Skid Row

Day 55. Outside of the Women’s March I haven’t spent much time in Downtown LA. Today it’s time to get down there and make sense of the place a little. I meet Marilyn in a Buddhist centre. I’ve not met her before but she’s just found 20 bucks on the floor and she offers to get breakfast. That’s an excellent start to any day. We drive in and I splash most of my days budget on valet parking for my ramshackle beast of a Chevy at The Ace Hotel. Free breakfast! The Ace is one of a number of Art Deco hotels that pepper the area. It’s a little run down but has an old fashioned charm, so it feels like home. There’s a pool on the roof, which is essentially a jacuzzi surrounded by half naked men. Nobody is in it when we go to look. They’re just sitting round the edges in their towels staring at each other. But the view from the roof is great. The whole area puts me in mind of the lower east side in New York. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the architects were the same.

  
We decide to go for a walk to the Art District. This involves going through Skid Row. I’ve known the term Skid Row as long as I can remember. It’s a term I associate with being at the bottom of the wheel. The reality of the place is remarkably bleak. I’ve already blogged about the river, and the shanty town that I walked through at the beginning of my trip. Here there’s not even flowing water. It’s a few streets that have just been designated as the place you end up in when you’re at rock bottom. A recent census had the population of this area at upward of 17 thousand for under 4.5 square miles. It’s a tent city. The energy here is desperate. Everyone is moving around in circles. People are trying to carve out a little patch of ground for themselves, and there are flashes of community, love and friendship evident. We are almost invisible, just passing through, not part of it. Not under threat, but definitely alien. There’s a lot of big drugs here. Sunken broken faces and bodies, people passed out flat in the street, open mouths gaping, young men who are old, people who are tweaking and mumbling by lamp posts like extras in a zombie film. Tents everywhere, piles of filthy possessions gathered over years and dragged here. All this is less than 5 minutes walk from City Hall, and the municipal centre of LA. 5 minutes walk from the courthouses and vast squat stone buildings housing the machine of government. Built to look impressive, impassive, impenetrable. If you were on Skid Row you’d be aware of all the unused space in those huge edifices. You’d see the nicely dressed people protesting notions and distant pipelines while you were worrying about food and shelter, and maybe your next hit. And if you worked in City Hall and had a spot of empathy you’d be aware that you’re only a catastrophic string of events away from Skid Row. There are targeted billboards here. “Need bankruptcy help? Just 5 streets up that way.” It’s a sobering juxtaposition, the bottom so close to the top. Then we find some all American trucks and they distract us before we drive home.

 

Needing entertainment I went to the theatre. Also because they got me a comp. Son of Semele, for The Offending Gesture. It was a play about a dog in occupied Finland that could do the nazi salute, and how the nazis took offence. Delightful and very strange, ending with a quote from Trump – our contemporary example of a humourless leader with far right tendencies. After skid row and city hall I can’t help thinking about how so many of the poorest people in this nation voted for him.  Im glad the theatres here haven’t been torn down even if people do occasionally chase me with a megaphone.

Tribes and ducks

Day 54 and I’m sitting on a jetty over a rippling lake. A hummingbird stutters and jumps through the air to my left. To my right a waterfall flows down from a statue of Christ, arms wide, blessing the lake. Not so far from Christ is another waterfall, this one flowing through shade from a statue of Baghavan Krishna, playing a pipe. 

 

My companion on this jetty is putting his shoes on having completed a complicated Tai Chi sequence. He smiles beatifically at me. The sun is beating down. Terrapins are basking and flolloping in the water alongside Jonah proportioned Koi Carp. This place is known as the Lake Shrine. It’s the legacy of Paramahansa Yogananda, who spent many years meditating here. He was a friend of Mahatama Gandhi. This is built to his taste.

 
As you enter, you find shrines to five religions. Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism. There is no comment made about this unity. The iconography of all these five world religions is scattered across the garden, and quotes from the Baghavad Gita are mixed with excerpts from the bible. It doesn’t feel confused though. It feels measured and thought through. A place to contemplate the things that bind all of these stories together. In the Christ statue I see the direct line through Prometheus, Odin and Horus. In the Krishna I see Pan and even Kokopele. 


I never had a football team as a kid. Tribalism pisses me off. It’s human nature though. It’s hard to break. I don’t like Trump much from what I’ve been able to observe. If I’m not careful that leads to me thinking that people who voted for him were wrong. But if we start to make value judgements based on our interpretation of things then we start to entrench. And there is nothing to be gained from standing on one side of an argument with plugged ears slinging shit over the wall. It is, of course, nothing more than profound human arrogance to claim that our version of the spaghetti monster is the only version and the right version. But it is equally arrogant, in my mind, to say that there is no spaghetti monster. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” It feels so much healthier to accept that there is something, whatever we want to call it, and to commune with it how we wish and let others do the same. I would perhaps draw the line at winding people’s guts out on burning altars during opium fuelled goat orgies. But within reason.

