Weird shoots and noodles

“Kneel down behind the chair. Now open your mouth really wide. I want you to imagine you’re at the dentist. Over to the left, at that light, he’s got a huge drill. You don’t like the drill. What’s over to your right? It’s the assistant holding something like a huge sharp screwdriver. What the hell is that? Maybe your friend in the camera can help. No. They can’t help. They’re just standing there. Look at the dentist. He’s getting closer. The drill is on. And the assistant? What’s he doing? The screwdriver! He’s turning it. He’s grinning. Something is glistening on the end of it. My God what is it? What are they going to do to you? Look to your friend again. He doesn’t care. You’re on your own. The dentist is laughing. So is the assistant. So is your friend… Hold that. Hold it… Right down the barrel. Ok great and cut. Shall we get one more for safety?”

When you do this shit all the time you forget about how absurd it is. That’s not the weirdest thing I’ve done by far. Normally I wouldn’t have to write about my day so the memory would get quickly packed in the weird-box along with all the other madnesses that come out in dreams. Being gutted by a werewolf, being a spaceman shooting robots alongside someone from Big Brother, talking about my experience with AIDS diagnosis and treatment, being a tampon elephant… There’s so much more but it’s buried so deep I wonder if I’ll ever remember. And I keep coming back for more. It’s been a very very odd couple of decades. It’s almost certainly, sadly, been more interesting and varied doing this stuff as a man. As a woman I get the sense it would’ve been far less diverse: “You’re in your bikini. You’re happy about being in your bikini. No, happier  But it’s hot. You like that it’s hot. You’re happy. Oh but you’re also too hot in your bikini. Happy hot. Smiling because you’re so glad to be here in your bikini. But you need to get cooler somehow. Oh, maybe if you take off your bikini! Yes. You want to take off your bikini. Wait, why are you standing up? I didn’t say stand up. I said be happy. You don’t look happy. You’re not in shot anymore. Are you getting something out of your bag? Is it makeup? No it’s… is that a claw hammer? Why do you have a claw hammer in your bag? Now you’re smiling but I don’t like that smile. No! Oh God no! Ow! God! Why???? I’m making art! You’ve broken my wrist! Stop hitting me! Aargh! It hurts!”

I was earning my keep today. Absurd though it was, we got tea and my time wasn’t wasted. I was in and out quickly. The shoot was in one of the many out of commission fire stations in London. It’s a property guardianship, and it’s being taken over by an arts festival in May organised by Southwark council. Closed fire stations are such a frequent site in London these days they look normal. Fire stations that aren’t closed are as rare as black cabs with fares. The changing shape of this city. I explored the interior for a bit before the shoot, and found an abandoned locker room.

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There’s so much unused space there. I wanted to make something in it immediately. I had nothing I had to prepare for the shoot which makes a change. Most of it was improvised to camera, and then the ending was that absurd Ed Woodish dentist nightmare I recounted at the top of the blog. It was a fun start to the day. Then I hung out in the evening sun with Anne-May, at Inner Temple. She’s housesitting so we had access to these beautiful, symbolically loaded heraldic gardens in the heart of ancient London. Finally I went up to Catford for noodles with my best friend. There’s nothing like restorative noodles with my best friend. And the shoot was fun. The director didn’t try and get me naked so i could leave the hammer in the bag. And I think the completed project will be joyful and strangely beautiful.

Saul

IMAG0441I’m watching Better Call Saul at the moment. I’m about halfway through the second season. I remember with Breaking Bad that that was the toughest point so I’m trying to stick with it because I trust the creative team, based on precedent. It’s interesting how we do that. I’ve been captivated in the past by a particular combination of actors and creatives, so I’m willing to trust them again, and work through a hard patch in expectation of rewards to come.

