Recently I co-produced a video-reading of my short story “My New Yorker Face.” A friend reacted with surprise at my tough guy look in the video, which is what was requested for the role – a stone-hearted wealthy Wall Street guy who can’t even give a dime to street bums and ends up a homeless man exactly for that reason.
Shortly thereafter I was asked if I’d be interested in auditioning for a Marathi language medium budget film in Mumbai, India. This is, of course, the unconfessed dream of all foreigners living in India – a part in a movie, Bollywood or not, it doesn’t matter.
I was asked if I had any acting experience. This brought me back to three fundamentally useless experiences in the field.
My first acting experience took place in New York, circa 1991. Bush Sr. had just decided to invade Iraq and New York wasn’t necessarily happy about it. I was playing the part of a waiter at Caffè Reggio in the Greenwich Village for a Sight and Sound New York University undergraduate Cinema Studies class. I was to run after a girl who’d left the restaurant without paying. As I sprinted along the Village’s cobblestoned alleys, followed by the rookie crew grabbing a Bolex 16 mm clunker of a camera, I began yelling, as per script: “Hey! Stop! Wait!” (easy enough to memorize). The girl was running fast and she passed by two towering Italian-Americans from Little Italy who’d happened to wander by mistake into our scene.
As I neared them, they spread out, planting their feet wide apart next to each other as if they wanted to catch me in a net.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“You don’t yell at girls in the street like that,” said one, planting his hands on his hips.
“And you don’t go running after them like that either!” said the other.
I looked at both of them. Then I turned around.
The camera crew kept rolling from a safe distance.
“I suppose it wouldn’t really help if I said I know karate, right?” I lied, not realizing just how moronic such phrase sounded. In my defense for coming up with a such spontaneous bad line I can only say we had just survived the 80s.
“But, really,” I quickly added, noticing the stone-cold faces of the two goombahs, “we are only shooting a film,” I said, motioning to the distant taxi cab, where the DP was pulling in the zoom. Thumping in my chest, I was feeling all the turmoil of the irritated waiter, on top of the fear of the real threat. It made me think I was too sensitive to enter a role, it touched too deeply in the emotional spectrum. Acting was too much for me.
“See?” I pointed to the crew at the end of the alley.
“Yeah, sure, whatever. You ain’t gonna go past us.”
“Ok, no problem,” I meekly bowed out, as I bowed out of acting for another decade.
My second acting experience took place in Rome, Italy. It was 2002, the Twin Towers had already fallen, the world had changed drastically and quickly. Yet Rome placidly inched along the side corridors of a History it once owned.
My friend Adam was working on the production team for Ettore Scola’s movie about the Eternal City. It would be his homage to the soul of “Roma” and his take on the zeitgeist.
I was cast as a tv journalist, doing a live report from outside Regina Coeli prison, right in front of the Tiber River, in Trastevere. It was literally three long blocks from my house and at the time I was hosting a live political talk show on Italian national tv, every morning.
I didn’t really need much acting, Adam explained, just a stand up from script.
The takes were few takes. Ettore Scola seemed to me like a warm, lovable man. He taught me how to smile only with my eyes. Of course, my little contribution didn’t make final cut. Nevertheless this can be considered my highest experience in acting. Not because of Gran Maestro Scola, but because a few weeks later I received a visit on the doorsteps of my house.
It was a production assistant who had come to deliver my payment for the part, a check for the outrageous – it seemed to me – sum of 500 euros. It just happened that I opened the door wearing my best bathrobe.
It looked as if I had been disturbed in the middle of my beauty sleep before the next part. Which actually I got only 10 years later.
My third acting experience happened in Venice. It was 2011 and the world was gearing up for its end, which seemed certain to happen in 2012, according also to the brightest and most talented film-makers. I was staying in my aunt’s Palazzo on the Grand Canal. Whenever I leaned out the window some tourist would catch my fully bearded mug and yell at me: “Marco Polo!”
I would graciously wave back, using my papal wave (hand bend like a spoon, facing you, slight movement back and forward). After a few days, I discovered from the gondoliers that in order for them not to have to row all the way up the Canal to the real house of Marco Polo, they would tell foreign tourists boarding at Rialto bridge, that my aunt’s old palazzo (actually the former Fondamenta dei Armeni) belonged to my illustrious countryman explorer. I was asked to please just wave back. Which I did.
My friend Anita enrolled me for the part of the psychoanalyst for a very visionary, oneiric video she then exposed for the Art Biennale of Venice at the Ca’ Pesaro gallery, a Palazzo upstream from where I lived.
I remember feeling odd about seeing my aged face and hearing my calm voice recite in English in a sequence of images which made very little sense in the cinematica narrative, but whose philosophical and artistic aim, however murky and mysterious, I seemed to grasp, somehow.
And this, aside from a video 8 mm house-made horror movie in Pensacola, Florida in 1982, sums up my relationship with the acting trade.
But, mostly, I write.