Neely: I mentioned at the beginning of Part I that we were having our conversation in your Silver Lake studio where you design and make custom furniture. This was a complete surprise to me.
Chris: (chuckling) It is for everyone. I’m a carpenter. I had worked for scenery shops for many years, but after a while I looked around and thought I could do a lot better if I had my own shop. I was getting enough commission work, so I decided to take a shot.
This one guy found me and wanted me to do work at his new house; at the same time, another woman wanted me to build some stuff for her company. So I got a deposit from both of those jobs and said, “Sure. I’ll build it.” I had nowhere to work, so I took the deposit for both of those jobs and came here, put first and last month’s down, bought a table saw, bought all the lumber and… I was broke. I said to myself that Id build these two jobs and then at the end of the month, I’d go to my landlord and say “I’m sorry. I don’t know what I was thinking.” I was all prepared to say, “Awfully sorry. I tried it and it didn’t work.” And that was 11 years ago and I’m still here.
Neely: What do you build? On commission; standing orders?
Chris: I built everything you see except for the couch, the chair and this desk (pointing: book shelves, counters and work spaces). I do architectural woodwork, which is built-in bookcases, bookshelves, that kind of thing; I build furniture. I have a recurring client who has fantastic taste and lots of money and she wants custom furniture all the time for her new house. I just finished building a deck. I build whatever needs to be built. Largely, though, I try to focus on doing woodwork and carpentry; mostly bookcases and tables and things like that. I’d show you stuff, but I build it and it goes away; it’s one of a kind stuff so I don’t have a lot of it sitting around anymore.
Neely: Do you keep a book of pictures?
Chris: I do, but the best thing to do is to see my stuff online. I think I’m a pretty good carpenter. (Kelleydesign.blogspot.com.)
Neely: How did you choose Silver Lake?
Chris: I’ve lived in the neighborhood for over ten years.
Neely: Besides being a carpenter, you’re also an actor. I’ve profiled a number of writers who started as actors – Margaret Nagle, Bird York, Michael A. Ross, Kasi Lemmons, Jay Lacopo, and Dana Gould – each with his or her own story on why they became writers. So what’s your story?
Chris: (shrugging) You know, I don’t think of myself as an actor anymore. I don’t know if anyone else thinks of me as an actor anymore either. I was when I was younger; it’s why I came out here. I think I was a pretty good stage actor. I had a lot of presence as a young man; I was tall, I had a voice (note: Chris has a very deep, melodious voice), I had presence and I just kind of knew what to do on the stage. I did pretty well at it and then I moved out here (laughs).
Neely: Where was your stage experience?
Chris: I worked in Rhode Island, then around New England and finally I went to New York. I came out here to get into movies and television. I ended up working with a theater company out here – it’s called Theatre of Note and it’s been around for 25-30 years or so. They’re a small company but at the time I got involved with them, there was a group of writers and theater artists who were really cool and really progressive. They were out on the edge doing more European style language-driven work. It wasn’t really avant garde but leaned more towards expression theater than event theater. I fell in with these guys who had come out of something called the Padua Hills Playwrights’ Festival, founded by John Steppling and Murray Mednick who were originally from New York. They all worked together with Sam Shepherd and they came out here; that’s how these writers precipitated. When I was working with the company, I was exposed and involved with this kind of thoughtful theater that was really bold. I found myself getting more and more drawn into that kind of thinking and work.
Neely: You mentioned what brought you out here – that you were going to try your hand at film and television since you’d already been doing theater. But going further back, where did you go to school? Was acting always what you wanted to do at that point?
Chris: Yeah. When I was in 7th grade in Catholic school, I had a friend, Con Von Hoffman, a really cool kid who even at that stage was a really esoteric erudite super smart guy, and he was into doing theater. We had done a couple of school plays and one day he came to me and said, “Hey, I’m working with the Rhode Island Shakespeare Theater and they are losing the kid who’s playing young Caius Martius Coriolanus and they need someone to come and take over the part.” And he said I really had to do it because it was going to be really fun. So I said okay. I was 13 and went down to the Rhode Island Shakespeare Theater in this great old warehouse space. I walked in and the stage manager, older fellow I knew through Tom, said, “Okay. Here’s what you’re gonna do. You’re gonna stand here.” We walked through it and “You’re gonna say this (I had two lines). You’re gonna stand here, you’re gonna say this, you’re gonna do that and then you walk off.” He showed me the whole thing. And I said “Okay. Great.” And he said, “See you tonight.” (Neely laughs)! I didn’t realize it was for that day. He said, “Be here at 6:30 and we’ll run through with the actors.”
