Acting & Experiences, creating character, creative inspiration, mental illness, writing

Trigger Happy


Did you know you have pathways in your brain? Learned reactions to physical and mental stimuli? Isn’t that fascinating?

Here’s how it works. When your senses perceive something, (and perceive is the operative word, as we all perceive things differently) Certain chemical and electrical responses trigger in you brain and receptors open up, creating a kind of path that becomes the path most traveled. These receptors create different physical results, fear, tension in the neck, nausea, well-being, whatever it may be. We learn these responses, in fact, we memorize them, and if we don’t alter them, we loose the ability to take the path less traveled.

Now, I’ve reduced this to a ridiculously simplified version of the science, but being neither a physicist nor a neurosurgeon, I have to use the cliff notes, as it were. And here’s where it gets interesting for writers, actors, and well…humans.

For both writers and actors, these reactions to stimuli are what we would call ‘character traits.’ As an actor, you can use this to develop a much more rounded character to fill out your role. As a writer, you can actually explain, or intimate how past reactions control your character now.

For a human, to change those patterns we have to un-program and retrain ourselves. And this is difficult, we’re dealing with long term chemical and behavioral training. Pavlov’s emotions, let’s call them. In the case of the famous doctor, he would ring a bell, and the dog salivates. In someone who was abused as a child, the sound of people shouting may trigger an intense panic that has nothing to do with the actual situation at hand.

Our triggers are many, but every once in a while, we hit one that rests at our core. For me, the idea that I never can do enough, be good enough, that I should have to take care of everyone and everything that comes up, and if I don’t, I’m not good enough, that I’ve failed, is a biggie. Of course, it’s impossible, I’ve set the stakes too high to ever win at that one, so that particular ‘bell’ is no longer useful to me. This response is too ingrained to fix with conscious reasoning, knowing I have this issue doesn’t stop the reaction. I’m a puppet and the strings are tight.

So I went to someone who could help. I worked with a woman who does a procedure called ‘tapping.’ She is a therapist, and versions of this therapy are used to help soldiers with PTSD and people with childhood traumas. We talk about what the frustration or feeling is, identify where it is in my body, name it, and then she proceeds to talk about it, by having me repeat and reaffirm a different thought process while ‘tapping’ at different random spots on my face, hands and arms. The tapping interrupts the programmed response, allowing new pathways to open.

It was amazing. And I think it helped me quite a bit. But the point of this blog is to talk about those pathways and how they define characters, just as they define us as people. Isn’t that what we want from our performance or our fictional characters? I know I want them to ring as true as possible, and to be distinct from each other.

Let’s take some examples. Let’s say I’m playing a character who has a certain phobia, say, fear of dogs. Now, something, at some time, triggered and trained this character to behave that way. So, when I create my history of the character, (and this is acting homework, it has nothing to do with what is written in the script) I would include one or more experiences where I was bitten or other wise frightened by canines, and my body learned the response of breaking into a sweat and tensing for battle every time I hear a dog bark.

Or…let’s say….I’m writing a character in a book who is loving and motherly. I create a history for her where she grew up around lots of siblings and extended family and there was constant laughter and noise. This woman would sit at a restaurant and hear children bickering at the next table and it would create a real warmth in her chest because her conditioned response to the sound is happiness and safety.

Those are simple examples, but do you see how this kind of thing is influencing your life? How can you use mental triggers to round out your characters? Try an exercise where you have two people meet, and they both have very different reactions to something that happens to them. If you stick with the ‘why’ they behave this way, you will find that they are distinct from each other, and it will open new avenues of how they understand, misinterpret, or relate with each other.

This process will also help you deal with difficult people in your life. On of the hardest things to do is to not take it personally when other people treat you badly. But it isn’t about you, it’s about them.

When people can sense the restrictions that their emotional past puts on them, they can sometimes, through exploring it deeply and feeling it fully, change it. This is called an epiphany, and it is one of the peaks of a character driven story. And that is a very useful tool. But stay aware, it’s not going to happen just because someone else tells them they are wrong. Oh no. People will die rather than be wrong, so they will fight to justify and prove they are right, even if it means continuing to be deeply unhappy. People have to come to life-changing revelations on their own, from inside.

