Category Archives: Film

Peak Zombie

This is my intro for Dead of Winter. I thought it may spark an interesting discussion about what I call Peak Zombie:

I think I was a freshman or sophomore in high school the first time I saw Dawn of the Dead. It hit me the way certain things can only hit a child’s fragile, eggshell mind: it was gory, and disturbing, and pretty scary. It also made me wonder what I would do if I found myself in the zombie apocalypse. Would it really be living if I spent the rest of my life trapped inside a mall? At what point does surviving cease to be living? Why am I asking myself incredibly complex and difficult philosophical questions, instead of playing The Legend of Zelda?

Dawn of the Dead piqued my interest in George A. Romero’s version of the zombie apocalypse, and I devoured — sorry — Night of the Living Dead, Day of the Dead, and even Return of the Living Dead. For many years, I was a zombie fiend. In fact, every Halloween from 16 to 30, I was some version of a zombie. I wrote stories about zombies, I read stories about zombies, and if there was something with a zombie in it, it was on my wish list.

But sometime in the last few years, we hit Peak Zombie, and the truth is: I’m kind of over it. The Living Dead are rarely a metaphor for consumerism, conformity, militarization, and complacency. In much of popular culture, zombies are little more than cannon fodder and background noise in corporate entertainment that’s rushed to cash in on the public’s insatiable — some may say zombie-like — hunger for stories that pit a scrappy band of human survivors against a relentless, endless, faceless mob of interchangeable, shambling bad guys.

But every now and then, something breaks through the fortified wall of hardened, Hipster cynicism I’ve built around my survival compound, and reminds me that we keep returning to stories where zombies are threatening our very existence because even if the undead aren’t explicitly standing in for some profound and specific commentary on our modern world, they can, in fact, stand in for time, age, hunger, despair, and every existential threat we worry about when the night is darkest, and we can’t find the light.

Today on Tabletop, Dodger Leigh, Grant Imahara, and Ashley Johnson are here to explore a game that puts us right in the middle of the depths of our fears, during the worst of  the zombie apocalypse. As if staying alive and pushing back the undead wasn’t hard enough, one of us may very well be working against the rest of us, to ensure that none of us make it through the DEAD OF WINTER.

i forget the secret knock

I’m pretty busy with a few projects that I can’t talk about, including two Really Awesome Things that I’m dying to announce.

My little pocket notebook is filling up with words that I hope will get assembled into something here when I slow down a little bit, so I’m still writing every day, just not in public.

And now I want to share something really neat, before I get back to work:

Stand by Me 1986 ( FILMING LOCATION ) from Herve Attia on Vimeo.

This was shared with me by a reader, who notes that this guy makes lots of videos showing the current state of classic film locations. I doubt you’ll have the same emotional reaction to it that I did, but still think you’ll dig it.

It isn’t type casting. It’s smart casting.

Over at my Tumblr ask thingy, therondraith asked:

Why do you always end up playing the asshole in your various acting roles? You’re good at it, but it seems to be an unfortunate typecast.

All actors have a particular role that they’re best suited to play, and when they play those roles, they really connect with the audience.

For example: John Travolta is amazing at playing The Loveable Loser. That’s who he was in Welcome Back Kotter, Grease, and Saturday Night Fever, and audiences freaking LOVED him. When the studios tried to make him The Leading Man, in films like Urban Cowboy, Perfect, and something else I’m forgetting right now, audiences turned on him and his career started to flounder.

He didn’t do much of note for a very long time, until Tarantino cast him as a junkie hit man in Pulp Fiction. Suddenly, he’s playing the Loveable Loser again, and his career explodes with roles in Michael, and something else that I’m forgetting right now (it’s 5am and I’m on 4 hours of sleep).

So, when he’s playing that archetype, audiences connect with him on a subconscious level, because it’s the type he plays so perfectly.

