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Landline: How I Ended Up in a Movie

March 30, 2017

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It all started, as so many things do, on the Internet. Way back in 2010, a guy with the innocuous-sounding name Matthew Aaron Friended me on Facebook (or did I Friend him?—my memory is murky) and started commenting on my pop-culture posts. “Who is this dude?” I wondered, and I found out when he messaged me and asked if I would be guest on his podcast, The Matthew Aaron Show, which he was doing out of his parents’ basement in the Chicago suburb of Downers Grove, Ill. Apparently, he was a fan of my writing in Entertainment Weekly and TV Guide Magazine.

“Sure,” I said. “Sounds like fun.”

Cut to seven years later, and I’m sitting in Chicago’s grand old Music Box Theatre with 600-plus moviegoers laughing and cheering at the world premiere of Landline. It’s a gay rom-com about the dangers of social media and the glory of the Cubs written, directed, edited, produced by and starring Matthew Aaron. It features a wonderful ensemble of character actors like Tom Arnold, Breaking Bad‘s Betsy Brandt, Parks & Recreation‘s Jim O’Heir, Justified‘s Nick Searcy, 24‘s Louis Lombardi and Treme‘s James Dumont. Plus, a healthy helping of Matt’s gut- and ball-bustingly funny buddies from Chicago, like pro wrestler-turned-stand-up/actor Jay Washington (Chi-Raq), butcher/actor Lee Kepraios, lawyer/actor Leonard Cannata, bodybuilder/actor Michael Vincenzo Terzo, cameraman/actor Steve Weirich, and HR guy/actor Chuck John. Oh, and yours truly in a small role as cable guy K. Hommel (an inside-baseball reference to TV exec Ken Hommel, another close friend Matt and I met on Facebook).

How did I get here?

The short answer is two words: Matthew Aaron. This guy is loyal to his friends in a business where loyalty is valued just below celibacy. After my initial stint as a guest on Matt’s podcast, I became a semi-regular and tried to help him book guests whom I had interviewed for EW and TV Guide and were slightly more famous than me, which is to say, famous at all, like The King of Queens co-creator Michael Weithorn, Everybody Loves Raymond mastermind Phil Rosenthal, Rescue Me show runner Peter Tolan, and yes, Breaking Bad‘s Betsy Brandt. “I know it sounds like Wayne’s World, but these guys are genuinely funny,” I’d tell them (or, in some cases, their publicists). Like me, they were charmed by Matt and his gang of gleefully filthy men and became friends with him IRL, as the kids say.

My bond with Matt and the gang was really sealed when I went to Chicago on an assignment for TV Guide in 2013, shortly after I found out I was being laid off from my dream job for the previous decade writing the “Cheers & Jeers” column — and during the nut-chilling winter known as the “polar vortex.” Ostensibly, I was there to visit the set of an ill-fated and all-too-aptly titled NBC drama called Crisis with Dermot Mulroney and Gillian Anderson and write a story about it. I did that, but more important, Matt, Lenny, Mikey, and Chuck cheered me up and showed me the real Chicago. The one you don’t find in the tour books. It didn’t matter that the temps were way below zero. They warmed my heart at a tiki bar, a glorious dive called Richard’s (ask for the hard-boiled eggs!), and a dim sum joint in an anonymous strip mall where I had some of the best food I’d ever eaten in my life at 3 a.m.

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That would’ve been enough to cement our friendship for life, but soon the Matthew Aaron Repertory Company expanded from doing a podcast to making micro-budget movies in Chicago. I read the scripts and watched the rough cuts and gave Matt notes on Bromance and The Way We Talk, both of which will be released soon.

Then Matt started talking about making a slightly bigger movie, Landline, and he told me he’d written a part for me. I thought he was joking. But Matt’s jokes are way better (and way dirtier) than that. He sent me the script, and I loved it. It’s a sweet, big-hearted comedy about a PR guy (Matt) who’s passed over for a promotion to handle the Cubs account in favor of a millennial idiot (Chad Michael Singer) who’s more “connected” on social media. He decides to cut himself off from all modern communications except a landline—hence the title. And guess who comes to install the landline? Cable guy K. Hommel, who also happens to be his degenerate cousin.

At the very least, I figured, Matt can’t cut me out of the movie because I’m integral to the plot. I agreed to play the role—my first acting job since my turn as the young doctor in Yorktown High School’s production of Harvey in 1984. I took it seriously, setting up a session with one of New York City’s best acting coaches, Karl Bury (on the recommendations of two of the best actors I know, Kerry O’Malley and Matt Servitto, his fellow cast members in the too-short-lived 2006-8 Showtime drama Brotherhood, a show I loved). I only had two or three scenes, maybe 15 lines in all, but I wanted to give the best performance I could. I decided to lose my smartass-writer glasses, shave my trademark pre-hipster goatee and lose as much weight as I could, knowing the camera adds 10 pounds, and I had 20 to spare.

