Jumping out a window. Being gut-shot. Gut-shooting in return.
Checking out Lesley Anne Warren's ass.
Marco Perella is running his highlight reel.
Driving a car. Shouting at a suspect. Cattle-prodded. Black goo
bubbling from his dying alien lips. Tickling Helena Bonham Carter's ear
with a celery stalkokay now freeze there, because there's a story
behind that ...
This is the second floor of BookPeople, and it's packed, overflowing,
with people waiting to hear Perella read excerpts from his new book,
Adventures of a No Name Actor, comic tales from the life of a
featured player. The reading begins with this reel of a few of his finer
The book, which has already received mentions in Entertainment
Weekly and The New Yorker, got an enthusiastic response from
the SRO hometown crowd in Austin. So how did the longtime Austinite get
from Second Bad Guy on the Left to successful comic writer?
Perella slipped into movies sideways. He didn't study acting in
college, instead leaving Stanford after his junior year to "go live in a
log cabin." He spent 10 years in Taos working construction, fighting
forest fires, and singing with rock bands. But then he was persuaded to
audition for West Side Story and caught the theatre bug. When the
native Texan heard there were paying theatre companies in Austin, he was
off, thinking perhaps he could make a living at it. ("Ha!" as he
now comments succinctly on the possibility of earning a living wage doing
stage work here.) But soon enough he had an agent (after carefully
changing out of his construction work clothes and into a suit for their
first meeting, he was immediately offered a job playing a construction
worker), "... and eventually ... I did mediocre, small, tiny roles!"
Laughter from the BookPeople crowd. "But! I made a living at it!" And that
was the key. Perella had entered into the sporadically paying and highly
unpredictable life of a no-name film actor.
"I am so excited about this. I feel just like a mother." Molly Ivins is
introducing Perella at the reading. If not the mother, she is certainly
the midwife for this project. For years Perella's audience was confined to
his "Hoodlum Friends" list, old friends who received occasional group
letters from him with tales of movie adventures. Ivins was on the list for
years. One day, in the midst of laughing at one of his stories ("I think
it was his account of having been hired to be a Greek god on Olympus for
the Dell Computer company's Christmas party," she writes in her foreword
to the book), it occurred to her: These could make a book. She sent her
agent one of the stories, got a thumbs-up, then sold Perella on the idea
Writing is not an entirely new field for Perella. During last year's
commercial strike, he was busy rewriting his own screenplay, titled
Milarepa Rocks, for the person who had optioned it. But "I started
discovering how it works in L.A.: You write a screenplay, somebody loves
it, then they buy it, then they want you to change it," he says. "So it's
rewrite after rewrite, trying toI realized what I was doing was
writing somebody else's story. They wanted to take the bones of mine, and
then write their story. And I lost the joy of working on it after a while.
So I took it back."
The book business was "totally different. They liked the idea and let
me pretty much write it, and when I was done, I was done."
Perella and I are talking at a side table at Curra's. Shortly after we
begin, an electronic mariachi band sets up right next to us and begins to
play. My tape recorder and I feel defeated, but Perella is nonchalant. He
picks up the recorder and puts it close to his mouth to overcome the
interview's unexpected musical accompaniment. "Hello-o-o-o, Kate," he says
in dreamy, theatrical tones. "When you listen to this tape, there's going
to be ... heavy breathing into the tape." Tallish, lanky,
gray-haired, but looking considerably younger than a man should who helped
rear stepsons now in their 30s, Perella is a third-generation Texan who
jokingly laments his Italian name and its limiting effect on his career in
We talk about Houston, then in mid-flood, where Perella is heading
later that day: "I'm shooting a movie there tomorrow. And the show must go
on, you know, they gotta keep the schedule." What movie? "MC Hammer. One
of those VH1 movies. I'm the white guy," he adds, unnecessarily.
