Though I love ‘em, facts only go from the neck up. Storytelling is the best way to communicate. We’re raised on stories and folklore. I can tell my children, “You shouldn’t do that because of this,” but I have a better chance if I tell a story about the boy who touched fire or tried to put his fork in the electrical socket. If you dramatize the facts, we listen and remember more. And if you weave facts into a personal story, a parable, and make associations, they become like music.
I come from a family of great story-tellers. We’d sit around the dinner table — my brothers, my father, my mother and me. I’m the youngest, so I’d listen, listen, listen, and say the least. I had the fewest stories and the least confidence. I remember waiting and not putting too much food on my fork because I wanted to be ready — maybe I’ll get a silent gap to come in. And I’d find that gap and start a story. I’m in the game, I’m holding court — and now I’m nervous because everyone’s listening. All of a sudden, I stutter or go off script and lose my train of thought. Storytelling was a competition in my family, and if you didn’t hold the attention, a better storyteller took over and took the stage.
But I continued to tell stories. I took them out of the house and told them to friends and strangers, around campfires and at dinner parties. I became pretty good at it. In school I studied behind the camera, but I ended up working in front of the camera. I just knew I wanted to be part of a story. I learned to find the rhythm of a story and to trust the pauses — to find the music of a good story.
The challenge with my book Greenlights was, How do I show the humanity in my stories through just the written word? I didn’t have the ability to perform it or show you my raised eyebrow or give you pregnant pauses. You couldn’t see my wet eyes when I’m telling you about my mom and dad fighting, to understand I’m not crying because it was a horror story — I’m crying because it was a love story.
I was the go-to rom-com guy. I enjoyed making them, and they paid well. I was leading a successful life as an actor. But there’s a certain buoyancy built into rom-coms that isn’t about hanging your hat on humanity, like a drama is. You stay light. If you go deep in a rom-com you can sink the ship. In my life, though, I was going very deep. I found the love of my life in Camila. We had a newborn coming. I had more things to get angry about, laugh about, have more joy about and be sad about. The ceilings and basements had more depth and height to them, and I wanted to do work that reflected my personal vitality.
But no matter how much of a pay cut I would take, dramas were not being offered to me.
So I quit. I talked to my wife, my agent and my business manager and said, “Look, I may not work for a while.” And trust me, my family — my brothers, my mother, everybody — thought I was out of my freaking mind. They were like, “Little brother, what’s your major malfunction?”
It was scary. But Camila said, “If we’re going to do this, we’re not going to half-ass it.”