From Stage to Screen
Recently, I was invited to address the graduating class of a top conservatory training program for actors in New York City. I asked the group to give a few minutes of thought to where they would like to see themselves professionally in five years' time. Then I asked for a show of hands from all those who were thinking in terms of "film." Every hand in the group, except one, shot up. The one holdout responded "theater and film."
Prior to the above-mentioned speaking engagement, I was a guest at another well-known acting training program, also in New York City, where I posed the same question to a theater full of young acting students. And got essentially the same response—mostly "film," several "television," and only a few "theater."
In the past, an actor seeking a career in film or television usually ventured west to Hollywood while the actor pursuing work in the theater migrated to New York. The westward trek is still made, but it has become equally true that most young actors who come to New York are also eyeing careers in film or television. This has become the ultimate goal, or dream, for most of the actors with whom I come in contact.
Why this change? One major contribution to the powerful lure of the film and television industry is a now decentralized theater scene, which makes it necessary for most actors to accept often low-paying out-of-town engagements if they are to be employed in the theater at all. Yet, despite the hardships, there is still probably no better way for the New York actor who seeks a career in film or television to give this dream a chance than to strive for the highest quality visibility possible in the theater. With models, child actors, teenage actors, and actors still youthful enough to convincingly portray teenage characters comprising the main exceptions, the overwhelming majority of film and television careers born out of New York are of actors who have first been seen on the stage.
Why is this so? Mainly, for two reasons: visibility and credibility. First, let's talk about visibility. When a play opens on or off-Broadway and receives good notices, it is the actors in this play whom the film and television industries—such as they exist in New York—see. Literally. A big part of the jobs of those who cast is to be aware of which actors are being praised for their performances, and to see their work. In turn, it is these actors who are often requested to audition for, and then frequently land, roles in film and television productions that are being cast in New York. This is especially true in television, where there is a continual demand for new and ongoing programming. Not only does New York now boast several hit prime-time series of its own, but there is also pilot season—the bulk of which takes place in the first four months of the year. It is at this time when Hollywood casting executives visiting the east are able to see the New York talent pool. From this talent pool, a number of actors will be cast in leading and supporting roles in television pilots, the most well received of which are then developed as new series for the upcoming television season.
And where do television casting personnel go to find the New York actors who will be auditioned for these new pilots? Mainly, to the theater. They attend the hit shows of the current season. An examination of the upcoming fall television season in any given year will usually boast several actors who made a splash in the previous New York theater season. In fact, the annual prime-time Emmy Award nominee roster often contains the names of a number of actors who were nominated for—or in some cases have even won—a Tony Award in the theatrical season or two prior to becoming known to national television audiences.
Earlier, I mentioned that the stage is the likeliest route to film and prime-time television success for the New York actor. Film and prime-time success, without benefit of a stage career, is more common in Los Angeles, where much of the casting is done according to "look" and "type." Many actors who find good representation on the West Coast—which is no easy feat in itself—are subsequently auditioned and cast in films and tele- vision. While working in the theater is certainly advantageous to the Los Angeles actor, it is not necessarily the prerequisite route to film and prime-time television that it so often is in New York.
While some might observe that New York comedy clubs have long been choice spots for discovery by the film and television industry, two things must be pointed out. First, the career path of a New York comic who becomes a success in either film or prime-time television usually goes first from the comedy club stage to talk shows, comedy, or variety television (such as Saturday Night Live, The Late Show with David Letterman, etc.). From this exposure, the comic may then go on to work in film or prime-time television. Second, while an individual comic's background may not include the theater, per se, the comic's talents have still come to the attention of the film and television industry first through the comic's visibility on the stage.
In daytime television, more specifically soap operas, young actors on both coasts are often cast in contract roles without benefit of a career in the theater. This is not to say that the young actors who are selected for soap opera roles are without training or talent, merely that they tend to be blessed with uncommon good looks—usually a primary consideration in the casting of these roles.
