People give me things to read. Some of these are kindnesses, meant for my edification, education, or entertainment.
Some are requests. A research paper that my son wants me to check for typos. A email my wife has me check over before she sends it, wanting to be sure it’s clear, and says what she means to say. A long graduate school paper my daughter wants me to scan for grammatical coherence.
And readers have sometimes emailed me things, bizarre things, a misunderstanding of the relationship (I write; you read). I have a byline, therefore I obviously have the secret password to enter the world of publication in print, so if I would just read your six-page essay on climate change and pass it on to the gatekeepers then your impending fame and fortune surely will result.
I tend to be polite, although I almost never read these. I have enough to read, although sometimes I’m tempted to share the secret: First, write something GOOD. Lots of people skip that step, apparently.
This was the first time, though, someone handed me a screenplay.
I wasn’t sure what Arthur Allen wanted, at first. He was a friend of friends, and had some sort of tangential relationship with my daughter, so of course I met with him. And of course I read his screenplay.
And he made it through the first step: He wrote something good.
I had a bad cold that week, the last week in June, or a sinus infection, something. I blame this, then, on my little refractory period, the time it took from having coffee with Arthur and taking his script home to realizing, at some point, that he wasn’t all that interested in my ideas about dramatic structure and pace, although he listened to what I had to say. What he wanted, as I eventually figured out, was for me to be in it.
Yeah. I don’t get it either. You’ll have to ask him.
I’ll tell you what I thought, though: It felt as though someone had asked me to sing the national anthem on Opening Day. It felt as though someone had suggested I go on a first date, or solve a geometry proof. It felt as though someone had asked me to make 10 free throws in a row.
There was a short period in my life in which I was an actor, mostly college, a little professional, but that was long ago, a fact that seemed to make no difference at all to Arthur Allen.
In other words, he was asking me to dust off decades, and consider creating a character, speak lines someone else had written, walk a walk I hadn’t even considered since I was 30 years old, maybe, when took a bow, acknowledged some applause, and exited a small stage, knowing I was done with that part of my life.
It was crazy.
I told him that, too. He wasn’t interested all that much in this, either.
“Winning Dad” was the name of his screenplay, and it has a double meaning, although the adjectival form takes us a while. Mike Clarke is a guy I recognized, living in a cultural box that he probably built himself, on weekends in his garage. I live in my own, although it’s not quite Mike’s (thank you, Ikea).
He has a long marriage, a steady job, a solid faith, a daughter who likes to bait him, and a son who’s gay. He negotiates all of this, as we do, with as much grace as he can muster and more than a few missteps. I like Mike, I would hang out with him, I would ask him for help, I would suggest that daughters are best feared and respected.
And I guess I’d sympathize at his cultural jolt, his awareness that Colby, his son, would not exactly be following in his father’s footsteps. I have held babies and dreamed dreams, imagined and expected futures that will not, would not, could not come to pass. Some of this was pleasant and surprising; some was more complicated. But I do understand, a little.
Mike Clarke loves his son, wants to spend time with him, wants to embrace the relationship and make it stronger, as does Colby. Mike is aware that Colby is gay, acknowledges it, sets it aside and tries not to think about it too much. You can sneer at him for this, or maybe just accept that he’s doing the best he can, given his box, and hope for some understanding down the road.
The road, as it turns out, will play a part in all of this.
And somehow I agreed to be in this small, independent film, this dream of a young filmmaker.
What attracted me to this script is that conflict and pain and resolution are provoked by honesty, by speaking the words that rumble around in our minds, kept unspoken out of privacy, or fear, or shame. It fascinates me, this honesty, as brutal and ugly as it can get. It tends to clear out the corners to make room for love, and at some point we all have to deal with love. At some point, that’s all there is, and should be.
The web site, www.winningdad.com, is now open for business. You can find pictures and bios, ways to participate and contribute to the project. I’ll probably have more to say later on; we still have six months until filming begins, and I’ve already got a couple of fun stories.
In the meantime, I’ll start growing my beard back, and look forward to summer, when it appears I’m going to be singing the national anthem, one way or another. Here’s to winning that one.