This week’s column will be a bit different than my usual offering because I wanted to share with you some great stuff that came from my tea date with Jessica Bendinger (she wrote Bring It On, wrote for Sex and the City, and both wrote and directed Stick It — all three of which have me on a “biggest fan” list). It’s funny, I blogged about my near-obsessive love of Stick It the day it came out and, really, I was just sharing my enthusiasm for a truly fantastic film in the place where I share my enthusiasm for most things. The thing is, Jessica’s mom stumbled across my review and emailed a link to her. Jessica — being the generous spirit that she is — sent me an email to thank me for my public display of genuine enthusiasm. And, as is pretty typical in my life, an online friendship was born.
Five months after my above-mentioned blog post, Jessica and I met in person for the first time and talked about filmmaking, writing, casting, actors, staying grounded while being an artist, and authenticity. Several themes emerged throughout our talk that I just knew would be of great interest to my readers. While we talked, I said, “This is like so much of what I write about each week, but it’ll be way cooler for my readers to see someone else validating these concepts.” So, please indulge me while I enthusiastically share the insight that was enthusiastically shared with me by my new friend and one of the coolest people I know, Jessica Bendinger.
With Bring It On, I got to sit in with Joseph Middleton and his associate on a lot of the casting. And what I noticed in that process was that it’s a very weird window. I had never been in the casting process before that, but I noticed how actors were before they sat in that chair. It’s a huge difference in comfort level! And I’ll tell you who was a big giveaway for me. Leslie Bibb walked in. She was so comfortable; she was so relaxed, really easygoing. She brought her life into the room — which they say you’re not supposed to do. She talked about her car trouble and I was having this great reaction to her — that she was so comfortable in her skin. She was so comfortable with that process that you couldn’t help but feel confident in casting her. And by the way, she was not off-book at all. She was holding her script pages up. But she was so relaxed and at-ease in her performance and clearly you just looked at her and thought, “This girl can do anything! Look at her!” She was totally relaxed and in her center and doing a great job. I had always heard that actors should try to be off-book. But then I started noticing — after Leslie came in — that the actors that weren’t off-book necessarily were much more relaxed and much more centered. Bring It On really helped me shift my concept of what I was looking for in an actor. I think that idea of being off-book is really a burden that an actor shouldn’t worry about unless that casting director has a hang-up about it.
On Rolling With It
With Stick It, we did mix and matches for the parts of Poot and Frank. I had a feeling that some of these kids were going to be better at Frank and some would be better at Poot, so I had them memorize both parts so I could mix it up. I worried that their agents would get mad or annoyed at that request and the casting director said, “Oh no, it’s fine. This happens all the time.” We brought in these kids and it was obvious with some that their agents hadn’t told them to prep for both — and this was at callbacks! I had a lot of sympathy for actors in that moment. This one kid was so bummed. You could see his whole face drop because he didn’t know. Now, there’s a difference between not being off-book and going with it and thinking you’re being called back for one part in particular and then you’re told you have to wing it. That’s a huge confidence shaker. What was interesting was that the people who did well with it — John Patrick Amedori and Kellan Lutz who both got the parts — their chemistry together, they were just goofing off, improv’ing, they were vibing with each other. It’s like they just read my mind about what I wanted and needed and did it. These guys were making stuff up in character. If you look at their audition tape, their chemistry from the second they were sitting together was phenomenal.
I ask myself: “When we’re not shooting, are you somebody I’d want to hang out with? Are you going to bring a good vibe to set? Are you going to be difficult all the time?” It’s very important for me to not get caught up in any of the unnecessary drama that can wreck a production, if an actor’s in their trailer, if they’re difficult, if they’ve got a drug problem, whatever. I did all my research on people before they even came in the room. We had one actor we brought in for mix and match who was so great at his first reading and he was on drugs or something when he came back for mix and match. It was like: “Who is this kid? What happened?” So, too bad, because he’s a really talented kid but he was out of his mind.
