Acting the Fool
|Photos by Richard J. Cartwright|
The new HBO series Unscripted is not about the nobility of acting. It's about the preposterous things actors need to do daily to make it.
Consider a scene from a recent episode in which acting teacher Goddard Fulton (Frank Langella) asks a scrawny, nervous but charming young actor named Bryan Greenberg to deliver his practiced monologue about a tortured relationship in a deliberately arching, hyperarticulate, loud and near-robotic manner.
"You'll never be a great actor if you can't make a fool of yourself," Fulton intones as he tries to get Greenberg to open his mouth more. The problem is that Greenberg - who obviously finds the instruction silly - can't quite shake off his mumbly reality, and the words continue to spill out like, well, like a peeved boyfriend's would. He's acting but not exercising.
"Too honest!" Fulton shouts.
So he sends a group of students onstage to be a clapping country & western chorus, and he forces Greenberg to twang-sing his monologue to the tune of "She'll Be Coming Round the Mountain." Loopy artificiality prevails, class and teacher crack up, and Greenberg appears to actually look a little freer by looking ridiculous.
The struggling unknown has always been an easily available punch line in Hollywood - think David Cross' clueless wannabe on Arrested Development - as well as a discomforting icon of unfulfillment when you consider the multitudes who strive for decades without that breakthrough. Unscripted isn't about the never-weres it probably couldn't get away with its humor if it were but it has an appealing veracity about the customary rituals, promises and humiliations of those on the audition circuit. And to make matters as close to real life as possible, the three subjects of the show - a naive young actress named Jennifer Hall, model/pinup/ex softcore star Krista Allen, and Greenberg - play themselves, acting out scenes based partly on experiences that happened to them. Langella may be playing a teacher whose class is what unites our trio of leads, but it's probably safe to say that Goddard Fulton's pearls of wisdom are veteran actor Langella's notions as well.
Not quite reality, not quite fiction, Unscripted - which, yes, is improvised - is like the entertaining version of those dramatic re-enactments ordinary folk participate in for cheesy daytime talk shows when they're on to recount some personal-victim scenario or horrific escape from certain doom. Only here, it's real actors giving you the life-and-death of making their show-biz mark: Greenberg admitting sheepishly to casting agent Tony Sepulveda that he's padded his résumé with fake credits; Hall being repeatedly admonished on a sitcom set to just read the lines without an accent since she's only a stand-in; and Allen meeting Garry Marshall for a part she thinks is for her but is instead for her son, whom she had initially dragged to the audition when she couldn't get a babysitter.
This is the second off-the-cuff, digitally shot series from executive producers George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh after last year's HBO flop K Street. That half-hour was also an attempt to blur fact and fiction by surrounding James Carville and Mary Matalin as themselves with actors playing fellow Washington consultants, but the fuzziness was mostly in the execution. Carville, Matalin and the various cameoed D.C. bigwigs always looked slightly unsure of what they were getting into, and the actors' extemporaneous political shoptalk was dull, keeping the show from becoming urgent, exciting political theater. Soderbergh directed K Street, and Clooney has directed a lot of Unscripted so far, but in a reversal of expectations the latter has proved to be the better show. This may be because an actor's grind is a subject closer to Clooney's heart than K Street was to Soderbergh's - although Washington/Hollywood comparisons are yawning clichés by now. Clooney was a famous failure before ER hit, starring in countless pilots that never made it to air and at one time playing the janitor on The Facts of Life. So while there's a level of prankishness to the show's humor that befits the A-list star's reputation for practical jokes and remembering brushoffs, it's also clear that Clooney wants Unscripted to have an emotional shape rather than be a loose collection of vérité-style scenes. It's a furthering of the new digital shoot-and-run aesthetic: If Curb Your Enthusiasm is using improv and hand-held cameras to service farce, then Unscripted is using them to approximate breezy neo-realism.
The episodes do have payoffs both funny and bittersweet, and the celebrity run-ins - Brad Pitt on a movie set, George Lopez shooting his sitcom, Hank Azaria at his regular poker game - aren't wink-wink but meant to hint at the show-biz tapestry; they're fleeting reminders of why the city is overrun with aspirants year after year.
In the first episode, Greenberg lands a doctor-in-the-background gig on the set of ER and, in a hilarious exchange between takes, brags to Noah Wyle that he'll appear on a Smallville airing that week and that Wyle should check it out. The yeah-sure smile on the ER star's face is perfect because it tells you a) Wyle's probably had to listen to this kind of awkward boast from an extra hundreds of times, and b) when you find out at episode's end that Greenberg was cut from the Smallville episode, you think back to that smile and realize Wyle probably knew this poor sap's fate.
Yet it is Krista Allen, at first glance a walking beauty-product advertisement, who is the show's poignant revelation. She unveils reserves of hurt, confusion and anger that cut through the shiny/happy/pretty face she knows will get her easy spokesmodel work. A former Baywatch babe, habitué of Maxim-like magazine portfolios and refugee from a string of Emmanuelle films in the early '90s, Allen - now a single mother with an adorably unaffected 6-year-old named Justin - offers up a touching portrayal of an actress trying to shift an industry's perception of where her talents lie. She has a very affecting moment of hesitation in a dressing nook before stepping out to show off a flesh-favoring bikini for a bills-paying laddie-mag shoot. It's as if she's reminding herself who she is before having to expose yet again what she has. In another episode she instructs an editor putting together her clip reel to take out all the "sexy stuff": the butt shots, figure-hugging pans and fuck-me looks that have made her career so far. When that leaves her with only a minute and a half of "acting" footage - after 10 years in the business - Allen lets out a dispiriting sigh that inside is probably a roar of frustration.
There's an inside joke to Unscripted that shouldn't go unmentioned. Allen was once Clooney's girlfriend. And Jennifer Hall - who in one episode innocently asks director Doug Liman on the set of his Brad Pitt/Angelina Jolie thriller Mr. & Mrs. Smith whether he has anything to do with the production - had a part in Clooney's directorial movie debut, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. Looking at the producer credits, two Clooney acting cronies from his lean years, Grant Heslov and Matt Adler, are listed. Who are Heslov and Adler? Well, that's the point. They probably have entire memory banks filled with humbling tales of Tinseltown pavement-pounding, and their history is part of the fabric of this sensitive, funny and honest show about the loneliness and cruelty of selling yourself as an actor. But I suppose there's one tried-and-true rule of show business that shouldn't be forgotten. It's also who you know.
UNSCRIPTED | HBO | Sundays, 10 p.m.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.