• Ryan Thomas

My Actor's Nightmare While Working on HBO's We Own This City

ACTING NIGHTMARE! Oh so mellow-dramatic, I know. What would you expect dealing with actors? Acting Nightmares are just like other work/passion related nightmares. I’m sure even non-performers can think of them, and have similar ones. One of them is bad enough, but sometimes more than one of these hit you at once. That's what happened to me...

But first, I'm curious, which ones do YOU think it might have been?

  • Not knowing my lines

  • Being late

  • Imposter Syndrome

  • Prop malfunction

You can vote for more than one answer.

I am quite anxious about sharing this story. It doesn’t necessarily paint me in the best light, but it was a tremendous learning experience. About a year ago, after a day of extraordinary introspection, I promised myself this: “I am an Artist, and as such I vow to be, True, Honest, Open, Vulnerable, and always Kind.” I'm certainly not perfect, and lose sight of some of those at times, but this story is me backing up that promise to myself. This story is all of those things, with the kindness being sharing something vulnerable, so that hopefully other actors can feel a little better about mistakes they’ve made, and so that people just starting off can see that we all screw up from time to time. It’s usually not the end of the world, even if it feels like it at the time. So, here we go…

I had to back to back shooting days. and these were my last two days working on this fantastic show. The day before was just as great as all of the other days had worked on this set. I had my first experience driving a "pod car." This is where I'm in the driver's seat, but everything is controlled by an operator sitting on the roof. It was weird. That day we did the driving scenes and checking out the alleyway. Before I go any further, I should say that if you've watched We Own This City, this

is all from the finale episode. And if you haven't watched it, you should watch it, or at least the sixth episode so you'll know what I'm talking about. Take a break from reading this, and go watch the whole series. I'll wait… Okay I'm assuming it's been 6 hours and you've watched the whole show now. The last day of filming was to be my biggest scenes, and the culmination of a major story-line with huge emotional resonance. This is what I have been waiting for, and this was what made me so eager to work on this role. So how could I possibly screw this up? Well, I'll tell you.

I was exhausted after the previous day of shooting. I came home and fell asleep at 7:30 on the couch. At 8:30 I got an email with my call time for the next day, the call sheet, and the updated script. This is what you can expect just about every evening before working on a TV show or movie. Call times can be extremely early, before the sun even thinks about coming up. And you never really know exactly what time your call time is going to be until you get that email. So I checked it and was relieved to see my call time was 7:30. I could get some good sleep and be well-rested and ready to go for the next day. I wanted to get up early, take my time getting ready, check the script and see if there were any changes, and still get there early. That's how I like to do everyday on a set. I fell right back to sleep on the couch. Woke up sometime later, went into the bedroom, set my alarm for 5:30, and drifted off.

Thank God I chose to stay with my parents while I was in town! The next morning while still sound asleep my dad knocked on the bedroom door saying, “Everything okay? It's after six, I thought you would be moving around by now.” WTF?! I jumped out of bed so fast, took half a second to make sure I wasn't dreaming, ran into the bathroom, brushed my teeth, showered, got dressed and was in the car in a total of 12 minutes. This was not a pleasant way to start the day, and certainly not what I was planning on. By the way, it turns out that I did indeed set my alarm. However, I was so tired I forgot to check the day it was set for. Since the last time I had used it was Wednesday, it stayed on that day of the week and was set for 5:30 am, next Wednesday. Not helpful.

I was on the way by 6:20, not even realizing that I had rushed so much I was now EARLIER than I had planned. I had been in panic mode from waking up like that. I’m early for most things, and always early for the set. I was not expecting there to be absolutely no traffic whatsoever that day. Since moving to NYC years ago, I had forgotten when rush hour really kicks off in Baltimore. I missed it. As a result, I arrived to Base Camp (where all the trailers and stuff are) at 6:35. Yeah, I like to be early, but this time I was an HOUR early. That’s um… excessive.

I found my trailer, it was still locked. Because I was ridiculously early, the Base Camp PA (Production Assistant) hadn’t unlocked and set-up my trailer yet with my pages (the script) for the day. Before I go any further, I want to be very clear that none of this was her fault. She was wonderful, knowledgeable, and always incredibly helpful and friendly. I find her, she lets me in and tells me she’ll be back with my pages for the day. My costume was there so I started getting ready, and since I was there, I went to hair and makeup (yeah, yeah, “hair” laugh it up). Hair looked me over to make sure the little bit that I had (mostly stubble) matched the other days, and then makeup, made me up. As I remember it, and it's been a few months, I was walking back to my trailer when I saw the van that takes us to the set. I saw my costar Jamie getting into it, so I figured, “I’m ready, I’ll just go with them" and did not go back to my trailer.

We had a few things to shoot before we got to the big scene of the day. And this set was always run so efficiently, as soon as we got in the van and headed over we got right to work. Everything was great. It was a very heavy emotional day with a lot of moving pieces, we shot the final scene with me and Jamie, and things were going really really well. But then... Yeah, we’re not done with my nightmare.

