I’ve been rehearsing the play God of Carnage. The other night I got some direction that hit a nerve. My character is watching some action on the other side of the stage. The director said, “It looks like you’re standing still because someone told you to stand still.” When I mentioned this to a friend, she said “No offense, but you always look like you were directed to stand still.” The director wants me to look like a real person, which is the hard part for me.
I’m the opposite of what an actor should be. Actors project, convey, emote. They represent. I do all of those things, but I do them in my head. It took me a while to realize this. Every year when I had my school picture taken, I thought I was giving a huge smile. When the prints arrived my mother would ask, “Why do you look so unhappy?” One Christmas I received a SONY Walkman, my dream gift. I put the orange foam headphones on my ears and pressed play. Pure joy. My father said, “Would it kill you to smile?” He couldn’t see it. I was smiling on the inside.
I have many stories about the disconnect between what’s happening inside and what I convey. During college I was late to class one evening and a fellow student said, “Look how upset he is.” Without missing a beat, the professor said “That’s just Chris – he always looks that way.” Another time, I won an award and walked down the aisle to accept it, my head canted to the side. “Is your neck sore?” Uh, no. Damn. (I still fear winning anything because of that.) When I played Albert Peterson in Bye Bye Birdie, Padraic Lillis (who has since become a noted director) said, “It was great how your legs never bent. If you can’t dance like Dick Van Dyke, come up with something new!” (I was Dick Van Dyke on the inside.)
So why act? Because it’s difficult. Because I love actors and want to be more like them. Because I want to learn to live better. I’m getting closer. Every now and then, a smile breaks through.