The Korean Dictator, My Daughter and I

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It’s amazing how a series of events happening halfway around the World can cause a chain reaction and impact the lives of ordinary citizens.  This is the true story of North Korean Dictator Kim Jong-Un’s involvement in an international cyber attack and how it directly affected my daughter and I.

Back in 2013, we were both background actors for the film Spiderman 2.  We worked for one day and at the end of the year, each of us received a W2 statement for the day we worked.  Our personal information such as our names, social security numbers and address were now on file with Sony Pictures Entertainment, the company that produced the film.  A year later, the Sony film The Interview was about to have its theatrical release.  This comedy starring Seth Rogan and James Franco was about two reporters who are hired by the CIA to assassinate North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un.  With word of this controversial film getting out, the North Korean government warned against possible ramifications with the release of the comedy.  Their government essentially threatened Sony.  On December 1, 2014, Sony learned that hackers engaged in an all-out cyber-attack against them.  As a result of this attack, thousands of confidential and embarrassing emails were exposed between Sony executives and many famous Hollywood celebrities including Angelina Jolie, Kevin Hart, Channing Tatum, George Clooney, Alex Trebek and Will Smith.  You can read more about the story here.

The film was so controversial that on December 17, 2014, Sony announced that it was pulling the theatrical release due to terrorist threats.  Sony decided to release it on DVD and a limited theatrical release.

A week later on December 24, my daughter and I each received a letter in the mail from Sony.  Part of the letter read:

“…your work with [Sony] may potentially have been compromised as a result of such brazen cyber attack.”, and “…personally identifiable information that you provided to [Sony] may have been obtained by unauthorized individuals…”.

With the above letter, Sony offered my daughter and I one full year of identity protection services at no charge since both of our personal information was now compromised.

On December 19, the FBI confirmed that the North Korean government was behind the Sony hack.  No doubt the directive came from Kim Jong-Un himself.

My daughter and I became implicated in this whole North Korean hacking story simply because we wanted to have fun being in a film.  Little did we know what would unfold a year after we worked on it and how it would involve us on a personal level.  World events can affect us all.

2015 – A Year In Review

As I was about to celebrate the new year on December 31, 2014, I felt as if it was only yesterday that my family and I celebrated the last New Year’s Eve.  2014 seemed to last only a day in my life and I wondered why.  It was a year of non-stop activity doing things I had never done before while taking advantage of all my free time to enjoy life.  It was also a year that I spent time enjoying my friends from the running world, the acting world, and elsewhere.

In February, I had bought a pair of snowshoes and at the last minute, I decided to “run” a 10k race in the snowy trails of the Staten Island Greenbelt.  Starting dead last, I ran in those things as fast as I could and was able to pass two dozen runners along the course.  I was so exhausted afterwards, it took me a few days to be myself again.

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Photo courtesy of Andy Cross of Run & Shoot Photography (runshootphoto.com).

In March, I played a survivor of a subway construction explosion for the show The Knick.  My character was an Irish immigrant from the year 1900.  It was an exciting experience and the special effects prosthetics that the makeup people applied to my face to make me look injured was amazing.  You can read about my experience here.  Most fun, however, was that I was able to hang out with my good buddy Mark Vogt along with Marshal Axt and Bob Denker.  All four of us ironically are members of the Staten Island Athletic Club.

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My friend Heriberto Medina lives a life similar to mine.  He is a long-time runner as well as a preschool teacher.  In March, his school was in danger of closing.  He desperately needed support from his community, politicians, and friends to hold a rally to keep his school open.  I picked up my son immediately after school and rushed out to Williamsburg where we met and marched together at the rally.  Eventually his school on was saved as a result of the combined efforts of the community.

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In March, my good friend Darren Corona invited a bunch of trail runners from my running club to run the Muddy Marathon.  This 10k race involved scaling steep mountains and running through very treacherous, snowy and rocky terrain.  The exhilaration and amazing runner’s high we all felt after we finished this epic race was greater than any race I had ever experienced before.  You can read about the visceral experience I had here.

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In April, I had entered the Disability Film Challenge.  For the challenge, a person had 48 hours to write, film and edit a film short dealing with the subject of disability.  My good friend Michael Ring was the subject of my film short since he has a rare condition that causes a physical disability.  The competition had crazy rules to adhere to that would have made the elements in the film non-sensical.  I decided at the last minute to create the kind of film I wanted to create and did not enter the contest at all.   With the help of my friend Adrian and my brother Aaron, I was able to capture a moment in Michael Ring’s life while he narrated his own film.  Here is a link to the finished film: F*ck CIDP

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For Mother’s Day, my brother and I brought our mom to eat at Nathan’s in Coney Island.  My brother and I are often busy with our own children and hardly ever have a moment to breathe, so spending quality time alone with our mom was extra-special for the both of us.

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As my two children are getting bigger and more independent, I am able to free myself more to spend time with friends.  During June, I spent time with a bunch of background actor friends at a barbecue and birthday party for my friend Merav in Jersey City, New Jersey.  It was great to just chill out and joke around with this crazy group of guys and gals.

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I have learned to balance my time between my children and my friends.  It’s a tricky slope, but it’s doable.  Here I am at the left with my son in Alpine, NJ about to hike down a steep and treacherous trail to the bottom of the Palisades.

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My son’s 5th grade senior trip was the Circle Line trip around Manhattan.  I was one of the chaperones and I had a fun time leading and guiding his class with other parent volunteers.  Besides, I know for a fact that children love it when their parents go with them on class trips.

