Neal Hemphill

Neal Hemphill is an actor, filmmaker, and photographer.

As an actor, Neal has worked in 31 states and 3 foreign countries, performing everything from off-off-Broadway solo shows to feature films to major touring productions.  He's always had a camera with him, and has taken photos everywhere he's gone.  This lifelong interest in performing and looking through a lens has led to third passion - filmmaking.  

Neal's passion for storytelling is now being expressed through screenwriting, directing, producing, and acting, as well as photography.  The common threads are heart, humanism, and love of life. 

 

"Whiplash" and Teaching by Fear

I know that, for me, I've always responded much more to kindness and encouragement than I have to fear and intimidation.

The teacher in "Whiplash" isn't someone that I could or would handle. I never would've put up with that shit. Throw a chair at me? Slap me in the face? Something bad would come out of all that...most likely me blowing up and doing something crazy.

But it was compelling to watch, and the combination of charm, manipulation, drive, and brutality that the teacher used was powerful. The actor, J.K. Simmons, was masterful in the role, and he had a live one in the drum student played by Miles Teller.

The premise of genius being borne out of fire, out of abuse, to me, is false. I mean maybe it happens that way on occasion, where manipulation and abuse bears fruit. OK. I want nothing to do with that.

But I believe in support. Real support, as in structure, being given tools, being given the opportunity to fail along the way to succeeding, and being given the direction and encouragement to be authentic to who I am - that's the beauty in life, and the beauty of being taught and being a student.

My high school football coach once kicked me in the ass - real hard - in front of the rest of the team. It didn't make me a better player, and it surely didn't make me care more about our team or to have pride in who I played for. Quite the opposite in fact, and my rather considerable potential as a football player was largely wasted by a very neanderthal-ish coaching squad mentality.

All in all, that's OK. I'm an artist, anyway. And those who believed in fear as a motivator just helped me to find that out.

And I don't believe in intimidation.

And I don't believe Charlie Parker became Charlie Parker because Philly Joe threw a cymbal at his head.

 

Acting in a Scene I wrote

Today's work was prepping, and then doing a scene I wrote, in The Independent Film School acting class tonight.

It's a scene from a full-length film script that is a work-in-progress.  The script, that is.  The scene is fully baked, as we discovered tonight.  In other words, it works.  Really well.

Acting in my own work is getting increasingly comfortable.  It's a revelatory experience because as I do it, I feel so at home.  It must be the fact that I know the story so well, whatever the scene is from.

I worked tonight with a young actor, Angel Sampedro, who played my son in the scene.  We connected to the circumstances, and played simply and truthfully.  It felt fantastic.

I'm getting a huge kick from doing my own scenes. 

Regarding the writing...when I started a few years back, I wrote some pretty poor stuff.  I've come a long way, in that I've written a fairly big number of really good scenes and short film scripts.  I know how to write a good 2- or 3- character scene that cooks.  My next step - a big one - is to write a full-length script.  

I'm working on it!

"Time Stands Still"

Today's work is prepping a scene for The Independent Film School acting class tonight.  It's from Donald Margulies' extraordinary play "Time Stands Still."  I'll be doing the scene with Dawn Young.

I had the pleasure of seeing a tremendous production of this play at the Guthrie Theatre a few years ago, and it was one of the best plays I've seen over the past decade.  It is a privilege to get to work on it, and I hope one day to do a full production of this play.

"Time Stands Still" concerns a couple that have been completely devoted to reporting and photographing in war zones around the world, in the committed belief that their work is important and that it effects positive change.

At the point of the play, their work is impacting each of them in profoundly personal ways, and they must consider their path forward.  

I was most deeply affected by the question of whether or not to pursue a life of comfort and the appreciation of simple joy, versus that of giving one's self over to a higher calling.

From the Guthrie Theatre production of "Time Stands Still."  Bill McCallum, Sarah Agnew.

From the Guthrie Theatre production of "Time Stands Still."  Bill McCallum, Sarah Agnew.

A Wonderful Day

Aba Woodruff

Aba Woodruff

Ruben Flores

Ruben Flores

I so greatly enjoyed all of the work today.

