Leadership / 07.14.20
Advice from the Hardest Working Actor Who's Not Working
One thing that the pandemic has taught many of us is the importance of work. Whether paid or unpaid, work is good for our health and well-being. It contributes to our happiness; adds to our self-worth; and, of course, it provides us our livelihoods.
Recently, a new film debuted on most on-demand platforms called “Working Man” that speaks directly to the enormous benefits of having a job and the possible ramifications of when one doesn’t have a job. The main character, Allery Parkes, does not work in the ticketing industry or the live events business. He is a factory worker in a small town who continues to show up and do his job even after his factory closes. But his dilemma is the same as many of ours.
Allery is a relatable character played by one of the most relatable actors around, Peter Gerety. Gerety is one of those thespians where you might not know the name, but you certainly know the face. On Broadway, you might have seen him in 2013’s Tony-winning “Lucky Guy,” Nora Ephron’s last play that also marked Tom Hanks’ Broadway debut. Off-Broadway, he garnered critical acclaim for his role in Atlantic Theater Company’s production of “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” by Martin McDonagh. From 1965 to 1969 and 1974 to 1986, he was an actor and director for the Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, Rhode Island.
On TV, he was a regular on NBC’s “Homicide: Life on the Street” as Detective Stu Gharty in the late 1990s. When that series ended, he popped up in a long string of guest-starring roles on shows as diverse as “The Wire,” “Law & Order” (and all of its spinoffs), “Blue Bloods,” “The Good Wife” and “Ray Donovan” before returning to series regular work on “Sneaky Pete.”
On the big screen, he has appeared in films directed by everyone from Spike Lee (“Inside Man”) and Woody Allen (“Hollywood Ending”) to Mike Nichols (“Charlie Wilson’s War”) and Robert Zemeckis (“Flight”). In some movies, he’s appeared in only scene or two (as Tom Cruise’s boss in “War of the Worlds,” for instance). In other films, like “Working Man,” he is one of the main players.
“Like the rest of the world, I was working back in January,” Gerety recalls in a recent interview. “I was working for Tom Fontana, who was the show runner for ‘Homicide.’ I was guest-starring on his latest show, ‘City on the Hill,’ and I did one episode … the last episode, in fact. And I talked to Tom, and he said, ‘There’s a good chance you’ll be back in the next season.’ Well, right now, there is no next season.”
And like many INTIX members and the artists and athletes they work with and for, the prospects of there not being a “next season” has become an everyday reality. It’s more the uncertainty that weighs on Gerety than anything else. As an actor, he is rarely had to feel the uncertainty that so many in his profession have felt over the course of their careers.
The 80-year-old stated, “This is something I’ve done all of my life. My first acting job as a child was in 1953. By 1960, I was a professional actor, and I got really lucky. I was in the right place at the right time, and I became one of the most employed actors in America. I just never stopped. From 1962 on, I’ve just never been out of a job, which is rare, rare, rare. I did theatre for 25 years before I ever did a film. And I have just done nothing but work all my life. Then, suddenly, we’re in January 2020. And now we’re in July, and I haven’t worked at all! What the hell do I do now? And if I’m not working and I don’t have an answer to ‘What the hell do I do now?’ then ... ‘Who am I?’”
To answer that question, Gerety says he has had to remember his blue-collar roots. “I grew up in a real working-class town in Rhode Island. Not just when I was growing up but when I returned to Providence — as a young, 24-year-old actor who had gone to New York but returned to work at [Trinity Repertory Company] — I was very aware of Providence being a town that had lost its economic engine. Before I was born, it had been a manufacturing town back in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s. I think its textile industry was the first to go. Factory after factory went down South. When I was older, I became aware of the local jewelry industry that started shutting down.”
He continues, “My dad was a hard-working man who’d been in the Army during World War II. He was a blue-collar, working-class guy. I became very aware early on of the sense of foreboding that comes when jobs are threatened. It’s like when you’re on the ocean and you can see a tidal wave coming from a long way away. And there’s this sense that you’re going to get hit with it; it just hasn’t happened yet. In Providence, every couple of years, another factory would close. So, there was this fear that, ‘Maybe we’re next.’ I think this feeling is in ‘Working Man.’ It’s a fictitious town, but I think it strikes a lot of people that that community is like their community.”
For Gerety’s Allery character, the man’s job is his identity, and the factory he has worked at for decades has been his escape from a tragedy suffered years earlier. His dogged determination to stay on the job inspires his co-workers but confounds his wife, Iola (Talia Shire). “We didn’t quite know how timely ‘Working Man’ was going to be when we were making it,” he says. “People’s livelihoods are being threatened across multiple industries now, not just factories and manufacturing. ‘Am I going to be next?’ And it’s not just about paying the rent or the mortgage and putting food on the table for your children. It’s about ‘What is my sense of self? What is my identity? Who am I if I can’t work?’”
For Gerety, what it comes down to is fear. The life of an actor is all about facing one’s fears, using them and ultimately conquering them. When he has moments of doubt, both self and world, he draws on his many experiences on the stage and screen. Lately, he has been drawing on a particular experience he had filming “Working Man.”
“There’s a moment in ‘Working Man’ where Billy Brown’s character invites us over for dinner. So, we go over and Talia’s character, Iola, is shy and nervous. We were waiting for [the director] to call ‘Action!’ and for Billy’s door to open, and I noticed that Talia suddenly seemed really nervous. And I asked, ‘Talia, are you OK?’ She was almost shaking. And this star of ‘The Godfather’ and ‘Rocky’ said, “Peter, I’m terrified. Every time just before the camera starts rolling, I’m terrified!’ And I said, ‘Oh my God, Talia … so am I!’ It’s true. All of my life. Years of acting on stage before a single film — and I’ve since done something like 70 movies and over 100 television episodes — and every time before the camera goes on, I am still scared to death! It was just wonderful that Talia was, too. And I know for me and for her, we both use that sense of nervousness or terror or whatever you want to call it to kind of energize and motor our performances. And you know what? I’m using it now to get through all of this!”
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Tags: Theater , Broadway , Leadership , COVID-19 , Coronavirus , Film