I didn't always want to be a filmmaker. At least, I don't think I did. No, I don’t think I did. All right, let’s just play it safe here and say there’s a small possibility that I did but it was more than likely that I didn’t. Maybe like a two-percent chance. Okay, maybe more like a 2.74444444444 percent chance.
When I was 11 or 12 years old, I had three career aspirations in mind and none of them had to do with filmmaking. I figured it was good to have the magic-number-three because it was always possible that, if one didn't work out, then I'd have two others to fall back on, and then if one of those two didn’t work out, I’d have one more to rely on. And, if all three fell through, then, well…life over, bucko. You were doomed.
Career Aspiration #1 -- Basketball Player
I was dead serious about this, too. I played in the “CYO” (Catholic Youth Organization) basketball league every winter, spent most of my free time practicing foul shots in my driveway and even attended basketball camp during my summers. I’m talking hardcore basketball camp, too; none of that summer day-camp shit kids went to so they wouldn’t get bored during the summer. It was called “Husky Basketball Camp” and it took place at Northeastern University in Boston. I got bussed into the city Monday through Friday for a week and we played basketball all day except for the very end of the day where we had the option of swimming in the indoor pool, but that was only if we were comfortable enough changing in the men’s locker room. I thought I was comfortable enough changing in the men’s locker room but I quickly changed my mind after seeing my first grown man naked and was significantly traumatized. This is all extraneous information, though. Sorry, that’s not what this book is about.
The truth of the matter is that, overall, I didn’t really like “Husky Basketball Camp” and it wasn’t just because of my traumatizing experience in the locker room. I loved basketball, don’t get me wrong, but Husky camp was just not very fun. I never returned to that camp but my basketball dreams stayed alive well through middle school, probably up until I was about 14 years old. I tell you the truth when I say I played a lotta fregging hoops, though, as the years went by, I became less and less…well, ‘good’ is probably the proper word…at least relative to other boys my age. Becoming a pro-basketball player became less and less of a reality and, consequently, became less and less appealing to me. However, I kept playing and I even found another (more local) basketball camp called “Fast Break”, which was later renamed “Rebel Hoops Camp”.
I had much more fun at “Fast Break” and I became somewhat famous among campers, though this fame had nothing to do with my basketball skills. See, the coaches had learned at some point during the week that I had another talent—playing the drums—and, one day, they had me play on some buckets in front of the entire camp. I’m not sure how they got away with this because it had nothing to do with basketball, but, yes, they rounded up some buckets and had me play them with two dowels that they found in the janitor’s closet. From what I remember, my “performance” was rather poor but I tried to make it sound like Blue Man Group and the campers went wild. I was cool for a hot minute. I felt like a rock star, which brings me to…
Career Aspiration #2 -- Rock Star Drummer
Indeed, becoming a rock star drummer was my second career aspiration of the aforementioned three. I bought my very first drum set (the cool kids call it ‘drum kit’ but I’m sticking with ‘drum set’) in the third grade and, yes, I bought it myself with the help of some First Communion gift money. I basically taught myself how to play and, over the years, I got better and better and f***ing better.
By the time middle school came around, I was in a cover band with a couple of friends. Our most notable performance was the 7th grade talent show where we performed the song “When I Come Around” by Green Day. Our performance was legendary because we were the first actual “band” to ever perform in the Johnson Middle School (aka JMS) talent show. This sounds insane because the year was 1995 and you’d think another band would’ve preceded us, especially during the late-80s when glam-bands and MTV were all the rage. Guess not, though. Up until our Green Day performance, the JMS talent show mostly consisted of girls doing tumbling routines to the tune of C&C Music Factory.
After blowing up big with the talent show, my band landed a gig at a hormone-fueled “Teen Center Dance” held in the local “Blackburn Hall”. This was a dance where teens asked their friends to ask girls to dance with them. Supposedly some French kissing—the kids at my school called it ‘scooping’ for reasons unknown—went on at these dances, too, but I was never cool enough to scoop anybody at the Teen Center. I mean, I had a hard enough time asking a friend to ask a girl to dance with me, let alone scoop anyone! Of course, my luck with girls changed when my band played the dance—then, shit, man…the girls came to ME, man. I was Mr. Cool Rockstar drummer dude, though I still slow-danced like an awkward Frankenstein and usually left way too much room for the holy ghost.