Remember when you’re working on a job it may come back to bite you in the butt if you’re not easy to work with. And if you’re not easy to work with, there’s somebody else who is easier to work with. If I have to pick between talent and ease-of-use, I’m going to pick ease-of-use because I’ve got a day to make. I’ve got money flying out the door. It is a business and I want to feel like my investment is safe.
On Whether It’s Personal
We don’t have time to not like you. We have an instant reaction and it’s a very quick yes or no. The casting process is a very quick physical, mental, emotional thing. Yes! No! It’s chemical. It’s not personal. It’s a vibe. It’s a sense of assurance of being centered, grounded, calm. It’s like, “I will be an asset to this project.” If you have that sense of being an asset that will come through.
Whatever is vibrating for a director is what they’re going to be attracted to. If you’ve done a killer job and were great in an audition, just know it’s not about you. Whatever is going on for that person informs their choice 100%. Let’s just get this straight: There is zero correlation between quality and what gets produced. There is zero correlation between who is most talented and who gets cast. There are so many other subsets of machinations at work that have very little to do with the product.
I will say I think that, if you’re lucky, you get labeled in Hollywood and that happens in casting or writing or directing. If you’re really, really lucky, people will know you’re good at something and they will come to you for that. And you shouldn’t look at that as being typecast. You should look at it as, “Oh, thank god! I’m branded!”
My agent told me something very interesting about his theory about Hollywood. He said, “Hollywood doesn’t like a fake.” That seems counter-intuitive on the surface. But let me explain. For example: If you’re not a back-biter by nature and you think you have to back-bite to get ahead, if you start back-biting, you’ll get called out. You’ll get called out and exposed. If you’re really neurotic, be neurotic. If you’re really insecure, be insecure. Here’s where people get into trouble: When they try to be something they’re not. That’s not to say you’re not working on your neuroses or you’re not working on being less insecure or whatever it is you think you need to work on to be more you. But it’s about being more YOU. Be more you. There is a typecasting that happens but I think the people who are successful are really being who they are: good, bad, ugly. It’s just that people can kind of count on it and depend on it in some twisted way.
John Travolta’s former manager Jim Curtain, he does a lot of work with archetypes and he, in fact, wrote the glossary of archetypes for Carolyn Myss‘ book Sacred Contracts. I think Sacred Contracts and any book on archetypes is a great read for an actor. Jim used to work in Hollywood and what he said was that actors really only get hired for their archetype and what is in their archetypal wheel hub. For example Tom Hanks is everyman. So he’s great in an everyman role. But if you try to put him outside that, it doesn’t always work. It’s not to say put yourself in a box. It might be a good exercise in knowing yourself. The shadow of the tough guy is probably a real needy little kid who became tough. Every trait is a reaction to something. You’re not bossy because you’re bossy. You’re bossy in reaction to something.
On Process vs. Product
Jeff Bridges is a consummate professional and prepares in the most intensely rigorous way, he’s thought about a choice and it doesn’t matter. He’s the most giving, prepared Ferrari of an actor, so there was something reassuring about thinking he’s so prepared and yet so present to the process that he can still be uncertain. That’s where the real creativity comes in. He doesn’t know the answer, I don’t know the answer. Okay, we get to discover the answer and then something great will usually follow.
I’m very concerned with everybody having a good process. To me, “The end justifies the means” is total bull. I don’t believe that. I believe the process needs to be good for the product to be good. Sure, there’s such a thing as a crappy journey to a happy ending but I’d rather have a happy journey and a happy ending.
With Bring It On, I will tell you, we did a reading of it and Eliza Dushku was at the reading and I definitely had her in mind for Missy. She played a different part at the read-thru. Gabrielle Union read the Isis part and was Isis in the movie. Amy Smart actually read the Torrance part at the read-thru and Ethan Embry read the Jesse Bradford part. It was great at the reading but they weren’t ultimately right for the project for whatever reason.
