You had me at “psychopath”

My friend leaned over the back of the church pew and asked me, “Why don’t you do this?”

“I used to,” I said. “I don’t know. It just doesn’t speak to me anymore.”

We were sitting at the front of the Universalist Church, immediately across the border in Derby Line, Vt. Around us were a handful of adults and children, all auditioning for roles in next season’s plays at the Haskell Opera House, or in my case chauffeuring a thespian aspirant. (“Take two thespian aspirants and curtain-call me in the morning.”) Abby had tried out the weekend before and had received a call-back for a part in Oliver!

I was excited about her audition because when I was her age I had been in Oliver! Oh, let’s not be coy; I was Oliver! Exclamation mark and all! I was double-cast with my best friend David Smith. He would play Oliver one night and I the next. On the off nights we were orphans and pickpockets. Being in that first major production taught me a lot about the alchemy of theatre. In addition, it taught me the word “pathos,” which, according to the theatre critic in The Antigonish Casket, I sorely lacked in comparison to David. It also taught me that theatre critics are big, mean jerks.

Despite this harsh lesson, which someday I may get over (though at this point I doubt it), I continued acting. In fact, I considered acting as a career until I realized I’d have to spend a lot of time around actors. That’s not as mean as it sounds. I was and am an introvert at heart. For actors, everything is huge and broad and arms in the air. I discovered I couldn’t pull that off for long periods. I also discovered that there were other ways to get girls, so naturally I put acting aside.

Instead, I became a writer. Writers are much quieter than actors, though equally insufferable in their own way, as I have demonstrated on more than one occasion

My last real play was in 1988, not counting the occasional skit or that time I improvised French blues lyrics at a newspaper convention (where I killed, by the way, or quite possibly made a fool of myself; alcohol may have played a factor). The play was Cowboy Mouth by Sam Shepherd and Patti Smith. I played Lobster Man. I wore a lobster suit. Curiously, in this case, alcohol did not play a factor.

“I haven’t acted for 25 years,” I explained to my friend. That was when one of the directors walked up to us and said, “Hi, Ross. I wonder if you would consider reading for the part of Harry Roat in Wait Until Dark.

Wait Until Dark_Alan Arkin_1967She handed me a synopsis of the character, the primary descriptive being “psychopath.” Well, if you put it that way…

If I had had time to walk away and think about it, I probably would have rationalized myself out of the situation, as we tend to do in life – no time, I’ll lose my evenings and weekends, I’ll have to hang out with actors. But here I was, stuck in a church. Who knows? Maybe God wanted me to read for the part. Oh wait, this was a Unitarian-Universalist church; maybe a spiritual web of existence wanted me to read for the part.

Sitting there, I thought, how often does a person get to be a manipulating, sinister bad guy? I mean outside of the house? Why not revisit this creative side, see if there’s still something there inside me? Why not once again be huge and broad and hands in the air? After requisite stretching, of course. And followed by a gentle nap.

So I read. I got the part. My friend is in the play with me, and Abby is an orphan/pickpocket in Oliver!

I’m excited about taking this risk and, more to the point, being mean and evil. Totally against type, right kids? Right? Hello…?

The production isn’t until October, so I have lots of time to figure out my character. For instance, am I a true psychopath or merely a sociopath? Just what kind of path am I? Given the flimsy state of my body 25 years since I last acted, I’m probably the path of least resistance.

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About rossmurray1

I'm Canadian so I pronounce it "Aboot." No, I don't! I don't know any Canadian who says "aboot." Damnable lies! But I do know this Canadian is all about humour (with a U) and satire. Come by. I don't bite, or as we Canadians say, "beet."
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64 Responses to You had me at “psychopath”

  1. Elyse says:

    Fantastic! I used to act, wanted to do it professionally way back when. So I am envious! But I would make a poor Harry without that operation. And I never was willing to go that far for my art.

  2. Karen says:

    OMG! I loved the movie Wait Until Dark! And because I’m an illiterate American, I had no idea it was a play until this very second when I read your post.