  

This garden, with a little bit of Gandhi’s ashes enshrined here, is simultaneously playing host to people from a gamut of world religions. Men with bathrobes and berets flounce past men in sombreros and shorts. There are people with ostentatious crucifix necklaces walking alongside people with bindis, and both are saying “Look at the ducks” to their kids. Wouldn’t it be amazing if around the world we could all just look at the fucking ducks.

  

Paramahansa says “Change yourself and you have done your part in changing the world. Every individual must change his own life if he wants to live in a peaceful world. The world cannot become peaceful unless and until you yourself begin to work toward peace.” We can get so entrenched in our interpretations of things that we can stop seeing the ground we share with those who think opposite things. And sometimes we and they received these ideas so early or so unconsciously that we and they had no part in forming them. We have to allow ourselves and those around us to change minds, or to change natures. But change has to come from within, not from prompting. Forcing change only builds resentment or causes entrenchment.

  

Meanwhile this beautiful world we live in can get destroyed by disputes over the interpretation of ideas that were prompted by the beauty of the world. Argh. I don’t know what to do about it. I’ll just look at the ducks. Quack.

Larchmont and me

Day 53 and I’m sitting at my favourite coffee shop, outside the yoga studio. I’m people watching in the sunset. Women in leggings and shawls swank past me in one direction, buff men jog with ice cream cones and bonsai dogs in the other. Many people have sunglasses even though it’s getting dark. One woman has a parasol and makes sure her friends have noticed by talking repeatedly about it. There’s a pair of crows eyeing up scraps from the table and debating with themselves if they could eat our eyes and get away with it. A parking warden stalks up the street looking at all the meters seeking the ones that are flashing red. He joggles along in his tucked up grey uniform, pudgy hand sweating on his pad, sunglasses sliding down his nose. He’ll be disappointed this time. I put a dime into the three that were flashing when I saw him down the street. Not on my watch, buster. 

Larchmont Village is a pretty typical Hollywood street but it has become my local. Expensive parking whilst it’s free on the neighbouring streets. Three banks. Yoga. Ice cream. Bagels. There’s also a bookstore and a music school, loads of food outlets and a Mexican selling fresh oranges from a trolley. Three places exclusively for coffee (two if you don’t count Starbucks), the inevitable Chipotle and a constantly shifting sea of tattoos, yoga mats, dogs, zimmerframes, strollers and canvas bags. People lazily greet each other in the evening sun. In the coffee shops there is usually someone who is having a conversation designed to be overheard. “Yeah and I got this offer for this major series and I was like Harvey Weinwho and I spoke to my agent and my agent was like telling me I’m a genius and really beautiful and I was like nah nah I’m not THAT beautiful and then Al Pacino told me I was the best actor in the world and have you SEEN this new necklace it’s just darling.” I usually want to give them a big hug and tell them it’ll be alright. But they’d either take it the wrong way or burst out crying and howl “IM A FRAUD” wetly into my ear. And I can do without that.

  

This evening coffee ritual costs 5 bucks which is extravagant when I’m down to 12 a day, but worth it. I always find a seat outside, and at this time of day the shoutyshouty-me-me people have gone to acting class or to their shift at the restaurant or back under their rock. I say that but literally as I wrote it a guy strolled past in a Nirvana Tshirt : “yeah its a good deal it’s with HBO and they’ve got millions of bucks and they’ve got this great cinematographer”. Most of them have gone. But you can see how people feel comfortable to talk loudly about their hopes and dreams here. It’s a cultural thing, everyone does it, it is positively encouraged. And a lot of the time it’s not bullshit as things are happening for people. Over here, if you ask me, I’ll tell you that I’m a movie star and Shakespearean actor. In London I’ll shrug and say I’ve done a few nice jobs over the years I suppose, but hasn’t everyone? I’m going to try and take some of the former home with me, and stick some glitter to myself, so feel free to slap me with a dead fish if you hear me sounding off total bollocks. You can take that sentence as permission. I’ll even cook the fish and eat it with you afterwards in thanks. But more than ever I feel like I have to go to a positive kind of war when I get back. 15 years after leaving Guildhall I want to see if I can get the simple little jobs you traditionally get on graduation. I graduated straight into a movie and then my mum died before it hit the cinema and I lost myself. Whatever damage that did has been repaired by time, and capped by this trip. Now I’m moving towards work that brings me happiness. Which I feel I am allowed to seek. Which makes a change. Something has shifted.

