My Audition for On The Road

Beat Generation Drama Film New York City Personal


New York Magazine said Francis Ford Coppola was holding an open casting call for all major parts in his upcoming film of On The Road. I thought: cool! I'm not nearly extroverted enough to play Dean Moriarty, but I could handle being Sal Paradise. I kinda look like my mental image of Sal -- well hey, he's fictional, anybody can look like him if they want.

The article gave a date (Saturday, February 4th) and a location (St. Paul's Church on 58th and Columbus). I called the church for more information and was told to just show up at noon. Sounded easy enough ... but on Friday (one day before the casting call) I saw a poster around Greenwich Village that gave the real instructions. To try out, I'd have to bring an 8x10 photograph and a cassette tape (non-returnable) containing a one-minute reading from a long list of beat-related writers: Kerouac, Wolfe, Melville, Dos Passos, Proust, Rimbaud, Ginsberg, Spengler, Burroughs, etc.

I have absolutely no acting experience, and I haven't the slightest idea how to read onto a tape in an "actor-ly" fashion. What the fuck, I decided. I'll wing it. First I called my sister Sharon, who wanted to go to the audition with me. Sharon's really into Kerouac -- in fact she was the one who persuaded me to read him for the first time. I told her about the 8x10 and the cassette tape and her reaction was the same as mine: oh shit. But she agreed to do it.

I decided to read a section from the first part of On The Road, the passage where Sal and his friend Eddie pass through Shelton, Nebraska. First I tried to get myself into a Kerouac frame-of-mind -- which means I got a little buzzed and paced around the bedroom scratching my head for a few minutes. Then I hit the record button and read the two paragraphs straight through, no planning and no rehearsing. Turned it off and, Kerouac-style, declared it a final draft -- no revisions or second thoughts allowed. I took it into the living room and played it for my wife, who said it wasn't as bad as she thought it would be. Praise! Yes!

Neither Sharon nor I had 8x10's, but like any good webmaster I have my trusty handheld photo scanner. I scanned a photo of Sharon 'on the road' -- her then-boyfriend/now-husband took it during a cross-country trip, and here it is:

For myself, I chose a photo taken on the roof of 206 E. 7th Street, the apartment building where Kerouac and Ginsberg and Burroughs took some famous photos of each other (someday I'll write a page about the photos I took there). I thought my picture might capture someone's attention because it was modeled after a photo of Ginsberg -- here's the one of me:

and here's the well-known Ginsberg photo taken forty years earlier from the same roof:
I blew the scans up to full-page size and printed them on my HP DeskJet. Not exactly the finest quality, but hey we're talking Beat here.

Saturday morning I picked Sharon up at her place on the Upper West Side, and we listened to each other's tapes. She'd gone through several books looking for a good female bit to read, and settled on a letter Mardou Fox wrote to Leo Percepied in Subterraneans. Her husband Jeff got inspired and played a jazz record (Dizzy Gillespie) in the background, and Sharon and Jeff were both really excited about the tape because there was a certain horn bit that coincided perfectly with the moment where Sharon/Mardou read the word "Oh ..." -- in fact they were so enamored of the tape they weren't sure they wanted to give it up, and we couldn't leave for the audition until they made a copy for them to keep. Sharon's tape didn't look exactly professional -- she hadn't had a blank tape around, and just taped over a cassette of some female folksinger, Holly or Molly something ... I wondered what Coppola would think of me and Sharon, with our inkjet photographs and taped-over tapes.

It hadn't occurred to me yet that Coppola might not want to pay a real lot of attention to Sharon or me. I'm stupid this way: I always underestimate how many people will be interested in things I'm interested in. I was expecting to find maybe 30 or 40 people there; I figured I'd get to bullshit with Coppola and tell him how much I liked The Godfather and suggest a few camera angles for his scenes with Sal and Dean ... in short, I didn't have a clue. Because Sharon and I got there and there was a line of FIVE THOUSAND FUCKING PEOPLE STANDING IN THE FREEZING COLD OUTSIDE THE CHURCH BITCHING ABOUT HOW LONG THEY'D BEEN WAITING.

I'm not exaggerating about the number of people. I had no idea how many desperate actors there were in New York City. The church was on a long city block, and the line wound past the corner, all the way down the long end of the block, into a parking garage (because it was cold), back out of the parking garage, then around to the far corner and halfway down the block again. I'm not talking single-file either -- the line was four or five people deep.