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In June, my daughter finished running a full year with her girl’s high school track team. She performed very well and often finished in the top 20% of many of her races.  She even earned a bunch of medals.  Since then, she no longer runs track because she wants to focus her energy on her other love which is art.  Below is a photo of the girl’s track team about to go to their year-end party at their coaches’ house.  Can you spot my daughter in it?

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In July, we went to my 2nd cousin Gail Zeitlin’s house in New Jersey for a pool party.  Here is her son Steven hanging by the poolside with my daughter Emma, Hunter and her cousin Emma.  The kids had a ton of fun and the adults were happy to see other family members who had travelled from as far away as Hawaii and Boston to see everyone.

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A week later, I got the opportunity of a lifetime playing actor Ricky Gervais’ body double.  Our scene was to drive cross-country in a 1955 red Ford.  To make it as realistic as possible, we really did drive across America and the cameraman filmed us driving at key locations throughout the trip.  It took us six days and we made it as far as Arizona.  You can read about my whole working cross-country adventure here.

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In August, my friend Lisa Swan, a sports enthusiast, writer and member of my running club wanted to start a fantasy football league.  I knew nothing about fantasy football nor was I interested in joining the league.  However, with her enthusiasm and perseverance, she was able to recruit nine club members into the league and needed one more.  After thinking about it and wanting to help her out, I decided to be that 10th person.  Of course when it came to naming my team, I naturally called myself “The 10th Guy”.  For the next few months after initiating the league, I was often lost and did not know what the hell I was doing as you can see in the photo below.  Lisa often came to my rescue and helped me survive just enough so I wouldn’t drown during the competition.  She even taught me how to trash-talk the other players in the league.  She’s got mad skills!

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In September, I brought my daughter Emma and her cousin Emma to the Museum of Modern Art.  We started at the top floor where there was very questionable “art”.  As I was about to lead the kids out of that wing to get to the nationally famous artworks like Van Gogh’s Starry Night and Jackson Pollock paintings, I realized that I should expose my daughter to all forms of art no matter how questionable they may be.  I wanted to broaden her definition of what art can be and I’m glad I did it.

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I had a skin cancer growth surgically removed from my back in October.  A little scary, but all is well now.

In November, I ran the NYC Marathon for the third time as a pacer.  This time, I was a 4:45 pacer.  After Mile 20, my legs started to break down, but  with growing pain and fatigue, I miraculously was able to cross the finish line with a time of 4:44:28.  I had a ton of fun throughout the race as you can read here.  I want to thank Robin Howald and her son for taking care of me after I finished the race for I was not in good shape by that time.  I could barely walk due to so much pain throughout my body.  Robin and her son physically held me up and slowly walked with me until I reached the truck with my personal baggage.  And I would like to thank Jacky Lee for picking me up in her car after the race and driving me back to Staten Island where my car was parked near the start of the Marathon.

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One of my happy places this year and in years past was running the trails in the Staten Island Greenbelt with the Staten Island Extreme crew.  With friends like Darren, Yessica, Stephanie, Jennifer, Amy, Anthony, Irma, Andy, and a bunch of others, running trails with these great people was always a pleasure.

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I love my school, the children I teach and my co-workers.  Each and every one of us does God’s work in helping the special population of children improve in all areas of their lives. Ever since we all worked together to help save our school a year ago, we have become more close-knit and a real family.  Here’s a group photo of most of us at a holiday staff party taken in December.

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One highlight of 2015 was meeting an old student of mine who was in my preschool class several years ago.  Her name is Stephanie and she is a cancer survivor.  I met her at a fund-raising event put on by my friend and cancer survivor Elaine.  It hurt me to know that a child that I once taught had cancer at such a young age, but I was happy that it was successfully removed from her and she seemed happy to see her old teacher.

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My 15-year-old daughter is a full-fledged teenager and everything about her makes me happy.  She loves rock, heavy metal, death metal and wears a nose ring and rock t-shirts.  She also loves everything that’s art and likes to repurpose found items that can be made into art.  She loves writing poetry as well.  In the Fall, she was accepted into an art internship program at Smack Mellon in DUMBO, Brooklyn.  In early 2016, she will be working directly with a professional artist.

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The Rock Star Life of a Marathon Pacer

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The rock star and his groupies about to begin their 26.2-mile party through the streets of New York City.  Photo courtesy of Kenneth Tom.

Back in November 2013, I was hanging out with my friend Michael Ring about an hour before the start of the NYC Marathon.  We were both about to begin our gig as official marathon pacers, something we both had never done before and were anxiously waiting for the big moment.  It was there that Michael told me how being a pacer was basically the same thing as being a rock star.  In my mind I was thinking, “Is he delusional?!  Real rock stars get it on in their trailers with a bunch of groupies.  How the hell can he equate being a marathon pacer with that?!”

Two years later, It took me two more marathons and about a half dozen more gigs as a half marathon pacer to fully understand what Michael meant by that phrase.  Each time that I waited in the corral before the race start wearing my pacer shirt with pacer stick in hand, I noticed the same pattern; runners were congregating around me with a look of reverence and awe.  It was as if they were thinking, “This guy knows his shit; he will be running at a very specific pace and he is here to help me.  He is my hero!”. 

Yes it’s all true; I have had many hot women and cool dudes follow me in these races as my officially unofficial entourage and most stick with me throughout.  My pacer shirt is my rock and roll wardrobe and my pacer stick is my guitar.  But I’m not strumming it; I’m using it to lead the way so my running groupies can follow me as I “perform” for them using my pacer skills.  And throughout the whole Josh Pesin Experience is our drug of choice: pure adrenaline.  Yes, that’s how we get our runner’s high as we get through the race.