 

An inward looking blog today. But I’ve done nothing but write emails about myself all day. It can have that effect. Miss you guys. My flight lands on the 19th at 10.40 am so I reckon I’ll be easily home by 12.30 unless there’s hijinks in immigration. I’m going to drug myself for the whole flight so hopefully I’ll have a lot of jet lag party in me. If you need my address PM me. Xx

Fear

Day 52. Sometimes when it feels like you have a mountain to climb, it can be therapeutic to climb a mountain. Lyndon and I start by going for an innocent walk in the park. That’s the plan. In the middle of the park there’s a massive rock. One of those gargantuan glacial deposits. There’s fencing around the edges at the top to stop drunks falling. And fencing around the edges at the bottom to stop idiots climbing. We look at it. We look at each other. That’s all it takes before we’re hacking our way up a runoff trench towards the fence. “How do you think we get through the fence?”
The thing with being in the middle of a city is you’re never going to be a pioneer. We are walking over discarded Twinkie packets, condom wrappers, flattened cans, water bottles, tissues. But before long we are at the base of a high rock. Someone has neatly cut a rectangle out of the fence with bolt cutters, and folded back the sharp bits. We are under in no time. We look up at the rock. It looks pretty sheer. It IS pretty sheer. It’s a vertical rock. But there’s a guy at the top. “How do we get up?” We shout. “That way. But it may be too hard for you.” I’m in skinny jeans that restrict my legs. I have a hat on that restricts my vision, and glasses. I’m wearing a nice watch. My walking boots are like two big rubber bricks on my feet. But this is red rag to a bull. “We’re fine.” I lie. And we go the way he’s pointing.

 

It’s hot. After a while we just make an arbitrary call. “Shall we just go up here?” It doesn’t look promising. But none of it has. And we are on a mission.


I’m not twelve any more, but I’ve always loved climbing. And fear is something that, for better or worse, only tends to afflict me in social situations. This is no problem, I tell myself. I’m climbing a metaphysical mountain, so it makes sense to conquer a literal one. By the time I am halfway up, I’m in a very different headspace after having lost my feet to these damn boots a couple of times, utterly regretted my hat and watch, got myself covered in dust, and taken the skin off my hands. I stop on a ledge and realise my legs are shaking. But it’s beautiful. We sit in a natural recess and admire the view. “I wonder what made this recess,” we peacefully muse. The answer is all around us. Bees. Bees dug our happy little resting place out of rock over millennia. They don’t seem too pissed off yet. My parents told me I was allergic to bees. My parents told me a lot of things, so I have no idea if I am or not. I don’t want to find out when they start ganging up on me. So on one side there’s a big drop, on the other there’s a load of bees, my legs are still a wobbly and I’m in stupid shoes. Thankfully I know that bees are totally chilled so they aren’t a concern. I love that this is their mountain. I imagine the intricate passages of the bee maze they have dug over so long, so vast that they can abandon our little perch when the wall caves in. I’ve got hands. There’s a route, of sorts. You can tell because there are crampons hammered into it. “I hope there’s a path at the top so we don’t have to get down the same way,” Lyndon says. I am in full agreement. I end up using crampons as emergency handholds. I’d never be stupid enough to stop and take photographs.

 

By the time we get to the top we feel like we’ve achieved something. We are the englishmen that climbed up a mountain that’s really a hill. There are a million ways up here and all of them are easier than the route we came. But we went up that way. And in doing so we have conquered a form of fear. Which is a strong metaphor for what I am trying to do in writing these letters to people who might want to start a lovely working relationship with me.

  

It puts me in mind of that overshared inspirational quote by Marianne Williamson. Everything in its context. If you can’t share enthusiastic overshared lifestyle advice in California, then where the hell can you? Here it goes people.  Switch off your bullshit meter:

  

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine as children do. It’s not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own lights shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

 

There we go. Fear. Screw you fear, me and my friends are kicking your ass from now on. HOO AH. Sing it with me, brothers and sisters. California. Aaaaargh. etc etc etc repeat until sick

Agents

51 days here and quite a lot of my focus is having to shift to what happens when I get back. This morning was rather schizophrenic in that I was mixing emails to managers out here with emails to agents back at home. I’ve been put into an interesting situation. 

Over here, actors tend to have three business relationships. An agent, a manager and a publicist. In the UK, more frequently, there is just the one, under the umbrella of “agent.”

