My absent-minded journey to Fargo

Did you see me on Fargo last night? Here’s the long path I took to get there.

My first serious acting gig was when I was eight or nine years old. I was to play the absent-minded professor, a major character in one of those end-of-year school productions where every grade had to put on a play.

Usually, school plays were a series of songs and badly arranged set pieces, with the goal of participation, as opposed to individual performances.

Shortly before it opened (a term I use loosely, since it was a one night only affair), I was kicked off the cast. I couldn’t remember my lines.

Ironically, over 30 years later, I still remember one of them, where I say, “And that’s why I always talk like this”.

During one of the dress rehearsals in front of the school, where I sat unceremoniously in the audience, I remember being able to talk along with my understudy enough lines to feel wronged by the teacher’s decision to kick me out.

As time went on, I really enjoyed the acting part, but not the dancing, and definitely not the learning of lines. In sixth grade (which we called Standard Four), my parents contributed a significant percentage of the script for my school play. A series of limericks would form the foundation of our production, with songs stuck in between. It was glorious. Since it was “my” play, I was given the opening limerick:

An intrepid inspector Hall Green
Could catch any man most mean
By ten to nine
He could stand in line
Several peaches and a dollop of cream

This isn’t particularly funny, and if the audience doesn’t know what to expect, it won’t get a big laugh. We used to have, on South African television, a crime watch show called Police File, presented by David Hall Green. It generally followed the 8pm news. Associated with the show was a captain of the South African Police, Fred Peach, whose most quoted line was “keep ’em peeled”.

Like I said, not that funny. I’d look at it now and say it was too clever for a primary school play.

After my opening limerick, Gary Jack, star cricketer even at our young age, would follow with:

And then there’s the epic called Dallas
With J.R., ever so callous
The bulk of his weight
Plus ten percent hate
Could treble the meaning of malice

Now that’s funny. Gary always got a bigger laugh. Even back then I wanted the laugh. I craved that attention.

I switched from theatre to music in high school. I joined the choir and was a tenor. We had some minor success. Then I left boarding school during my second year there and turned my back on performance for 14 years.

In what must have been tenth grade, my English teacher tried to get me to audition for the school production. It was a much bigger affair in high school, and they would bus in some girls from the local schools to perform with us.

I literally laughed in his face when he suggested I should audition.

Sorry, Mr van Niekerk, but I was worried I would get bullied even more, for doing gay stuff like acting and singing.

I finished school at the end of 1994, six months after my father died, and drifted for many years, always attracted to the limelight by that thrill that comes from people laughing at what I said.

One of the boys in my grade twelve class wrote about me in the school yearbook “[But] Potter was weird anyway”, as if this was a good way to be remembered. Weird. Different. Years later I was finally diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, which explained everything.

There was a brief moment in 1996, in the six months I attended Rhodes University, when I thought I might get back into dramatic arts. What I didn’t expect was the suicidal depression I experienced, mostly a delayed reaction to my father’s death, but also because I realized I was queer, which alienated me from a lot of friends. So I left.

I drifted, always attending plays, musicals, concerts, picturing myself up there on stage. Picturing myself on television.

My friend Gereth introduced me to Little Shop of Horrors, which is my second favourite musical behind Chicago. My mother introduced me to Rocky Horror. I discovered Chicago all on my own with the wonderful film adaptation starring Renée Zellweger. All the time that feeling that I could sing Richard Gere’s part. That could be me up there.

In 2005, I was living with Housemate Chris. We had lived for a few years in a commune previously, when I was still living with my first boyfriend, along with Dylan (a friend I met at Rhodes). At one stage I think there were five of us in the house and cottage, and only two were actually sleeping together.

Dylan and Chris were involved in a community theatre called Franklin Players, and I still don’t know why I felt compelled to audition for a show, but I did. Perhaps it was Chris, perhaps it was Dylan, but I ended up auditioning, and of course landed the lead role in a one-act play called Mac The Knife, a spoof of Shakespeare, centred around Act 3 of Macbeth, with bells on.

