I was up til midnight last night, struggling with my character; my role was being shot totally out of sequence …the order -scenes 2/4/3/1. The story centers on the loss of a Soviet sub, I am a submarine squadron commander and protecting a crucial technological secret…. one which our ‘heroes’, the series leads, seem determined to expose, dupes of a Russian friend to the main lead. The script portrays them as incredibly oblivious to the damage they are doing-yet I know intuitively, as a guest star, I’m not going to make points by calling them on it, either as a character or as an actor. At midnight, I remembered something Stella had said to me 25 years ago. “When your need to be liked is stronger than your need to play the truth of the scene, you will fail.” And then I knew what I had to do. I’d received consistent praise and admiration from the crew and director for the first two days of shooting (I generally do), but the cast remained curiously aloof and distant. I chose to raise the stakes and serve the script’s text, cleared it with the director and went for it, all day long, pulling back when he asked it of me. The two male leads didn’t like it one bit, changed and re-wrote their lines, didn’t like the way they were being spoken to, nor the way in which the script portrayed their actions and judgment, remained aloof and ignored me whenever possible. It’s probably the most estranged I’ve ever felt as a guest star on TV.
I worked hard, the only way I know how to work, concentrated, professional, consistent…. and I’m a little down right now, I guess I’m missing the accustomed strokes of my peers’ appreciation for my contribution to THEIR show. But I’m also proud, for too often in the past, I’ve surrendered my instincts and strength to the fears and insecurities of others…today I took a bold choice and stuck with it. I think they’d have had problems with my character in any case, it was so written…. but I think they also had problems with having a Black character speak to them with such critical and cutting judgment — and I showed them no more mercy than their characters deserved, which was damned little. So I don’t think I’ll be invited back soon to THAT show…but I do look forward to hearing the writer’s appraisal of my interpretation
26 January, 2001 (Letter written to a producer on JAG, never sent)
I wanted to express my gratitude to you for my inclusion in the episode of IRON COFFIN. I approached it in the manner I approach all my work – with passion, the desire to use all I’ve learned, and to do the best work possible. If ever you receive any heat for having fought to have me portray Captain Baxter, I will regret that, but I did want you to know that whatever choices I made, I made in the interest of serving the interests of the script and the character, as written.
My scenes were shot out of sequence, as is often the case – first 13A, then 20, then 18A, and finally 9A. And I knew from my reading of the script that there needed to be an arc, an escalation of the conflict – that of maintaining the secrecy of our technological abilities. That was Baxter’s mission, as I saw it. I was up until midnight, Monday, agonizing over what I felt to be a difficult choice for 18A, knowing that casting the leads in a bad light was not a way to being popular and liked. Yet NOT having the courage to make the truthful choices would be a betrayal of my training….and then I remembered something my teacher, Stella Adler, had said to me some 25 years ago: “When your need to be liked is stronger than your need to play the scene, you will fail.” And then I knew what I had to do.
The script portrayed Harm and the Admiral as unwitting dupes in a Russian scheme of dis-information and intelligence gathering. Baxter was written as sarcastic, cutting and emphatic. To underplay those realities in order to mollify the sensibilities of the leads would be a choice lacking in integrity. Both men were clearly uncomfortable with my choices, even suggesting re-writes to ‘rehabilitate’ their characters but I’d cleared my intentions with Scott and trusted him to reel me in, whenever I crossed whatever lines he felt appropriate. I think it’s likely they’d have been uncomfortable with any actor who spoke to them the way I did. But I also consider the possibility that, because they were being so spoken to by a Black man, that was an additional source of resentment. I don’t know that to be a fact, I’m not making an accusation, but I did search for some reason for the sense of exclusion and alienation I felt on the set on Tuesday. Not from the crew, they were always supportive, as were Matt and Scott – but I’ve never before felt so resented by the series leads on a shoot – and I’ve done a LOT of work these past 30 years, Charles.