Riding high on our fame, my band also started playing (chaperoned) house parties. Our set-list included songs like “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” by Smashing Pumpkins and “Glycerine” by Bush, the latter of which melted the hearts of all the 14-year-old girls. I must say that being a drummer in a cool band was a godsend for a shy boy like I was. At one party, I ended up scooping a smoking hot Costa Rican exchange student whom unfortunately got deported a few days later after getting caught stealing scrunchies from Filenes (true story). There were other girls I got to kiss as well, usually during spin-the-bottle games that would take place after my band’s performance. I don’t mean to brag but I was getting tons of tongue, all thanks to the fact that I was a nasty drummer. In fact, I don’t think I ever would have had my first kiss if I didn’t play the drums. Double-in-fact, I may have still been waiting for my first kiss ‘til this day. I could have been like Drew Barrymore in that movie, what is it called? Never Been Kissed. Yes, that’s the one. I’d like to scoop Drew Barrymore, by the way.
I played drums throughout high school, hopped around from band to band, but, for whatever reason, the drumming wasn’t rewarding me with any more scoops. My senior year came along and my new cover band at the time was slated to play the post-prom party that my school hosted in its gymnasium. I thought this would be my big comeback. I would win over the hearts of all the high school girls and secure me a lifetime’s-worth of sloppy scooping.
Well, the big night came and my band played such hits as “Blind” by Korn, “Give it Away Now” by Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Do What They Told Ya” by Rage Against the Machine, “For Whom the Bell Tolls” by Metallica and even a couple songs by Pink Floyd. The performance was stellar, though I was shocked when I didn’t have dozens of girls lining up to scoop me afterwards. My dream of a drummer rock star died right then and there at my senior year post-prom party.
Okay, it wasn’t completely dead, I suppose. I would go on to play in a Misfits cover band during my freshman year of college. We played a few gigs at a local school called “Wheaton College” and even recorded a demo album in a semi-professional studio. But the band dissipated after a few months or so.
Then, my sophomore year, I joined a female-fronted punk band called “Death in Arms”. We played a handful of gigs at dive bars in Providence and Boston, but the band only lasted a year, recorded a couple demo albums and then we also broke apart. By late college, I was actually sick of playing the drums. Imagine that! To this day, I don’t enjoy playing them that much. As I write this, I hardly play them. Every once in a while, I give them a try but then I get bored really fast. It’s kind of sad but I think one day they will interest me again. That day is not now, though.
So the rock star drummer dream was dead, or at least hibernating a bit. The basketball player dream was long dead, too. What was left then?
Career Aspiration #3 -- Acting
I was drawn to acting from early on in my life, basically ever since the third grade and, now that I think of it, third grade seemed to be a very significant year of my life career-wise. This was when I first joined a basketball team, first bought a drum set, and also...first starred in a school play.
The play had something to do with Mother Goose and I played a character named Tom. I don’t remember the play at all but I do remember a line where I had to describe how “big” (i.e. fat) a man was. Or maybe it was Humpty Dumpty I was describing? All I know is I got the audience to laugh very hard at my body-shaming insults and I then realized I had some acting chops. I also liked how—after the play—I went out into the audience to find my parents and I could feel a bunch of eyes on me, like I was a star. It felt good for my ego. This was my first taste of fame and I’m not going to lie: I liked it.
From that point forward, I dreamed of becoming an actor one day. I did several plays and, although plays were nice, I mostly set my sights on movies and television in Hollywood. For a while, there was one main reason for this: I had my eyes on an actress from one of my favorite TV shows. Yes, you probably guessed it: that show was Full House and that actress was Jodie Sweetin who played Stephanie Tanner. I had a MAJOR crush on Stephanie and I kept dreaming that one day I would go to Hollywood, become a big child actor and become Stephanie’s boyfriend.
