In "There and Back Again," Sean Astin, 33, talks about the side of Hollywood that most people never get to see. The young star of "The Lord of the Rings" also reflects on his childhood with his Oscar-winning mother Patty Duke.
Read chapter one of "There and Back Again."
I sensed from the very beginning that "The Lord of the Rings" had the potential to be something extraordinary. Not merely extraordinary in the way that, say, "Raiders of the Lost Ark" was extraordinary as pure, cinematic adventure, a thrill ride of the highest order but as something even more. I'm talking about epic filmmaking not seen since the clays of David Lean or John Ford. I knew that the director, Peter Jackson, was a man of prodigious talent and vision, an artist capable of creating a film that might one day be mentioned in the same breath as Lean's desert classic Lawrence of Arabia. "The Lord of the Rings", I thought, I hoped could be like that: Oscar caliber art on par with the best films ever made.
How did I know this? Well, sometimes you just get a gut feeling. It's as simple as that. As a journeyman actor I've survived by seeing an opportunity pop up on the radar screen, guessing kind of intuitively what the odds are of success, and then determining whether I want to be part of that project. Sometimes, for practical, real world reasons, I've made decisions knowing full well what the cycle would be, and that my association with a given film might even have a minor negative impact on my image or marketability. As in any field, you calculate the odds and make a choice, and then you live with it. You can only wait so long for Martin Scorcese to call; sometimes you have to take the best available offer. I've done any number of low budget movies in which my participation was based primarily on the following logic:
All right, it's a week out of my life or six weeks out of my life, the money is pretty good, and I don't have to audition. Let me take a look at the script. Does my character have a banana sticking out of his ass? No? No banana? Well, then, how bad can it be? It's a third tier knockoff of a "Die Hard" movie, but the morality is reasonably intact; the violence is kind of sophomoric, but not gratuitous, and for the most part everyone keeps their clothes on. Most important of all, is anybody in the business ever going to see it? Not likely. Okay ... where do I sign?
Ah, but old movies never really die, do they? Not anymore. Thanks to video and DVD, the Internet, and late night cable television, they live on forever, seeping inevitably into the public consciousness whether they deserve to or not. Case in point: a cold winter day on the south island of New Zealand, back in 1999. One of many days on the set of "The Lord of the Rings" when things weren't going quite as planned. The kind of day where the scene called for filming six hundred horses on the top of a windswept deer park, so the crew was furiously washing away snow with fire hoses to make it look like it wasn't wintertime resulting, of course, in a veritable sea of mud. In New Zealand we traveled almost everywhere in four wheel drive vehicles, so thick and persistent was the slop. At times it felt like what I have read about soldiers fighting in the trenches in World War I. We couldn't go anywhere without getting muck splattered all over us. On our shoes, our clothes...our capes. (We were hobbits, remember?) No hyperbole or disrespect intended, but there were times when it almost felt as though we were part of a military operation. It was that rugged, that spartan, that precise. Mountainside locations looked almost like battlefields, dotted with tents and armies of workers. The general, of course, was Peter Jackson.
Well, on this one particular morning I saw Peter sitting in his tent with a bemused look on his face. Now, protocol on movie sets often dictates that directors, even those as approachable and thoughtful as Peter, be given space in the morning hours it's a time for preparation, not long conversations. But, as I approached, planning to offer no more than a cheery "Good morning" Peter began to nod ever so slightly. With his unruly hair, stout frame, and generally disheveled appearance, Peter has often been described as "hobbit like" and certainly the impish grin coming to his face now supported that notion.
"Sean," he said dryly. "Guess what I saw last night?"
Oh, boy ...
Icebreaker was the rather benign result of one of those "business" decisions I just mentioned. Some two years earlier I had accepted what most people would consider to be a princely sum of money (sixty thousand dollars) for roughly two weeks of work. I had a good time making Icebreaker, which was filmed at Killington Ski Resort in Vermont. While there, I dined at a couple of nice restaurants, discovered a lovely antique bookshop, and made a few good friends. Peter Beckwith, the producer, and David Giancola, the director, are genuinely nice men who treated me well. One of my costars was the incomparable Bruce Campbell, regarded as perhaps the king of B movie stars. If you've seen "The Evil Dead" or any of its sequels, you've seen Bruce. You know his work and his ability to bring a certain campy grace to almost any project. I wasn't really familiar with Bruce's work at the time, but most of the people I worked with were, and they said things like, "Oh, man, you have no idea how cool it is to work with this guy." In truth, Bruce was pretty cool. And a total pro, I might add. I had fun working with him.
