BWW Exclusive: Preview of INSIDE ACT: HOW TEN ACTORS MADE IT AND HOW YOU CAN TOO- with Richard Portnow!
Why do some actors make it and others don't? Ken Womble sets out to find the answer to this question, one that has fascinated and tormented him for years, in his new book, INSIDE ACT: How Ten Actors Made it and How You Can Too (Hansen Publishing Group, 373 pages, $24.99). To celebrate the release, BroadwayWorld will be featuring chapter previews from the new book. Today, hear from Richard Portnow!
INSIDE ACT: How Ten Actors Made it and How You Can Too identifies what sets successful actors apart. For Womble it's about the inner choices, the inside acts of working actors acts that have propelled them to thriving careers in one of the most competitive professions on the planet.
A veteran of stage, film, and television, Richard recently starred opposite Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren in the Fox Searchlight film Hitchcock and has appeared in the feature films Perfect Stranger, Law Abiding Citizen, and The Spirit among others.
Richard has been privileged to work with some of the best directors working in film today. They include Barry Levinson, the Coen Brothers, David Fincher, Woody Allen, Sydney Pollack, James Foley, Jim Jarmusch, Heywood Gould, Cameron Crowe and Sidney Lumet.
His latest guest star roles on television have included CSI NY, The Mentalist, Hawaii Five-0, Franklin & Bash, Nip/Tuck, Cold Case, Boston Legal and Dirt. He was a recurring guest star on the NBC series Outlaw starring Jimmy Smits and played attorney Hal "Mel" Melvoin on the Emmy winning HBO series The Sopranos.
Richard began his professional career at the famed Café La Mama in New York City. He starred on Broadway in The House of Blue Leaves, A Month of Sundays, and in the original cast of Moonchildren at the prestigious Royal Court Theatre in London. His most recent stage appearance was in Woody Allen's Writer's Block. The play was directed by Mr. Allen at The Atlantic Theater Company in New York.
Understand the Business
and Pitch Positive
[The following is an excerpt from the Richard Portnow chapter in Ken Womble's INSIDE ACT: How Ten Actors Made It-And How You Can Too. It is available as a paperback and as an ebook. The entire Robert Clohessy chapter is available as a separate ebook.]
Ken Womble: I love that expression, "You want to win." So what caused your first spark of interest in becoming a performer?
Richard Portnow: Oh, that's a good question and a good answer. I was not burning to be an actor. I was in Brooklyn College, and I was flunking out. At that time the conflict in Vietnam was starting to escalate. Back then if a guy of draft age was able to walk, they would send him overseas. And I didn't want to go.
However, when you were in college back then you were deferred. They couldn't take you. And a friend of mine said, "Well dude, you can't flunk out. They'll send you to Nam." And I said, "What do I do?" He said, "Take acting. You take the course, you get an A. Guaranteed...because they want to encourage you, they want to build your confidence. And there are no papers to write, no books to read, no tests to take, always pretty girls in the class." It sounded like a great deal to me. So I said, "Terrific. Where do I sign?" And that's how I got involved.
I did not shine in college. The faculty seemed to infer, "What are YOU doing here?" But the minute I got out of college something clicked. I guess I found something in myself and I scored immediately.
KW: What happened that made you score immediately?
RP: I really don't know what it was that I found in myself. I can't put my finger on it. But my sister had told me about the Café La MaMa and I tried to get in there in 1966 and they wouldn't give me the time of day. And then the head of the drama department directed a little play there and asked his class who's interested in doing three lines? And my hand shot up!
And I showed up early for rehearsal one day and Ron Link and Tom Eyen were casting their extravaganza, Give My Regards to Off Off Broadway and I walked in. I was nineteen-years-old, I had a full head of hair, I was thin and cute and they said, "What are you doing here?" And I said, "I'm here to rehearse!" And they said, "We're casting our new play, would you like to try out?" And I did and they cast me and that started the ball rolling.
