Advice from Madonna

He begins the book with a quote about himself. Her brother. It’s a quote from the trashy and shockingly vapid tell-all by Rupert Everett. That should tell you all you need to know about his book. Her brother’s, I mean.

Honestly, I can’t even remember his name. Brother of Madonna. I suppose that is his burden to bear, and it cannot be easy to be known as that guy who is the brother of Madonna. Then again, judging from the book by this guy who’s name I cannot even recall, there are enormous benefits to being able to drop her name. Doors fly open. Opportunities are laid at his feet. Everyone desperately wanting to please him, in the hopes of perhaps meeting his famous and talented sister.

By his own account, he has had no reason to complain. That, of course, does not stop him. The book is one long broken record. He whines. He carps. He accuses her of using him. Of taking advantage of his loyalty and devotion. All the while squeezing every drop of advantage given to him by virtue of sharing the same blood line as his infinitely more interesting sister. Advantage proved by the very existence of his book.

He accuses her of everything he himself has done. He’s used her, greedily grabbing each cent she channeled his way (either directly or indirectly,) taking full advantage of her loyalty, devotion and unquestionable love. I write unquestionable because, after trudging through this trashy and shockingly vapid Rupert Everett knock-off, I am convinced that Madonna does indeed love him.

She comes across surprisingly well in this book, despite the author’s intent. He apparently made the decision (or was encouraged by a less than scrupulous publisher) to reveal every intimate detail about the most private moments of her life. If his intention was to paint her in the most unflattering light, his lack of discretion had the reverse effect. It produced an empathy for her, and a lack of one for him. Dangerous thing to flirt with, when writing a book. Alienating the reader.

The only reason I kept reading was because of her. He… Christopher! That’s his name, Christopher! Good lord, he really is forgettable if I cannot even remember that we share the same name!

As I was about to explain, he (Christopher) has a habit of putting Madonna’s words in quotations. As if he is writing dialogue in a play. So, as we are reading about the teenage Madonna struggling to make it in Manhattan, we are brought right into each scene, hearing her speak. Sort of. It’s one of those things that happens while reading a book. The reader is transported to the world in which the characters are living.

In my case, this was particularly fascinating, because the Madonna in this book begins many of her sentences with the word Christopher. Much of what the ambitious young Madonna was saying to her brother was advice.

As an actor who has been struggling for a long time with no real measure of success, the temptation to believe that her character in the book was speaking directly to me was powerful. Naturally, I know the difference between fantasy and reality, but actors thrive on fantasy. It’s what we do onstage, or on camera. We fantasize out loud. In front of the crew. In front of the audience.

Believing that everything in life can be used as a lesson, I quickly moved past the distaste I was feeling for the Christopher writing the book, and focused on the interests of the Christopher reading the book.

Part of the fascination with biographies of famous people lies in finding out how they were able to succeed. Unfortunately, in this business, there is no template to follow. In many cases (not counting the majority who got their start by being related to other already famous people,) success is achieved by blazing a new trail. Finding a unique approach. Doing something in a way that has never been done. Naturally, this may only work once. What made one performer succeed is not guaranteed to work for anyone else.

Reading the words of the struggling teenage Madonna, as spoken directly to me, was a valuable experience. Knowing that she did succeed, and in a very big way. It led me into a series of questions evaluating my own struggle so far. How might I have taken the same risks she did? Run the same course? She’s a singer, not an actor, but the struggle is the same. Which decisions have led me to the place I am today? (Not very far from where I started, when I think about it.) Which turns might I have made, which might have brought me further along by now?

There have been several moments I can think of right off the top of my head where I might have chosen differently. Moments I played it safe, or didn’t act when the time felt right. Moments when I believed my life was still too far into the future to be really happening in the present.

In one three week period in my teens, I auditioned three times at a well known comedy shop in Manhattan. Each time I showed up with brand new material. The guy who ran the place liked me, but told me I wouldn’t be able to do the kind of thing I was doing until I had my own show. (I was playing characters instead of doing a standard stand-up routine.) He felt I didn’t fit in with the rest of the performers, and he would have to protect me by placing me in the best time slots, which of course he could not do for a beginner. He suggested that I was a comic actor, not a comedian, and assured me that he would keep me in mind if any of his casting director friends needed a young actor of my type.

Not long after, I was paged over the PA system while waiting for my train at Penn Station. It was my mom, telling me this guy had called and wanted me to rush over to meet with a casting director who was putting together a tv pilot and needed a funny New York type teen actor.

When I got there, the guy was just leaving his office. It was after hours, and he was standing outside the door. The first thing he asked me was if I was a model. (Hard to believe it now, but as a teenager, I was asked that question from time to time.) I didn’t have a headshot or a resume. I didn’t have a sales pitch. I was too timid and extremely naive and had no idea just how important this conversation with him could be. Basically, I shrugged and walked away.

There were a few similar encounters while I was young enough for it not to matter that I didn’t have any professional experience. The problem was that, as a teenager, I was very much a kid. I didn’t know anything about the business side of things, and did not have the same sense of myself as the teenage Madonna. Nor did I have her giving me advice from the pages of a biography.

Actually, it was a biography which first gave me the idea of becoming an actor. I was sixteen. Reading about the life of an actor. Specifically, it was a chapter about how that actor rose to success. In the middle of a sentence, I heard a tiny voice inside me. It told me that I would be an actor too, one day.

It was the kind of voice I had been dreading, since the day the Pastor of our parish told me a story about how he heard a calling, as a boy. To be a priest. He tried to deny it at first, but in his heart he knew it to be true. Well, I prayed for years that I would not be called. I was so convinced that I was fated to be a priest, that when the moment came and that voice said “actor,” I thought I must have heard wrong.

