Thursday, January 9, 2014

A Fundamentalist Becomes an Actor: Part 1

I never really made it past the fringes of professional theater. By the time I figured out the game, there were other variables in my life that kept me from taking advantage of my knowledge. Others, however, have been able to take advantage of my knowledge, and they are carving out for themselves the careers in professional theatre that I wanted. I’m happy for them and thankful that I was able to contribute, but at times saddened by the reality that in the eyes of society, I failed. That being said, I have received a paycheck many times for being on stage. I’m proud of that fact.  

My foray into the world of acting was suspect, at best; although, I doubt that I’m the only actor who chose his career as a rejection of everything his parents believed[1]. Since my decision to become an actor was almost entirely a knee jerk reaction, I was unprepared and, due to the environment I was raised in, had no one to turn to for advice about the industry. Having no idea how to get someone to pay me to be an actor, I walked into the lobby of the Saenger Theatre in Pensacola, and told the box office attendant that I wanted to apply for a job as an actor. Now, besides the fact that that’s obviously not how one generally lands acting gigs, the Saenger Theatre didn’t even have an in-house company; the theatre was a touring house. I didn’t know that, and, at the time, I wouldn’t have known what it meant even if I had known it.

The box office attendant politely explained to me that they weren’t taking applications for actors, but that there might be some crew work available. I didn’t know much about the industry, but I figured that any employment was a foot in the door[2]. The job was unloading trucks for concerts at the Pensacola Civic Center and the Bayfront Auditorium. It was a fun job; I got to hang out with roadies, but it had next to nothing to do with acting. It also wasn’t full-time work. The hourly pay was high for the 90’s, but I only got work about once every two weeks.

I applied for a few other jobs, but without a whole lot of effort. I was waiting for my big break. My exasperated dad called in a favor and got me an interview with a construction company. He even drove me to the interview. I politely turned the job down and returned to the car where my dad was waiting. He asked me how it went, and I told him that the job wasn’t well suited for me. He looked down, sighed, and then, mustering every ounce of self-control that he had, spat out, “It’s going to be a long time before anyone pays you to be an actor.” He obviously knew more about the industry than I did.

I finally got a job washing cars at a Thrifty Car Rental. I hated it, and eventually got myself fired after cussing out my racist boss for saying racist things. I wanted to get fired; taking the moral high ground was just icing on the cake. My first service industry job was next, delivery driver for Pizza Hut, but by that time I was beginning to reshape how I wanted people to view me and what I did wasn’t as important as what I claimed to be.  

A helpful clerk at Books-a-Million had introduced me to books that unlocked the secret of how to make it in Hollywood. The only thing those books ever taught me was how to sound like I knew what I was talking about in front of others who knew as little or, if possible, less than I did about the “industry.” That skill enabled me to convince myself and the guy who washed cars with me at Thrifty that I was indeed an actor. He thought that was the coolest thing and invited me to parties. So, by the time that I got to Pizza Hut, I had learned that being an actor meant not having to worry about people mistaking me for a Christian.

In the eyes of my co-workers, being an “actor” meant being the de facto expert about all things Hollywood. After years of being the kid who had to tell his parents that he was going bowling whenever he went to the movies, I suddenly found myself the one that everyone turned to for knowledgeable opinions about movies and movie stars. Well, everyone except the delivery drivers who were also students at Pensacola Christian College. The way they looked at me made me think that they knew my shameful secret - I wasn’t an actor, but instead was a Christian school nerd.

My fear of never being able to escape the stench of my upbringing prompted me into two of the worst decisions I’ve ever made.

The first decision was my misguided attempt to control other people’s perception of me. Growing up in fundamentalism during the 80’s and early 90’s meant that I received very little useful information about alcohol, drugs, or sex. Most of the information consisted of, “Don’t drink alcohol, do drugs, or have sex. Those things are bad, and will ruin your life and testimony!” Many of the kids that grew up with me weren’t overly concerned about their testimonies, and the existential and emotional hurricane that was our pubescent hormones shouted down any and all emotional pleas from our authority figures. In our hormonal high, sex and alcohol became the Holy Grail of vices. Vices that were difficult to attain, though, mainly because we are all extremely naïve and, in connection with our naivety, our authority figures had placed draconian hedges around our lives. We managed, some with more success than others. If our parents had known about the amount of alcohol in our lives, they would’ve been shocked; if our public school and secular college counterparts had known, they would’ve laughed.

