10 October 2008

My Giant Squid Encounter (Capital One)

This is the story of how I landed one of the coolest jobs I ever had: being violated repeatedly by a giant squid on national television. Long gone are the days when a commercial actor could count on 2 or 3 jobs being able to pay for a year of life as an actor. This spring, it took me seven jobs just to survive until July. So I am long overdue in telling the tale of the job that brought me out of debt for the first time in almost fifteen years.

Let's start at the beginning, with the audition. It was a holiday, Presidents' Day or something, and for the first time in a few years I was sick. Nothing horrible, I've handled much worse. But it was bad enough for my roommate to insist on driving me to Santa Monica and back. I did the Emergen-C, the multivitamin, Jamba Juice with an energy boost, a little bit of crack...whatever it took to stand up. Delivering the lines would require some Divine assistance.

The first audition is usually you and the session director, running the camera and walking you through the blocking and the denoument. (Did I just remember a word from college? And did I spell it right?) A stuffed snake was clipped to a C-stand (that's Industry-speak for 'metal thingy.') Obviously you can't rehearse that whole upside-down part of the ad, so the auditioners wrapped the snake around our faces for the famous "What's in your wallet?" line. As for the callback, I read for a different commercial in the same campaign. But I read that line the exact same way. That's the one bit of advice I could pass on to others after this process. Don't give them your own brilliant interpretation of their campaign. It's not "What's IN your wallet?" It's "What's in your wallet?" Not too hard, not too soft, just a bit of emphasis on your. The ad agency and writers spent a long time coming up with their slogan, and they've already pored over every possible way to deliver the line. You, as the actor, are the empty vessel who is there to deliver the goods exactly as they and the director envisioned. Coke is IT. I LOVE this game.

A couple more days pass, and I have a second callback. Usually, this happens when they are down to 2 actors whom they both like, but just can't decide on. This time, it was a stunt callback. I drove north into the Simi Valley to the stunt coordinator's home, and strapped myself into a flying harness in his studio-sized "garage." They wanted to make sure I could handle doing a few flips and hanging upside-down without wigging out. No prob.

A couple of weeks later, we started a 1-day, 1-night shoot at Paramount Studios. First night was for the interiors of the Nautilus-inspired sub. I was First Mate Roderick to the Captain, played by Rick Overton. I learned on set that the shoots had been marred by several snafus. I wanted to bring some good Mojo to the set and help change misfortunes. I accomplished this by puking twice after coming down from the harness.

I was strapped into a vest with wires running down my pant legs and attached with Velcro to my ankles, and then strung up from a pulley 20 feet above. A guy on set puled me up and down on the pulley as I flailed around trying to pull levers for the good captain. I wore two wool sweaters, sandwiching the vest, plus an undershirt that I sweated through in about a minute. I was then wrapped up in the giant foam tentacle, furnished by the Stan Winston folks. (I may always regret not grabbing that souvenir!) Luckily, I had to be drenched with water before every take, so I never got too hot.

I had to lay on the floor after pinning the tentacle to my person, and then they could lift me up feet-first on the harness. We soon learned several valuable lessons. First, I could not hang and be jerked around upside-down for more than about three minutes. Well, I could. It was just the going back down and standing right side up that caused the problems. So early on, I lost half my breakfast. Bravo to the crew for the convenient trash can.

I went back up to my "one position," that is, hanging out like Batman again. This is the part when we learned what a great idea it was to slime up the squid and drench me with water before hanging upside-down. Sliming the squid involved brushing the foam with a clear, thick goo that is the thickening agent used in fast food milkshakes. And I will never, ever have another fast-food milkshake. But brushing that stuff and then spraying it and me down with water caused this crud to go straigh up--uh--down my nose. And that's when I lost the rest of my breakfast. I took a few minutes off, popped a couple of Pepto and was ready to rock the waves again. At lunch, I played it safe with a salad and a couple slices of bread. Had no idea where my energy would come from, but I got through the rest of the day with no incidents and plenty of laughs.

Part two of the shoot came two nights later in the "tank" at Paramount. The tank is a section of parking lot which is about three feet lower than the rest of the lot. Pipes fill it with water, and a neighboring building is a solid wall that can be painted to suit the production. (I believe this is where the end of The Truman Show was filmed.) This night really brought it all home what a huge production it was. The Nautilus was in the middle of the tank and the director, cinematographer, and a few others camped out on an island in the middle of the water. Giant fans sprayed water onto the set as three men in jet skis went in circles in each corner of the tank to create the waves. The noise generated by all of these things going on at once was enough to make it very difficult to hear the director through a megaphone only 20 feet away. Upon seeing all of these things in action during a rehearsal, I realized the good old-fashioned movie-making I was a part of. Old school effects and techniques followed by weeks of post-production CGI effects that I'd see only when it aired.

It was one of the most physically demanding acting jobs I've ever had, and it was months later when I had the pleasure of pointing, clicking, and oh my Gaw paying off my Capital One card! Yes, I've got one. And I'm hoping when I go and use the Card Lab myself, I can use a picture of Roderick in all his slimy glory.