So for today, be quiet for a moment and feel what’s going on inside, then ask yourself what that is, the first answer will not be the one, keep asking, and you’ll find it. Then notice how that reaction, physical sensation responds to different situations as you go about your day.

Fascinating stuff. I love acting and writing, but mostly I love being human and connecting with others. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we all understood the strings that bind and control us, because only then can we cut them and braid a stronger connection with ourselves and others.

If you stick with this, not only will your characters fill out, but you will begin the process of understanding that greatest paradigm in your life. You—and all that has gone into making you unique.

Hey, maybe you should write your story!

Shari, September 11, 2014

Life in General

Sleep and Other Luxuries.

The glorious bedroom of the Medici suite at the Fairmont on Knob Hill.
The glorious bedroom of the Medici suite at the Fairmont on Knob Hill.

Well, it’s official, the film “Scream at the Devil” is, as they say, ‘in the can.’ Though of course, ‘on card and logged into the computer’ is more accurate these days. It’s strange to make a film without actual film, but hey, times change. And speaking of change, and time, I have a new book to write!

We had a blast during the shooting, and when it was over, well after dawn on a Saturday  morning, I went to bed, leaving the crew to whoop it up around my pool until all hours of the early afternoon. For the next few days, I took my daughter to school, and then went to bed again. Now I’m up in San Francisco and I’m still not sure when I’m supposed to sleep or get up, mostly though, it’s really nice to get into bed.

Especially in a suite at the Fairmont, a little congratulations gift from my amazing mate. Let me tell you about those five star sheets. If you are a man and you are not a biker, a swimmer, or a cross dresser, then I’m sorry, because you will never know the joy of that egyptian cotton on freshly shaved legs. Mmmm. It’s, frictionless, and yet, so fluffy.

Writing is a solitary business, except for editors, of course, and there’s nobody to screw up your work with bad lighting or silly sound design. But a film is another animal, (perhaps ‘zoo’ is more the mot juste) and it isn’t over when we call wrap! Now we get to put the film together, shot by shot, and add in special effects, sound and music. This, my friends, is where the movie is made or lost. It just doesn’t matter how good my performance is if the the editor has no sense of timing or drama. I can manifest all the fear of Satan I want, but if the composer puts a spritely polka underneath it, the tension, we can assume, will be lost. Post production, almost more than the visuals themselves, tell the audience where to look and what to feel.

So once again, I come back to the refrain that a film is something we do with a group of people and no one person is more important than any other. I did have one ‘actor’ experience on this film, where the actor thinks that it’s all about them, and I swear I wanted to stab them. Perhaps that’s because I was holding a butcher’s knife at the time.

Here’s the deal, do not—ever—show up on a set without knowing your lines and call yourself a professional. What would people think if the camera assistants showed up, and then began to figure out how to pull focus? You would fire them and get someone who knows what they are doing and doesn’t waste everyone’s time.  When you keep fifty people waiting while you get your shit together, whether that’s knowing your lines, or building up to a emotional point, you have not done your homework, and you are not good at your job.


In any other job, you would be ostracized at least, and eventually fired if you did it more than once, yet in film, actors are coddled and even ‘bad’ behavior has come to be expected and accepted by the unwitting crew. Not that anyone behaved badly on “Scream” far from it, we had a terrific group of people and I’m lucky to have a bevy of new friends, but you get my rant, uh, drift.

One of the things I’m most proud of in my acting career is the fact that almost every director I’ve ever worked with has worked with me more than once. There’s been a few I declined to work with again for a variety of reasons and, I’m sure, a few of them who are more than content to continue in their careers without me, and that’s fine. Personalities happen. But I hope to hell I was on time, prepared, and easy to work with. It’s my job to make their job easier, not harder, to Serve the Piece, and the most important thing to remember in a film or TV  show, or play, or any job actually, is—Am I doing the best thing for the overall result? For the Company? For the charity? For the school? Whatever it is you do. The question should never, ever, ever be—Is this the best way to get more for me?

Because it isn’t about any one person. Just like life, just like families, offices, countries, just like…fill in the blank. We are in this together.

