In the modern world of digital media, cable television is jumping at the opportunity to launch new webseries on the internet in order to capture a piece of the shifting entertainment landscape. With Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and YouTube becoming the new kings of digital entertainment, cable and broadcast networks are looking to expand and create original content for the internet. Making a bold move in launching a series of new comedy shows strictly for the internet, Starz established its online presence with Union Pool — a YouTube channel for those in search of comedy entertainment.
One of the shows that Starz’s Union Pool channel features is HOLLYWOOD ACTING STUDIO. With just a few episodes posted, the outrageous webseries has quickly carved out a place in the comedy realm. Fortunately, additional episodes release every three weeks on Tuesdays and Thursdays extending through next March 2014 in order to satiate the growing appetite for the misadventures of Professor Lafrange — a role delightfully and deliciously portrayed by comedian Drew Droege.
HOLLYWOOD ACTING STUDIO is a fictional look at what life inside an acting class is like if the teacher was a misguided narcissist who hilariously teaches all the wrong lessons to his patient and enduring class of students. Peeling back the curtain on Hollywood has never been more hilarious. Each episode explores what a typical struggling actor has to deal with each day in Hollywood: the audition, working as a background actor, filming sex scenes, working with child actors, typecasting, and more. The show also subtly pokes at a few popular film franchises and the cinematic tropes they exploit.
But, interestingly, HOLLYWOOD ACTING STUDIO has another twist: it is not just a comedy series filled with sketches; it is an exploration of the characters who try to rise above their varied learning-curves to prove that they can one day be an actor worthy of attention and respect. So there’s an element of heart that begins to show as the students struggle to attain the elusive skills needed to refine their craft and become genuine actors. Throughout the course of the first season, Professor Lafrange’s legacy shall either be set in stone, one bad acting lesson at a time, or his students will find a way to learn to be laud-worthy actors in spite of his crazy acting classes.
But the real genius of HOLLYWOOD ACTING STUDIO: it showcases a group of talented actors as fumbling, struggling students — and the sense that they are having fun shines through in every scene.
In an exclusive interview, star and co-executive producer Daniel Vincent Gordh (LIZZIE BENNET DIARIES) talked about the genesis of this fine comedy series and how it will showcase all the pitfalls of acting classes taught by self-obsessed performers.
How were you approached to be a part of this project?
DANIEL: HOLLYWOOD ACTING STUDIO came about because me, my brother, and Kevin Best (who is the creator and writer) make up the Natural Disastronauts, which is my sketch troupe/production company, and one of our friends worked over at Starz in its scripted department, Starz Digital (which is headed by David Katz and Ryan Heller), wanted to launch Starz’s inaugural web series. So they were in the process of putting together a new comedy channel, which is now called Union Pool, and they have a show called HOW IT SHOULD HAVE ENDED, which has 2.5 million subscribers and is one of the most viewed web shows out there. It plays on popular movies and how those movies should have ended. So they wanted to do something in the same vein where they were looking at popular movie franchises, either parodying them or playing on them in some way. So our friend got us in contact with the guys at Starz Digital and they reached out to us. They were like, “Hey, we’re looking for shows kind of like this. Can you send us some of your stuff?” We had been doing sketch comedy for years and we sent over some of our sketches that we have done for Cracked and they loved them. So they invited us to pitch them some ideas. They wanted series that one could pick up in the middle of the show and not have to watch the entire series to get what is going on. So Kevin put together a bunch of pitches for them, and one of them is what ended up being HOLLYWOOD ACTING STUDIO, and they said, “We want to do this one.” And suddenly we were doing a new show. With my sketch comedy, I’m sometimes writing and sometimes I’m producing, and a lot of times I’m acting. But for this series, Kevin wrote and we all kind of produced together. We decided, “why don’t we take this on as a team and produce the show?” It ended up being really fun for me as I got to produce and get people involved — like Myra Turley, playing Drew’s mother — and also be in the show.
What made you want to be behind-the-camera and in-front-of-the camera for this project?
DANIEL: I really like being on the behind-the-camera side of things because I’m very story-driven in my approach to any work I’m doing; and the fact that we had this opportunity to create the show — because I’m also a writer — and the opportunity to work with my brother, who is my closest friend, and Kevin, who is also one of my closest friends. Also, partially because we needed me to because there was a lot to do and not a ton of us to do it. So I encouraged them. I was like, “You guys, I would really like to be involved in producing this.” One of the main things is I just love collaborating with those guys. I love working with my brother on projects. It’s kind of one of the reasons I got into this business, it’s because my brother is a filmmaker. He’s a director and editor. And I just love working with him. It was really fun to get to work with him on this. Plus, you get to be creative as a producer in ways that you don’t get to be as an actor. When you’re producing, you have all kinds of odds and ends that are affecting the storytelling in a completely different way than when you’re acting.
It seems like it would be exhausting to do both, to be memorizing lines, acting in the scenes and then producing on the side.
