From the Vault: how deep is the ocean?

All my creative energy is currently spoken for, so let's into The Vault and pull out an old post about that time I auditioned for On The Road. 

When I wrote this, I was waiting to find out if I'd been cast in I, Robot. I'd had a sensational audition that got great feedback from the casting director, only to find out that the director (who I recall was annoyed at my mentioning the audition on my blog) "didn't respond" to my tapes. It was pretty heartbreaking, and without more specific information, I wondered for weeks if I sabotaged my chances to work on the film by excitedly blogging about the experience, or if I really did just suck out loud and fooled the casting director and myself, but not the director. I'll never know, and I haven't even thought about it until about an hour or so ago, but just reading those posts has stirred up a lot of turmoil that I wish I'd left alone and locked away in a room on the other side of the house.

Anyway, this is a story that says as much about kindness and professionalism as it does about staying focused and doing your best. It contains, I hope, an important lesson that isn't just for actors…

This project has been around for almost ten years. The first time around, sometime in 1992 or so, I auditioned to play Neil Cassidy. I read a scene straight out of Dharma Bums.

I was manic about preparing for the audition: I was already familiar with most of the Beat Generation, and was a huge fan of Burroughs, but I'd never read Kerouac. I wanted to have a good sense of his style, so I could bring his character to life faithfully, so I furiously read "On the Road," and skimmed through "Dharma Bums." I was already a jazz geek, but I took the opportunity to fill several gaps in my collection, so I could listen to Charlie Parker and Chet Baker while I learned my scenes. I worked with an acting coach – at great expense – to develop body language and dialect. I bought clothes from a thrift shop, and went through lots of different hairstyles until I got the correct look.

A little over a week later the audition came. I drove myself to this old church on Highland where they have auditions from time to time, listening to Bird the whole way. I walked into a large empty courtyard, filled with fountains, birds, and a beautiful garden. Only the sign-in sheet betrayed the presence of Hollywood. I sat down, focused and ready to go get this job.

While I was waiting, Emilio Estevez arrived.

Wow, I thought, I'm at the same audition as Emilio Estevez, and I'm about to meet the man who is responsible for The Godfather and Apocalypse Now!

I totally forgot why I was there, and became a drooling fan boy.

Emilio Estevez said hello to me, one professional to another, and I said, "Hey."

There was a pause, and I heard myself say, "I want to tell you how much I like your work. Repo Man is one of my favorite movies of all time, and Breakfast Club is a classic."

He went one better:"Wil, Stand By Me is a classic, and I love your work too. It's really nice to meet you."

I hadn't told him my name, yet.

The casting assistant came out, and looked at the two of us. Emilio was on the "A" list. I was on my way to the "C" list, having been off TNG for a few years, and still waiting to properly follow-up Stand By Me. She said, "Emilio, would you like to come in now?"

He looked at her, and said, "Wil was here before me. It's his turn."

She told him that it wasn't a problem. They were ready for him.

"Well, if you're ready for me, you're ready for Wil, and he was here first." He crossed his legs, and looked at his script.

I was stunned. He didn't need to stand up for me, and it really didn't matter to me who went first, but I thanked him and went in.

The room was large and very dark. Like the rest of the church, it was mission-style, with high, open-beamed ceilings and terra cotta tiles on the floor. Coppola was sitting behind his massive beard, a flimsy card table between us.

I approached him, and extended my hand. He didn't take it, so I sat down.

"You don't mind if I film you, do you?" he asked rhetorically, showing a palm-sized video camera, already in his hand.

"No, of course not."

He asked me to slate my name, and begin the scene. I did, and proceeded to give the worst audition of my life.

I'd forgotten why I was there, and was a drooling fan boy. I didn't want to read this scene, I just wanted to talk about Apocalypse Now, and Rumblefish. I wanted to ask him about Marlon Brando, Dennis Hopper, and James Caan.