Everything about my experience in Vermont was pleasant, if ultimately forgettable. But let's be honest here: the movie is a piece of sh--. Sorry, Dave. Sorry, Peter. But you know it's a piece of sh--, too. By that, I mean, it isn't socially edifying, and it doesn't aspire to be artistic or even particularly clever. It's just mindless, harmless entertainment. (Check out the movie's promotional poster, featuring yours truly with a pair of ski goggles perched on his forehead, a revolver in his hand, and a look on his face that fairly screams, "Mess with me, and I'll kick your a--!") But we all got along well and had a pleasant enough time, and while we were there we took our work as seriously as possible.
For me for all of us, really-it was a smart business decision to do Icebreaker. These guys figured out a formula: how to package and presell the movie, how to raise the money, how to film the thing, and how to have fun doing it. So more power to them. And, frankly, I needed the work and the cash that came with it. Little did I know that two years later I'd be on location in New Zealand, working on one of the most ambitious projects in the history of movies, a $270 million version of "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, and that I'd be standing face to-face with Peter Jackson, one of the rising stars of the business. Peter, it turns out, is not just a filmmaker, but a fan of films, all films, with a massive private collection that keeps his garage screening room humming day and night, and a penchant for channel surfing in the wee hours that makes it virtually impossible to hide anything from him.
"Very nice," Peter said, and left it at that, because nothing else needed to be said. It wasn't an insult, nor was it meant to embarrass me (well, maybe a little). It was just an acknowledgment of where I'd been and where I was. Most actors (and most directors, too) have such things on their resumes, and part of the obligation of the fraternity is to remind you of that every once in a while. It's healthy for the ego, if you know what I mean. But in this setting no one else had any idea what Peter was talking about. The cast and crew seemed unfamiliar with Icebreaker, but they understood that the director was gently busting the balls of one of his actors, and that was sufficient, especially since that actor was a bit of an outsider.
You see, on the set of "The Lord of the Rings" I think I was sometimes perceived as the Hollywood guy (which is not necessarily the same as a movie star). The director and the vast majority of his crew were native Kiwis, and most of the actors were from the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand. Even more so than Elijah Wood, who as Frodo was ostensibly the film's star, I got the sense that I was the American actor. I was the kid who had grown up in Hollywood. I had been raised by a pair of pop culture icons, Patty Duke and John Astin. On a production that had been quite vocal and public in its reluctance to hire American actors (not out of any overt jingoism, but merely as a way to demonstrate faithfulness to Tolkien's vision), I was the most visible exception to the rule. I was Rudy, for God's sake. You don't get any more American than that. Rudy was the underdog. And I guess, in a way, so was I.
Let me say something about the purpose of There and Back Again. Forests have been felled and more ink spilled about "The Lord of the Rings" than for almost any other film franchise in recent memory. I have talked extensively about how positive my experience in New Zealand was, about the family bonds that were created, and the love and passion and dedication that everyone involved brought to their work. My intent here is absolutely not to disavow any of that sentiment; rather, I want to amplify and explore some of the other kinds of emotions and dynamics that I felt. Furthermore, I want to explain how a lot of my early experiences as a professional actor informed my thinking and attitudes during much of the filming. So ...
To get an idea of how my career has advanced and sometimes stalled we should really go back to 1989. Shortly after graduating from high school, I traveled to England to work on a World War II ensemble film called Memphis Belle. It was a good role in a major Hollywood movie, starring a handful of talented young actors, among them Eric Stolz and Matthew Modine, and it figured to help me regain some of the momentum I'd achieved a few years earlier, when I'd starred in The Goonies. I was serious about my life and career, although admittedly lacking focus and direction. I wanted to go to college, but I also wanted to be a movie star and a filmmaker.
