l-r, Daniel Day-Lewis, Montgomery Clift, Craig Chester
Our guest blogger today is actor/writer, Craig Chester. A pioneering actor in the independent film world, Chester earned a 1993 Independent Spirit Award nomination for his role in the drama Swoon and has appeared in many other seminal independent films, including Grief and I Shot Andy Warhol. His memoir, “Why The Long Face: The Adventures Of A Truly Independent Actor”, was published by St. Martin’s Press. Chester adapted the book into a pilot for Showtime and has since written pilots for NBC and E! He lives in Los Angeles and New York. Chester joins us today to talk about his influences as he pursued acting in the 90′s.
Someone recently asked me if there were specific performances that inspired me to become an actor in my youth. There were two. The first was one that inspired a generation of actors, Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun, which I saw on videotape as a teenager. His naturalistic sleight-of-hand performance was revolutionary in post-war Hollywood when movie actors were, at best, well-intentioned hams. He was the first movie actor to become the role. With every viewing, I studied him, wondering, “How does he do that?” The other performance that inspired me to become an actor was My Left Foot, the first Miramax movie I saw, a film I saw a dozen times. As I watched Daniel Day-Lewis (then a virtual unknown) play Christy Brown, I became obsessed, studying him. It was like watching a brilliant magician. “How does he do that?” became “I want to do that!” Two years later, I was acting in my first movie, Swoon and, while I would never be as good as Clift or Daniel Day-Lewis, I wanted to be and wanting to be very good at something is very important when you’re young.
My Left Foot
- Angry and drunk, Christy causes a scene at a restaurant. In this scene: Christy (Daniel Day-Lewis), Dr. Cole (Fiona Shaw), Peter (Adrian Dunbar)
- Dr. Cole shows up and Christy agrees to attend her new clinic. In this scene: Christy (Daniel Day-Lewis), Mrs. Brown (Brenda Fricker), Dr. Cole (Fiona Shaw)
After Swoon, I was immersed in what is now regarded as independent film’s Golden Age, the 90’s. It was an exciting, thrilling time to be in New York. Everyone was making their movies, and asking everyone else to work on them. There was a sense of community, with everyone rooting for each other to get their movies made, their stories told. We all hung out, it was organic. Nowadays, everyone just wants to be famous, but back then we all just wanted to do really good work. (I don’t think I even heard of the word “networking” until after 2002). I learned so much being around so many brilliant people like Hal Hartley, Christine Vachon, Tom Kalin, Mary Herron, Richard Glatzer, Marcus Hu, Greg Arraki, Ellen Kuras and so many more. Sundance became a way of life as I acted in seven movies that premiered at the festival in its infancy. People always talk about what it was like living through something, a gestalt, and they always say “We had no idea it was special until much later, in retrospect.” I don’t think it was that way for us. We all knew it was special and that we were getting away with murder! Making these art house films that got theatrical releases? And people were going and people were writing about movies like Swoon in US WEEKLY? It was crazy and fun and magical and I got to play so many different kinds of characters because the roles were too ‘edgy’ for big name celebrities. Then it all changed. Big name actors wanted to play the more daring parts, feeling they could stretch their creative muscles in independent films. Hollywood caught on. ‘Indie’ became a genre, with celebrities needed to secure financing. Before that happened though, we indie film actors were lucky. We got to star in movies, play these parts, start our careers during that brief window of time, before the TV and movie stars wanted to come to the party. I often wonder how young, talented, unknown actors break into movies these days. I have no idea. I guess they have to be born in Australia.
In 2003 (shortly after I learned about ‘networking’) I was approached to write a memoir about my experiences working in independent film in the 90’s. Don Roos, already one of my favorite writer/directors (The Opposite of Sex, Happy Endings) had read my book and thought it would be a great premium cable series. We set it up at Showtime and Don mentored me as I wrote my first television pilot. And while the pilot didn’t go to series, Don made me love writing the way Daniel Day-Lewis made me love acting all those years ago. I moved to Los Angeles and, like so many of my indie film alums, found a new home on the small screen. Now I write for television and, I have to say, it feels a little bit like the 90’s — lots of exciting content and risk taking and challenging material with unknown actors carrying the best shows on cable. Now, when I watch My Left Foot, I’m still blown away, I still want to do that. Only now, I don’t just see Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance, I see Jim Sheridan’s masterful direction and he and Shane Connaughton’s beautiful screenplay. Now, I notice it all.
Chester recently performed “Montgomery Clift: The Sequel” on The Moth Radio Hour and NPR is airing it on 93.9 WNYC on Wednesday night at 8pm EST, Saturday at 2pm EST, and then on WNYC’s AM station, 820, on Saturday at 7pm EST. It will be airing in Los Angeles on KPCC Sunday at 11am EST, and on Chicago Public Radio Saturday at 2pm PST.
Tune in for Chester’s revival Moth performance or check out the original performance in New York back in 2010.