How is Good Acting Like Being a Power-Bottom? (And Bad Acting Like Being a Bossy Bottom?)
One of my novels has the answer.
This is an excerpt from my book, The Otto Digmore Decision, about a gay disabled guy trying to make it as an actor in Hollywood.
Some directors are nurturing, creating an emotional bond with their actors, an environment of total trust right from the start. That way they're able to tell the actors uncomfortable truths in an atmosphere of love and support. These directors have a way telling you exactly what you most need to hear, at exactly the moment when you most need to hear it.
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Other directors are more disciplinarian, like a hard-ass sports coach. These directors are harder on their actors, and much less supportive. At times they might be distant or even outright cold with you. This can be tough in the moment, but at some point, you realize it's part of a long-term strategy. They're being distant with you because they want your character to feel lost. Or they're hyper-critical because they want you to find your character's anger. Once you make the breakthrough, you end up being grateful that the director helped you access some difficult part of the character that couldn't otherwise reach on your own.
Then there's Gabriel St. Pierre.
He isn't either kind of director. He doesn't seem to have much strategy at all. In the days of rehearsal that follow, I learn his direction is all obvious, surface stuff. He directs us like we're doing a television movie: really broad and simple, everything underlined so no one could ever possibly miss it. He doesn't even try to look beyond the scene, to see what's going on under the surface.
Which is a problem because the director is supposed to be the one with the vision, the person who understands the story more than anyone. A good director knows how everything fits together, and how every little thing serves the overall movie. He's the one who makes everyone else's choices make sense — not just the actors, but the set and costume designers, the director of photography, the light and sound technicians, even the guy who knocks the clapperboard together. Every single person involved with the movie.
If Gabriel has a vision, I can't see it.
Then again, maybe he doesn't need a vision, because Russel's screenplay is good. If he just films the thing the way Russel wrote it, maybe it'll still end up an okay movie.
Two weeks after rehearsals begin, we're rehearsing again, a flirty, subtext-y scene between Benjamin and Felicia in Benjamin's workshop. Benjamin is explaining the forging process to Felicia, talking about anvils and tongs and bellows, and the process that makes things hotter and harder. Except he's really talking about the physical attraction between him and Felicia. It's clever dialogue, more than just sex puns. My character is outside, and overhears through a window, and then Dodge stares across the marketplace at Mika, as if he's wondering if any woman will ever see him the way Benjamin and Felicia are starting to see each other.
"More!" Gabriel directs me at one point. "When you look at Mika, you have stars in your eyes. She's everything you want a woman to be!"
Which is terrible direction. When Dodge looks at Mika, he doesn't have stars in his eyes. He has longing, yes, but also pain and fear and resentment, and also lust because I've already decided that Dodge is a twenty-nine year-old virgin. He went to a brothel once as a teenager, and the women all looked horrified that he might touch them, so he left and never went back.
Before long, we break for lunch.
By now, I've learned that Clayton Beck never goes anywhere without a slightly rotating entourage of at least three people. They wait in the hallway while we rehearse. They must also listen at the door because the second Gabriel calls for lunch, they appear and whisk Clayton off to see and be seen at one of the crazy-expensive bistros right outside the lot. I'm a little disappointed because I'd hoped he and I might go to lunch together. By this point, I've only said a grand total of eight sentences to Clayton, not counting scenes where our characters have talked. Even in real life, he has that perfect movie star drawl.
But Allison doesn't have an entourage, and she asks me if I want to grab a bite.
"I'd love to," I say, and we end up getting sandwiches at one of the commissaries, then searching for a place to eat outside. Along the way, we talk about our different pasts, and I learn that her sophistication is a conscious choice: a public identity she made up. She's really a small town girl from Alabama.
"You don't have an accent," I say.
"Lost that before I lost my virginity," she says proudly, also revealing her twang.
I feel stupid I hadn't considered that her sophistication was all an act. People in Hollywood are famous for reinventing themselves. I never cared about the way I dressed until I moved here.
We find a bench to eat, and I say, "Hey, what did you mean the other day when you said that the movie will be good if Gabriel doesn't screw it up?" I've been meaning to ask her this for a while.
She takes a huge bite of her sandwich and talks with her mouth full. "What?"
"The day of the first read-through," I say.
She swallows and thinks for a second. "Just something I heard. Why? What do you think of him so far?"
I have an opinion, but I'm not sure I want to say it out loud in case it gets back to him.