It was an exciting time in my life. I was eighteen years old, had just graduated from high school, and was traveling at my own expense to take part in a Warner Bros. movie. The producer, David Putnam, was one of my heroes. I greatly admired his films and had followed his career as an executive; in short, I wanted to emulate him in some way. I'll never forget the day that he gathered the American actors together at the Atheneum Hotel in London and told us about his belief in the power of cinema. His words confirmed a lifetime of instincts and crystallized my imagination. We were about to embark on a filmmaking experience of real significance. The story dealt with an important moment 'in American and world history, and we all wanted to get it right. I loved the idea that I was becoming a global citizen and that I was likely to travel all over the world experiencing new cultures and meeting people completely different from myself. I sensed that I was destined to become a star and that my dream of becoming a filmmaker was about to come true. It had been a long time since The Goonies, but now it seemed as though my career was ready to take off, and I would be able to accomplish the loftiest of my goals. How? I really had no idea.
One day near the end of principal photography on Memphis Belle I took a walk in the garden at Pinewood Studios with the Academy Award winning cinematographer David Watkins. This in some way was a rite of passage. David was one of the most revered and gifted cinematographers in the business, having worked on, among other films, Catch 22 and Out of Africa (for which he won an Oscar). He was a legend in the cinematography world, not only because of his artistry, but also because of his personality, which was at once generous and biting. David didn't suffer fools gladly, nor did he fall at the feet of Hollywood's gentry. Warren Beatty told me that David once said to Barbra Streisand, when they first began working together, "We're going to have to do something about that!" while pointing rather dramatically at her nose.
Anyway, instead of being rude, David decided to offer me guidance and inspiration. I began telling him about an original idea I had for a short film based on nothing more than a single image I had carried with me since I was fourteen years old. It had popped into my head one day while driving with Mark Marshall, Steven Spielberg's assistant, during the filming of The Goonies. Mark was taking me home, and we were on Ventura Boulevard, with the sun setting, listening to Kansas sing "Dust in the Wind" on the radio, when suddenly I had a vision of two soldiers one Vietnamese, one American hanging upside down next to each other, with a burning red sun between them. Why? I don't know. My best guess is that it had something to do with my having recently seen Francis Ford Coppola's classic Apocalypse Now for the first time. That, combined with the fact that every day when I went to work on The Goonies, I was escorted to the set by my guardian, Joseph "Peppy" Passarelli. A big Italian man with a bushy mustache, Peppy had been a corpsman in Vietnam, and during our many hours in the car he often shared tales of his time in Southeast Asia. Anyway, between Peppy and Apocalypse Now, and Kansas and the setting sun, I couldn't get this image out of my head.
So here I was years later, walking with David Watkins, trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, and sharing with him my idea for a small personal film, not at all sure how he would respond to it, but wanting his feedback nonetheless. The truth is, I was a bit lost. I knew I had missed a window of opportunity for college. I'd applied to Cal State Northridge right out of high school, mainly because it was one of the few schools that did not require the SAT for admission. This was important to me because I hated the notion of having my intelligence quantified by a single exam. (In the interest of fun disclosure, I should reveal that I did once register for the SAT, and even started to drive to the testing site, only to miss the exam after locking my keys in the car at a gas station while battling a bout of performance anxiety.) I was accepted at Cal State Northridge, but I knew, based on the filming schedule of Memphis Belle, that I would almost certainly be in England when the fall semester began. If I'd returned immediately upon the conclusion of principal photography, I might have missed no more than a week or two of classes, and I suppose I could have made up the work, but I opted instead to travel. Some of the other guys had cool trips planned, and I wanted to be like them. I took a cruise through Greece, and I paid top dollar because I didn't know you could do it more cost effectively than that. To be honest, I didn't really care. I had some money in my pocket and a small degree of notoriety, and so I had a good time. It was a wonderful experience, but I embraced it knowing full well that it would delay my entrance to Cal State Northridge.
It's fair to say that I was somewhat conflicted about what I wanted to do with my life. Here I was, part of this big World War II movie produced by the estimable David Putnam, who, a decade before Saving Private Ryan galvanized public opinion, had captured my imagination and made me understand the importance of movies. One reason David wanted to make Memphis Belle was his outrage over the gratuitousness of Top Gun, which a few years earlier had trumpeted the machismo and courage of modern day fighter pilots in what he considered an almost cartoonish manner. David was after something else, something more subtle, more honest. He wanted to celebrate the greatest generation!) He understood how critical and important the Images of war could be, and so he believed it was a sacred responsibility to portray such behavior in aft its complexity. I believed what he told us with my whole heart. I wanted to be an important filmmaker, just like David Putnam. He had been the president of Columbia Pictures, and now he wanted to try to improve the quality of British film.
