Prison Guard

What I Learned on Chicago P.D.

Last week, I did it. I finally did it. After five years of auditioning for Chicago P.D., I landed a part, a nice speaking part with lines.

It was playing a prison guard. Which is not only in my wheel house, it’s apparently my calling in life. One of my first parts I ever got in TV or film was in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, where I played a prison guard who was terrified as the prisoners were rioting.

My scene was with Tommy Lee Jones. He played the warden. I didn’t have a clue who he was. I thought he was a country music star making a crossover to film.

I remember thinking at the time when we were doing our scene together that he was playing the warden way over the top and he might want to bring it down a little for film. That year, he won the Oscar for The Fugitive.

The next time I played a prison guard was in Public Enemies. Though technically I was not a prison guard, I was custodian, and not just any custodian, but the custodian who John Dillinger scared with a carved piece of soap that looked like gun to make a prison break. Johnny Depp played Dillinger, and I knew who he was from People magazine.

Both parts called for the character to be scared to death, which I was at both auditions, at the call backs and on the set, but this role on Chicago P.D. would have to rely on my acting. Which is a different kind of scary.

The break down called for a “nerdy, brusque” prison guard. The nerdy part was easy. I just had to show up. The brusque part was where the acting would have to come in.

The late Jane Alderman, who was a casting director and a teacher of mine, would always say to me, though I did not get it at the time, “You are an improviser. Use your improvising in your acting.”

She passed away a couple of years ago, but her lesson finally got through to me just in time.

I approached my scene as if I was working at the DVM. It didn’t have to be more complicated than that. Thank you improv, and thank you, Jane Alderman.

Something that I am embarrassed to admit is that when I have gotten day player parts before, and believe it or not, I have gotten my fair share of them, I always thought that this would be my big break. I was delusional, thinking the scene was about my character. It’s almost laughable now.

What I finally realized this time is that day players are serving the story and the star. The producers want you to come in and say your lines. They’re not looking to spin off a series based on Prison Guard Number 2.

Day players are not important. You may be acting on a hit TV show on a major network, but your role is invisible. No one will remember you. Which is a good thing, because it takes so much pressure off of you, and once I realized this, I could actually act and have a good time on the set, which I did.

When I was starting out in show business, my agent said to me, “For every 30 things you audition for, you will get booked on one of them.”

Though I did not want to hear that at the time, it was helpful, just like realizing when I was cast as Manny the Used Car Salesman in an episode of ER, I was not there to win an Emmy, but to serve the story. As an improviser, I am comfortable in this role of supporting the story. As a human being with low self-esteem who is trying to prove to myself and the world that I am enough… well, that’s another story for another blog.

But I am grateful that I got the opportunity to do an episode of Chicago P.D. and that even at my old age I finally got this day player thing down and I am open to doing even more parts.

You never know — they may bring Prison Guard Number 2 back next season. Want to read more practical advice about how to approach being a day player on a TV show or film? Check out this blog I wrote for Green Shirt Studio.

Ready to get back to improvising in person? Don’t miss Jimmy’s in-person Two-Person Scene Tune-Up on July 31, 2021!

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