Frank Whaley has written and directed four feature films. His first, Joe the King, received the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the Sundance Film Festival, and his latest, Like Sunday, Like Rain, is in theaters now. Frank is also an acclaimed actor and has appeared in numerous films, including Pulp Fiction and Swimming with Sharks, and as Van Miller in the popular Showtime series Ray Donovan.
The winter of 1987 had been particularly cruel. First off, I had bounced around between three different and equally abhorrent sublet dwellings. The first was a studio above a dry cleaner in Murray Hill that I shared with a middle-aged man named Herbert who smelled like mothballs and muttered to himself when he jerked off in the adjoining room at night. Next there was a two-week situation in Forest Hills, in an apartment which I abruptly found out didn’t actually belong to the person I’d sublet it from. Then I ended up living in a railroad apartment in the mid-’80s (pre-sexy) Chelsea district of Manhattan.
I had also won and lost at least a half-dozen positions in excruciating areas of employment, including switchboard operator at the Dalton School, receptionist at a hair salon and counter person at a rental car place. I’d decided to find gainful, sit-down employment after finally realizing I simply lacked the strength, physically or emotionally, to wait tables any longer. But it seemed I simply was unable to be an employee, sitting down or standing up — which is probably the reason I decided at an early age to become an actor.
My journey toward making this a reality began at the State University of New York at Albany in 1981 with an Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) grant scholarship to study Theater. Four years, countless one-acts, monologues, and voice and movement classes later, I found myself at the Port Authority with $373 in leftover EOP stipend cash and a duct-taped duffle bag.
Another three years on, I was flat broke and living in the railroad apartment in Chelsea, which I shared with two heavy metal guys from Wisconsin. They both had impossibly long hair, strands of which could be found on every conceivable surface. They slept in the front room of the apartment, and my room — if you could call it that — was situated at the back, in a windowless corner between the bathroom and the entrance. One of them had a Danish girlfriend who would usually spend the night. I would often be awoken by her screams of approval in broken English, while the other guy snored like a chainsaw in his bed, less than six feet away. I would lie awake and try to drown out the sounds, listening to the Buick-sized roaches scratching around beneath the empty milk crates that held the mattress I slept upon. These conditions made getting up and going to work in the morning almost a treat.
I had recently got a position updating law journals at a law office on Madison Avenue, a job I had no business doing, and one I approached with the least possible effort. I would arrive in the morning to large stacks of tissue-thin pages that I was to insert into massive law books, replacing the out-of-date pages. Tedious work, to say the very least. At some point during the morning, I would become exhausted and sneak off to the vacant floor above, and nap behind a row of empty bookshelves. I would smuggle my unfinished work out of the office and discard it on the way to the subway.
I’d been hired a month or two earlier, after flirting with the middle-aged office manager during my job interview, telling her that she bore a striking resemblance to Michelle Pfeiffer. She turned plum red and, overlooking my utter lack of office experience, hired me on the spot. When it was found out that the books I was supposed to be updating were woefully neglected, she called me into her office, and seemed genuinely hurt and betrayed. I regret it to this day. I admitted what I had done and she, without looking up from her desk, said, “You should leave.”
The monotony and darkness of this period of my life were broken only by my non-stop push to advance myself out of squalor and onto TV. There was simply no place to go but up, and I had decided failure was not an option. I couldn’t afford a proper actor headshot, so I had a friend take a snapshot which I made copies of at the corner photo place. I forged a résumé with bogus film and television credits, and began sending it once a month to every agent in town. Even when it was returned saying, “We do not accept unsolicited material,” I would re-seal it and send it back. Meanwhile, I auditioned for everything I could find in Backstage magazine — student films, industrial films, whatever. I did extra work in a Tiffany video, and acted in a string of way off-off-off-Broadway productions in basements, lofts and attics, often involving crazy people and paying zero dollars. It was during one of these theatrical disasters, an unwatchable absurdist play revolving around four wayward teenagers in some desert, that my life suddenly, and without any warning, changed forever.
