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An unforgiving profession

By Chris Colcord

Fort Wayne Reader

2015-02-05


Whenever I get nostalgic for my time as an actor I reflect on the career of Amy Acker and instantly I'm cured of any longing to get back on stage again. This is no slam of Amy Acker, by the way, who is a talented, professional actress who has been working constantly for nearly two decades in TV and movies. It's more of a contemplation on the capricious, impossible nature of the performing arts themselves, and how ravaging and insulting they can be to any intrepid performer who dares to take their shot in the limelight.

Unless you're a Joss Whedon cultist, I'm sure you have no idea who Amy Acker is, and neither did I, until I saw the 2013 film version of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing. The movie is Whedon's terrific, modern-dress version of Shakespeare's classic comedy and it works wonderfully in a contemporary milieu. Whedon made the film in a hurry in between cranking out massive, pop-culture monoliths (Marvel's The Avengers, etc) and you can sense his relief in working on a personal, pet project that he really wanted to do. He enlisted actor friends that he had used in other projects and while most of the actors are relative unknowns, they attack the material with spirit and intelligence. One of the actor/collaborators is Amy Acker, who plays Beatrice in the movie, and she handles the central role with such skill and charm that you start to wonder why you haven't seen her before. Maybe she's one of those actors who's been racking up great performances for years but because she inhabits her roles so thoroughly she tends to remain slightly anonymous. Like Michael Wincott, say, or Hope Davis.

After I saw the movie I went scurrying to IMDB.COM and when I looked up Amy Acker's CV I realized I had indeed seen her perform before, and when I remembered what I had seen her in, my heart sank a little. For the movie I had seen her in was one of those execrable Hallmark Christmas movies that I have this perverse fascination for, those horrible, predictable holiday romances that are so obvious that you can make drinking games based on the cliches that are employed in the script. This particular Hallmark movie was about… oh, God, never mind, it was a Hallmark movie, and while I can't remember if she played an elf or a spoiled rich girl or a pixilated career girl I do remember, very specifically, that she was terrible in it, that whatever talent she displayed while speaking Shakespeare's thrilling couplets, well, none of that talent was apparent when she had to pretend to be charmed by some annoying, motherless waif or when she had to say lines like, "I need a job. And a latte!" She reminded me of one of those professional sports teams — like the Dallas Cowboys — that always plays up or down to the competition; when she got some smart dialogue and was in the presence of other good actors, she was great; when she was in a Hallmark movie, well, she was just a Hallmark actress.

It made me realize just how demeaning it must be to be a working actor, how many terrible roles and dues you have to pay just to get that one dream project that you're not ashamed to actually tell people about. There are so many commercials on television that you just know feature actors who probably graduated from Yale or Juilliard or UCLA and here they are, using their method acting skills to bite into a chicken wing with joy or enthusiastically talk about the great curriculum at some sketchy, for-profit internet university. They've played Hedda Gabler, for Christ's sake, these actors, or Rosalind, or Helen Keller, and now they're desperate to get that national Little Caesar's commercial where they have to insult a toddler. Because, you kow, you gotta pay the rent.

Even in a non-professional setting, though, even in the relatively innocuous world of local community theatre, there's still, unfortunately, plenty of opportunities for earnest, volunteer actors to get demeaned and insulted and stepped on by tyrannical directors and obsessive artistes who believe that the only way to get anything done is by screaming and insulting their way through the rehearsal process. For the longest time I accepted this practice as simply being the "way it's done," that it was a perfectly appropriate way to "reach" actors in order to get the "best" out of them. But now, years later, man, I don't know… if I was in a play and some hell-fired director decided to take it upon himself to tee off on me after rehearsal and embarrass me in front of my peers, I'm not sure what would keep me from taking a swing at the guy. It gives me a new-found appreciation for so-called "difficult" actors, like Marlon Brando or Mickey Rourke, or even that pain-in-the-ass actress Katherine Heigl — they don't take anything from anybody. They're "difficult" because they're fighting for their respect, for their personal integrity, for their sovereignty, and that's a battle that they simply have to win, every time.

As a director, I've tried to be an honest, enthusiastic supporter of the actors working on my plays, and I've striven to keep a pleasant, professional environment for them to work in, but I'm still haunted, years later, by a few sharp words and missteps that I've made over the years. God knows there's always pressure, sometimes intense pressure, to put on a show that you're not embarrassed to attach your name to, but whatever difficulties a particular show presents upon a director doesn't excuse acting like a creep. Sometimes you just have to force yourself to remember the simple fact that actors are people, too.

It'd be nice to say that Amy Acker's career took off after Much Ado, that suddenly she was in demand for other high-profile projects, but her most recent credit, according to IMDB, was a little television movie she did for, well, a cable channel: a heart-warming romance on — inevitably — the Hallmark Channel. Called A Novel Romance, it's about a romance novelist who moves to Portland to cure her writer's block, and when she unknowingly falls in love with her biggest critic, she discovers…

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