I think, perhaps, what I found was that all I had to do was be myself, and that's all we can ever be. We can only be ourselves within the given circumstances of the play. I am playing a character, but I'm always Richard Portnow. I'm embracing the givens for the character and coloring them with my point of view. For instance, I might be called upon to play a character awaiting execution. I need to ask myself, "How would I respond to that set of circumstances?" By using the magical "as if" and by taking into account the time period of the piece, the place, the story line, etc.
I was very green and just took it for granted that I knew what I was doing and it worked out. I had them fooled and I've still got them fooled!
KW: What was your first break in New York?
RP: I was doing regional theatre and I went to an open cattle call for the Berkshire Theatre Festival and it was run by a woman named Josephine Abady. And we struck a chord of rapport together. I was not cast. But we liked each other, something clicked.
And then she started casting me regionally and directed me in The Dresser at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, A Grand Romance at the Long Wharf and Tally's Folly at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre. And then she cast me for a season at the Berkshire Theatre Festival. And the Berkshire Theatre Festival had stars in the leads and real comers in the supporting roles. And it was interesting because when they gave out the cast list, next to each actor's name is their agent and all these comers had hot agents at the time. But when you looked across the page from my name there was no agent because I didn't have one. I couldn't even get a bad agent. No one wanted me. I had a commercial agent and I did commercials, but I had loftier dreams.
The leading lady of the first play that I was in was a wonderful actress by the name of Anne Twomey. We became friends. We liked to talk. And she asked me one night, "Who's your agent?" And I said, "I don't have one." She said, "Why not?" And I told her that nobody wanted me. She said, "Well that's ridiculous, you're terrific!" And she said her agent from Writers and Artists would be coming, "If he doesn't, I'll fire him. I'll introduce you and he will give you an interview."
When the Berkshire season ended, I returned to New York and called Anne's agent, Jonathan Sand, may he rest in peace, a wonderful guy, a terrific agent. Writers and Artists was a powerful agency at the time, and I had not done anything but regional theatre. I hadn't done any movies or TV shows or Broadway, hadn't even done Off Broadway.
And I just pitched positive. I never mentioned anything that I had not done. I never said, "Well I haven't done any TV yet." I never said, "I don't have a reel." No. I pitched positive. "A, B, C, always be closing," Glengarry Glen Ross. And I was closing from the minute I walked in; I'd discovered how to market myself. I realized I'm a suit. I wear suits. I'm always well shaved, well groomed and hard. I'm an urban guy and I have an edge. I am, if I may be so bold, a tough guy. And I told him this. I defined myself for him. I said, "The only reason I'm not doing movies, playing this type of part is because you are not my agent. You get me in the room, I'm going to knock the ball out of the park. We're going to make nothing but money."
And he said, "Well, I got to say I couldn't tell much about you as an actor from the play that I saw you in because you had thick glasses, a moustache and a French accent and were onstage for two minutes."
KW: It would be tough to discern a tough guy out of that.
RP: "But from the way you present yourself here in this room, today, in front of me, I'm inclined to believe everything you say. And if the rest of the agents do, you're on."
And they did and they signed me and then I didn't get a job for a year! [Laughing] I must've had fifty auditions, didn't score. Why? Because I was nervous.
And I imagined what must have happened up at the agency after ten or eleven months of failed auditions was that the assistant who took my call most likely said, "Jonathan, it's Richard Portnow," and she would probably roll her eyes and he would say, "Tell him I'll get back to him." You know, I wasn't exciting. I hadn't scored.
So I went into an audition for a TV show called The Equalizer and I had, by then, just given up. I thought, "Well, I'm not going to get this either. So I'll just go in and have fun." Relaxation. And bang I scored that and then I got job after job after job, including studio films and TV shows and Broadway.
And you know, I owe it all to Josie Abady, all to her. She passed on. And I think about her every day, and she was the shining light in my life and career. She was my best friend and she was just a wonderful, supportive director, producer, friend. Without her I might still be tending bar.