Earlier, I mentioned that actors in New York who succeed in film or prime-time television without benefit of a stage career are generally those who land a sizable role in a film or television series while still very young. The reason for this is quite simple. Very few actors at such an early age will have had the opportunity to build a highly visible career in the theater—nor are there very many roles for child or teen actors in most new plays. Therefore, casting directors will frequently audition relatively inexperienced young actors who have already found representation, or perhaps have come to their attention by way of a referral. This is sometimes a necessity in order to find the right actors who are young enough to convincingly portray the characters in the roles being cast. And so, New York has spawned the careers of such popular stars as Tom Cruise, Meg Ryan, Elisabeth Shue, Uma Thurman, Matt Dillon, Christina Ricci, Kirsten Dunst, Rosario Dawson, Chloe Sevigny, Ashton Kutcher, Michelle Rodriguez, and Julia Roberts—to name a few—all of whose careers began in New York without visibility in the theater. All of the above landed a leading or supporting role in a film or prime-time television series while they were still not past the age of twenty-one.
On the other hand, when a play featuring a child or a teenage character is a success, the young actor playing the role will oftentimes find himself in immediate demand by the film and television industry. Historically, this has always been the case, and continues to be so. Let's take a look back at some prime examples from the past two decades. The 1980s Neil Simon hit Brighton Beach Memoirs launched the film career of Matthew Broderick along with the careers of a host of other young actors who succeeded him in the course of the play's three-year run. This list includes: Fisher Stevens, Jon Cryer, Robert Sean Leonard, Patrick Dempsey, and Jonathan Silverman. As each of these unknowns assumed the lead role of Eugene, his visibility and credibility escalated enormously. Throughout the '80s many other teen and pre-teen actors rose through the ranks by appearing in productions both on and off-Broadway. Some of these "kids" were: Macaulay Culkin (off-Broadway in the Ensemble Studio Theater's production of After School Special); Sarah Michelle Gellar (off-Broadway in The Widow Claire at Circle-in-the-Square); Jennifer Aniston (in the New York Shakespeare Festival's production of For Dear Life); and future Oscar winner Adrien Brody—at the ripe old age of thirteen—appeared off-Broadway in Family Pride in the '50s. At fifteen, Brody would become a regular on the short-lived Mary Tyler Moore series Annie McGuire.
The 1990s rolled in and the "junior" division was represented by many, including a pre-teen (and pre-film) Natalie Portman in the off-Broadway hit Ruthless! That same year, an eight-year-old unknown named Scarlett Johansson debuted at Playwrights Horizons in Sophistry. The later-to-become-star of ABC's Teen Angel, Mike Damus, understudied on Broadway in Neil Simon's Lost in Yonkers, and another then unknown teen—Dawson's Creek star James Van Der Beek—launched his career off-Broadway at the Signature Theater Company in Edward Albee's Finding the Sun. Eddie Kay Thomas understudied in the Lincoln Center production of John Guare's Four Baboons Adoring the Sun and later appeared on Broadway in the 1999 revival of The Diary of Anne Frank. Thomas would later co-star in such films as American Pie and the WB series Off Centre. Teenage unknown Michael Pitt appeared off-Broadway at the prestigious New York Theatre Workshop in The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek and immediately thereafter was cast in a recurring role on Dawson's Creek. Pitt would later star in such films as John Cameron Mitchell's Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers. Nine-year-old Mischa Barton appeared off-Broadway in Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Tony Kushner's Slavs. Later, Ms. Barton would perform at Lincoln Center in James Lapine's Twelve Dreams and in two productions at the New York Shakespeare Festival. Eventually, Ms. Barton would become the co-star of the hit Fox series The O.C.
