My ignorance is the only thing that kept me from being rightfully starstruck-to-the-point-of-tongue-tied-dumbness when it was announced Walt Willey, a.k.a. Jackson Montgomery of All My Children, was going to be coming in to do Acme Comedy Theater's Unscripted Hollywood Dreamrole and I was scheduled to be in that show.
Now, what's kinda funny is that back in 2003, I was unemployed and a friend got me a gig lining up guests for autographs and handing out pins at the ABC Super Soap Weekend at Disney's California Adventure, which Walt attended. So, we actually had worked together and didn't even know it. If you've got a pin with his face on it from that weekend, you have a 1-in-8 chance that it came from my hand. Now, let's all go ride It's A Small World together, shall we?
But back to present day.
Now, Hollywood Dream Role has a really huge cast that rotates through each show. Some of the improvisers have been doing it for 20+ years and can sit you down and tell you some stories, kid. And then there are some of us newbies that come to rehearsal with little cartoon stars in our eyes. Both old and new, there has developed an ensemble that is there almost every week, whether performing or not, just because we frickin' love getting up on that stage to goof around with each other. For us, Wednesday night is the highlight of the week.
And what was really cool about the Walt Willey episode was that the cast was almost made up entirely of that ensemble. I won't lie to you Marge, there are faster and wittier folks out there, but no one can match the heart of the crew that was assembled.
The way that HDR (Hollywood Dreamrole for those in the know) works is that Monday we find out what our guest star's dream role is and we scramble like crazy to find out everything we can about that movie or genre. We get together on a Wednesday night and meet the star. We play some games and run an abbreviated episode of a genre that is different than what Friday's show will be (like, one guest wanted to do a Disney musical, so on Wednesday, we put her through a horror flick). And then we wish them a fond adieu, condemning them to 48 hours of wondering what the heck they got themselves into, and we run a couple more episodes to get ourselves into the groove. Friday night, we show up and play a couple more games with our star, open up the house, and it is game ON.
What I love about HDR is that it is about making a dream come true for someone. I think I can speak for almost every actor out there that secretly, in a little sheltered part of our heart, there is a movie or a show that captured our imagination. We can turn to that project when we're feeling blue and it reminds us why we do what we do and makes us think to ourselves, "Someday... if I just work hard enough..."
When we first started developing the project, we all got to step into the shoes of our dreamrole, just to see what it was going to be like for the stars. Mine is Scully in The X-Files. There was something so vulnerable and intimate about admitting that dream to a room full of my peers and rather than having them laugh and tell me I was too tall or fat to ever be Scully, to have them go, "Cool! I'm gonna be Mulder. She's gonna be the alien. Let's go!" And you know what? If I never get cast in anything for the rest of my life, I got to play my dreamrole.
So, Monday comes and we get the email stating that Walt Willey's dream role is Chief Martin Brody from Jaws.
Which made me go, "Crraaaaaaaap..."
See, back in the 4th grade, my friend Susan hosted a birthday sleepover and the movie dejour? Jaws III. Which we watched four times. And I still have panic attacks when I get into the ocean deeper than my kneecaps. It also didn't help that at the time we lived in San Francisco, which is the 2nd largest Great White breeding ground outside of the Great Barrier Reef and the fishermen regularly pulled sharks out of the water right next to where my brothers and I were swimming. I thought it was cool. Until I watched Jaws III.
So I had never seen Jaws and had built it up as this INSANELY scary film that I would never be old enough to handle. Of course, it being a mildly popular film that a few members of our audience were probably familiar with, faking it wasn't an option. And also, this was Walt Willey's dreamrole. Call me a sap, I don't take that lightly.
So, Tuesday night, I met up with Giddy and Mr. Giddy at WalMart (don't judge me. See: "Poor Actor") and found a copy of Jaws in the $5 bin.
Giddy was kind enough to draw me a picture on the tablecloth during dinner to try and pump me up for what I was about to embark upon that night.
So I went home and plugged the movie into my little 9" portable DVD player and kept all the lights on and watched it on my elliptical so that if it got too scary, I could blame my movie break on dehydration and get a glass of water from the fridge. FYI-I was dehydrated about every ten minutes.
Wednesday night was rehearsal and Joseph, our director, let us know that Walt was stuck on set, but would hightail it over as soon as he was done and if he didn't make it to the theater in time, he'd love to take us all out for drinks afterwards.
In case no one has informed you, the fastest way to an actor's heart is through his beverage.