But times are tough in the Texas film industry. "They're making all the
movies in Toronto and Vancouver now," Perella laments. "Texas lost a lot
of work because the Canadian government put in incentives to attract
Hollywood. And the dollar exchange rate is really good up there, so it's
like 30% cheaper to shoot in Canada than it is to shoot in the United
States. The whole film industry has changed, they're shooting 40 things in
Toronto at any given time, and another 40 in Vancouver." TV movies in
particular, once the bread and butter of the Texas film industry, have
nearly dried up. "Everybody, the equipment people, crew, we're all just
hanging on. It's gotten really bad."
With the film industry slow, it has nevertheless been an almost
exhaustingly busy creative year for Perella. Not only has he continued to
work in film, but also "I wrote a screenplay, two treatments for two more
screenplays. When I finished the book, I just stopped. I had to take a
break. I'm not one of these disciplined writers that every morning write
their six pages. I live a completely disorganized life, I couldn't do
that. I write in bursts." Does he write on the set, in those long dull
stretches between camera setups? "Nah," he says, "there's too much going
on. I just lie in my trailer and try to read a book. I've found that's the
best thing to do on the set, stay out of sight and rest, because sooner or
later you're going to get exhausted."
Besides acting, teaching, and writing, this year Perella cut a CD of
original songs called Carry Me Home.
He does not play the guitar --
nothing that straightforward. "I play the hummel.
A very unusual
instrument. I've been playing it for 25 years. It's like a dulcimer, but
bigger, with more strings. It's kind of like a sitar would sound. It
sounds a little bit different." The music? "A kind of strange folk music,
more like folk, country, kind of I call it folk raga."
Back to no-name acting, Perella muses about the life of an actor,
whether bit player or co-star, in a Hollywood film. For all the comical
mishaps and dangers that fill his book, Perella says it isn't bad for an
actor on the set, even if the role is small. "If you're an actor with a
line, at least a line, you're usually well-treated on a set. They make
sure you're fine, bring you stuff that you need. The actors get a little
respect. They know it's hard, it's hard to act with all this crap going on
you know, people sticking microphones [in your face]: 'Nowbe real!
Be real!' It's hard, and you get some respect." But life is
different for those hopefuls with no lines, he cautions. "Not if you're an
extra. Don't ever be an extra. I tell all my students, 'Forget it, man,'
because they treat youthat dang caste system starts sticking up its
head and turns ugly. They treat you like cows."
But Perella is reluctant to generalize. "The movie business is so
strange, it's a moveable feast. Every day is different. Most businesses,
you get used to a certain routine and putting it out. But each movie is so
different. You're still shooting, and there's sound, there's camera,
there's props, there's sets: But each one has a different dynamic, you
Still, certain experiences are special. "I did a movie with
John Sayles [Lone Star]," Perella recalls, "a great
experience. We were all down in Eagle Pass, and it was hot as hell. But we
all stayed in the same motel: the stars, the bit players, the crew,
everybody. And it was a very level playing field; everybody was treated
well. John Sayles would sit and talk to me as long as he'd talk to a star.
Everybody was treated as a human being." Perella pauses briefly. "And
everybody pulled togetherthose people worked for John Sayles till
their fingers bled down to the nub. I mean they loved him, because of the
way he treated people. That's the way I wish all the movies were."
Adventures of a No Name Actor contains plenty of stories of
famous actors (I was charmed to discover Brian Keith's gloomy resentment
at the very existence of Brian Dennehy), but mostly friendly onesit is
not a gossipy tome. And though there are a few sly digs at badly behaving
stars, Perella lightly walks the line between diplomacy and wit.
Responding to a question at his BookPeople reading about Chuck Norris,
with whom he often appeared in Walker, Texas Ranger, Perella says
many laudatory things about Norris and what a blessing the show has been
to starving Texas filmworkers. He adds, "He kicked my ass many times. But:
He was always nice about it."
That's all very well, but what about that the Helena Bonham Carter
celery stalk story?
It's in the book.