The type I play so perfectly, it turns out, is that guy you love to hate, that guy who antagonizes your hero, but who actually has a good heart, when he forgets that he’s being an asshole. That’s who I play in The Guild, Leverage, Eureka, and Big Bang Theory. I don’t know why I play those roles so effectively (it may be related to how much I like to sass people in real life), but it’s what I’ve been doing for a few years, and it’s no coincidence that my acting career has had a bit of a resurgence as a result.

I don’t consider it typecasting, I consider it smart casting, and I wish that more casting people would understand what type I play, and give me a chance to work in those roles.

Oh, and remember: the villain is the hero of his own story, so even though I’m playing an asshole you love to hate, from that character’s point of view, he isn’t doing anything wrong. For example, Doctor Parrish on Eureka was an antagonist to Fargo and Carter, but from Parrish’s point of view, he was the smartest guy in the room, and he was just baffled that he was the only one who could see it. As a result, he resented having to answer to Fargo, who he viewed as someone who didn’t deserve to go to Titan, be the Director of GD, or get the girl. He resented having to deal with Carter, who wasn’t even a scientist, but was always telling him what to do. At the end of the day, though, Parrish loved GD, loved the town, and would tolerate working with people he thought weren’t as smart as him, because he believed in doing the right thing for science.

Thanks for your question.

here i dreamt

A couple days ago, I turned on asks at my Tumblr thing, because it felt like a way to participate in the Tumblr community. It’s been silly and fun, and — in the case of this one — a little cathartic.

tumblr_ask

If you can’t read the image, here’s what it says:

I’m afraid to ask this ? But.. Do you plan on making any other movies? Are any in the works? Truly you are a great actor, both funny and serious. I admire you Greatly!

I honestly don’t know. My career is pretty great at the moment, in terms of steady employment and creatively satisfying work, but it feels like Hollywood isn’t interested in seeing me work as an actor in movies.

It’s a strange and frustrating and ultimately depressing reality for me that most casting people would rather discover someone new (so they can say “I discovered that guy!” when he wins an award or has a breakout role) than give someone like me a chance. This is something I’ve struggled with a lot lately, and I think it’s one of the reasons I feel so depressed.

When I was a teenager, I desperately wanted a studio to make a Sandman movie, but I hoped that they’d wait until I was older, so I could work in it. Thanks to the arrogance of youth, it never occurred to me that there would come a day where I just wouldn’t be cast in films (or the really great cable series that seem to have replaced films) anymore. It didn’t occur to me that, if that Sandman movie got made when I was an adult, I wouldn’t have a chance to be in it, or even a chance to audition.

What I may have to do, if I really want to showcase myself as a dramatic actor who is worth casting, is make a short film entirely on my own and release it online. At worst, I’ll have created something I’m proud of and enjoyed the process of creating. At best, I’ll create a sort of long-form audition reel that (hopefully) casting people can’t ignore.

Thanks for your question. This is something that’s been on my mind, but I haven’t been able to talk about.

Also, thank you for your kindness yesterday. You know who you are.

Better to be out in front of the revolution than scrambling to keep up.

Yesterday, my friend Amy Berg wrote on Facebook:

People are turning off the TV and turning to the internet for entertainment. We may not like it, but it’s fact. Which is why I’m making digital series. Better to be out in front of the revolution than scrambling to keep up.

She linked to an article that says: TV is dying, and here are the stats to prove it.

The TV business is having its worst year ever.

Audience ratings have collapsed: Aside from a brief respite during the Olympics, there has been only negative ratings growth on broadcast and cable TV since September 2011, according to Citi Research.

Media stock analysts Craig Moffett and Michael Nathanson recently noted, “The pay-TV industry has reported its worst 12-month stretch ever.” All the major TV providers lost a collective 113,000 subscribers in Q3 2013. That doesn’t sound like a huge deal — but it includes internet subscribers, too.

Broadband internet was supposed to benefit from the end of cable TV, but it hasn’t.

In all, about 5 million people ended their cable and broadband subs between the beginning of 2010 and the end of this year.

