5 Lessons From 5 Years in New York

I’ve been trying to find the words all day to articulate how I feel about living in New York City for five years.  You’d think as a writer they’d come easily, but that’s just the thing: writing is intellectual.  It puts you in your head, and as someone who is already admittedly an “over-thinker,” finding words—or more precisely, the EXACT words—to describe an experience or sensation or anything else can sometimes keep me from writing anything at all.  Over-thinking can keep you from doing a lot of things, actually; not just writing or something else creative.

When I moved here five years ago, I was as green as the wannabe Elphabas I sat next to in audition holding rooms.  I would never have admitted it at the time, but the truth is everyone is green when they move here, because no matter how many times you’ve visited, nothing can prepare you for the real ins and outs of daily life in New York.  Everyone thinks they “know how it works,” but I definitely didn’t and none of those wannabe Elphabas did either.  And that leads me to what I really want to talk about: who I am and what I’ve learned.

I can see you starting to roll your eyes thinking this is yet ANOTHER blogosphere tome of Millennial angst and self-actualization in the Big Apple (HOW original! #not), and it might turn out that way (after all I’m just making this up as I go, folks), but you should know that these lessons can apply to literally anyone of any age who feels stalled in life or work or love or whatever.  And you don’t have to live in New York City to learn them or understand them.  And what I’m offering isn’t—as so many in my generation would usually opine online—special, but it never hurts to hear it again.  And maybe the way I say it will hit someone who needed to hear it THAT way instead of the five bajillion other ways they’ve heard it.

ANYWAY.  This is in no way an authoritative guide on how to live your life, but it’s helpful, okay?  Here’s five things I’ve learned in five years in this magical if occasionally frustrating city:

  1. Own who you are unapologetically. Though I do not claim to speak for all my fellow Millennials by any means, I have noticed we do this thing where we try to downplay our passions so we don’t come off as uncool or crazy or whatever to other people.  We live in a culture right now where overt shows of emotion, especially passion, are treated as uncool or some kind of weakness, and to quote our very cool Vice President Joe Biden, “that’s malarkey!”  IF SOMETHING LIGHTS A FIRE UNDER YOUR ASS AND GETS YOU EXCITED, YOU DON’T HAVE TO APOLOGIZE FOR IT.    A lot of people, especially creative people, are sheepish about admitting they’re actors, singers, dancers, painters, writers, comedians, musicians, etc.  I won’t get into how society still questions the validity of jobs in artistic fields because that is another discussion, but suffice it to say that I hear too many people, including myself, essentially apologize to people around us for being creative rather than “being something else.”  If the people around you think you’re uncool for being passionate, that’s THEIR problem.  For the first 4 ½-ish years I lived here, when people asked me what I did, I’d respond like, “Oh I temp to make money but I’m really an actor-y, writer-y person like everyone else. [insert various sarcastic jokes here]”  I wouldn’t really fully own up to being the things I most wanted to be.  And I hear people say all the time, “Oh I want to be a” whatever instead of “I am” this or that or the other.  Somewhere over the last year, I stopped doing that and started fully owning my identity as a writer, actor, and producer.  And it became a self-fulfilling prophecy because as soon as I stopped essentially apologizing for it, I started picking up writing jobs and making films and being asked to produce things.  When I started talking the talk, not only did I feel better and happier but I also opened up doors for myself to do all the things I like doing.  But just talking isn’t enough, you also have to…
  2. Do the work. I’m a workaholic, you guys.  I have an insatiable drive to accomplish stuff, so I struggle with even taking a day off, which is important for mental health (seriously).  Talent is great, BUT there is no substitute for actually DOING THE WORK.  The only way you’re going to learn how to do anything or be anything is by doing it over and over and over again.  I’m a paid writer these days, but I’m a writer whether or not I get moolah for sending my editor 1000 words on Tom Hanks.  I write all the time in various styles because it’s the only way to get better at it.  I go to acting class twice a week and do endless Meisner repetitions because it makes me more spontaneous and vulnerable.  I read.  I research stuff.  If I don’t know how to do something, I try to figure it out by trial and error and Google searches and occasional phone calls to my Dad if it’s something related to carpentry/home improvement.  If you do the work and know HOW to work, you’ll be ready for when those bigger and better opportunities come along.  Not only that, but having a good work ethic shows people you’re serious about what you do.  Set goals/deadlines.  Hustle to meet them.  Have consistent hours for practicing/doing whatever it is you do.  And the hard part is you have to do it because you love it and are serious about it and not because you have expectations that it will somehow always lead to “fortune and glory.”  BUT you can also create your own fortune and glory too, which brings me to…
  3. Give yourself permission and run with it. When I first moved, I had this idea that I had to essentially ask people for permission to do my art.  I’d go into auditions, like so many of my colleagues, and through my audition material inadvertently ask, “Will you please let me be in your show so I can perform?”  YOU DON’T NEED ANYONE’S PERMISSION TO BE AN ARTIST, BECAUSE THERE IS NO ONE RIGHT WAY TO BE SUCCESSFUL.  Feel free to read that several times until it sinks in.  It took me some time to learn that one myself.  Write the script.  Film it.  Put it online or show it to friends.  Go to that open mic night and do your standup.  Choreograph a dance and perform it wherever you can.  The more I have read about how various people got into the business, the more I have learned there isn’t some secret formula or special handshake to admit entry; it’s about work, ingenuity, and a lot of times, luck.  I finally took the plunge and started writing a television pilot, and I have no idea what will happen once I finish it, but I’m doing it because I want to have my writing and ideas seen and heard…that won’t happen if I wait for someone else to give me permission to write it.  You know what I REALLY think?  I think waiting for permission is a way of letting yourself off the hook because it’s scary to do something that hasn’t been done before.  You could fail.  You probably WILL fail at some point or another, but you will absolutely feel better just doing what you want to do than waiting for someone to “let you” do it.  Give yourself permission and don’t think twice about it and then do the work and share it with people.  Van Gogh made basically nothing while he was alive, but he kept painting anyway.  He also cut off his own ear, but I would advise you to think twice before doing THAT.
  4. Surround yourself with people who root for you no matter what. Life is too short to spend your time with people who:
    • Condescend to you
    • Talk about you behind your back
    • Don’t care about anything or anyone else
    • Only are available to you when it benefits them
    • Belittle your ideas/dreams
    • Don’t listen with the intent of understanding (as opposed to listening so they can just respond)
    • Are racist, xenophobic, homophobic, misogynistic, etc
    • Don’t tip waiters/maids/service industry folks
    • Don’t read/educate themselves
    • Take themselves too seriously

There are a bunch of other things I could add, but those are big things.  You want people on your team who want the best for you and others…especially on days when YOU don’t always want the best for yourself.  TRUE #squadgoals are people who support your dreams, motivate you to keep working, listen to/assuage your fears and sadness, and always treat you and others equally.  Accept nothing less than the best from those around you.  The dead weight will eliminate itself from your life once you make it clear you only want positive people around.  See?  You CAN lose weight and feel better without drinking any weird green juices!

  1. Stay in your own time zone. What I mean by this is there are always going to be people who are ahead of you and behind you in work and life and any number of things.  Don’t focus on what’s happening to them because they’re operating in a different time than you.  You aren’t in Jennifer Lawrence’s time zone (or probably even her friend zone, honestly), so don’t try to be.  You can only do what you can do and you’re “Jennifer Lawrence” to someone behind you.  I’m not saying I never am envious of people having successes that seem bigger than any of mine, but by focusing more on my own work and less on other people, it makes it easier.  Our teachers didn’t say “keep your eyes on your own paper” for no good reason!

I have also learned that bagels really DO taste 1000% better in New York than they do anywhere else, and no, I don’t know why, but that’s just how it is.  I’ve yet to need a therapist or have a totally crazy meet-cute with a charming Tom Hanks-type on top of the Empire State Building a la a Nora Ephron movie, but I’ve done pretty okay in my first five years here, I think.  So onward for the next year of carbs and writing and acting and self-indulgent ennui and running all over these crazy, occasionally mean streets.  Happy New York-iversary.