I had a wonderful, exhausting, exhilarating, draining, and heartfelt experience with this group of people, and I’m so glad to have met all of them. It was my first experience where most of the cast and crew were younger than myself, and it was really very cool to be the ‘mom’ to everybody, and to see so many of them at the beginning of what will be very long and rewarding careers.

As far as the sleepiness is concerned, it’s understandable. Just consider this; not only did I work 13 hour days, or nights, as the case may be, but I put myself through an emotional sieve. To recreate all the insanity and sorrow, I went through the equivalent of five funerals, four near-death experiences, and a week’s worth of cocaine paranoia.

While I hope you have experienced none of these things, if you’ve been through even one, you’ll know how exhausting it can be. No wonder the sheets at the fabulous Fairmont are singing me a lullaby.

And now, back to mom-hood, and writing. I owe a sequel to “Invisible Ellen” by the end of year and I’m not really sure what that will be about yet. Multiple careers are a blast, but I do sometimes feel like I need someone to turn me in the right direction. Point and shoot. It’s a question of focus, but only of that. Even as I write this, I feel ideas forming, stories lurking, and plots unfolding. The blurriness is starting to clear. Oh, there she is, Ellen, and she’s beckoning, “Come on, lazy bones, write me!”

Gotta go, darn, I’ll miss this duvet.

Do what you love until you are exhausted, and then, let yourself rest, you earned it.

Shari, June 12th, 2013.

Acting & Experiences, creating character, Entertainment, Life in General

How to Survive a Casting Session.

This shot was taken by the CBS photo studios when I was on Young and Restless.

I spent last weekend, and will next spend next weekend, casting for our movie, Scream at the Devil. The level of talent coming in is amazing, mostly due to Joseph’s weeding out of anyone without fairly serious acting credits, but there are still distinct differences in style and effort.

Some people have memorized the lines, some have costumed for the part, some even bring props. Some are cheerful and complimentary, some are aloof, some are focused to the point of distraction. As actors ourselves we understand that everyone has their process.

Obviously, I’ve been involved in many casting sessions before, mostly on the actors’ side, but I’ve also been on the other side, because of directing theatre and sometimes being the actress who needed to be ‘matched.’ And it’s an eye-opening experience. If there were one thing that I could tell actors about this process it would be this—don’t take it personally.

The second thing would be this—make strong choices. Now you have to understand that 98 percent of the people judging you have absolutely no clue about acting. They have an idea in their head of an imaginary person in the part, and they just want that person to walk in.

Which is why, most of the time, I could tell from the minute I entered the casting office if I had a shot or not. There have definitely been times that I could change that, but they were rare.

What I mean by making choices is that you make choices about the character. How they behave, how they speak, walk, hold themselves, how do they feel? A decent director, or even casting director knows that if an actor comes in with strong choices, and they aren’t the ones they are looking for, most likely that actor can make different choices, and they will ask for an ‘adjustment’ to see if the actor is capable of being directed. They should do this anyway.

If the director doesn’t understand the process, they won’t ask, and all too often, the cold read they got in the audition was a lucky guess and the best they will get on the set, a real actor who has range will only improve.

I remember one audition in particular, where the other ladies were coming out of the audition pissed off. They all said the same thing, “The director didn’t look at me! He was looking down and writing the whole time!” So I went in. The casting director started to read and I didn’t start. She looked up at me in surprise and I was watching the director. Wondering why no one was speaking, he looked up, and I asked, “Are you ready?” as though I had only been being polite. He nodded.

I started the scene and he looked back at his clipboard again. So I got off the chair, onto the floor and crawled across until I was right in front of him, low enough for him to see me, and did the lines from there. It shocked him, and clearly made him uncomfortable.

But he offered me the part, which I refused, because it wasn’t a good enough movie for me to work with a director that had no idea how to respect or work with actors.

I used to look at a script for how good it could be, I learned to read it for how bad it could get. There just aren’t many great directors out there, and people with real creative talent—not to mention good taste—are the exception not the rule.

For our casting sessions, the actors coming in are getting to read with experienced actors, myself and other theatre actors from Joseph’s company who have come in to help out and get the invaluable perspective of being on that other side. And Joseph worked with each person auditioning to give them input and adjustments.

