Saturday, October 6, 2012
For your viewing pleasure: The making of a television pilot
One thing I quickly noticed was the lack of ego in the room. As someone who has spent the last five years acting in Texas and Louisiana, I can tell you that there are more egos than success stories. This experience was different.
When I auditioned for The Devon Taylor Show, I never imagined I would get the part of Anita, a somewhat gothic variety show writer who has little patience for the cast of young stars she works with.
I’ve had my fair share of successful and unsuccessful auditions. I’ve been on stage holding a microphone, under lights or in front of a camera since I was 5 years old. By the time I reached my 20s and decided to pursue a career in television and film, I was no stranger to rejection. I’ve auditioned for parts that I felt were completely wrong for me, and I have been typecast as “the pretty, dumb girl” more times than I can count. So, when my phone rang a week after my audition for The Devon Taylor Show, I didn’t even answer it. Quite honestly, I’d been so busy I’d practically forgotten all about the project. Even after returning the call and being informed that I had been cast and was receiving an offer to appear as a main character on the show, it didn’t hit me.
The Devon Taylor Show is a show about creating a show centered around a fictitious teen hip-hop sensation. It was written and created by Lena Wilson-Claybon and Michael Ajakwe, Jr. (Martin, Eve, Moesha and Sister, Sister). It was directed by Rusty Cundieff (The Wanda Sykes Show, Human Giant, Chappelle’s Show and The Bernie Mac Show). I had no clue what to expect while working with this group, but I was excited for the opportunity.
I woke up at 3 a.m. and loaded a week’s worth of clothes, supplies and my computer into my truck and left East Texas for Grambling, La., where the pilot episode was shot. I can tell you one thing, as a traveling actor, your vehicle is your best friend, along with an ample supply of music. I’ve worn out more CDs than I can possibly recall. I’ve seen more roadside accidents, construction zones, detours and wildlife than some people see in their entire life. I go through eight tires a year, my windshield has multiple cracks in it, and I carry a sleeping bag with me, because I never know when I will end up somewhere far away, playing a new character.
Upon arriving at the first meeting in Ruston, La., I was greeted by the familiar face of James Nimmers, the first assistant director on the project. He is a man I have had the pleasure to work with several times on films in Louisiana. I was instantly comfortable, and the mood quickly became pleasant as I was handed the final draft of the script (the first time I had been allowed to see the whole script and just a day before we started filming). The writing was clever, and during the table read, we would all periodically break into laughter as the cast began bringing the eccentric characters to life. I was sitting next to Christopher Hill, a Dallas actor who has built a reputation on stage as a thespian. On the other side of Christopher was J. Xavier Harris, the star of the show.
Justin is a hip-hop artist/rapper from Houston. The show was created based on his life. At the age of 20, he has already had to deal with the pressures of a cutthroat music industry. Speaking to him, it was very evident that he has learned to carry his talent well. The rest of the room was filled with experienced actors from Los Angeles and other large cities. Absorbing the amount of talent around that table was mind-blowing.
One thing I quickly noticed was the lack of ego in the room. As someone who has spent the last five years acting in Texas and Louisiana, I can tell you that there are more egos than success stories. This experience was different. Not only was everyone extremely talented, they were gracious, courteous, helpful and spoke to each other as friends.
After rehearsal the first day, we spent the next four shooting at Grambling State University. I’d never been to GSU before, but they were thrilled to have us and were more than accommodating to our needs.
Most days began between 8 and 11 a.m. and ended by 10 p.m. A typical day on set began with reporting to hair and makeup. Our hair and makeup ladies, Cynthia Teddlie and Alicia Watson, were splendid. They spent an hour each day turning me into Anita over a healthy dose of girl talk. Cynthia introduced me to clip-in colored streaks for my hair, which I have vowed to integrate into my daily life off screen.
After hair and makeup, I would report to set and watch the camera crew and director set up the scene, noting where the camera would be and the movement of each character. Then, I would check into to the sound department (with Brian Sivils) where I would be mic’d up with a wireless microphone and pack that is about the size of two cassette tapes placed together. Based on the camera angles and movement, Brian would select a good location to hide my microphone pack (usually in my waistband, where it would least be seen) and then proceed to tape the microphone and wires inside my shirt. There are moments when you feel a bit like a robot, but generally, the small packs are unnoticeable, and you routinely forget they are there (and the fact that your every word and bathroom break can be heard by a guy wearing headphones in another room).
On set, the atmosphere was quite relaxed. Everyone was very nice and pleasant, a somewhat different experience from the days when I was a background artist or stand-in (the people who stand under the lights while cameras are set up so the main actors don’t have to). While I have had good experiences doing both background work and stand-in work, generally you are treated as a human prop. Stand-in work can be especially stressful because you spend your day next to two of the most important people on a set (the director and director of photography). In the event they have a disagreement, you are caught awkwardly standing next to them thinking, “If one of these guys throws something, there’s a good chance it’s going to hit me in the face.”
However, when you are number four on the call-sheet as an actor (the higher the number, the more important the character), no one yells at you. No one makes you fetch things. No one is rude to you. It was always a surprise to me when someone randomly appeared between camera takes with a cold, fresh bottle of water or asked, “Do you need anything?” I almost carry a sense of guilt when people do anything for me, on or off set, so I still haven’t grown comfortable with such generous gestures. I don’t want to make more work for another person. Life on set can be stressful and demanding, and I never want to add to that.
Rusty is a seasoned director with great communication skills and made the process of creating The Devon Taylor Show as painless as possible. He’s great at explaining to an actor/actress what he needs from your character. Because scripts are shot out of order and days can go by before you shoot the next minute of a script, it helps to have a good director to remind you of how the scene should flow. I thoroughly enjoyed working with Rusty and watching him interact with the younger cast. Directors like Rusty are the reason people like me get somewhere. He knows how to bring out the best in you. The rest of the cast and crew were no exception.
I’ve never played a character like Anita. She isn’t the “the pretty one.” She isn’t bubbly. She isn’t a flirt. She isn’t stupid. It was a refreshing change to play a character whose attitude closely mirrors my own. Her outfits are eclectic: tall boots and black skinny jeans, fishnets, heavy makeup and bold colors. As the week went on, I became more and more comfortable as my character. I grew to like Anita and her no-nonsense attitude. Then, it was over.
That’s the hard part about this lifestyle – it’s temporary. I spent a week getting to know and love Rusty, the show’s creators Lena and Michael, and the great cast and crew. When you’re separated from reality for a week (or even six weeks on a film), you develop a certain bond with everyone from the youngest cast member to the cameraman. You learn about their lives, their pets, their hobbies, their past and their dreams. It’s magical, but it doesn’t last long. There’s always a sense of emptiness when I leave my new friends at the end of a project. Many of them I will never see again. Now, my friends are spread around the globe in New Orleans, Dallas, Los Angeles, New York and even other countries. It’s a job, but it doesn’t come without emotional strain and disappointment when it’s over.
The future of The Devon Taylor Show will now be determined by network executives that weren’t there to see the magic happen or experience those moments of laughter, long days and sense of community. Hopefully, our charisma shows on screen, and the powers that be love us, and the show gets picked up. If we’re lucky, audiences will get to have their say in it eventually. For now, the memories are the only definite thing we have that is tangible. But honestly, for me, that’s more than I could ever ask or expect. I cannot express how blessed I feel to have shared the experience with so many spectacular people.