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October 2008

I’m a lemur, she’s a lemur…

After I moved to L.A. many years ago, I was looking for a job when I saw an interesting ad in the Drama-Logue, a now-defunct trade paper for actors which contained casting notices.

A production company was looking for petite actors (under 5’5″) to don costumes and play lemurs in a movie. I had no idea what a lemur was but the pay caught my eye: $250 a day for two months. That’s 5 grand a month! Ten thousand total! Plus, the movie would be shot in some exotic jungle location so I’d get to travel and a per diem and put up in a hotel. It’d be like taking an all-expenses vacation while getting paid!

I showed the ad to my roommate Susan (who also fit the height requirement) and she wanted to audition, too. The open call was in a week and we had to show up and “behave like lemurs.” Since neither of us knew what that entailed, we headed to the L.A. Zoo for research.

After getting lost and wandering through the reptile and arachnid areas, we finally found our lemurs. There was a pair sitting on a tree branch looking out at all the people looking in. They had haunting eyes–indignant yet sad.

“Come on, do something,” Susan said.

They didn’t move.

“How are we going to know what they do if they just sit there?” I wondered.

One lemur scratched the other then they huddled together, as though to console each other.

After watching the lemurs do nothing for about 20 minutes, Sus and I called it a day. The audition would be easy; lemurs didn’t do anything.

Day of the call, Sus and I went to the office. When they called my name, I asked if Sus and I could audition together since lemurs are more interesting in pairs (see how I slipped in my zoo research there?). Once in the room, we squatted on the floor and squat-walked around a little but mostly just sat there staring at the producers.

“Do something,” the older male producer said in a British accent. Funny–that’s what Susan had said to the lemurs.

“Um, this is what they do, lots of sitting and lots of staring,” I said.

The female producer spoke up. “Well, we need to see more. Can you roll around or something?”

I thought, What am I, a monkey now? But then I remembered the 5 grand a month.

I did a forward roll, the kind you did in kindergarten tumbling sessions. I didn’t want to randomly roll around on the ground because I had gotten the impression lemurs weren’t that freewheeling and easygoing, at least not the ones at the zoo. I mimed scratching myself a little then did another dainty roll. Sus was doing pretty much the same. The producers eventually thanked us and we left, our legs aching from squatting.

A week passed and neither of us got a call. I was so bummed I wasn’t selected to be a lemur. After seeing them at the zoo, I had felt I could portray them with some authenticity and dignity–well, as much as could be mustered while wearing a furry suit. Now, I wouldn’t get the chance.

Much later I found out the movie never got made so who knows, I could’ve been a contender for Lemur #1. But by that point, I had resigned myself to playing only humans. Which I can do quite convincingly, even without a forward roll.


Who IS that actor?




Have you ever been watching a movie or TV show when an actor/actress shows up and you think, “Who IS that? S/he’s been in everything!” but for the life of you, you just can’t name them or anything they’ve ever done?


That happens to me a lot. Sometimes not being able to ID a familiar actor makes me so crazy I can’t concentrate on the rest of the program. I know I’m not alone in this so I thought it might be fun to do a little quiz.





On this page are pictures of a few actors whose faces should be very familiar but whose names might escape the casual viewer. See how many you can ID (click on their pictures to see a bigger version), extra credit if you can name some of their credits.







Answers are in the comments section. Next time you see these actors on screen, it shouldn’t make you crazy any more!


Review of SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK–a Charlie Kaufman experience

I attended a screening of this movie where the writer Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich) was present and I immediately wanted to write a review of it. But I found it difficult to start because the film is so complicated to summarize. As Kaufman himself said, “It’s something to be experienced like a dream.”

It could have been a nightmare. Kaufman said the film came into being when Sony Pictures head Amy Pascal asked him and frequent collaborator Spike Jonze to do a horror movie. They two men talked and decided what scared them most were things like the passing of time, isolation, heartbreak, illness and mortality. They pitched it to Pascal and she greenlit it (an amazing leap of faith, considering the subject matters).