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I showed up on set in Chicago last summer with my lines memorized, only to find one of my scenes had been cut (a post-credits gag with Nick Searcy, whose shooting schedule couldn’t be coordinated with mine). No sweat, for that reason. It was however, one of the hottest days in Chicago history—what is it with me and extreme weather in the Windy City?—and the gray jumpsuit the wardrobe people had chosen for my character was unforgivingly tight, despite my weight loss. I believe I may have displayed the world’s first (or at least the world’s worst) case of male camel-toe.

And I couldn’t have cared less. I had such a blast for those three days (out of an 18-day schedule) on set. Matt was one of the most relaxed yet focused directors I’d ever seen, and I’ve spent a lot of days on sets watching filmmakers—including greats like Sidney Lumet, Kathryn Bigelow and Barry Levinson. I’ve always loved actors, but becoming one, albeit briefly, gave me a new appreciation for what they go through on a filmed production. Yes, there’s a lot of hurry-up-and-wait, but it’s the actors who have to be ready to perform on a dime once the lights, camera, etc are all ready.  And you’ve got to be ready for changes on the fly. After K. Hommel installs the titular landline, he hangs out with Matt’s Ted Gout and his buddies Larry (Jay Washington) and Norm (Lee Kepraios), indulges in a little illicit activity, and explores Ted’s box of outdated gadgets. I improvised a line about New Edition, and Matt loved it. I stayed a few extra days in Chicago, went to a Cubbies game, and flew home feeling like I’d given it my best shot.

I wasn’t on set the day Matt, Tom Arnold, Jim O’Heir, Jay, Chuck, and Cubs legend RYNE FREAKING SANDBERG (who convincingly plays himself), among others, shot the film’s climactic scene at Wrigley Field. But I was wildly impressed that the film’s producers, including Anthony Giuliano and Big Len Cannata, had struck a deal with Major League Baseball to film there during one of the team’s road trips.

Oh, and then the Cubs won the World Series for the first time in 108 years, and we knew something magical was going on. Matt and Chuck filmed themselves at one of those great Chicago dives, Friar Tuck’s, crying with joy at the end of Game 7 and added it to the end of the film. Suddenly, the movie had even more relevance, and Freestyle Releasing acquired it for distribution timed to the Cubs opening day. It’ll play for a week at the Music Box starting Friday, March 31, then be available nationwide on Video on Demand starting April 4.

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At the premiere, after the credits rolled and the cheers died down, I stood up to lead a Q&A with Matt, Jim O’Heir, and Jay Washington (as well as Matt’s young nephew, Liam Martisek, who plays his nephew Liam in the film—it’s easier when kids can answer to their own names). It’s something I do frequently as part of my job, often for the SAG-AFTRA Foundation in NYC, interviewing stars like Jessica Chastain, Penelope Cruz and Sir Ian McKellen about their latest releases. But this was the first time I was doing a Q&A after a movie I was in.

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As I had watched the film, my brain shut down every time I saw myself on screen. I couldn’t process the fact that I was  in a movie, so I couldn’t gauge how well I’d done. I did notice, however, that my New Edition line got a laugh. With my glasses on, my goatee grown back, and a few more pounds packed back on, I introduced myself: “You probably don’t recognize me without my gray jumpsuit, but I’m Bruce Fretts, and I played K. Hommel, the cable guy. As you can probably tell from my performance, I’m not an actor—I’m a journalist and I’m here to interview a few of the film’s stars.” The Q&A with Matt, Jim, Jay and Liam was one of the easiest I’ve ever done—all I had to do was sit back and let those guys be as naturally funny as they are. I wrapped it up and we headed off to Friar Tuck’s for the after-party.

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As I walked up the aisle of the Music Box with Jim O’Heir, whom I’d only met for the first time before the premiere (we didn’t share any scenes in the movie), he turned to me and said, “I didn’t realize that was you playing the cable guy until you said it after the movie.” Yes, I said, my own father hadn’t recognized me from my brief appearance in the film’s trailer because I look so different without my beard and glasses. “No,” Jim insisted. “You nailed that role. You became a different person in the movie.”

Granted, Jim O’Heir is one of the nicest guys I’ve met in or out of showbiz, and he’s one of the most in-demand actors around, with 140 Internet Movie Database credits since his big-screen debut in another baseball movie, the 1996 Matt LeBlanc monkey bomb Ed. Maybe he was just being nice. Or maybe he was just acting. But damn if it didn’t blow my mind. My own IMDB page, which I didn’t start, previously included only a couple of random appearances as myself on Entertainment Tonight and an A&E documentary called The Tragic Side of Comedy from my TV Guide days (as well as a special thanks from Matt in the end credits of Bromance). Now, there’s a bio section that begins “Bruce Fretts is an actor…”

It must be true. I read it on the Internet.

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