Jeremy Birrell is an actor, improviser, musician, and avid Beatles fan. Canadians know him as “that funny guy” from a variety of commercials. He is also the star of the long-running improvised spectacle, coincidentally named The Jeremy Birrell Show.
Ahh the beauty of improv. So fresh, so raw, so unpredictable – yet so scary, so harsh, so unorganized. What better tool for an actor to use when entering an audition with the hope of winning some friends, but possibly losing them before he or she can exit the casting room with an awkward “Thanks again guys. Do you want me to leave the door open or…?”
In my experience, being an actor and an improviser go hand in hand. Both are about taking risks.
When I first started out in the biz, I was a young pup: naïve, possibly better looking (?), desperately trying to leave a mark and/or trademark on the vast, gargantuan, evil Dark Lord that was and maybe still is the acting industry.
Whether it was horrible one-liner auditions like, “Hey man, you goin’ to eat that?” or even more horrific commercial auditions like, “Hey man, you goin’ to eat that?” I was constantly trying to add a little extra JB charm. (That’s Jeremy Birrell, not Justin Bieber.)
One time my agent sent me out for a non-union gig. It was your classic cattle call with people wedged in, random sweaty skin, not to mention the whiff of insecurity in the room; either that, or a lack of ventilation and deodorant combined.
When I finally got called in, I found out it was a group audition. People were lined up against the wall like they just murdered someone. Meanwhile the casting table of 10 or so people immediately sized us up, looking confused, semi-pissed off, or both. As I was trying to figure out who the director was, he finally spoke without making eye contact.
“OK guys, I don’t want to spend too much time on this.”
Awesome. So the director is the guy who looks pissed off the most. As we took our group direction (“Dance monkey, shut up monkey, start talking monkey”), one of the actors delivered a line to another actor. This is where the actor decided to improvise a line or two.
It’s a valid choice; we’re all trying to add a little extra to our current “nobody” status. The problem was, his current audience was in no way forgiving or patient. It’s good to try something new, fresh and out of the ordinary, but when something clearly isn’t working, move on. Or even better, find an ending.
With the director already shifting in his seat, the actor chose to riff a few extra lines in French. Everyone at the casting table shook their heads while he continued his show-off French.
When he finally exited the scene (foreshadowing his no-opportunity with this gig), I decided what better time in my SOC status than to toss in an ad lib myself. I leaned in to the girl beside me and said, “Wow, that guy can speak French?”
There was actual laughter from the other side of the table. The director gave a smirk, like, “You weren’t supposed to say an f’ing word, but that was sort of OK.” Needless to say, I won me some friends that day, as well as a semi-principal role in a three-day commercial shoot. I also had the pleasure of working with that same director, who might I add, liked to scream “FUCK!” after every time he said “CUT!” It never got old.
Cut to a year later. I have a really nice director congratulating me on getting a commercial during the wardrobe fitting, and telling me basically why I got the part.
“We liked that thing you did with your hands,” he said, like I should remember instantly.
“Oh yeah, right…the hands thing.”
What the fuck is he talking about? Then, like a fly hitting a windshield: holy shit, he’s talking about a little gesture I did with my hands, insinuating a catfight that was about to take place in a boardroom. (Yes, it was a beer commercial.) Something so simple, so little, had once again won me some friends, and this time a principal role.
Well actually no, it didn’t. The next day, after a second wardrobe fitting, the client decided he just didn’t like the way I looked, mainly in the facial region.
Fast forward a few years later. I suddenly start booking a lot of commercials. All the directors sort of know my name – or at least recognize my teeth. The receptionists at the casting houses actually say Hi, with full eye contact. And they don’t point out to everyone in the waiting room that I’m horribly late. Instead they just say, “So Jeremy, you’ll be going in next…” And every actor in the room hates me. OK, so maybe that doesn’t always happen. Every actor in the room usually loves me when I come in late.
I think what shifted was that I had to work at it. The more rooms I got in, the better I got. I took more risks, which enabled me to be more intuitive with what the director was trying to get across in his or her (very brief) description of a scene.
Don’t get me wrong. I still go in every now and then, completely bomb, and shit all over the audition unintentionally with no clue if I have a serious case of IBS. The point is, when having a bad audition, whatever I brought into it, it’s not working. We performers all know that feeling, and know what we can learn and take from that.
In conclusion, I think that with acting and improv, you’re never going to fully win over everyone. Some will be pleased, and some not so pleased. But in the midst of all that, it’s important to keep going. Keep moving forward. Take all the experiences, all the wisdom you’ve stored so preciously in your head like an owl and f’ing use it. (I said “f’ing” because I don’t want you to think I’m yelling at you.)
We as actors, improvisers, and performers must constantly remind ourselves to dust off any remnants of a possible “chipped shoulder.” If all we see is a jaded industry, then that’s what will continue to suck our souls dry. And before you know it people start asking if you’re a vampire. Or even worse, “Were you in any of those Twilight films?”
Photo © Jeremy Birrell