A Hollywood acting coach makes a dream offer to an inexperienced young woman. 2,958 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
I had no idea who Erwin Eckelson was when I first met him. After I did understand, I was shocked and happy he invited me to participate in a free weekend of acting classes he was offering, Erwin was well-known in Hollywood as an acting coach who’d taught many movie stars over the years. He combined the methodology of both Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler to train over 100,000 students. And in case you were wondering, yes, he’s still alive.
I met Erwin in a way-out-there spiritual class led by a woman who went into deep trances and brought through entities from other realms of life to give pearls of wisdom about life on this planet. My spiritual journey with her changed many of my naive attitudes. Erwin was also into this woo-woo stuff. Who knew?
Not many, because the classes took place in Tucson. There were no actors there. We all sat on chairs and some on cushions around the room. Erwin sat very straight and quietly on a pillow on the floor. Most people got up and told a little about themselves. The very odd thing was they took off their clothes to do it. I did not get the memo. The majority of the attendees were over fifty and I never saw so much flesh pointing south. Erwin did not get naked but he did wear a lovely silk robe that looked just like Hugh Hefner’s.
When I stood up and told my personal story, Erwin noticed me. I was a 5-foot-8 blue-eyed blond 115-pound stick figure at the time. He came over to where I was sitting and said, “You’re so beautiful and such an anomaly. I can’t figure you out. When you speak you have a bit of country twang. You’re like a cross between Grace Kelly and Minnie Pearl.”
I’m thinking, That’s supposed to be a compliment? Who are you?
So I smiled. “I have never in my life worn a hat with the tag still on. And, if that’s a come-on line, it’s the worst I’ve ever heard.”
He laughed ebulliently, seeming very pleased to elicit that response from me.
“You have a certain look and mannerism that reminds me of a very young Jessica Lange. Have you ever done any acting?”
Actually, I had taken some classes at the improv studio in Tucson with a comedienne who had a chip on her shoulder because she was dumped from SNL and then decided to become an acting coach. I was moronically innocent at the time. When asked to do a sketch about the Bunny Ranch, I described all these skinned dead bunnies in jars and sold for the meat. Everyone gasped.
I answered back, “I’ve done a few plays.”
“My first play was the lead in Deathtrap. The director liked my scream. I was off book in two weeks and the other actors hated me. The other play I did was The Art Of Dining. I had to screw up all the wine names. Which was not a problem since I had never had a glass of wine in my life. I got a lot of laughs.”
Erwin blinked hard. Like he might have found a diamond in a sandbox.
“If you ever get into the industry, you should change your name,” he said. “Maybe just turn your name around to make it sound better for Hollywood. Trust me. I know my stuff in this area. How old are you?”
“Old enough to know better. How old are you?”
“I want you to know I got Jessica Lange her start with her first movie, King Kong. She worked in a diner at the time and I noticed her.”
I thought, Jesus. How old are you? I must say, though, the man had an incredible amount of energy and moved around like a thirty year old.
He pressed. “No, really, tell me your age.”
“You could pass for a teenager.”
“Good genes, I guess.”
He stared at me, then said, “I’m going to be staying in town for the week. If I can gather a small acting class for people who’d be interested, I’d love to have you come. I’ll be giving about a two-hour session both days next weekend.”
I stared back.
“It won’t cost anything,” he added. “I’m not charging, which is a real bargain I assure you, as aspiring actors pay hundreds of dollars for my classes.”
I thought, Why not? Can’t be any weirder than these channeling classes. I grew up imitating Shirley Temple in front of my grandparents’ television. I was a ham my whole life. A scared ham… I just didn’t show it on the outside
I said, “No charge? Wow. I’d be honored to attend.”
He beamed. “Well, it’s a date then.”
“Giddy-up-go,” I said with a click of my heels on my imaginary horse. I seemed to be impressing him with every absurd thing I said.
The following weekend, Erwin had gathered quite a few odd characters. So there was Ert and Gale and Trinity and Zellinda and myself. Erwin first talked about how he got started and what we were going to do on stage. I just thought, Who is this arrogant, incredibly self-confident cousin of Hugh Hefner?
Well, one thing I did learn, he could get nobodys to act.
Erwin had us all at once and together dance across the stage, get aimlessly lost, speed up to a hurried rush, look for something important, be invisible on the stage, slow the pace to walk through mud, speed up to jump over puddles, be late for work in four-inch stilettos, bend over to play with a puppy, and escape from a mugger. I might have added the last one.
