Any graduate acting program seems to suffer from the same set of awful ironies. First, they make admission incredibly challenging because they’re separating the wheat from the chaff. Then they spend the next three years reminding you how bad you suck. Second, they stress the honor and artistic integrity of being a devout theatre actor, but the only alums they celebrate are the ones that get sitcoms. By my third year in the MFA program at NYU, I was ready to shoot the esteemed faculty right in their fucking faces. Other than my acting teacher, Ron Van Lieu, the feeling was mutual amongst the faculty.
The singing teacher hated me because I was an awful singer, which happened to coincide with HER being an awful cunt. The voice teacher hated me because, try as I might, I could not get much past the third row of a theatre. The Shakespeare diction coach hated me because… let’s be honest – it’s ‘Shakespeare diction’ – it was painfully pointless and my only joy in the class derived from my ability to mock it at every turn. I was as close as you can get to being persona non grata in the NYU MFA program. As a result, I got cast in a lot of roles with “#1″ or “#2″ as their suffixes. The types with lots of standing around but only one line and it was always something like, ‘My liege, dost thou desire thy sword?’ For most aspiring actors, this kind of experience would have destroyed their spirit, Luckily, part of me knew the whole concept of a school for acting was fucking retarded and silly, so I was able to enjoy the best part of NYU every day, and that was the NY.
Still, it was clear to at least one other classmate that I was sort of unhappy there. Or at least that I didn’t fit in. So one day, this classmate, Flo, came up to me and said, “You know Bill, my boyfriend did a show with this actor in Seattle and he’s got some crazy late-night serial show in the East Village. It’s pretty weird shit, but this guy is supposed to be pretty interesting. He’s holding auditions tomorrow if you wanna go.”
Fuck it. I went. Why not?
When I arrived at PS 122 on First Avenue in the East Village, it was fairly empty. It wasn’t the cattle call type of audition I’d seen in my short career as an actor. As a matter of fact, I couldn’t even find the fucking room since it was Saturday and the building was essentially deserted. I went up a flight in the old public elementary school-turned-iconic East Village artist haven and found scripts for the ‘serial play’ being put on by this actor from Seattle. It was a cold read – I was supposed to read the scenes and audition for them within 20 minutes. Most actors hate that, but I didn’t care one way or the other.
In a nice but of serendipity, the character I was auditioning for was named “Billy”. I grew up as ‘Billy’ until I started going by ‘Bill’ my freshman year in college in a bid to be taken more seriously (fail). It was a lead role and all my scenes would be with this same actor/playwright dude.
I grabbed a set of scripts and sat down in one of those old formica public school desks with a big grin on my face. Lead role. Sweet.
The first scene I read involved Billy’s incestuous love affair with his male wrestling coach, who also happens to be his father. Billy is complaining to his dad/coach/lover about the taste of his–Billy’s–semen. He’s worried it tastes sour. Dad/coach/lover informs him that he should “drink more Juice. That will sweeten your cum right up.”
I visibly blanched and put the sides down.
What the fuck?
This shit was disgusting and wrong on about 7 levels in the physical plane, 4 levels on the spiritual plane, and Pi levels on the metaphysical plane. I had signed in to audition but it was time to leave. I mean, right? Even if I wasn’t offended by the content, I wasn’t gay and SURELY this role was intended for some 20 year old piece of fruity East Village eye candy who had no qualms with prancing around and getting revenge on his overbearing father in one fell swoop. Not for me. I was a serious actor. This was pointlessly offensive and grossly frivolous gay shit.
I heard noises and froze like a gazelle in the bush. There were voices coming from a nearby room. Hmmm, I guess I found the audition. I contemplated leaving but curiosity got the better of me and I edged towards the slightly open door. An older man in his 50′s with baggy, cheap clothes and a weird knit beanie was holding pages and arranging chairs in order to sit next to a young bleach blonde kid. It seemed like the older man was giving him notes about the scene. As he positioned his chair, his head swiveled and he caught me peeking through the crack like a creep.
“Oh hey, come in. We’re about to do a scene. Feel free to watch if you like.” He had an almost juvenile smile with a gap between the front two teeth, which juxtaposed oddly with his sharp features and weathered skin. Stuck, I silently nestled into the nearest seat with a sigh. Well, I can watch this train wreck for a bit and pretend I’m Lars from Denmark — just lost and passing through.
The young bleach blonde with the tank top cleared his voice and started speaking in a high-pitched gay accent. Not a Harvey Firestein ‘I’m gay and I’ll fuck the Steelers offensive line and then smoke a pack of Marlboros’ pitch, but a freshly out of the closet lemme try acting fag-cent. He was clearly green and clearly awful. Ugh. Off-off-Broadway.
Then it was the older man’s turn to talk. He turned to the hacky fag and said, ‘Billy… I love you so much.’
Inexplicably, hairs rose on the back of my neck.
I had just spent three years learning the ‘craft’ of acting, but within 5 seconds of hearing this actor, I was convinced my teachers didn’t know a fucking thing. I had never experienced anything close to this. The feeling reminded of that camera move – ubiquitous in 70′s film, Jaws being a prime example — where the camera swiftly dollies out while the lens simultaneously zooms in; the not so subtle nudge to the viewer that the subject of the zoom is having an intense revelation/out of body experience/awakening/sees a shark. This was the REAL shit. I leaned in, zeroing in on this odd man in the clownish clothes with the bizarre knit red and white bulls eye beanie on his balding head. I had an epiphany: I had just thrown away $60k in loan money.