Her gamble paid off. Kaufman was only going to write it with Jonze (Adaptation, Malkovich, both from Kaufman scripts) intended as director. But Jonze went off to direct the upcoming Where the Wild Things Are so Kaufman took the directing reins for the first time.

It’s fitting then that his directorial debut is about a director, Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who sets out to mount the biggest play of his life after his wife Adele (Catherine Keener) leaves him, taking their young daughter with her. He takes over a huge warehouse in Schenectady, NY and painstakingly reconstructs a microcosm of his world, complete with replicas of buildings and roads and his own home, to explore it in a way which might allow him some control. He hires a cast of hundreds to represent people in his life, including himself. The rehearsal process stretches over 17 years and when some of the doppelgangers start falling for the real people and vice versa, Caden has no idea how his play will end and we have no idea what’s real and what’s stage acting.

Of course, this synopsis doesn’t do justice to the complexities of the script. As expected in a Kaufman film, there are many things that will mystify viewers. But instead of annoying or shutting out the audience, Kaufman somehow pulls us into the experience anyway and keeps us watching though we may not understand what we see. He makes us think about our own grand issues in life and manages to move us even if we’re not sure why. The tone is melancholy but the film also has many humorous moments. And the incredible cast of Oscar winners and nominees (including Emily Watson, Michelle Williams, Samantha Morton, Dianne Wiest, Hope Davis, Jennifer Jason Leigh) makes even some of the absurd moments seem grounded and relatable.

There is a running motif of a burning house in the movie which I asked Kaufman to explain. His reply: “I don’t want to explain everything because it takes away the possibility it may mean something else to someone else. It means what it means. If it means nothing to you, then it means nothing.”

Some might say that’s a frustratingly obtuse response (my friend thought it was a cop-out) but to me, it was perfect. I’d been sitting there thinking, “Why don’t I get it?” His answer liberated me. I can think it’s profound or it’s garbage but at least I don’t think I’m stupid for not understanding it.

But I did comprehend Kaufman’s dream analogy. He said, “You don’t understand your dreams. But sometimes I wake up and I’m devastated in a way that I’m not in my waking life.”

And that’s what it feels like after watching Synecdoche–as though you’ve just awoken from a mesmerizing, shattering dream.

Rating: Good

Note: The title of the movie is not a typo. Synecdoche is a figure of speech in which a part of something represents the whole or the whole stands in for a part.

The trailer is below.




Since Keira Knightley plays the title role, let’s just get her out of the way. She looks gorgeous, gives a spirited portrayal of Georgiana Spencer (great-great-great-not sure how many-aunt of Princess Diana) and suffers convincingly. She will never win an act-off with Cate Blanchett but does just fine here.

But it’s the other leads in the movie who are most interesting. Ralph Fiennes plays the Duke of Devonshire, who marries Georgiana not for love but because her mother said she could give him a son. Turns out Mama Spencer made promises her daughter couldn’t keep. The duke treats Georgiana with coldness and cruelty and soon takes Lady Elizabeth “Bess” Foster as his mistress, moving her right into their mansion and having them all take meals together, as if he could bring order and civility to their dysfunction.

The interesting thing about Fiennes’s performance is that just when you want to yell, “Bastard!” at the screen, he does something or says a line in such a way that you almost feel sorry for the duke or at least understand why he did what he did. Fiennes also made me go so far as to wonder if the duke was also a victim of the times and the expectations of him. Then I’d go back to hating him. And that’s the brilliance of Fiennes’s work. You can’t peg his character as an outright villain. You might want to because he does some awful things, but Fiennes just won’t let you.