In fact, my plan was to become the next Eddie Furlong; you know, the child actor who played John Connor in the movie Terminator 2: Judgement Day. I told my mom that I’d need to grow my bangs out like Furlong because this was the only way I would get parts and become an actor. My mom was anti-bangs, though, and my hair wouldn’t cooperate anyway. See, by nature, my hair was too thick and Brillo-like. In other words, it had no movement to it so, if I grew out bangs, I would essentially have a static doormat hanging from my face. It would be the furthest thing from Eddie Furlong and I surely wouldn’t get acting parts, nor would I win the love of Stephanie Tanner.
One day when I was in the 5th or 6th grade, my dad saw in the newspaper that there was going to be an open casting call at the Braintree Mall, just outside Boston. Warner Brothers producers were out to find a Robin that would star in the next Batman movie: Batman Forever. I was thinking this was it! My big break! But, for whatever reason, I never attended that casting call. Maybe my parents refused to take me or maybe I got cold feet. Surely hundreds or maybe even thousands of people would have showed up. It was probably more of a promotional event than an actual serious search for the perfect boy/man to play Batman’s sidekick. At least that’s what I told myself and that’s what I’ve been telling myself ever since that day.
Warner Brothers ultimately cast an already-established actor by the name of Chris O’Donnell who was way older than me. I guess I felt good that nobody else had been “discovered” but I couldn’t help but wonder: maybe…just maybe…if that assistant to the assistant to the casting director had seen me, maybe Matt Burns would have been Robin and a brilliant acting career would have been born. Oh, what could have been…
So, for the most part (or actually for the all-part), my dreams of becoming a famous child actor in Hollywood remained dreams and nothing more. However, I guess I was still considered a child actor since I was acting, just not in Hollywood. For a period of about ten years, I performed in play after play after play…after play. I did nothing but plays. Some of these plays were at school, like in the drama club. But others were part of a local theater troupe called the Walpole Children’s Theatre.
The Walpole Children’s Theatre (WCT) was a fantastic theater troupe, probably one of the best children’s theaters in existence, although, last time I checked, that wasn’t scientific fact. Our motto was that we don’t just put on plays that are good for kids plays; we put on good plays, period. In other words, we didn’t lower our standards because we were kids and, oh, we’re so cute, so it’s ok if we sucked. Nope. We saw ourselves as professionals and we held our theatrical productions to the highest of standards. None of that go-out-on-stage-and-give-your-mother-in-the-audience-a-quick-wave shit. No way. That would be unacceptable!
I joined WCT when I was 12 years old. I was scared shitless at my first audition because everybody seemed so much older and cooler than me, but I landed a part as a hobbit “Grocery Boy” in a production of The Hobbit. No, there isn’t a grocery boy in the actual Hobbit novel as far as I remember, but there was one in the play and that’s who I was. I chose to speak in a ridiculously heavy British accent and I delivered groceries to Bilbo Baggins whilst he hosted the dwarves to a dinner near the beginning of the play. Hobbits didn’t care much for dwarves so my big moment was when I scrunched my nose with disgust and shouted the line, “Dwarves…like locusts!” and then Bilbo pushed me out of his home. Yes, the part was small, but I also played an elf later in the play and then even later I got to play an evil goblin as well.
The next summer, I was cast as one of two “Gong Boys” in a production of The Emperor’s New Clothes. It was another small role with a small amount of lines but it was fun because I had this cool comedic bit where my fellow gong boy partner hit the gong I was holding really hard and then my legs would shudder from the reverberation. Sounds a tad homoerotic, I know (not that there’s anything wrong with that!) but it got laughs from the audience and God knows I loved getting laughs.
Eventually, I started landing larger roles in WCT productions. One year, I was Edmund in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and then the next year I was The Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood. I was also the head dwarf in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Oh, and I played a court jester in Aladdin, which was a different version from Disney’s Aladdin, by the way—you know, just in case you’re saying, “Wait, I don’t remember a court jester! He’s lying!” The Jester turned into an evil magician halfway through the play (this magician was basically the equivalent of Jafar in the Disney version) and what I loved about the role was that I could really explore my versatility. As the jester, I was a goofy clown, juggling and trying to make people laugh. As the magician, I was evil and sinister, the complete opposite of the jester. My job in the former role was to make the audience love me. My job in the latter role was to make the audience loathe me. I loved subverting the audience’s expectations. Just when they thought they loved me, I turned on them. Muahaha.