For the New York Road Runners Club, there are about 70 of us pacers, each and every one of us a rock star to the throngs of our adoring runner fans.  The guy who handles us is Steve Mura.  He’s our roadie and manages all of our events.  In preparation for an upcoming event, he checks our availability, then books us for a “show”.

Once booked for an upcoming NYC Marathon, us rock stars have to show up at the Jacob Javits Center to volunteer our time at the Marathon Expo.  It’s the place that all the registered marathoners come to pick up their race bib, check out all the new running products and visit the pacer booth.  That’s where they first get to meet us pacers up close as we share with them our award-winning pacing strategies.

On marathon morning, we check into the pacer tent at the staging area of the NYC Marathon.  It’s a place that treats us like the rock stars that we are.  A heated tent, bottled water, hot coffee, bagels and fresh fruit are just some of the amenities that are offered to us.  This is also a place for us to unwind, chill and keep us a safe distance from the masses of admiring fans that will eventually have a chance to gawk at and interact with us up close once we enter the corrals before the race starts.

As each wave is called for the runners to enter the corrals, about a dozen pacers leave the confines of the pacer tent to present themselves to the multitudes of admiring runners waiting in the wings.  It’s showtime!  As we enter our prospective corrals, we carry two signs with us.  One is a huge wooden sign with our pace goal on it, the other is a small paper sign with the same pace goal, but stapled to a lightweight wooden stick.    Once the pacer is positioned in the prescribed corral, the wooden sign serves as a beacon to all the runners both near and far.  It invites them to come close to the pacer if the stated pace is their goal.  Once the corral is closed and packed with runners, the pacer dumps the large wooden sign to the side and pops up the light-weight paper sign on a wooden stick.

Runners who come from far-away places and from every corner of the world are now standing next to me all wide-eyed and excited.  They want me to pace them to marathon glory.  They spent a lot of money to get here and ran a lot of miles for this moment.  It is now up to me to serve and deliver.  A potent combination of butterflies and electricity brew inside my belly.  But this nervousness quickly dissipates as I pledge to myself that above all, I will have fun with this race.  And I’ll provide my groupies with the necessary entertainment and motivation along the way to get them through an experience that is both life-changing and harrowing.

After the marathon starts and we’re all chugging along together through the dozens of neighborhoods that make New York the greatest city on earth, a camaraderie between the runners and the pacer develops.  They know that the pacer will bring them home and cross the finish line keeping their pace goal in mind all along.  This is the challenge of the pacer; to run an even, consistent race throughout while finishing within 30-60 seconds of their pace goal.  This is no easy feat.  Sometimes we even mess up as what happened to me here.

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Philippe, Lisa and Jurgen getting ready for the 26.2-mile party.

If you shed away their rock star image, pacers are actually a fun, talented and caring bunch of individuals.  They like to give back to others by sacrificing their own chances for a personal record in favor of keeping to a prescribed pace goal to help those who need it.  They come from near and far; one even takes a plane ride from Canada every year just so she could help pace others in the NYC Marathon.  By profession, pacers are doctors, lawyers, a horse trainer, teachers and physical therapists, just to name a few.  And as you can imagine, pacers are people who love to run.  Many “normal” people will run the marathon once, then check it off of their bucket list thinking, “Been there, done that!”.  Many pacers are so addicted to running that they just can’t wait until they run their next marathon.  They’ve run many marathons and even ultra marathons.  One pacer in our group, Julie Khvasechko Garling, has run at least 155 marathons and shows no sign of letting up.

This blog goes out to Jo, Dave, Jurgen, Philippe, Elaine, Julie, Lisa, Vince, Sarah and the dozens of other rock star pacers who run these marathons not just for their own enjoyment, but for the people that they’re here to serve: the runners.

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Group photo taken right before the start of the 2015 NYC Marathon.

A Box of Chocolates

I have been working in the acting profession for the past dozen years or so, and have been given the opportunity to portray dozens of different character types in over 100 film and TV productions.   It’s not like a predictable, boring office job where you sit in a cubicle and do the same job day in and day out, knowing that tomorrow and the day after tomorrow will be the same old thing. In the world of an actor’s life, it’s different; you never know what you may be doing for your next gig or where it will take you to.  It’s like the phrase from Forrest Gump, “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.”  I was reminded of that adage recently, when I got the gig of a lifetime being a body-double for a well-known actor for a film that will be shown on Netflix.  And this was no ordinary gig; it was a five-day-long commitment involving driving cross-country for over 3,000 miles.  When I was offered the assignment, equal amounts of trepidation and excitement crept through my mind, but it was the carpe diem in me that solidified my decision to go ahead with it and to seize the moment. Life is short after all, isn’t it?

Our adventure during the week of July 27 through August 1 can best be described as a guerrilla film-making experience involving a team effort of seven people who wanted to make a little movie, reach a deadline and if we all survived, have fun doing it.  Many things went wrong, but our need to make this endeavor a success pushed us way beyond our comfort zones and forced us to use our ingenuity and survival skills to make this endeavor a success.

Day 1: Three-Mile Island

We began our odyssey at 5:00AM at the entrance to Steiner Studios at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.  Our rag-tag team of seven individuals would over the course of the next five days become a close-knit A-Team that was determined to get the job done in the face of adversity.  Our group consisted of Megan, 1st camera operator, Johan, the director of photography, Mike and Corey, the director assistants, and Erika, who was the supervising producer in charge of coordinating this daunting effort.  Lastly, James and I were the two body doubles for the two actors of the film.  Our assignment was to represent the two actors in the car as they drove cross-country from New York to California as written as a scene in the script.  And to make this scene happen with as much realism as possible, a fully-functional red 1955 vintage Ford was the vehicle we were to drive through key locations across America.  This vintage car, an absolutely beautiful specimen from that time period, was admired by all who saw it and the main star of our cross-country scene.