DANIEL: Yeah, but one thing we did is we had some time in development even before the scripts were set. So a lot of my producing work was before filming began. Like I got the actors involved. In fact, I got Drew Droege involved. So when we were imagining what this project would eventually be, we all got to imagine it together and kind of start putting those pieces together well before my work as an actor even started. Then on set, I tried my best (and I couldn’t totally do it), but I tried to put on only my actor hat so that once I was on set I was just an actor. There were still little things that I had to do while on set, but mostly I got to be just an actor while on set. That was something my brother insisted on too. He did not want me worrying about anything but acting while I was on set. But, also, it was exhausting. It was totally exhausting.
Did you work on crafting the character of Thomas or was that an already created character by the time you stepped into it?
DANIEL: The way Thomas came about is we have a really funny group of friends, who we’ve worked with for a long time, and when Kevin was developing this show — you’ll notice in the show that a lot of the characters have the same name as the actor who portrays them, including Kevin — a lot of those people were people that we just thought were so funny and they are people we’ve worked with. So he wrote in a lot of people. But as we were developing it and working on it, Kevin asked me, “What do you want to do on this show? I want you to be in this show. I want you to bring something to this class. Why don’t you kind of create this character?” So it was fairly left open to me what I really wanted this character to be. Kevin had originally called the character Daniel, and I wanted to change that. I didn’t want to be playing a version of myself. I wanted to create a character for this. Somehow the British accent just came to me. I thought, “What if he was the one person who is untouchable in this class?” I wanted to bring a bit more dynamicness to what was going on in the class. This teacher is so insecure and so nasty to everyone, so I thought, “What if there was one person in this class who is fooling him? We learn a lot about Professor Lafrange by who he thinks is bad; but we’ll also learn a lot about him by who he thinks is good. So what if Thomas comes in and basically just by virtue of having a British accent, suddenly Lafrange thinks he’s brilliant?” We learn a lot about what a hack Lafrange is because he buys into all these conventions of Hollywood movies, like the second someone has a British accent, he thinks they deserve an Academy Award. So I just wanted to bring another dimension to the show where instead of Lafrange just beating everyone down, there’s one character who is secretly kind of manipulating the whole thing. And that’s kind of how that character, Thomas, came about.
There feels like a flavor of James Bond-ness to the character of Thomas. It just comes across that way sometimes. Was that intentional?
DANIEL: (Laughs) That is something I originally thought a little bit about. I wanted him to come into this class, secretly pulling all the strings, and kind of stealthily being in control of the entire situation without him ever having to play all his cards — which is a James Bond kind of thing. Funny enough, also recently did a photoshoot with a James Bond-esque pose where I am holding an old school Nintendo duck-hunt gun. The shoot was with a really amazing photographer Ricky Middlesworth. So I am very excited to release that on the world. It is really something.
You mentioned that HOLLYWOOD ACTING STUDIO was based on the idea of being a parody of modern film, and there are a lot of references to modern films in the comedy sketches. Was it meant to be more of an homage or just learning mechanisms within the sketches?
DANIEL: The way we wanted to do it was it parodies it a certain amount. I think it more plays on the conventions of blockbuster cinema, rather than really necessarily trying to parody a movie as a whole. It just tries to point out the absurdity of certain cinematic conventions. It also shows the absurdity of someone like Professor Lafrange who buys into them entirely. That’s more of what we wanted to do. Eventually, we were like, “What if pretty much every episode we take a modern movie — and there are a couple episodes where we do not take a specific movie — but pretty much every episode we take a specific movie and we have the teacher give an acting lesson about something specific based on that movie?” So each episode has a couple things that we’re trying to point out the absurdity and play on. Like background acting. Episode two is about background acting. So we show Professor Lafrange trying to make it seem glamorous to be a background actor. Like, he’s saying, “Congratulations! You’re the extras. Welcome to Hollywood.” It’s also trying to show the gross other side to Hollywood. And his lessons are so backwards. Drew is just brilliant as Professor Lafrange.
This series feels like it has an over-arching theme and it is a bit of a satire at times, but maybe that is reading too much into it and you’re going for more straight comedy.
DANIEL: I think it’s a combination. We’re doing a lot of referential stuff. So we’re satire-ing certain moments of films. We don’t really get into the details of those movies that much. You don’t see us talking about specific things that happen in the movies and trying to make fun of them or anything like that. We’re more using those as the backdrop for the absurdity of the class. I think the most interesting thing about the show is the weird relationships that happen in the class, especially the dynamic between the professor and all of the students. I think if anything the thing that the show is most poking fun at and is most satirizing is acting classes — acting classes in Hollywood and the people who are really trying to make it. Like so many of us actors have been one way or another accidentally in a class disturbingly like this — where the teacher isn’t really trying to teach anyone anything, as much as they are trying to build their own ego. In a lot of the ways we’re taking those conventions from modern films is to show how ridiculous the teacher is. The show is really focused on Professor Lafrange and his over puffed-up sense of self. His absurd ego and things like that.
Professor Lafrange is certainly the focus of the show, but at the same time through each episode one starts to get more and more invested in the characters in the class. Did you find as you’ve been working on the show that one or more of the class characters began to stand out and you wanted to feature more on the show?