Out of the big three vices, drugs were the farthest removed from us, and I don’t remember many opinions about drugs, positive or negative, being discussed amongst me and my friends. Drugs weren’t on our radar, and so I entered the world of drugs totally unprepared.

I was so desperate to prove to myself that I wasn’t a Christian school nerd, and so desperate to hide my past from my new friends and peers, that I didn’t pay attention to what was going on around me. If I had, I would’ve noticed that no one really cared what you did or didn’t do. You don’t want to attempt to shotgun a bottle of vodka? Ok. You don’t want to snort that line of coke? Ok. I hid my fear of being thought a Christian behind a façade of bravado, even though I was scared shitless. I said “yes” to everything, and flaunted it in the face of my PCC co-workers.

My second decision during that time is one of the things in my life that, besides being plain stupid, is one of my most shameful. I decided to get married. Every story has two sides, and I generally like to tell my perspective of her side; that saves me from having to tell my side. It’s hard to spin what I did. Our relationship was awful, and there is no way that anyone who was close to us thought it was a good idea for us to get married. That’s all I’m going to say about it at the moment. What’s relevant to this post is why I decided to get married.

If you remember from this past post, becoming a movie star was the only concept I had about being an actor. To be a movie star meant moving to Los Angeles. L.A. became my Mecca. I became obsessed with getting there, but wasn’t sure how to do that. I knew that a one bedroom apartment in L.A. would be much more doable for two people than for one. I figured that whatever I had to pay in a divorce in a couple years would simply be the price of my admission to movie stardom, and it would be worth it.

So, we got engaged, I quit my job at Pizza Hut, and moved to Greenville, SC. At the time she was on staff at Bob Jones University, so we had to go to great lengths to mask where I was living until after the wedding two months later.               

October of that year found me at an audition for The Homecoming. I had never heard of the play, and being the late 90’s, I hadn’t yet discovered the internet; so, prior to the audition I trudged to the library to read a copy of the play. I spent an afternoon devouring the words of Harold Pinter and delving into the playwright’s mind as he grabbled with themes of sex, violence, and the uselessness of morals within family settings. I showed up at the audition nervous yet excited about the possibility to perform in a play that was as anti-fundamentalist as I could imagine at the time. To my surprise and discomfort, the majority of the auditioners were children. I thought to myself, “What sick perverts would send their kids to audition for a play like this?” I didn’t have to wonder long, though, because as soon as I got my sides[3], I realized that I was auditioning for the stage version of The Waltons.

The play was written by Earl Hamner Jr., and was the basis for The Waltons’ TV pilot. I, surprisingly enough, landed the role of Clay-Boy (John-Boy)[4]. My initial disappointment when I found out that the play I was auditioning for was practically a Fundamentalist play was quickly replaced by the realization that my big break was right around the corner. That’s stupid, I know, but, you see, I honestly believed that someone with influence in Hollywood would see the play, and that I would be summoned to Hollywood, probably by Steven Spielberg himself. Let me repeat that; I believed with every ounce of my being that a Hollywood something or other[5] would come to the play, be blown away by my performance, and within a year (two at the most) I would be accepting my first Oscar.

Sadly, of course, that didn’t happen. But I had finally tread the boards, and I slowly began to fall in love with theatre. Over the next two years I was cast in play after play, and I began to believe the small town newspaper clippings that gushed over my performances. Well, most of them. In fact, all of them except for one lone review written by a Bob Jones University professor who wrote in the local paper that my portrayal of Christopher Wren “strained credulity.” I had to look up the meaning of credulity, but upon doing so I was appropriately offended.

One of the things that theatre provided for me in those early years was a family of sorts, a community. There had been times as a BJU student when I would sit and watch my fellow students interact with each other. Most of them appeared genuinely happy. I resented that. I wanted to be happy, but I could never figure out their secret. If felt like there was a secret club that I was only allowed to observe. The theatre community became my secret club.      

[1] In fact, there’s a good possibility that this is the very reason most actors are actors.
[2] It wasn’t a foot in the door, but that sentiment would prove useful down the road after I had figured out which end was up.
[3] “Sides” are the portions of the script given to the actor to read for the audition. Now you know about as much about acting as I did at that audition.
[4] In the play, the family was called the Spencers. I’m not sure why the name was changed for TV.
[5] At the time I was so ignorant of the industry that my fantasies had gaping holes in them, and so I say “something or other.”

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