Here's some shots of the scenes we filmed just before I felt the crushing hammer of fear and doubt hit me from what I'm about to realize...

I want to take a second again to say how wonderful everyone in the cast and crew were. Truly. Working on the same set with David Simon was a dream come true. Reinaldo Marcus Green was the kind of director every actor wants to work with; the kind that trusts his actors to do their job. And Jamie is such a kind soul and truly talented professional. So you can imagine my humiliation when we were setting up to do the final scene of the day , and I happened to glance at Jamie’s script and see that there were rewrites that I hadn’t seen for this last scene. My script with these rewrites was still sitting back in my trailer, but I hadn't gone back to it. Going into this I thought I was completely off book and ready to go. (Off book basically means “memorized.”) I only had two lines, easy. Then I saw the script - those two lines now have an entire additional page of dialogue, most of it mine.

I. Was. Shook.

Jamie asked if I thought I could learn it all that quickly (we probably had about 40 minutes to an hour to change the set-up and be ready to shoot), I said, “I have to be.” And of course, as my luck would have it, Reinaldo was standing right next to us and heard the conversation. He asked me if I thought I'd be ready in time, and I said to him, “When you're ready, I'll be ready.” Now, did I actually believe this? Well, I knew that I had no other choice and I had to do my best.

This is probably what I looked like when I saw that script.

It's definitely how I felt.

Jamie let me use his script, and I got to work. Luckily for me, this whole exchange encompassed a supervisor asking me what had just happened. Since I knew what actually happened, I had a road map of sorts in my head for how the dialogue would go. A lot of times it's OK if you don't get every single word perfect of big chunks of dialogue as long as you got the message and the meaning of everything across. And of course this goes very differently with different directors and different writers, etc...The thing with this though was all of this dialogue that I had to learn was taken verbatim from body camera footage from another police officer. As I've said before , realism is everything on this production. I had to be word perfect. On top of that we had a lot of blocking (which is figuring out how the actors will be positioned for the shots) and because there are guns out in this scene we had a safety meeting, all while I'm trying to learn these lines. So yeah, no stress…

Moment of truth, we're ready to shoot. Jamie came over to me, asked how I was doing and if I was ready, and I said, "I think I got this." He patted me on the shoulder, commended me, and then walked off because he wasn't in this scene. Now we are rolling, and honestly I'm a little terrified. I think for people outside of the business it's hard to understand just how many people go into producing a TV show or film. And how much money gets wasted when things get held up for whatever reason. I don't know how many people were in the cast and crew that day, but I would estimate at least one hundred, and I certainly felt the responsibility to not make their jobs miserable because I hadn't been prepared. Not only that, but once we were finished this scene I was wrapped, the whole production was moving to another set to do other scenes. That means if I screw up too badly, the production gets held up, they can't get to those scenes and the schedule that they meant to, people get frustrated, money gets wasted. It's a lot. In all honesty, the first few takes were not were not perfect. I felt like I had the gist of it, but the script supervisor came over and told me a few lines that needed coreection, and after that I think I got it. I must have because after about a dozen takes , not all my fault, we were done with the scene. I still felt a lot of stress about it, and when Reinaldo walked by My internal insecure artist took over and I asked him if I Had given him what they needed for the scene. He patted me on the shoulder and said, "Of course you did, we wouldn't have moved on if you hadn't." Internally, I knew this, but wow, what a sigh of relief my soul let out on the inside.

This is the scene

Honestly, this could have been something so bad that it made me wanna stop acting if it hadn't gone that way. I was incredibly disappointed in myself for letting Those new pages slip by me. I hadn't been put in a position like this before, and with the most sincere honesty, I didn't know that I could do it then. So while this could have Turned out to be one of the worst , most demoralizing, days of my career/life, it wound up being one of the best. I found myself in a very uncomfortable position that I could have avoided, I had to learn a considerable amount of lines in a very short time with a lot of other stuff going on, I had to perform well in what was pretty much the biggest scene of my career thus far, and I DID IT. I showed myself that when I get thrown the curve balls, I can still hit them (even though these were my own fault). But the biggest lesson I learned was to NEVER let that happen again.

I think it's also worth mentioning that a few years ago I wouldn't have been able to do that.The only reason I was able to was because of the years of training, and acting classes, and rehearsing, and learning on my own time just to do it. It really is a muscle of sorts, and if you're worried about how daunting it is to learn lines, just start doing it. The more you exercise that the better you get with it. For some people it might never be easy, for some people they might get their lines after reading it one time, but for everyone doing the work and learning from others will always make you better.

The final picture from the set. I was feeling wonderful about this amazing experience and opportunity, and so grateful to every single person that had a hand in this, and that I had the pleasure of working with. Thank you all...

Next time, the aftermath of working on We Own This City…

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