When I declared that I would “find myself”1 in college, I had absolutely no idea what that would entail. I was a normal-ish kid from the suburbs of Boston: pretty straitlaced, optimistically unfocused, and feeling like I had won the lottery in going to a school that surely had made some mistake in admitting me. Nonetheless, I was determined to take this gift of an opportunity head-on, expanding my brain and my horizons—and all without the assistance of hallucinogenic drugs! This enthusiasm led to my first theater audition and, I’m happy to say, my first part—not exactly the one I tried out for but rather the role no one wanted. And so after being asked by the director if I was “sure,”2 I entered the stage—as I did this new life’s journey—as a six-foot-three transvestite in Tennessee Williams’s Camino Real. My college experience maintained that special3 trajectory throughout my four years.
High school, for me, hadn’t been much more than classes and sports. By graduation I had heard an estimated ten songs that weren’t played on mainstream radio; my favorite indie movie4 was the no-brainer Say Anything; and when asked what books I’d read I proudly recited the school’s yearly reading list. I don’t mean to say I was clueless, necessarily, but more like I was unaware of the inspiring power of—
OK, I was clueless.
My college education was more intense. Sure, there were the standard university classes—English, math, various sciences—and then there were my real classes,5 which ranged from what I called “Indie Music History”6 to “Play-Reading 101.”7 As the semesters flew by, I dedicated increasingly more time to the latter set than to the former. Long story short: I was quickly becoming a Frankenstein’s monster of extracurricular knowledge. And I was loving every minute of it.
One day a good friend told me that his favorite book was Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. I picked up a copy, and what scared me off at first wasn’t its nearly eleven hundred pages but the sheer damn weight of the thing. As I attempted the first thirty pages8 it was immediately obvious both that this author was operating on a much higher level than any other artist I was downloading from and that there was no way in hell I had the cerebral capabilities to complete the book.9 So for the time being I continued along with those artists who greatly inspired me without necessarily giving me a nosebleed—like Nick Drake and Hal Ashby.
Long story long: At the end of junior year my friend Chris was putting together a staged reading at the student theater. It was to be one night only, and he would cast it with the Big Guns of the university theater world—one of which I wasn’t. But I could dream! I vividly remember eating dinner in the cafeteria on the day of casting; as I grew more sure I wouldn’t be part of his plans, I nervously shoveled food into my mouth without actually tasting anything. And then, as if straight out of an eighties movie—and seemingly in slow motion—Chris appeared and told me that he had only one part left and that he’d like me to play it. This was what I had trained for!
The project was called Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, and we would be reading from the book of the same name by David Foster Wallace. Once again I was confronted with Wallace’s true genius, as well as the worry that my stomach would be unable to withstand the large quantity of Advil I guessed I would need. But at least in comparison to Infinite Jest, this book was more accessible, more identifiable. We all rehearsed our particular interviews separately, meeting up as a group only on the night of the performance to go over minor choreography and staging.
The tiny theater space was packed!10 Among the first interviews to be performed was mine, wherein one man recounts to another the story of the day he arrived at an airport, on business, to find a near-hysterical woman in the gate area. She had been waiting for the man of her dreams to return from Tulsa, where he had vowed he was going to break off his engagement to another woman so as to return to start a new life with her. He never showed up. The interview was one of the most well-written pieces I’d ever read and some of the greatest material to perform. The images were vivid, the dialogue flawlessly funny and in the exact same moment brutal and moving. It is, to this day, one of the most exciting things I’ve had the pleasure to be part of.
Then the rest of the interviews came, and for the next hour or so I witnessed an awe-inspiring night of theater. Each interview was a tremendous performance, each actor creating a completely unique man armed to the teeth with prodigious wit and shattering insecurity, ruthless honesty and borderline hateful ideals. Some in the audience had tears rolling down their faces, while others walked out. Wallace’s writing was the very thing I had started college hoping to find, and without being overly sentimental I can say this night was the defining moment when I realized I wanted to give an acting career a shot.11 I had glimpsed the promised land of inspired art and understood the impact it could have on an audience.
And that, in the end, is my idea of David Foster Wallace—whether his work moves you to tears or to angry retreat, his talent forces you to think about things, to confront things, and hopefully to talk about things.
- I never actually said “find myself” out loud.
- I was, in fact, given a chance to rethink my decision, while the director said things like “an important part” and “You won’t have to wear heels.” In the end, I had to wear heels.
- Special meaning I had a kind of “Em . . . wait. What?” feeling while at the same time following the “It can only get better” bromide.
- My definition of indie at the time was anything I couldn’t find on the New Releases wall at Blockbuster.
- I actually did have pseudo assignments.
- This class would be more accurately titled “Are You F***ing Serious You Haven’t Heard These Guys???”
- Again, more correctly called “How Have You Not Read Angels in America???”
- This required three full days and one bottle of Advil.
- I did finally finish Infinite Jest! And the whole thing required only three bottles of Advil.
- Supposedly, over a hundred people were turned away. And while I’m sure that’s a complete fabrication, it did wonders to intensify the “night of nights” idea I had in my head.
- Nearly a decade later, I’ve written and directed a film adaptation of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, which was itself exactly like my college experience—another crash-course education resulting in one of the most defining episodes of my life. The film opened in theaters September 25.
To read “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” and other stories from the Fall 2009 issue, please purchase a copy from our online store.