Needless to say but I’ll say it anyway, I loved it. I thought, Wow, I could do this every day.
At the end of the exhausting first session, Erwin took me aside and asked if there was a bookstore around where I could pick up a copy of a certain play. He wanted me to memorize this thing that was far beyond my pay grade and to read from it the next day. I memorized as much as I could and came to the stage without shoes but in two different colored socks which Erwin glanced at quizzically. I explained, “I just throw all my socks in a drawer. Whichever ones are closest in color and thickness, I put on. It’s much easier.
“Perfect,” he said smiling at my quirkiness. Then he got down to business. “I’m just going to have you read lines from the play for now. Then I’ll read mine.”
The play was entitled, The About-Face Of External Affairs. I understood barely a word of it beyond the first few lines asking why don’t they serve those tasty little smokehouse almonds on planes anymore? Then it went into some intellectual crap tied into a soap box about government and politics. I knew I was going to have to read the part of a woman who was suddenly Secretary of State discussing foreign policy. So I said, “Mr. Eckelson, I’m sorry but I’ll be honest. These lines make no sense to me, so I won’t be very convincing.”
He looked at me with that don’t-you-worry-about-a-thing-little-lady look on his face and said, “You don’t have to be perfect, let’s just use the general idea of the conversation and go back and forth.”
In my head, I screamed at him, Didn’t you hear what I said? I have no clue what I’m saying so how am I going to pretend to have a conversation? But instead I said calmly, “I can’t do that. This is a confusing play.” I’m also thinking, And now I feel like a fucking idiot. Is that what you wanted?
So Erwin put a chair about fifteen feet behind me on the stage. He set another chair about three feet from the audience. “Would you come sit here?”
I think, I’ve been bad. Why don’t you just have it face the wall? He sat in the chair behind mine and looked at the audience and said, “Now I’m going to show you a real actress.” I’m thinking, Cool. Where is she? Did you bring somebody else in who can show us how it’s done? One can only hope.
Then he put away the play and turned to me and asked, “Who is the man who meant the most to you in your life growing up? Just look straight ahead at the audience and tell them.”
I wanted to turn around and look at him and say, “What? Where is this going? But, instead, I took a deep breath and said, “I was never particularly attached to a Daddy identity. Daddys rotated in and out for nineteen years, until I escaped from home, with my marbles fairly intact. Boo-hoo, become an actor, right?”
“Okay, was there ever a man you did identify with or care for that might have been a father figure to you? Continue to face the audience.”
I answered as truthfully and sincerely as I could. “The man who impressed me most for his strength and kindness was my grandfather.”
“Can you recall anything about him that you really paid attention to as a child?”
I knew the oddest childhood memories can be quite touching to recall. So I replied, “Yeah, I remember grandpa eating breakfast.”
“Tell the audience about that,” Erwin encouraged.
“I would mimic grandpa’s behavior to get his attention, which worked quite nicely, and one of my favorites was watching him eat grapefruit. He’d carve out all the sections and then sprinkle salt on them. He said it made the grapefruit taste sweeter, which I doubted at six years old so I squeezed my eyes shut when I took my first bite. Nonetheless, I copied him, and, to my delight, it was delicious. Grandpa squeezed out the excess juice into a teaspoon and slurped it down. I did this, too, to his great satisfaction. I did not, however, grow a handlebar moustache and wax it carefully so it would stay out of my food and curl around my cheeks. But if I could have grown one, I would have.”
The audience laughed.
Erwin asked, “What was the most special thing your grandpa ever did for you? Just tell the audience.”
“When I was five years old, Grandpa made me a playhouse that was life size and made of wood and had intricate handtooling on the sides. I could walk into it.”
“Good. Is your grandfather still living?”
“When did he die? Tell us how you felt in the days leading up to his passing.”
I’m thinking, Why isn’t Erwin asking anyone else personal things?
“He passed away about ten years ago after a severe stroke.” I looked down. I could feel the emotion rise.
“I knew the time for him to go was close. He was barely talking. But he could sing. Doctors said his stroke affected the side of the brain where speech comes from. But singing was from the opposite side of the brain, so we could sing Christmas songs together.”
I teared up and wiped my eyes. I want to make it just like Erwin asked me to do in my original story.
I suddenly felt very self-conscious, like I was in some ridiculous therapy session with all these voyeurs in my life.