Richard Gabai: Director
Ken Womble: When you first met what was your impression of Richard?
Richard Gabai: My first impression of him was that he was approachable, sincere, and we just happened to have a good amount in common. I'm originally a New Yorker and he's a New Yorker and he was just completely unpretentious, not at all full of himself.
And let me tell you how we met. One of the producers on Imaginary Friend said, "You know, Richard's a friend of ours and he'd do a role for us."
And I've been a big fan of his since Tin Men and Radio Days, and I said, "The only role left is this apartment manager. It's a scene with Ethan Embry and it's a moment, but I mean it's a couple of lines. I'd be embarrassed to offer it to him." They said, "Well, we'll talk to him about it." They asked him. And he took the role!
And then he came to set and we instantly hit it off. We had a lot of common friends and common values. And he killed the scene. I mean he made nothing into something, you know? And he ended up coming to my holiday party, we had a good time and I said, "The second I read something that has your name on it, I'm sending it to you, something of substance." And that's when I got this project, In the Dark, and there's this detective character and I sent him the script and I said this thing is you. And we couldn't afford his rate, but the material was interesting enough to him and he took the job and he just hit this thing out of the park.
KW: What does that say about him that he was willing to take the small role at first?
RG: In my opinion it shows that he's extremely smart. He likes to go to work, he likes to do his job, but there is no ego involved. I mean, thank God he has an ego, but it's all about the work. And he's funny as all get out.
Michael Greenwald: Agent
Ken Womble: Richard also talked about some of the audition techniques he uses and I know he doesn't audition a lot these days. But when he does what do you hear that he does well, and maybe things that other actors don't do as well?
Michael Greenwald: He always gives 110%, he's always off book, he creates his own character. He doesn't play it exactly always the way it's written on the page. He always creates something quite unique and has his own perspective and take.
And I think that's what is very interesting in the rooms in front of these very high level directors, whether it's a director like James Foley or Jim Jarmusch or some of the great directors Richard's worked for, including David Fincher and Norman Jewison, Sydney Pollack and Ivan Reitman. You have to bring a character to life, and I think what Richard does in those rooms is really move people.
I would probably say the only person that he's never gotten to audition in front of, but obviously created an impression, was when he did Radio Days for Woody Allen.
KW: So he did the film but he didn't audition?
MG: It's just a meeting in the back of a hotel room and they have a five or seven minute conversation and Woody Allen asks a bunch of questions and you answer them and he studies your character and he makes a decision whether he thinks you're visually right and the right fit for his perspective on the great films that he makes.
KW: Wow, very interesting.
MG: As well as watching their work on camera.
KW: Richard also told me an actor wants to win, his word, in the audition room, and how important it is to walk into the room relaxed and not needing the job; although, of course, you want the job. How important do you believe those qualities are for an actor?
MG: I think you have to walk into the room with a positive attitude and confidence. You're walking into a room and you're trying to give them a reason to not say "no." I think there are certain factors that come into play that you can't always really change, whether it's your height, whether it's your skin color, whether it's your look, for what they really want for a character.
But as a smart performer you absolutely want to walk into a room feeling like this is your job. And I think that Richard's always taken that sort of approach.
Ken Womble interviews actors Debra Monk, Eric Ladin, Krysta Rodriguez, Tony Yazbeck, James Earl, Gary Beach, John Tartaglia, Robert Clohessy, Jose Llana and Richard Portnow about their inside acts, the important choices of their acting careers. The interviews explore the intriguing journeys that have led these actors to successful careers, and to Tony, Emmy and Screen Actors Guild Awards, the most prestigious acting awards in theater and television.
Actor interviews are followed by interviews with two of each actor's success team, the agents, managers, directors and coaches who know them well. Womble then identifies the actor's most frequently used actions, skills and beliefs the keys to each actor's success.
INSIDE ACT is available as a paperback and as an ebook. Each actor chapter is also available as individual ebooks. Click here to purchase now!