It’s a fascinating article, and worth reading if you care about this sort of thing like I do. Setting aside the reality that you never hear someone declare: “Oh man, I fucking LOVE my cable company! They are the BEST! Their customer service is, like, UNBELIEVABLE, and I REALLY get my money’s worth for my subscription fees. I love my cable company so much, and they’ve totally earned my business and loyalty!” and so it’s likely that younger customers are fleeing cable because the experience — not necessarily just the content — sucks, I want to talk briefly about creating original content for online distribution.

I remember a time, in the not too distant past, when we’d feel like we had to justify ourselves for making a webseries, like it wasn’t real TV or film. It was like we were creating for online because we couldn’t make it in the big leagues, and had to seek out an alternative. In some ways, that was true, because in the traditional way of doing things, we had to appeal to gatekeepers at networks and mid-level development executives who were more afraid of losing their jobs than they were excited to make something new. That makes sense: there’s a shitload of money at stake for most productions, and it’s only logical that the people in charge of spending that money would be risk-averse — But what’s the point of being in a creative industry if you’re not willing to take some creative risks? That’s where the Internet came in, and fundamentally changed everything for creators. We could take risks, we could make content that maybe wouldn’t appeal to tens of millions of people, but would appeal to hundreds of thousands. We didn’t need to compete with other creators for ratings during a narrow broadcast window, because we understood that our audiences would watch our stuff on their terms, when and where and how they wanted to. We understood that the world was changing, and people would be watching programming on smartphones and tablets, frequently time shifted for their convenience. We knew that because we were those people.

Being those people, and creating for those people, has let us who are the tip of the spear in online distribution continue to just destroy the legacy media companies: we don’t want to control how our audiences get to watch and enjoy and share the things we make. We understand that attempting to control the experience people have when they watch our stuff just makes them find ways around that control, usually in a way that hurts our bottom line and our ability to support ourselves.

Around the second season I did of The Guild, I stopped feeling like I had to apologize for or justify creating original content for Internet instead of television. I stopped feeling like we were playing in the minor leagues, or engaging in a long and expensive audition for “real” work. I recognized that were were ahead of the curve, and the rest of the entertainment industry was going to have to catch up with us. It was so liberating, and it’s been so exciting for me as a producer and consumer to watch new talent emerge online that would never get a chance if TV was the only option.

The successes and failures in Google’s You Tube thing that made Geek and Sundry possible provide a great example of those who get it and don’t: the channels that the major networks and studios used to dump existing content failed, and the channels that made original content thrived. I think it’s safe to say that the legacy content producers and networks just don’t understand the online audience in the way they think they do. I think they’re afraid of online in a lot of ways, because a lot of the older executives who make decisions about digital are still fighting Napster in their heads. I understand their fear, but they’re going to have to come and join us here in the future, or they’re going to wither and die.

We who make webserieses (is that a word? It is now) have been in the future for a few years now, and I’m very interested to see what happens as people who are used to being the king of the mountain without really trying are forced to compete — or at least share space — with those of us who have worked very hard to earn whatever we have online.

Broadcast, cable, satellite, and movies will always be there, and they’ll always have fantastic and lousy content (just like the internet), and I hope that I’ll continue to work across all mediums as an actor and producer. But looking to the real future (the one that is ahead of us, as opposed to the one we live in now): I’ve believed for years that the next generation of creators will go online and play by their own rules. The next Joss Whedon will never have to deal with an evil FOX executive who ruins the next Firefly because of reasons, andI hope that I get to work with him or her someday, because that person is going to make something wonderful.

in which i remember to keep it simple

When I was a kid young actor, I got by on my instincts and ability to take direction. As I got older, I began to realize that instincts only go so far, and I felt a need — a very strong need — to formally study the craft of acting, and to gain a deeper understanding of the art. I spent years studying in various programs, most of them based on the Meisner technique. I learned how to break down scenes into beats, how to understand what my characters wanted and needed, and how to make emotional and intellectual connections to my characters, as well as the other characters in the scene.

