I woke up in a strange place

By Marc Heiden, since 1997.
See also: a novel about a monkey.

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August 18, 2001

Only one update last week. So, where was I: I was at a casino, up by the craps tables, pretending to be a cowboy mobster. Oh, you say, nodding. Yep, that's pretty much how I imagined you spend your time. And then you walk away. I shrug and mumble that there's more to the story, but you have already caught the train and left town. I turn and talk to cats for a while.

The History Channel, that bedrock of basic cable that bravely dares to document The Forgotten War, World War 2, are doing a True Crime series scheduled for broadcast early next year to break up the monotony of all the Hitler stuff. Serpico is in there, and so is Manson. They decided to do one on the real-life events behind the book and movie Casino, and since everyone who would have anything to say on the topic other than the book's author Nick Pileggi is either dead or won't talk because they're in the mob, the production company decided to do a lot of re-enactment footage to show underneath Pileggi's narration. Now, you may think that every major production involving Jewish gambling mobsters has my number on speed-dial, but they don't; I had to audition for the part. I slicked back my hair, put on a suit and headed downtown.

A brief note about suits: I have worn a suit on only two occasions. Once, to a wedding; the second time, to the audition. When I graduated from college, my mother bought me two suits without asking. I wore the brown one to the audition. I figured that mobsters might like brown. I wear the suits so rarely because I am a dedicated t-shirt and regular pants kind of guy. I don't trust anyone whose value system takes off points for wearing comfortable, low-cost clothes.

I didn't think I would be cast. I have no professional experience, I showed up late, I am way too young and my left leg was shaking uncontrollably during the audition. I don't know why. More than three weeks later, though, I got a phone call from the casting director saying that they had the greenlight and wanted me for the film. I played coy. She said there would be free food. I danced like a fool.

The film was shot in three places: the cornfields of Manhattan, Illinois, which didn't quite turn out like the original Manhattan; Las Vegas, for exteriors; and a major real estate baron's riverboat casino, which is one of those shady operations where it's permanently docked and only technically a boat (land-based casinos are illegal for everyone except Indians, I think, outside of Vegas and Atlantic City). At the casino, the first half of the shoot was in a steakhouse. That was where the opulent scenes of mobsters eating and making decisions took place. The second half was in the casino itself, up with the hardened gamblers.

You may have heard that acting is hard, because actors have to wake up early. Well, that is true. I had to wake up at 6AM. It was hard. Once I arrived on the set, I put on my suit. I brought a few other outfits, but they liked my snappy suit and had me wear it for the entire shoot. Once I was dressed, I headed for the food. There was a fruit plate, bagels, muffins, mountains of donuts, orange juice, bottled water and a single Diet Pepsi. I ate until I was content. There were three leads - the Robert DeNiro part, the Joe Pesci part and the Sharon Stone part - and four people, like me, who divvied up the other acting parts. (A few more more arrived in the afternoon.) The leads were usually busy running back and forth, though the Joe Pesci character had less to do than the other two. When not on camera or standing in, the rest of us spent our time sitting around and having what I immediately knew - even though I've never been on a film set before - were Actors Conversations. Professional actors are fine one on one, but every conversation with three or more devolves into stand-up comedy, desperate attempts to make each other laugh. It's extremely irritating. After lunch there was a political discussion, which was even worse. Several people who talked to me later assumed that I was really smart because I had looked disinterested and said little during the discussion. (No, I'm just poorly socialized.) There was my character's wife, a grizzled vet who had just worked on the upcoming Tom Hanks / Sam Mendes movie The Road to Perdition; there was a guy whose voice was like David Schwimmer sharpened into a knife and plunged into your heart, who flirted laboriously with every woman he met and whose cheerfulness turned into anger as the day grew late and he realized that only his torso had been visible in any of his scenes; there was a Steve Martin lookalike, a nice guy whose bleached hair blinded everyone who saw it; and there was another girl, who seemed very confused about everything that was happening and kept retreating to her Collected Works of William Shakespeare. She was auditioning for Othello the next day. I explained the exclamation "Zounds!" to her.