The "adult" division found Billy Crudup in Lincoln Center's Arcadia, Taye Diggs in Rent, and a pre–Dharma and Greg's Thomas Gibson performing both on Broadway and off. Jennifer Garner understudied on Broadway in A Month in the Country, and an unknown Jude Law appeared opposite Kathleen Turner on Broadway in Indiscretions. The soon-to-be star of ABC's The Practice, Camryn Manheim, won praise for her one-woman off-Broadway hit Wake Up, I'm Fat. Another unknown named Michael Emerson appeared onstage in Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde and would later join Manheim as a cast member of The Practice. Manhattan Theatre Club's production of Terrence McNally's Love! Valour! Com- passion! positioned actor Justin Kirk to nab a co-starring role on the WB series Jack and Jill; Kirk would later co-star in HBO's Angels in America. It was also at Manhattan Theatre Club where Debra Messing understudied in John Patrick Shan- ley's Four Dogs and a Bone. Ms. Messing later co-starred in the off-Broadway production Collected Stories and then became the co-star of such series as Ned and Stacey and Will & Grace. At approximately the same time, Vera Farmiga understudied on Broadway in Taking Sides. Shortly thereafter, Ms. Farmiga would become the co-star of the Fox series Roar opposite the late Heath Ledger. Ms. Farmiga would then go on to become the star of numerous feature films including The Departed.
From the late '90s through 2009, we have watched many stage actors make the transition from stage to screen. David Alan Basche bounced from off-Broadway successes Visiting Mr. Green and Snakebit to become the co-star of the hit NBC series Three Sisters and the feature film War of the Worlds. Allison Janney won a Tony Award for her performance in the Broadway revival of Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge and would then go on to co-star in the series The West Wing. Also appearing regularly on The West Wing was Kristin Chenoweth, Tony winner of the hit revival of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Ms. Chenoweth would later become a star of the series Pushing Daisies, where she would be joined as a series regular by Lee Pace, who had previously appeared in a Playwrights Horizons production called The Credeaux Canvas.
Good fortune struck other actors appearing in a more recent off-Broadway play by Terrence McNally entitled Corpus Christi. This production showcased the talent of actors Anson Mount and Sean Dugan. Mount would go on to star in several films including Urban Legends: The Final Cut, and Dugan would appear regularly on the HBO series Oz. Stephanie March, featured in the Broadway revival of Death of a Salesman would soon become a regular on the hit series Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, and Dagmara Dominczyk, who understudied on Broadway in Closer, would be cast in lead roles in such films as The Count of Monte Cristo. Young actor Eddie Cahill appeared off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre in Nicky Silver's The Altruist; as a result Cahill would guest star on Sex and the City, land a recurring role on Friends, and co-star with Kurt Russell in the film Miracle. Shortly thereafter Cahill would become a regular on the series CSI: New York.
A short while later, an unknown Dallas Roberts appeared in Maria Irene Fornes's Enter the Night at the Signature Theatre Company, while a few blocks away Derek Richardson was making his professional acting debut at the "A-list" off-Broadway theater Playwrights Horizons in Kira Obolensky's Lobster Alice. As an immediate and direct result, Richardson made guest appearances on several prime-time series and then was cast in a starring role in the film Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd. Later he would become the co-star of the series Men in Trees, and Dallas Roberts would go on to appear in such films as A Home at the End of the World, in which he co-starred with Colin Farrell. At exactly the same time, newcomer Eric Millegan appeared in the Broadway revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar. Immediately thereafter, Millegan was cast in the lead role in the independent film On_Line and later became a regular on the hit Fox series Bones.
Danny Pino co-starred with the earlier mentioned Billy Crudup in the New York Shakespeare Festival's production of Measure for Measure and was then cast in a starring role on the WB series Men, Women, and Dogs. Later, Pino would become a series regular on CBS's prime-time series Cold Case. After appearing in the hit revival of Noises Off, actor T. R. Knight became a regular on Nathan Lane's series Charlie Lawrence and later would become a co-star of the hit series Grey's Anatomy. Young actress Ashley Williams understudied in the off-Broadway hit The Shape of Things. Shortly thereafter Ms. Williams would become the co-star of the hit NBC series Good Morning, Miami. There she would be joined by Mark Feurstein, who had previously appeared at off-Broadway's prestigious Classic Stage Company. Patrick Wilson starred in Broadway's The Full Monty and would later be nominated for an Emmy for his performance in HBO's Angels in America and then star in such films as Little Children and Watchmen. Also appearing in the stage version of Monty was ten-year-old newcomer Conor Paolo, who would later become a series regular on the CW hit Gossip Girl.
