Today’s guest post comes from actor and writer, Thom Vernon.
This is a brave and fearless tale. I have a feeling Thom wouldn’t agree. But, that’s certainly how I see it. I bet you will too.
This is also as blunt and honest a tale as ever been published in this space. Thom could argue that one with me all day, but he’d lose the fight, which, after reading this story, you might find difficult to believe, because Thom has more fight in him than most, and I can’t picture him losing at anything.
Some people walk through life with their eyes closed. Some turn a blind eye to what stands before them. And some choose to plow forward, no matter what the circumstance, with eyes wide open.
Thom Vernon is one of those people. And he’s reaped the rewards.
Now we do as well.
When Richard Botto (@Stage32online) asked me to write about how I’ve stayed in the industry so long, and maybe share some war stories, two words came: I’m interested. First, I’m still in the industry because I am curious. There’s nothing like being backstage or onstage; or hanging out on the steps of a trailer; or being in the hushed halo of light when “sound rolling” is called. Second, my life depended on it. Read on.
There is no other business for me. I have always known my life would be about three things: writing, teaching and acting. As a kid in the red leather back seat of my mom’s Rambler, that thought streamed through the rear window and soaked into my skin. Warm, clear, no doubt. I don’t know how I knew. Maybe it runs in my veins. I didn’t know it then, but my grandma and grandpa had met in the 1930s doing a radio show. He fiddled, she sang. This level of clarity is a blessing and a curse. No matter what doubts come - and they have come - sitting in that back seat (with my sister Karen hanging out the window moaning with carsickness, myself being too small to stay in my seat belt and sliding with every turn crashing into my brother, Mike, who’d kick me off) with that idea burning into my skin like the sun has kept me on course. I’ll do anything in this business. I won’t do everything, but I’ll do anything. Chew on that.
That knowing has been my light and compass. Honestly, I have no memory of ever being bored on a set or backstage at a theatre. Even at my lowest. Not in a rehearsal hall and not in a table read. Not in a class and not falling flat on my face. I will always risk engagement and possible failure over disinterest. You couldn’t peel me from this industry and god knows it’s been tried. I show up, I’m prepared, I’m curious, I’m present. I am ready to go. I’m not late, I don’t bitch, I don’t gossip. It’s distracting, it’s draining and it’s boring. One of the main reasons I am still interested is that I know I’m right where I’m supposed to be. Life moves forward. We either get on that speeding train—or we leap from it.
While I’ve stayed in the game, I have leapt from the train. Bored. My boredom wasn’t provoked by the business. I bored myself. Boredom comes from looking to others for fulfillment. If I’m looking there, that must mean there’s nothing here, right? For instance, I love auditioning. I know, don’t hit me. If it’s any consolation, it’s a constant learning curve. Even after all this time. I change and every meeting is different. It’s part of the job, but it became a curse. In spite of my knowing and clarity, it took me a long time to be okay if others didn’t like what I did or said. My job is to bring it. To do my work. Paradoxically, I wanted so badly to be myself, I looked to others to tell me what ‘myself’ was acceptable. But, I had known all along.
Approval-seeking, doubt and fear were the “A” grades of my childhood and a good chunk of my adulthood. The more I criticized myself, the more I risked, reached, and loathed myself if I wasn’t perfect. Face it, it’s a miracle any of us get any work. Or that that work gets seen or read by anyone. At the project level, think of the potholes: script, financing, direction, performance, marketing, etc. etc. etc. At the personal level, you’ve got to have the agent that thinks to send you out for a part. Then, you’ve got to have the casting director who thinks she might keep her job if you are a fit. Then, you’ve got the directors and producers who’ve got to imagine they can take exactly what you’ve brought into the meeting and plug it into their shoot. Fair enough. But, you know, a shout out to all the casting directors, directors, producers and agents who’ve called me off the bench over and over all these years. Don’t think I don’t know who’s responsible. Or not.
War story. When I wriggled out from the thumb of my family and wobbled off to Chicago I earned my stripes. I had $30 in my pocket, knew one person (an ex-boyfriend, sort of) and was on the lam from the mob. Not kidding, but that’s a story for another time. Once I got to Chicago, I also quickly got in with the mob not once, but two more times. Maybe it’s unavoidable, maybe it’s me. I don’t know. Also, another story for another time. Dealing with the mob is nothing compared to being an actor. To learn to act, I had to learn to play. Scariest thing ever for someone like me. Eventually, I learned to seek accident and spontaneity; cracks in the sidewalk and fissures in the façade. It turns out I’m a born improviser, love surprises and will catch the ball when it comes my way. I’ll be happily working at these for the rest of my days. To learn, one’s got to find the right teacher. The right guide for your exploratory expeditions. There are a number of frogs and false prophets out there, but there is gold too.
I’ve been lucky in the community of players that I’ve come up with and the people I’ve studied with. Joyce and Byrne Piven at the Piven Theatre Workshop gave me the keys to the kingdom. Hubert ‘Cubby’ Selby, Jr., (Last Exit to Brooklyn, Requiem for a Dream, etc.), Donald Freed (Circe & Bravo, Secret Honor, etc.), Sy Gomberg (Summer Stock, When Willie Comes Marching Home, etc.) led me further. Right now, for instance, I study voice with Fides Krucker, a ground-breaker opera singer who teaches us how to use the autonomic nervous system to access pitch. We have pitch, but we often don’t allow it. We yawn, we bobble our heads, we swagger, we release our fourth eye (think about it). Fides and my other teachers are rare birds. But they aren’t the only ones. Yours are out there, too. It’s important that a teacher gets you, sees what you may have to offer and can help you access the art in yourself. Not every teacher suits every student. Take what you can use and leave the rest. Another secret to longevity is having the good sense to understand that there is almost always something to learn.
War story. I once had an agent in Chicago (who shall remain nameless. You know who you are.). After I’d gone through god knows how many auditions and callbacks, I won the lead in a feature. Yay, right? Yes, definitely. Life changing. Except at the end of the first day of shooting in the mountains of a foreign country, the Director leaned over and said, “You need to get a new agent.”
“Yes. She wouldn’t let us hire you.”
“She negotiated against you. She wanted X (an actor pal of mine on the same roster). We had to fight your agent for you. Get a new agent.”
No kidding. But I waited. I waited until I got on terra firma. I waited until I’d met with several other agents. As soon as I signed with the amazing Janet Louer (oh, I hope she’s still in the business) at Harrisse Davidson, I fired the other agent. I wrote them a letter saying I knew what they’d done. I’m not here to fuck around. I’m here to do the best work I can and get it in the can. I was politer than that but my eyes opened. Of course eye-opening situations are part of the game. Get used to it.
War story. A week after landing in L.A., I got a pilot. After a week or two of work, I got a phone call. “Do not be funnier than the star,” my manager told me. I had no idea. Where I come from in Chicago, you just get out there and do the best you can. That is true. As long as it doesn’t look better than the name above the title. Got it. And, you know, the list goes on. I’d need more than one hand to count the number of series I was going to get but they ended up going with a name. That’s the business. I learned early to take it on the chin, pull up my big boy pants and roll with the punches. It’s not personal, but my eyes are open.