I say “of course”, not to sound flippant, but to say how unexpected this was. I was hoping for a small piece in one of the sketches, perhaps reading for the narrator, I just wanted to be involved at some level.

It turns out that I was still bad at learning lines. But Shakespeare is equally unforgiving and unforgettable. We changed one line of mine from the original script (yes, William Shakespeare’s script), and I wore leather pants and spoke with a lisp in my most flamboyant role ever. It was beyond words, and the audience laughed every time I made my entrance.

It has been twelve years since I rediscovered my love for theatre. In that time, before leaving for Canada, I stayed with the Franklin Players for four more years, coming back in early 2010 to help Chris co-direct a one act play.

In those four years I won some awards, but more importantly, I made friends, I created art, and I entertained audiences. I loved the work and loved the scene and realized that next to teaching, theatre is my favourite thing to do.

Canada was an interesting move. We ended up first in Lloydminster, and I joined the Vic Juba Community Players. In the first year, I played the Bishop of Lax in See How They Run, and then Ally in Hands Across The Sea.

When we moved to Calgary, I started going by Randolph West professionally, because I hate my legal surname. However, I had to wait to do anything in front of an audience, because I broke my foot just before the summer in 2013, so I missed out on the first year of acting opportunities.

Then in 2014 I auditioned for and got the lead in Move Over, Mrs. Markham, with Morpheus Theatre. Glorious. My co-star in that, Steve Gomori, had been in a few on-camera roles, so I asked him about the industry, agents, and all the rest of it.

In early 2015, I attended a weekend workshop called Audition Hell, with Peter Skagen, on the advice of another Mrs. Markham fellow cast member, Christopher Heatherington. There I met a number of people with whom I am still in contact, including Anna Mae, my associate in a small production company we have founded.

In 2015, through sheer grit and determination, we shot four episodes of a web series. What I didn’t realise then is that someone needs to edit them, and we’ve been busy. You know how you read about development hell? Postproduction is hell too, especially if you don’t have money.

Before the web series, though, before anything, Anna Mae invited me to take part in the Calgary 48-Hour Underground Film Festival. Her friend Shaun Pulsifer was spearheading their entry, and I had my on-camera debut in a supporting role in Unhappy Endings, a short film about a really bad cult.

Still in 2015, a Facebook audition notice caught my eye, and I acted (in a small role) in my first independent feature film, called Imitative Magic.

Before 2015 ended, though, Christopher Heatherington invited me to work with him on what turned into two short films about an Arizona radio station (I acted in the first one and directed the second), which has had some success on YouTube. The first, The Winner, was about a lottery winner, and the second, Sancha’s Cause (Is Coming To Town) was about a Mexican public relations guru who was running Donald Trump’s election campaign.

In between all of this, I had been part of the Calgary Men’s Chorus with my husband. In December 2013, I was invited to join because they were one performer down for a January concert, and I had booked my ticket to go with them and watch anyway. So that’s how two South Africans ended up singing in Carnegie Hall, with over 200 male voices, about the American Civil War.

The Calgary Men’s Chorus had a phenomenal artistic director, JL Bleau, but he stepped down in 2015 (the current artistic director is equally gifted), and I was getting tired and needed a rest from it. I decided to stick it out with them until they went to Denver in 2016 for the big GALA Festival, but left at the end of the season and haven’t returned.

The fact is, there was no way I could do as much theatre and on-camera work if I was also in the choir and doing voice acting.

Voice acting? I’ve been with the Voice Acting Power Squad for almost two years now, doing noises for independent video games. I’ve even been paid for some of them. I love voice acting so much. Growing up I had been a huge fan of the Looney Tunes and other cartoons, and discovered Rob Paulsen‘s podcast in 2010. He made me realise that I could be a voice actor, that I had the experience from my theatre days, and that acting is acting.

2016 was mostly preparation for Denver, though I did shoot a teaser for an independent film, where my character Malley is killed in the opening scene (Day Job), and then in the summer I landed a supporting role in another Morpheus Theatre production, as Detective Troughton in Run For Your Wife.

