Summer 2010: Features
Mastering the ‘Profession of Rejection’
By Susan Carini 04G
Here is a common message that actor Chris DesRoches 02Ox 04C receives from his agent: “The blond-haired, blue-eyed guy got cast; he looks better with the female lead.” After six years in the City of Angels, DesRoches—whose stage name is Christopher J. Maxwell—works as a doorman in a fancy hotel while waiting for doors to open for him.
In 2006, DesRoches and his twin brother, Joshua—also an actor—were in Sequoia National Park hiking. Once back in cell range, DesRoches had twenty missed calls. His desperate agent reported that they had gotten a casting call for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The script was shopped around Hollywood for years, in part because of the enormous special effects challenges surrounding the protagonist’s being born a man who—per the F. Scott Fitzgerald short story—is “three score and ten” and whose biological clock ticks backward.
The unusual casting call that resulted called for DesRoches and his brother to stage a fight scene with one another. One of the casting staff, unwitting about the brawl’s nature, wanted to call the police. The brothers’ reps called a few days later: “David Fincher loved the tape.” They pinched themselves, then one another. It was the first they had heard about who would helm the long-orphaned property.
They filmed two weeks in New Orleans, then eight weeks at Sony Studios in Culver City. DesRoches and his brother are part of a tugboat crew that Button joins. Fincher, a notorious perfectionist, would put his actors through thirty to forty takes per scene, when six is average. In their scene, which involves a battle at sea, DesRoches and his brother would get soaking wet. Then change. Then get soaked again.
In Culver City, they were using a green screen, which DesRoches had never encountered before. The scene calls for many bodies in the water to be chopped up by a rudder. With a green screen, as DesRoches notes, “there is no water, no bodies, no rudder. Your imagination has to soar. Your only company is the guys with laser pointers trying to figure out the green screen angles. It was insane.”
But, oh, the perks of life on the set of a mainstream film: Brad Pitt coming out of makeup, where he spent four to five hours a day, and holding the door for DesRoches and his brother. Spying Angelina Jolie. Or how about sitting with Fincher, sipping coffee and watching the dailies?
Benjamin Button was amazing, but nothing like it has suggested itself since for the brothers DesRoches, and the economy is to blame. In a normal year in Hollywood, around two hundred pilots get made. Last year, sixty-seven. With fewer properties being developed, there is a domino effect: A-list actors taking TV roles, TV stars becoming costars, and so on. And here’s a stat DesRoches finds hard to forget: an actor at his level might land one part for every sixty auditions. Last year, he went on a grand total of four auditions.
There are a few comforts. Having been a theater studies major at Emory, he feels far better prepared than the “beautiful kids who stream off the buses every day here.” Recalls his Emory mentor, Alice Benston, professor of theater studies, “Chris was given the lead role in a Theater Emory play while still a student at Oxford. I observed how grounded he was, capable of working with very difficult material.” DesRoches feels well served by Theater Emory’s program of pairing professional actors with students. “Now, if I need to slap an audition in the face, I hire a coach,” he says. “That’s the thing I miss about Emory—the intense study and small community.”
On days with no casting calls, the brothers keep one another on their toes. Joshua will wake up some mornings using an absurd accent, á la Peter Sellers, and not let up until DesRoches joins him. “I feel more at ease working beside him. It helps me be more involved in the scene. After all,” DesRoches laughs, “I have known him since day one.”
Parents Janet and Paul help—a lot. As they note, “We have seen people cheer for a harpsichord recital (never knowing it wasn’t real) by Chris and cry when Mozart [Amadeus] died. We’ve seen our sons hang their souls on the line to dry, for everyone to see. You have to worry, wonder, love, and trust—all simultaneously—when you’re the parents of an actor.”
Though fewer, the happy calls still get made. Such as the one from the casting director to the brothers asking if they were interested in a new Edward Albee play about twins that will run off Broadway this summer. Albee himself will be involved.
Though the decision-making process was an agony, ultimately the brothers said no. Now this long in Los Angeles, it’s hard to squint and see New York.