 

Fiction has brought us many examples of dysfunctional relationships between actors and their agents. Frequently my friends outside the industry have these as touch points for what it must be like for us. Richard Griffiths as Uncle Monty says “I remember my first agent. Raymond Duck … Four floors up on the Charing Cross road and never a job at the top of them.” It’s important to note that Withnail and I is not a documentary. I do know some actors who seem to think it’s the manual. And I have some friends who seem to assume it’s how I live. But it’s nothing to aspire to. I think of it as a beautifully told cautionary tale.


Stephen Merchant’s Darren Lamb in Extras is another painfully observed fictional agent, where all of the worst experiences of a pool of actors have been honed into this blithe venal cheerful incompetent dead weight. The reality is scarcely as extreme as these examples. Oh, I could tell you some stories. But I won’t.

 

It’s a business relationship. A professional one. I’ve been unfortunate in that a lot of my previous agents have retired, due to age, kids or pressure. I’ve not had time to develop a strong understanding with anyone, and the best actor/agent relationships are forged by time. I am lucky to have a manager who has had nothing but time, in that she knew me when I was 12 and has seen me change and grow. My most recent agent, though, never saw me work outside of my showreel. He was working hard on my behalf, doubtless, but juggling alongside that his work as a producer, actor and musical theatre jack of all trades. We have both admitted it wasn’t working for either of us. I will be leaving his books at the end of the month.

 

So now when I get back to London I’m going to need a new agent. This is a brilliant position to be in, as I can try to shop around and see if there is somebody that I get on with that gets what I’m about. A blank canvas, if you will. It’s an opportunity for a really positive change. I’ve fallen into the last two relationships I’ve had, so this time I’m trying to paraglide. Maybe I can find someone who operates on both sides of the Atlantic. More than that, maybe I can find someone who understands what they’re selling and wants to run alongside me. I’d love my next agent to be the one who, in twenty years time, we go on holiday together and laugh, because we actually really like each other. I might need to be in something visible in London, but that should be easy enough to make happen if I keep my ear to the ground.

 

Today I’ve found a rhythm that I can handle. I hate selling myself so I send emails until I can’t bear it anymore. Then I stop and meditate in the sunshine for a while, and pet the dogs. Then I send more. Then meditate and dogs. It’s slower than doing a generic mailshot, but the dogs love it, and at least every email is personal. Past experience of this sort of exercise has taught me that it will probably yield nothing but a couple of generic autoreject emails from an assistant. But despite saying that I feel strangely positive. Probably because of the sunlight and the dogs. If I can yield a few meetings when I get back then it’s all good. All I need is one click. I suppose it’s like internet dating, which is the other thing that I utterly hate loathe and detest. But some people swear by it. Never fear though, I am not sending cock shots to agents.

 

Or am I?

Time to Get Out

50 days. That’s a long time. Shortly after I first got into town, I saw posters all over the place saying “Do you belong in this neighbourhood? Get Out.” They stuck in my imagination as I had just arrived and I had to be careful not to take it personally. At the bottom it said “Playing in theatres” and a date. I initially thought “How can they play it in multiple theatres at once?” and then I remembered that it’s another translation error. A movie theatre. A cinema. It’s a film, not a play. Called “Get Out.”. It’s a brilliant poster, especially in this political climate. A visitor from the UK clocked it and was initially shocked. You could believe that some validated bunch of xenophobic dorks had clubbed together to put it up.
I went to see it today. It’s described as a comedy horror film, and I suppose it is. It’s very funny at times. But the humour is edgier than Tucker and Dale vs Evil. It’s a compelling  watch. I went in knowing nothing about it but the poster, and came out happy. Every performance was superbly well turned. Rather than spoil it I’ll just say I loved it and leave you to catch it if you want to. I suppose it’s a comedy race horror. It’s got plenty of good shocks, and some truly joyful performances and it’s really dark. It’s a very American film, but it carries.

 

Fifty days have flown by. I am feeling ready to get back to the familiar. I want to make the most of my last two weeks, but the weather is still a total let down. It was grey and drizzly again today. If it’s going to be like this then all the other things that scream “home” should be in place. I want to say “Hello” to a stranger and be treated like I’m an axe wielding maniac. Here they say “Hello” back and then start a conversation. I want to walk across the road and have the traffic speed up : “it’s my right of way and I’ll hit you if I can.” Here they slow down and let me cross. I want a waiter to behave as if he actively hates me and wishes I was dead, but here they smile like lying bridegrooms. Also I want to eat chocolate, not this sugary crap. How can standards have dropped so low? It’s the profit motive all over again. Look what happened to Creme Eggs when they were bought by Kraft Foods. They were great and now they’re made out of goat shit.

