Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Going Under Cover: The Double Life Film Festival 

I've always had a fondness for films that deal with an individual who is working under an assumed identity. The tension in those situations is something that I have always felt a deep kinship for and a knowledge that I do know something about what that feels like. You see, I've actually worked under an assumed identity more than once.

The first time it happened was not entirely intentional. I could abbreviate the situation by saying that it was the product of:

1) a misunderstanding which led to...
2) a pretending to be something I wasn't with the thought that everyone know I was pretending...
3) which led to being stuck having to live with multiple layers of deception for months.

My only consolation was that the pay was good and that I was being paid to party. Now you're really confused, so let me explain with the long version.

Some 14 years ago, I was a struggling actor. As many actors are forced to do, I was doing all kinds of jobs that involve "acting" but lack a stage, a theatre and a concession stand in the lobby. At that time I was working in Newport, Rhode Island at The Astor's Beechwood - Where Newport Mansions Come to Life! Yes, that's right. I was doing "living history tours". Where I played a character based on a real historical figure and gave tours of a mansion as that character. Goofy, perhaps. But generally speaking, it was pretty fun way for a young twenty-something to spend a summer in Newport.

Of course, we were all pining for "real work" as we were doing this. And my friend, Christa managed to get herself an agent in Providence, the closest "city". One day her agent sent her out on an "industrial" audition. Industrials are the lingo actors and agents use for any type of corporate acting work, e.g., singing/dancing as a car is introduced at an auto show or acting in a corporate training film.

The only catch for this industrial was that the client had asked to see only British actors. This agent didn't have any in his stable, so he asked Christa to put on an accent and give it a go, only she couldn't let on that she wasn't from the U.K.

So she went, and she didn't get the gig. But she did learn what was up. The client was an American importer and distributor of "spirits", i.e., vodka, gin, rum and the like. They wanted to create a character to promote a new product they were going to test market in Rhode Island. And the character was supposed to be wealthy and British because the product was gin and it's was being manufactured in the U.K.

Christa was bummed because the job was to make appearances as this character all summer long and the pay was $20 an hour! You'd be paid eighty bucks a night to go to bars and promote alcohol! How hard could that be? But alas, she didn't get the callback and that was that.

A few weeks later, the woman running the mansion called the gentlemen working there to say that a prospective client wanted to throw a party there and they wanted to have a special character created for it who would pretend to be the party's host. A few questions revealed that the client was the very same spirits company.

Well, I just knew I had the inside track, now didn't I? I knew that what they really wanted was a Brit. But I also knew that they knew we were Americans. So I figured I would go to the meeting with a British accent (as best I could manufacture one) and see if they liked it.

What I did not know was that I was not meeting with a casting director. I was meeting with a marketing team. And they were from Connecticut. They had no idea about much of anything when it came to actors. It was only as I was about an hour into the meeting (clearly it was going like gangbusters at that point) that I realized that these guys actually thought I was British. OOOPS. And they were going to give me this fun job for a night. (This now takes us through points 1 and 2 above. The misunderstanding and the pretending thinking everyone knew I was pretending.)

The job they offered me was to create a character to host this party. To make things more complicated, I was supposed to be hosting one of the mansions mystery parties. So all of my fellow thespians would be doing a whodunit and I would be the guy who hired them to do it. The people invited to the party were all of the local restauranteurs and bar owners in Newport who the spirits company wanted to agree to participate in the promotion by hosting events at their establishments. So part of the purpose of having me host the event as this character was to give an image for the product and POTENTIALLY to have the restauranteurs and bar owners arrange for this character to come to their establishments to represent the product.

Now you've all seen the Captain Morgan illustration on Captain Morgan's Rum. Believe it or not, actors across America have been paid to show up at bars as Captain Morgan, red pirate suit and all. What was different about this character is that they didn't want him to be a caricature. They wanted him to be the wealthy scion of a British distiller who'd created the product. They wanted him to be interested in sailing (associated with gin), knowledgeable about gin production and what made this product different (I would be taught about that). And they wanted him to be suave. (Seriously.)

So they wanted me to be this character AND they wanted me to explain to bar owners and restauranteurs that I could come to their places if they wanted.

At this point, I did something a bit odd. I said I would create this character (I named him "Hugh Bradburn, Jr.") with one caveat. I told them, "Look, I'm pretending to be someone I'm not all day long doing these living history tours. Now I'm going to be someone else all night long. This kind of deep character work is exhausting. Especially if I have to switch view points and be the guy one minute and then explain that I'm just acting the next. So I'm just going to be the guy. You can tell your guests that I'm an actor." They agreed.

My next important move was to ask about these future experiences. They asked for an hourly rate. I grew enormous, metal testicles. I quoted them $100 an hour. They gasped and said the MOST they could possibly offer was $35 an hour. I knew I had just bumped them up $15 an hour. So I said, "Well, it sounds like fun. What the heck." Big, big cohones I tell you. E-NOR-MOUS.

So, cut to me standing around at the party chatting up the guests and everyone is being so nice to me. "Why don't we have you over to dinner," one nice lady suggests. "Oh, yes," agrees her husband. You really should get to see more of our fair state. We'd love to show you about."

Suddenly I begin to realize that the marketers have ceased telling anyone I'm an actor. They're playing it straight and so am I. The crowd thinks I'm the real deal and no one is telling them anything different.

The end of this story is that I spent the ENTIRE SUMMER making appearances across the state as Hugh Bradburn, Jr. Complete with a driver/photographer and an events team supporting the events. It got really complicated because of three key issues:

a) The problem of remembering what I'd said before.
Rhode Island is a small state. I kept seeing the same people. Some people even went out of their way to be where "Hugh" was so that they could hang out with "him". How to remember what I'd said to whom? Which stories had I told? My solution was to keep Hugh's timeline moving forward and invent new stories about his ongoing "life" each and every day. That allowed me to keep current and not have to remember too many details about his "past" that recurring companions might remember. This, however, led to a soap-opera-like, baroque existence for Hugh. His Jaguar got smashed in Hurricane Bob, his brother was angry about it, and on and on.

b) The challenge of escaping my undeserved popularity.
It gets hard to extract yourself from an "audience" in this situation. It turns out that nearly everyone who goes to a bar and drinks gin would like to spend time with a young, very wealthy Brit.

So my handlers got increasingly adept at freeing me. "Mr. Bradburn!" They would admonish me. "You're jet has been idling on the tarmac for nearly half an hour! You simply must go!" And off I'd trot, after a few more photos. Nutty.

3) The fact that I AM NOT AT ALL BRITISH.
Nope. Not even a little bit. I am an American of primarily Polish-Jewish and Calabrese extraction if we want to get specific about it. And there are REAL Brits lurking about in Rhode Island.

Some of them clearly knew in a heartbeat that I was a fraud. Each and every one of them were remarkably circumspect and did not call me out in front of a crowd of fans (bless you all). But I have to tell you, there were occasions where my blood turned in an instant to a glacial temperature when someone opened their mouth and I was instantly confronted with the realization that I was faking it in front of one of the Her Majesty's true subjects. Why they didn't turn me in I'll never know.

OK. This is now a very lengthy post. I'll leave out my other "working under cover" story for now. Suffice it to say that the next time I was paid to work under cover, I was working in my own identity. I was hired to help uncover and break a team of amateur thieves.

The final question to be answered here. Which movies resonate with an experienced faker like me? Here's my Double Life Film Festival:

Catch Me If You Can
This Spielberg flick is just plain fun. And the fact that it is a true story makes it all the more engaging. I only wish that I'd had the wit and the guts to try even a child size version of one of Frank Abagnale Jr.'s deceptions. It's not that I wished I'd robbed a bank. But it might be fun to pretend that you're a pilot...as long as you don't try to fly the plane. P.S. - this flick has one of the greatest title sequences of all times.

Deep Cover

The underrated Bill Duke directed this underrated Michael Tolkin screenplay with Laurence Fishburne in the role of someone who goes under cover to bust a white collar drug dealer, played by Jeff Goldblum. Definitely worth the rental.

Donnie Brasco
Another true story about an FBI agent (played by Johnny Depp) who befriends a small time Mafiosi (Al Pacino) in order to get to the top of the organization. Unfortunately, calling in the sting will likely result in the murder of the Pacino character, who's become something of a friend. Very nicely done all around

State of Grace

Director Phil Joanou was supposed to be the next big thing at one point. Spielberg had him do an episode of "Amazing Stories" which led to him doing U2's Rattle & Hum and then being able to help his first small pic, Three O'Clock High (a twisted, lost gem). State of Grace looked like a breakout film with an all star cast: Sean Penn, Robin Wright (not yet Penn), Ed Harris, Gary Oldman, Burgess Meredith, John Tuturro and a then unknown named John C. Reilly. Sean Penn plays a troubled undercover cop who must return to Hell's Kitchen to bust The Westies, most of whom are his childhood friends and family. Devastating performances abound.

Very interesting post and very funny too. Thank you for sharing it with the public, ie. me. Amy
Hmmm....I've known Tony for years...never heard about the Brit thing...very interesting.
One of many secrets in my past. :-)
Last I checked, you could leave your typical party-goer not only with a bad gin hangover but a debilitating neurosis acting like a brit or captain hook or whomever. The new release that is missing from this festival is "The Departed". If you haven't seen "The Departed" yet, well, go and see for yourself, if you dare, what happens to a New English kid named Ron, I think it was, (played by Matt Damon) who got lured in for a bag of groceries and a handful of coins.
Despite the best efforts of an all star cast, The Departed is unfortunately a complete failure.

There's nothing new under the sun in The Departed: no new story, no new characters, nothing. We've seen it all before - literally if you saw the Hong Kong film its based on, Internal Affairs.

But even a retred of a plot can be successful if it creates real emotion. In this film, the only real emotions one might feel comes from the valiant efforts of Vera Farmiga who struggles to make a tertiary character appear on our radar - and succeeds. She's fighting plot gaps (what happened to Damon's envelope?) and a role completely without substance - "The Girlfriend" - and yet she manages to make her predicament resonate on some small level.

Every other actor is doing their best "Scorcese movie performance": gnawing scenery, looking around intensely, ticking off the numbers of this noir procedural.

Unlike Scorcese's last trip into this territory (Goodfellas), The Departed brings no new vistas.
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