It was intermission and I went out to get a bowl of soup at the Chinese place across the street. There was a payphone there where I could check my answering service, as I watched the pitifully small audience vacate the theater. Before the digital age, many actors utilized answering services. It was only $15 a month and supplied 24-hour access to messages, which came in handy, as I did not have a telephone. Usually my box was empty. But not this time.
“Hello, service,” said the sleepy-sounding operator.
“Box 2121,” I said, gulping my soup.
After a pause, Sleepy came back with, “Call Ben at J. Michael Bloom & Associates.” I nearly dropped my bowl.
I slapped at my pockets for a pen, knowing full well I didn’t have one. I told the operator to slowly tell me the number, not trusting that she would hold the message till I called back. I repeated it over and over in my head all the way back to the cramped black box theater. Backstage, as I wrote down the number, I excitedly told the girl playing my sister in the show my good fortune, that I got a call from an agent. She looked as though she might burst into tears, and said, “Good for you,” before turning and walking away. During the second act of the play, in front of an empty house, she crossed the stage and slapped me hard in the face. My right ear rang for 10 days.
That night, the metal guys fought over the Danish girlfriend. Evidently at some party she’d squeezed the ass of the one who wasn’t her boyfriend. They screamed at each other for an hour, and then one threw a glass at the other and stormed out. The floor beneath my milk crates shook as he slammed the door.
The next morning, I called J. Michael Bloom & Associates from a payphone on 21st and 8th. The traffic noise was so heavy that I pushed the receiver hard into my left ear to hear, and nearly stuck my finger through my right eardrum. The man on the other end said my picture had caught his eye. He wasn’t used to getting color snapshots from actors. He said I had an interesting face. He said to come in on Saturday morning at 10:15, that I should prepare a monologue. He asked my age. I said 18, not sure why I lied. I was 24. I spent the next three days preparing. I chose an essay from Sam Shepard’s Motel Chronicles about a kid who sees a girl on a train and falls in love with her instantaneously. I worked on it incessantly. I walked down the street muttering the lines to myself. I dreamt about it, and it was my first thought in the morning.
On the elevator up to the 32nd floor, I reminded myself to breathe. “You got this,” I said out loud. “This is where it all begins.” In the office waiting room, an enormous gold JMB logo hung above a striking blonde woman behind a desk. As I approached, she pushed a sign-in sheet in my direction. “Have a seat, they’ll be with you shortly.”
The office reminded me of the law firm where I had been updating books. I thought about my mom. I thought she had probably never been in an office like this. I sat on the leather couch. Two young kids, an Asian boy and an African-American girl, sat clutching their mothers. They didn’t look nervous. Their mothers leafed through magazines. A door opened, and a heavy-set man came out. He looked at the sign-in clipboard and motioned for me to come in. I followed him into a large room where four other agents sat around a thick marble table. As I entered, they all looked up and examined me as if I wasn’t real. The heavy-set man dropped into a chair, flipped his longish bangs out of his eyes, and pushed a pair of glasses onto his round face. He quietly announced my name, and passed my snapshot down the line. “Just breathe. You got this. This is where it all begins.” My body was strangely loose. They all chuckled at the photo as they passed it along.
The heavy-set man took off his glasses. “You’re 18?” I nodded. After a pause he said, “OK. Any time.” I looked around for a chair, sat with my legs folded, took a deep breath and began.
I’m not sure if I have idealized the memory of the next moments in my mind, or if my adrenalized state fogged my memory of it, but to my best recollection, in those four minutes I gave the single best performance of my life. When I finished, my cheeks were wet with tears, lamenting the loss of the girl on the train. That’s all I can really remember. I recall them laughing at one point. The heavy-set man slapped his thick knee, and I remember looking up at the people behind that table. One of them dabbed at her eyes with a tissue. Before I left the room, they handed me a contract.
I walked out onto Sixth Avenue. The Saturday morning traffic was light. On my way to the subway, I seemingly involuntarily raised my hand and hailed a taxi. As the yellow cab bumped its way downtown, I experienced something for the first time in my life. Hope. I rolled down the window, stuck my head out, and laughed.