Gilbert Grape in Real Life

A phrase has been rolling around my head for more than a month. Aimee and I went to hear a talk at 92YTribeca with Peter Hedges and Jonathan Tropper about adapting novels into screenplays. It was less of a how-to lecture and more of a discussion of the ups and downs of taking a story from the more forgiving page to the screen where time and visuals are important.

I knew it was going to be good because I heard Hedges talk about theater when I was a college freshman back in the last century. He had gone to the same school some years before and was making the transition from being an actor to a playwright. I liked how he turned almost every answer he gave into a story by occasionally starting with something seemingly unrelated and blindsiding you with the connection. By his account, he wasn’t much of a performer and this was difficult for him to reckon with.

He told my class about being double cast with another actor in a Landford Wilson play and getting to watch that actor rehearse. In one scene, where Hedges was doing a lot of stuff to make meaning of what his character was going through, the other actor just stood and listened. That’s when the phrase “I am enough” came to him.

I’ve kicked that around for a number of years because as an actor you’re either considered AMAZING or not worth a damn and little in between. The system of training and what one has to do to get a job only compounds that 10000% so it’s tough to stay on top of your mental game. I find my relationship to the whole thing to be like what Jagger wails about in “Beast of Burden” so not only do I not feel like I am enough, I feel like I’m not wanted. “I am enough” isn’t saying “I’m the best” or “I’m going to succeed” but “I am going to face this and figure out how to handle it.”

It occurred to me that things have changed since Hedges published What’s Eating Gilbert Grape because of the rise of the internet and youtube and I asked if that has affected his writing. He talked about being in drama school and working backstage on a production of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and how he’d follow along with a flashlight. “It’s amazing how he made every moment count.” Considering that this is a play from a 141 years ago–long before movies, tv or any of this interweb craziness–it is quite a feat.

Hedges said that should be our mantra: “make every moment count.” To have less conversations, but have them mean more. To have less interactions, but make them more important. To use that in writing and in life. Having spent many hours sitting in a less-than-comfortable seat watching something more than painful, I know not many people think about that concept. I think this is applied more often on tv than theater or film because of the nature and pressure of advertising revenue.

Using this, I can understand a little better why it’s hard for people sitting in a casting room to be civil and attentive after years of actors not making every moment count. I imagine the disappointment can be soul destroying. I also think the majority of actors are crazy from trying for so long and they use a put-on charm to compensate for a lack of being able to make each moment count.

Between the talk and the book signing, I approached Peter and told him about how I remembered being outside the cafeteria building late at night while he was there that week and how a dance major asked if he was ever going to finish that book of his because it was so good. He said it was about 1,000 pages long at that point but it would let him know when it was ready.

He had to get over to the signing table. I already had a copy of his latest, The Heights, and didn’t want to be in the way. I debated about staying until he was done to talk more. Part of me wishes we knew each other better because I do feel a deep kinship to him because of similar backgrounds. He makes sense of things in a way few people do. Part of me didn’t want to be a hanger-on. I’ve found it to be messy meeting people I admire. So we left. Half of me didn’t feel like I was enough, but the other half did.