A couple of weeks ago, I was interviewed on CBC Radio One in Toronto (and Sirius 137) for their radio show Q with Jion Ghomeshi. The topic was the casting couch. Or, more specifically, how power is wielded over folks looking to get that ever-popular “edge” in show business. If you want to hear the entire interview, click here and advance to about one-third of the way into the progress bar. My basic position was the one opposite that of the other guest (an attorney leading a class-action suit against one of “the bigs,” because one of its agents allegedly treated a hip-pocketed actor as a sex toy to pass around to his friends and colleagues, while telling her it was how she could get ahead).
The attorney, of course, wanted to talk about how doe-eyed young actresses are preyed upon by powerful men who can’t stop thinking about sex. I wanted to talk about how chemistry, intimacy, and attraction are all a part of how this industry does business and that people who abuse their positions of power by convincing those who don’t know better and/or who have so little sense of self to trust their guts when confronted with unprofessional, inappropriate offers to “get ahead” exist in every industry. Many times, sexual favors happen across gender lines, and it’s not because there’s a predator and there’s a victim. It’s often because power is sexy and chemistry is a strong drug.
Deciding that every young woman who sleeps with an older man in a position of power in Hollywood is somehow a victim of the casting couch is to paint with way too broad a brush. Sure, there are times when that is the best way to describe the relationship. There are many other times when it’s got nothing to do with anything like that ’til after a heart is broken or dreams are dashed. (Heck, I’ve seen this on The People’s Court! A jilted lover suddenly wants thousands of dollars for things bought during the relationship. Lots of history gets rewritten when the passion goes away.)
But this week’s column isn’t about the complexities of sexual politics or career-based power plays in which sex is used as the tool for getting what you want. It’s about chemistry and why it is that something that’s huge in our world of entertainment can lead to confusion, if lines of personal limits are not clearly drawn and communicated.
This is “a necessarily intimate business,” as my husband likes to say. Because you can meet your co-star for the first time in the makeup chair and then spend the next several hours nearly naked, making out with one another, take after take, you need to be comfortable with yourself and with your castmates and crewmembers. Because you can be asked to do a “body check” at your final producer session during the casting process for a film in which you will appear even semi-nude, we all have to be comfortable seeing you (and you with being seen), talking about shapes and types and qualities of specific body parts that — in any other industry — we’d be fired for even commenting upon.
The entertainment industry brokers in chemistry. Its entire business model requires a level of casual encounter blended with true business savvy. I call what we’re going for “raunchy professionalism.” We need to be comfortable with others being inappropriate, or else we find ourselves not invited to the party as much. Do you have to be crude or rude or sexual in your humor? No. But you’ll soon find that so many are crude or rude or sexual in their humor that any level of discomfort around that makes it tough to “hang” with the big dogs. Therefore, many people find ways to fake a level of comfort with locker room talk ’til they’re at a level where they can pick and choose every member of their team, at which point they attempt to surround themselves with the type of company they prefer.
Until then, though, getting comfortable with how comfortable others are with their bodies, with sex, with humor surrounding sexuality, with calling someone’s “fine ass” “good product placement” is a good idea. Much of castability comes from being attractive and confident enough to know you’re attractive. Yes, even if you’re the “creepy bad guy” type, there’s something sexy there. There’s something we know viewers will want to watch. There’s charm. There’s chemistry. And it’s all vitally important to how we do this whole casting thing.
We look for actors who feel so good in their skin that we want to be there. I don’t mean that we want to have sex with every actor we cast. Heavens, no! What I mean is that it has to look like so much fun to be you that we want to spend producers’ money to have you show viewers how awesome you are. Does this sometimes get exploited? Absolutely! And lines like these get crossed in every industry. That says more about power and manipulation and professionalism than it does about the entertainment industry specifically. That we are so generally comfortable with sex just means that we deal with it every day. We cast actors we want viewers to fall in love with, every day. And we’re human beings, so that comes from a feeling.
