I really can't get enough of Stephen Tobolowsky's podcast, The Tobolowsky Files. You may know Stephen Tobolowsky as Ned Ryerson from Groundhog Day (at least that's how I knew him), or as That Guy In That One Movie -- he's one of those prolific character actors who's done hundreds of films and TV shows yet still retains anonymity among the common man. I was turned onto his brilliant podcast recently and I highly suggest you check it out, whether you're in this crazy business or not -- it is by turns funny, poignant, artful, touching on the inane realities of the entertainment business and the deepest truths of life within seconds of each other. But isn't that how life is anyway? I could write about nearly any of the episodes, but this one sticks out for me right now, for reasons I'll outline below. In his "bonus" episode between Seasons 1 and 2 (from about a year ago), Stephen talks about his FAQ -- what "FAQ" means, how to pronounce it -- the questions that he gets asked most often in interviews. His delivery gets lost in transcription, but here goes anyway:
I became very interested in FAQ. Frequently Asked Question - not the "question" part of it, but the "frequently" part of it. Because I would find that I would hear FAQ, and I would go, "Really? These are the questions people ask a lot? ...Why?"
You know, as an actor, I'm in the business of asking questions, and whenever I get a script I'm always amazed by what writers think is important to know. For example, a script will say, "Betsy Davenport, lawyer, 35, attractive." This would be our initial foray into Betsy's FAQs. The quick answer. But of course, all of this information is completely without meaning. As an actor, I would ask, "Is she a good lawyer or bad lawyer? Does she come from a family of lawyers, or is she the first person in her family with a graduate degree? Does she like country western music? Did she really want to become a vet?" The list goes on and on of questions with more meaning, that are not frequently asked. And don't even get me started with "attractive".
I recently went in for a show for which the breakdown read "Pretty, Caucasian, temperamental." My boyfriend submitted me. No, I kid, I kid! Anyway to be fair, there were multiple shorts being cast at the same time, and this same actress would be playing roles in each of them. But in a sense that only made it worse. There are potentially three, four, five roles I'm being considered for and all you can give me is "temperamental"? To what is this "temper" related? Hormones? Stress? Genetics? Stomach-ache? Are all the potential characters marked by excessive sensitivity and impulsive mood changes (thanks, Webster's)? Five moody women don't do much for me; I
want need to know what they're moody about. Menopause the Musical this wasn't.
But since that information wasn't forthcoming, and I hadn't been given sides, I went in and sang a song that I love. It's not a particularly temperamental song, but I know what I'm singing about, and that's more than half the battle.
Which brings me to the age-old audition conundrum of What are they looking for? It's a doozy, because no matter how many classes I go to where they remind us that The Creative Team Doesn't Even Know What They Are Looking For! and, You Can't Try To Be Something Other Than You; and, When You Come In With Confidence And Knowing Yourself, We Can Tell And We Love It; it's still a hard pill to swallow. What actor doesn't fancy themselves an Alison Janney-like chameleon; what actor doesn't want to play characters that aren't just like himself; what actor doesn't want to help the creative team see that she is the best possible choice for this character? Unless, of course, she's not, I know. But when the material isn't there to sink our teeth into, we have to put the energy into something.
"Know thyself" said the Greek temple at Delphi (or so I'm told, and goodness knows the theater owes a lot to the Greeks) and of course it is good advice, perhaps the best and only advice. In acting school (or maybe not) we are given countless exhortations to discover one's own truth and then tirelessly pursue it. Of course, it could be said that this is the only recipe for a truly happy and successful life, a life well lived, a satisfying life. And of course, just the self-discovery can take a lifetime, but I'll save that for another blog post, or therapy. In the end, I don't have the answer, but I guess it really does just come down to being the best/most "you" you can be today, preparing and representing yourself well, and putting the rest behind you.
**Bonus points to anyone who can tell me what animated Disney movie moment I'm quoting in this post title.