AT Tutor Simon Furness Finds Out What Happens ‘When Spielberg Calls?’

Today I talk to an actor who  can genuinely report on what happened to him ‘when Spielberg called’. AT alumnus Stephen Mitchell  recounts to AT tutor Simon Furness his experience of working on ‘Ready Player One’, the latest feature from Steven Spielberg.
Q: This must be one of those actor stories…you know….’I was waiting tables, then I got a call to meet Stephen Spielberg’ but in your case this really happened. How?A: Well, first I should say that for  about two years I’ve been represented by The American Agency. They represent Actors for smaller roles and have done so for about 20 years. Big film or television productions are often looking for actors based here who have genuine US accents. They specialise too in a fair amount of commercial work. There is a skill for these small one line or two line roles.
Q: What is it?A: You have to figure out whether or not the role is driving the story significantly or if it’s just functional. Generally you go and ‘be yourself’. No big back stories. It’s you in the uniform. But then the training  we do here emphasises the importance of just bringing yourself to it. You don’t make a meal out of it. But if you can do it well, it gets you comfortable and used to working on a set. There are traps too when auditioning for these small roles by the way.
Q: What are they?A: Over preparation. You have to avoid making too many assumptions. You may have an idea in your mind but in the audition they ask you to go in a different direction. You have to be flexible. You might want to sit down and they ask you to stand up. It can throw you off. They tell you to do it different ways. The other thing is that you go in willing to do your best and they might see something else in you.
Q: What happened with Ready Player One?A: I originally auditioned for the role of a drill sergeant!I got the call and I thought ‘this isn’t me’. Then they confirmed it was for a Spielberg film and I thought ‘Well, maybe I will go!’ I prepared a short scene. It was from Avatar because of the confidentiality around Spielberg’s film. The script said the drill sergeant character was in fact a Colonel so I went in and did it as a Colonel – different from a sergeant. Lucy Bevan the CD politely pointed out the mistake. So I adjusted and upped the energy and made it more ‘directive’. I left thinking ‘I haven’t got that part. I wasn’t properly briefed for whatever reason and somehow I didnt pick this up’ Anyway 5 months later, I got a call. They’d added a new role to the Spielberg movie. A last minute addition.
Q: Do you think that change was down to you?A: Well, not directly. Stephen Spielberg explained it to me. He said that the scene was broken down into 3 beats. This was the moment when the truck doors kept opening and the young  guy is trying to kiss the girl but he keeps getting interrupted. So they needed someone to open the door and do that. There’d been an arrest scene previously so they got the idea of a police officer who could do that. They maybe went back and said ‘That guy who was more like a Colonel instead of a sergeant’. So my lack of preparation in the strict sense paid off. 
Q: So when you got there, had you already got the script?A: I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t even  know where I was going on the day of the shoot! I was put on call for a whole week and then they informed me of my pick up the day before. I asked the driver ‘Where are we going?’ It was only then that I found out we were going to Warner’s Studios. We got there at 6am. I got  to my trailer. There was a script there. I found the scene. One or two lines of dialogue. 
Q: Were you anxious?A: Yes I was. But although I rehearsed there was a  line that was a very long sentence and you know you have to get the information out accurately. They asked me out to watch in advance. We broke for lunch. Then an assistant let me know ‘We’re going to film the action sequence’.  I thought ‘What action sequence?’ So after lunch we walked out there and Stephen Spielberg and his assistant were in the set. I had thought up until now that I’d just be in one of the police cars! So Stephen Spielberg greets me, he’s down to earth,  no ego. He tells me what I was going to be saying in the scene! It’s the actor’s nightmare. How do I hold the weapon? So the director gestured in the direction of a ballistics expert. ‘He’ll show you all that.’ So I ask him what I should say. He says ‘What’s the police protocol in these situations? So they talk it out. I had about 20mins to get ready. It was terrifying. They showed me how to hold the gun. It became clear to me later that the director wanted me to be in the moment, he wanted the tension to come from ‘making it up’. I thought they were going to fire me. I didn’t know that this was his approach. There were stuntmen and actual police on set who could have done this more convincingly than me. Anyway. We did 2-3 rehearsals and 2-3 takes and he got what he wanted. It was intimidating. It shows you though: throw away the preparation. I learned vulnerability at the AT and the training made me resilient. I had the confidence to go in and be there in the moment. I met a stage and film actress there, Clare Higgins, and she watched my scene from the tent where they view it on the monitors. I confessed I didn’t know what I was doing and she said with a laugh ‘That’s what he wants’. If you think about it, if you’re a policeman in that situation you don’t want to mess it up so in a way my tension was useful. I didn’t want to mess up either. Too much preparation would have shown. But I didn’t know that going into it. 
Q: So it’s a matter of faith. You have what you have. Better than having too much information in your head.A: That’s it.
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