People get on my radar usually through word-of-mouth or a lot of times through comedy stuff. I like M Bar a lot. I go see a lot of standup. There’s a guy named Danny McBride who just came on my radar because he did a little movie called The Foot Fist Way. It’s an indie that he stars in about a really crazy Tae Kwon Do teacher. I saw it and was like, “Wow. He’s really funny.”
A lot of times I’ll see people’s shorts on YouTube. There’s so many ways to get seen if you have something that’s genuinely funny. It’s easier to get seen if you have something that’s funny than if you’re a dramatic actor, unfortunately. Shorts are always popping up on my radar. I’m constantly in the process of expanding on my list of who I want to see at any casting. Missy Peregrym — I was home sick and turned on TV and the Life As We Know It opening credits were on and I was like, “Who’s that?” And thank god her name was in it. I then looked her up on IMDb and it went from there — seeing her, catching her because I was home sick and going, “That’s Haley!”
For me, I had people in mind when I was writing some of the parts — friends of mine. Like the judge whose pants come down in Stick It, that’s a friend of mine named Ricky Trammell who I’d seen perform, doing a one-man-show. And by the way, Ricky’s not famous. Ricky’s a guy who had a crazy one-man-show, playing multiple characters and I just think he’s a genius. I wrote that part for him and I knew he could do it.
My friend Brian Gattas — who is a great improviser — he did this show called Celebrity. I needed that sales associate to be — with one line — really funny, a trailer moment. He totally delivered. He improv’ed something in his audition which I then actually wrote into the script: If you look closely he’s reading a book called It Works. It’s this little book. He brought that into his audition and we cleared it so he’s reading it in the movie. If none of you know it, you should go get It Works it’s a really great little tool. He did that in the audition and I put it in the script.
Jon Gries who was in Napoleon Dynamite is a friend from the dog park to whom I just said, “Jon, I think you and Missy might actually kind of look like father and daughter.” It’s a small part, normally you would never go out to an actor like him for a part like that, but he did it because we had a relationship.
I think if you have relationships with filmmakers, they might be using you whether you know it or not. It’s good to keep in mind.
On a Healthy Mindset
During casting, I think the actors who blew it were too needy so they came in and there was this desperation to the energy — wanting to engage rather than an ease. There’s a higher pitched sense to the neediness. It’s taking up too much space and it’s demanding a mirroring or attention from the people watching you that might be inappropriate. Less is more. Be comfortable. Be grounded. I want an actor to feel like he knows he matters regardless of whether he gets the part or not. Those actors that are very needy are showing me, “I need you to love me.” And then I get anxious and I feel bad for them. I’m not even thinking about the process anymore. I’m worried about this poor kid.
You don’t want to feel like the actor is going to fall apart if you give them a piece of direction that’s outside what they’ve prepared. And sometimes I fear — actors need to be vulnerable to be actors — but there’s a certain kind of vulnerability that you fear as a director because you don’t want that actor to fall apart on you. I don’t want to feel like someone’s self-esteem is hinging on that audition. I want to feel like I’m dealing with a balanced person. It’s who they are, even if they’re changing and growing, having good days, bad days. I want to feel like that person is going home at night and they know who they are and they’re going to sleep okay regardless of whether they got the part or not. That’s what I aspire to be so I want to surround myself with people who kind of vibrate that.
I think catastrophizing is a big thing that us drama queens in Hollywood gravitate towards. “Oh, it’s catastrophic! Oh, it’s the end of the world!” No, you had a bad day. It’s not brain surgery. You’re not working in a coal mine. You’re not supporting 12 starving children. You’re not in a camp in Darfur. Your life is pretty good. If you have a bad audition, consider it a victory. I think we lose our perspective so easily in this town. If failure is like shit then you’re always digging in shit. Well, that’s like composting. Composting really does make for better gardening. Take your failures and use them.
