There I was, sitting in my high school guidance counselor’s office, watching my dreams burn. He’d just informed me that because of poor math scores on an entrance exam, my dream of a career in the sciences was to remain just that, a dream, unattainable, not even an option. Later, I would come to understand that that gentleman had handed me a gift, the gift, as the Chinese say, of Crisis/Opportunity. Suddenly, having accepted his pronouncement as gospel, I was without focus, a scared high-school sophomore with no plan…what the hell was I going to do with my life? Through a series of happy coincidences I found myself in the theater department, surrounded by other kids like me; kids from all walks of life, who happened to love stories. I auditioned for a play, got the part, and find myself some twenty odd years later, a working actor; television (lots of that) feature films, Broadway…all in all a pretty good run for what I now come to think of as a “creative misfire.” You see…underneath it all, I was always a reader, addicted to The Story, curious about people, their lives and motivations. But writing seemed like something rich kids from the suburbs did, not working class kids from the South Side of Chicago. Writing was a million miles away from where I grew up., and I made sure I kept it that way; always focusing on my acting career for my creative outlet, scorning the idea of doing anything else as a kind of admission of defeat: I’m an actor, dammit. It’s what I do. But when I entered my mid-thirties, suddenly the things I loved about acting began to change: Acting became less about showing off, getting gigs, than about Telling The Story. But I had learned, painfully and after many years…that an actor’s’s ability to Tell The Story is limited; he or she is always at the mercy of the director, the producers and, most of all…the writer. It is the writer’s vision that sails the ship of Story or sinks it. An actor interprets. A writer…creates. And so it was with some amazement that I sat down, (actually fell down. I was injured in a freakish household accident too gruesome to describe. Okay… I slashed my Achilles tendon with a broken ceramic turkey platter. You asked.) I was unable to work…or walk, for thirteen weeks, while my severed tendon healed. It was during week five or so that several actor friends visited to help life my spirits. One of them was Don Cheadle. We had met on the set of our first film job, Hamburger Hill, and had remained friends and co-conspirators. Well, Cheadle takes one look at me, fat, bearded, crippled and depressed, and asked…”What are you doing to keep busy?” I asked him what it looked like I was doing…NOTHING. “I can’t work,” I moaned. “I can’t even walk! I’m an actor. My life is acting.” “Yeah,” he said. “So… you gotta find something else to do…you know…something creative.” He convinced me to try something new; throw a pot; learn to knit… something that would address the creative impulse not served while I was on my butt. After my friends left, I thought about that advice. I’d been kicking around an idea to write a screenplay at that time. With six more weeks of couchbusting to enjoy, there was no better time than try it. I did. I wrote a screenplay. It was awful, derivative, an obvious ripoff of everything I’d seen or read in my entire life, a mishmash of amateurish hogwash dressed up by the latest screenwriting software so that it “looked professional,” without actually laboring under the weight of good writing. It sucked and blew at the same time.
I loved every minute of it.
That was fifteen years ago. I write every day, and have come to view my acting career as a happy creative sidetrack that went really really well. It’s taken me all over the world in pursuit of the Story, and ultimately made me what I think I really always was…an outloud, honest to goodness hit or miss but try to hit as much as I can- writer. Now I get to Tell my own Story, and the Stories of the characters I create. Strangely, I find that I never feel the urge to act out the parts as I write them. I’ll always be an actor: its a part of who and what I am. But the two artforms inform and stimulate each other, at least for me. I find the tension between those two worlds, the world of interpreting and the world of Creating, stimulating and always provocative. People look at you differently when they see you regularly on television. Hollywood looks at you differently when you tell ’em you’re a published author. You can almost hear them saying…”an actor who wrote a screenplay: Yawn.” Then you tell them you’ve written a novel, two or three of them actually, that you’ve been published in places other than your mother’s coffee table…suddenly you’re more than just a pretty face. I like the way that feels. I love the tension between worlds. I love the Story. Why shouldn’t I?These days, I’m writing it.