DANIEL: Each episode tends to focus on someone’s story a little bit more and have one person in the class who is a little bit more featured. But the first couple episodes is where we get to meet everyone. Then as it goes on, we found as producers and as Kevin was writing it (since he was writing it as we filmed it), we found in certain episodes that we just wanted to focus on someone a little bit more. There’s episodes to come that will focus on characters that we haven’t gotten to focus on yet. There was so much improv on set that all the actors really started to bring stuff to the characters naturally, and we found something interesting about everyone. By the end of the show, we had fairly featured episodes on every character because we found interesting things about the characters. It was like, “This is good episode to feature Brittany.” Like the sex scene episode, it wasn’t actually written to be focused on Brittany. Sarah’s [Scott] such a great actress and she’s nothing like this character in real life, but she brought this sexuality to the character from the beginning; and we always wanted some of that, but it was so overwhelming. So we thought, “Wouldn’t it be funny in the sex scene episode that the person who has been bringing the sexuality to everything that she’s doing, completely inappropriately, is now left out of all sex scene exercises?” Then another character that surprised us was Debbie. She’s one of my favorite characters. She’s brilliantly played by Karen Furno. She portrays someone who is middle aged, that is completely there to learn, but is constantly being put down by the teacher. There’s a lot of good moments coming up with her where she’s going to surprise everyone.
You had mentioned there was some improv. How much of what we see on the screen is scripted versus improv scenes?
DANIEL: The writing style was such that Kevin would write an episode, but there was a lot of freedom for the actors to create the character themselves and for them to surprise us on set rather than in writing. As we went on, Kevin left the episodes general so that actors who were starting to know their characters could flesh them out on their own. And it was just some of the most fun I’ve ever had.
Where is the show going? How many episodes will there be for the first season? Will there be a second season? What’s kind of the game plan?
DANIEL: We have the first season, which is releasing through March. So we have a good amount of time. We have a total of 12 full episodes. The way it is happening is we have 12 full main episodes, then we have 12 bonus episodes — and the bonus episodes are either after-class episodes, like there was one with Thomas and Professor Lafrange, or the Q&A episode. Those are just kind of bonus episodes where we get to see what’s happening after class or a little different from the main episodes. Then some of the bonus episodes are deleted scenes and bloopers, which we call cutting-room-floor episodes. The show is releasing through March, so we do not know yet if there would be a second season. I know I would die to make one. It was just so much fun to make.
The episodes do feel like stand-alone comedy sketches, but is there an endgame or an endpoint that the first season is aiming for with the characters? It seems like the characters learn a little bit in each episode and they would progress to a certain level.
DANIEL: We started off with the show thinking that every episode was going to be a little stand-alone. You watch it and you see whatever funny madness happens during that episode and then it’s over. But as we were filming it, we started to surprise ourselves and the actors started to surprise us. The show is not completely narrative, obviously, in that there’s not big plot points, but we kind of naturally started to see arcs for the characters. So you will notice that there are certain changes in the dynamics between people. And despite all of the horrible, nasty things Lafrange says to people, some do have successes. So the first season, while we started off not pursing arcs, there is movement. There is an arc that happens in the show, which is one of the most satisfying things about it.
Have you gotten any feedback from the fans or people discovering the show?
DANIEL: Yes, we have! It’s funny Drew was just in Norway for a film festival, and when he got there, there were a bunch of people who had already seen the show. It’s interesting building a new show because, obviously, I’ve done a lot of web series and they all have different kind of life cycles. CRACKED has its own specific audience, and LIZZIE BENNET DIARIES was something I jumped on after it already had a large following (though it grew to a size I never anticipated), so starting a new show is interesting. I have fans who followed me to start watching this. It’s such a different show than LIZZIE BENNET DIARIES, but I’m so pleased when fans from that come over to watch. Not everyone who likes LIZZIE BENNET DIARIES is going to like HOLLYWOOD ACTING STUDIO because they are like apples and oranges. But I’ve been surprised by the crossover fans who have come and said, “I actually love this.” Then Drew has his fans from his work on his Chloe videos, which I think are brilliant. So Drew has fans of his comedy that have crossed over. So we had certain people who came for us, but we have also been surprised by a lot of new fans who have been discovering it and loving it too. The show is building its fan base and it’s always exciting for a project that starts in your head and then we’re able to shoot it and then people are watching it. It’s always a surreal process — the process of creation and then sharing it. It’s beautiful. And it’s been really fun to watch it grow.
To see all the misadventures of HOLLYWOOD ACTING STUDIO, be sure to catch new episodes Tuesdays and Thursdays as they post on Starz’s Union Pool channel at YouTube.com. Each runs 5-8 minutes in length and guarantees to make you quirk a smile and laugh. (As a fun side-note, last week’s episode of HOLLYWOOD ACTING STUDIO was the featured video of the day at Nerdist, “The Most Intentionally Funny Video of The Day 11/21/13: Hollywood Acting Studio: How to Film A Sex Scene” In case you have not seen it, the episode is totally worth a peek and a lot less x-rated than you may expect.)
(Photo credit: Ricky Middlesworth)
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