Here we are representing the two actors as they drove across America.

On day one, Erika wanted our first shot to be the car driving by the factories of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to show the car passing through Industrial America.  Only that Pittsburgh was still very far away from where we were at and Erika wanted to get our first shot in earlier in the day instead of later.  She scrambled to find another location using her laptop and android phone.  It was then that I suggested that we consider filming at Three-Mile-Island at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  Those cooling towers look ominous and industrial, I thought; they may be a great backdrop for a driving scene.  Erika loved the idea and we immediately set our GPS coordinates for that location.

When we got there, we found a good holding location and parked our three vehicles.  Two of them were mini-vans that carried the crew, camera equipment and our personal belongings.  One of the vans had our “crafty table” or snacks and drinks that would help get us through this long trip.  The third vehicle was a large pickup truck with a humongous custom-made black trailer that totally enclosed and protected the 1955 Ford from the elements.  That car was the star of this whole production; we had to make sure that we treated it well for if anything went wrong with it, we’d be stuck.

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The moment we rolled out this 1955 Ford from the trailer, we were all ready for business.

James and I got on our wardrobe and after the Ford was wheeled out of the trailer, we both climbed into the front seat of the car.  The car was turned on and we were ready to go.  It was showtime.

As we drove the Ford through the Pennsylvania countryside with Megan and Johan filming us with the Three-Mile-Island cooling towers in the background, equal amounts of excitement and nausea went through our minds and bodies.  The excitement came from the fact that our scene may likely be used in the final cut for the film; the nausea came from the overwhelming stench of burnt gasoline permeating the air that we were breathing.  We both looked at each other and thought, “If people only knew what actors really have to go through”.  We tried to shrug off this discomfort and knew that we had a job to do.  For the remainder of the shoot, we would have to breathe in this gas exhaust every time we drove that car.

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This was the scene outside the Ford as we drove through the Pennsylvania countryside.

After we had some good footage showing the irony of bucolic rolling hills and farmland juxtaposed with two functioning nuclear reactors in the background, we realized that we got what we were looking for.  As we travelled further west along Interstate 80, we got great video footage of the Ford driving across an all-steel Pennsylvania bridge.  Driving through Ohio and racing against the last hour of daylight, Erika was desperately looking for a great-looking farm to be used as a backdrop to represent America’s Heartland, but we could not find the kind of farm that she was looking for.  Our final destination for the day was a hotel stay in Indianapolis after driving and filming for 21 hours.  This was our longest, but least eventful day of the whole trip.

Day 2: Busted in St. Louis

Departing from Indianapolis early the next morning, we finally made it to St. Louis by late afternoon.  We were going to film the Ford driving by the Gateway Arch for our next scene.  We were excited at this stage for now we started to see good progress as we drove cross-country and were now smack-dab in the middle of America’s Heartland.  As soon as we rolled out the Ford from the trailer and turned on the ignition, the car would not start.  After repeated attempts, it still would not start.  It appeared as if the car simply died.  At the same time, the trailer pulling the Ford had broke; the brakes were stuck in a locked position preventing the trailer from moving.  After some scrambling, we googled both car and trailer mechanics.  Eventually the car and the trailer had to be taken away to be repaired at separate shops along the outskirts of St. Louis.  Since we had no car to film a scene in, we had to abort our mission for the day and spent the night at a hotel in St. Louis.

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Me in St. Louis right after finding out the bad news about the Ford. I had to wear the jacket, shirt and t-shirt for every scene that we filmed, even on the hottest days.

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James, the other body-double and my partner in crime. He was responsible for driving the Ford in every scene throughout the week.  It was not an easy car to drive.  Besides an actor, James is also a stunt man and precision driver.

Day 3: Making Up For Lost Time

The next day we had to wait a few more hours for the repair men to get their respective jobs done.  We were all stressed out by this time and we decided to go to local pub to share some beers.  It turned out to be a gay bar.  I didn’t know that Missouri had those, but now I do.

After the Ford and the trailer were both fixed, it was time to get back to business.  We all met near the Gateway Arch with the camera set up in the back of one of the hatchbacks.  James and I started driving and it was now showtime again.  Johan and Megan got the footage we should have gotten the day before and we were now ready to leave this godforsaken town and travel further west for more filming adventures.

Our final hotel destination for the day was Tulsa, Oklahoma, but we still had several more hours of daylight to find the elusive farm backdrop that Erika so desperately wanted for the past two days.  Erika got a piece of information for a classic farmhouse along the way and had an address for it.  After driving for a few more hours, we finally got to the address she shared with us, only that there was no farmhouse anymore, only farmhouse ruins.  This can’t be, we were thinking.  We had no time to cry over spilt milk, so we continued driving along the countryside and discovered quite by accident the quintessential farm house complete with silo and everything else that goes along with it.  It was as if we discovered the holy grail or something.  Knowing we only had so much daylight left before the sun would set, we whipped that Ford out of it’s trailer in no time, threw our wardrobe on, then jumped into the car and filmed that scene.  We got a good 15 minutes of footage in the can that evening.  We were happy and called it a day.  And by calling it day, it didn’t mean we could now stop and rest; we still had several more hours to get to our hotel rooms in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Day 4: Out of Gas and the Man-Eating Mosquitoes

The next day, it was decided that I join Mike to keep him company in his truck.  Mike was in charge of driving the pickup that pulled the trailer containing the Ford.  This was a huge responsibility; Mike was pulling two vehicles with that pickup with a combined weight of well over 5,000 pounds.  And he had to drive fast so we could all get this mission done within the five-day deadline.  We had about 3,000 miles to cover that week.

