn’t know the first thing about any of this. I never liked the business end of things – I wanted to be creative. I could give two shits what I was paid. The specter of making horrible business decisions arose in my head. Those shadowy figures making back room deals rolled through my vision – I worried I would make mistakes and fall into a trap. After all, the world was out to get me.

Me: But why?

Mom: Because.

Panic was turning into anger.

Me: Because why?

My Mother looked straight down into my eyes with an intensity I had rarely seen.

Mom: Because I’m not going to be around forever.

There was a long, pregnant pause.

Me: But…how do I do this. And what do you mean you’re not going to be around?

Mom: Everyone dies, Danny.

I blinked back tears, thinking of the horrible ways she could die – killed by mysterious hit men, or an “accident”, or poisoned. I thought of running my life without her and became even more overwhelmed.

Me: Is there another hit out on you?

Mom: Not that I know of. But I’m on the way out and you’re on the way in. You need to do this yourself.

I stamped down my anxiety as best I could, and picked up the phone. I hoped like hell I wouldn’t say something stupid, or my voice wouldn’t sound as nervous as I felt. It was a simple call – checking in to see if there were any last minute auditions. It went rather well, I thought, and I hung up the phone with a sigh of relief. I felt somewhat empowered, thinking it wasn’t so bad.

Mom: Well? Did you ask them about the audition you went on yesterday?

Me: No…I just checked in.

Mom: Dammit, Danny. You were supposed to ask about that!

Me: I didn’t know…

Mom: Call them back.

I didn’t feel right turning around and calling them back – in my limited experience, I felt it made me look like I didn’t know what I was doing (I didn’t, really, but I didn’t want them to know that – I had trusted Mom to make all the decisions thus far and that was fine with me). Embarrassed, I called them back like I was asked. With my agent talking in one ear, Mom was literally bent down by the phone and talking in my other ear.

Mom: What did they say? Ask them when the callback is.

It was confusing to carry on two conversations at once. I managed to get Mom’s questions in before the agent got too impatient and I started to get too stressed out. The phone calls went on like that. She would have me make a phone call to whoever – then dictate what I ought to say and ask questions or make comments during the phone call that I was somehow supposed to convey to the person on the other end. It was like a fucked up game of Telephone.

It extended further than simply phone calls, though. Sometimes we’d be in the studio with Russ, and she’d lean in and whisper something in my ear.

Mom: Tell Russ you think the drums need to be louder.

I didn’t necessarily agree with her assessment, but with some hesitation I relayed the message.  Russ would nod in acknowledgement and then do whatever he was going to do anyway. She’d nudge my shoulder, and then give me another message to repeat. It was something I quickly got tired of.

Sometimes we’d be out in the car, after a lesson with Russ, and she’d get thoughtful.

Mom: Dan, run back in and ask Russ if the answer is coming back.

Me: Mom, I really don’t want to do that.

Mom: Just do it.

I did, and relayed his response to her. This resulted in no small amount of pumping me for every detail and going over every scrap of information. What did his eyes look like when he said it? What was his body language like? Did he seem positive or negative? Did he answer right away, or did he pause?

Like I said, her propensity to do this hasn’t changed much over the years. Even today, she’ll literally ask me to write e-mails for her. Hell, when she took grad school classes she actually had me write her papers for her because “I was so good at it”. A family friend once said that she wants to be the power behind the throne, so to speak. She wants to be the one pulling the strings but not the one actually out there doing stuff. At least in my experience, I think that’s accurate. But I think it has more to do with her confidence level than anything else – she’s perfectly capable of writing e-mails or making phone calls. She just feels the need to hide behind other people.

So, at a young age I started making business deals and doing things (mostly) on my own. I don’t think this was necessarily a bad thing, and it’s come in handy over the years. I have to admit, I still feel under prepared sometimes when I make phone calls. I have to stuff down that rising anxiety. I worry that I’ll get it wrong, that I’ll miss something, that I’ll forget to ask a question that’s relevant. In the end, I take a deep breath just dial the damn phone.