 

After the movie I went home. Self imposed early night tonight so I can get up and be my own office for the coming week. I ended up in deep conversation with my flatmate Mark. I can’t overlook how lucky I am to have landed here. My room is beautiful, and Mark and Laural are great fun and kindred spirits. It seems all the people I hang out with in this town used to be on one soap or another. Mark was on Home and Away, Lyndon on Emmerdale. Both for years. Both are now out here fielding movies, and the thing that binds them together is an easy going nature and a generosity of spirit, coupled with a drive to create. I suppose that’s important when the schedule is so packed. For the first time in my life I see how my energy and approach, coupled with my spongebrain, would fit that sort of dynamic. I’ve never thought to target TV before but if those two are anything to go by it’s a lovely fellowship. At base I do this work because I love it. And this has been a long time for me without doing the work that makes me who I am. Maybe it will prove to have been an investment down the line. Certainly it has been a personal investment, in the sense that I’ve had time to get to know myself. But thank God I’ve had these words every day as a vent for the creative impulse. I’m sure I’ll find a use for the next few weeks. There’s a few things I’m writing that I want to finish, and a company me and a friend are very seriously meaning to start rolling with immediately on my return (more on that anon.) But not being able to work is beginning to take its toll. I need to do some acting, pronto.

 

London, I am ready for your face.

Mission

Day 49 and we woke early. Last night we were lost in the woods. We burnt until we ran out of logs, then burnt sticks and cones, and eventually succumbed to the cold with sleep. We had had no cutlery so we were hunched over chargrilled steaks clawing and slurping like cavemen. My hands looked like ape hands in the morning. Miraculously there was hot running water in the campsite as well as wifi, so I washed the blood, juice and marshmallows from my beard in a hot shower while considering the long road home. 

First we decide we need to go to the ocean. We still smell of smoke. Sea air will help. The Pacific is punishingly cold at this time of year, the water drives an ache into your bones almost immediately, so a long dip is out of the question but we spend some time on Carmel beach before the long drive home. Such a gorgeous little town, built consciously to look quaint but they’ve gotten away with it. I spend as long as I safely can in the sun before getting back in the car. I don’t want to be falling asleep at the wheel. “Let’s have a road trip and not a mission,” we decide, appropriately enough as the road is an old mission trail. As we drive I start to notice distinctive bells again and again on the path beside us. “Historic Camino Real” some of them say.

 

We stop for coffee at the pinkest hotel in the world. The Madonna Inn. It’s trying to look Swiss, so I feel oddly at home having spent so much time in the graubunden as a child. There are 110 rooms spread out over a 1000 acre ranch. All of them are done up in a different theme. Cheapest is $210 a night. Jungle rooms, stone grotto rooms, pink fairy rooms, Flintstone rooms. It’s so kitsch I’m almost sick on myself. We sit at a vast wooden bar where a lady dressed as Heidi pours us odd coffee. If they were playing accordion music I think I’d regress almost immediately. Thankfully they aren’t, even though it’s very popular in Mexico. Next to us, identical twins are celebrating their birthday. They eat three gargantuan slices of cake. Their conversation is as scattered and enthusiastic as the decor. Nobody is talking backwards yet and there are no dwarves or giants. The twins want us to eat cake. We eat cake. Cake is delightful. Fuelled by sugar we go and find the receptionist. I ask him about the bells. “They’re mission bells.” So THAT’S a mission bell. Another line in Hotel California cleared up. In a hotel. In California. We get back on the road before the Captain brings us his steely knife.

 

The Camino Real stretches for almost 1000 miles. It’s the route that the early Jesuits and Franciscans used to spread their faith across this huge region. The bells are made to resemble the staffs that the Franciscans carried. They are very distinctive and attractive objects, these bells. Part of their appeal to me is that they are almost completely pointless. They just sit there in inaccessible laybys looking pretty. Good for them.

 

Back on the road. As the sun falls, Lyndon keeps looking behind us. “The sky is incredible.” That’s all the excuse I need to pull into a layby and crouch down as the juggernauts are blaring past, to take this shot of Lyndon, a mission bell and the sunset.


I’m back in my room now on Saturday night, with an early bed ahead of me so I can properly stand up and be counted for the last two weeks I am here. This has already been an immensely positive experience, in that I have had the space and the context to overturn a huge amount of the nonsense that my overactive imagination has been running on myself. No harm in throwing myself around a bit more before I come back, seeing who else I can meet out in this glorious ridiculous town.