Telly is the hardest thing to watch as an actor, because the scripts are so frequently horrifyingly awful. Seeing people negotiate the minefield is extremely satisfying though, if they do it properly. The Better Call Saul lot are experts. It’s lovely to see television where many of the actors are weird looking, rather then cookie cut aspirational beautiful. The scripts are pretty good as well, compared to the usual “I speak all my subtext as text” stuff. I can count my TV auditions over 20 years on the fingers of one hand. I’ve helped numerous friends though, as linesbitch. The better you can practice that stuff the closer you can make it sound to real human speech. I’ve been a pretty auspicious linesbitch over the years. Lots of my three dimensional friends have landed these ostensibly 2d characters that serve a plot purpose, and brought their humanity to tricky tricky lines. I’d love to have a go at it if only someone could open that door. It seems a fascinating aspect of my craft and one that would fit my sponge brain. Bob Odenkirk certainly makes all of his lines sing. I think I could do the same, but every door has so far been shut. Soon though, somehow…

I was watching telly as a Friday night reward for doing my tax return. “That’s early,” I hear you mumble. No. No it really isn’t. It was due in January. If I don’t get it in by the end of April they take my firstborn. And I’ve now moved into the tax period which covers a dark time in my career. Apex casting, Nadir meetings. So I already know I’m below the minimum threshold which is depressing considering I wasn’t for the previous two years. But I also know, based on talking to friends I admire, that I’m in exceptionally fine company so I can’t complain, although I can perhaps seek for smarter representation. Or make my own stuff.

I guess I’m enjoying Better Call Saul because it’s not just employing mister washboard stomach face-boy. It helps me believe that there’s a Giles out there for me somewhere. It’s also hard to break the pattern of worrying about work on this blog right now, as I’m trying to keep myself accountable, but I’m mostly scrabbling with day jobs again. I can’t wait for the chance to write in here that I’ve got something visible or interesting, as it’ll pay off my credit cards. Meantime wishing everyone that reads this the best of fortune in whatever walk you walk in, and I’ll keep believing in you and myself.

I can barely keep my eyes open. I didn’t want to shortword it twice in a row so I’m hacking this with one finger and one eye in bed. Tomorrow I hope to get into a fight with an octopus for you lot. Right now it’s just me and my hot water bottle…

 

Hwaet

Team Beowulf is assembled fully and we’re aiming to make something we can show for the 7th May. Far from a complete thing. More of an early stage developmental scratch. “Scratching” is a lovely way to be inclusive with all the ridiculous ideas you have in the early days, and show them to safe people who tell you that half your ideas are shit and the other half are insane. Then hopefully you can move forward by getting rid of or fixing the shit ones, and shifting the insane ones into some loose semblance of story.

We’re experimenting with storytelling methods that aren’t in currency so much these days. This week, Jack has been making papier mache character masks. I’ve been plundering costume. We’ve all been looking for sticks and spears and shields. Now our third player is with us it feels like the circle is complete. She’s a dancer who understands and honours text and loves to affect and change spaces. We are accumulating shiny stuff like ravens, and beginning to obsess about all things Viking.

I’m pretty excited with where this will go now. It’s going to be ace. The early stages of a creative process are so rife with possibility and we now have three people who are all full of crazy ideas, songs, shapes, movements and joy. I want to work with experts to learn technique with shadow puppetry, puppets, mask work, physical theatre, old Norse, unaccompanied singing, ancient instruments… With our budget we’ll have to become the experts ourselves. That’ll be a lovely journey. And then there’s the food to consider. I’m going to try to learn how to brew mead. The food is a big part of a show that we want to be about community, celebration, ceremony, joy. If anyone knows how to brew mead, we need to talk.

After rehearsal I went to Waterloo and found a beautiful happy little vegan place on Lower Marsh Street. We went in and got beautifully fed and roundly welcomed, and now I’m lying on my back feeling the snooze come in and I’m going to cut this short cheekily because I’m sleepy and I want a snuggle before sleep.

In my dreams there’ll be boats and beards, songs and swords and Grendel of the fens. Hopefully I’ll wake up and still have all my arms.

