Actor Marco Perella Turns His Comic Adventures in the Screen Trade Into Literary Stardom
Jumping out a window. Being gut-shot. Gut-shooting in return. Checking out Lesley Anne Warren's ass.
Marco Perella is running his highlight reel.
Driving a car. Shouting at a suspect. Cattle-prodded. Black goo bubbling from his dying alien lips. Tickling Helena Bonham Carter's ear with a celery stalk -- okay now freeze there, because there's a story behind that ...
This is the second floor of BookPeople, and it's packed, overflowing, with people waiting to hear Perella read excerpts from his new book, Adventures of a No Name Actor, comic tales from the life of a featured player. The reading begins with this reel of a few of his finer screen moments.
The book, which has already received mentions in Entertainment Weekly and The New Yorker, got an enthusiastic response from the SRO hometown crowd in Austin. So how did the longtime Austinite get from Second Bad Guy on the Left to successful comic writer?
Perella slipped into movies sideways. He didn't study acting in college, instead leaving Stanford after his junior year to "go live in a log cabin." He spent 10 years in Taos working construction, fighting forest fires, and singing with rock bands. But then he was persuaded to audition for West Side Story and caught the theatre bug. When the native Texan heard there were paying theatre companies in Austin, he was off, thinking perhaps he could make a living at it. ("Ha!" as he now comments succinctly on the possibility of earning a living wage doing stage work here.) But soon enough he had an agent (after carefully changing out of his construction work clothes and into a suit for their first meeting, he was immediately offered a job playing a construction worker), "... and eventually ... I did mediocre, small, tiny roles!" Laughter from the BookPeople crowd. "But! I made a living at it!" And that was the key. Perella had entered into the sporadically paying and highly unpredictable life of a no-name film actor.
"I am so excited about this. I feel just like a mother." Molly Ivins is introducing Perella at the reading. If not the mother, she is certainly the midwife for this project. For years Perella's audience was confined to his "Hoodlum Friends" list, old friends who received occasional group letters from him with tales of movie adventures. Ivins was on the list for years. One day, in the midst of laughing at one of his stories ("I think it was his account of having been hired to be a Greek god on Olympus for the Dell Computer company's Christmas party," she writes in her foreword to the book), it occurred to her: These could make a book. She sent her agent one of the stories, got a thumbs-up, then sold Perella on the idea as well.
Writing is not an entirely new field for Perella. During last year's commercial strike, he was busy rewriting his own screenplay, titled Milarepa Rocks, for the person who had optioned it. But "I started discovering how it works in L.A.: You write a screenplay, somebody loves it, then they buy it, then they want you to change it," he says. "So it's rewrite after rewrite, trying to -- I realized what I was doing was writing somebody else's story. They wanted to take the bones of mine, and then write their story. And I lost the joy of working on it after a while. So I took it back."
The book business was "totally different. They liked the idea and let me pretty much write it, and when I was done, I was done."
Perella and I are talking at a side table at Curra's. Shortly after we begin, an electronic mariachi band sets up right next to us and begins to play. My tape recorder and I feel defeated, but Perella is nonchalant. He picks up the recorder and puts it close to his mouth to overcome the interview's unexpected musical accompaniment. "Hello-o-o-o, Kate," he says in dreamy, theatrical tones. "When you listen to this tape, there's going to be ... heavy breathing into the tape." Tallish, lanky, gray-haired, but looking considerably younger than a man should who helped rear stepsons now in their 30s, Perella is a third-generation Texan who jokingly laments his Italian name and its limiting effect on his career in Westerns.
We talk about Houston, then in mid-flood, where Perella is heading later that day: "I'm shooting a movie there tomorrow. And the show must go on, you know, they gotta keep the schedule." What movie? "MC Hammer. One of those VH1 movies. I'm the white guy," he adds, unnecessarily.
But times are tough in the Texas film industry. "They're making all the movies in Toronto and Vancouver now," Perella laments. "Texas lost a lot of work because the Canadian government put in incentives to attract Hollywood. And the dollar exchange rate is really good up there, so it's like 30% cheaper to shoot in Canada than it is to shoot in the United States. The whole film industry has changed, they're shooting 40 things in Toronto at any given time, and another 40 in Vancouver." TV movies in particular, once the bread and butter of the Texas film industry, have nearly dried up. "Everybody, the equipment people, crew, we're all just hanging on. It's gotten really bad."
With the film industry slow, it has nevertheless been an almost exhaustingly busy creative year for Perella. Not only has he continued to work in film, but also "I wrote a screenplay, two treatments for two more screenplays. When I finished the book, I just stopped. I had to take a break. I'm not one of these disciplined writers that every morning write their six pages. I live a completely disorganized life, I couldn't do that. I write in bursts." Does he write on the set, in those long dull stretches between camera setups? "Nah," he says, "there's too much going on. I just lie in my trailer and try to read a book. I've found that's the best thing to do on the set, stay out of sight and rest, because sooner or later you're going to get exhausted."
Besides acting, teaching, and writing, this year Perella cut a CD of original songs called Carry Me Home. He does not play the guitar -- nothing that straightforward. "I play the hummel. A very unusual instrument. I've been playing it for 25 years. It's like a dulcimer, but bigger, with more strings. It's kind of like a sitar would sound. It sounds a little bit different." The music? "A kind of strange folk music, more like folk, country, kind of -- I call it folk raga."
Back to no-name acting, Perella muses about the life of an actor, whether bit player or co-star, in a Hollywood film. For all the comical mishaps and dangers that fill his book, Perella says it isn't bad for an actor on the set, even if the role is small. "If you're an actor with a line, at least a line, you're usually well-treated on a set. They make sure you're fine, bring you stuff that you need. The actors get a little respect. They know it's hard, it's hard to act with all this crap going on -- you know, people sticking microphones [in your face]: 'Now -- be real! Be real!' It's hard, and you get some respect." But life is different for those hopefuls with no lines, he cautions. "Not if you're an extra. Don't ever be an extra. I tell all my students, 'Forget it, man,' because they treat you -- that dang caste system starts sticking up its head and turns ugly. They treat you like cows."
But Perella is reluctant to generalize. "The movie business is so strange, it's a moveable feast. Every day is different. Most businesses, you get used to a certain routine and putting it out. But each movie is so different. You're still shooting, and there's sound, there's camera, there's props, there's sets: But each one has a different dynamic, you know?"
Still, certain experiences are special. "I did a movie with John Sayles [Lone Star]," Perella recalls, "a great experience. We were all down in Eagle Pass, and it was hot as hell. But we all stayed in the same motel: the stars, the bit players, the crew, everybody. And it was a very level playing field; everybody was treated well. John Sayles would sit and talk to me as long as he'd talk to a star. Everybody was treated as a human being." Perella pauses briefly. "And everybody pulled together -- those people worked for John Sayles till their fingers bled down to the nub. I mean they loved him, because of the way he treated people. That's the way I wish all the movies were."
Adventures of a No Name Actor contains plenty of stories of famous actors (I was charmed to discover Brian Keith's gloomy resentment at the very existence of Brian Dennehy), but mostly friendly ones -- it is not a gossipy tome. And though there are a few sly digs at badly behaving stars, Perella lightly walks the line between diplomacy and wit. Responding to a question at his BookPeople reading about Chuck Norris, with whom he often appeared in Walker, Texas Ranger, Perella says many laudatory things about Norris and what a blessing the show has been to starving Texas filmworkers. He adds, "He kicked my ass many times. But: He was always nice about it."
That's all very well, but what about that the Helena Bonham Carter celery stalk story?
It's in the book.