"Come on," she says. "Just say it." She has mustard on her lips, and also a little smirk.
I laugh. "Okay, I'm not very impressed. But —"
"—you're still hoping it might be a strategy to get something out of you? Yeah, sorry, no, I think he really is that thick. 'When you look at her, you've got stars in your eyes.' Ha!"
"Are you saying he's a bad director?"
"Sure as hell seems that way."
"Snark was good." This is the last movie he directed.
"I heard they saved it in editing. And he had a good DP — like, really good. Who Gabriel fought every step of the way." The DP is the director of photography, also known as the cinematographer. The guy who controls how the movie looks.
"Maybe that will happen this time too."
"Maybe," she says, but it's clear she doesn't believe it.
"So what are you saying? You think the movie's going to suck?"
"Oh, anything can suck. Who the fuck knows?"
"You're not worried?"
She takes another bite right before she speaks, talking with her mouth full again. I like that she already feels like she can be her real self around me. That she doesn't need to pretend to be a dainty sophisticate like she's on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.
"I'm always worried," she says. "But there's nothing I can do about the movie itself. The only thing I control is my own performance. So when a director is bad, I use a strategy. Then even if the movie's a piece of shit, I don't embarrass myself."
"What kind of strategy?"
She swallows and thinks for a second. "You're gay, right?"
I'm surprised but try not to act offended or anything. "Uh, how did you know…?"
"Good gaydar. So if you're gay, you know the difference between a bossy bottom and a power bottom."
"I do?" Now I'm even more surprised. What is Allison talking about? Why did she bring this up?
"Don't you?" she goes on.
"Let's say I don't."
"Well, both a bossy bottom and a power bottom are when the bottom is in control of the fuck, right? Not the top, which is more typical. A bossy bottom is what it sounds like: someone who fusses and complains, and is just generally difficult to be around. High maintenance. In the end, it's going to be a bad fuck — for the top, but also for the bottom."
I laugh because I don't know what else to do. "Okay."
"But a power bottom is when the bottom takes control, but it ends up being a good fuck. So how does he do that? He's in charge, but he works with the top. He doesn't bitch and complain. He might figure out what the top wants, and then use that to guide the top to do what the bottom wants. Or he might dominate the top, forcing him to satisfy the bottom's needs, but in such a way that it totally gets the top off too. Basically, rather than ignore the top, treating him like he's a dildo or a blow-up doll, he gets inside the top's head, working with his desires, opening him up and getting him to a place where the bottom is totally in control."
I'm trying very hard not to blush. And failing.
"This is all very interesting," I say. "But what does it have to do with what we were talking about?" I'm also wondering how she knows so much about gay male sex, although even as I think this, I realize that maybe heterosexuals have a "top" and a "bottom" in their sex too, and it's not necessarily the man who's the top. I've never had sex with a woman.
"Well, it's exactly the same dynamic for an actor and director," Allison explains. "The director is the top, obviously, and the actor is the bottom — again, obviously. And usually the director is in control, just like in sex. But if it's a bad director, the actor needs to take control, because otherwise you end up with a bad performance. But you can't be a bossy bottom, because you'll still end up with a bad show. So you need to be a power bottom. You need to take control of your own performance, but do it in such a way that the director is on board, and loves you for taking charge."
I think about all this. Her description of sex isn't anything like the sex I've had in my life. But apart from the actual "sex" thing, she's making a certain kind of sense. It's a good metaphor or whatever.
I burst out laughing.
"What?" Allison says, gauging me with a smile.
"That might be the smartest thing I've ever heard about the actor-director relationship in my entire life."
"Right? It's spot-on, isn't it? I want to write it up and post it somewhere, but I can't do it under my real name."
"So you and I need to power-bottom our way to good performances? Turn Gabriel into our little bitch?"
"Now you've got it." She gives me a kind of "Cheers!" with her Diet Sprite, then takes a swig.
"Because otherwise we're both gonna be screwed," I say, "and not in the good way."
Allison laughs, squirting Diet Sprite out of her nose and onto her blouse, and that makes us both laugh harder.
I liked Allison before, but now I really like her.
I also feel a little burst of optimism about the movie. Power bottom? I can do this. The more I think about it, the more I realize I might have some idea what she's talking about even in actual sex.
This is an excerpt from my latest book, The Otto Digmore Decision, about a gay disabled guy trying to make it as an actor in Hollywood.
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