Despite being a supporting role, I still had 200 lines in that play, so when the creator of Imitative Magic, Blaise Kolodychuk, invited me to work with him again in 2016 on what turned into my second feature film, Night of the Shadow People, I admittedly was reading some of my film lines off cue cards.

If that’s not channelling Marlon Brando, I don’t know what is!

2017 got off to a slow start. I wasn’t in choir, I wasn’t in any theatre productions, so I helped produce a Morpheus play called Skin Flick, directed by Alice Nelson. It was a great little play and I am happy with how it turned out. My co-producer and I got on very well together and we may co-produce in future.

I did have to turn down a directing gig for Morpheus in 2018, because my husband and I are travelling at the same time, which is unfortunate, but those are the breaks.

Then something weird happened. My agent (I have an agent!) kept sending me audition notices and I was travelling a lot, so I couldn’t make them. I went up for a commercial in late 2016, but nothing came of it. There was another commercial early this year that fell through too, but because work has me busy right now, I wasn’t too bothered.

My husband and I were supposed to attend the new Star Trek exhibit in Calgary, where the Enterprise bridge from the original series has been reproduced and you can interact with it. And on the Sunday before the week of this event, my agent texted me and said there was a non-speaking role for Fargo Season 3 (in other words, a dead body), and would I be interested?

I said that I had plans for the Thursday when it was shooting, so I would have to decline. I texted my husband and let him know that I’d turned it down, and that was that. Family first.

On Monday, he texted me back and said I could do the show if it was still available, and after some back and forth, I suggested I might still be able to make the Star Trek event. I texted my agent and asked if she was still prepared to submit me. She said yes, and five minutes later I had sent her my serious-face headshot (I have three headshots that I choose from).

Later that evening, she said it was between me and one other person. Because it was a non-speaking role, I was being auditioned from my headshot. On Tuesday she let me know that I’d been selected. That meant that Wednesday would be the wardrobe fitting, and Thursday was the shoot. All my meetings for work had to be moved around, and off I went.

Working on my little slice of a major television series was an experience that may one day get its own blog post, but for now I’m just letting it all sink in.

On my Twitter account in January, I wrote:

I left South Africa and moved to Canada in 2010. Every day I’m grateful for the opportunities given to me in this great country.

All of that is true. My life leading up to emigrating was valuable. I am who I am today because of the experiences I went through, even though some of them really sucked. I am extremely grateful for where I am now, and I always tell people I’m the luckiest person I know.

Even if my career in the dramatic arts ends after last night’s short scene in Fargo, I have thoroughly enjoyed myself. I’m a queer autistic immigrant who made it on to international television with a million people watching, and how many people can say that?

Happy Endings

This Easter weekend, I participated in the production of a short film, for the Calgary Underground Film Festival‘s 48-hour Movie Making Challenge.

The rules require a film between two and five minutes in length (including titles), and each team is given the same prop and a line to be used in their film. A random theme or genre is assigned, to mix things up.

As its name suggests, the idea is to produce the entire film, from start to finish, in a 48-hour span.

The whole team was involved in the pitch meeting, which began with dinner on Friday night, once we had our three prescribed things.

At 8:30pm, the actors were kicked out and told to get some sleep. The writers went to work immediately, and distributed a script just after midnight. On Saturday we filmed until 6pm (finishing earlier than expected), and the music and editing team went to work on Sunday. The final product was delivered on schedule on Sunday evening.

My part was limited to walking around in a sheet and repeating lines in the fantastic script, so the most love should go to our fantastic crew, helmed by Mr Shaun Pulsifer and his able co-conspirator, Anna Mae Alexander.

This isn’t an Oscar acceptance speech, so I will not bore you with a list of names you do not know. Instead, if you live in Calgary or surrounds, please make an effort to attend the screening on 19 April 2015 at 15h00 (3pm). Our film is called Unhappy Endings.

You can get your tickets from Ticketfly.

Engage!

For the longest time, I have wanted to be a B-list celebrity.

I get a kick out of being recognised as “that guy” from a play or a television commercial, but I would not want my face plastered across the front page of the newspaper (or Buzzfeed, he said, bringing his references up to date) after a rough night out. A B-list celebrity would also have a day job to keep them busy.

