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Austin Actors
Roger Kunshick

Drowning, Tacos, and Pantyhose
by Roger Kunshick

May 2001

It was cold. Really cold. I mean, really fucking cold!

We were somewhere down on the Perdenales on a desolate stretch of country road shooting the rescue scene in Director Mehgna Haldar's film "REVIVAL." Jennifer Matyear plays the lead in this allegorical film about a repressed rural woman whose life is radically changed when she rescues a mentally retarded murderer from drowning.

It was early December, and even though the last few Central Texas winters have been mild and the forecast was for sunny, in the low seventies. It was anything but; The wind came barreling out of the north dropping the temperature with a strong chill factor. And we hadn't even got in the near freezing cold water yet.

We had rehearsed the rescue scene several times over the previous two months. Jen and I usually aced the scene on the second try. It always took us the first run through to synchronize our physical actions. Once we got that coordinated, the other runs refined what we had already achieved. Although, when you're flailing around and gasping for air you can't really block it out like you can other scenes. To our initial surprise, the brutality of the drowning and rescue was realistic enough that our rehearsals at a local swimming pool caused Mehgna to inform the guards and patrons that we were only rehearsing a scene to prevent them from getting freaked out.

Since it was really cold on the day of our final rehearsal, on location, we wore wetsuits. While keeping us warm, they constricted our movements enough to make the scene unconvincing, and also made us too buoyant to look like we were actually in any sort of danger. We just kind of floated on the surface of the water like really big mosquitoes. I guess since that didn't work, the "warmth" budget got slashed 'cause when I arrived at the set for the actual filming, Grace, our AD, handed a me fresh pack of pantyhose and said "Hey, it'll keep you warm."

I was skeptical, to say the least. I've mentioned this to several friends who have all pretty much thought that these women filmmakers were just using the circumstances as an excuse to get kinky. Probably. I know I would.

I do have to admit they did sort of keep the lower half of my body warmer. And I really can see why women hate to wear the damn things. Aside for not being made for a guy, they really are really pretty fucking uncomfortable.

So there I was, dressed in my orange prison outfit and pantyhose playing another unusual character with the wind whipping around me trying to work up the courage to step in to the near freezing cold water trying to remember where my adventurous urges got the better of me. Jen and I grasped hands to support each other and we took our first step.

As my ankles entered the water, my brain froze. No more gray matter, it was just an ice cube. It was overwhelmed by the sheer freezing horror of the situation. Jen and I were both transfixed, our bodies too shocked to take another step, although our mouths kept working fine, uttering some quasi-primate screams from somewhere way down there at the beginnings of the human race. We were still holding hands but I'm not sure if it was so much we were holding them together as they were frozen together.

Somehow our legs began moving again. It was probably Mehgna yelling at us to get in the water, and us dumb actors thinking, "Oh yeah, she's directing us. We take direction well." Step after step we drifted forward, deeper into the water. Knees, stomach, chest, neck...

The human body attempts to adjust as best it can to harsh environments. Mine tried. And failed miserably. "Are you crazy??? It's colder than hell, you idiot! What were you thinking?" There was a moment where I felt almost comfortable, and then we stood still on our mark and my body totally forgot trying to adjust and just freaked out again. There's no way the human body can obviate extreme temperatures. And there we stood; Sort of bobbing up and down in a futile effort to generate some warmth in our bodies while the camera crew began measuring our distance from the camera for the shot.

The Polar Bear types have it easy. You can't convince me otherwise. Give it up. While they are in water much colder that what we were in, they at least can jump in, swim like hell for the other side of the lake or whatever and then they're done. There's no standing around waiting for the crew to get the shot ready while all you can stand totally still up to your neck in the friggin' cold water and freeze your fucking ass off ! Where's my stand in?

I know we had a great crew and there's no doubt in my mind that they worked as quickly as possible to get everything ready. And then there was poor Mehgna venting her concern about us actors turned Popsicles yelling, "Oh I'm so mean to you making you do all these horrible things, you'll never want to be in another of my films again!" I'd love to be in another of Mehgna's films; But Good God It Was Cold!!!

Finally we heard the magic word: "Action!" And we were off to the drowning. We plunged totally underwater and began flailing and kicking around. Jen grabbed my shoulders and I flailed and kicked more in panic, my tennis shoe flying off and sailing on down the river. She lugged me to shore and then went back under to look for other possible victims in need of rescue. She's such a trooper. Jen had more water scenes than anyone else in the film and every one of them was shot in uncomfortably cold weather. And as we lay on the shore hacking our lungs out, it was over as before we knew it. "Cut!"

And then it was time for take two... and take three... and... thank god they pulled us out for a while after that one. Our teeth were chattering like a pair of canastas. The crew quickly wrapped in thermal blankets and tossed us in a waiting tent. But even as we huddled together trying to warm up, it didn't work so we got tossed in someone's Volvo with the heater going full bore to try to thaw us out.

My left thumb was frozen solid. Just wrapping it and rubbing it did no good to get the circulation going even in the heat of the Volvo. Fortunately they had some of these warming gizmos that mix two chemicals together to make heat when you press the button on them. After wrapping my thumb in one it eventually came back to life. And there we sat, shivering for a half hour or so finally warming up, and then...

Back in to the water! What else?

Ya want show business? Well goddamit, ya got it!

Once again into the brink, a couple of popsicles waiting on the setup. And once more we were back to flailing, and kicking, and hacking up our lungs. Real bile pays off.

We had to do a couple of close two-shots for the aftermath of the rescue. It's just as cold lying on the shore with half your body in the water as it is with your whole body in. It's just as uncomfortable as you lie there, freezing your ass off, literally, while the shot gets setup.

A couple of quick takes and it was over. Done. "Cut! That's a wrap!" And we were out of there; Wrapped in blankets again, into the tent again and out in our street clothes faster than I can write about it. Whew!

And out came Mehgna's chicken fajita's. She made them using a combination of Indian and local TexMex style cooking. The chicken was cooked, I believe, Tandori style, with sautéd onions and peppers and such. They were awesome. A real treat, with a unique and flavorful taste to sooth the most disriminating pallete. Too bad you weren't there. All you can do is sit in front of your monitor screen, your stomach rumbling in hunger until you're finally forced to open that 6 year old can of SPAM you've got stuck in a corner of your pantry, or those low fat potato chips made with Olestra, "may promote loose stool", in sheer desperation. Nyah, hah, hah, hah!!! I'm just being mean and torturing you with great food you'll never see. (And relishing in your hunger!)

Mehgna on the other hand, subjected us to the torturous cold weather for the sake of the film. And we actors went willingly. We went into this uncomfortable situation because of dedication to our art, our craft, and that despite all of the hardships in shooting the sequence, and a number of others, we were able to go the distance because we always felt that Mehgna and the crew were always looking out for our safety under these most demanding circumstances. And that's what acting is all about: Trust in your scene partner, your director, and your crew.
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