When Fox decided to "pick up" our pilot, they told me that they were intrigued by the idea of me playing the lead in our show. I'm not joking.
The idea had actually been bandied about since we began work on this project, but I had protested the concept vehemently. I've never had even the most remote desire to act, and I really did not want our show to seem like my own personal vanity project. But, since they kept at it, I decided to let them wear me down. I think their interest stemmed from the marketing potential of an actual basketball player playing a made-up basketball player -- further blurring the pesky reality/fiction line that manages to barely exist.
My agent, Erwin More, had actually been gently prodding me to take a shot at playing, well, the guy very much like myself, all along. I bristled at the idea, especially when he suggested that I find an acting coach and pay for lessons on my own. When Fox expressed interest in assisting with the loss of my acting innocence, they also told the studio to find me an acting coach ... and pay for it. Since I am usually game for anything that doesn't lighten my wallet, I agreed to give the stage a try.
I met my acting guru for breakfast on a Monday morning. We had spoken briefly over the weekend, so I was somewhat prepared for the ball of hyperactive fire that is Eva Charney.
Age 50 or so, just 4-foot-11, and a Brooklyn Jew, Eva turns out to be everything I'm not. In our time together, I have decided that she may, in fact, be the exact opposite person to me.
I am usually turned off by the uber-happy but, for whatever reason, Eva does not make me want to commit seppuku after 15 minutes in her presence. I could muse for hours on why the extra-cheerful frustrate me, but I won't. I will summarize what would be a very long and boring treatise on why most people in the world suck. Most humans who affect an ultra-happy personality are covering for exactly the opposite internal emotion. I find those souls to be insecure and false and depressing.
Eva is different. She is truly happy; secure in her place in life, she has no difficulty complimenting others or seeing the beauty of a particular day because she understands herself and is OK with the person she has become over the years. Again, the opposite person as me.
Our first day of lessons got off to an inauspicious beginning. We were told that we could use a space above a theater on the Fox lot but, upon arriving on that scene, found the doors to be locked. So, in guerilla acting fashion, we commandeered the newly abandoned "Arrested Development" production trailer and set up shop.
We began with simple exercises involving a pencil and the Pledge of Allegiance. As in, I held the pencil between my upper and lower teeth and recited the Pledge. We decided that it was comparable to swinging a bat with donut attached in the on-deck circle. The pencil would prove to be a ubiquitous presence in my life; it is a great way to convince one's tongue to stay out of the way of the words that need to be said.
We spent most of that first day doing reading exercises using poetry and magazine articles. In retrospect, I realize that Eva was working both on my ability to speak clearly and my ability to "take it off the page," or read with expression.
She taught me to visualize each phrase. (For example, to truly grasp that last sentence, the reader should imagine exactly what "she taught me to visualize each phrase" brings to mind.) It turns out that the method works quite well. Retention increases, and actual expression creeps into one's voice if he "sees" what he is reading. If only I had known all this back in sixth-grade social studies, I would have been deified for my out-loud reading skills during the peninsulas and plateaus unit. I probably would have gotten the hell beaten out of me, though, so maybe it's best that I waited until now to gain this skill.
I knew exactly jack squat about acting before meeting with Eva. I had heard horror stories of strange methods of teaching. Now that I think about it, I actually remember a vicious acting lesson that went on when I was about 8. I was on a field trip for "gifted," which was my school's program for those of us who were on the opposite end of the spectrum from the "learning disabled."
Anyway, as a part of the continual effort to expand our young minds, the counselors developed some kind of exercise where we paired up and then gave our partners something to act out. It seems, though, that my partner was not much for the give-and-take. She seemed only interested in bossing me around. As a very shy second-grader, I had very little to say in protest to my pint-sized dominatrix as she ordered me to take the form of a walking bug, then a dying bug, then a dead bug. (I wonder what that little girl is doing these days. My hunch tells me some sort of performance artist. More accurately, though, probably just a performance artist instructor.) I rated the entire experience somewhere between distasteful and really dumb.
I was about to write that that little experience was the only acting background I have, but I then I recalled Pablo the Reindeer. When I was in third grade, my school still had an actual Christmas program. (In Meriden, Kan., it wasn't much of a sticking point.)
I was selected to play the main character, Pablo the Reindeer. (I had lobbied hard for the part when I found out that Pablo was Spanish for Paul. I thought I was the only logical choice at that point.) My friend Jeff was pegged to play the narrator. Strangely, these were basically the only two speaking parts in the entire program. Generally, the narrator (Jeff) and Pablo (me) took our audience on a wondrous journey around the world, stopping to explore the Christmas traditions of various countries along the way, at which point our classmates would sing songs or do dances depending on the customs of the country we were highlighting. (Best part about our roles: no singing or dancing.)
To prepare for our theatrical debuts, Jeff and I holed up at his house after school and worked on memorizing our lines. If I remember correctly, we did an admirable job of this and so were praised for the fact that we had each been able to commit to memory seven pages of text.
Consequently, until meeting Eva, I was under the impression that acting was only as hard as memorizing the lines. I was wrong.
Paul Shirley has played for 12 pro basketball teams, including three NBA teams -- the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns. His journal appears regularly at ESPN.com. To e-mail Paul, click here.