The other character who refuses to be pigeonholed is the mistress Bess, as played by Hayley Atwell. Atwell, whom you might have seen (or not) in the new Brideshead Revisited or Woody Allen’s Cassandra’s Dream, does nuanced, mature work that belies her young age. In lesser hands, Bess might have been overshadowed by Georgiana’s glamorous personality, but Atwell gives her a quiet grace and luminosity that threatens to steal the duchess’s spotlight. Just when you want to despise Bess for so blatantly and disloyally stealing Georgiana’s husband, she’d do or say something that makes your heart go out to her instead. It’s quite a feat that Atwell managed to pull off.

Charlotte Rampling also gives a formidable performance as Georgiana’s mother but she doesn’t have to do much to be intimidating. One flash of those steely blue eyes and you’d probably marry a cruel man, too.

Besides the performances, the costumes are also amazing. Every scene is a stunning display of sartorial artistry. Period pieces can be overly long but this one moves at a fast clip and, with so much eye candy, you’ll barely notice the hour and 40 minutes.

Rating: Good


Things NOT to do in an audition

I’ve been lucky enough to have been used as a reader in many casting sessions. This means I’m not actually auditioning for a project but I’ve been hired by the casting director to read lines with actors who are. I love sitting on the other side of the table, watching actors come in, seeing the things they do and finding out what works in the room and what doesn’t.

The good things are typical in most job interviews: be courteous and confident, show up on time, dress appropriately, etc. But over the years, I’ve been subjected to some strange behavior so I’d like to share some pointers on what not to do. If you’re an actor, maybe this will help you get more callbacks. If you’re not, perhaps this will just give you a laugh.

  1. Don’t kick the reader. “What’s that?” you say. “People kick you?” The answer is yes, multiple times. In this one scene, the actress was simply trying to get my character’s attention. So she kicked me. Hard. Then the director asked her to redo the scene and she kicked me again. Harder. The director asked her to do the scene a third time and…well, you get the idea. I guess some casting directors don’t like actors physically assaulting their readers because she didn’t get the part. But I did get some X-rays to make sure nothing was broken.
  2. Don’t try to make out with the reader, even if the scene calls for it. In one scene, a man was supposed to inject my character with a drug that temporarily paralyzed her so that he could do inappropriate things to her. This man clutched me to him in a death grip and did the whole scene practically on top of me, though I remained seated in a chair. I was supposed to be paralyzed so I didn’t push him away but boy, was it gross. The director thought so, too.
  3. If you pass gas, loudly, don’t pretend it didn’t happen. It’s a little embarrassing but just acknowledge it, laugh about it and move on (or start the scene over, if need be). If anything, it will release any tension or nerves you might have and could improve your reading.
  4. Don’t bring in props. If you do, at least make them simple. An actor once brought in his cordless phone from home so he could do a scene where he talks on the phone. He pulled it out and began dialing. Problem was, the phone emitted loud beeps in protest every time he dialed. He tried repeatedly, but the beeps would not stop. The producer and director were about to throw something at the actor just to shut the beeps up. The actor finally said, “The handset wouldn’t let me dial because I’m too far away from the base.” Hey guy, how about using your cell phone or just faking the dialing?
  5. Don’t kiss ass. This one actor came in with a collage of pictures of every movie poster of every project the casting director had ever worked on. That’s just scary and stalker-ish.
  6. Ladies, don’t forget to wear underwear, especially if you’re wearing something low-cut or short. It’s unhygienic for other actors who use the chair after you.
  7. Don’t send naked pictures of yourself to casting offices, either, unless you’re sure they’re casting a porno.
  8. Don’t be rude to anyone in the casting office. An actress once yelled at a young man in the front office. Moments later, I ushered her into the audition room and she was all smiles. Until she saw the director behind the table. He was the same young man she’d yelled at; he’d just stepped outside to make a phone call.
  9. Don’t use your audition as your prep time. An actor came in and asked for a few minutes to get into character. He then proceeded to put on his headphones, go in the corner, shadow box, do push-ups, jog in place, had a snack, change clothes and run through his lines for about 5 minutes before saying he was ready to start. Do that at home or in the hallway, please.
  10. Don’t take a bite of the casting director’s lunch without asking permission. Better yet, don’t do it at all.
  11. For your headshot, don’t pose with gargoyles, giant balls or in a shopping cart. OK, that’s not something you technically do during an audition but if you’d like to get one, don’t do it.

