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On Camera: Munk Does Asia, Country By Country

On Camera
On the set of "Ben's Morning" with the lovely director, Qianzhi Shen

Part One: China.

If you read my piece on the Orbit Gum commercial, you might be pleased to know the news hasn’t all been grim.  I did in fact get cast in a School of Visual Arts student film called Ben’s Morning, about a hairdresser.   Though I was, unfortunately,  not cast as Ben, the lead, but rather as the imperious salon owner, I saw this slender acting opportunity as a chance to engage my new “Just Say Yes!” strategy and so I agreed to participate, despite a long list of reasons I had to “Just Say No!”, (i.e., this was a non-paying job, my character had only a single line of dialogue and the shoot was in Jackson Heights, all reasons that would have summarily forced me to take a pass at any time prior to the implementation of the new policy.)  Truth be told, I had nothing better to do on Sunday, plus Ritchie said he’d drive me to and from the location – a tiny little hair salon in Jackson Heights – and seeing as playing imperious anything is typecasting for me and I only had one line anyway, I would not have to expend an undue amount of time preparing.  In other words, I could wing it.  These obstacles now removed, I graciously accepted the part of Charles, imperious salon owner with a single line.

Though it was just one line, I think it was a rather good one: “what’s going on here?”  Though it’s not a stretch to imagine me saying it, I practiced my the line over and over on the ride to Queens in an attempt to wring as much as humanly possible from the four words without completely upsetting the balance of the scene.  After all, at the end of the day I am a team player and there is nothing less team-oriented than stealing a scene from the star, no matter how miscast he may be.

"My manager" Ritchie was wonderfully supportive and patient while I shot my four word scene

When it came time to shoot my big line, I did ask for a slight modification and I’m glad to report, Director Qianzhi Shen respected my process; though something like twenty years old and still working on her English, she is already an actor’s director.  In fact, I would say that Qianzhi was right up there with the two or three other directors I’ve had in the past.

Here is my big scene: I enter the salon in a sudden rush, throwing open the front door and take a few quick steps into the room.   I quickly observe that my  young, insolent employee Ben, an apprentice only meant to shampoo, has taken it upon himself to wash, cut and blow out a customer while I was not watching and, in the process, has ruined this individual’s hair.  I should also mention that from the moment I saw him, I loathed the actor playing Ben, though I’m not sure why; perhaps it was an unconscious mechanism to enable me to really play the truth of the scene.  Anyway, though in technical terms I may have only had four words, being a discriminating reader, I’m sure you can see that the scene had a lot of subtext, or, to put in in acting parlance: there was a lot to play!

We rehearsed.   I flung open the door, walked in, hit my mark, saw what was happening and then said the line: “what’s going on here?”, but something really felt wrong.  I thought about it for a moment and then pulled Qianzhi aside, (which is a more professional way to express a problem then just blurting it out in front of the whole crew which really would have been imperious and possibly put young Qianzhi in a quandary.)  “This doesn’t feel quite right,” I whispered.  “What if I walk in, hit my mark, grab the barber chair, you know, like I’ve been struck by what I’m seeing, and then scream ‘Ben!’, like Albert Finney in that amazing scene in The Dresser, I’m sure you know the one where he bellows ‘stop that train!’ in that amazing Finney voice, then I could wait a beat while I size up the full measure of the situation and then and only then deliver the line, because in real life he wouldn’t hear me over the blow dryer and I would first yell his name to get his attention and then let ’em have it.  Would that be okay Qianzhi?”

I gotta tell you Qianzhi was really awesome.  She loved my idea and said it was just fine.  I appreciated both her collaborative spirit and the fact that this now brought my part up to five words plus that beat between “Ben” and “what’s going on here,”  which, by the time I was through with it, could easily be dragged out for five or ten minutes.

This production still shows my big moment, including the improvised bits that I added (clutching the chair, etc.)

So that was that.  I did my big scene twice and then we shared a plate of spaghetti with the crew and Richie drove me back to Manhattan for part two of my Asian Tour, the callback for the Nippon Television project.

Part Two: Japan

I had auditioned earlier in the week for NTV job which was a reenactment; you know, one of those cheesy new things that they do when someone is telling a supposedly true story and the network doesn’t trust the viewer to remain interested by just listening to the words or looking at pictures so they hire actors to dramatize the narrative?  It’s done all the time with murder stories or matters of historical importance or really just about anything that requires imagination.  This particular reenactment concerned the astonishing, completely true tale of one Tania Head, a woman who faked her identity as a 9/11 widow not, as you might think, for the money, but for the attention, which I actually found completely understandable when it was explained to me.  Miss Head perpetrated this hoax for several years, even taking a leadership position in a bereavement group, until she was busted by a New York Times reporter (my part).

When I saw the role of the journalist in the Tania Head reenactment advertised on a website for actors, I knew I had a good chance of at least being seen, because I happen to have a headshot that always seems to conform to what people think journalists look like on t.v. and I almost always get an audition from it:

This headshot works for journalist and scientist parts, or anything set in 1962

 

Sure enough, they called me in.  This role, unlike the student film, paid $300, which coming off of Ben’s Morning was big money!   Though wonderful, my fee was not nearly as great as having a clip of a cheesy Japanese reenactment on my reel, which, if you’re me, is something you really can’t put a price on!  I went in to read for a lovely young Japanese woman named Yumi.  The show, called The World’s Most Astonishing Stories, or something like that, is apparently very popular in Japan, and the NTV offices were located in the tony Olympic Tower on Fifth Avenue across from St. Patrick’s Cathedral. This is where Halston’s offices were in the 1970s – are far cry from a little barbershop in Queens.  I was so happy I was already fantasizing about what Yumi and the rest of my crew would like as an “End of Shoot” gift.  The audition went well.