I blocked the thought out of my mind. It was ridiculous. I had never considered acting, there were too many other options. Unlike most kids, I never wondered what I would be when I grew up. I wondered which.

My gymnastics coach was convinced (far more than I was) that I could compete. Although I was small and skinny, I was extremely flexible and had a natural understanding of form and physical grace. Pointed toes and straight knees were not the challenge for me that they were for most of the guys on the team. It was only years later, while taking ballet and mime, that I came to understand that about myself. My coach believed my physical strength could be developed, but I was not so sure. Besides, I was far too shy and lacked the competitive drive that sports required.

My cello tutor was priming me for a career in an orchestra pit. He knew I was not as good a musician as I should have been, but even so had laid out carefully considered plans for my higher education. I panicked and quit all in one day.

Art seemed the most likely path. That is, assuming I never heard the dreaded inner voice calling me to the cloth. There was proof I could draw. Right there in front of me. On the paper. In fact, my first job was as an artist, working for a lady who owned a chocolate shop and a dance studio. She saw my lettering on the flyer for the school drama (which I was not in) and asked to meet with me. My wonderful art teacher helped me put together my portfolio and drove me to the interview, providing a personal reference in the process. So, I became a working artist while still in high school.

Actor? Me? Huh?

I put the thought out of my mind and pretended it never happened. Which did not make it go away. Instead, it built in power inside me until it came bursting out in the most dramatic way. I suddenly could not bear the course I was on, and decided out of the blue to quit school and run away to Hollywood to become famous. Now. Today. It was the first time in my life I’d felt something so strongly that I could not think beyond the next step.

My parents were absolutely dumbfounded. They had no way to interpret this. It was so unlike me, and came without any warning. They did not know what to do. During a difficult week of arguing and emotional outbursts, my father offered to buy me a ticket to LA, convinced I would not go. He was only bluffing, as I learned when I jumped at the chance. In the end, it was my mother who said I could take an acting class if I agreed to finish school. That way, I could see if I had any talent. It sounded reasonable, and that is what I did.

This is one of those moments I sometimes wonder about. What would have happened if I had leapt? For sure, it would have been terrifying, and I don’t think I was strong enough, or mature enough, to handle it. Then again, history is full of stories of young men setting out just as unprepared, just as innocent, yet somehow being guided to the right place at the right time. Meeting up with the right people, who carefully steer them in the right direction. Maybe I am just not one of those men. Tortoise and Hare. I’d always identified with the rabbit, but it seems now I’m so much more like the turtle.

There is another moment. More recent, more realistic and much easier to grab hold of. I was living in my little brownstone apartment, which I loved. I had just returned from a transformative journey through Africa. Stepping outside of one’s life in order to have a concentrated series of expansive experiences leaves a person ready to change the circumstances in which they have been living. Everything changes because you have changed. I knew this, and was ready to expand.

The only problem was that I had an eleven week commitment at a theatre company, starting four days after my return. This theatre company turned out to be part of a religious establishment. There was no mention of this at the audition, the call back, or in the contract. When I showed up for the first company meeting, the artistic director walked onto the stage, dressed as a priest! He said “Let’s begin with the Lord’s prayer.”

There I was, trapped in an extremely restrictive environment for the next eleven weeks, unable to let the effects of my journey play out in my life. Or, so I thought. While I was away, my landlords asked me to move all my things into storage while they renovated my apartment. New wood floors. The plan was that the work would be done by the time I returned and then I could move back in. They took this opportunity to install a huge wall unit, containing two Murphy beds and an entertainment center. It was monstrous, taking up the only wall that did not have windows or a fireplace, and leaving me no room for my furniture. Plus, it was pink formica. Seriously. It was pink. Formica.

I had been living there for years. It was a very special place. French doors, thick moldings, exposed brick, claw foot bathtub, original ceramic stove. My mom had planted the gardens. I used to dog sit for my landlords. We had a wonderful relationship until then, and now I felt violated. I sat on the floor, looking at my apartment that I loved, but feeling like I no longer belonged there. All my things were in storage. It would have been a simple matter to get back in my car and drive away. I felt certain that I was being pushed forward. That the changes I had expected after my journey were only delayed a couple of months, and were now upon me.

What I didn’t understand then was that life always provides a path. If I had trusted what I was feeling and walked away, knowing it was time, then I would have found the opening I couldn’t see yet. I was too afraid of letting go of what I knew. If only I had taken a day to think about it clearly, I would have realized that yes, it might have been scary and yes, I would have been upset and afraid, but in the morning, I would have had a plan. That is how things happen. We go to bed wondering what to do next. In the morning, we know. An idea comes. An idea which makes perfect sense, but which we never would have thought up if we hadn’t let go and leapt.

Instead, I decided to stay in my home and try to make it work.

For the next three years, I never unpacked. I lived out of boxes, like one of those people you see on Oprah. The ones who cannot get organized, who are surrounded by clutter and chaos. That was never me. It’s not me now. When I finally did move, after the towers fell, I decided to take that long overdue trip out to Los Angeles.

What might have happened had I acted on my impulse three years sooner? Maybe I would have found an agent right off the bat. Maybe there would have been a part for me in some tv pilot. Who knows? It’s easy to wonder about the past, and what might have been. The trick seems to be in applying that thought process forward, and looking ahead to what can become reality next, then proceeding with confidence.

Maybe that is the key difference between Madonna and that other Christopher.

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About anunperfectactor

Actor performer storyteller.
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