One of the fundamentals of Meisner is “keep it simple.” It’s something a lot of inexperienced actors don’t do, because they (understandably and incorrectly) believe that unless they are doing something with every line, every beat, every reaction, every moment, then they are not acting. The trick is that almost all of acting is reacting to things going on around you, and letting those reactions happen naturally, through the lens of your character’s needs, wants, fears, expectations, and circumstances. The very worst thing for an actor is to get caught acting, so the other trick is to know all of that intellectually, and then let it all go so it happens emotionally, naturally.

I have nearly three decades of experience performing as an actor in all sorts of productions, from dramas to comedies, from stage to television, from period pieces to contemporary ones. I feel very confident in my ability to do the work an actor needs to do to be prepared and to create a believable character. I haven’t always been in fantastic works of art, but I’ve always done my best to bring something meaningful to the piece, and do justice to the writing (the number of actors who don’t understand or respect that the thing we’re doing existed as a thing long before we ever held the pages in our hands, and should be respected as a result, is staggering).

I’ve been working on The Big Bang Theory this week, and I’ll be on Stage 25 Monday and Tuesday next week, before I return to my corruptible, mortal state on Wednesday. This is the first episode I’ve done (and I’ve done a bunch) where I finally feel comfortable as an actor, like I know what I’m doing, like I deserve to be there, like I’m not going to get cut for screwing up the jokes. You see, all that stuff I said about being an actor? It’s true, but working on a show that’s shot in front of an audience is fundamentally different from everything else we do as actors. I was talking with John Ross Bowie today about it, and he said, “single camera and theater can not prepare anyone for what it’s like to be on this stage when the audience is in the seats,” and he was right. I often tell people that it’s like playing baseball: it’s very different being in the outfield than the infield, even though you’re playing the same game.

Today, during our run through, I pushed a line too hard for some reason, and after the scene was done, Chuck Lorre reminded me that I didn’t need to do that. “This is one of those times when you can just let the words do the work,” he said. He was right. Letting the words do the work is the difference between a scene being funny and obnoxious, sentimental and sappy, clever or obvious. It made so much sense to me, and even though it was something I knew, it was something I had forgotten. It was like putting a quarter into an old videogame (let’s say TRON) that you haven’t played in years, and after dying on the light cycle level, realizing that you remember the pattern, but had forgotten it because you didn’t need it until just that moment.

I’ve been an actor for as long as I can remember, but in recent years, the majority of my creative life has been spent writing and producing. I’ve been using different tools in my creative toolbox, and I was grateful to Chuck for reminding me where I left the tools for this particular job.

just another day

I dug through my T-shirt drawer, and realized that I basically have a few dozen variations on a theme: I love Doctor Who, I love gaming, I love Star Trek, I love Game of Thrones, I like black T-shirts.

At the bottom of my drawer was one I haven’t worn in a long time: a green Stone Brewing Company T that I picked up earlier this year. I pulled it out and shook out the wrinkles. As I closed the closet door, I caught a glimpse of Anne, drying her hair in our bathroom.

I don’t know where the thought came from, but it sprung into my brain: I’m 40 years-old, and I met her when I was 23. I’ve known my wife for almost half of my life.

When she shut off the hairdryer, I voiced this thought to her.

“Wow. We’ve known each other for a long time,” she said.

“I’ve been thinking a lot recently about all the shit we endured when we were starting our life together, and how our kids are almost the same age we were when [shitbag ex-husband] put us all through that. I just can’t imagine being their age and having the strength to deal with that.”

She set the hairdryer down on the sink and looked at me. “Maybe if we had to deal with it alone, but we didn’t. We dealt with it together.”

“I love us so much,” I said.

“Me too.”

We finished getting ready, and headed out to our respective days. Hours later, we met up back at our house.

“I have no idea what do to for dinner,” I said. “Want to walk to the store and figure it out?”

“Sure!”