Lazy photo time. Come on summer…

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102 – Invigilating and lines

I also invigilate exams. It’s unlikely you’ll know that about me. It’s another little way of ticking over. I’m at Imperial College, in the business department. I’m presiding over rooms full of people who understand calculus and have no common sense. Occasionally someone tries to cheat and it’s all people talk about for ages. They do stuff like shove papers full of equations into the bogbrush holder and then go for 20 minute shits thinking that nobody in their right mind will look there.

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The wonderful thing about invigilating exams is that you’re in a silent concentrated room for two hours, except when you’re listening to people poo. You have to be alert, but it’s the perfect place to commit things to memory neutrally. If you’re learning lines in an exam room you’re not going to fall into vocal and physical habits or patterns. If I were to suddenly start acting at everybody in the middle of their exam then I wouldn’t get asked back. Today I had a little sheet with everything I needed to learn on a supplementary answer book. By the end of the morning exam I had two scenes committed to memory. Then I took the afternoon off work to record them.

My friend Matt has a camera, a mic, a voice, a reflector, time, patience and a blank wall. That’s all that’s needed to record a self-tape. I went round his and spent a couple of hours recording these scenes that came through late last night. They mostly involved me being smug. It’s a familiar trope. Scientist uses logic to combat emotional scaremongerers who turn out, against the odds, to be right. He then gets eaten. I get to be aloof and superior, and then inject myself with drugs that temporarily give me a God complex. All in a day’s work. We had a good session and then I sent it off to California. Now I have to forget about it until they call.

Once again I’m finding myself thinking how handy it’d be to have a little home set up. I managed fine today thanks to Matt, although the short timeframe cost me 50 quid as I had to drop the afternoon exam to get it done. Nevertheless, if it comes through it’ll be a game changer. Although saying that, does the game ever change? When I booked Bright Young Things all those years ago I thought it was a game changer. There are very dear friends of mine who have done wonderful jobs in the past and are now struggling to find work. A job is a job, at whatever level. We just have to do it as best we can, and move on hoping there’s another one coming. We can all play “Whatever happened to” and name so many actors that were in everything when we were kids who’ve done nothing for ages. Remember when Tarantino reinvented Travolta? Tony Slattery is probably wondering where his Tarantino is. Me? I’m looking for my John McTiernan, the guy who cast Rickman in Die Hard.

Meanwhile I’ll keep plugging and keep smiling. I just had a brilliant session at The Factory. Now I’m heading home to see my glorious flatmate and my lovely cousin outlaw. I get to do stupid fun stuff lots, often for money, and never in my life has a stern faced invigilator been standing near me looking a little strange and mumbling as I try to fill in my paper on differential calculus.

Kamikaze Shakespeare

Turns out i miscounted. This is 101. I’ve always been shit at counting. I do words. I’m trying to get better at the maths bit as then I’d get into fewer pickles. As someone that loves to turn his hand to the unfamiliar it’s odd that counting has evaded me so completely for so long. But it has.

I’ve just got home from a kamikaze Shakespeare evening. It was two hours of going up and engaging people in conversation before asking them to choose which Shakespeare play they like and then doing a bit of it for them. It’s fine as long as they don’t ask for Timon, Verona or Romeo and Juliet. Everyone always asks for r&jb the buggers. I ended up doing most of Hamlet, half of Macbeth including lady M, and bits of loads of the comedies. Only one person asked which my favourite was and I surprised myself by saying Julius Caesar. But that changes all the time depending on what I’m worrying about. Right now I’m worrying about the capacity for those who have power to do harm. So I did Cassius deconstructing Caesar to Brutus.

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Sometimes i describe my brain to the guests as a bit like an old windows 98 hard drive. It’s all there somewhere but the wheels need to spin for a bit before the older stuff comes up. One of them asked for “some verse from Malvolio” and I surprised myself by hauling up his only extended bit of verse. I’ve not said it for 8 years or more. Another gave the first line of a half remember’d sonnet and i finished it. For every obvious win like that I hit a few losses: “Do Romeo and Juliet” “I’ve never learnt any, not even the prologue. I should probably get on it. Anything else?” Technically I could get away with just repeating the same sonnet over and over but I deliberately make it harder for myself as then it’s more interesting. That’s a pattern in my life that is all too familiar – deliberately making things harder for myself. If I’m making money doing what I love it feels like cheating if it’s easy. It’s a pattern I’m trying to break. It can lead to me blocking myself from having a nice time in all walks of life.

