Wednesday, March 14, 2007
Nonlinear Equations with Verbal Kint
Kevin Spacey rules.
Last week, I got a call from Billy Dowd, the casting director and Massachusetts native who previously cast me as an extra in War of the Worlds and The Departed. Billy asked if I wanted to work for two days on an untitled movie (which I'll refer to by its working title, 21) starring Mr. Spacey, Lawrence Fishburne and Kate Bosworth. That Saturday, I woke at 2:45 and left soon after to begin the three-hour ride to Boston. By 8:30, I was sitting in a classroom at Boston University about five feet away from Lex Luthor. What follows are some memories from the next two days - they may be a bit scattered, as I'm still catching up on my sleep, and because I just worked with Kevin Fucking Spacey.
After arriving at BU and signing in, I caught up a bit with Billy and then chatted with other extras in holding. The group was a mix of experienced actors and relative newcomers like myself - I even ran into a former high school classmate who is finishing up her last semester at Emerson. We were then brought to set and given a description of the scene. The film is a somewhat fictionalized adaptation of the book Bringing Down the House, the story of a group of MIT students (BU is standing in as a location) who used their talents to make boatloads of money counting cards in Las Vegas and soon found themselves fleeing the city's heavies. The scene being filmed comes early in the film, as Spacey's character, a professor, is subtly testing his students to find the perfect recruits for his blackjack team. We were assigned seats in the classroom, the master shot was lit using stand-ins, and the actors were brought to set.
A bit of personal context: I saw American Beauty when I was fifteen, which is pretty much the perfect age to see American Beauty. And while I can objectively admit the film has dated a bit, I'm almost embarrassed to admit that it will always be one of my favorite movies - I think there's real magic in the film and particularly in Spacey's pitch-perfect performance. Add in Glengarry Glen Ross, The Usual Suspects, L.A. Confidential and Seven, and it's clear the guy was on a roll in the nineties. Of course, his recent work has been decidedly mixed, so while I was excited to work on the film, my enthusiasm was a bit muted until I began to watch Kevin Spacey work. I then spent the following two days trying not to act like a giggling thirteen-year-old girl.
The coolest thing about Kevin Spacey is that he carries not one whiff of egotistical-movie-star bullshit. While an AD gave us the standard "Do not talk to the actors" spiel, he spent a good deal of time between takes chatting with the extras, asking us where we went to school, whether we were pursuing acting professionally and whatnot. And when I said that I worked with Spacey, that wasn't hyperbole; he offered us suggestions on how to react to the scene and cracked awful jokes (the worst was a pun involving Newton the scientist and the cookie) to loosen us up. He, along with the entire crew, made us feel like an integral part of the production - after all, it would be odd if Spacey's character was lecturing to an empty classroom. I appreciate it when the extras aren't ignored (on The Game Plan, we were left to our own devices), not only because it puts us at ease, but because it's good for the movie as well, suggesting a great deal of attention to even the littlest details.
Because my job was basically to sit, stare and laugh at a few jokes, I was able to just observe Spacey develop the scene with the director and crew. His first few takes were tentative, and he fumbled a good deal of his lines ("So Kantorovich's theory of quadratic convergence states that...I don't know what the fuck I'm doing"). But as the day progressed, he began to try out slight variations on the dialogue with each take and sponatenously punctuating one line with a tossed piece of chalk. It appeared that his goal was to eliminate any actorly artifice and play the scene intuitively, to allow us to watch the character's thought process without a lot of external business. His improvisations were well chosen, too; a brief scene shot on Monday where the lead character (played by Jim Stafford, who in a nice coincidence was also the lead in Across the Universe, which my friend Kate worked on) confronts his professor wasn't very well-written, but around the third take, he ended the scene with a throwaway line ("You should get that eye checked out") that got to the heart of the scene better than any of the scripted dialogue.
Spacey can be scary when he wants to be, though. On the second day, he responded to an unsolicited line reading, telling the director, "If you're going to do that, you can't mumble." He was quiet and polite, but he might as well have said "I'm going to cut off your head and FedEx it to Brad Pitt."
Other than that moment, however, I must admit that I was pleasantly surprised by the director, Robert Luketic. I wasn't expecting much from the director of Legally Blonde and Monster-in-Law, but he possesses many of the qualities every director should have - patience, enthusiasm, imagination and almost manic energy. A young, dimunutive Australian, Luketic has a very craftsmanlike style on the set, building a scene shot-by-shot and encouraging ideas from all parties. This is in contrast to, say Michael Bay - one of the PAs had worked on Transformers and described working with Bay as a constant barrage of profanity, hubris and verbal abuse. I think that Luketic has it in him to make a good movie, and (selfishly, of course) I hope it's this one.
The most educational moment came on the second day, when I was seated next to the very kind, friendly actress Liza Lapira and found myself in the midst of the entire crew as they lit her closeup. The director of photography, Russell Carpenter, shot both Titanic and The Wizard of Speed and Time, so I paid close attention to his lighting strategy (which seemed to rely mostly on Kino Flos, diffusion and muted colors to create a soft, understated palate). I slipped in an occasional "Hey, what's that for?" when I felt I could do so without being annoying. After lunch, I spent most of the afternoon walking down a hallway past Kate Bosworth (she's pretty and sociable, but needs to eat a few cheeseburgers). And during the down time, I got a chance to talk with the former president of the Screen Actors Guild in Boston. I earned two SAG vouchers on 21, one away from being eligible to join the union. This opens up a lot of opportunities and makes acting as a career seem much more possible, but it also prevents you from doing a lot of lower-paying but potentially rewarding work. So it was valuable to have the chance to talk with someone experienced about finding your confidence as an actor and choosing the right moment to make that leap.
The oddest moment: emerging from a stall and washing my hands in an otherwise empty men's room, I glance in the mirror and notice Mr. Spacey, back towards me, relieving himself. It took all of my willpower not to say "You know, you were really good in K-Pax."
If you're wondering why the stars didn't have private bathrooms, that's what made this set so unique. There were no divisions between the stars, crew and extras, or between union and non-union - everyone ate the same meals, got the same breaks and was afforded the same level of respect. Spacey, who is also producing 21, has made a lot of noise about wanting to support new talent, and it's nice to see him put his (or Sony's, anyway) money where his mouth is. It seems that he hasn't forgotten what it was like to be just starting out and hungry for the opportunity to work even for a day. I can't say whether the movie will be any good (though I think it has a chance), but it was the most generous, positive moviemaking experience I've had in my miniscule career. And both times we broke for lunch, it took all of my willpower not to quote this scene: