Thursday, October 26, 2006

Going Undercover Part II 

This is a long overdue post for my colleague, Christine. She has a thing for spies. We were talking at the beginning of the summer and I mentioned some of my undercover experience. When I went to send her the link to the Going Undercover post I wrote way back when, I realized that I hadn't really given the whole story. You see, I've actually been paid to go undercover in an investigation.

Way back in my acting days, not too many months after I moved to The City, I was contacted out of the blue by a woman who called herself Eve. She was very mysterious and wouldn't tell me how she'd received my name and number. She said something to the effect of "I guess you have a friend who wants to help you out." Mystified, I asked what this call was all about. Eve said she had heard that I might like to have access to a certain kind of information valuable to actors. Information known as "breakdowns".

Suddenly, I felt like I was in a Hitchcock movie. An innocent man receives a call from a stranger who claims to know who he is, claims to have something he wants. She spoke to me in that kind of spy patois, a code that I couldn't understand. What were breakdowns? How would having them benefit me?

Eve explained in a very seductive way that once I had this information, I would have the inside track on which casting agents were working on what projects and I could submit myself for their consideration. There was a cost for obtaining this information, of course. And that cost was a lot of money to a journeyman actor.

As it happens, I had just heard the word "breakdowns" in passing from a lovely woman named Lynne. We'd been cast in the same show. I remembered that at the first read through of the play she'd said something about working with breakdowns being her survival job.

To be honest, none of the details of what I'd learned that night stuck with me. It was a crazy situation and I couldn't focus. I'd been cast in an autobiographical show - primarily because I looked like the director/playwright as a young man - and suddenly I found myself rehearsing this off-off-off Broadway show in a townhouse that belonged to Mike Nichols (!) because the auteur in question was dating Nichol's personal assistant. It was weird. But somewhere in the back of my head, I remember Lynne saying something about "temp job" and "breakdowns".

So the next rehearsal during a break, I said casually, "I got this odd phone call and I wondered if you had something to do with it." Lynne looked at my quizzically and said, "Not likely. What about?"

"Someone called - said her name was Eve - and said I could buy breakdowns. I remembered that you said...."

"WAIT. DON'T SAY ANOTHER WORD TO ME." I was completely shocked. "You don't necessarily want to tell me anything else about this phone call."

"I don't? Why? What is this about? What are breakdowns really? The first time I heard of them was when you said at our first readthrough that you worked for some company that did them or something like that." Lynne must have looked at me for a full minute with her piercing blue eyes and then I guess she realized that I wasn't putting her on. I really had zero idea what we were talking about.

"Okay. Look. That woman. What she's doing is illegal. Breakdowns are the intellectual property of the company I work for. Actors want the information because they think it will help them. But really it won't. It's a scam.

Breakdowns are sold to agents and certified managers so that they can submit their clients to casting directors. If you send your headshot in to one of the casting directors for one of their projects and your headshot doesn't have an agent's stamp on it, they just throw it out."

"Uh. Ok. But what exactly IS a breakdown?"

"When someone wants to cast a film or a play, they send the script to Breakdown Services. Breakdown Services reads it and writes short summaries describing who the characters are that need to be cast. Then they circulate the breakdowns to agents."

"Got it. But it's not helpful to actors?"

"Look at me. I read breakdowns every day. I'm in the same off-off-off show you are."


"Look. If you want, you could get hired to help Breakdown sort this out. I mean, if you're willing to...um...help catch these guys."

"Really?" My head started to spin. My father was a prominent intellectual property attorney. I knew enough about IP that once I understood what breakdowns were, I understood that what I was being offered was stolen IP. "Ok. What would I have to do?"

"Let me talk to the folks at work. I'll get back to you."

The next thing I know, I've been hired to subscribe to breakdowns. I call Eve back and now that I have more information, I can speak spy patois, too. We arrange "the drop". Breakdowns will be delivered for me to a Mailboxes Etc. in my neighborhood. I will leave an envelope with cash each week. I will get a drop every week. Secret agent that I am, I bring my weekly drop to my new employer. They're furious. These are very current breakdowns. This week's, in fact. And they're on the street within 24 hours of their release.