The scene continued. The dad was in the hospital and his son/wrestling team member/lover was there to see him. Somehow in the mire of this disgusting, reprehensible, white trash Jerry Springer relationship, the older actor managed to bring incredible emotional depth and simplicity and naturalism to it. And on the ‘Juice’ cum line he made me laugh out loud with his buoyant and light reading of it.
When the scene was over, I knew I would do anything in order to be on stage with this man.
This man was Jeff Weiss.
When peroxide skull left and I auditioned with Jeff, I got the humbling and exhilarating feeling of knowing that I was acting with a genius. He gave so much focus and attention to me while I talked that it almost made me feel giddy.
And yes, I know that sentence is gayer than 8 guys fuckin’ 9 guys, but there’s really no other way to put it. I was next to some sort of savant. I was smart enough to understand it, and talented enough to know he was out of my league.
The weird part is that, when I left, I kind of knew the role was mine. Of course it was. In some preternatural way that baffled and intrigued me, I connected with this old, beanie’d east village queen. I was going to be half-naked, lightly oiled, rolling around on a gym mat with him, doing scenes at midnight on Fridays and Saturdays…in public. And somehow, that was perfectly okay with me. Beyond okay, it presented an escape from the hackneyed and fossilized teachings of acting school. Chekhov and Shakespeare plays again this semester? What a surprise!
Jeff called me the next day from a pay phone to let me know where and when the first rehearsal would be. He didn’t even bother with officially offering me the role. Like I said, it was obvious. I wrote down the info and looked at it with a crooked grin, maybe a little bit concerned. It read: “Tomorrow. 120 east 10th street. 10pm. In the basement.” Since this was after Pulp Fiction, one of my classmates was convinced I would never return to the NYU Tisch, forever trapped in a basement in the role of ‘Gimp of the East Village.’
When I showed up to the East 10th Street address, Jeff was in the same clownish clothes and beanie scraping ice off of the steps on the stoop. It turns out Jeff was also the building’s superintendent. This just gets stranger and stranger, I thought. Jeff’s brown eyes beamed when he saw me and, in what I was soon to find out was his signature greeting, grinned and guffawed a ‘Hi Billy!’ I murmured a ‘Hey Jeff,’ and he presented the entrance into the dilapidated brownstone like it was the dacha of a Russian czar.
Once inside, I followed him down the mosaic tile steps into the basement. The basement was nearly black except for some indirect courtyard light from a window in the back and one small gas kerosene lamp on an old wooden desk by the window.
“Watch your step,” Jeff said, lighting another kersone lamp and leading me to the desk at the back wall. The desk had an old smith-corona typewriter and two small wooden folding chairs, evidently made for midgets or 3rd graders. Jeff pulled out my rickety chair with a scrape on the cement floor, and then sat down in his with a casual grin like it was tea time in Paddington. Although everything about this dank and dark cellar suggested it would, indeed, be a perfect setup for a Gimp or, at least, the creation of a Gimp, I felt oddly at ease. Speechless, but at ease.
“Alright, let’s work on this scene,” Jeff said somberly as he spun the paper around on the smith-corona roller and cracked his knuckles.
“Okay,” I murmured inaudibly.
We started reading through it and Jeff stopped when he got to the line about the sour-tasting splooge.
“Hmmm,” he mused as he stroked his white stubble. “I think Gatorade is funnier…. So it would be ‘Sour semen, huh? Drink some Gatorade… electrolytes will sweeten that jizz right up.’ Whadda ya think, Billy?”
He delivered the line so sincerely and looked up at me with earnest, searching eyes. In response to his sudden query, I half-nodded, half-laughed despite my aversion to the subject matter and the very thought of man ranch being anywhere near my taste buds. It was impossible not to laugh when he delivered such bizarre shit with such utter conviction. Jeff had this uncanny ability to completely believe the truth of what he was saying, and it made YOU believe it in turn. So much so that, to this day–because I’m a nice guy–I will drink a quart of Gatorade if I know that, later on, I might make a mess in a girl’s mouth. I have absolutely no idea if there is any scientific basis to the G-effect on cock snot, but the idea has stayed with me.
While I was laughing with my hand over my mouth, I realized I must have appeared like the countriest of bumpkins. This wizened East Village queen had already retired from his job as a male hustler blowing johns in Port Authority bathrooms when he was my age (true story) and I hadn’t even been to a gentleman’s club yet. . I felt self-conscious and naïve. But Jeff didn’t judge me or make me feel inferior. He just looked at me with a tender, bemused look. He laughed and produced a tightly wound joint from the inside pocket of his ruffled clown coat. Then he said something I will never forget:
“Hey it ain’t Chekhov.”
It was the perfect sentence at the perfect moment in the perfect time in my life.
“Thank God,” I said.
Jeff choked on his inhale and let out a staccato laugh through his gappy grin. He offered me the joint like he was handing me a pencil
I had never smoked marijuana before in my life. My superego instinctively shot down my spine and clenched my sphincter into a conservative and righteous fist. I had been pressured dozens of times to smoke but had never once been tempted. I still wasn’t ‘tempted,’ but my hand took the joint and put it in my mouth. My lips pulled at it and my lungs followed suit like it was Tuesday.
Hell, I guess it was the perfect moment to smoke weed for the first time.