Oregon residents take weekend acting course

PORTLAND — Douglas Hines is feeling, in his words, like "a fish out of water."

"I've never done this before," he says, as he looks at a script. Hines, a burly 42-year-old, is attending "thug camp," part of a weekend "Leverage" seminar. Hines has never acted before. Now the Vancouver resident, who's unemployed, is trying to figure out how to convincingly portray the prosperous owner of a sports team on TV.

It is, Hines says, kind of a stretch.

The "Leverage" event, which ended last week at the University of Oregon's Portland campus, was designed as a combination showbiz-work force development effort, according to organizer Lana Veenker.

Classes for experienced local actors provided behind-the-scenes insights about "Leverage," which stars Oscar-winner Timothy Hutton. Other sessions offered beginner-level information intended to boost the odds of getting a job on movies and television shows that film locally.

The TNT series filmed its second season in Portland last year. All told, the production employed more than 120 actors and 800 extras from the Northwest, says Veenker, Oregon casting director for the show. The third season begins shooting here March 1. And there's a particular group of talent needed, Veenker says — men who can handle stunts and play small roles as security guards, tough guys, cops and thug sidekicks.

"My worst fear," Veenker says, "is that one day we find we've used up all the good actors in Portland." So she added "thug camp" to the weekend curriculum. While others among the 200 registrants were studying scenes and learning about dialects, the thugs class sat in a meeting room getting basic instruction about line readings, auditions and film production.

Veenker says that Portlanders affected by Oregon's recession may be able to pick up a few bucks doing small roles or extra work in "Leverage."

"Definitely some construction-worker types may have the right look, and it would be great to train them up to be able to say a few lines or perform some easy stunts," she says. "Ultimately, if this is something they want to pursue, they'll need more than a weekend course." But she hopes the seminar provides valuable information, resources and contacts.

"Film work is not consistent or full time," Veenker says. "But I have friends who are unemployed who were able to work as extras and body doubles last season, and it helped them to make ends meet while they were job hunting for more permanent work."

In Oregon, which has an 11 percent unemployment rate, the recession has been particularly hard on male workers in traditionally male-dominated industries.

At his State of the City speech last week, for example, Portland Mayor Sam Adams said "one in three Portlanders" in the construction industry is currently out of work.

Oregon state Sen. Ginny Burdick, who stopped by the "Leverage" camp Saturday morning, says film and TV production here is "a really important economic tool."

Some of the about 40 men in the thugs sessions were looking for work, such as Douglas Hines. The registration fee wasn't cheap — $275. But Hines was willing to pay it in order to check out some new possibilities. "I had some money saved," he says.

Still others have jobs but are movie fans wondering whether they can get a foot in the door.

Joe Chouinard, 34, lives in Forest Grove and works as a machine operator. In a Saturday afternoon session, acting coach Robert Blanche worked on a brief scene with Chouinard playing a detective who's visiting a psychic.

The line was, "I'm embarrassed to be here," and Chouinard sounded self-conscious saying it. Blanche asked whether the line felt authentic to him.

"I am embarrassed to be here," Chouinard said. He's nervous getting up in front of crowds, he said. "I thought I was going to be a thug, so I could come in and mug somebody."

The others in the room laughed.

"You can use that," Blanche said. "Use the fact you're embarrassed about being here."

Afterward, Chouinard said: "I did not expect to be acting at all. I just thought you had to come and be big and mean-looking." A competitive bodybuilder, Chouinard is plenty big. But his large brown eyes are gentle, not mean.

"I have no delusions of grandeur," he said. "I'm not going to replace Tim Hutton. But I could stand in the background, looking menacing."

Earlier in the day, John Rogers, co-creator of "Leverage," addressed all 200 registrants from his location in Los Angeles, via videophone. The bearded Rogers gave a lengthy, funny talk about why the producers like filming in Portland and what they're looking for.

According to Rogers, being able to hire local talent is a big reason "Leverage" films here.

"We couldn't make the show if we weren't shooting in Portland," he said. Originally, the producers expected to fly most of their actors up from Los Angeles. But as it turned out, "We cast 95 to 98 percent Portland people."

Hines, meanwhile, is taking it all in. The former Costco employee doesn't know whether he'll try to get work on "Leverage." But he knows he's ready to do something new.

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