We held hands and walked to the store, catching each other up on the stuff we did during the day. When we got to the store, we decided on steaks with grilled asparagus and Caesar salad, bought the things we needed to make that happen, and took them home. I prepared the steaks and walked out to the patio to start the charcoal and mesquite wood in our barbecue. Marlowe followed me and sniffed around while I put newspaper into the charcoal chimney.

“This is not for dogs,” I said. She looked back at me as if to say, “everything is for dogs, dummy.”

I pet her head and she wagged her tail. Then she saw a squirrel on the wire and bounded across the yard to go bark at it. The squirrel scolded her, shaking its tail and generally being an asshole.

“One of these days she’s going to get you, squirrel,” I said, “and you’ll regret all the time you wasted teasing her from the safety of your telephone wire.”

I lit the charcoal and went back into the house.

“Do you want to watch a movie?” Anne asked me.

“Sure,” I said. “What do you want to watch?”

She got an impish look on her face and said, “Chupacabra vs. The Alamo.”

I’ve been in the mood for gritty 70s movies like French Connection or Marathon Man, so I hesitated a moment.

“Come on,” she said, “movies like this are my guilty pleasure!”

I laughed. “There is absolutely nothing guilty about your enjoyment of the SyFy originals, and I love how much you embrace their particular brand of cheese.”

Strangely, we’ve never watched either of my entries in this genre: Python or Deep Core, mostly because I don’t know if I could bear to watch myself in them.

I put the DVD into the player and pressed play. We sat next to each other on the couch and had a hell of a good time watching a pretty bad movie that was shot in Vancouver pretend it was in San Antonio. Spoiler alert: the Alamo doesn’t exactly fight the Chupacabras as much as Erik Estrada blows it up for some reason.

We ate our dinner, laughed like crazy and talked about it on Twitter (which was apparently as amusing to lots of other people as it was to us, because we were the only people on Twitter not talking about the basketball game).

While we got ready for bed, I looked at her in the bathroom mirror.

“That was really fun,” I said, around my toothbrush.

“Yeah, that was great,” she said.

“I love us.”

“Me too.”

 

My review of Star Trek Into Darkness

I don’t go to the movies very often. I think the last time I went to a theatre on purpose was to see the first of the current Star Trek movies, and then I only went because it was a private screening and I could reasonably expect the audience to shut the fuck up, turn off their damn phones, and pay attention to the film.

I planned to write a paragraph here detailing why I hate going to the movies, but I think I just covered it, so let me write a different paragraph instead, about how I finally found a movie theatre that I will go to as long as it exists: the iPic theatre in Pasadena (also called Gold Class, I understand) is the only way I will ever watch a movie again for the rest of my life if I can help it. It costs much more than a typical multiplex, but it is entirely worth it, and this theatre has replaced the Arclight (which makes me sad, but sometime in the last couple of years, Arclight stopped enforcing the shut the fuck up and turn you goddamn phone off policy that had made it such an attractive destination for me for so long).

I’ve really wanted to see Star Trek Into Darkness, but I had resigned myself to not seeing it until it was available to watch in the comfort of my own home … until Stepto, e, and my friend Jen all told me about the existence of a theatre that was actually enjoyable, instead of wall-to-wall bullshit advertising and people who have such little respect for the movies and the rest of the people in the audience, they belong at the gathering of the Juggalos instead of in a movie house. When I saw that one of these theatres was not only nearby but was also showing Star Trek Into Darkness, I looked at my schedule, gave myself an afternoon off, and took my entire family to see it.

We just got home, and the rest of this post will be about my first impressions of the movie. If you haven’t seen it, do not read past the jump, or scroll past the giant picture of Bender B. Rodriguez I’ve placed for those of you who came here directly. I will discuss specific plot points and spoilers. You have been warned.

The short version is: I loved it. I think it’s my favorite Star Trek movie ever, and I can’t wait to see what this crew does next.

