In Hollywood more gigs are booked over a martini than through an audition. An actor’s ability to properly function as a human in a social environment (which for some brooding, introverted thespians is difficult) is given more weight than the ability to convincingly read three pages of dialogue in a cold room with a stoic casting director on the third floor of some office building in Burbank that is supposed to mimic, oh, let’s say a pristine beach in Cozumel.
There’s some logic to this. Most of an actor’s time spent on a set is without a camera rolling, and directors want to be completely sure the talent is not going to slow down production with personal antics (cough! Lohan! cough!). No one wants to work with that problem actor who hides in his trailer waiting for monogrammed white M&M’s hand-delivered by a princess riding a unicorn. (OMG, is that Jennifer Lopez? No? Oh hmm, thought I saw her. I digress.) Whether or not one is a prima donna is difficult to gauge through an audition alone. So aside from learning to act, one must also master another skill in this crazy business: industry event conversation.
Have you ever been to a party or a bar where the person you showed up with quickly vanished, stranding you in a room full of people you don’t really know, leaving you with a virtual bull’s-eye on your back? The most inebriated and annoying of the strangers you’re left with will surely come up and engage you in inane, slurred conversation. You can surreptitiously pour out your drink into a potted plant and use the need for a refill to get away. If you are indoors and can’t find a place to ditch your vodka soda with a splash of cran, you can just say you have to pee, then flee. These are tried and true easy exits.
At entertainment events your circumstances can be strikingly similar, and you’d probably want to employ the same tactics. However, many of these inebriated slurrers could potentially hire a working actor, so a graceful exit is a little more complicated. Every conversation is a potential job interview, one in which your interviewer is a little tipsy, Lady Gaga is blaring in the background, and people are doing cocaine in the bathroom. Yeah, it’s never dull on the G-list. (Brad Pitt has assistants to deal with this.)
When you don’t know someone but sense you should, a sort of strained
interaction takes place. An introduction is made — often on the flimsiest
of commonalities — and then something shiny takes away Mr. Matchmaker’s
attention. You are left standing there without the comfort of your
mutual buffer, knowing you are supposed to butter each other up
long enough to not appear rude yet briefly enough to not appear
desperate. A few generic lines pop up over and over, and you must act
just as flattered/interested/inspired each time they are uttered. “Hey,
you look so slim in that suit ... Marc Jacobs?” “What are you working on
these days? It’s hell out there!” “Wasn’t Mo’Nique’s performance
brilliant?” You have to get through this exchange without being awkward.
Politeness, compliments, and brevity go a long way.
It’s no surprise that these surface-oriented conversations undoubtedly run their course rather quickly. The real key to these conversations is moving on without being the rude guy. For maximum impact, you have to be charming from the get-go and depart quickly, making them want more ... more ... more! There is that lingering moment after the last spoken word where neither party knows what to say and, after a nice pregnant pause, the conversation quickly turns to banal topics like your drink of choice or the beauty of the space in which you are standing. If you get to this point, it’s already too late. You must find a way to move on. And you can’t just pour a drink over your shoulder and run for the bar like in your college days. Well, actually, I have done this once or twice — but it’s completely obvious that you’re beyond caring. Another example of flagrant carelessness is the old, “Well, nice chatting with you!” followed by an awkward move to separate corners of the same empty room where each party pretends to text when they are really on Facebook or Grindr. Such is completely transparent and borderline offensive. You have to make a better effort.
In an ideal world you will have a wing-person or assistant who recognizes your dilemma and casually pulls a “Hey David, I gotta talk to you about such-and-such” while politely excusing you from the stale conversation. You quickly exchange business cards with your conversation partner and call it a day. In a less than ideal world you have to fend for yourself. This is where the pros are separated from the amateurs. It really is a bit of an art form getting out of certain sticky situations yet leaving the window open for future contact.
The best one I’ve used was at an Outfest event where I quickly
realized this journalist was more interested in my ass than a feature
story yet I still had to tactfully escape, as he can destroy you with a
single click of the “publish to Internet” button. I told him his
magazine was the absolute favorite of my best friend, John (I forget his
last name) — which was complete bull — but John is known for always being in
the mood when free cocktails abound and the sun has gone down. I knew
John would say whatever he had to say to get laid (plenty of people in
L.A. are good at that kind of improv), so I introduced them to each other. They quickly hit it off, and I escaped like Houdini through a
smoke screen. Neither noticed. Everyone was happy.
Diversion is an excellent tactic. In another instance, I just couldn’t give this producer any more accolades about how much I loved his projects. I actually did love his work — but hey, stoke my ego for a second too, you know? Actors are supposed to be the insecure ones. After five straight minutes of me flinging the compliment-poo like a monkey in a zoo and him just sitting there, I was exhausted. So I meticulously inched us closer and closer to someone with money and introduced them to each other. Producers prefer people with money over actors without any. Problem easily solved. I’d have run for cover, but his back was turned to me quicker than a twink’s to daddy at a circuit party.
In a perfect world, after the hangover the next day, the person you pawned off on someone else has met a new friend and ideally remembers brief but scintillating conversation with you. You find each other on Facebook, exchange pleasantries, and presto — they are now part of the most sought-after category of friends in Hollywood: contacts. Everyone wins. Party networking and the rules of conversation while partaking in it are crucial skills to making it in this town. So pour yourself a martini, put on your charming hat, work that party! Your career depends on it.