I do not think it is possible to have a normal life as an A-list star, not to mention the stress and invasion of privacy for family and close friends. And there is always the past that people remember too well. I have done innumerable embarrassing things, most of which would make you cringe.

Nevertheless, I have pursued, mostly as a hobby, a life in the performing arts. My deal is comedy, and making people laugh.

Last weekend I took part in a workshop, run by Peter Skagen, called Audition Hell. For two days, I and eight other people were taken through the business and on-camera sides of life as an actor.

Incidentally, per year, actors earn about as much as I did as a teacher in South Africa in 2005, if you account for exchange rates. It is not a glamorous job by any means, unless you are “noticed” and then make it big.

I am almost 40 and still very much unknown, so I decided to stop hanging around street cafés, and do something about it.

This Monday, I have my first ever photo shoot. It costs a lot of money, but you get 150 photos taken of you, and then three are selected and made into your official headshot. Peter will be on hand to help out.

As I learned in the workshop, the headshot is critical to sell your “brand”. Are you a suave and sophisticated leading man? Are you a thug? Many foreigners (to American audiences) are cast as villains or “redshirts”, and the occasional few become comic sidekicks.

Which brings up another aspect to this whole ordeal: the Standard American accent. No one speaks it except in the movies and on television. My accent is all over the place, thanks to the Randburg accent (where I grew up), the Mondeor accent (from my mother and her siblings), and the Received Pronunciation of my father’s family, though he spoke in a standard Johannesburg English accent, as he was born there.

Now that we live in Canada, our accents have the rhotic R and it sounds awful and now I perfectly understand why Charlize Theron started speaking in Standard American all the time and oh my goodness my accent is awful.

I am a good mimic. I can do a passable Jack Nicholson or Malcolm McDowell, and even some cartoon characters. I am really good, but only for a couple of lines. Then the Seff Effriken comes out and I sound like Simon Baker on The Mentalist when he is talking fast. To my ear, my Standard American accent is horrible. I plan to take lessons to fix that.

An even bigger hurdle for me is being on-camera. My first love (after teaching) is being on stage. I have played the leading man in a two act comedy, and I can do the funny character in a drama. As I mentioned previously, I enjoy making people laugh, and a lot of that is in physical comedy.

On camera, it is way too big. Michael Caine, in his acting class video, points out that it is all in the eyes. In my theatre background, my whole body conveys the message. I really have to learn to pull in my performances to the point where, in Peter’s words, I am boiling on the inside but calm on the outside. That intensity is what people look for in the eyes.

During the workshop, we had several opportunities to practise in front of the camera, and even in my final piece which I reviewed last night (without audio because I hate my voice), I noticed that my actions, while expressive, were still too big for the scene. I plan to work on that too.

This post is my official notice that I am going to do something about this acting bug. I do not want to stop singing in the Calgary Men’s Chorus (for six months of the year), nor stop acting on stage for three months of the year, because the feedback is immediate and I thrive on that energy.

I am however going to do this other thing. This scary thing. This terrifying thing. This thing where you are stripped of the theatrical side, and the only reason you are believable is because no one can tell that you are acting.

District 9

I’m now throwing my two cents in.

M said it is recommended viewing for all South Africans, and I whole-heartedly agree. This movie can be analysed to death regarding its subtext, but I’ll just say this: it’s well-made. The special effects were hardly noticeable (and considering there was a ruddy great space ship hovering over Johannesburg in several key scenes, that’s quite a statement).

Thank you to Peter Jackson for financing this project, and to all the participants in the making of the film. It was refreshing to hear the accent on the big screen NOT coming out of Leon Schuster’s mouth.

I also smell Academy Awards for this one. It is currently rated on IMDB by over-zealous fans at #44 in the top 250 of all time. When the fuss dies down, it may drop in the rankings, but I am very impressed. Well done.

GO WATCH THIS FILM!

P.S. Regarding the violence and swearing in the film, I hardly noticed. It suited the mood of the story, and I know I can swear a lot too. Granted, I’m not ripping limbs off people, but give me twenty minutes with a taxi driver and a machete, I’d have to think about it.