The first day I met David, I said, "Mr. Putnam, I'm not going to ask you for anything except, please, let me go to Asia when it's time to promote this movie." He said he'd try, and true to his word, he took me with him to Thailand, Singapore, Japan, and Hong Kong. In no small bit of irony, we wound up promoting the movie on the eve of the Persian Gulf War, and I found myself on a dais with David and Matthew Modine, fielding questions about our positions on the conflict in Iraq. Memphis Belle was a celebration of American air supremacy during World War II, and a reflection on the kinds of sacrifices that made Allied victory possible. The Japanese journalists seemed justifiably skeptical about whatever propaganda we were supposedly engaged in. To our credit, David, Matthew, and I took refuge in our roles as artists whose primary mission is to examine and reflect the best and worst of what human nature has to offer. I've always had notions of a political future for myself, probably since my mom told me in the fourth grade that I could be anything I wanted to be, even president of the United States. Well, I believed her, and now at nineteen I found myself "on the record" about serious issues at a serious time. But I remember feeling that my country was at war, and I should be at home with my family.
It was during this trip that I met (via telephone) the woman I would eventually marry. I was sitting in the bathtub of a fancy hotel in Tokyo, watching CNN and listening to Bernie Shaw as he crawled around the floor of the Al Rasheed Hotel, when the phone rang. The voice on the other end sounded as though it belonged to a beautiful young woman, and as it turned out, that was precisely the case. Christine was working for a commercial agent who had set up meetings for me in Japan. It was bizarre to think about "selling" myself as a marketable commodity to advertisers while we were in the first stages of a new war. I couldn't help but wonder about my place in the grand scheme of things. I remember the issue came up of whether the draft might need to be reinstated if the war dragged on. As David Putnam and I were arriving at the airport for our journey home, I said quite emphatically, "I'll go. If they call, I'll go" I knew that I was saying it just because it sounded good, so it was somewhat self serving. But I meant it, too. Although my political feelings about it were not necessarily the same as my personal feelings, I believed that if the draft had been reinstated, I would have been obligated to serve, and I would have embraced that obligation. Of course, I'll never really know what I would have done.
I guess I was trying to take myself seriously, maybe too seriously, but then there are worse mistakes a young man can make. I was not all that sophisticated and didn't have an extensive vocabulary. Ever since I was a kid I wanted to accept the responsibility of being an adult. I needed help, though. I needed guidance. So as I walked that day through the garden with David Watkins, one of the great artists of the medium, I solicited his opinion and advice. I told him that when I got home, I planned to shoot a 16 millimeter short film about this image in my head, the one of the two soldiers.
"Why do it sixteen?" he asked. "Why not thirty five millimeter? You know, it's not that much more expensive."
I felt like I'd been hit over the head with a bat. Until then, I had thought of myself as a student, someone not yet ready to embark on the journey of a grown up filmmaker. But this simple suggestion from one of the industry's giants changed my life. He wasn't talking to me like a kid or a student. Implicit in his comment was the idea that we were equals. Maybe not in terms of accomplishments, but certainly in terms of potential. I don't think he realized what he did for me in that moment, but I will forever be grateful to him.
Practically speaking, David was right, of course. I'd planned to shoot the film in 16 millimeter partly because it was cheaper, but mainly because it seemed less pretentious. Real filmmakers shot in 35 millimeter; aspiring filmmakers settled for 16 millimeter. David Watkins understood the difference, and now so did I.
When I got home, I poured tons of energy into my work. Along with two of my friends, I produced and starred in a play. I took an acting class with Stella Adler, and I went to work on my short film. I also began building my own production company, Lava Entertainment.