Although I'm still recovering from a nasty bout of the flu, I'm able to go out and have full days. However, today was rainy and chilly, and I was really dragging.  I was immediately picked up by the actors for the rehearsal of the scene I'd written.  Aba Woodruff and Ruben Flores brought to it exactly what I was looking for, only even better than I'd imagined.  We had some staging things to work out, and a few moments to explore, but essentially they were right on target.

Then I went to rehearse for an ambitious short film project.  It shoots four days, and has multiple locations and actors, including a child.  They'll begin this weekend, but I don't shoot until the following weekend.

It was the first I'd met the director, Prabal Chakraborty.  He'd seen my work in a film, and I was recommended to him by his producer.  So, today was the first we'd met.  He made a terrific impression on me, and I was already impressed because of the improvements he made in his script.

The lead actress, Pia Pownall, is going to be terrific in the lead.  I play her boss who has chosen her to be lead architect on a huge project.  I really look forward to getting on set with her and Prabal and getting to work.

But the best part of the day was the last part. In Lab tonight, Ruben and Aba did beautiful work. After I gave the first round of direction, our teacher, Ela Thier, gave them each an important adjustment that took it all to another level.  

One of the things that is still a tremendous thrill for me is to see something I've written be brought to life in a compelling way.  It's fulfilling and exciting.  That happened tonight.

Now Aba and Ruben and I are talking about producing it, which is really promising.  Yes to making films!

Inspiration

I find it difficult to remember a time when I've been so inspired by people who are close to me in my life. Maybe if I go back to college days...

Today I'm thinking of Jessie Dorfman, whose persistence of vision and dedication to a goal is a direct model for me to follow. And Jamie Canobbio, whose scene about the power of music to change the course of one's life is absolutely beautiful.  

And I'm thinking of Ela Thier, who is my champion. Being challenged is one of the greatest compliments I've ever received. I'm grateful for it.  

I've never been happier in my work than I am now. The seeds are planted. It's springtime. 

P.S. This list is only the tiniest tip of the iceberg. Much more to come...

 

 

Submission to SoHo Photography Gallery

The Event Space at B&H - the famous electronics store in NYC - teamed up with the SoHo Photography Gallery to create a Portfolio Development Program.  It's included attending a number of classes and critiques,  as well as creating new images and posting them to social media.  Having a website (or creating one) is a requirement also.  The end product is a group show of photographs at the SoHo Photo Gallery in May 2014.  Today I will submit my three photos for consideration for the group show.

It's been a lot of work, and I've grown a lot in my photography.  One thing that it's done is convinced me to carry my camera with me every day.  Not my iPhone camera (of course I still carry that), but my DSLR, which happens to be a Nikon D90.  It's a commitment to put that into my bag on a daily basis.  But if I hadn't done that, many images that have made me very happy to shoot, never would've been shot.

These are the three images I'm submitting.  Decisions will be made by the end of March.

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"Dressed" in REEL Recovery Film Festival 2014!

Neal Hemphill directing, with cinematographer Ramazan Nanayev

Neal Hemphill directing, with cinematographer Ramazan Nanayev

Yes!  Some good news:  The first short film I've directed (from a script I wrote), titled "Dressed," has been accepted into the REEL Recovery Film Festival for 2014.  This terrific festival will play in 10 cities this year, including New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, and Las Vegas.  

The first short film I wrote, "Top of the World," played in this festival also.   The screening in Greenwich Village in New York was a day I'll never forget.  I'm thrilled to have an ongoing relationship with the REEL Recovery Film Festival.  http://reelrecoveryfilmfestival.org/

"Dressed" will be released soon.  I can't wait to share it with you...and with the festival audiences!

"Picnic" on Broadway / March 2013


I saw "Picnic" on Broadway last month, which is a play that I'd never seen - either on stage or film - nor read.

I'd never been particularly interested in it, although I love American plays from the mid-20th century.  I think it's the title.  "Picnic" just sounded dopey.  Too All-American, too hokey.

A friend of mine really wanted to see it, so we went.  I'm so glad we did.  I loved it.

It's not hokey - at all.  It's surprisingly frank, and progressive, actually.  And it's a play that painted a picture on my heart...an American picture, of love, of going, of confusion, of drives, as well as both the comfort and stifling quality of small-town life.  There's alway a freight train to jump if need be, but there's also always the family, for good and for bad, right here.