Nerd Stuff: 3 Behind-the-Scenes Documentaries To Check Out

Most of my friends know I am a sucker for a good behind-the-scenes or making-of story.  I have been known to spend hours going down the Youtube rabbit hole that IS Inside the Actors Studio interviews (James Lipton is both delightful and strange, and I wish someone would interview him about his apparently “colorful past.”).  I love hearing actors talk about their “process” or filmmakers talking about how certain films got made.  So many people only care about the finished, magical result, but I love seeing the mechanics of it.  For me, that doesn’t take away from the finished project, it enhances it.

So, without further ado, here are 3 behind-the-scenes docs I’m currently obsessed with:

  1. Ballet 422 (Netflix, DVD/Blu-ray, Amazon) gives viewers a peek into the world of the New York City Ballet as then-25 year old corps dancer, Justin Peck, has two months to choreograph and stage the company’s 422nd new ballet.

    Fans of ballet will appreciate the access NYCB granted filmmaker Jody Lee Lipes into their rehearsals, costume fittings, and performances.  I think I especially loved seeing the collaborations between Peck, the costumers, and the lighting designers as they worked to visualize all the concepts of Peck’s ballet. 

    Finale from Peck’s “Paz de la Jolla” image: Paul Kolnik

    Peck is one of the most exciting new choreographers working today (check out his collaboration with indie musician/singer Sufjan Stevens on Year of the Rabbit) and is only the second ever Resident Choreographer for the New York City Ballet in its long, storied history.

  2. Listen to Me Marlon (now playing in NY & L.A., nation-wide release TBA) is a fantastic, intimate look at Marlon Brando’s life through his own words. The late actor recorded over 200 hours of himself talking about his life and his work on tapes that were recently discovered. 

    Director Stevan Riley weaves these recordings throughout his film along with TV and radio interviews Brando did throughout his life to great effect. For the first time, viewers get a real sense of Brando’s approach to acting, his influence on the art form, his thoughts on some of his greatest films, and his own troubled life.  It is a thrilling, engaging documentary chock full of wisdom for aspiring artists but also a cautionary tale about fame, alcoholism, etc.  Marlon Brando will always be remembered as one of the greatest actors of all time, but Listen to Me Marlon proves the man is actually just as, if not more, interesting than the myth.

  3. You Must Remember This podcast (iTunes, youmustrememberthispodcast.com) is the brainchild of film critic and historian, Karina Longworth who writes, edits, and narrates each episode about lost and/or forgotten history from Hollywood’s first century. She has covered the loves of Howard Hughes, various sex symbols (Isabella Rossellini, Theda Bara, etc), star contributions to the war effort, etc. 

    Charles Manson during his trial in an undated photo. (AP Photo)

    Charles Manson during his trial in an undated photo. (AP Photo)

    However, her current summer season is focused exclusively on Charles Manson’s Hollywood, which is a wholly engrossing, meticulously researched history of Charles Manson, his family, Sharon Tate, Roman Polanski, and all of Manson’s Hollywood connections.  It’s incredibly addictive and full of surprises (like the fact Manson knew both Dennis Wilson and Candice Bergen and ran around for a bit with Angela Lansbury’s daughter, Didi).  The way Longworth is able to make connections between seemingly unrelated persons and events is incredible, and I love how she uses all of it to illustrate both the cultural climate of the late 60s and the murders themselves as well as showing how some of the greatest films of the 1970s (like Polanski’s Chinatown) were deeply influenced by the paranoia and fear of the Manson Murders, the murders at Altamont Speedway, and several other copycat murders that popped up following the events of August 8, 1969.  Parts of the podcast are quite gruesome and unsettling, but the most unsettling part is when you remember that Manson and many of his “family” are still alive and well in prisons around the United States.

Enjoy!