The Broadway revival of Cabaret led Michael C. Hall to a starring role on HBO's Six Feet Under, and Roger Bart of Broadway's blockbuster hit The Producers was prominently cast in the remake of The Stepford Wives with Nicole Kidman. Multiple Tony Award winners Audra McDonald and Donna Murphy were further "awarded"—Ms. McDonald with a role as a series regular on the NBC prime-time show Mr. Sterling and Ms. Murphy with a co-starring role in the smash hit film Spider-Man 2. Tony nominee Daniel Sunjata of the Richard Greenberg prize-winning play Take Me Out became the star of the series Rescue Me, and after an understudying assignment in the hit Broadway play Proof, Andrea Anders appeared in a lead role in the Broadway version of The Graduate. Before long, Ms. Anders would become the co-star of the Friends spinoff series Joey. After appearing in leading roles on Broadway in Epic Proportions and off-Broadway in Paul Rudnick's The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told, Alan Tudyk became the star of such films as I, Robot, Dodgeball, and Serenity.
Mid to late in the first decade of the new century, many more actors made the stage-to-screen transition: The CBS series The Class boasted three regulars who had just performed lead roles in Broadway hits: Julie Halston of Hairspray; Jesse Tyler Ferguson of Spelling Bee; and Heather Goldenhersh of the John Patrick Shanley Pulitzer Prize–winning play Doubt. Newcomer Oscar Isaac, who had recently appeared in the New York Shakespeare Festival's productions of Two Gentlemen of Verona and Romeo and Juliet as well as the play Beauty of the Father at Manhattan Theatre Club, would go on to co-star with Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe in the feature film Body of Lies. Rutina Wesley, after appearing in the Broadway production of David Hare's The Vertical Hour, was cast in a starring role in the film How She Move and then became a series regular on HBO's True Blood. And on and on it goes.
Why is this? Besides the relatively simple and logical "theory of visibility," there is, as I mentioned earlier, the matter of credibility. In addition to a widely held belief that the true test of an actor's ability can be seen on the stage, it is important to realize how much pre-screening the actor goes through before being selected for a role at this professional level. Usually, his photo and resume are first reviewed by the play's casting director. The casting director does not actually cast the production. Casting directors are hired by producers and directors for their thorough knowledge of the acting community, as well as for their discerning tastes in talent. The casting director describes in detail the various roles available in a printed, daily outline—to which agents subscribe—called Breakdown Services. Besides auditioning actors selected from the submissions made by agents, the casting director also holds open auditions for members of Actors' Equity Association, the specific details of which are listed in the casting sections of trade publications.
After successfully auditioning for the casting director, an actor may then be called back for subsequent auditions for the director, the producer, and the playwright. It is this trio who will make the final casting decisions. By the time the actor wins the role, and achieves this prized visibility, he has usually passed many tests, and has been selected over many other actors.
An understudy has credibility simply by association with the hit play, as he too has probably passed many tests. His agent, if he has one, will probably have an easier time getting him seen by film and television casting personnel who may previously have overlooked him. Even without performing the role, this high-level understudy assignment is a strong "selling point." If the actor is without an agent, he may soon find himself represented, either by inviting agents to see him—if he does perform—or by being granted interviews on the basis of this newly acquired status. This is credibility.
Amazingly, as we shall see in detail in Chapters 5 and 6, if an actor is even being called back to audition further for a role in which he is ultimately not cast, he still establishes a potentially very powerful credibility.
Excerpted from Acting as a Business by Brian O'Neil. Copyright © 2009 by Brian O'Neil. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.