I tremble now thinking about it. I went home and told my father that I needed a ride to the theater. My father thought I had lost my mind but he drove me down there and I went on stage that night and stood under the lights and spoke Shakespeare and then they had me back to do another play, “Richard the Second.” I still remember standing there. Everyone else is out back smoking and hanging out when they weren’t on stage, but I would stand in the wings and just listen. I can still recite lines from that play. I just thought, Wow! I was hearing this foreign language and trying to understand it, and trying to get what it meant. It was just amazing. That’s where I stepped on the stage for the first time. As a young kid to get out there and feel that kind of aliveness – stand on stage and really feel alive and be what I wanted to be. All the shackles fall off. It was an amazing experience.
I went to a high school that had a theater and arts magnet program and then went to Boston University for a year and was kicked out. Then I went to Rhode Island College and studied theater. Unfortunately I didn’t study anything else; I just studied theater for three years and dropped out. I never graduated; I was a terrible student. I just didn’t take to learning the way they wanted me to.
Neely: Is that why you got kicked out of BU?
Chris: Yeah. I think I was actually accepted accidentally; I believe they made a mistake. I had terrible grades – I think I had a D average in high school. They accepted me into BU in a case of mistaken identity. My father thought it was a miracle and couldn’t believe it. There was another Chris Kelley at Boston University at the same time I was there who was an honors engineering student from the Midwest. I never met the guy but I’d get his mail.
One day I got a card in the mail inviting me to dinner with the Dean. I got to the dinner and there were just 6 people sitting at the table with the Dean of Boston University! He went around the table and all of the other students were these uberkinds who were at BU on engineering scholarships. There was a girl from Florida and a kid from wherever and they were all studying various kinds of engineering. And he asked the girl “What kind of engineering are you studying?” And she said, “I’m studying chemical engineering.” And the next one was studying astrophysical engineering, and so on until he came to me and asked “What are you studying?” And I said, “I don’t know. I haven’t decided yet. I’m at the College of Basic Studies and I’m thinking maybe theater.” The Dean looked at me and I think he thought I was pulling some kind of prank, that I had snuck in. But I genuinely got this thing in the mail addressed to Chris Kelley and “Hey! I’m going to dinner with the Dean!” It never occurred to me that this was a mistake. They must have sent me the other Chris Kelley’s invitation because he was this super duper engineering student and I was this academic failure.
My first semester at BU I did really well; I really took to it. I liked the astronomy, I liked the science; I had a 3.5 average. And then, at the end of my first semester I saw a sign at the student union that said “Auditions for the Boston University stage production of Saroyan’s ‘The Time of your Life.’” And the word audition was just like putting meat in front of a bear. I just had to check it out and walked in and stood up and got the part. And my grades went from a 3.5 to 0. I was rehearsing and having fun and partying and doing plays and then I failed all my classes. (laughing) It was shameful. They wrote me a letter saying “thank you but no thank you.”
Neely: So after you dropped out of Rhode Island College, where did you head.
Chris: I went to Block Island and built some sheds and worked for a contractor. It was winter time and it was dark and windy and lonely and cold and I was also working lobster traps which is very frigid cold work as you can imagine. This friend of mine who was a taxi driver came to me and said, “Hey. You know they’re going to shoot a movie on the island and they hired me as their location scout and they asked if I knew anyone who can build scenery. I told them that you know how to do that.” So I said, “Yeah. Alright.” So I became the construction coordinator on this little low budget film that never went anywhere, but it was the first time I’d ever worked on production; the first time I’d ever seen a camera and lights and grip stands. It was really fun and really heady and exciting. It was incredible. There were girls on the movie and there were cool people and artists and they all were my world for a month. And then they left and went back to New York. And I’m on Block Island and it’s winter and very cold and windy and dark, and I said, “Wait a minute. I’m going to New York.” So I went to New York and spent a year working on low budget films as a carpenter and did a couple of bit parts here and there. A friend and I were working on a movie in Alphabet City, sitting in the freezing cold winter and he turned to me and said, “Let’s go to California.” And that was that, we moved to California.
Neely: You didn’t start writing plays until you got out here, did you?
Chris: Yeah, that’s right…
Neely: …until you were at Theatre of Note.
Chris: I would write prose and poetry but nothing formal at that point.
Neely: Have you had any mentors, in either acting or writing, and what did you learn from them?
Chris: Cool question. I had some teachers in college…
Neely: …for a very brief time.
Chris: …but I think as an actor, I just learned by doing. As you’ve probably already guessed, I don’t learn very well by traditional means. I learn everything by doing. No one ever taught me carpentry either. As a writer… I never really studied writing, I just…
Neely: Well to a certain extent, Mike Kelley is a mentor.
Chris: Absolutely. Last year, there was a project that CBS wanted to work with Mike on. I had a blind script deal with them because Paramount had actually bought “Wreck of the Leviathan.” Because it never got made, they wanted me to do something else and they suggested that Mike and I work together. Mike called me one day saying that he wasn’t sure he wanted to do the project they wanted but suggested that we get together to talk about it. We talked about it and it was this thing called…
Chris: That was just a blast. I think that may have been the best six months of my life. It was just a wonderful time. I sometimes wonder what compelled him to be so generous. He didn’t need me but it was just a wonderful time.