They even get a rehearsal. What? Crazy. Stop it, that can’t be true. You mean I’m not reading with the casting director’s assistant who speaks in the same monotone they use when they do their main job, answering the phone? You could see the relief and gratitude on their faces. It was a treat for them. Whether they get the job or not, they got to act. Fun.

You see usually, you go in, introduce yourself, read the scene one time across from office personnel, and you’re outa’ there, hoping desperately you accidentally did something they liked.

Ultimately, there’s a particular personality and look that needs to be filled, the best performance doesn’t always get the job. And sometimes your two best actors just don’t work as husband and wife, or sisters, or what have you, so you have to go with what services your script.

Don’t take it personally.

But do your homework, be prepared, have a question about the role ready to ask. It just shows professionalism. You might not be right for this role, but the powers that be will remember you as someone they can trust to call in the next time.

And remember this. The people who you are so nervous to see, who you are trying to impress, who you know are judging you, they want you to be good. It’s in their best interest, that’s what they are there for, hour after hour. So take them into your space, audition them. Are they good enough for you? Are they rooting for you?

I haven’t been on many non-acting job interviews, but I’ll bet the procedure is pretty close whether it’s an accounting firm or a retail position. You can’t predict what they want or will hire, but you can be pleasant, prepared, and know that the choice is sometimes random.

So make good choices, enjoy the interview, and walk away. Just like life, be the best you can be, and know that you can’t please everyone and every personality won’t agree with yours, what you say and how you act this morning is different than the way you will feel and act this afternoon. Accept that. The dots that need to connect aren’t always in your control, but if you’re ready, and you work hard, and you stick with it, the numbers will usually come up, eventually.

If it doesn’t, don’t blame yourself, it might not have anything to do with you, so go be brilliant in your next audition or in something else all together. Kiss your kids, bake a cake, volunteer, smile at someone sad, it’s all important, and you never know what will lead to your next big break.

And if that person doesn’t smile back, don’t take it personally, you did your best.

That’s all that matters.

Shari, January 23, 2013.

Acting & Experiences, Entertainment, Life in General

That Part’s Got My Name On It!


This is me skating in an episode of “Freddy’s Nightmares” the only time I got to use my skating on film, stick with me, it relates.

There’s a story, I don’t know if it’s true, that Jack Nicholson was the worst auditioner of any actor alive, except for Dustin Hoffman. He would screw up one audition after the other, and tell his agent, “Don’t worry, we’ll get the next one.” He finally started making sixties drug movies with his pal Peter Fonda and the rest is history.

This makes sense to me. Auditioning is a different art than acting. The best actors love to rehearse, delve in, research, build characters. That’s not what you do for an audition, you just don’t have time. Most auditions happen within a day and are a five minute shot with the casting director. Of course, you have to be able to act enough to perform the scene required of you, but the circumstances and skills required to get the job, versus do the job, vary by leaps and bounds.

When I was younger, I was a competitive ice skater. I trained in many places, but I spent a year in Lake Placid, NY, my high school sophomore year. Now, at that time, Dorothy Hamill was the  US champion. Her coach, Gus Lussi, never put on skates. But he was the highest paid, most sought after coach in skating.

The mens champion, Gordy McKellen, had just retired from competition and was also coaching in Lake Placid. I still remember Gordy yelling at some poor, untalented student of his, “Step, step, jump, land!! It’s so easy.” Well sure, for him. He had remarkable ability and a natural talent for the athletics of skating, but knowing how to teach it, is a different thing altogether. Champions do not make the best teachers, and by the same logic, the best actors do not necessarily give the best cold readings.

Here’s how an audition goes, for film or tv, anyway. Your agent calls, gives you the time, place and the material, usually the next day. Sometimes you can get the whole script, but often it’s just a scene, and a brief character description. You work up the part, make some blind choices about how to play the scene, go in, wait, walk into the office, say hello, read the scene across from the casting assistant. Hear, “Very nice, thank you.” And you leave.

Very seldom does anyone ask you to repeat the scene, make a change, or even check to see if you are capable of making the adjustment. So what is their decision to take you to the producers based on? Your random choices. All you can do is hope they liked the way you fumbled through it that first time. And of course, that they thought you ‘looked’ the part.