Professionals know how to draw the line between that feeling and any action based on it. People who like to wield power over others will sometimes take advantage of it. And your job as an actor is to be so self-aware, so confident, so clear on where the lines are drawn for you that you make it apparent when you meet the non-pro power-wielders that your line is not to be crossed. You’ll take “the hard way,” thank you very much. (And what’s true is that you’ll know there is no such thing as a “sleep your way to the top” shortcut. Just like the “pay me thousands of dollars to introduce you to the real players” scam is just that — a scam — so is this one.)
When my husband (then boyfriend) moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career as an actor, I said, “You need to be attractive and non-threatening to both genders.” He, the self-described homophobe, had some questions about how that all worked. I explained that being accessible, being attractive, being charismatic was essential to getting cast. (Yes, even if you’re an ugly, ugly, ugly character type, or someone who will never play the role of romantic lead.) I explained that flirtation is an art form in Hollywood. Most of us are unrepentant flirts. I, for one, am thrilled to have found a career that rewards that.
Now, some folks are brought up to feel threatened by that, and that’s one of the ways that things get blurry. There are many cultures and many businesses in which our professional level of intimacy would be completely inappropriate. But we chose this business. And getting down with loving the hugs and the kisses and the innuendo will make your life easier. Even if you don’t participate in it, understanding it will help. This is especially important where loved ones are concerned.
Enter: The jealous partner.
Ah, this is so tough. I feel very grateful to be married to someone who not only “gets the deal” about flirtation and attraction and raunchy professionalism in this business we’ve chosen but who may even believe in it more strongly than I do (I am a good southern girl, after all. I blush earlier than he does in many industry conversations). But I know some wonderful people in this industry who don’t have such understanding partners. I know I referred to the partner as “jealous” above, and that may be oversimplifying things a bit. It’s not so much jealousy, much of the time, as it is flat-out lack of understanding about why this casual approach to colleagues is required.
“Why do you have to go to that networking event?” “Why does the after-party matter?” “What goes on at the bar after the screening that’s more important than the screening itself?” “Why is the film festival all about the parties?” “Why are people getting together to watch an episode of that new show, and why does that event go on for hours longer than the show itself?” “Why is lunch two hours long and why does it cost two hundred dollars?”
How do you answer these questions when your significant other works in banking or real estate or computers or education or travel or medicine? Where to begin?
Some folks invite their partners to join them for the events. Great idea, if you have a partner who can watch you flirting and being flirted with without having that turn into the biggest fight of your lives. Others say, “You wouldn’t understand,” and then have to explain why they were photographed on the red carpet looking very cozy with a good-looking co-star, when the WireImage photos show up.
As with most issues in partnership, when you each have a very secure sense of self, and a very secure sense of your role in one another’s lives, you realize that your relationship cannot be diminished by the power of chemistry either of you experiences in your professional relationships. You can enjoy that the strength of your personal relationship gives you more power in your on-camera relationships. How? Because you’re not risking anything to “go there.” You know where your true love is, and you aren’t out there looking for it in a co-star.
Just like the best bartenders know to flirt with their customers, just like great food servers increase their tips by being engaging conversationalists who truly listen to their customers, actors know it’s heat vs. action we’re talking about here. Just like you don’t go all the way on screen with your romantic lead just because the script says you’re having sex, you keep the lines clear and clean as you connect in as deeply a way possible, so that it looks real. So that viewers believe you fell in love. So that people buy tickets to watch you convince them you really did “go there.” What makes you a good actor, in terms of your ability to sell that when you’re no more in love with your co-star than you are with your best friend, is that you make it all look and feel real to us. It’s the professional chemistry we pay you for.
And those in your life who don’t get paid to flirt, to woo, to convince the world they just had sex on screen because the script and director said so will (hopefully) understand the difference between the chemistry required to do your job well (on screen, on stage, and in the pursuit of the gigs) and the “something real” that you have with them.
Originally published by Actors Access at http://more.showfax.com/columns/avoice/archives/001098.html. Please support the many wonderful resources provided by the Breakdown Services family. This posting is the author’s personal archive.