Johnny Walker is a ruddy, white-haired former military officer with brilliant blue eyes and a square jaw. He’d make a great poster if the Army were recruiting senior citizens, and he’s probably pretty good at selling real estate in Birmingham, Alabama, where he lives.
We met on the porch of a Cracker Barrel in Pell City, 30 minutes east of Birmingham, as part of a large cast shooting a commercial. Being on the set of a commercial – especially a big-budget affair such as this – is like being in an airport when all the flights have been postponed.
Actors, made up and costumed, lounge about reading, doing crossword puzzles, knitting, dozing and, more than anything, comparing notes about the business. They talk about agents, jobs they’ve done, jobs they didn’t get, jobs they wished they’d gotten, etc.
At lunch the first day day, an actor from Birmingham named Danny Vinson said he learned to cry on cue by visualizing a sad scene from his own own life. "Works every time," he said. "I can’t stop."
The most common topic, especially when actors meet for the first time, is "What else do you do?" Very few make a living at films and commercials, and in a business with so much rejection and uncertainty, curiosity is almost pathological. Scarcity is powerful motivation.
Since this website is dedicated to passion and purpose, it was particularly interesting that on my Alabama sojourn I gravitated to people who were very much about passion. Johnny Walker, the soldier-turned-realtor, was one of them. He showed up across the table from me at lunch.
"I got screwed when I bought my first house," he said. "A colonel said he’d help me, and I trusted him, and I almost lost everything. What I love more than anything is selling a young couple their first house, and helping them avoid what happened to me. It’s nice to sell a million-dollar property, but I love selling young people their first house more than anything."
Later that day, Mimi Gould and I sat in rocking chairs on the front porch. The grande dame of actors in Atlanta, Mimi is another bright-eyed and vigorous soul who is nudging 80 and ought to be home coddling her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
I asked her if she’d ever done theater. "I love it," she said. "I absolutely love it. But it took too much time away from my family." So she committed to commercials and film, and her passion is undiminished. When shooting finished the first day, she and her husband drove back to Atlanta so she could rise at 4 and catch a 6 a.m. flight to Wilmington, North Carolina, where she would spend a week filming a movie about the beginning of jazz.
When I asked if perhaps she wasn’t pushing herself a bit hard, she shook her head and said, "I just want to work."
During the dining scene the second day, I sat across from a heavy-set guy with a round, red face and thinning hair. Alan said he had two degrees in theater and had spent 10 years in Los Angeles trying to become the next Brian Denehy. Now he teaches drama in a Birmingham high school, is co-founder of a local theater company and would soon be interviewing for a university teaching position.
The noise between takes was such that I only heard half of what Alan was saying, but his expressions, his gestures and his fervor were those of someone born to entertain. Indeed, during breaks he stood at the back of the room reading "Two Gentlemen of Verona."
The last conversation I had was not so much about passion as it was the absence of it. Robert, as I will call him, is a big, prosperous-looking man in his early 50s who admitted that the excitement that drew him to his business was gone. He was tortured by the prospect of grinding out another 10 years to retirement, and fearful that if he did quit early he’d just take another job for the money rather than the joy.
"Truth is," he said, "I don’t know what I want to do. My wife says I need to develop some other interests, and I think she’s right."
Yet even here, passion was close at hand. Robert’s younger son had forsaken the family religion (Lutheran) for Catholicism, and had become so passionate about it that he was studying to be a priest.
"We’ve talked to him about it," Robert said, "but he seems very clear and at peace about it."
If I could characterize those I’ve met who have found their passion, it would be just that: they are at peace. With themselves, with what they do, with their lives. There are still challenges, of course, but it’s affirming to think that peacefulness, the antidote to the anxiety and restlessness of modern life, lies in following not the hyperactive chatter of the mind, but in the soothing ministrations of the heart.
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