In late January 1991, I finally met Christine in person, and we were almost instantly inseparable. We became life partners in every way imaginable. We like telling people that we were comfortably codependent. Along the way we moved in together, traveled to Asia, backpacked across Europe, and fell madly in love. I was nineteen when we met; Christine was twenty two. Not long after we returned from Europe, I went to Indiana to meet her family. I think Christine's father had mixed feelings about me. On one hand, he knew I had at least a shot at the brass ring, and thus might be capable of giving Christine the kind of life he naturally felt she deserved, the life any father wants for his daughter. On the other hand, I'm pretty sure he thought I was a complete Hollywood idiot, because I had no education, no practical experience, and no formal plan for achieving any of my lofty goals. This was a no nonsense guy who had worked hard his whole life. A career firefighter, he had spent his life's savings and much of his family's emotional equity in a failed attempt to own and run a grocery store. When I met Christine, her family was finally coming out of the aftermath of that experience, so I was viewed by her clan as either the knight in shining armor or a flaky prince. Her family was nervous and scared and hopeful, all at the same time; I just didn't want to let them down.
As I think back, I realize that Christine's dad really wanted me to marry his daughter, which was good, because I never wanted to lose her. The life Christine had known and still does know in Indiana is one of stability, unquestioning love, loyalty, and support from her family and community. I revere that quality in her and them, and I am proud to consider myself a very real part of their family.
I always felt like I was destined for greatness on some level, even if I was afraid to express those feelings out loud, but I didn't mind expressing them to Christine on our first date. It meant the world to me that she didn't laugh. She believed me; she believed in me. She took me absolutely seriously, and I found that incredibly romantic. She was the sexiest woman I had ever met, and she was into me, which I found inordinately shocking. I remember a couple of rakes who were my friends at the time looking at Christine, and looking at me with utter stupefaction, and saying, "How did you land this girl?"
I had no answer.
Not everyone was happy about my relationship with Christine. Among the skeptics was Milton Justice, a friend and one of my earliest mentors. Milton is a brilliant and creative man, a Yale educated actor turned producer who earned an Academy Award in 1986 for his work on Down and Out in America, a documentary feature about the lives of transvestites and transsexuals. Milton was one of the producers of Staying Together, a movie in which I had starred in 1987, and he agreed to help me and my friends produce a play in L.A. that we wanted to act in. He would also help by producing my first short film with me, introducing me to Stella Adler, helping me land representation from what was then the biggest agency in town (Creative Arts Agency), and getting me into the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences. Needless to say, he had a manifest impact both on my career and my thinking at a critical stage in my development. Our friendship started simply enough. Milton had produced a play that Id been in, and as I was trying to figure out the Hollywood game of forming meaningful and important relationships, I invited him out to dinner in the hope of picking his brain and perhaps absorbing some of his wisdom. I took him to a nice restaurant, which I think he found rather charming. I was an eighteen year old kid, and he couldn't believe I was paying for his dinner, since actors, especially young ones, just didn't do that kind of thing. But there was so much value to knowing him and learning from him. And I liked him a lot, both as a person and a potential business partner.
So we developed what I considered to be more than a friendship; it was a mentorship. Milton supported me; he believed in my ambitions and ability, and wanted to help nurture my talent, and eventually help trade on it, of course.
Milton and I worked well together until I met Christine. When I told him how much I cared about her, and how I planned to marry her, he was dismissive.
"You say that about every girl."
"I know. But this time it's different."
Not long after that, when I told Milton I didn't want to continue carrying such large overhead expenses I was spending hundreds if not thousands of dollars a month, with barely anything to show for it he became incensed. He took it personally and walked out. And I let him go.
We had been working out of a rent free space, which is a funny story on a couple of levels. First, Milton and I had independently known about a postproduction facility in Hollywood called Matrix Alliance. I knew one of the guys who worked there, having worked with him on several occasions over the years. His name was Barney, and whenever I had a looping session at Matrix, Barney always seemed to be in charge. There was an upper room in the industrial area that nobody was using, and one weekend while Barney was on vacation with his family in Palm Springs, Milton and I literally moved in. We put their boxes into a storage area and turned on phones and furnished the space with rented furniture; I even put some posters up on the walls. On Monday, when Barney returned, I called him in and said, "Hey, Barney, look Lava Entertainment!" He was, like, "Oh, boy, look what you did."
But I calmed him down by appealing to his genuinely decent nature.
"Please:' I said, "I can't afford to pay for office space. Let me use it. You won't even know I'm here. Eventually it'll pay off, and if you need the space, just say the word and we're gone."