Neely: And he’s got a great pilot script this year called “Revenge.”
Chris: It’s awesome.
Neely: It’s awesome. I love it. It’s a juicy soap opera in the way that primetime soap operas used to be. The source material is The Count of Monte Cristo. Another “revenge” pilot I profiled on the blog about a year ago called “The Associate” by Mills Goodloe also used the Dumas book as its source material. (The Associate)
Chris: Mike’s mind is just like a machine. I don’t know if I’m a TV writer; I hope I am. I think I have ideas about it but the way that I think about story, there’s a very narrow bandwidth that I think my stuff will work in. But Mike! He just gets it; he knows. He knows how to tell it and how to show it. The first time we wrote together, I wrote a couple of scenes and gave them to him. It was about 11 pages. He said, “This is really great Chris, but you can do this in 3 pages.” What??!!
Neely: There you go.
Chris: And it was true. I was just blown away by this new piece, “Revenge.”
Neely: It just jumps off the page. It’s a lot of fun.
Chris: Certainly I learned a ton from him just about how the business works – what to do, what not to do. I still don’t know half of it.
But I think my real mentors are Kafka, Shakespeare…
Neely: Well that’s the next question – your literary influences. Which authors and books have stayed with you and may even have seeped into your writing? So there’s your Kafka…
Chris: …I’m ashamed to say there’s a lot of stuff I haven’t read. But there’s Kafka, Shakespeare, Hemingway – I’m a huge Hemingway reader, I just love his really spare way of telling a story. The greats – Fitzgerald. But particularly, in terms of influence as a writer, where I come from as a writer, it’s Kafka, Ionesco, Shakespeare. I also think that many of my real influences and mentors are my contemporaries, my friends who I write with and whose plays I go to see in LA. A lot of my playwrighting style and influences come from this group of writers.
Neely: I love Ionesco but I haven’t heard him referenced by anyone else, so I’d like you to talk about him because I’m not sure people even know who he is anymore.
Chris: Are you kidding? “The Rhinoceros” and “Man with Bags?” People haven’t read that stuff? I’m a college dropout and I know his plays. Come on.
Neely: Two of his short plays, “The Lesson” and “The Bald Soprano” have been running continuously at the Theatre de la Huchette in Paris since 1952. I just looked on the website and the theater just celebrated the 17,000 presentation of those two plays on April 4!
Chris: I didn’t know that. I’d love to see them there. Becket’s another big one for me, although not …
Neely: …he’s very spare. I just saw a series of short form exercises by Becket directed by Peter Brook. It’s all language with no beginning and no end. Very interesting.
Chris: … yes. They say that he just completely took away the plot and went for absolute narrative. So it’s just pure language narrative. I must say I haven’t read a lot of Becket or Ionesco; I’ve read a lot of Shakespeare.
Neely: I didn’t think there was a lot of Ionesco out there, but he wrote 27 plays, many of which are one acts.
Chris: The writers I’ve worked with and hang out with, you won’t know their names, although you might know John Steppling if you’re in the LA theater scene pretty deep, but these guys – like Wes Walker – they’re just about the kind of theatrical sound and theatrical experience that’s not typical and not traditional. As for me, I just like to write what I like to write.
Neely: If you can do that and have someone produce it, then, regardless of what you have to do to actually put food in your mouth, you’re still living a rarified existence.
Chris: I think that’s true. At some point I overheard someone refer to me as a playwright. And I thought, “Wow! Really?” It’s that weird thing of when do I get to say that. Even now people ask what I do and I say I’m a carpenter and I write. “What do you write?” “I’m a TV writer, I guess, but check with me next month.”
Neely: What are you reading right now?
Chris: Right now, let’s see, I just got through reading Raymond Carver and James Salter.
Neely: The short stories?
Chris: Yeah. Carver’s short stories are very good. I don’t know if I’ll go on reading many more of them though because they really depress me. I’m reading Hemingway, a book of short stories. There’s this great story in there called “Three Day Blow” and it’s about a guy who goes out after a storm and finds a shipwreck right in the middle of the water. He can stand on it and he’s trying to break into the ship. It’s just an awesome story.
Neely: What are you reading by Salter?
Chris: I read Dusk, a series of short stories by Salter. It’s funny but I often confuse Salter and Carver. When I think about them I can’t remember which is which.
Neely: If there’s a similarity in tone, it’s easy to do that.