-SPOILERS BEYOND BENDER-

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My Fast and Furious Fan Fiction

Hank Green posted a Fast and Furious thing on his Tumblr, and wondered where the novelization tie-ins were … so, being easily amused, I answered the call:

The Fastest and the Furioustest

I know, right? Don’t be discouraged, though; with enough practice, you too can capture the essence of these magnificent films for yourself, just as I have.

notes on the back page of a script

Years and years ago, I shot a movie called The Day Lincoln Was Shot. It was from the book of the same name, and I played Robert Todd Lincoln.

Here’s a photo of me from the set, in costume:

Wil Wheaton as Robert Todd Lincoln in The Day Lincoln Was Shot

The movie was a lot of fun to work on. I got to work extensively with Lance Henriksen, who played Lincoln, Donna Murphy, who played Mary Todd Lincoln, and Greg Itzin, who played William H. Crook.

As you can see from the picture, I spent much of the film in proper Union Officer dress. It was an authentic uniform that was authentically hot as hell in the Virginia summer heat, but I was one of the few soldier-dressed cast members who didn’t get a cold during production, because I asked our historians what soldiers did in the summers of the war to keep comfortable, and did the same.*

So — spoiler alert — Abraham Lincoln is shot in the back of the head shortly after my character, Robert, comes back to Washington from the war to visit his family. One of the more memorable scenes for me is from late in the movie, when Lincoln lay dying in Petersen’s House. Robert spends some quiet time with his father, who is unconscious and slipping away. I had to remind myself, as an actor, that I was not with President Abraham Lincoln (Lance looked so much like him, it was eerie), but a young man who was watching his father, who he loved more than anyone on Earth, die.

It was a very emotional day of production. I had to call up profound anguish and despair over and over again, only to let it go to varying degrees when the scene was finished. When we wrapped that day in 1997, I was emotionally and physically exhausted, but it felt good. It was one of those rare moments where, as an actor, I was lucky enough to experience my version of leaving it all on the field.

While I was cleaning out the garage recently, I came across a page of the script upon which I’d written down some notes to keep myself focused. I scanned both sides of the page to share.

that penciled "mindy" was me showing someone on the set how this girl I liked in elementary school, Mindy P., wrote her name in 3rd grade. For a brief time, I signed my name "Willy" with the same crazy "Y". Because I wasn't already a big enough goober in 3rd grade, apparently.

And here’s the front of that page, which as it happens is the last page of the script:

The final page of the script from The Day Lincoln Was Shot

So you can see there are two main categories there: OBJECTS and PEOPLE. The Objects refer to this particular scene that we shot that day, when Robert goes through his father’s belongings. It needed to be intensely emotional, so each object — I think there were about a dozen — needed to be specific and meaningful to me in some way. (This is an example of how acting is a lot more than knowing your lines and hitting your mark). I don’t remember what each thing was, but I do recall a small pocket knife among all of them, that the director told me “was a father’s day gift you gave him when you were small.” I remember that when he said that during the take, it hit me right in the feels, and I collapsed into very real sobs, because I could just imagine what it would be like for me if I came across something I gave my father — that he carried with him — when he died. My dad was and is very much alive, but just thinking about that was too much for me to bear. I remember walking off the set when we printed that take, into a hallway, alone, where I just sat down and cried for a good long time. Sometimes the scene stays with you after you’re done. Sometimes, the scene follows you home.

The PEOPLE category is more general, and helped me make choices when I interacted with different characters in the White House. Some of them, Robert liked, and others he didn’t (the historical record is pretty vague on those matters) so I had to come up with specific reasons to define those relationships.

The final two bits are things I write in every script I ever have the privilege of performing: Keep it SIMPLE and The END is the BEGINNING. These are two things so vital to keeping performances honest and believable, you’d be surprised to learn how easy it is to forget them.

*Sit in the shade, and drink lukewarm liquids — usually tea — and let the linen underclothes wick away your sweat. It sounds gross, but it wasn’t nearly as uncomfortable as a Star Trek uniform on a hot summer day. Never take off your uniform, and never get out of the car, Groove.