Sebastian Stan, as Hal Carter, upsetting the apple cart.

Sebastian Stan, as Hal Carter, upsetting the apple cart.

The newcomer, Sebastian Stan, was tremendous as Hal Carter.  He's a ridiculously good-looking guy, and he spends much of the play shirtless.  OK, great - the sex appeal that is necessary for the character, and the way it upends the community - was definitely in place.  What was surprising, and thrilling, was the present, honest, flowing, moment-to-moment performance that Stan delivered.  He appeared to have the best quality of relaxation on stage - no pushing of anything, and ready to respond to everything that comes along.  Probably the strongest part of the character for me was the "little-boy-lost" quality that was pervasive, even in the scenes that call for bravado.  That was done very skillfully.  The gaping hole inside of the character was huge.  His confidence was real, but couldn't fill the hole.  His need and longing for connection, for love, and I believe mostly for acceptance, was too powerful, and overran all of his strengths.

Maggie Grace, as the young woman Madge Owens, was a graceful and beautiful presence on stage. Her quest, to understand the purpose and significance of her beauty, was so sadly realized.  When she leaves home, and her mother, it's heartbreaking.  We know she's setting off on another generation of struggles and woes, just as her mother suffered.  And it's a gut-wrenching goodbye.  Also, Maggie Grace was able to express both a gawky beauty that moves ever-so-quickly to a more mature, womanly aspect.

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Ellen Burstyn - poignant.  Mare Winningham - broke my heart.

Reed Birney and Elizabeth Marvel were amazing.  She really went to some deep places.  He got pulled along, and I felt for him.  I'm glad they went off to get married.  I think it'll be good for both of them.

Sam Gold's direction was terrific.  I loved the scenes that took place entirely indoors - inside the house, on the other side of the yard from us.  The action inside was clear, even though much of the movement was blocked by the walls of the house, as we could only see in through the windows and doors.  He cast it well, staged it well, and brought it to life.

One last note.  My friend and I had a conversation about subtext at the intermission.  I don't believe there was a lot of subtext in the play, nor was there a meaning beyond what we saw.  But what we saw and heard was more than enough to fill me, and keep me filled as I think about it again over a month later.

Good Times/Confusing Times

I haven't posted in a while.  I'm not sure what to say.

But I realized that's OK.  I can just talk a bit about what's going on.  If I only post when there is clarity in my acting life, posts will be rare.

What's happening is that I haven't had any auditions in weeks.  It's a rare, and long, lull.  One of the agents at my agency left to change professions.  She'd been there a long time, and had a lot of good, strong contacts.  Also, she really ran the day-to-day business of the office.

She sent me an e-mail telling me she was leaving, but I haven't heard anything from anyone else at my agency.  I take it they're swamped.  I don't know.

But I haven't been too upset, because I'm really on some different tracks right now.  I'm really into the screenwriting.  I wrote my best piece recently - a 5-page short.  And I will produce it soon - it's very producible.  Also, I'll be taking a two-day producing class in November.  I'm undecided as to whether or not I'll take the next screenwriting-directing class that starts in early October.

The other thing I'm really into these days is photography.  It's a lifelong passion of mine, and I"m very focused on it now.

It's all good, and the acting will come to the forefront one way or another - through my films, or from auditions.  Acting is NOT a straight-forward career path!

Earning a Living

One of things I do to earn a living is to work as an actor/trainer for a company that works with major corporations.  They work with companies to create programs such as Diversity Training for their employees.

Here's how I got into it.  When I did "Arsenic and Old Lace" at the Clarence Brown Theatre in Knoxville about five years ago, my housemate there was the terrific actor Stephen Bradbury.  When we returned from Tennessee, I received a call from him, saying that a replacement actor was needed to do a program in Texas.  I jumped into it, and I did the job for a program for Raytheon in Dallas.  I came through for them, and it was a feather in my cap.

Early last year, I was asked to be involved with a number of Diversity Training programs for BP.  This was a good while before the spill.

I took the job, went through a very interesting and comprehensive two-day training, had rehearsal, and eventually went to Chicago to do my first job.  It went well, and I did a number of them throughout the year, as BP moved into the headlines for the spill and the aftermath.