I’ve accepted that my career will never approach those of my friends, like Sam and Morgan and Denzel. I’m happy for them and at peace with my own path. I’m not sure how much longer I’ll be allowed to or willing to do this. I take my work seriously, (some might say TOO seriously), but for better or worse, I AM my work. It defines me, it is all that I will leave behind, and I would hope to be remembered as an actor “who showed up, who came to play.” My teachers were Sanford Meisner and Stella Adler, and they taught me to serve first the writer, then the director and I might have whatever was left. I try to leave each shoot, knowing it may be my last shoot, wanting only to feel I’ve given my best, never stopped looking for more, was professional, was fearless, and justified the faith of those who’d allowed me the opportunity. I hope the finished product will leave you feeling validated in your decision to bring me aboard.
Best wishes and thanks, Tucker Smallwood
2 Feb 2001
Wellll…yesterday, JAG called to check my avail for a re-shoot of some sorts today. It forced me to cancel a meeting with the director for an HBO film, a callback, which may lose me that job…so it goes…and I wondered…Are they re-shooting one of the scenes? I hoped not, for I really liked the work I’d done. Last night they delivered a NEW scene. Turns out the show was short, and they not only included me in this new one with the three leads, they mentioned my character in the last scene.
It was a cute scene, suggesting the Admiral and I had conferred, to administer a little payback to Harm and Mac, he the senior officer allowing me to assign a little’ homework’ to temper their self-satisfaction at having seemingly had their way with me and security concerns. Only problem is that the ‘Admiral’, John Johnson, refused to get on board.
When I arrived, David greeted me; I told him I’d hit a bucket of balls this morning and he said he’d been playing this morning at his club in Palm Springs. (ALL were called in, sort of on their day off, to shoot this addition to a show seemingly finished a week ago). Catherine was as always, welcoming and easy to be with. But John arrived rather late, grumpy, resentful and either didn’t understand the scene as written or simply didn’t like it, probably both. As we rehearsed, he changed a line here, a line there (and he only had a few lines to begin with, which he finally managed to say correctly somewhere around the 20 take of the scene. We never spoke once throughout the entire day, I learned to simply avoid looking at him whenever possible and he never found cause to look at me, on or off camera.) The only problem with that is that the writers wrote a scene clearly depicting our MUTUAL enjoyment and participation in addressing Harm and Mac’s assignment to their submarines. As they tried to make excuses, the original line he had was “WE don’t need to hear anymore of that” …. to which I responded, “Thank you, Admiral”, and then proceeded to hand out my assignments of written reports on their experiences aboard. He changed his line to, “That’s enough”. (I decided to thank him, anyway, since it was so written.) At the scene’s end, they were to look to him for help in getting out of my assignment and he was to simply say, “Bon Voyage”. He decided to dismiss me first, and clearly contemptuously, “Thank you, Captain”, (asking me to leave his office) – and then give them their send off of Bon Voyage…but not share it with me.
I decided to go with it, say “Thank YOU, Admiral”, and get out of Dodge, for clearly he had no willingness to share ANYTHING with Capt. Baxter, (as portrayed by Tucker Smallwood). I pointed this out to the director, Hugo (but did NOT imply Johns’ issue was personal towards me) told him I’d do whatever he decided he wanted me to do, but that this was clearly NOT what the writers’ had intended. He agreed but said he’d seen this many times over the years. John, as the Admiral, was simply being protective of his subordinates, not sharing any rebuke with an outsider. I told him I’d been a commander in real life and on screen and there was no conflict, if he’d called me to his office to do this, clearly he approved of it and had to participate in it, otherwise the scene, as written, made no sense. Why include me, if he disapproved of my actions?
Producers were called, they decided I should stay to the end of the scene, but John retaliated by NEVER ONCE engaging me visually during the scene -and we shot it probably 25-30 times. Of course, my coverage came last, since they ARE the stars, despite the fact that I had the clear majority of dialogue in the scene. (After Harm’s and Mac’s coverage had been shot, I overheard Hugo say to John, “OK, what do you want, I can shoot your coverage now, or this other guy’s”). Of course, his coverage, (the several lines he had) came next …and that’s just the way it is in series TV – fuck the scene, coddle the stars, require the guest hired gun to earn his keep. (I made my bones on SAAB, doing 20-30 takes of three page briefing scenes in which I had 90+% of the dialogue.) And while I was, as always, consistent in my concentration, I’m sure I’d have been a bit more spontaneous had my shots been done a LITTLE earlier…(I got two passes at it – and knowing meal break was approaching, (I overheard “8 minutes”, not a long time in TV land, maybe I’d get two shots to portray my character), when the director asked if I needed a rehearsal –(after having DONE the scene 20 some times already), I told him, “Let’s shoot the rehearsal, you’ll like what you get”, which he fucking LOVED to hear! We did it once, I nailed it, he asked for another, (a kindlier, gentler version), which I also nailed, which he also loved. (I know I could have gone with even more fun and lightness, had I not been forced to act essentially by myself in a scene written to be shared with the Admiral’s character…he simply refused to participate, so I did the best I could.). We changed angles, shot once more, and the cry went out, “Cut, – print – check the gate!”)
