I ACT THE BODY ELECTRIC
Kearns in The Dirtiest Show In Town
My body has always figured prominently in my work as an actor—from the hippie freedom of let’s-get-naked to express sexual liberation in The Dirtiest Show In Town (1972) to the darker regions of the diseased body’s emotionality in Jerker (throughout the Eighties and Nineties). After the turn of the century, nudity became organic in two new pieces, Comeback (2003) and Torch (2011). Over the decades, the canvas of my body has metamorphosed from boy’s white smoothness to man’s toughness to older man’s vulnerability while continuing to serve the craft of storytelling. I did love scenes in a few indies, without undies, having sex with either gender.
If there was initially a tinge of exhibitionism in the early work, it has become—as the decades unravel—increasingly less about me and more about the character I’m portraying. I just finished filming The Stonewall Nation, a short in which I play yet another character who’s defined by what his body (and voice) reveal and don’t reveal. As any actor knows, what the character verbally expresses provides only a partial blueprint in building the character’s fullness.
Don Jackson had a vision: to create a gay county, a utopia, in which homosexuals would live freely on a part of the land that they would govern. Part visionary and part missionary, Jackson is equally parts narcissistic and misogynistic. While his intentions are sincere, and some of his theories are revolutionary and seductively presented, he is also a wounded soul, a man who acknowledges “no relationships, only casual encounters.” (One of those encounters, not depicted in the film, involves his murder.)
Sille Storihle, a young Norwegian artist, emailed me several months ago to ascertain my interest in playing Don Jackson. The film would not, she said, be a straightforward narrative; rather, it would be molded with several artistic elements including a recreated interview of Don that had been shot “for archival purposes in 1986” when he was in his sixties, after his Stonewall Nation had floundered. My criteria for taking on an acting assignment these days is based on one thing: Does the project allow me to access something I have yet to summon as an actor?
I auditioned, like everyone else. I was given access to the video of
which I attempted to sponge into my consciousness (and subconsciousness) before
I met with the filmmaker. There was a callback in which I went one step further
and endeavored to capture Jackson
in an improvised interview between Storihle and me. That was when my persona
and the melding of actor and character commenced its ineluctable marriage.
I got the part and was given more than twenty pages of script, extracted from the interview, which were to be learned, not precisely memorized, before our shooting dates. It was incumbent upon me to know Don’s interior mindset more than know my lines; to know how he would respond to questions regarding The Stonewall Nation that he championed.
Our first day of shooting took place in the Trona Pinnacles, an evocative part of
desert landscape that sprouts penis-like mountains with high testosterone
levels. This aspect of the film was entirely generated by the filmmaker’s
sensibility: Storihle’s way of finding the archetypical American cowboy that
resided in Jackson’s
body. In the interview footage, he is so still that he appears to be virtually
imploded. But we know that his body, no matter how inanimate on screen, carries
his history, his gay history of “casual sex” and desire and fear and longing
and pain. Amidst the earth’s faux cocks, we “collaborated” (at Storihle’s
insistence) on excavating Don in Michael’s body. Or maybe Michael in Don’s
After several grueling hours of mountain climbing, my emotions began to unwind in all directions, lifted by the gusting wind and my affinity with Don’s dreamy visions. We partnered with the light (it’s all about the light when you’re shooting a movie outdoors as the sun begins its descent); sunlight and sundown that created dramatic splashes of pink and streaks of orange amidst roller coaster clouds of fifty shades of blue.
A day of rest (for me, not the rest of the film’s stalwarts) was followed by a change of location for my second day of shooting (the director’s prerogative). Instead of shooting the mock interview footage in front of a silken backdrop as initially envisioned, Storihle decided to place Don in a questionable motel on
Boulevard. The film is clearly intended to
manifest our version of Don, not striving for verisimilitude but rather for the
emotional truths of this forgotten man who is decidedly part of our history. We
felt responsible to Don yet we also awarded ourselves artistic leniency.
“I always have to fall in love with the DP [Director of Photography],” I told the producer; in this case, the DP was a straight guy, presumably in his thirties, from a
Hollywood family. Overhearing
me, he said, “And vice versa.” He (or she) is the one who ultimately bores into
your psyche with the camera’s technological powers.
As we shot the footage of Don’s interview—seated on the edge of one of the two double beds in the room, identically covered with a bland pastel flowery pattern—Michael left the room and Don made an eerie appearance. The camera did not stop for more than fifty minutes.
Not taking time to break the spell we’d created, Storihle gave me a few intimate directions to simply “be Don in the motel room, immediately after the interview, starting with looking out the window onto
then sitting down and taking off your boots.” She conferred with the DP and the
sound man while I tried to remain living in Don’s body.
On a conscious level, I don’t “know” what happened because I had taken up residence in a different stratosphere—a different body, if you will. But I do know that I tried to get comfortable in the bed; as Michael would, and I turned one of the pillows into someone I could hug tightly in an attempt to fall asleep. When that didn’t work, I removed my socks. Then my pants. My long-sleeved shirt and my t-shirt.
I was unaware of anyone else in the room. I found comfort in pulling on my dick, thinking of the boys I’d seen on the Boulevard with their shaved heads, flashy tattoos and muscles for sale. It was making Don hard; so hard that his cock inevitably grew beyond the confines of his jockey shorts.
I felt the DP’s knee next to me on the bed as his camera surveyed every inch of my body closeup. I entrusted my body to him, knowing he was also looking for Don’s imprint. I think that’s art.
I am indebted to this body in its current state, still able to serve me in creating a character of such depth and complexity.
I sing the body electric
The armies of those I love engirth me, and I engirth them;
They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them,
And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the soul
Was it doubted that those who corrupt their own bodies conceal themselves;
And if those who defile the living are as bad as they who defile the dead?
And if the body does not do as much as the soul?
And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?