I'd been expecting a lot of bookish beatnik/hippie types (like me) to show up, but the crowd was largely made up of professional or semi-professional actors, and they didn't seem particularly interested in or knowledgeable about the Beats. They were mostly attractive and young, short-haired and neatly dressed, and many of them carried glossy 8x10 headshots. Sharon and I started talking to the people around us, mainly to three people:

  • a 25-year-old brown-haired guy with a grunge-rock look. Had read a few pages of On The Road and hated it: "What was all that about dingledodies and burn, burn, burn ...?" His grunge look was deceptive -- he was rehearsing for an off-broadway play about Kurt Cobain, and had grown his hair for the part. He showed me his photo and I was surprised: he had the clean-cut conventional appearance of any male lead in a soap opera.
  • 19-year-old NYU student, female, who hadn't brought a tape or a picture. Never read Kerouac, perhaps never even heard of Kerouac. Had done some acting. Had a sort of cute 50's look and could have played Marylou, Dean's first wife. Kept talking about how terrible she looked today, maybe hoping somebody would contradict her.
  • 46-year-old slightly batty woman, extensive and mostly unsuccessful acting experience. She and the pseudo-grunge guy found they knew a lot of the same industry people. Talked a lot. About five feet tall and slightly overweight. She had read some Kerouac, and I asked her what part she had in mind for herself. She said "I don't know, Camille?" which is Dean's beautiful 20-year-old second wife. Uh ... yeah. I guess you develop a really good imagination after a few years in this business.

There were many others, and we all got to know each other real well because we spent FOUR FUCKING HOURS standing out there. It was freezing cold, but in a way our mutual suffering brought us all together, and by the end of the wait we all knew everything about each other. It was kind of like A Chorus Line where we each take turns telling our life stories, except we didn't sing (well, one person did -- actors are so hammy).

Sharon had to go home after a couple hours (she just had her first baby recently), but I was determined to make it inside. The line moved slowly. We entertained ourselves with jokes, coordinated jumping, coffee, cigarettes (I had three and I don't smoke). It was all kind of fun, although my toes got frozen stiff. The psuedo-grunge guy and the girl from NYU were looking kinda chummy by the fourth hour. I wonder if she'll still like him after he turns back into a soap star.

We got in the door at six-thirty (we'd arrived at two). They herded us into a basement auditorium in groups of three hundred, and passed us little pink slips of paper to write our personal statistics on. One of Coppola's assistants explained that they'd be letting us up to the front one bunch at a time, and all we were to do was hand in our slips, tapes and photos and say hello to Mr. Coppola. They told us to please not shake Mr. Coppola's hand, as he has a sore shoulder. What about auditioning? we all wondered. There was no audition, it turned out. We were to hand in our materials and let them look at us, and that was it.

Perhaps they would make some sort of unspoken selection, but it was not clear how they would do this. After the long cold wait, we were all a bit stunned and didn't know what to think of this. The actors were more annoyed than I was, since I was really there just for fun (for them it was business).

My bunch went up. I handed in my tape and photo and slip, then moved on to the table where Francis Ford Coppola was greeting everybody. I spotted Allen Ginsberg sitting behind Coppola (I had a feeling he'd be there) and I thought of going up and speaking to him, but he looked tired, possibly even asleep behind those plastic goggle-glasses, and I decided not to bother him. Coppola seemed to be in a very good mood. Somebody handed him a trumpet (I don't know what the significance of this is) and he played a few notes. I was surprised how jovial, almost goofy, he looked. He actually resembles Allen Ginsberg, except that he's younger and much heavier, so it was strange to see them both together in the same place.

I happen to like Coppola a lot (he directed the Godfather films, Apocalypse Now and The Outsiders, in case you didn't know), and I was kind of excited to meet him. When it was my turn he actually reached out and shook my hand, which surprised me because we'd been told that handshakes were a no-no. He had BIG beefy hands. I said, "I hope you'll make a great film" and he said "Yeah, well, we've got to get started," or something like that. It was hard to concentrate with all the other actors clamoring behind me. I moved on.

Well, that's the story of my first cattle-call. It's been five days and nobody's called me back yet. If I get called I'll let you all know. But I feel kinda 'Hollywood' now anyway, just from the experience of hanging out with all those actors for a whole day. So ta-ta for now (*kiss, kiss*). And I'd like to thank ... ah fuck it.

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