The combined weight of the trailer and Ford made towing them very difficult.  So much gas was burned that Mike’s pickup was only getting seven miles per gallon.  He had to make frequent gas stops along the way.  Then came a point where the gas gauge in his truck was quite low and then hit the ’empty’ mark.  Mike was determined to push on hoping we’d have just enough gas to make it to the next rest stop.  It was at that moment where I was reminded of that famous Seinfeld scene where Kramer and his friend were driving their car with dangerously low levels of gas in the tank and pushing their car to the limit.  Only that was TV and we were real people driving through the middle of nowhere.  Somewhere in the middle of a lone stretch of Oklahoma, he pushed his foot all the way down on the gas pedal, then incredulously said, “Josh, check this out”.  The truck slowed down and came to a complete halt since it was now out of gas.  Mike jumped out and shouted something like, “Josh, I’m gonna hitch a ride to the nearest gas station!”, then left me alone with the truck off the highway.  This was the moment where my imagination kicked in thinking a few bad things could’ve happened to me, but I was determined to think happy thoughts and patiently waited for Mike to come back with a container full of emergency gas.

The truck and trailer ran out of gas in the middle of an Oklahoma highway. I stayed with the truck while Mike hitched a ride to the nearest gas station to get gas.

Here is where the truck and trailer ran out of gas in the middle of an Oklahoma highway. I stayed with the truck while Mike hitched a ride to the nearest gas station.

After waiting for what seemed like an eternity, Mike came back with gas tank in hand after hitching a ride with a family en route in the other direction.

We eventually made it into Texas and we all stopped for lunch to eat at some sort of Texas steakhouse off of Highway 40.  When we got back into our vehicles, Erika asked me to come with her and Johan in one of the vans to help them scout for great locations off of Route 66, the historic route that still exists in many parts of our country.

As we were driving through the plains of Texas, there really wasn’t anything visually interesting to film along the way, but we did see a lot of wind turbines.  Erika asked me to use my android phone to do some research on some upcoming Texas towns found along the route we were taking.  Noticing a town about 10 miles ahead on the map, I quickly googled the town, then looked at the Google images associated with that town.  There was a huge Jesus cross in many of the images.  Erika thought It would be a great idea to find that cross and film it which we did.

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Just when we were about to give up on finding anything interesting to film, we discovered this gigantic Jesus cross in the middle of some small Texas town.

A few hours later, we crossed the border into New Mexico.  One of the locations on Erika’s shot list was the Blue Swallow Motel in a little Sun-burnt town called Tucumcari.  It was a classic hotel right off of Route 66 and a throwback to the 1940s when Route 66 was THE route to the West Coast.  We filmed a few takes of James and I driving the Ford up into the hotel parking lot to show how our characters are now taking a break from their long cross-country trip.  It was important to film this scene during twilight to show that an entire day had passed and now it was approaching night.  As the Sun went down and we were taking a break after filming, what seemed like a million voracious mosquitos came out from nowhere and immediately attacked the crew and I.  These were not normal mosquitos; they were man-eaters that seemed starved for human blood.  They were large and hungry.  We desperately swatted them away from us, then ran to the safety of our vans.  Some mosquitos got into the vans and it then became a fight between us and them.

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With the camera rolling, the Ford pulled up into this motel right at twilight indicating that the two travelers had a full day of driving and were ready to get some shut eye.

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James and I on a film break posing with the Ford. We are standing right beside Route 66 in a small New Mexican town called Tucumcari.

After the mosquito incident, we got the hell out of dodge.  Our next goal: drive three more hours to get to our next hotel stay in Albuquerque by 11:00PM, have dinner together, and call it a night.

Day 5: Hotel Arizona

The next morning, we all woke up in our Albuquerque hotel refreshed and ready for our final day of filming.  Today our goal was to reach our final destination: Phoenix, Arizona.  The scene called for the main characters to drive cross-country to California, but it was decided that our last shoot would be filmed in Phoenix.  Erika found a block there lined with tall palm trees that could easily pass for California.  Faking scenes like this is not new in the movie business and is done all the time.  And it’s a big money-saver for productions that have budgets to adhere to.

As usual, one of the first orders of business was to visit the local Starbucks to over-caffeinate ourselves so we could last for another long day of filming.  Starbucks has been our go-to coffee shop throughout this whole adventure.

We leave Albuquerque for Phoenix via Highway 40 and experience the most amazing views of mountains, desert and blue sky along the way.  For our final leg of the trip, Erika wanted the Ford to travel through a desert scene showing that the characters have now travelled through most of America.  For full effect, we decide to pull off the main interstate and began driving up a small desert highway nestled between the mountains.  We all pull over to the side of the highway because Mike was running low on gas.  We knew that we were entering the desert with no gas station in sight for hours and this was the point of no return for all of us.  As soon as we got out of our vans, a horde of man-eating mosquitos comes out of the woodwork again and attacks all of us.  We flail our arms wildly at them trying to ward off their thirst for our blood.  Then we all run back into our vans, slam the doors shut and notice that some of the mosquitos followed us into the vans.  So here I am haphazardly swatting at everything.  I manage to smash my palm onto a mosquito that landed on the van window.  A bunch of blood spurted out of it and I thought to myself, “Hey, that’s probably MY blood!”.  We drive back to the interstate just a mile away to get gas for Mike’s truck and mosquito repellant wipes for everyone, which luckily did the trick.