Catherine shook my hand goodbye, the director, 2nd AD, DP, and many other crewmembers thanked and acknowledged me. I purposefully avoided allowing John to snub me one final time, ignoring him as I occupied myself by turning over my rings and watch to props, said goodbye to make up and wardrobe people as I left the set, and moved directly to my trailer to change and split.
I’m glad it’s done…. glad I never sent the letter above to Charles, (for while I was right about at least one star, it was essentially only he who had a problem working with me, and he’s hardly the lead dog on that show…or perhaps he IS the lead dog…a man who should kiss someone’s’ ass every day he wakes up breathing in and out, for the good fortune of landing a role in a hit series on six years. I’m sure he’s by now wealthy, or should be, a remarkably untalented and selfish man, and I’m grateful I’ve had few similar experiences in my 31 years of work. I can’t recall when last I was forced to work with someone so unprofessional that they allowed their personal feelings towards another actor to adversely affect The Work. I have seen on numerous occasions, actors who genuinely disliked each other, that played scenes together, sometimes love scenes. Regardless of the extent or limitations of their talent, they were sufficiently professional enough to push through, – though once “Cut” was called, often their true feelings were expressed in word or deed.
It’s been an interesting several weeks. I’m happy to have appeared on such a well watched show, (JAG advertised as the top rated action drama on TV), really happy for the trust initially shown in me, (to have given me the role), and the approval subsequently shown me, by writing yet a new scene and including me. I’m affirmed by the approval of my director(s) and by the writers. And my ‘inner child’ will have to remember that not everyone is going to respond positively to me, for WHATEVER reason, and accept that as part of the journey. I did good work, (wish it’d been even better, DESPITE the obstacles), and hope I can grow from the adversity I encountered on this shoot.
ALWAYS FIND CHOICES THAT ALLOW THE INTENT OF THE WRITTEN WORD TO BE EXPRESSED, WHETHER MY ‘PARTNER’ ENABLES ME OR NOT…and try not to take it personally.
And I say out loud that if ever I am similarly blessed, if ever I find myself as a series regular, I pray I am never so tired, jaded, self-important, selfish or unprofessional, that I allow my personal feelings or ANYTHING ELSE to subvert The Work or fail to inspire the very best that my fellow actors’ have to contribute.
Yesterday was frustrating in that I might have liked this new scene best of the five in which I’m involved, simply because it allowed me to explore new ground, and SHOULD have been the lightest in tone of all five…but imagine playing a love scene with a partner that you know dislikes you…no problem, if they’re professional about it….but if they ACT as tho they dislike you, during the scene, that really makes it difficult. While I know the scene wants me to be light and fun, the energy I’m getting from my partner is hostile and heavy. That forces me to make one of two unhappy decisions – either ignore my partners’ energy and play the scene as the writers intended – or react truthfully to the energy I’m getting – which IS truthful, but hardly what the tone of the scene is supposed to be. I TRIED to walk that tightrope, but in truth, by the 20th take, I’m no longer sure I had the subtlety and nuance I’d liked to have brought to the scene. And I KNOW I never achieved the lightness that might have been, had I worked with someone willing to play the music the writers intended.
So it goes…I guess he won. And I’m still trying to puzzle out how I might have done a better job, despite the obstacles, ‘cause hey – it could happen again, somewhere else, and I’d hate to not learn something from this experience to build upon, for the next time. Otherwise it’s just a paycheck and two weeks of my life pissed away.