The Acting Skills of New York City

Andrew McCarthy in Lipstick Jungle

Nov. 20, 2007—One of the unique things about being an actor based in New York for so long is my relationship with the city: Certain locations are forever set in my mind as touchstones. I can never walk past the boat pond in Central Park without thinking of the day when I pushed a young kid into the water for a scene during the shooting of Weekend at Bernie’s, and it’s impossible for me to go to Coney Island and not remember kissing Mary Stuart Masterson under the boardwalk in a scene from Heaven Help Us, and I always think of that weird indie film I shot in a warehouse way over in the far western reaches of 42nd Street whenever I’m in that neighborhood. The town is peppered with these memories, and whenever I pass one such spot, I feel a small, private flash of pride and twinge of gratitude.

Today we are on a very congested Upper East Side. And something you need to always keep in mind when shooting in the city is, if you fight it—the noise, the traffic, the chaos—you can’t win. But when you give in, it’s your best friend. It’s the extra character, often the most important (and interesting) one in the scene. And it can reveal things that the text alone cannot. Today, for example, we’re shooting my side of a phone conversation. (We shot Lindsay’s half the other day in the studio, and I’m chatting now on the phone with the script supervisor who is reading Lindsay’s lines to me from over by the monitor.) There is nothing particularly memorable about the scene—I’m just inviting her to dinner—and after a rehearsal in which I simply walk down the sidewalk talking into my cell, I wonder aloud if it might not be more interesting for me to cross the street during the conversation. We try it, and as I cross, I stop in the middle of the road to chat. Cars pile up behind me and drivers honk and shout. Not only is New York—in all its glory—brought into the scene, but the moment reveals a lot about what kind of a guy my character is. (As in, it’s Joe’s world.) And a scene that was simply functional becomes playful, funny, and revealing.

There are certain types of scenes that remind me of, and reignite, the infatuation with filmmaking I felt when I starting making my living as an actor, nearly 100 jobs ago. One that has always thrilled me is the night shoot on the streets of Manhattan, and next up we shoot Lindsay and me taking an evening stroll under the old-fashioned street globes of Central Park. It is a scene that is at once romantic and sophisticated and simple—the kind of thing that Hollywood has done so well since the movies began nearly 100 years ago. It’s the kind of scenario that people can identify with—and yet it all somehow seems so much better on-screen.

Our crew has lit up the facades of the brownstones along East 79th Street, and since cinematographers love their light shimmering, the pavement glistens with the fresh sparkle of a wet-down. New York has its best face on, and the city feels much like it does when one is first falling in love—there’s a sense in the air that “It’s all for us.” Once again, Manhattan has done most of the work, and the only way to fuck it up would be to try too hard. So after a few takes in which Lindsay and I meander arm in arm, chatting freely, everything falls into place, Tim calls out “Cut. Print. Wrap,” and Fifth Avenue and 79th Street is added to my list of private landmarks.