Getting screen time was a constant competition in which posture, placement and countless other intangibles were vital to winning. The director would come by, scan our posse and pick who she wanted for the current shot. I had an unfair advantage, being as charming as I am; I wound up with the most screen time after the leads (although you never know what will happen during editing). Because of how the shot-to-shot casting worked, character continuity was a little strange. (Odds are, though, that no viewers will notice.) I wasn't assigned a name, so I named my character Tony Cosenza. (1) I wound up playing an amalgam of the pit boss, the incompetent cowboy, the Asian businessman who wins a lot of money and then blows it all, and a maitre'd. Since there was no sound, we improvised all of our dialogue; in one scene, I sold my wife into prostitution to pay off my debts to the Robert DeNiro character. The Joe Pesci character did an amazing monologue about a hallucinatory set of nipples. Lip readers will love this film. I also did a lot of stand-in work for the DeNiro character, who went through upwards of forty outfits in one day. His character smoked a lot but the actor himself didn't, so he used these cabbage-weed cigarettes that smell dead-on like marijuana. They did some shooting in a house, and he had to use real cigarettes there because the residents didn't want their kids thinking that they'd been smoking pot.

Film acting, for simple roles, is extremely easy. You just figure out what you feel about whatever is happening in that shot and feel it for however long it takes, usually for no more than one or two different motions, because then they'll set up for a different angle. For complex roles, of course, it would be hard to keep track of your character's evolution, but for me, it was all "Hmm. I think he'd feel bad about getting fired. Okay, I'll look like I feel bad." I was in one scene at the blackjack table where I got pretty worked up; the dealer (a real employee) gave me several thousand dollars worth of chips, and the director told me to bet heavily. They wanted several takes, though, and I kept needing refills from the dealer because I lost so much. Had that been real money, I'd have lost over a hundred thousand dollars. Crazy. I was dizzy by the end of it because my character kept going to such heights of agony and ecstasy. The dealer confessed to me that he never gambles ("except when I take the Dan Ryan (expressway)"). He was getting irritated by the end because I kept forgetting which color chips were supposed to be stacked on top of which other colors.

Since the casino was technically a riverboat, all of the craps tables came equipped with lifesavers, and due to Coast Guard regulations one of the employees had been designated "Captain", although I didn't meet him.

As for the people who were actually there to gamble, the retirees arrived earliest and petered out by the afternoon; crowds of grim-faced Asians arrived in the early afternoon, but kept exclusively to the poker tables; the afternoon and evening belonged to locals who looked like they should not be spending their meager paychecks from their industrial jobs at this casino but were doing it anyway. Most of them dressed up a little for their day out, but one drunk guy who kept yelling at the actresses wore only a wife-beater and shorts. The employees were a tense and moody lot. The production company was shooting there for free, the people in charge figuring that the advertising was payment enough, but once we were out of the unoccupied steakhouse and in the casino, tensions ran high. Actors were not allowed behind the card tables for any reason whatsoever; as a result, they had to use actual employees as the dealers. The employees claimed that if any playing cards went missing, the whole building would be locked down and everyone strip-searched. During the afternoon, the Joe Pesci character and I had a long inactive period and we hung out behind the camera, happily ridiculing everything within sight. (2) At one point, the casino supervisor came over to talk to the director. His face went from red to purple as he passed, and his bottom lip seemed to suddenly double in size. Four chips were missing, he said, and he started talking about lawsuits. The director took him aside, and I didn't get to hear how she handled it. The last scene of the shoot involved the DeNiro character firing my character, though, and the supervisor got in on the act, laughing and telling me I was fired whenever I saw him. I guess he calmed down.

The production crew was amazing - tight, fast, clear, concise, relaxed under pressure. I think the documentary will probably be very good. Word on the set had it airing in January. I will, of course, raise the roof when I hear more. I'll have only thirty seconds of screen time if I'm lucky, but boy! It was fun.

While I was getting dressed in the bathroom at a sushi bar across the way, the PA played a muzak version of "Gangster's Paradise". I thought that was nice.

(1) In-joke. Sorry.
(2) Some people think that I am hard to talk to. That's not true. If you want to make friends with me, walk up to me and start ridiculing everything in sight. "So how about these fuckin' guys, eh?" It works every time; I smile and join right in.

I woke up in a strange place is the work of Marc Heiden, born in 1978, author of two books (Chicago, Hiroshima) and some plays, and an occasional photographer.

Often discussed:

Antarctica, Beelzetron, Books, Chicago, College, Communism, Food, Internet, Japan, Manute Bol, Monkeys and Apes, North Korea, Oregon Trail, Outer Space, Panda Porn, Politics, RabbiTech, Shakespeare, Sports, Texas.


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Written by Marc Heiden, 1997-2011.