July 18, 2013

The Pretender

Back in the late 1990s, in my post-college, early New York City days, I was obsessed with a sci-fi / crime TV series called The Pretender. The conceit, though contrived, drew me in: an underground organization had kidnapped a child genius with the prodigious ability to impersonate anyone, and used his powers for their own evildoings. He finally escaped, and spent his adult years both hiding from his captors and using his powers for good rather than for evil.

Imagine Quantum Leap without the time travel and the gender-bending.

It was fascinating to watch the "Pretender" himself, Jarod, do a bit of research - read a manual, surf some websites, examine some diagrams - and then perform surgery, fix a car, fly a plane, whatever, as he took on any number of identities and professions, all while pursuing his real parents, discovering his past, and fighting injustices along the way, disappearing as quickly as he'd arrived.

He was the perfect superhero. He was everybody. And therefore, he was nobody.

It's a dream role for an actor: to lose yourself in a character who loses himself in infinite identities. Who am I this time?

As an actor, you have to be able to do almost anything that gets thrown your way. Can I rollerskate? Of course I can rollerskate. Speak in a Persian accent. Bawk like a chicken. Kiss. Kill.

But good actors who can't get acting work too often waste their impersonating skills on a number of mindless jobs that are merely meant to fill the gaps: bartender, server, sales clerk, maybe copyeditor, housepainter, even real estate agent or cook. One job allows them to bide time until they get the other.

Although I've been an aspiring actor since childhood, I've refused to go the bartender route. I've refused to go camping in the woods in the rain for some NYU student film I'm not getting paid for. I've refused to be a starving artist.

Instead, I've lived my life as an actor, taking on wildly different roles, improvising my way through unpredictable situations, impersonating the people I'm supposed to be.

Am I a classical music expert? No. 
Can I sell classical music to the casually curious as a trusted authority? Yes.

Am I an attorney? No. 
Draft, redline, and negotiate the best possible contract? Definitely.

Was I trained to do so?...Not exactly.

But I have observed. I've read. I've studied people and their behaviors. I've adopted their language. I know what it means.

Of course I can rollerskate.

This makes my day job resume somewhat confusing to recruiters and potential employers. In a time of specialization, I am a generalist. I can both strategize and execute. I can both create and budget. I can sell sponsorships and services and products. I am digital and physical. Theoretical and tactical. A full-course dinner.

Sometimes I am reticent to take on a job because I don't actually know (yet) how to do it. I don't like to play a game I can't win; I don't like to respond to a question unless I'm certain of a correct answer. But as an actor, you have to be willing to take risks. You have to be willing to just try it. Just try something.

As a pleasant surprise, almost everything I've tried, at least professionally, has worked. 

And now I know how to produce a red carpet event, having successfully and convincingly done one earlier this year. (An intern's eyebrows raised when they asked me how many I'd done and I responded, "Including this one? One.")

And now I know how to be a meeting facilitator, professionally and officially. I realized I'd very much held that role informally in nearly every meeting I'd ever attended throughout my career - speaking on behalf of the impartial, common goal rather than of my own needs - but its value had never before been acknowledged. Until now, it had never been deemed necessary. I'd never been compensated for it specifically.

So what's next?

When you're acting, there's a moment when the cameras are off, when production has wrapped, when picture has locked, that your job is done. The role is over. You have to go back to being yourself.

But when one of my contracts ends, the project completed, the job done, there's nothing for me to go back to. Only on to the next thing.

On The Pretender, Jarod would always say, "I don't know who I am." He wasn't running away from himself; he was looking for himself.

I think I know who I am. I think I know all these things I am so far, the personalities and job titles and functionalities and capabilities and talents and interests and adventures and exploits that I've mortared together in some crazy folk art mosaic castle of myself. 

I just don't know who I'm not. Who will I never be? And when will it stop?

The possibilities seem endless.

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