Corey was one of the production assistants who spent a great part of the trip driving the van that James and I were in.  As he drove us through a panorama of mountains, mesas, buttes, desert and blue sky, Corey chose this moment to play the soundtrack to Ennio Morricone’s The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly.  He cranked up the volume while our ears and eyes soaked in the moment and imagined a young Clint Eastwood from a 1960s spaghetti western riding his horse through the valley we were driving through.

Finally after driving through the desert for while, we found the quintessential desert background to film at.  Johan and Megan set up their camera in the trunk of the van in front of us with the hatchback popped open and began to film James and I driving the old Ford through the middle of the desert.  Everyone involved in this scene at this very moment knew that the footage they were filming would be gold.  James and I were so enthralled at the sights we were seeing that we zoned out of touch with reality.  We began to live a moment that became very Jack Kerouacian for the both of us.  We were on the road driving through God’s country and the possibilities of where life could lead us seemed endless.

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“We were on the road driving through God’s country and the possibilities of where life could lead us seemed endless”.

Once we got plenty of great desert footage, our vehicles finally made it across the border into Arizona.  We made it into Phoenix with only about an hour to go before sunset.  For this last scene, filming the scene during twilight was crucial.  Erika wanted to show the Ford driving up the street to our final destination at the moment of twilight to show an end to the day for the characters in the script.  This footage would close the entire cross-country scene and showed the passage of time as the main characters finally completed their cross-country voyage, park their car, and have a night of much-needed sleep.  At this moment, we had the Ford and the camera van all set for filming.  Just at the moment of twilight when we were about to film, it began to rain heavily.  A moment of panic shot through our minds and we scrambled to figure out what we should do.  Our choice was either to film the scene in the rain or to wait until early morning right before sunrise that would imitate twilight.  We tried to guess what Ricky Gervais would like better.  He was the producer of the film and the actor who I was body-doubling for during this entire gig.  We wanted to create the highest quality work and we decided that having dry-weather scenes that ended with a rainy scene would not look good in the final edit.  So we all decided that it would be best to film early the next morning.  Since sunrise in Phoenix was at 5:40AM, we had to meet in the hotel lobby at 4:00AM, which meant that I had to wake up at 3:00AM.  There are a lot of sacrifices that actors, directors and producers make in order get the best shots for the sake of creating a high-quality film.  Waking up at the ungodly hour of 3:00AM to get this last shoot in was our sacrifice for the sake of the art.

The next morning, we get to the location, roll out the Ford out from the trailer one last time, start it up and drive it up three blocks to our one spot.  Megan, Johan and Erika wait for us in the camera van three blocks ahead of us.  Since we forgot to bring a walkie talkie with us, I had to await Erika to call me on my cell phone to yell “action” so we could begin driving into the scene.  My cell phone rings, it’s Erika on the phone, which means “Action!”  We drive up the block past all the palm trees and zoom right by the camera van.  And cut…. they got the footage!  And immediately after that, we hear the words that every actor, director and producer loves to hear to indicate the final end of production: “That’s a wrap!”.  Those words were music to our ears.

This entire production lasted a full six days, one day longer than expected due to the car and trailer issues back in St. Louis.  Probably about 60-90 minutes of film footage was actually taken in all by Johan and Megan.  When the movie is finally finished, you may see one to three minutes of footage for this scene.  That’s show biz for you.

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When Erika called “action”, we drove the Ford up this palm tree-lined street that represented a California street.

Day 6: Going Home

A few hours later, we drove the vans to the Phoenix airport, boarded our plane and a few hours later, landed at JFK Airport in New York.  Mike had the arduous job of towing the Ford all the way back to Buffalo, New York; an adventure in itself since the wheel and the axle of the trailer had broken apart along the way and had to be fixed by a mechanic in Colorado.  Erika drove further west to California to spend time with her friends.  Corey had a later flight to his hometown of Baltimore.  James, Johan, Megan and I took a Delta airlines jet plane.  Upon arrival at JFK, we all hugged and said our goodbyes and departed our own separate ways.

I came home to my children who immediately hugged me for what seemed like an eternity.  This was the longest time I have ever spent away from my children, but this experience of a lifetime was well worth it for me.

I want to thank every single one of the six members of our cast and crew who served an important part of making this trip a success.  And to Erika, our supervising producer who always kept her cool in the face of adversity and managed to use her super girl powers to solve every single problem that came our way.  And to my fellow body-double James who went above and beyond his job description to help trouble-shoot and fix many of the issues that arose during this trip.

From left: Me, James, Megan and Johan about to embark on our plane ride back to New York.

From left: Me, James, Megan and Johan about to embark on our plane ride back to New York.

