Here's what happened today in Prague - with a few trade tips thrown in for young artists - as I did my bit on National Geographic's first scripted TV series: GENIUS, which will air in September. Apologies for the lack of vibrant photos, but they're not allowed on set.
5.55am: Like clockwork, a white van pulls up outside the opulent Grand Mark Hotel in beautiful, stately Prague, where I’ve been in situ for three days. Prague is doubling as New Jersey and various European locations for the series. I arrived three days ago so that I could have my costume fitting before the shoot. I’ve been hired to play Judge Phillip Forman, who gave Albert Einstein his oath of citizenship in 1940, so that the genius of physics could become an American citizen before the Second World War. And playing Einstein is none other than Geoffrey Rush. This will be awesome.
6.00: Still pitch black, the van pulls up to the ‘base’, which is a car park not far away from an abandoned bank (i.e. the set). I’m shown to my trailer(!). Okay it’s a bit modest, but it’s my trailer…for the next hour. I’m told by Daniela, the production assistant (who’s everywhere when I blink my eyes) that I have time for breakfast, then make-up.
6:02: Breakfast at the ‘craft services’ van. I opt for scrambled eggs, bacon, and some other huge, mysterious chunk of pork, which I later decide to take a rain check on. I decide against having coffee, as I always develop TB before a shoot (i.e. tiny bladder).
6:10: Breakfast finished, I go to the makeup van and am worked on by a makeup artist resembling Charles Bronson who does his job with Buddhist concentration. And I learn a new tip for taming my straight, flyaway hair: a hairnet. After applying some goopy product, he puts on a hairnet to spot-weld it into place. Macho, macho man...
Seated next to me is the English actress Jodhi May (former winner of Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival), to whom I give a polite Texas greeting. She’s playing Professor Einstein’s secretary, who takes the oath of citizenship with him. She seems to have her game face on, so I don’t intrude. Charles Bronson himself says, "No make-up," which I take as a compliment, or that I'm a lost cause.
6:20: Back in my trailer, my costume has appeared, so I put on my wardrobe (a 3-piece navy pin-stripe suit and voluminous robe), all the while doing a vocal warm-up…and I wait for the execution. Actually, I’m quite calm as I’ve spent the past few days obsessing over my lines and writing out my Character Worksheet that I use for YADA (shameless plug). But, noticing that my breathing’s a bit anxious, I return to some breathing exercises that have helped me in the past: mindfully breathing in, and mindfully breathing out. Then breathing in deeply (without forcing it) and releasing the breath slowly. This brings me back to the present moment, and I can realize that it’s a wonderful moment.
6:55: Daniela appears again and Jodhi and I take the 2-minute ride to the set. The nerves are starting to rise again, so I silently say the St. Francis of Assisi prayer, which has helped me many times at auditions and jobs to take me out of fear and get me into the right frame of mind – that I am here to be of service to the project, not to be judged or applauded for my contributions. Fear is unnecessary because St. Francis reminds me of my rightful role: being a part of the project, rather than the outsider whom you’ve kindly allowed to attend your party. We actors can be painfully shy (most are, whom I've met). And it works again.
7:00: The old, frozen dark bank has floodlights on huge cranes, bathing light upon three windows. These will serve as sunlight in the upstairs courtroom. I get mic’d up by one of the Czech crew (boy they were nice), and wait in a little black tent in a side room which Jodhi has dubbed the ‘funeral parlour’. As she’s pouring over her lines, I close my eyes and slow my breathing.
7:10: We’re called to the set, a wood-paneled room that is the perfect facsimile of a 1940s New Jersey courtroom. Sunlight seems to bathe in from the windows (I’m always a sucker for creative lighting), and there’s a light fill of smoke that pervades the room, giving everything a vintage feel. Seated in chairs are 24 multi-ethnic people in period costumes. Standing at front is the director and writer, Ken Biller, and Mr. Rush himself (the spittin’ image of Einstein). I walk up and they introduce themselves and I promptly wet myself. No, actually, I’m quite calm and I tell Mr. Rush that I was actually in Melbourne for Australia Day just a few days before, which intrigues him (as he lives in Camberwell, which is a suburb of Melbourne…did my homework on that one!). We have a further bit of a chat and then set to rehearse.
7:25: The actual shooting is a blur – as I find all acting jobs: a rich, intoxicating trip into a surreal wonderland of tightly focused, serious playtime. We have some laughs because my task as the Judge is to swear them in, using quite flowery language Both the Czech and English speaking actors struggle to repeat the oaths, which is quite realistic. (Me: “I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law.” Them: “ I bear will arms on behalf United States requiring law??). We rehearse it a few times, and then do the master shots (wide shots of the whole room) featuring me, which we repeat a dozen times. And you actors, one of the best skills you can acquire is the ability to give the same level of performance, time after time after time.
Another tip for those new to camera acting: there’s a concept called Continuity, which is always good to remember. I have to hold a Bible in my left hand, holding it to my chest. So, the first time I do it, I eyeball where the Bible is on my chest, so that I can duplicate that grip in the twenty takes that follow. Otherwise it will jump around as they edit the footage in the future.
We then make our way toward the coverage shots of the other artists – I hate calling them extras, I’ve been there and they deserve respect.
Most enjoyable are the close-ups of Geoffrey and Jodhi. That’s where I dial down the focus of the performance: in the master shots I would include the whole group, but with the close-up shots of Einstein and his secretary, I can enjoy the give and take of acting. So in their close-ups I try to give them as much energy exchange as I can (Historical note: three days before the actual ceremony, Germany, Italy and Japan had signed a war pact, so these were uncertain times), all the while remembering what my old teacher Bernie Engel told me: "When you're doing stage acting you use a blowtorch, with camera acting you use a laser". So I keep driving at them with my intention (for acting students: My Action): to both guide them through the oath, and let them know that we need them in America.
Both Geoffrey and Jodhi are amazing to watch. As we capture those moments, I am no longer seeing actors. I’m watching two people standing in a court room in unfamiliar surroundings, intent on repeating their oath, but as Europeans, a bit bemused by the proceedings.
8:40: We wrap the scene, and I can’t resist the temptation to bang the gavel at the judge’s desk and give them all a goofy smile, which everyone enjoys.
8:45: Riding back to base, Jodhi and I can let our hair down and chirp away, talking about Stanislavski like a couple of real acting nerds. She’s impressed that I was teaching the master and Meisner to my YADA group. So it’s back to the hotel to enjoy another fun part of my life: creating lesson plans – and soaking up a little bit of Prague before I head home.
If you have any questions about the day, please let me know. Until then, watch out for this wonderfully scripted and produced series for National Geographic, airing in September!
Bryan Bounds is a US-born and UK-based professional actor, voice-over artist, director, teacher and founder of the American School of Acting.