Monday, January 24, 2011

'Black Swan, Black Criminal'

Yesterday, I started writing about conflict resolution, but then there was the conflict of a busy household, so I couldn't finish. Today my time is limited so I'm going to write about seeing 'Black Swan' last night. When the movie was first released, I bought my ticket early, but found I could not make it through the first twenty minutes. I left, filled with anxiety, and vowed I would never make it back to see this movie. I think its interesting how much my mood and state of mind responds to a movie immediately, especially one like this. There is a moment in the beginning of a movie that influences my decision to be for or against a movie. If I start out against the movie, it really has to do some gymnastics to bring me back. If I'm 'for' a movie, there is little that can dissuade me from turning on it. So, with my brother Dan's urging, I made my second attempt at 'Black Swan'. As dark as the movie was, and as palm sweating tense, I found myself strangely inspired by this movie, and as always the test, I'm still thinking about it this morning.

In the late nineties, I played a part for several months in the play of a friend of mine who'll I'll keep anonymous, but the short version is I played a murderer who was a paranoid schizophrenic, who had murdered two people in an escape attempt. The dark side of his personality was also a character in the play, (I was the only character who could see and speak to the character), and so as I was watching this movie, 'Black Swan', I found myself in the throes of vivid memories of playing this character. If you don't know the story of Swan Lake, it’s the story of a girl who becomes a swan, and her only way to return to being a girl is by falling in love with a handsome prince. She finally finds him, but kills herself after her evil twin, (the black swan) seduces the prince in her stead. Natalie Portman does an amazing job acting the role, and of course, Darrin Aronosky directs and finds so many amazing parallels of life imitating art. It’s a perfect combination of horror, art, and psychological thriller, and I would also ad, its one of those films with an ambiguous ending that works perfectly.

Years ago, playing this murderer, I would have to come into the theatre two or three hours early for each performance. Denise, my girlfriend at the time, would carefully paint all of my prison tattoos, which were extensive. Because the play ended up being one of the most lauded plays we ever did at Playwright's Workshop Theatre, the play was extended and ran for many weeks. There isn't any way of really preparing for this, when you started the journey, there were twelve performances you had to focus on, and then suddenly you find yourself in an open ended run, not knowing how long you will be playing the part. I mention this because although it was one of the most interesting and challenging parts I'll ever play, I dreaded going into the theatre to ready myself for a performance. I would leave home with a heaviness I cannot describe, as I would have to descend into the mind and body of a killer each night. After the initial performance was rendered, I would feel the initial wave of relief and elation that most actors experience after a show, and then at about eleven o'clock, I would fall into a black hole of despair and danger. I never really shared what I experienced after playing this role, during and afterwards. It was a role that also contributed to some very dark drinking, and you would often find me at the end of a Saturday night in some of the most dangerous bars in Phoenix, my tattoos still attached to my skin, playing a killer on the loose in the city. As I was preparing for the role, I would often go out by myself, and improvise my way through a blurry night, playing all of my circumstances to the hilt, pretending and relating to others as if I had just escaped from the Iowa State Penitentiary. (one night, I even pulled off drinking all night with a group of The Dirty Dozen, an Arizona motorcycle gang, many who had been in prison).

It was harrowing preparation, but a necessary one, for I don't think I could have played the role if I hadn't prepared in a realistic way. Although I am very proud of the notice I received from the acclaimed director Marshal Mason, (he was writing reviews for New Times while I was doing the play) it was a role I took dangerously to the edge of insanity. This is the section of Marshal Mason's review that pertained to me in New Times.

"…Best of all is the modulated, layered, four-dimensional characterization by Raymond King Shurtz as the central convict. His performance is so persuasive and detailed that it's hard to remember he's acting. Not since the stunning tour de force by Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs have we had an opportunity to understand the intricacies of so complex a criminal…"

Now, you would think that after getting an acting review from Marshal Mason, and one that compares you with Anthony Hopkins playing Hannibal Lector, that it would be a joyous occasion, but as fate would have it, life and acclaim don't often collaborate with one another. I think the review that I received took me further in to the darkest reaches of the character, and luckily, the play ran for just three more weeks after the review came out. A great review for me has the tendency to create an opposite reaction than a joyous one. There is probably a text book pathology that pertains to my reaction, but getting the acting review of your life playing a psychopathic killer can really mess with your head. It certainly did with mine.

So, I did closely relate to the performance and character of Nina, played by Natalie Portman in 'Black Swan', and although it brought up all the memories of my own battle with my evil twin, I wasn't traumatized by 'Black Swan', but elated by it. In the late nineties, during that period while doing my black swan, I wasn't in a state of mind where I could easily separate myself from my twin either. I think much of this film is about the state of mind a performer often experiences when preparing for a role. Especially if life's circumstances are partially used in its process. When Natalie Portman expresses the difficulty she encountered playing this role in her interviews, I certainly understand it, and after seeing it, I have to give her all the props she deserves.

I think when the general public sees a film like this, although I think many are knowledgeable enough to appreciate it, I don't think that they completely understand the process an actor goes through to perfect this kind of role. Perhaps that's why I walked out of the film the first time around, because of the anxiety I could feel in the beginning of the movie. Some actors get paid large amounts of money to do this kind of work, some of it is not warranted, but some of it is. I respect actors that are brave enough to go through the process it takes to perfect a part such as this, and I'm also respectful of the writer who created the role. In my case, I was very fortunate to come upon this role, and, would probably do it again, just not with the same approach, and don't worry, I didn't kill anyone in my preparation, in case you were wondering, but I did get in touch with an evil part of myself, which I believe, each one of us has...

In addition, there is some Shurtz trivia, which few know. During the fourteen years I spent coaching Women's Gymnastics, I trained three of those years in ballet, and wouldn't wish it upon anyone. It was the single most grueling physical experience I've ever put myself through, but I wanted to understand it and be able to coach it in my gymnasts. I had one of the best ballet teachers, Neela Nelson, to teach me, and whom I worked with for many years in the gym and dance room. Our gymnasts were some of the best dancers in the country, and, I saw and coached many of these swans in my day.

1 comment: said...

This is certainly a study in complexity. I didn't know you had such an astounding review..and to think it sent you downward is an even more interesting behavior. I'm glad The Black Swan did the opposite. Read Marge's mind/body blog..we might need to read that book to understand our (dare I say madness) better. I found this blog fascinating.