All these thoughts flooded my head while I stumbled through the scene. My Inner Voice, that internal critic/director/coach that all actors have, was screaming at me that I was doing horribly. I didn't listen, instead hearing Robert Duvall shout, "Charlie don't surf!" It screamed louder, telling me to stop and start over, but I was too busy watching John Cazale get on that boat, knowing that he was going to get whacked.

Before I knew it, I was done, and Coppola was thanking me for coming in. We both knew that I'd blown it. We both knew that I'd wasted everyone's time. I knew that I'd wasted a lot of time and money on my preparation. I'd had my one chance in front of Francis Ford Coppola – one of my favorite filmmakers in the history of cinema – and I had completely blown it. I walked out, head hung low.

I passed Emilio Estevez, who asked me how it went. I shrugged, and told him to break a leg.

I drove home in silence, hating myself, Chet Baker wondering how deep is the ocean?

24 thoughts on “From the Vault: how deep is the ocean?”

  1. All I can say to that is wow. I mean, I probably would have gone fanboy, too, if I had been in your shoes. It’s a shame you weren’t in I, Robot, though :(
    (EDIT: I got to be Comment #1 on a Wil Wheaton blog post?!?!?! COOL!)

  2. That was a neat story until you got to the blowing the audition part. Such a bummer. I can understand why that was a painful post to bring back. Still, honesty makes for great writing and documenting people being nice is always worthwhile!

  3. thanks for sharing this story – one of the things I admire about your writing is how deeply personal it is. You take a lot of personal risks in baring your emotions that way, and I think it pays off in both the authenticity and impact of your writing.
    I’m so sorry that audition didn’t work out for you but I’m really glad that you’re doing so much television work now. And your part in The Guild finale was AWESOME!

  4. Incredible story, Wil. I can only imagine how surreal that moment must have been. And it’s a testament to your incredible skill as a storyteller that you can bring out such raw feeling as you share your experience.
    I had a similar experience when someone I admired but had never met already knew who I was. Those are wonderful moments, aren’t they?
    Oh, and BBT this week was hilarious. How does it feel to know you now share cameo rights with Katee Sackhoff?

  5. I went to a couple of Repo Man reunion screenings in LA, and was always a little disappointed that Emilio, Harry Dean and Miguel Sandoval never attended. That said I have immense respect for Sy Richardson, who after all these years in the business still can’t make it beyond supporting actor in a small film, or an even smaller part in a big film or TV show, but takes whatever roles he can get with a smile on his face and delivers an outstanding performance every time regardless of how many lines he’s got.

  6. Ok, so, not being an actor, I have to confess that upon first glance “slate your name” looked like a typo. Knowing, though, that perhaps I was merely unaware of parlance, I looked it up. Ok, then. Not a typo. Still, though, it makes me think of The Holy Grail.
    “Why would he take the time to carve out ‘Wil Wheaton’?”

  7. You know Wil, it takes guts to look @crap you wish was in Fibber McGee’s closet instead of yours. And having had my own moments of wishing that my blog was less personal in the growth ops department, I can say I’m right there. Thing is, they are called growth ops for a reason. It is cool of you to share the awesome stuff and cooler still to share the closet-worthy. Yeah it makes you “more human” and less “Hollywood”. But it also shows us that we can face our own less than stellar moments.
    When you do posts like this it’s easier to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and get excited about making things. The mug, a superb idea, has me thumbing through CafePress to see what I can do with my stuff.
    And to all,
    I’d like to add that all of our siblings with talent like Jeremy’s need to do our jobs as siblings and get excited about the stuff they make.
    Thanks Wil.

  8. Ditto what Kathleen and Birdnerd said. It’s THESE entries from you that I love the most. I feel like I’m sitting in your living room with you as you tell me a personal tale about your life and it makes me feel like I’m just one of your best friends. Though I’ve never auditioned in front of someone as famous as Francis Ford Coppola, I can relate to the inner turmoil that you go through in a smaller degree.

