You know me. I’m the guy with the goatee who captures the screen moments into Sweet and Lowdown, Woody Allen’s latest film, starring Sean Penn and Samantha Morton and introducing me, Daniel Okrent. Of course, if you’ve followed my theatrical career, you would not be surprised by my galvanic performance, coming so close on the heels of my last role: Harvey Johnson in the 1964 stage production of Bye Bye Birdie at Cass Technical High School in Detroit. (”Brilliant! Two thumbs up!” — Mr. and Mrs. Harry Okrent.)
Since then, I’ve carved a career as an editor/writer/expense-account luncher at Time Inc., EW’s parent company. But that was before Allen had some narrative problems with his picaresque tale of the sleazy, oafish, brilliant, fictional 1930s jazz guitarist Emmet Ray (Penn). The picture had wrapped, but he needed some talking heads to goose the story along by reminiscing about Emmet, as if he were a real historical figure. I can talk; I have a head; I’m a friend of Juliet Taylor, one of Allen’s casting directors; I was hired.
The script sent to me that spring weekend consisted of 11 nonconsecutive pages. I wasn’t to speak Allen’s lines exactly as written but did have to make certain I made all the points he wanted me to make. This left me free to interpolate a series of stutters, stammers, ums, ahs, and other verbal tics sufficient to make Sandy Dennis wince.
The following Tuesday, I reported for work. The set — in a nondescript Manhattan building — consisted of a backdrop, a chair, and a board roughly at mid-chest level. Reaching into the Stanislavskian swamp of my past for emotional truth, I spoke. I finished. Allen sat next to the cinematographer and gave me little half smiles and head nods as the camera rolled. We did two takes of each bit. Once, he told me to stop looking down, because although he knew I wasn’t reading, the people watching the movie might think I was. Brilliant guy, no?
Over the summer, I didn’t think about my experience in movieland more than eight or nine times a day. Still, it managed to insinuate itself into conversations: ”Hi, Dan,” they’d say. ”How’s the family?” ”I’m in the new Woody Allen film.” Then there was my dentist. He said, ”Rinse.” I said, ”I’be ib zhe bnew Mwoory Glalallenn mflim.”
Finally, it opened. My life has changed. People stare at me on the subway (”Who’s the gray-haired fat guy across the aisle? I know him from somewhere”). I’ve joined the union, and have learned to say things like ”SAG card,” ”scale,” and ”wardrobe.”
I’ve even learned to live with the profound insult of my billing. Yes, I’m in the credits, fourth name on the screen. But Nat Hentoff, the jazz critic who plays another talking head, is identified as himself. So are director Douglas McGrath and DJ Ben Duncan. I, however, am credited with the role of ”A.J. Pickman.”
”This is horrible,” I whined to my wife (known to my friends as LSB, or Long-Suffering Becky). ”Hentoff’s famous enough to play himself, but I’m not? McGrath? Duncan? Why not me???”
LSB calmed me. ”Why, darling, you should be complimented.”
”For God’s sake, why?”
”Because you’re an actor.”