“Grandpa, let me come sit in front of your wheelchair so I can hold your hand. None of us know how long you’ll be here with us. But I want you to know how much I love you. You taught me so much, and you nurtured me like I was your own child. I’m sorry these past few years have been so hard…”
My voice was cracking, and then tears flowed down my face.
Erwin handed me a tissue. He said proudly, “And that, folks, is a real actress.”
I thought, Are you kidding? I wasn’t acting. I was re-telling something that really happened. Why are you doing this? Why am I the emotional guinea pig?
And I wanted to say to him that the sign of a real actor is not if they can cry. Those with the most emotional baggage don’t win because they can cry at the drop of a hat. If you’ve had a crazy childhood, you’re going to be able to cry when prompted to do so. So, actually, a great actor can hide all their personality distortions from the world until they’re ready to take out their own garbage and not throw it by the handfuls at everyone else.
But I didn’t say any of that. Instead, I mumbled, “Thanks, Erwin,” and got off the stage.
When the class was over, Erwin pulled me aside. “Could you take me to the airport tomorrow? I’d like to discuss a few things with you if that’s possible.”
I thought briefly about it and said, “Sure, I’d be happy to.”
The next day, in the car, he said to me, “You really are a great actor. You did stuff up there it takes years for some to learn. I could get you into the right Hollywood or New York circles and set you up with the right people so that very quickly you would be doing a major motion picture.”
I stared. He continued.
“So which will it be? Do you want to move to LA or New York? I have connections in both places and you’ll be well taken care of and shown where to go and what to do. Your whole life is about to change. Are you ready?”
“But I haven’t had any previous acting experience to speak of and I have no real extra cash to find a decent place to live or dress to impress.”
“That doesn’t matter. You’re a natural. I’m setting you up, are you getting this. People work their whole lives for this opportunity that I’m about to hand you. So what’s it going to be?”
I was feeling physically weak. “I just moved to Arizona. I like it here. I’ve got friends and wouldn’t survive the cement jungle of LA or New York.”
Erwin raised his voice. “Are you kidding me? I have people kissing my ass and grovelling at my feet and coming to me for just this kind of life-changing opportunity. I don’t hand it out lightly. As a matter of fact, rarely. And people train for years for the talent you have naturally. You’re smart, you have looks, and you could be a star in no time. Are you turning down my offer?”
“Yes. I’m sorry, Erwin. I like my life. I just don’t want to move.”
“Well, you can’t do it from Tucson.”
Erwin’s hand gestures changed. They’d been open, palms up, when he was offering me the opportunity for the first time. Now they were palms straight, directing traffic, once he realized I was not feeling it.
“This really shocks me but more than that it pisses me off,” he continued, hands going to his hips. “People do not turn down an offer like this.”
“I’m sorry. Do you still want me to take you to the airport?”
His face looked strained but resigned. “Yes. I’m completely at a loss for words. And that does not happen to me.”
We sat in silence in the car after that. Until Erwin told me, “It’s the ‘little man on your shoulder’ making this decision for you.”
I said, “Excuse me? What little man?”
I could feel my eyebrows furrow.
“The little man yapping in your ear, saying you can’t do it, telling you not to try a new adventure, instructing you to be afraid.”
“I’m not afraid. I just don’t want to move to LA or New York,” I told him.
But he was right. I was afraid.
From the driver’s seat, I felt his chin lift high, and his body language showed that he would never offer me this chance again. I had blown it.
Erwin visited Tucson many times for channeling classes and, although I no longer attended, I’d meet up with him for coffee. His girlfriend of many years would accompany him from time to time and was a real charmer herself. A tall model with a twirl of a body, he would dance her across the parking lot. Charm and magneticism Erwin had, as well as a knack for knowing what makes a human tick or tock.
I wrote a book which I asked if he would critique. He said, “All actors are far too subjective,” and declined very politely. A part of me could not help but wonder if this was an echo from many years previous when I forever altered his vision for me with one word. No.
The indelible mark of an amateur, is insecurity. This identity trait can be outgrown but the path is steep and painfully laborious. It takes a long time to grow up. And some of us never do. We tend to look back and forward and not necessarily be in the present with whatever is. We wonder if the right decisions were made and rack our brains for the right choices in the future, and these are the markers of process and progress. So I didn’t know I was being set up for the mental mind thrashing I’d go through when I turned Erwin down. But if we can go through each moment, even the toughest ones, without regret or feeling like a victim, and understand that each choice we make opens up other opportunities for empowerment, then we begin to feel peace as well as our passion to the fullest. I’m glad I met Erwin Eckleson.