Chris: My friend Tim Johnson wrote a book of short stories called Irish Girl, a fantastic book of short stories (I think he’s one of the best living short story writers around ). It was picked up by a very powerful writer, David Sedaris, who said “This is a great writer.” At the same time that Mike Kelley was taking my script and handing it to UTA and to Paramount, David Sedaris was taking Tim’s book of short stories and holding it up at his book tours and saying, “Read my book, but read this book also.” Tim and I got these really great bumps from these two big guys at almost exactly the same time.
Neely: Very cool!
Chris: Very cool.
Neely: What TV are you watching?
Chris: Uhhhh. It’s so shameful because I don’t watch TV. I watch everything on DVD. If I turn on the television, I watch old movies on Turner Classic Movies.
Neely: Ohhh! My favorite station of all time.
Chris: I just sit there and devour them.
Neely: What are some of your favorite old movies?
Chris: Oh my god, wow!
Neely: Come on. Gimme five. They don’t have to be in any particular order.
Chris: In no particular order… “Notorious” – best Hitchcock film ever. “Casablanca” – got to say that. “Frankenstein” – James Whales – “Bride of Frankenstein” is actually just as good; it’s one of the few examples of a sequel being as good if not better. “The Searchers” – awesome awesome movie…
Neely: Everybody likes that the best, but for me it’s “Fort Apache.”
Chris: That’s a hard one. There’s something about “The Searchers” though. There are so many and I’m trying to pick one that’s going to be like the zinger but I don’t know… “Maltese Falcon” – there are so many Bogart movies, he was a huge hero; “Treasure of Sierra Madre,” “African Queen,” “To Have and Have Not” – the Bogart version is such a great movie but it’s not at all the book. There were a couple of other movies that were actually made of the book but are not called “To Have and Have Not.” “The Philadelphia Story…”
Neely: Ohhhh. That’s my husband’s favorite movie of all time.
Chris: It’s definitely in my top 5; one of my favorite movies of all time, maybe it is my favorite. Just the language, just the use of language; just the fact that people were able to talk that way in a movie. And it’s the best performance of the best cast. I heard something about the movie one time. Do you remember the scene where Jimmy Stewart goes “CK Dexter Haven.” He’s drunk and he knocks on the door. As I recall, there was an interview with either Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant and one of them told the story of how they were about to break for lunch and the director said they should just do a quick take to make sure the cameras were going to move and all that. Jimmy Stewart comes in the door and it’s all one take until they sit down. Jimmy Stewart is playing it really drunk and Cary Grant is just laughing through the whole scene. At one point Jimmy Stewart hiccup/gasps (Chris imitates the sound) and Cary Grant goes “Excuse me.” And Jimmy Stewart says “What?” And Cary Grant says “Go on.” It was all adlib and evidently they shot this thing before lunch and when they came back after lunch the director said, “We’re going to move on. We got what we wanted.”
Neely: It’s brilliant. The language… but it’s not just the language, it’s the timing. You can have that wonderful language on the page, but if you don’t have the right actors doing it then… well it’s what happens to so many features, what happens to so much TV, what happens to so much theater. If you’ve got the wrong people saying the right lines it won’t come out.
Chris: That’s exactly right.
Neely: For my husband it’s “The Philadelphia Story,” for me it’s “The Awful Truth.”
Chris: I don’t know that film. I’ve never seen it.
Neely: Oh my god! Irene Dunne and Cary Grant. Leo McCary is the director; Viña Delmar and Arthur Richman wrote the screenplay. It’s all about a misunderstanding.
Chris: That’s what “Notorious” is.
Neely: I’m an old movie junkie and can’t get enough of them. My hairdresser, David Izenman, has outfitted his salon with a great big flat screen and installed Netflix on demand. So I got to choose the last time we were there and we screened “Ball of Fire” with Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck. My husband had never seen it. It’s a riff on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. You should see it.
Chris: So the TV that I’ve been watching on DVD is “Dexter,” “Spartacus” on Starz, I loved “Rome,” “Breaking Bad.” I’m waiting for the next season of “True Blood” to come out. When I was back East at my brother’s house I watched “Boardwalk Empire” – it’s like treacle, it’s so delicious. How can you go wrong with Buscemi and that style? I think it’s not a stretch if you read “Wreck of the Leviathan” to see that I was a huge fan of “Deadwood.” “Deadwood” was my favorite TV show ever, largely because when I watched it I heard this language and this stylistic rhythm and thought “Hey wait a minute. You can do that on TV?” That was part of my decision to write a script. I always thought that my style, my tone, my language – no one’s going to want that on television and then I saw “Deadwood.” And I thought, obviously I’m not Milch but you can do that and put it on the TV.
Neely: Do you have any new projects percolating?
Chris: I do. My new project is called “Hardware” and is a spec script and that’s probably all I should say right now. I’m struggling with it, but I guess struggling is good when you’re a writer. It opens you up… or it destroys you. Either way, you get something.
Neely: I will definitely be on the look out and hope to see more and hear more from you. Thanks for taking the time.