Within weeks as they are trying to crack this case, the team pulls me into a second investigation: a manager who has lost his license still seems to be getting breakdowns. And he's showing them to actors - a big no no. Is his source Eve? Or someone else?

I get sent to sign up with the manager. He's such a loser manager, he'll take pretty much anyone. Even me. (Sadly, I think I had to pay him to sign me.)

Anyway, now I'm seeing breakdowns from two angles, the "Eve subscription" and my new crooked manager. I have mixed feelings about my manager because he IS sending me out on auditions, after all. Actors love that. However, the auditions he is sending me out on are pretty low rent. (I may or may not have made the final cut in Vampire Vixens from Venus. I've never had the courage to watch it to see if my little bit as an extra made it in or not. If you watch it and there's a bit in a restaurant with a flying fork and Detective Oakenshield, I'm the one who launched the fork.)

What had started oddly, became increasingly odd. This creepy manager is representing me and every week he's letting me comb through breakdowns, asking me what I would like him to submit me for (this is not the way a legit agent or manager works). And meanwhile, I'm combing through them looking for dummy breakdowns that will tell my employers where the leak is coming from. I'm wondering if the manager is on to me. He's constantly emphasizing the need for secrecy (as is Eve) and I'm doing everything I can to play along.

As time goes on, I am starting to feel uncomfortable in this game. I'm using my real name (unlike the other gig), but in both cases my objectives are not what I am claiming they are. And in both cases, I'm looking to shut down my source. While I'm sure I'm doing the right thing from a legal perspective, I am fascinated by the breakdowns and I can understand why actors want them. They definitely make you feel in the know, even if you can't get any closer to a real job than by reading them and imagining yourself in all the cool parts that will eventually go to Brad Pitt or whomever. But there isn't too much time to think about all of this, because soon enough we shut down both leaks and my job is done.

Next, "Eve" and her husband (I've forgotten his code name if he had one), they get detectives combing through their garbage, a cease and desist order, and a court case. I retire as a spy at this point and exit the picture. Finally, I exit acting altogether. At which point, I'm sure I thought that none of these people would ever intrude on my life again.

But apparently Eve and her husband, they decided to get out of the acting biz, too. Neither of them was working as an actor, hence the thievery to make ends meet. So what do they do? He decides to get out of acting and goes on to reinvent himself as one of the founders of one of the seminal web agencies in Silicon Alley.

Me? I got out of acting and two years later, where am I? Competing with him at another seminal web agency in Silicon Alley.

I swear, we must know about 200 people in common. But to this day, we've never met.

The last post finished by offering the "Double Life Film Festival". Since Christine is particularly a lover of books, here we have the Breaking the Code Book Club wherein we explore the eternal saga spies and their codes, mostly through the lens of WWII.

Breaking the Code
This was my introduction to thinking about spies and codes. Derek Jacobi starred on Broadway. I saw it twice and met him briefly once. (He was delightful.) Alan Turing was the genius of the famous UK code breaking facility at Bletchley Park during the war. Breaking the Code is a bioplay about Turing, a man who not only cracked both the German "Enigma Code", but also broke Britain's social code by accidentally outing himself. (Being homosexual was a punishable offence at the time.) Another tremendous performance of a character who stutters by Jacobi.

Between Silk & Cyanide
Most books about code breaking tell the story of Bletchley Park. This is the opposite story and by far my favorite book on this list.

In addition to being the scion of the Marks family of Marks & Spencer bookstore fame, Leo Marks was the head code maker for the Brits during the war. When he appeared on the Leonard Lopate show promoting this book, he told a story about falling in love with a beautiful female spy during the war that so broke my heart that I went straight to Amazon to get the book as soon as I was near my laptop. Marks' story is one that defies all expectations: it is chock full of poetry (literally), humanity, comedy and ingenuity. Read it.

The Code Book
My brother in law Charlie turned me onto this one. A layman's primer on the history of making and breaking codes from the dawn of time. The Code Book somehow manages to weave in history, philosophy, political science and quantum mechanics and keep you interested all the way through. A lovely micro-history.
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