The funny, silly, sad lesson for me probably won't ever become the stuff of Hollywood lore that I wish it would. You see, during preparations for On My Honor, my first short film, I called virtually everyone I had ever worked with to ask for help. To a person, no one would contribute a cent, but just about everyone offered help in some way, shape, or form. Notably, Steven Spielberg offered to let me use his editing suites at Amblin on the Universal lot. I'll never forget driving into Universal Studios with ten or so reels of film in cans in my hatchback. Those cans represented a thirty thousand dollar investment, and I had them cooking in the L.A. sun in my car! Regardless, here I was, a bona fide filmmaker heading for the sacred work space that Spielberg had so generously offered for my use. I found myself alone in the editing room with no idea how to load the 35 millimeter film into the Moviola in order to look at it. I was terrified that Steven would pop his head in, and I would be exposed for the neophyte/fraud/idiot that I had pretended not to be. I opened the first canister of film and picked it up incorrectly. The core of the film fell out, and there I was, sitting in a tangled ball of film. I hightailed it out of there and have only been back once, in a faded audition attempt for High Incident, Spielberg's television show about the LAPD. Ironically, Steven told everyone in the room that he'd seen my second short film, Kangaroo Court, and that I was an excellent filmmaker.
The point of this story is that I was too embarrassed to ask for help and too impatient to figure out a problem on my own. I believe that mistake cost me the possibility of having Steven check up on me and the untold benefit that might have come from the folks at Amblin seeing me as a familiar face around the shop. While I deeply regret my fallibility in this regard, I am grateful to Milton Justice for stepping into the breach and working with me despite my idiosyncrasies. I think today he stiff considers me someone he'd be willing to work with, and that thought makes me happy.
As it turned out, Mark Rocco, a young director, was paying for a big suite of offices adjacent to our "storeroom" office, and he was in the process of putting together a movie about homeless drug addicts. Mark, the son of actor Alex Rocco, went on to forge a reasonably successful career, highlighted by a critically acclaimed movie tided Murder in the First, which features Kevin Bacon giving perhaps the performance of his life as a prisoner on death row at Alcatraz. At the time, however, Mark was just a hungry young director, eagerly trying to make contacts and assemble projects. Judging from the traffic in and out of his office, it seemed that a key component of his strategy was to form friendships with young Hollywood actors. At first, I thought he seemed like a scurrilous individual, and I didn't have a lot of respect for what he was doing. I knew he was planning to make a movie about street kids, and he just seemed kind of creepy.
Oddly enough, we wound up playing basketball together on a semi-regular basis. I would come out of the little cubicle that I had co-opted and play hoops with the people who were Mark's assistants, friends, partners, and so on, and he ended up offering me a part in this movie about drug addicts and homeless kids called Mere the Day Takes You. My first response was to turn down the offer, but then I agreed to do a cameo. I was trying to figure out what he was doing, and whether he had a real script, a real budget, and the ability and resources to put together a legitimate project. I had my doubts.
"It's union scale," Mark said."That's the best I can do"
At this time I knew almost nothing about the fine art of negotiation. Id had a very complicated relationship with my representatives at CAA, trying to figure out how money was made and eventually coming to the realization (obvious to anyone with a bit less naivete) that they were more interested in making money for themselves than for me. So I was really grappling with the dynamics of what negotiations were. I was learning on my own the way things work in Hollywood that multiple sets of books may be kept, and that on virtually every movie a quiet sort of compensation can occur. The studio has contractual obligations with the network or the producers or the distributors, and cash goes under the table, behind doors, and so on. It seems to happen on virtually every project. You just have to decide how much you want, what you think you can get, and what you're willing to not know.
In the grand scheme of things, this is a fairly innocuous little story about a very small, independent film, a director seeming to do whatever was necessary to get his movie made, and a young actor trying to figure out how to make deals and keep his integrity while profiting at the same time.
"I can't give you any more money," Mark said, "but is there anything else you'd like that would make you consider doing this? Can I give you a birthday present?"
My thoughts turned to my younger brother, Mack, also an actor. He'd made quite a good living working on the television show The Facts of Life. Unfortunately, he'd spent most of what he'd earned by spending crazily on such things as renting an indoor hockey rink in Los Angeles just so he and his buddies would have a place to play. Mack was always begging me to join them, but there never seemed to be enough time, and anyway, I didn't have any of the proper gear. I'd grown up playing baseball, football, and basketball. Hockey? In Southern California? It didn't make much sense. Now, though, as Mark Rocco asked me if there was something I might need, the thought of Mack and his ice rink buddies flashed through my mind.