The thing is–crazy antics don’t help you get the job. Just show up, act, then leave. If you’re right for the role, you’ll get it. If not, at least there’s a chance that casting office will call you in again for something else.


Why I’m Always Mistaken for an Extra

Every time I do a movie or TV show, a production assistant (PA) will inevitably assume I’m an extra. Sometimes this happens right away when I first report for work, sometimes it happens after I’ve been on set for a week. Other background artists will also immediately embrace me as one of their own. I have no problem with any of this; I’m simply puzzled by why it happens.

On the first day of work on a TV movie I did years ago, I checked in, then went to craft services to get some breakfast. A PA will usually do this for “talent” (actors) so we can focus on getting into costume and/or learning our lines, but I like to do it myself since I’m picky about how I want my eggs (whites only, scrambled with mushrooms and peppers, doused in Tabasco) and bagel (dry, slightly toasted).

As I approached the table, a PA came up to me. “Hi, extras eat over there,” he said, pointing to an area across the parking lot. I said, “Okay” then proceeded to pick up a plate. He blocked me and said, “The food is exactly the same.” I said, “All right,” and attempted to reach around him for some home fries. I didn’t know why he was going on about the extras’ food.

Then he said, “You are supposed to eat over there. Only principals (actors with lines) are allowed here.” Wait, what?

I explained I wasn’t an extra and he apologized profusely. I wanted to ask why he assumed that but my eggs were calling.

Another time, I’d been working on a TV show for a week when I arrived early on set so I could leisurely enjoy my breakfast. It’s no fun having to cram down an egg burrito in the makeup chair while someone’s spewing hairspray all over it. It’s also hard to eat when you can’t open your mouth while the makeup artist applies lipstick on you. So, on this day, even though my call time wasn’t until 7:30 a.m., I got there at 7:00. Hoo whee, I was gonna eat my pancakes in peace.

I was sitting in the tent where meals were held when a PA named Josh came in with his bullhorn. “All extras please get into costume now!” (Yeeks, bullhorns do not go well with 7 in the morning.) A bunch of people got up and stumbled out, bleary-eyed and clutching their styrofoam cups of coffee. Knowing I still had fifteen minutes before I had to get to hair and makeup, I sat back and savored my super fresh orange juice which I’d just squeezed myself.

Until Josh came over and stood over me.

“You need to get into costume now.”

“No, I don’t. I have fifteen minutes left.”

“You’re actually fifteen minutes late.”

Here’s the thing–Josh and I had been goofing around between takes for the past week, busting each other’s chops for fun. I thought he was playing.

“My call’s at 7:30. I’m early.”

“Your call was at 7:00.”

“Josh, stop bugging me.”

“What extras agency are you from?”

Hold the phone—he really didn’t know who I was?

“Hey, it’s me, Elyse.”

He looked at me for a moment then recognition dawned on him. “Oh, man, I’m SO sorry! I didn’t recognize you out of costume! Can I get you anything? A coffee? Danish?”

“No, thanks. I just wanna finish my breakfast then I’ll be over in fifteen.”

“Again, I’m SO sorry! Let me know if you need anything.” Josh scampered out, bullhorn hanging limply by his side.

There have been many more similar incidents on different sets. Sometimes I’d just sit and eat with the extras because it’s easier and hey, the food is supposedly the same. Protesting too loudly that I’m not one of them might make background actors think I think I’m better than they, and I don’t.

But I did wonder about the constant confusion so I finally said something to my friend Susan. Is it because I don’t show up looking Charlize-Theron glamorous? Why would I? Actors get free hair and makeup on set; no one shows up with a blowout and lipstick. Many actors arrive looking homeless (unshaven, unwashed) until the magic of hair and makeup transforms us into bright, shiny people (probably why Josh hadn’t recognized me).

