Low budget, independent filmmaking is one part love, one part dream, two parts crazy and nine parts nightmare. If you haven’t planned properly, you might as well have chosen to ride a bull on crack while buck naked and slathered in KY. The successful production team has a plan A, B, C and a few more letters just in case. The seasoned actor knows enough to expect changes, improvise as needed and go with the flow. Not only does this make for more relaxed and productive shoots, it also can bring about unexpected jewels that make a film—or your role in it—spark.
Such was the case when I was cast in a film to play a nameless construction worker. I was between acting gigs and it was just a day-player job, so I was game: without a huge time commitment, I could squeeze in another credit, meet some new people, network, etc. I was also kind of tickled because, being a small-framed guy, they don’t come banging on my door for macho roles often: I get office nerds, evil weasels and hapless wimps…not jocks, cops, or construction workers. So I was looking forward to playing something manly for a change.
A few weeks from the original casting note, I got a second note telling me my role had been altered; I was now going to play Perry Jr., the laidback son of the owner. That was okay by me: sure I would lose the butch factor of being one of the crew, but I'd gain a name which would look way better on the résumé than “Construction Worker #7”.
A few weeks later, I got another note saying I was now playing Jim, the comedian of the crew. Good thing I hadn’t been working on my lines (which would have been tough since I still hadn’t seen the script). So now I had a name and testosterone. I got the scenes and apparently the Jim character had been cut previously, and was now back, but the script was not revised. So there were just notes in the margins that said “improv here”. Being “the comedian”, I figured I’d better come up with something funny. I had jokes about getting wood, big loads--all sorts of off-color gems at the ready.
Anyway, on the day, I drove out to BFE to the construction site where we were filming. The rest of the cast and crew arrived, prepped for the first shoot and ate donuts. It was pretty much business as usual. Then we got word we were on hold because one of the actors was late. You can always go forward if you’re missing an extra or two, but when you have a featured actor AWOL, you really do have to wait…or re-write the script…o
So we waited. The director assured us we would only wait a certain amount of time before Plan B would go into effect. We wondered what Plan B might be. Would it affect ou
r scenes? The missing actor was in every scene with us—two of them centering around him. I secretly coveted the missing guy’s role; it was really the only stand out of the bunch. I thought, selfishly, how I wouldn’t mind one bit stepping in for the guy.
Eventually, the director made the call and told us we were going to begin…with one change: I was to play the featured role in the missing actor’s stead. I was stoked. And spooked. You don’t usually get what you wish for that fast. But that’s how it went down. So I shoveled rocks with the rest, hoisted tiles with the rest, shared a bottle of Jack with the rest…but I was the only one to get electrocuted. (Yep…my character is big on smiles, but not too big on brain cells, so when I touch a few exposed wires to prove they’re not live, I prove myself wrong and take a few jolts before the lead pushes me out of more harm’s way. Then, the boss gives me a special wink in a late
r scene as well to make sure I’m all right.) I even incorporated the donuts into my part, giving my name “Sweet Tooth” a visual cue. So I went from nameless grunt to memorable dork. I'll take that.
So the lessons here are plain. First: plan ahead for obstacles and alternatives—whether you’re making a film or just trying to get somewhere on time. Second: keep your improv skills handy at all times. Third: be careful what you wish for; you just might get it…and it might shock you! (Yuk, yuk.)
Oh, yeah. Fourth: never run out of donuts.