by Timothy Hughes
Near the end of 2017, I was given the opportunity of a lifetime when the contract was finally signed for me to play the Strong Man in a new musical movie called “The Greatest Showman”. On the outside, I knew I was a Broadway Ensemblist with a skill set that would lend itself well to a new musical movie, but inside I was hesitant that my experience working in theater hadn’t fully prepared me for “life on set”. Both instincts were right.
I approached the project with a tremendous level of excitement and determination to absorb as much of this other industry as possible. From my experiences alone, here are some of the lessons I learned.
1. “Backstage” life is hard to find on set.
There is no meet and greet day on the set of a movie. People start and end their contracts on different days and I ended up shooting scenes with people who I’d never been properly introduced to. Don’t get me wrong, none of these are judgements, just differences, especially when I’ve grown accustomed to passing a large majority of a cast while climbing the stairs to my dressing room and hearing all about their lives and families. I didn’t realize how much personal information we gather during those long tech rehearsals at the theater! A movie trailer can be much more isolating than a theater dressing room.
Also, on this set, there were no unfinished sides to set pieces. I was able to fully enter the world of “The Greatest Showman” and not have to fill in missing pieces with my imagination. I tried to never take for granted how thrilling that was for me.
2. There will always be food on a movie set.
It doesn’t have to be a birthday or a holiday, there will always be food. For those of you who have not had the privilege of experiencing this, there is literally always a spread of food waiting someplace and changing depending on the time of day. They downplay their power by humbly calling themselves “craft services”, but i like to think of it as a magical buffet that never goes away. It’s as if Schmackary’s is delivered like 4 times a day to the theater and the last cookie is never being taken by that little girl in your cast. So, pace yourself.
3. Filming a movie musical is a sprint.
It’s more like a marathon of short sprints. We may only have filmed two minutes of a musical number at a time, but we would do it for hours and sometimes days on end. And it is not up to you which take makes the movie, so you have to give full out, opening night intensity and perfection every time. There’s no Wednesday matinee performance to warm you up for the night. It’s a healthy reminder for me to try and perform every theater performance like Lincoln Center is taping it... because as they said on set, film is forever, but I like to hope that the memory of a great night at the theater can be too.
4. There’s a delayed response in making a movie.
This is not to say that audience applause is essential to what we do as actors, but in theater I am accustomed to hearing an immediate response to what I do on stage. I know immediately if I land a joke or not. I meet people at the stage door right after a performance who offer (hopefully positive) feedback. With a movie, the wave of a response comes months, sometimes years later. There is no stage door. Even during filming, if something is funny, the laughter is held in for the sake of the shot. One of the weirdest experiences for me as a theater actor was watching my performance in the film months later. I’m not sure how to accurately describe the combination of excitement, anxiety, and lack of control that I felt when I first watched myself, but it certainly provided a very “new” experience. Also, I was experiencing this as an audience member with my family and friends. I guess it was kind of like riding a roller coaster that was mostly a thrill and really exciting, but I may have gotten nauseous because of it. I can’t say I fully enjoyed it the first time, but I’ve gotten used to it and definitely enjoy it more now.
5. Despite the differences, the work is the same.
It was empowering for me to realize that the work I do to approach a character, a script, and a scene was the same in film and theater. Again, that may seem obvious but I realized that the execution is what can be different, but the roots are the same. I remember doing a scene with an actress who I wouldn’t consider a “theater actress” and I couldn’t hear a word she was saying during filming. I kept hearing my inner Mama Rose say “sing out Louise”. But her soft spoken delivery worked beautifully when I saw the movie and the back row of the movie theater could still hear her. Lesson learned!
This is just a small peak into what I took away from my experience filming “The Greatest Showman”. I am grateful for these lessons, the life long friends I made, and for the opportunity to bring a small piece of what we do in the Broadway community to this film and to the world! I hope you all get an opportunity to see it.