The next day, still daydreaming about gifts for all my new friends on TWMAS, I was just considering the feasibility of depicting the World Trade Center disaster in origami, when I got an email from Yumi!  “David, please come in for a call back for the Tania Head reenactment and, by the way, we made a clerical mistake, the job actually pays $200, not $300 as we said previously.”

What the hell?  I was plucked, to say the least.  Fuck my “Just Say Yes” credo, fuck the origami crew gifts, it just seemed plain wrong to ask me back and lower my fee at the same time, plus in purely stereotypical terms, I felt certain I was being lied to as it is highly unlikely that a Japanese person could even make a clerical error in the first place!

Then I thought for a few moments.  I remembered that someone told me you can negotiate with people on this website so I hatched a plan and drafted a response. For this I drew upon my vast knowledge of Japanese culture and mores which was primarily shaped by a seven day trip I took to Tokyo in 1991 with Kevin Costner for the Robin Hood premiere. I know that Japanese people get really freaked out about “losing face,” so I drafted a response that would make Yumi feel as little as the  Mothra twins.

How low can you go? I imagined Yumi as a Mothra twin

“Dear Yumi, Thank you so much for inviting me back to audition again for the Tania Head reenactment project.  I think it is going to be a truly memorable reenactment, one of the best ever – completely lifelike, but I do have one concern: in America, we have a custom of standing by our original offer.  Whether it is advertised in a newspaper or just expressed verbally, here in the U.S. we stand by the original price.  In the case of the Tania Head reenactment, your original offer of $3o0 was, to be honest, not a very good one, but because of the proud reputation of NTV and the promise of a very high-quality production, I agreed to work for this sum (against the wishes of my manager, Richard Rodriguez).  To lower the offer in the middle of the deal is, to put it simply, just “not the done thing” because it means the person making the offer will definitely lose some face, maybe a lot of it.  Since I would not want to put you in that position, and because I see the Tania Head project as the beginning of a long relationship with NTV, I have reconsidered and will be glad to come in and read again if you to honor the original offer of $300. Once again, I am doing this against the wishes of my manager, Mr. Rodriguez.  Surely, a powerful and respected organization like Japan’s Nippon Television will appreciate the value of honor and would not want to lose face over $100!  It just doesn’t seem worth the risk, does it?  Warmly, David Munk”

I must have underestimated  her English or familiarity with American business practices, because Yumi responded five minutes later in extremely American terms:  “Dear David, I appreciate your point, but we are on a tight budget.  If you don’t want to come back we will understand.  Sincerely, Yumi”

So much for “losing face”, and after several more minutes of weighing the “measly hundred bucks” against the priceless value of having footage of me in a Japanese reenactment of the Tania Head story, I sucked it up and told Yumi I would come in for my audition, which, I may add, was scheduled for 7:45 on Sunday night.  I added the grandiose flourish of telling her that I would be on the set of my film prior to the shoot, but that my manager “assures me I can be there on time.”  Poor Ritchie, if he only knew how often I dragged him into this.

Head Case: the real Tania Head and the dreadful Mayor Rudy Guiliani

Primarily due to the fact that my role in Ben’s Morning consisted of five words, “my manager” Rich got me to the NTV audition two hours early, only to be shuttled to a holding room where we were to wait until the scheduled time.  After introducing “my manager” to Yumi’s young associates, I was told to look at scene 59.   I practiced the scene using Doriane’s foolproof audition preparation technique, buoyed by the fact that I actually had several sentences, which, coming right off of the Ben’s Morning shoot, felt like a Shakespearean monologue!   By the time the clock rolled around to 8:00 pm, I felt beyond prepared; I had memorized the scene and felt as if I personally knew Tania Head.

Shortly after 8:00 pm  I was called in to read with four other potential fake journalists.  Yumi said, “Oh David, you decided to come after all.”  I smiled my best fake smile and sat down in front of her table along with the other actors.  “Okay,” she said.  “You will read scene number 60 with me.”  “Scene 60?”, I asked.  “But Yumi,” I said, “your associate told us to prepare scene 59 and that’s what I’ve been working on for the last two hours!”  “Oh well,” she tittered, “we changed scenes…sorry.”

Though I didn’t think it was funny, I sat quietly and waited my turn.  I was second.  I read well enough, considering it was pretty much a cold read.  After I finished, she asked me to do it again, but this time without my glasses. “Yumi, I would be glad to read it again, but the problem is without my glasses I can’t see anything!”  Yumi consulted in Japanese with her colleague who was running the camera.  “Don’t worry,” she said, waving away my concerns, “just do your best.”

I went again.  Only this time I couldn’t see.  Anything. I didn’t even approximately deliver my lines, a matter which was not helped buy the herky-jerky syntax of Yumi’s English, which I actually found quite charming but made it very hard to concentrate.  When I finished, I apologized for my spotty read and offered to try again, only it was too late.  There were other fake journalists to read and the moment had passed.

Monday came and went and I didn’t hear anything from Yumi.  As the shoot is tomorrow, I am now surmising they went in a different direction – maybe with someone who is sighted.  I guess my Asian tour is over…for now.

 

1 Comment

  1. Chadwick Gaeta
    September 9, 2012 at 3:36 am
    Reply

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