Susan said, “I don’t think it’s the way you look but the way you carry yourself. How often do actors show up early and insist on getting their own food? PAs are probably so used to diva behavior from principals that if you act normal, they assume you’re an extra.”

Wow. All these years, I’d never looked at it that way. In one fell swoop, my friend succeeded in making me feel great about being asked repeatedly to eat at a “different table,” being rushed through meals, and hustled to cramped holding areas with back-injuries-inducing folding chairs. I now know that crew members weren’t trying to downgrade me, or thinking I’m not worthy of being one of the leads. They were really just giving me a compliment.


The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows

I picked up this book almost two months ago, when it was first released. The title was curious but it included the words “literary” and “pie” so that did it for me. Only way to make that title better was to add “Star Wars” to the “Society.”

Turns out it was about much more than books and food. It’s about friendship, courage, resilience and how the love of reading can transport and transform people.

The story begins in 1946 right after WWII when a London writer named Juliet receives a letter from a farmer on Guernsey Island saying he’d found her name in an old used book. He asks her to help track down other books by the same author. He tells her about the book club that was created during the war and how it literally kept him and his neighbors from being killed by German soldiers. Juliet then decides to write a book about these people and when she visits Guernsey (a Channel Island) for further research, her life is dramatically changed.

Though the entire story is told via letters between different characters, each person is incredibly vivid and feels like an old friend by the time you’re done reading. The story is uplifting, heartbreaking, and humorous, sometimes all at once. Even during the tragic patches, the author maintains a tone that stays far from tear-jerking. We feel the hardships the characters endure but we never ever pity them, as we imagine that’s how they’d want it.

This book is now a bestseller as word of mouth has spread. Don’t let all the press deter you from reading it. For once, a book lives up to all its hype and more.

Nerd verdict: Delicious Pie


Rachel Getting Married–impressive acting, uncomfortable movie

Anne Hathaway is immensely watchable. Her enormous brown cows make her seem vulnerable and accessible and there’s always intelligence in her performances. All of that applies in Rachel. She plays Kym, a recovering drug addict who’s just been released from rehab to attend her sister Rachel’s wedding. At times, Hathaway is brave enough to allow the audience to dislike Kym and her self-centered destructiveness. Her shedding of the “cute” persona she attained from the Princess Diaries movies doesn’t come across as trying too hard, unlike, say, Meg Ryan playing an alky in When a Man Loves a Woman. That’s because she doesn’t play it hard-core (despite the chopped hair and black eyeliner); she’s just an uncomfortable character who spreads the discomfort to everyone around her.

The acting is very strong all the way around–Rosemarie DeWitt as the long-suffering sister who’s finally making her feelings known, Bill Irwin especially as the father desperately trying to keep his family from falling apart by compulsively making sandwiches, and Debra Winger as the repressed matriarch whose lid is on so tight she could blow at any minute.

This movie was directed by Jonathan Demme, he of The Silence of the Lambs and Something Wild. So why didn’t I love it? Perhaps because the subject matter is so heavy and not all things are resolved at the end. Everyone is left with a sad veil over them. I don’t need things neatly tied up; I just want a sense of hope and I’m not sure this movie made me feel that. Things more or less go back to the way they were before the events in the film unfolded so I’m not sure what the characters accomplished and why we have to witness it all.

Or maybe I didn’t love it because the film was entirely shot by hand-held camera with a kind of grainy, documentary look. The experience was like watching someone’s uncomfortable, unedited (there were long shots where not much happened) home video which made me seasick with all the movement. I attended a screening where Ms. Hathaway and the writer, Jenny Lumet, said that style was intentional because Demme wanted that cinema verite effect. He succeeded; I just need to find the nearest bathroom.

Rating: Okay