The art of acting naturally eludes me

I had never thought that my simply being the single adoptive father of a boy from Russia would elicit interest of a public nature.

I was proved wrong when, in October, a film producer from New York City called. "We've heard about your story," she informed me, "and want to include you in a documentary."

"A documentary?" I echoed.

She confirmed the offer, adding that my son and I would be one of five so-called "alternative" families being profiled in a cable-television special.

It occurred to me that these days a single man raising his son alone is not all that unusual. By today's standards, the Cleavers would be far more "alternative."

I caught 15-year-old Alyosha as he was coming in the door, fresh from school. "What do you think?" I asked him after relaying the news.

My son shrugged and headed for the refrigerator. "Sure," he said before tucking into some leftover chicken. Then he hopped up to his room.

I envied my son's ability to make decisions without fussing. While I lived in a world of shadows, nuances, and what-ifs, he saw things as more clear-cut and has always had a strong sense of what looked good and what didn't.

And that's how a big-time documentary film producer landed in our kitchen a scant two weeks later. It was a small team of two: a cameraman and a young woman named Amy who would do the interviewing and soundwork; but they had enough equipment in tow to begin filming the sequel to "Titanic."

"Now, we're just flies on the wall," Amy assured me as she straightened microphones and set up the lighting. "Just be yourself."

And that, I soon discovered, was the problem. How could I be myself with a lens the size of a Frisbee glistening in my face? The crew attempted to film me reading the newspaper, and it occurred to me: Just how do I read the paper?

I suddenly saw myself at arm's length, in my mind's eye, turning the pages of the Bangor Daily News, taking mental notes on the process. Should I linger on each page? Move through the paper with practiced disinterest? Hover over the sports section to show I was a real man?

"That's great," said Amy as I perused the comics. "Are you getting all of this, Michael?"

"No problem," said the cameraman without taking his eye from his work.

"OK," rejoined Amy. "Now let's see you come through the door into the kitchen."

I checked my watch. "But it's 3 o'clock," I told her.

"So?"

"I'm not sure I generally come through that door at 3."

The woman patted the air with her hands. "That's OK," she said. "Just pretend you do."

I got up, left the kitchen, and waited for my cue to reenter. I had never been asked to walk through a doorway before.

Should I lead with my right shoulder? My left? Barge straight on in?

No, that would look too much like Frankenstein's monster. I decided on the right shoulder; but no, the left was better. Then again....

"OK!" came my casting call.

I pulled myself together and moved through the doorway with all the aplomb of a muskox making its way through heavy snows. By the time I arrived in the kitchen, I had broken a sweat.

"Don't worry," said the cameraman. "The editor can perform miracles."

At that moment my son returned home. He dropped his backpack on a kitchen chair and nicked his head toward the crew before flicking his eyebrows at me, as if to say, "So this is it, eh?"

The crew introduced themselves to Alyosha. "Just be yourself," said Amy as she motioned to the cameraman to start rolling.

For a moment I was concerned about my son's ability - so lacking in me - to disregard the camera. But to my surprise he was a pro. As was his daily wont, he meandered over to the fridge and began to nosh on whatever was available.

Then he wandered into the living room, picked up the TV remote, and plopped himself onto the sofa. I felt like crying out, "For Pete's sake, Alyosha! This will be on national television!"

Then I caught myself, realizing that my son understood better than I what the situation warranted.

He had no trouble moving through doorways or reading the newspaper - or lying in state on the sofa, for that matter - because he possessed every teenager's birthright: the gift of cool detachment that said that adults were largely irrelevant, even when equipped with camera and mike and arriving by air from New York.

The filming went on for three days, the camera greeting us at breakfast and then following us to school, to the pizza joint, and even to one of my son's soccer games in a driving rainstorm.

Through it all, my son wore his private bubble of insouciance, making him the perfect subject. As for me, I think I did OK as a talking head, but I never really took to stage direction.

When the film crew left, my son barely noticed; but for days afterward I found myself preoccupied with the mechanics of reading newspapers, walking from room to room, and other nubbins of self-consciousness.

Alyosha must have noticed this, because one night, as we sat at supper, he watched as I lifted a forkful of pasta from my plate. "Hey," he said, "I never noticed that you open your mouth so soon before you put the food in."

I lingered on this thought for a moment or two, and then noticed his suppressed smile. "Don't start, Alyosha," I admonished. "Don't start."

My son returned to eating in peace, but I couldn't, because, well, at what point does one open one's mouth before inserting the food?

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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