I think volunteering is a great way to keep your perspective. The Paris Hiltons of the world and the Lindsay Lohans of the world — whose personal lives become more interesting than their work — are a really great cautionary tale for us. They’re on their path and god bless them. But I think it’s important to be in the world and remember to be of service. Being of service is a great way to stay grounded. There are so many people who aren’t artists who are desperate for art in their lives. There’s Free Arts for children downtown. There’s Project Angel Food. There’s so many amazing organizations in town. There’s a website called LA Works where you can say what kind of volunteering you want to do and it will line you up for it. There’s a vast array. And that’s an amazing way to stay grounded and keep your perspective, remember why you’re here.
The long haul is hard. We, as artists, need to follow our enthusiasm. The world needs more people in the world who love what they do. If acting is really making you miserable, if it’s making you unhappy, if you’re in some sort of reenactment from childhood because your parents didn’t approve of you or your teachers didn’t approve of you, and you are in a life of pain because of that, the world does not need more people in pain. I would recommend to you that you work out your pain in therapy or some other way and find something that you love to do and follow that.
The key, I think, for any creative person, is to be a resilient warrior. You can’t be so defensive that you’re bulletproof — you need to be open to feedback and criticism — but you also have to be rooted and grounded and kind of resilient so that you roll with the punches but don’t let ’em get you down. And every now and then you will get knocked down. You will. Let’s not candy-coat it: This is a tough business. It’s brutal. It’s not called show art; it’s called show business, like they say. You’re dealing with other people’s money and you’re dealing with a lot of money so you’d better have your shit together. It’s not about you at the end of the day. You’ve got to be tough but not hard.
This business is a mirror and it will mirror all of your faults and shortcomings and patterns back to you. You have to be kind of porous and open and strong and rooted but willing to fall down and get up. You’re going to have to get up again. When you don’t feel like getting up you’re like, “Oh my god, I’m so tired of this,” you have to keep getting up and it takes a lot of courage.
On Sharing Her Toys
We’re so at risk in this town. So many creative people get beaten down. I want to be of service and share with others.
On How We Can Support Her Passion
The Stick It DVD release is Tuesday. I hope people will buy it despite the DVD cover. Disney changed the art. Feel free to send your hate mail to me, I’ll forward it on to the powers that be and I agree with you in advance. There’s some really great stuff on the DVD. There’s a credit sequence I was not able to put in the movie that shows all of the doubles and all of the athletes working together. You get to see all of the championships they’ve won and where they’re from and if you’re a fan of gymnastics, it’ll make you cry. It’s a really beautiful tribute to the athletes. We have all of these things with Jeff that I had to cut for time. Anytime I had to cut Jeff it was just heavy on my heart and my soul. I hope the DVD will put Stick It on its way to becoming a beloved cult classic. I really want to hear people’s responses to the scenes we cut. I think there’s something really honest about the deleted scenes I included. I’m not protecting myself. I’m really showing you that, hey, you may think I’m a big muckity-muck writer, but I make mistakes. And as a first-time writer/director, I’m being really vulnerable and sharing my mistakes. I hope people will check it out and enjoy it. Come to my MySpace and let me hear from you!
[I hope y’all enjoyed my chat with Jessica as much as I did. Believe me, there was a TON of good info that I’m sure will find its way into future columns. If you’d like to see Jessica after she returns from the Austin Film Festival in October, she’ll be speaking at the WGA’s Writers on Writing Thursday, 26 October 2006, 7:30pm, at the WGA-West 2nd floor. Visit WGFoundation.org for more info. Oh, and she has said this: I’ll sign any of your readers’ DVDs. Tell them to come up and mention Bonnie G. and I’ll take care of them. Ya gotta love that!]
[2013 Update: Just re-reading this interview, I am renewed and filled with love for our amazing industry. Jessica continues to be a source of inspiration for me. What — in her words — got you thinking in a new way? Any “yes, and…” feelings going on? Let’s hear it! Comments are open below. Yay!]
Originally published by Actors Access at http://more.showfax.com/columns/avoice/archives/000451.html. Please support the many wonderful resources provided by the Breakdown Services family. This posting is the author’s personal archive.