Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Great Expectations

There's a terrific interview with Bryan Cranston over at Mark Maron’s WTF. It’s a long one – a solid hour of good stuff (Cranston) preceded by fifteen minutes of Maron hurling F bombs, discussing his cats, and taking an on-air phone call from a very strange comic pal (definitely not for children’s ears), but it’s worth wading through all that juvenilia to reach the interview.

Any fans of “Breaking Bad” or “Malcolm in the Middle” – both ground-breaking shows in their own unique ways – will enjoy Cranston's story of how he got into acting in the first place, the rough early years (including being sought by the police in Florida as a murder suspect), and how he finally hit his stride to become one of the more successful and interesting actors working today. The road from Hal on Malcolm in the Middle to Walter White in “Breaking Bad” was anything but smooth or direct. This is a fascinating interview, full of great stories well told. Don’t miss it.

One thing Cranston talks about is “not being attached to an outcome” at any point in his career, refusing to set goals aimed at becoming a feature film actor or big star. He just wanted to be a working actor able to make a decent living performing his craft -- TV, movies, theater, whatever. His only stated goal was to do good work and let the rest take care of itself.

What a refreshing attitude. In a world where the painfully-needy craving of blind, insatiable ambition – a mental state so unbalanced that it might require medical intervention in any business other than politics, Wall Street, or Hollywood - is so often viewed as a virtue, it’s nice to hear more modest (read: sane) goals espoused, particularly when the slow-and-steady approach resulted in such a spectacular success.

Ambition is a lot like testosterone -- without enough, most of the human race would probably still be grubbing in the dust for roots and berries, but too much can turn an otherwise normal person into a driven, high-achieving zombie. Although society as a whole tends to reap the benefits of those with big ambitions, the individual involved is often reduced to a hollow shell of a human being.

While listening to that interview, it dawned on me that I came to Hollywood with a similarly determined but unfocused approach. I certainly didn’t arrive burdened with any specific or particularly lofty ambitions. The possibility of becoming a cameraman appealed for a while, but once I'd worked with a few DPs and heard what they went through to get there, my interest in following that path faded. All I really wanted to do was work and learn enough to get good at something directly related to creating that movie magic -- and in the process, find a niche for myself.

That’s pretty much what happened. Although my own checkered career is just a molehill next to the mountain Bryan Cranston ascended (hey, that man brought some serious talent to the table), the drive and ambition to climb higher and do bigger things simply didn’t burn within. You can't push a string. All any of us can do is look deep, trust our instincts, and go with what feels right. If that means aiming high for the Big Prize (whatever that might be), then more power to you. Just be sure that's what you really want, and be prepared to pay the price.

I don’t mean to be critical of anyone with big ambitions – we all have to please the Beast Within, and each Beast is a unique fusion of our own upbringing and individual chemistry – but the career of Bryan Cranston offers graphic evidence that the door to a very good place can open wide for those unburdened by grand and/or obsessive ambitions.

Sometimes the tortoise really does beat the hare.

Still, life isn't a race, nor is a Hollywood career. There’s no prize at the end – there’s just The End – and when it’s over, looking back on a career spent doing good work with good people while making a decent living sounds pretty good to me. Better that than rattling around a big gated estate up on Mulholland Drive like some modern day Charles Foster Kane, looking back on forty years of ruthless decisions and burned bridges while dragging that ball-and-chain of great expectations.

But that's just me. Your path depends on what you want and need out of your Hollywood life -- and there, to each his own.


A.J. said...

I think a major issue with me in regards to this (and other things) is finding a good balance. How to be content with where I am now without losing my ambition to do better. Or how to set reasonable goals without limiting my abilities. Etc, etc.

Thanks for giving me something to think about.

Michael Taylor said...

AJ --

Finding a workable balance in our work and civilian lives might just be the key to living right. The equation for maintaining that delicate balancing act changes over the years, which gives us all plenty to think about. I'm not sure that the fires of ambition ever go all the way out (until we shuffle off this mortal coil, anyway), but they do seem to ebb and flow into other venues.

Now that you mention it, giving readers something to ponder is what this blog is all about. I hadn't really thought about THAT before... so thanks to you.