The training helps managers to deal w/ issues around race, sexual orientation, and other similar issues of Diversity that come up in the workplace.  It teaches very good skills, and a very humanistic approach with lessons that are good for all of us.

I really like this aspect of the work, spreading good common-sense ideas that help people who are often victims of discrimination.

Also, it is very interesting work as an actor.  What we do is play a scene that was written specifically to deal w/ issues that the company may have.  Then, there is a facilitated discussion, and we (the actors) remain in character, and improvise the conversation and give feedback in the discussion.  We have been trained in the background of the characters, and many of the "teaching points,", but the discussions can go in many directions, and we need to really think on our feet.  It's an excellent challenge, and has built confidence and skills for me.

This past week I did my first BP job in quite a while, as it has mostly died down.  I went to Houston for the program.

After doing "Snow Falling on Cedars," and having such an uplifting experience with that, it was a reality check to go back into this training.  I mean, we're not doing great theatre - we're doing scenes in a classroom that were written as teaching instruments.

And - we are working for BP.

I believe that what we are doing is good work, and that it helps to open people's minds regarding their treatment of minorities in the workplace.  For example, nooses have been hung as intimidating symbols in BP refineries (as well as in many other workplaces in the US, surprisingly showing up in greatest numbers in the northeast).  There is a lot to be discussed, and managed.

But it's really weird to go work for a company that has done what BP has done over the last year.

Just another chapter, I guess, in the journey of this actor's life.

Intiman

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During the last week at Centerstage in Baltimore, I got a call to go in to NYC for an audition that I had requested my agent try to book for me.  She booked the audition, so I went in for it.

It was for a production of "The Playboy of the Western World" at Intiman Theatre in Seattle, to be directed by their highly regarded new Artistic Director, Kate Whoriskey.  I received the appointment along with the play and sides in a pdf, all on the day before the audition.

This was during our last couple of days in Baltimore, and I had a few things I was dying to do there.  But I made the decision to go for it!  Strike while I'm on a roll, doing a terrific show.

So, I drove up on Thursday night after our performance, and I arrived home about 2:30 a.m. My wife Trish was fast asleep, and I slept upstairs in our guest room.  We didn't even see each other.

I had to print out some updated resumes, and it was after 3am that I really got a chance to work w/ the sides.  The audition was at noon the next day, and had curtain at 8 pm back in Baltimore that night.

I immediately connected to the scene, and fell into the Irish dialect and rhythms quite naturally.

Friday morning, I drove to Manhattan from our home in Queens, parked, and got there early.  I thought I was a bit old for the character, and felt I was more suited for the bar owner than the patron that I was auditioning for.  This suspicion was reinforced when I saw an actor w/ whom I'd worked in an Irish play, "The Weir," in Philadelphia a while back. He's a good bit younger than I am, and he was up for the same role.

I went in, and was hoping to have a good chat w/ the director about "Snow Falling on Cedars," and the pending changes at Centerstage, where she had directed in the past.  But it was all brisk business, and we proceeded quickly to the reading.  We did it once.  The reader was excellent...and I felt I did an excellent job myself!

Ms. Whoriskey was not interested in what I was offering, and the audition came to a quick conclusion.

I went for it, driving overnight to NYC, giving up my chance to do some great things in Baltimore, and making myself exhausted heading into the final weekend of the play, for about 2 minutes in the audition room!  That's just how it goes sometimes!

I got in the car, feeling very down, but when I hit the highway I put a CD of one of my favorite bands, Social Distortion, in the player.  Mike Ness, Mr. Hard Knocks himself, was singing "Reach for the Sky, 'cause tomorrow may never come."  Yes, Mike, that's what I had just done, and you made me feel righteous about it.  I settled into my trip back to Baltimore, and had a great closing weekend.

Now for the kicker.

The venerable and artistically successful Intiman Theatre has had to shut down.  Just this week, they realized they cannot continue to meet their payroll, and they shut down before the new actors arrive for their next show.  Their season is cancelled, and there will not be a production this summer of "Playboy of the Western World."  They hope to re-organize, raise funds, and re-open.  I certainly hope they do, as they've done some very important work, such as the production of "The Kentucky Cycle" that led to its getting the Pulitzer Prize.

One never knows in this business just what is around the corner.