  9. Oh man, reading this, I knew *exactly* where you were coming from. I had a job interview recently for a department that I REALLY want to be in and I knew and admired the manager interviewing me. The bad part was that I just couldn’t help myself. I could see the train wreck in front of me but I was helpless to turn away from it. I don’t go fangirl very often even at sci-fi cons but when I do, it’s always disastrous. *sigh*

  10. Thanks for sharing. Reminds me to face up to the times that I lost my focus. Maybe its time to take out the incident to view the lesson.

  11. If I had any doubts about your writing talents they’re gone now. Dude, I felt your pain. Coppola and the beats are sacred in my house. At least you tried and then became a good writer and mature actor. Keep pounding keys!

  12. I will admit it took me a second. But more because I’ve never really thought of a “slate” as an audio thing.
    I work in the news part of TV and we put slates on EVERYTHING, but they’re always a visual, took my brain a second to add the audio bit to my definition of “slate.”

  13. This post made me tear up– that rarely happens. I have to ask; why weren’t you able to rein in your inner fanboy? Was it because you were young? I don’t understand why celebrities make people weird and nervous so I’m a bit confused.

  14. Thank you for sharing this story (again).
    I have huge performance anxiety in front of even the smallest audience (even my parents, for example) so I can relate how you must have felt just talking to Coppola, let alone having to perform in front of him.

  15. Kind of a mixed bag there really eh? For me it’s just nice to know that even professional actors like yourself still get flustered with nerves at auditions, I always feel like a fake. Kudos for sharing Wil!

  16. If I’m really about to post right after Emilio Estevez… wow. I was an extra on Bobby and had an amazing time out in the cold in the last remnant of the Roosevelt hotel, a memorable point at the beginning of my career.
    Anyway, Wil, this is a heartbreaking story, and I’m not quite sure why. Your writing, of course, really brings the experience and your own personal disappointment to life. I think it also reminds me of an audition I botched for Neil Patrick Harris about a year ago, where he recognized that I had Belles Palsy because one of his friends was dealing with it. I joked about it, still in character from the mostly-improvised audition, and on the way out of the room said, “well, now you’ve met someone who’s had it from birth, so you can tell your friend to stop whining.” Oooooh…
    Take care, still hoping to work with you someday. We have a show on Youtube called “Robot, Ninja & Gay Guy” that we’re immensely proud of if you care to check it out.

  17. If it’s any consolation, they still haven’t made the “On the Road” movie, and I think you still look young enough to play Cassidy.

  18. Ouch. Knowing your nature to beat the crap out of yourself over experiences like this, I hope that you were able to put it in a different perspective while reflecting back on it. It’s a stumbling block, and no matter what profession you’re in, everyone has had to go through their own respective experiences like this, take their lumps, learn an important lesson from it and move on.
    Put it to you this way: in all of the recent work that you’ve done in the past couple of years I’ve noticed how well you are able to become the character that you’re portraying with such authenticity that you cease to be Wil Wheaton while you’re in character mode. You’ve turned out some pretty impressive performances lately and a lot of other people that I know agree with me about that. Geeking out about your acting gigs on your blog only shows that you haven’t let it all go to your head.
    As an aside, Emilio Estevez is seriously a class act. I’ve heard similar stories about him from other people and they’ve all said that he’s a really decent, down-to-earth guy. Kind of like another former teen idol we know…what’s his name again? Oh, yeah, that’s right, his name is Wil, and he’s just this guy, you know?

  19. Marvelous reply. I feel the same way when I read posts like this. This is exactly why I’ve always described Wil’s writing style as generous to his audience, because it’s him sharing intimate details of his life experiences and vulnerabilities to us that makes us feel as if we really get to *know* him. The fact that he extends that generosity to his friends and family by saying how proud he is of them and their achievements is what shows just how humble and down-to-earth he really is. You can’t help but like the person that he is because of these things.
    Way to go, Wil.

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