I have never been on a movie or film set that did only one take with no rehearsals or direction. Yet, that is generally how the actors are cast. Any decent director would never take the first cold read, run-through as the final, on-film  product. That would be crazy.

There are several aspects to securing the role that are unrelated to working on a set.

One. You have to keep your nerve. This is crazy important. Especially as the ‘narrowing down’ of actors for the parts go on.  You may return to audition for a part, several times for an increasing number of producers, directors, studio executives, ect. Then there can be a screen test, network approval, etc. I’ve been through a casting for the remake of “Charlie’s Angles” that went on for three months culminating in a full day of 25 amazing actresses for four parts waiting all day in a theatre room to be called in, in different combinations, to read for over 200 people. Nerve wracking. The pressure builds with each step closer you get. “Maybe today will change my life, and then again, maybe it won’t.” Ironically, this series was never made, though the casting process did make Tea Leoni a star.

Two. Standing out in the crowd. This casting director will see fifty women today for a sexy executive. Every one of them comes in in a slick black suit with a short skirt. Not me baby, I would come wearing jeans and cowboy boots, with a jacket, a suggestion of business on top. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t. But I’ve been told by more than one casting director that they remembered me for it!

Three.  Be amusing and fun to work with. Okay, who do you want to spend three months in Italy with, the difficult actress who refused to sit down when you invited her to do so, or the one who sat, made a joke about the energy-sucking chair and then got on with it? I’ve actually been told I got the job because I came in and took care of the director, made sure everyone was comfortable and happy. Sure, they liked my look and my performance, but I have no doubt that ten other women, at least, could have done an equally good job on that part. Different, but good. I once went in for a role with the name of “Sherry.” When I was done reading, I held up the script and said, “This part’s got my name on it.” The producers all laughed, and I was booked to do the scenes with Rob Lowe.

It comes to this, once you hit a certain level where producers and casting directors trust your work, casting and success in acting, is brutally random. I know people who are brilliant actors, but who will never make a living at it because they don’t even have a good agent and can’t get the audition! I know certain actors who are brilliant at auditioning, but who will never perform that scene one iota better than the way they did it on the audition, but until people catch on…they get the parts!

But not Jack and Dustin! Cold reading? Not their forte. But give them a couple of weeks and a rehearsal or ten, and watch them soar!! The saving grace for them, of course, is that they don’t have to audition any more. That’s good news for us, we get to see more of them.

I know I haven’t given any real advice about this process, just a dose of reality. So I’ll end with this story.

I was in acting class with Luke Perry when he was auditioning for “Beverly Hills 90210.” We were supposed to be working on a scene together that week for class. But he was also doing what’s called, “final network approval’ for the show. That means they are down to the wire, in this case, Luke and only one other actor were left. I called him to set up a rehearsal and Luke said, “I have this audition for Spelling tomorrow, and I’m so nervous about it that I don’t think I can do anything else, I can barely breathe.” Boy, I could relate.

So I said to him, “Listen, you can’t control wether you will get the part, or if they’ll like your choices, but you have the chance to do what you love, to go in and act, then you have to walk away.”

There was a short silence, and then Luke said, “I think you might have just saved my life.”

Luke got the part, became a huge heartthrob, tv star, did the cover of Vanity Fair, etc. But what most people don’t know, is how he got it.

He and the other actor, both went in and read, and they were asked to wait while the producers discussed their fates. After a grueling 20 minutes, the casting director came out of the office and addressed the other actor, who’s name, appropriately for this story, I cannot remember, let’s call him Bob.

“Bob,” the casting director said, “You gave by far the best reading.”

Luke’s heart sank, but he steadied himself to congratulate Bob. But before he could, the casting director turned to him and said, “Luke, you got the part.”

Aaron Spelling just liked his look better. They could both act.

Wow. Don’t you  just know that’s a story Bob’s been telling for the rest of his career.

So, get in there, make strong choices, don’t beat yourself up if you aren’t psychic enough to guess what they wanted, just be yourself, act, enjoy, and go have coffee with friends before acting class.

Success is random, enjoy the journey.

Shari. November 4th, 2012