It hasn’t been the easiest time since I’ve been back anyway if I’m honest. I’m back to sifting and prioritising creditors, doing multiple constantly shifting jobs to make sure that things are coming in not going out. London has that effect on me. Thank God I’ve got a happy roof over my head. I was beginning to worry that I’d never have another meeting when my manager called in a self tape for tomorrow. It’s good casting – an entitled megalomaniac scientist. A cross between my darling brother and all the people I went to school with. He’s the Julian Sands character in Arachnophobia, but instead of spiders it’s … something else. I’m probably under NDA.

That’s the other side of this job. 0 to 60 in 0.5 seconds  Suddenly having a load of stuff to learn and no time in which to learn it. I’m working first thing tomorrow and I took the call at 10pm. So i have to go in in the morning. And I’ll have to see if I can get the afternoon off. But right now I’ve got to knuckle down and learn a load of ecstatic ranting well enough that I can swallow it and make it mine tomorrow if i can persuade someone to help shoot it…

 

99 – Llamashark​

“A llama is a funny kind of fleecy hairy goat, with an indolent expression and an undulating throat. Like an unsuccessful literary man.

And I know the place he lives in (or at least- I think I do)
It is Ecuador, Brazil or Chile- possibly Peru;
You must find it in the Atlas if you can.
The Llama of the Pampasses you never should confound
(In spite of a deceptive similarity of sound)
With the Llama who is Lord of Turkestan.
For the former is a beautiful and valuable beast,
But the latter is not lovable nor useful in the least;
And the Ruminant is preferable surely to the Priest
Who battens on the woful superstitions of the East,
The Mongol of the Monastery of Shan.”

That’s the undeniably Victorian doggerel of Hilaire Belloc on llamas. It starts as a lovely silly poem about llamas and ends up saying EVERY EASTERN RELIGION IS ATROCIOUS. Which kicks me right in the Buddhism. I learnt it, along with whichever other poems I could get my hands on, as a kid. Llamas have been in my thoughts a great deal today so I thought I’d share it.

The few encounters I’ve had with camelids in the wild have been perfunctory. An alpaca tried to eat the buttons on my shirt in Peru. It didn’t even have enough understanding of cliché to spit water in my face, which would have made a better story. A few kids tried to charge me for a photograph of another one in Cuzco. They made me delete it from my phone when i refused to pay. Outside of those unsatisfying encounters, it’s really just been tame llamas on farms. And sharks? I’ve not seen one in the wild at all despite having dived a bit. Is that unlucky or lucky? There were a few dogfish on a night dive in Thailand, but only little ones. I met a banded sea krait, but that’s about as dangerous as I’ve seen in the water. Ok it could’ve killed me in seconds, but they’re docile.

Llamas and sharks. Sharks and llamas. A strange pairing. But the two are connected. “How?” I hear you all cry. “How can they possibly be connected? What witchcraft is this?”

Six months ago, off the coast of Polynesia, the first specimen of llamashark was brought ashore. Hairy and aggressive, the llamashark blinds seals by spitting in their eyes with acidic saliva, before gradually chewing them to death.

No it’s a little more complicated than that. Stand by, here comes science. It was recently discovered that camelids and some sharks have antibodies that are very unusual. They are smaller than other antibodies and able to survive in higher temperatures and pH than ours. This opens up possibilities when it comes to the treatment of diseases. For instance they can survive and work in the human stomach. I’ve only got a handle on the basics at the moment. But bear with me, there’s time yet. I’ve been hanging with a bunch of epidemiologists. Scientists specialising in disease epidemics. We’re examining the ethics of new forms of self diagnosis and containment using lateral flow tests at home and harnessing big data. But we’re trying to make it a fun way of asking what you would do if you thought you had an infectious disease. Which might sound like a big ask, but it’ll work out.

