After a few tv commercials and a couple of sitcom roles, I snagged a supporting role in what appeared to be a significant new Warner Brothers film. I would fly up to Seattle and spend a week in the Emerald City, working opposite two of the industry’s brightest young stars.
What a week.
The work was challenging, the cast and crew stellar, the role was just meaty enough for my neophyte chops. I met a gal in a local downtown clothing store. The future looked good. I was money, baby.
The film was Dogfight, starring the late River Phoenix and Lili Taylor. For a variety of reasons, the film didn’t do much at the box office and the role didn’t catapult me the way I imagined it would.
Welcome to Los Angeles.
A year later, that young girl I met in Seattle and continued a long distance relationship with, moved down to live with me in Venice. It was her turn to chase the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
She was into clothes and had a great eye for trends. She knew what was cool and what was yesterday’s news.
She made L.A. look easy. Could walk into a room, a party, an event, and zone in on the folks who could help her get where she wanted to go. Not in a bad way – just different from the Midwestern “aw shucks” approach I wore on my sleeve.
It didn’t take long for her to get her first film break. She moved faster than me and in Hollywood that is the kiss of death for young love.
Her big break was a little film called Swingers. She worked for next to nothing, as is always the case on the ultra low-budget projects, but it was obvious the way she discussed the filming with me that she was in with a good crowd. She later that year received a nice check in the mail after the film was purchased, proving she was on her way. Most of Hollywood’s “deferred payment” agreements do not have happy endings.
Filmmaker Doug Liman and his young star, John Favreau, were unfamiliar names to me. But Vince Vaughn I knew.
I had been a recurring character on a silly ABC sitcom the year before, and the actress who played my girlfriend was Vince’s real life flame. So he was around. On the set. In the dressing rooms.
I liked Vince. He thought I was “funny as hell.”
We would cross paths on the audition circuit. We were both up for a small role in Rudy. I didn’t get it. He did.
An early minor disappointment.
Nobody hands you a manual when you set foot in Los Angeles. If they did it would probably be titled “Get Used to Disappointment.”
While Dogfight didn’t do much for my ascension, it ended up being the debut of a young actor named Brendan Fraser.
Fraser was a local drama student at Seattle’s nearby Cornish College of the Arts. The film sprinkled over a dozen of the academy’s students throughout, mostly as extras. Fraser (credited as ‘Sailor #1’) had one line in an arcade brawl between his clutch of on-leave sailors and the film’s Marine protagonists.
Suffice it to say, I’ve seen a ton of actors, directors, and writers come and go over my 23 plus years in this city. The amount of actors I’ve seen “blow up” during my tenure is staggering. I begrudge none of them their success. Learning to be happy for the success of others is a crucial developmental step to survival. In any arena.
My father is a writer. When prodded, he gives me anecdotal gems from his early days mixing it up with such literary heavyweights Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Yates, Bill Harrison, Andre Dubus, and even a sit down newspaper interview with Martin Luther King, Jr.
He shared with me long ago an adage that he was exposed to during a particularly competitive university phase. “It’s not so much that I succeed, but all my friends must fail.”
It was one of the harshest, most depressing things I’d ever heard.
But you see it everywhere, unfortunately.
The thing that keeps most of us around is the excitement of the next day’s potential. Heck, once upon a time I played characters credited pathetically ‘Gorilla #2’ and ‘Bouncer,’ and now I’m leading the charge guest starring on top network season finales. Easy progress to track. I’ve been blessed.
I recently worked on Kevin Smith’s new much-anticipated film Red State. Kevin Smith made Clerks! There are a handful of independent films from the early 90s that shaped and influenced the way films are made and distributed today. Swingers was one. El Mariachi another. Reservoir Dogs. And Clerks.
Every phone call from an agent or manager brings opportunity. Relationships forged weeks ago, months ago, often times years ago, come back to bear fruit when you least expect. You never know when you show up on a set for a new gig who might be working behind the camera. There are Oscar winners around every corner. It’s thrilling. Your next job could be that job. The one you look back on as the role that changed everything.
But the whole enchilada requires a gigantic leap of faith.
I was very fortunate to have a roommate during my first few years in L.A. who loved Marlon Brando. He exposed me to A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront. Those two films opened my eyes to what acting had to be for me personally. If I was to make a career of this, it had to be that good. The bar was high.
The legendary scene in On the Waterfront between Brando and Rod Steiger left a mark on me.
Brando’s punch drunk ‘Terry Malloy’ in the back of the cab with his big brother ‘Charlie’ (Steiger). ‘Charlie’ has disappointed ‘Terry’ by pulling a gun on him and demanding his compliance. Brando’s reaction is priceless. His words sum up the battle cry of the underdog.
To paraphrase: “I could have been a contender. Instead of a bum. Which is what I am.”
Well, the truth for most of us out here chasing the dream is that on any given day you may feel like the contender or the bum. You might even hit both notes in the same day. The key is to take both in stride and enjoy the ride.
Vince Vaughn plays ‘Trent’ in Swingers. A wise cracking, smooth as silk wannabe. His pal, ‘Mike’ (Favreau) is down in the dumps over a recent break up.
The film opens with ‘Trent’ taking ‘Mike’ to Las Vegas in hopes of cheering up his pal. “Vegas!!!!” they both bellow enthusiastically.
Then, on their way out of Sin City they pull over and have a heart-to-heart chat that sets up the rest of the picture.
‘Trent’s’ words, while meant for his sad sack pal to get him back in the dating game, are so applicable for us dreamers in Tinseltown: “You take yourself out of the game…baby, you are so money and you don’t even know it. ” Then “Your self-esteem is low right now. But talking about it, thinking about it all the time, it’s depressing, it’s no good man.”
It’s the perfect contrast to the exuberance our cool cat swingers showed as they set off for Las Vegas – “Vegas!!!!”