So we were already Walt's best friend when he arrived, but when he stepped into the theater... well, you know those people who have a way of making you feel like the most important person in the room? That was this guy. He came around to every one of us and, warmly shaking our hands, looked us dead in the eye and got our names. Despite a long day at work, he was raring to go and from the moment he came into that room, he was dedicated to being a part of our group 100%. He played our goofy games and one upped every quip that was thrown at him. He held nothing back, and that, my friends, is something every actor dreams of someday being able to do. To walk into a room with no sign of insecurity, no reservations, just being present in the moment with the other artists around you. We ran a biblical epic with him as the Moses character and I got to play his wife. I wasn't aware of it before, but he's a stand-up comedian, and man, that guy's brain is quick. He's got a super computer up there while most of the world is running on a DOS operating system.
And true to his word, he took the whole cast out for a round after rehearsal. I'm still kicking myself that I had an audition early the next morning and had to miss it (it was for Cirque du Soleil and I made it through to the four hour mark before being cut in the third round. Not too shabby for a first Cirque audition). At Theater Sports rehearsal the next night, the verdict from everyone there was that Walt was one great guy.
We showed up Friday night and Walt was already there as a bunch of us were just strolling down the street. We played a bunch of games and all of us hung out afterwards in the green room, talking life stories and such. Someone came backstage to say that Susan Lucci was in the crowd. The Acme Crew promptly yelled at said person and the butterflies in our collective stomachs hatched from their cocoons and took forth in full fledged flight.
We do this thing called the Circle of Love where, right before the show, we throw our arms around each others' shoulders and sing a song inspired by the genre. That night, we sang the theme to Jaws and then Mack the Knife. One of my favorite moments was standing there waiting for the call for places and Walt turned to me to say, bemused, "I'm nervous", to which I said, "Me, too", and then he looked at me and said, "You're just saying that to make me feel better. You're such a liar" and gave me a playful shove. If it hadn't been cemented in my heart before, at that moment, I knew he was one of my people.
We stepped out onto the stage and it was clear this was a "Show Me" audience. Sometimes, an audience is on your side from the get-go. This was a quieter audience and it felt a little like maybe they had been burned by bad improv before.
Since Jaws had already been done, Joseph asked the crowd for a monster animal other than a shark. One by one, there were quiet suggestions of "spider", "bear", and such, and then someone boldly said, "Anteater" and Walt said, "I like Anteater." So Joseph said, "Okay. An anteater. So, I guess the name of this blockbuster movie would be called... 'Tongue'? Or 'Snout'?" and without missing a beat, Walt replied, "I like tongue. Wait! I didn't mean..." And from that point forward, the audience was on our side.
One of the cool things about the show is that it worked out everyone was cast to play their strong suits.
It felt like being back in kindergarten playing make believe on the playground. Youk know. Except with a killer anteater. Michael Perkins thought up the brilliant idea to make a pool noodle the tongue of the anteater and its victims got sucked through the door a la Vacuum of Death.
I was watching the action go down as they stared at the invisible body of the girl killed in the opening sequence and thought to slip backstage, grab a gruesome rubber hand that looks like it has been skinned, and toss it onstage.
I didn't hit anyone or nuthin' and I throw like a girl. *buffs nails*
I was cast as the egghead scientist/Richard Dryfuss role. My tongue got tied in the first couple scenes as my brain had a wrestling match with my mouth, but I'm proud to say they decided to put aside their differences and work together for the greater good.
There is a blessed moment in improv where your mouth opens up and words fall out and you don't know where they came from, but gosh, they were exactly the right thing to say at the exact right moment, and the whole cast was just nailing the curveballs and knockin' 'em outta the park. Walt was so frickin' quick, he caught everything we threw at him and twisted it around to kill the audience dead. You watch someone like that work and go, "OOooooh. THAT'S why you've been working for thirty years in this industry and others haven't. Because you're awesome AND a genius."
I won't go too into the details of the show, just because it is going to be posted online soon at http://www.youtube.com/hollywooddreamrole, but it came down to the fact that it was up to him and me to take out the evil anteater. And we did in an epic "Jaws"-esque slow motion explosion that ended up with us in each others arms. And It. Was. A. Hoot. All I can say is that it is an honor to work with an actor so fearless and willing to Go There.
...wherever There might be.
I felt positively carried through the entire show, which is funny, because that was supposed to be my job.
Afterwards, we headed out to the lobby to take cast pictures and there was Susan Lucci and the cast of All My Children.
That lady is so beautiful and SO THIN. I could have fit her entire body in my pant leg. *wistful sigh* And if seeing her wasn't enough, THEN she came over to me and said I was really funny and so brave. I've been playing those words over in my head all week as I look back upon that night and just fly.
P.S. I might have started watching soaps. Don't tell Jackie Chan.