    You really can’t pass on the opportunity to play Roat, though, can you? That’s the best role in the story, don’t you think? Other than Susy, which, for obvious reasons (you’d probably have to shave your beard) the director did not consider you for. Or maybe you wouldn’t have to shave your beard to play Susy–how good of an actor are you?

  3. Twindaddy says:

    I used to act…out. Eh, who’m I kidding? I still do. I’m ornery.

  4. pinklightsabre says:

    Great news for you and Abby. I can actually see you playing that role that Pacino played. The Cowboy Mouth role, too. He must have named that play from the Dylan song, I’d think. And they were doing some funny drugs back then, with the large lobsters and what not. I think he’s my favorite playwright. Enjoy getting ready for the role! That’s marvelous. Sinister!

    • rossmurray1 says:

      From what I read the other day (I had forgotten that Patti Smith had co-written it), you are correct about the Dylan influence. I also learned that the two were shacking up at the Chelsea Hotel at the time, that Shepherd had left his wife, and that he played this very autobiographical role just the opening night, then said, “This is too hard” and bolted.
      Sinister!

      • pinklightsabre says:

        My mom gave me the book with Patti Smith and Maplethorpe for X mas. I think that book is next. T. c. Boyle may actual be too coarse for me. Sinister and lacking humanity or something.

  5. I was Peter Rabbit in the 2nd grade production of Peter Rabbit. That’s the main character, FYI, but I’m not boasting…

    Does this mean that you’ll become even more insufferable than you are as just a writer? I’ll need to prepare myself mentally to visit this site a bit more, if yes. Have fun with it either way!

  6. Addie says:

    I await an autographed program.

  7. The Cutter says:

    Just don’t go all Heath Ledger on us.

  8. Food! Glorious food!

    Thanks for the earworm. Erg.

    Of COURSE you know that theater critics are all bitter, failed actors, right?

    Congrats on the part. It’s a juicy one that you’ll have loads of fun with. Unlike Oliver!, Wait Until Dark isn’t family fare, which is a good thing, if you ask me. I can’t IMAGINE why he thought you’d be good for the role?

  9. franhunne4u says:

    so you are going to be a bad guy for a change … oh, well, maybe not, but for today I try to be nice and pretend you are ..

  10. benzeknees says:

    I love Wait Until Dark! I have a VHS of it! I watch it every once in a while – when I’m in an Audrey Hepburn state of mind (& let’s face it – who isn’t in an Audrey Hepburn state of mind often?). I hope you play a very sinister psychopath – the controlled psychosis was so integral to this character!

  11. El Guapo says:

    Congratulations, to you and your daughter!

    Every time the Director directs you, ask “what’s my motivation” at least three times.
    Directors love that!
    (Plus, it will help you get better direction, since Director will start to think you’re a psychopath.)

  12. Kylie says:

    hahahahahhahahahaha! You must share video of this. YOU MUST.

    Here are some tips on sociopathy: http://thelifeofkylie.com/2014/01/20/what-is-narcissism/

  13. This is amazing. When I read the first sentence I thought it would reveal that you used to be a priest! Alas, just an actor. You should read Jon Ronson’s book The Psychopath Test!

  14. Annie says:

    Sounds very exciting. Good for you, Ross!

  15. ksbeth says:

    this is fantastic news. for both of you. and ‘on the off nights we were orphans and pickpockets,’ is my favorite line of this whole post.

  16. List of X says:

    I think you’d be good at it, Ross.  I always thought that comedians have the potential to nail the psychopath roles.  Whenever I watch a Bill Murray comedy or Louie CK, I always think “oooh, he’d be soooo good as a psycho bad guy”.  Maybe it has something to do with not taking other people seriously…

  17. All I can say is that this had better make it onto YouTube.
    Also, you’ll kill it. I mean, perhaps you’ll severely maim it. But in a kind, Ross-like way. Not like a real psychopath.
    At all.
    ~K.

  18. Nic says:

    1. “Equally insufferable in their own way.” Ha!
    2. At first I was like “1988! That’s the year I was born. Ross stopped acting and it’s all my fault!” but then I kept reading, and now I kind of want to take a trip to Canada in October to see this production.

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