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Just 'Do It

Berger "People always ask me whether the hair was real," laughs Spencer Berger. "The hair was real, my friend. The hair was extremely real."

Berger is referring his role in the comedic film Skills Like This, in which he plays the main character Max, a failed playwright who discovers he possesses an innate talent for robbery. (Naturally, hilarity ensues.)

The film’s signature image, evident in its poster, is Max’s rather astonishing head of hair, or, as reviews ranging from Variety to Salon.com are referring to it, his “Jewfro.” (The New York Times prefers to think of it as "tumbleweed"-esque.)

Directed by Monty Miranda, Skills Like This has enjoyed a successful run on the film festival circuit, winning the 2007 South by Southwest Film Festival's Audience Award. Berger, who also wrote the film's screenplay, is a native New Yorker, but now resides in Los Angeles where, along with cast member Gabriel Tigerman, he founded the sketch comedy group After School Special. I had a chance to sit down with this writer/actor and learn what skills he used exactly to arrive at this point in his career.

-- Brooks Sherman

How did Skills Like This come about?

I wrote the screenplay, and Gabe Tigerman, who plays Dave, shared a story credit… I was out in L.A. for my first pilot season, and I was crashing on Gabe's bedroom floor in his parents' house… I had no car, which basically in Los Angeles means that you're not a human being… But it was while I was living with Gabe that I wrote the first draft of the screenplay, in seven days.

Can you explain what happened between writing it with Gabe and [director] Monty Miranda getting involved?

One of the producers on the film… was instrumental in guiding several drafts… He gave the screenplay to Monty Miranda and [producer] Donna Dewey… and they flew in from Denver to see Gabe and I perform in our sketch comedy show, After School Special. They liked the script, but they were like, "Who… are these two guys, who nobody's ever heard of, who claim that the only way to make the movie is to have them star in it?"… Gabe and I were horribly nervous, but luckily they liked the show… After that we did a table reading, and that's where Donna and Monty officially signed on.

Did you sell the script then, with the provision that you had to be cast in it?

Gabe and I completely, idiotically, attached ourselves from the beginning, as the roles of Max and Dave. It's the stupidest thing you could ever do, but because we didn't know any better, we stuck to our guns; and a good two years passed between when the screenplay was written and when Monty and Donna got involved. During those two years, producers would read it, or somebody would read the script and say, "I really like this script, but, uh, who the hell are you guys?"

Do you think that sketch comedy was what helped you out?

Well, that was the thing… while we had the passion to be doing film and television, we really were driven to perform a great sketch comedy show in its own right. We loved performing live, and we liked the idea of having this live show every few weeks and feel like we were in control of our own destinies.

So part of the reason you were perhaps noticed is because you were performing in a way that you already enjoyed?

Spencer03 We just really were very passionate about the sketch comedy group… I took it very seriously, just as its own entity, and I think that it was great because… if I'd had to go in to a casting director and audition for the role of Max that I play in the film, I probably never would have gotten it.

In L.A. the first thing I realized when I started going on auditions was that, basically, when you walk in to a room to audition, it seemed as though the casting director was holding a giant cookie cutter up … because, for most roles that are for unknown actors, you're going in to play a type… There didn't seem to be a type that I could easily mold myself into, I was too much of one or the other thing… and I also was sort of young and naïve, and felt that it wasn't my job: I didn't want to be a type. I think most actors don't want to be a type; they want to play many different kinds of roles.

Are you saying you sold out?

I'm saying that I actually failed at doing the number one thing that you're supposed to do as an actor when you're starting out, which is figure out what you're best at playing… what casting directors see in you.

For a long time I would look at people I admired the most, as actors or writers… and what I used to think in my head was "Oh God, I want to do that. I want to do exactly what they're doing, and affect people in that way." It took me a while to realize that they had already done that extraordinarily well and there was no good reason for me to ever try to do that.

So what did you do, create your own mold then, that they could see for themselves?

The sketch comedy show was just this tremendous relief… whenever we did the show, for 45 minutes we each got to play eight or nine different characters that were completely different from each other… You got to go in front of an audience and do exactly what you wanted during that period, give exactly the kind of performance, play whatever you wanted, show whatever kind of range you felt you had within you. And in L.A., that kind of an experience was a real blessing to have.

I think that in Los Angeles… when they're doing theater, they're doing it for showcase-type situations. You're doing it so that people in the TV and film industry will watch you perform and think, "Oh, this person would be good in this or that."  Very few people are performing for just the sake of performing.

One thing I found astonishing was that there were these showcases that were live theater, but they were doing scenes from movies or TV shows, like, there'd be people doing scenes from The Godfather or something. And they might be incredibly talented actors, but it always struck me as bizarre, because performing something that's written for the stage and performing something that's written for film, as an actor, usually you find that there's a tremendous difference….

I didn't understand how the agents or the casting directors could even judge these actors who are doing scenes from film onstage. It seemed so odd to me… It's why sending somebody a reel always feels so weird, because you're looking at scenes out of context… I won't speak for every actor, but I always am very obsessive-compulsive about wanting somebody to see an entire work that I've done, rather than a small snippet of it.Spencer02

I'm guessing that you believe you have to create your own opportunities in some cases.

First and foremost, I got very lucky. Secondly… I recognized a fault within myself, that I was not going to be able to walk in to a casting director and have them take notice of me as a particular type; and that in turn forced my hand, in a sense, to create something that was specific to me.

Obviously, I had to write the screenplay… in order for it to happen. Then… other people, who were very talented and good at what they do, took note of it, and gave me the opportunity to act in it… That everybody was willing to take the risk and let this unknown actor play the lead in the film, I mean, that was a huge leap of faith… it was a dream come true, and I kept feeling at any moment the dream was going to come to an end. It seemed, a lot of the time, too good to be true.

Are you developing anything right now?

Yeah, I'm working with Monty, the director, on a new film. I'm writing the screenplay, and he and I share the story credit, and that would hopefully be the next film, if we get to make a next film.

One last question: Will you work with the hair again?

[Laughs] The hair and I have had a falling out.

Spencer Berger will participate in Q&A sessions Friday 3/27 and Saturday 3/28, after the 7:30 p.m. screening of Skills Like This at the Angelika Film Center, in NYC's Soho district. For tickets, visit the Angelika Film Center's website. For more info on the film and the nationwide release schedule, visit SkillsLikeThis.com

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