Overall, I loved being in the children’s theater. The atmosphere was very family-like and you grew very close to your castmates, directors, producers, stagehands etc. You grew especially close to each other during “hell week”, which was the naughty slang term referring to the “tech week” leading up to the opening performance. Sometimes we would have three performances in one single day so we would arrive at the theater around seven o’clock in the morning and literally be around each other until nine o’clock that night, or even later if we went out for ice cream after the show. In between performances we would play card games (‘Spit’ was usually the game of choice), listen to music (Nine Inch Nails and Stone Temple Pilots come to mind), eat food (usually pizza or McDonald’s) and, well, sometimes it was more fun hanging out backstage than being onstage acting.
For the last show of each production, the backstage crew would always play pranks on the cast members and I would sometimes be the target of those pranks. The one I remember the most above all others happened during the last Robin Hood performance. During one of the scenes, I had to page through a ledger for reasons I don’t recall and, when I went to open the ledger, I saw numerous pictures of morbidly obese women wearing nothing but string bikinis. These pictures were like something you would find in the “adult” section of the Spencer Gifts card aisle—you know, husky women with, like, quadruple-D breasts drooping down like a pair of soggy watermelons. It was extremely difficult not to laugh but I managed to maintain my composure even though I could see in my periphery that numerous stagehands were snickering offstage. After I said my lines, I slammed the ledger shut, harder than usual, almost like I wanted the crew to know that they didn’t break me. Of course, later into the performance, I started flubbing lines left and right, but I don’t think it was the prank that rattled me; I think I was just overtired, it being the last performance and all.
This is me backstage before Robin Hood (not wearing my Sheriff of Nottingham wig).
Me in my elf costume taken after a performance of The Hobbit.
There I am as the court jester after a performance of Aladdin.
This is me as the head dwarf in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (non-Disney version). I was named Blick or Glick, something like that. Not Doc.
Between the years 1994-99, I was in about eight plays with WCT and all these were performed alongside school drama club musicals, such as Godspell, Guys and Dolls and City of Angels. I enjoyed all the roles I played in both the WCT plays and the drama club musicals but I think my most favorite role came from the most unlikeliest of places. Not from WCT…not from drama club, either…but from…Holy Moses…Church!
A little bio blurb from the Guys and Dolls program.
During my sophomore year of high school, I was attending CCD classes for my upcoming Confirmation and I started getting heavy into church activities so I could make the best out of what was otherwise a pretty boring process (sorry, God, not your fault). I was a lector at masses, doing readings from the Gospel and such. I also played drums in the youth band. And, somehow, I got recruited to play Pontius Pilate in The Passion play…
Pontius Pilate surprisingly became my favorite acting role of all my various acting roles, and maybe this was because, at the time, I was tired of doing fairy-tale-type plays and flamboyant musicals. I had the burning desire to try something more ‘serious’. I didn’t know much about the Bible or especially the Gospels, but my instincts must have kicked in and I decided to play Pilate as a very sympathetic character. He is, of course, the guy who sentences Jesus to death but I depicted him as—not an evil villain—but as a politician at the mercy of public pressure.
We performed the play twice, once on Palm Sunday and then again on Good Friday. My performance was well-received and I had several parishioners (mostly elderly women) approach me afterwards to thank me for my performance. They said that I made them see Pilate in a whole new light: not as a one-dimensional villain but as a more complex human being. I felt proud about that. I mean, I had the power to change a person’s perspective, make them see people differently, even people from the most famous book of all time: The Holy Bible! This was also the first time I felt a responsibility as an actor, the responsibility of portraying a character in a manner that was true to that character and his or her human condition.
Despite my Pilate performance being a success, I started to get sick of acting as my high school years progressed. Maybe one of the reasons was that I was doing too much of it. I mean, there was WCT, there were the high school drama club musicals and then an occasional church play—okay, only one of those…but still. My senior year in high school I played a Hungarian Broadway director named Bela in a musical called Crazy for You. It was the last play I did for several years. Like with the drums, acting stopped being interesting to me. Besides, by this time, I had been bitten by another bug and an entirely new career aspiration was on the rise…