"You know, I could use some hockey equipment."
The next thing I knew, I was in Mark's office, hoisting a huge black hockey bag over my shoulder, filled with top of the line gear: skates, helmet, mask, pads, stick, everything. I remember the weight of that bag felt like the exact weight of compromise; it felt like the weight of having sold out. I wanted the bag and everything in it, and yet I wanted somehow to keep a firm grasp on my own integrity, and it occurred to me then that perhaps it was possible to do both. The very idea of that possibility, that moral ambiguity, confused and bothered me.
Looking at Mark Rocco, I realized that he was a young businessman, maybe even an artist (I wasn't sure yet), who would do whatever was necessary to get his movie made, including extending favors to his actors. Instead of despising him for it, I admired him. I even admired the fact that he'd gotten off cheap with me. That was a conscious decision: I chose to admire him, or at least that aspect of him. His determination. His will. His creativity.
"Okay, Mark," I said, "I'll play the lead in your movie."
"What changed your mind?"
My answer was complicated, but it came down to this: Mark had tapped into my own integrity. I had perceived him as something other than what he really was. Originally, I saw him as a. guy who was not only trying to figure out how to cash in on actors' success in order to get movies made, but worse, was also trading on the misfortune of homeless kids. I couldn't understand why he was doing that. I questioned his integrity. It seemed like he was profiting from other people's experiences, and he was just a slimy, backroom sort of guy. Mark always seemed to be shrouded in a veil of thick gray cigarette smoke. He had dark unruly hair, he dressed badly, and he seemed to be perpetually sleep deprived. To my eyes, he could even have had some firsthand experience with the material he was filming. But none of that mattered now, because he had done it. He'd found a way to reach me and get his movie made. I felt like I had compromised my integrity.
There was just one problem.
"We're closing a deal with David Arquette to play your part, "Mark said. "But I think we can get him to take the smaller part you had agreed to play, and you can play the bigger part."
Sounded good to me, although there were a few other stipulations. Mark wanted me to visit a juvenile detention center and interview some of the kids there. He wanted me to meet with doctors to discuss the ravages of heroin abuse.
"One other thing ...," he said.
"You have to lose ten pounds in the next ten days."
Not exactly true, as it turned out. With the help and guidance of a doctor and nutritionist, I shed the weight. I subsisted on four hundred calories a day, mostly raw vegetables and chicken breast, and by the time shooting started I was carrying only 125 pounds on a five foot seven frame. (As a point of reference, my ideal walking around weight these days is about 165; for the role of Samwise Gamgee, I deliberately packed on another thirty to forty pounds, bringing me up to a nearly corpulent two hundred.) The benefits of this transformation were instantly evident on screen: I was gaunt, haggard, sickly. In other words, I looked like either a drug addict or someone who is terminally ill. Not quite Tom Hanks in Philadelphia, but definitely moving in that direction. The unwanted fallout of this rapid weight loss was that it wreaked havoc on my metabolism, a problem I still face to this day. But I have no regrets. "Where the Day Takes You" remains one of the greatest creative experiences I've known. It showed me what I could do as an actor, how it was possible to develop my craft through hard work and sacrifice and research. I've done some good movies, and I've done some bad movies. "Where the Day Takes You" is a good one. It belongs in the pantheon of really interesting films about drug abuse, worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as "My Own Private Idaho" and "Drugstore Cowboy." I'm proud to have it on my resume. Thank goodness things worked out the way they did, and my initial thoughts about Mark turned out to be wrong. I regret that I underestimated him as an artist.
Oh, by the way. That hockey equipment? It's still in the bag. Never been used.
1. "Piece of sh--" is a phrase I use comfortably in everyday conversation. In this context it's meant to be both funny and descriptive, but not mean spirited. It does, however, reflect a certain point of view, which I can't deny.
2. Please forgive me for being pompous, and grant me a little fun. There's a very thin line between delusions of grandeur and extraordinary human achievement, if only in the early stages of planning. If I succeed wonderful! If I fail well, at least you all were gracious enough not to spoil my good time.