2015 Oscar Nominees Viewing Guide

5:30 am has literally NEVER looked sexier

5:30 am has literally NEVER looked sexier

Happy Oscar Nominations Day!

Lots and lots of surprises today from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (that Chris Pine can still look so sexy and beautiful reading nominations at 5:30 am his time is NOT one of them). If you’ve been following the race at all this year, you likely were as surprised as me by some of the inclusions and omissions in the larger races like Actor, Actress, Director, and Picture. But fret not, children, because I think many of our favorites like Boyhood, Birdman, and J.K. Simmons are all still quite safe. I have many thoughts on the nominations themselves and what it all means, but instead, let’s talk about the important stuff…and I don’t just mean the fact Oscar night means more dreamy Brits in beautiful suits (Hi Eddie and Benedict!).

Let’s talk about what YOU beautiful people need to see before the big show on February 22. Depending on your schedule and bank account (and frankly, stamina), here’s my handy-dandy viewing guide. Start with the First Tier and as you have time, see the films in each successive tier.  BAM!


First Tier: THE ESSENTIALS

Boyhood

Birdman

The Grand Budapest Hotel

grand_budapest_hotelboyhood poster birdman

These three films are the ones you’re hearing the most about right now and likely to be the ones picking up a lot of gold come Oscar night. Birdman is guaranteed a lot of wins in the technical categories (especially cinematography) and potentially Best Actor for Michael Keaton (plus solid supporting performances from nominees Edward Norton and Emma Stone). Boyhood is the front-runner for Best Picture and honestly, Best Director, and Patricia Arquette has won pretty much every single Best Supporting Actress award this season (plus a fine supporting performance from nominee Ethan Hawke). Grand Budapest Hotel came out in March but has really picked up steam thanks to the BAFTAs and Golden Globes. It has a good shot at Original Screenplay, Costumes, Production Design, and Hair/Makeup. It’s also just really fun and original.


Second Tier: TORTURED GENIUSES (+ the Essentials)

The Imitation Game

The Theory of Everything

Whiplash

whiplash-poster the theory of everything Imitation-Game-Poster

These three films also picked up several nominations and in big categories. The Imitation Game is a very fine British drama with two great performances by Best Actor nominee Benedict Cumberbatch and Best Supporting Actress nominee Keira Knightley. I’d say it has a good shot at Score, Adapted Screenplay, and Production Design. The Theory of Everything’s best shot is certainly Best Actor for Eddie Redmayne, who has been splitting the award with Michael Keaton all season. Best Actor is the most unpredictable, competitive category this year. It also features a lovely performance by Best Actress nominee Felicity Jones and a beautiful score. Whiplash is one of my favorite films of 2014, and J.K. Simmons has won every single Best Supporting Actor award this season. He will, unless something crazy happens, win the Oscar. No question. I’d also say the film has a great shot at the Sound Mixing category as well.


Third Tier: THE LADIES (+ The Essentials + Tortured Geniuses)

Wild

Still Alice

Ida

ida_ver2 still alice poster WILD_movie_poster

While Julianne Moore is most likely going to take home Best Actress (FINALLY) for Still Alice, the ladies of Wild, Best Actress nominee Reese Witherspoon and Best Supporting Actress nominee Laura Dern, do some of their very best work. Ida is the front-runner at this point for Best Foreign Film and has been an art-house mainstay for its story about a young woman about to take her vows as a nun when she learns she is actually Jewish.


Fourth Tier: RULE-BREAKERS (+ The Essentials + Tortured Geniuses + The Ladies)

Citizenfour

Selma

Foxcatcher

American Sniper

selma

Unfortunately, Selma all but got shut out of the Academy Awards this year other than Picture and Original Song, but it’s well-made, and Ava DuVernay is going to be a major player now in the directing field. Citizenfour is definitely the documentary to beat at the Oscars especially given its subject matter: Edward Snowden. After strong showings and buzz at all the major festivals, Foxcatcher lost some steam but Best Director nominee Bennett Miller pulls great performances out of Best Actor nominee Steve Carrell and Best Supporting Actor nominee Mark Ruffalo. American Sniper is late to the awards race but has gotten a recent boost of support. It’s Bradley Cooper’s third consecutive Best Actor nomination, and many feel one of Clint Eastwood’s best films in recent years. I don’t think it will pick up a ton of awards, but you never know.


