Stella! One man’s journey into acting

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From the Spotlighters Theatre, to John Waters’ Movies, to Matt Porterfield’s Sollers Point.

As a subscriber to Baltimore’s “Everyman Theatre,” I and others were given an opportunity, in March, 2016, at a fun-filled event at their space, to give our renditions of the actor Marlon Brando’s famous “Hey, Stellaaaaaaaaaaa” line from the acclaimed play “Streetcar Named Desire.” The judges – two of the actors in the play –  scored participants on a scale of 1 to 10.

One of them told me later, “I gave you a 13 for your effort.” Hey man, that made my day!

By the way, there is a wonderful biography on Brando by Patricia Bosworth (Marlon Brando). Anyone seriously interested in the craft of acting needs to have her book in their library.

Director John Waters

I came late to acting, it was in the 70s. I was in between marriages, working a day job, and needing to find something creative to fill up my spare time at night. (Read, how to stay the hell out of the bars!)

Somebody suggested doing a play at the Spotlighters Theatre on St. Paul Street. I was living downtown at the time, so that worked for me. The late, wonderful Audrey Herman was its artistic director.

Herman quickly cast me in some plays. One of them turned out to be my personal favorite — Agatha Christie’s Mousetrap. I was given the character role of “Major Metcalf,” a retiree from the British Colonial Army. You know the type — pompous, with a huge white mustache which he’s forever tweaking with his hand.

One of my lines in Mousetrap, went like this: “Metcalf: Major. I read about the case in the paper at the time, I was stationed in ‘Edinburgh’ then. No personal knowledge.”

When my Irish mother came to see me perform, I changed the name of town to “Foxford,” her old hometown located in the West of Ireland. She loved it!

After a while, I migrated over to professional acting. One of the first films I worked in, as an extra, was John Waters’ Cry-Baby. That was a lot of fun. It’s a Waters’ classic from 1990. I was in a courtroom scene (Northern Police District on Keswick Road), watching a trial. The shoot lasted a week. Johnny Depp (back in his salad days) had the lead and William Dafoe (who later portrayed Jesus in the Last Temptation of Christ) played a “hateful guard.”

A cameo role (speaking part) for me soon followed. This was also in 1990, in Steve Yeager’s compelling film noir, On the Block. Blaze Starr, the late, legendary “Queen of Burlesque,” played herself. I was cast as “Barney” a pub owner. This was my first Screen Actors Guild movie. Check out the film’s intriguing trailer here.

In 2004, John Waters’ cast me as a “coffee sex addict” in his laugh-a-thon film, A Dirty Shame. I played opposite Big Ethel (Suzanne Shepherd). She was featured in the HBO series, The Sopranos. My line to her is so vulgar that I can’t repeat here in this family-oriented newspaper. Big Ethel, understandably, gets very upset with me and tosses a cup of hot coffee in my mug.

Naturally, to get it right, we had to shoot the scene three or four times, which required me to change my wet shirt each time. I recall Waters’ repeated instructions — “don’t blink!” Later, I thought they should have kept “his line” in the script. It was a winner!

Meanwhile, I was doing some acting work at Center Stage off and on. During most of that time Irene Lewis, a very talented artistic director, was running the show. I got enough playing time in there to get my “Equity” card. I also got a chance to work with some very talented actors, most of them were NYC-based, but included gifted Baltimore-based actors, such as Wil Love.

A one-act play I did at Corner Theatre, then on St. Paul Street, way back when, has stuck with me over the years. It was called The Dodo Bird. It was a very intense drama. I played the very flawed and damaged “Dodo Bird,” the lead character. See here.

Before taking on that task, I took an acting workshop ran by a local director and a true student of the art of acting — Barry Feinstein. He was a big fan of a technique known as “method acting.” It worked for me. I dove into the part.

The expert training I received from Feinstein helped me pull off the “Dodo” part. Trust me, it was a draining role and what I learned from him has stayed with me over the years.

There was another play in my amateur, learning-the-craft days I need to share. It was A Man for All Seasons. The St. Matthews Players put it on at St. Matthews R.C. Church Hall up on Loch Raven Blvd. I was cast as Sir Thomas More. In the movie by the same name, the celebrated actor Paul Scofield played the lead.

There were a lot of lines to learn. Sir Thomas was on stage for most of the play. How did I do in that role?

Well, someone later told me that the night the local nuns from the grade school came to see the play, they all sat in the front row. At the end of that performance, after Sir Thomas makes his eloquent final and moving plea to the court and is sentenced to death, many of them — bless their kind hearts — broke down in tears! Is there a higher compliment?

Matt Porterfield

Over the years, I have had cameo roles in Homicide: Life on the Streets, Pecker, another John Waters’ comedy; two episodes of America’s Most Wanted; Species Two, as a paparazzi; as an older man in 2015 in House of Cards and, recently, in 2016, the TV movie, East Coast Grow and Matt Porterfield’s film, Sollers Point.

Sollers Point is in the post-production process. The flick stars McCaul Lombardi, Jim Belushi and Imani Hakim. It’s about a small time drug dealer Keith (Lombardi) trying to find himself on a difficult reentry into his former working class neighborhood. It is Baltimore-native Porterfield’s fourth film.

Finally, my acting journey has been mostly fun and also, at times, very challenging. It has left me with some wonderful memories. It has also given me a lot of respect for the talented and dedicated folks who make theatre and films such a joy for their audiences.

Top photo of Bill Hughes as Stanley Courtesy of Everyman Theatre