A Cruise Ship Just Passed By My Tent

For those native New Yorkers who want to enjoy a great camping experience close to their own backyard, I highly recommend the Camp Gateway campgrounds at Fort Wadsworth in Staten Island.  Just three minutes away after you drive across the Verrazano Bridge, these campgrounds are immaculately maintained with several great amenities and amazing views. I reserved several sites online for myself and members of my local running club.  When we got to the campgrounds, we were able to park our cars at a special parking lot made for those who already reserved the sites.  There were several campsites, each with it’s own fire pit, a large tent pad and a picnic table.  A rustic wooden fence divided each site.  From the description on the recreation.gov website, each site can hold up to 6 people and two small tents or one large tent.  Additionally, firewood is provided free for all campers. The campgrounds sit on top of a large hill overlooking the Narrows waterway with the Verrazano Bridge and the West Brooklyn coastline in view.  As soon as we got to the campgrounds, this view immediately impressed us and was a great photo op.  At the edge of the campgrounds was a beautiful deck with a gazebo and a set of stairs leading down to the beach level.  Unfortunately, the stairs were closed to all campground guests.  I had later found out that the manager of the campgrounds deliberately closed them because random strangers were walking up the stairs and straight through the campgrounds. IMG_0083 Situated in one corner of the campgrounds were men’s and women’s bathrooms with two very spacious showers.  An added bonus was that these were hot showers; the website mentioned cold showers only.  The campground manager whose name was Kathy came to visit each site and asked every camper if they had any questions, concerns or recommendations for improvement.  She told me that one of the latest upgrades were the hot showers.  I was extremely impressed that a governmental endeavor such as this campground would include a campground manager  who was genuinely concerned about giving us a great camping experience.  These campgrounds are still relatively new and only began operations in 2012.
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Regarding some activities that you can do around the campgrounds, the website states that “bird watching, basketball, kayaking, and playground areas are within the Staten Island Unit”.  When my friends and I went, we were able to walk to the South Beach Boardwalk for some ice cream (about a 1-mile walk) and go on a ranger-lead walking tour of the historic structures of Fort Wadsworth.  Besides that, I recommend that you bring some things for the family to do while at the campsite such as frisbees, balls, lawn games and board games.  At night, everyone can sit around a campfire and make s’mores and roasted marshmallows like we did.  And if you are a runner, a popular running trail passes right next to the campgrounds where you have a choice of running beneath the Verrazano Bridge or along the Boardwalk.

If you look at it from most angles, this campground could exist anywhere.  But when you look upwards and behind, the breathtaking view of the Verrazano Bridge towering over you tells you exactly where you are and reminds you that home is just minutes away. IMG_0086 The campgrounds were built on top of a hill and are surrounded by many trees making it feel like you are deep in the woods.  But if you start walking down the escarpment that surrounds this hill and follow a dirt trail that cuts through a field of bushes, you will discover a beach silhouetted by a stunning view of the entire span of the Verrazano Bridge.  This is a campground with a beach; how often do you find that?!  A warning though; the beach area immediately behind the campgrounds is unprotected with no lifeguards.  If you want to go to the protected section, you have to walk up the beach for about a mile or so when you will see the first lifeguard station. IMG_0095 In the photo below, the campgrounds are up the hill behind the line of trees.  The dirt trail to the left leads directly to the beach. IMG_0102 Since these campgrounds abut the Narrows waterway, which is the main entrance to New York Harbor, you will occasionally see humungous cruise ships pass by.  Seeing the cruise ship pass by in the photo below was indeed a nice surprise while at the same time, it paradoxically showed how one could vacation by either “roughing it” in a tent or by being aboard a cruise ship in the lap of luxury. IMG_0104 The most important part of this experience was in seeing the smiles on our children’s faces as they spent their time living in and appreciating nature, enjoying their families while creating new friendships.

To reserve a site, go to http://www.recreation.gov, then type in the search window, “Camp Gateway, Staten Island”. IMG_0109

The Best Time I Ever Had Running So Slow

This past Saturday, I ran a trail race in Northern New Jersey called the Muddy Marathon.  It was the most treacherous and physically-demanding race I had ever participated in.  It was more of an adventure or epic journey than a race.  There were many moments throughout where I felt like I was the character Frodo straight out of one of the Lord of the Rings films.

A group of about a dozen of my friends from the Staten Island Athletic Club started the race together at the base of a ski mountain.  Darren, our fearless leader, was responsible for banding us together for this epic journey.  Coming into this race, we knew that all the runners from the previous year’s race DNF’d or did not finish below the 10k finish time of two hours.  Darren and I and many of the others liked these odds and wanted to test ourselves by going through with this challenge.  We all knew we were in for something special during this race for the race description on their website stated, “This can barely be considered a trail race.  It is an adventure…. You will not be doing much ‘running’, but a lot of walking”.

As soon as Rick and Jennifer McNulty, the husband and wife team who direct these races started us off, we all barreled out of the starting line together.  Within a matter of seconds, our group had to make a sharp left and run straight up a steep mountain covered in man-made snow (the snow was leftover remnants from the ski season just several weeks before).  As each of us chugged up that mountain, we slowly but surely lost steam.  It got to a point where we all started walking.  The torture of going uphill for so long was apparent in all of us; within the first mile of the race, we began to experience a Death March.  But we knew that this was just the beginning for what was to come.

I ended up paired up with my buddy Mark.  We were both of of the “siXac Excellence” relay team composed of me, Mark, Danielle and Darren.  it was important to always be running with someone else in this type of race, for we needed each other for survival and to always make sure we were each okay after experiencing dangerous sections of the race.

We finally made it to the top, then ran around a lake.  We had to slog through muddy streams that were ice cold and at least one stream was knee deep.  My running shoes almost got sucked off my feet from the mud in there.

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Throughout the race, we had to be alert for two things: the orange neon tape hanging from trees.  The tape marked the course; without following it, we would get lost.  The other thing and more serious of the two was the terrain.  The terrain was often unforgiving to our bodies.  It was full of uneven rocks, trees, branches and thorns everywhere.  I made the mistake of not covering my legs with any protective gear.  Both my legs received hundreds of small lacerations from all the thorn bushes and small tree branches that had cut and scratched them as I ran through all types of abrasive foliage.  As I was running through all this insanity, I pictured race director Rick McNulty drawing a straight line through the woods regardless of what was in the way.  I pictured him wearing a maniacal grin as he plotted this masochistic course for us runners knowing full well that this would be a killer course for us.