Fifth Tier: EXTRAS (+ The Essentials + Tortured Geniuses + The Ladies + Rule-Breakers)

Mr. Turner

Interstellar

How to Train Your Dragon 2

Nightcrawler

Unbroken

nightcrawler

I’m actually a little disappointed Nightcrawler’s Jake Gyllenhaal didn’t pick up a Best Actor nomination this morning, but that race is so crowded with contenders, someone was going to get bumped. The film is weird and chilling, but Gyllenhaal is fantastic as is Rene Russo. Mr. Turner did very well at Cannes and picked up four nominations, but production or costume design seem like its best shots. How To Train Your Dragon 2 just won Best Animated Feature at the Globes, so I’d say it’s most likely the front-runner in that category. As for Interstellar, it’s visually stunning with a great score, so I’d look for it to be a real contender in those categories. And while Unbroken wasn’t quite the awards-magnet many hoped, its Oscar-nominated cinematographer, Roger Deakins, is beloved by the industry.

Has your brain exploded yet? If you’d rather watch the films with the most nominations, here’s the breakdown:

  • 9 nominations – Birdman, The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • 8 nominations – The Imitation Game
  • 6 nominations – American Sniper, Boyhood
  • 5 nominations – Foxcatcher, Interstellar, The Theory of Everything, Whiplash
  • 4 nominations – Mr. Turner
  • 3 nominations – Into the Woods, Unbroken
  • 2 nominations – Guardians of the Galaxy, Ida, Inherent Vice, Selma, Wild

Remember to drink plenty of water to offset the salt intake from all the popcorn you’re about to chow down on and be sure to give your eyes a rest once in a while. Otherwise, good luck, godspeed, and see all of you on Oscar night!

Proper movie-viewing attitude

Proper movie-viewing attitude

Oh and I’ll be live-tweeting the awards, so be sure to follow me @emmylanepotter on Twitter!

Friend like me

People are taking Robin Williams’ death pretty hard today all around the world and not without reason.  He was pervasively and perversely funny; the king of so-called manic comedy.  Other than maybe Tom Hanks, he encapsulated the 1990s male movie star for me in terms of ubiquity and memorable roles.

Run-by fruiting or pie in the face, I laughed til I cried

Run-by fruiting or pie in the face, I laughed til I cried

I may have swooned over Leo, sure, but Robin was the guy I would have gladly accepted as my second dad or crazy, beloved uncle.  I think I saw almost every single one of his films from that decade and marveled at how he could make all ages laugh.  No one could riff better than him or do more voices.

But he could strip all that away and find a stillness so lovely it made your heart break when he wanted to.  His dramatic work was just as fearless as his comedy, and he could be vulnerable, flawed, and real in a way that touched you deeply.  He mined the depths of humanity, the highs and lows, with a perceived ease that was almost bordering on offensive (at least to THIS actor).  He sunk his teeth into whatever role he took on and made sure you were paying attention.  Dead Poets SocietyHe gave it his all, and that goes for everything in his life whether it was his stand-up, his film/TV roles, being a husband and father, or his charity work with our troops.  Robin was generous in all things.  I wouldn’t be able to even choose a favorite film of his but a few that have really stuck with me are Dead Poets Society, Aladdin, Mrs. Doubtfire, Good Will Hunting, and Hook.  These are films that have profoundly influenced me in one way or another, and it was due in large part to Robin’s singular gifts.

Certainly his death is a difficult one for so many of us, but I am saddened even more because it comes on the heels of another, similar loss for me; one much closer.  I lost a beloved friend to suicide only two weeks ago, and he too was gifted in his own ways.  A brilliant musician, James had a passion for music that was infectious and inspiring.  But there was always a glimmer of darkness there: some days you saw it less, and some days more.