Last summer at Green Man Festival we ran a sciency story gamey info thing about a disease that turns people into llamas. Here’s me in the sunshine wearing loads of wool.

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It came through Fanshen, who have done some brilliantly random fun madnesses over the years, and who I love dearly. It was fun and went down well so we’re doing it again slightly differently in London. It’ll be two days only as part of a four day beer and music festival in Kings Cross. I get a free pass and a plus one and some dosh. It looks to be the beginning of another ridiculously fun summer.

Today seven people sat around a table having earnest and heated discussions about whether llama ears needed to be made out of socks or cardboard, about the merits of different types of face paint, about effective sleight of hand techniques with lateral flow test models. These and more of the usual ridiculous sincere early development questions, made all the more strange by the hotch potch of artists and scientists in the room. I’m the right man for the job though. My brother’s a scientist so I’m an expert at working out how to make what they say comprehensible and transferrable.

So there we go. Llamas and sharks. Another random day in the life. What will tomorrow bring? Will I turn into a llama? Stay tuned for the 100th episode of “Al stumbles through existence with a big smile on his face.”

 

98 – Marathon

Today I watched as thousands of people ran away from me. Occasionally I made inarticulate noises of encouragement. Some of them were my friends but I didn’t spot them – it’s hard to recognise people from the back and above. I was on the footbridge at Embankment, right at the end of the route. People were battered by then. I kept my shouting generic. Cycling their names would’ve gotten old quickly. I just shouted “Aaargh euurrrgh yarrr” which is the socially acceptable encouragement (or piracy) noise in London as far as I could glean from those around me. Well done to Maz, Chris, Ben, David, Sarah and all the other maniacs known and unknown to me who put themselves through that extended hell. If I had to run more than 10 miles the lower part of my right leg would unscrew itself, my lungs would start fighting each other and my heart would fly off to rejoin its brothers and sisters on Pluto. I’ve no objections to doing difficult things but I’d probably not attempt that one unless I was being chased by a very persistent very angry, very hungry slug.

I picked my way through crowded streets. Enthusiastic stewards with no clue what they were being employed to do barked arbitrary orders if you caught their eye, so they could look and feel like they were working. “Go the other side of that gumstain.” “Cross the road with your left foot first.” “Don’t stand so close to the road.”

The runners who had finished were wrapped in foil surrounded by excited people, like Thanksgiving turkeys. Many of them already looked cooked. Some were overdone. Policemen maintained a quiet armed presence, and in a new but sadly necessary tactic, parked their vans to block roads and encouraged official coach drivers to do the same.

People were everywhere. This city is ramjammed. Even the runners looked like a factory conveyor belt as they rolled under the bridge. I imagined myself having to sort them into categories.

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Plucking out the rotten ones, labelling the plump ones “Finest”. Putting the ones dressed as goldfish into the “party food” section. I should probably stop comparing the runners to edibles. They’ve raised tons of money for good causes across the world. Perhaps I should put myself in the mix for next year and do something genuinely hard for a good cause. I’m scared I’d cripple myself, but if it’s just irrational fear that’s stopping me then that’s not enough.

I left the area once again marveling how many people there are in this city. For the evening I went to visit one of my friends who lives close to me. There are so many hearts packed into such a small space in this city, and it’s important to see them outside of the Facebook screen. I’ve spent a Sunday afternoon curled up on a sofa with Flavia while her 3 year old veers from Lego aficionado to penguin expert to breadstick maniac and back again. It’s alright being three. Right now he’s sitting watching Lego Batman clips on YouTube and I’m thinking about how i met the guys who made this at the premier two months ago. I tried showing him the photo of me with Lego Batman but he refused to be impressed. I guess the one I met was just an overheating actress in a suit and he can tell that. “But I’m friends with one of the producers” doesn’t cut it for a three year old. Or anyone else for that matter.