Finally after getting past the two-mile mark, we came across a part of the race where we had to descend back down the mountain on top of a two-foot layer of snow.  As we were running down, my leg fell through the snow and got totally submerged under a secret cave that the running water underneath the snow had melted through.  It was as if I fell into quicksand and could not get out.  I had to use all my strength to pull myself back out of that snow cave, then continue on my descent to the bottom of the mountain.  Once at the bottom, we had to mark our racing bib with a blue marker that was left hanging from a string to prove that we had run the whole distance.  At this point, we were roughly at the halfway point.  We had an energy drink, a food bar, then proceeded to “run” back up the mountain.  You can call this part Death March, Part II.

Eventually we got to a place we liked to call “The Escarpment”.  Here, we became mountain climbers and had to scale another steep slope full of huge uneven boulders.  Fortunately, Mark found an old ski pole and handed it to me.  That ski pole helped me scale those boulders without killing myself.

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After what seemed like an eternity of endless boulders, we finally got out and into a huge clearing.  We were so exhausted, but we knew that it would only be a matter of time before we couldn’t run again.  So we both ran as much as we could until we entered the thick underbrush of the forest again.  Once back in the forest, our legs and bodies had to plow through thousands of tree limbs and thorny briers.  The blood and lacerations coming out of the lower parts of my legs could not be ignored.  However, we were now at the five-mile mark, so we were focused on finishing that last mile and crossing the finish line.

The last terrain change in our race was a downhill snow-covered section.  At this point, we both saw the finish line way at the bottom of the mountain.  We were so excited, we shot down that hill with reckless abandon not thinking about whether we’d fall or not.  We crossed the finish line finishing on top of snow as we had started this race.  Our finish time was 2:15, so we DNF’d.  We averaged about 20 minutes per mile.  I did not care at this point since I had so much fun just experiencing this amazing adventure.

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After crossing the finish line, the elation at having finished such a challenging and grueling endeavor was evident in all of our smiles as we posed for a post-race picture at the finish line.  The runners high was strong in each and every one of us at that moment.  And we were all thinking, “This course tried to conquer us, but we conquered it back”.

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Pictured in front from left: Sharon, Stephanie, Amy, Yessica, Me, Yolande, Jimmy, Danielle, Anthony, and Chris. Pictured in back from left: Corey, Dan, Mark, and Captain Darren

A Bloody Good Time

As a background actor, you never know what crazy role may be your next role.  I recently worked background on the critically-acclaimed TV show called The Knick.  Loosely based on the real Knickerbocker Hospital, the show centers on the doctors who dealt with the high mortality rate that was common during the early 1900s.  The show, made exclusively for Cinemax, shows viscerally-disturbing scenes of admitted accident victims and disease-ridden patients and how doctors tried to use the medical technology at the time to save them or at least prolong their lives for a few more days.  I had the pleasure of playing one of those victims; an Irish construction worker who was caught in an explosion while building New York City’s first subway line.  I was among a dozen other guys playing the same parts.  We had to arrive on set at 6:00AM to get special-effects makeup applied to our faces and bodies to play the part.  First, I put on my costume, which was authentic working-class clothing from the early 1900s.  Here is a pic of my buddy Mark Vogt and I before my face became transformed:

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The make-up people started with specially made ‘tattoos’ that were to become our scars.  The tattoos were skin-colored and were textured for realism.

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For the next step, the fx make-up artists used fine-point paint brushes to paint our scars and faces with various shades of red to indicate freshly-oozing blood.  The artists worked hard to make sure the blood dripping down our faces looked random and natural.  Our characters were involved in an explosion after all.

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After the artists completed the blood portion of our makeup, they used a small fabric bag filled with black rubber dust.  This bag was dabbed all over my face, neck and hands to make all of my exposed skin parts appear dirty.  Then fake ‘dirt’ was added to my hair, hands, and in between my fingernails.  And by the way, the rubber dust was made from ground up recycled tires.

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After each of us went through the above process, we were all asked to step on a big plastic tarp to be ‘treated’ by two female make-up artists holding big paintbrushes and small paint cans.  The women dipped their brushes in the cans of red liquid made out of corn syrup, then the top portion of our very old 20th Century workmen outfits were liberally doused with tons of this ‘blood’.  Afterwards, we were checked out by a head makeup person for last looks.  Then it was showtime!

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We entered the set of the hospital and were placed in our positions by the assistant director.  Some were placed on stretchers and some were leaning against walls.  Another actor and I were told to sit on a blood-soaked bench for the scene and were given the direction once the camera starting rolling to moan in agony while others were told to cough.  Director Steven Soderbergh was filming the scene with a hand-held camera while his assistant pulled him on a dolly through all the suffering that was unfolding as the camera rolled by.  Starting with a close-up of a nurse tossing a blood-soaked rag into a basin, Soderbergh and his camera passed by me within inches as it panned by the various Irishmen dripping blood and writhing in pain and suffering.  One guy even had bones protruding from his lower arm.  It seemed like Soderbergh’s goal was to get embedded in all the turmoil for a very nauseating, but dramatic effect.

We all had a bloody good time and no Irishmen were hurt during the filming of this scene.  If you ever want to catch this scene on TV, it will appear in Episode 5 of Season 2.

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Note: The above photo reflects Day 2 of a two-day shoot.  On Day 1, we were all made-up by the fx artists, but were not used after waiting in holding for 12 hours.  Below is how I looked on the first day on set.  If you look closely, you can see pieces of wood stuck in my neck.  The artists glued those into our necks to really bring the impact of the explosion home to viewers.

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