With my friend, James, back in 2010 at an alumni band concert

With my friend, James, back in 2010 at an alumni band concert

The times when his spirit shined brightest was when he was playing music, giving himself over to its powerful, magical spell; a medicine in its own right.  I knew he struggled sometimes with depression, but he never really let it affect him when he was with other people, or, at least, he never showed how it affected him.  As it sometimes goes in life, we fell out of touch in the last three years, and some bad things happened in his life.  Mistakes were made, consequences occurred, and the darkness took over.  No music could act as a salve; no words, no people. I tried reaching out once or twice (as did my brother), but he never answered.  I don’t know how it happened, and I don’t want to, but that darkness took my friend and his beautiful music.  And while I know there was nothing I could have done to save him, it doesn’t change how devastating it is.  He was twenty-nine years old and couldn’t fight anymore; though I wish to God he would have tried.  Robin Williams was sixty-three and couldn’t fight anymore either; another casualty of the crippling, cruelness of depression.

photo via Michael Parmelee Photography

photo via Michael Parmelee Photography

And today, while I continue to mourn the loss of my friend and now another person who I let into my home and heart on a regular basis (albeit through a screen), my thoughts drift especially to Robin’s family and close friends; the people who knew and loved him best.  Unfortunately, I now know what this kind of loss feels like.  How it aches in deep places that catch you off guard.  How helpless and powerless you feel.  How aware you become of your own fragile mortality and mind.  But while grief is powerful, I’m always amazed at how love breaks through it.  When I think of my friend, I think of the times spent laughing, the late nights at my house with my brother, and always the music, the wild, passionate music.  Those moments flood my brain more than anything else.  Looking at the hundreds of Facebook statuses and Tweets today, I know all of us think of Robin with only love and admiration too.  Our Robin was the one who made us laugh and cry and inspired us to do and be more.  Our Robin was a genie whose only wish was to grant all of ours.  He was our favorite housekeeper and English teacher.  He made us feel the joy of flying just with happy thoughts.  For whatever he and my friend suffered, they were so loved even though that love wasn’t enough to keep them here with us.

I thank both my friend and Robin for what they selflessly gave to me and others.  My life is richer for having them in it.

I ain’t never had friends like you.

1985-2014

1951-2014

Running at the Edge of the Cliff

One of my college acting teachers often would encourage us to make bold acting choices.  He’d say, “Make each beat as different from the last as possible.”  That was one of his favorite phrases.  He was trying to get us to find the contrast within each moment and take advantage by committing to it as fully as possible.

His other favorite phrase was “Always run at the edge of the cliff.”

It’s something that has stuck with many of us because of its practical applications not only in acting but also in everyday life.  Running at the edge of the cliff means giving one hundred percent knowing there’s a chance you could either succeed or fall.  Being crazy enough to live (or act) on the edge of danger; the thin line between life and death.

I have been thinking a lot about “running at the edge of the cliff” lately.  It seems as though it’s been a somewhat uneventful summer, but looking back on it, I’m realizing I’ve made a lot of choices.  I don’t know if each choice has been as different from the last as possible the way my acting teacher always preached, but the fact remains I’ve actually MADE choices instead of avoiding them.  It takes guts to make choices but even more guts to make bold ones, and I think I’m reaching a point where some bolder choices will have to be made.  It’s just one of those times when I’m realizing that while I’m still rather young, I’m not getting any younger.  Why am I putting things off?

I can sense I’m standing on a precipice in two areas of my life, and for the first time, I’m actually more excited than scared.  I don’t know what’s going to happen, but that doesn’t bother me; I’m hopeful instead.  It’s certainly different from several months ago when I felt like I couldn’t see a light at the end of the tunnel whatsoever.  It never ceases to amaze me how much situations and feelings can change in a matter of months.

I’ve been scared of running on that edge, but now I think I’m finally ready to just commit and GO.  I can’t control what happens, but that’s the beauty and danger of living on the edge of things; all things are possible.  I just have to trust myself and my instincts.

On your mark.  Get set.  GO.