I was a Marine with 1/1 Weapons Company, 81's platoon, out in Camp Pendleton, California. Oorah!
I joined a few months after September 11, feeling like I think most people in the country did at the time, filled with a sense of patriotism and retribution and the desire to do something — that, coupled with that fact that I wasn't doing anything. I was 17, just graduated from high school that past summer, living in the back room of my parents' house paying rent, in the small town I was raised in in Northern Indiana, called Mishawaka. I can spell that later for people who are interested —
Mishawaka is many good things but cultural hub of the world it is not, so my only exposure to theater and film was limited to the plays I did in high school and Blockbuster Video, may she rest in peace.
I was serious enough about acting that I auditioned for Juilliard when I was a senior in high school, didn't get in, determined college wasn't for me and applied nowhere else, which was a genius move. I also did that Hail Mary LA acting odyssey that I always heard stories about, of actors moving to LA with, like, seven dollars and finding work and successful careers. I got as far as Amarillo, Texas, before my car broke down. I spent all my money repairing it, finally made it to Santa Monica — not even LA — stayed for 48 hours wandering the beach, basically, got in my car, drove home, thus ending my acting career, so —
Seventeen, Mishawaka ... parents' house, paying rent, selling vacuums ... telemarketing, cutting grass at the local 4-H fairgrounds. This was my world going into September, 2001.
So after the 11th, and feeling an overwhelming sense of duty, and just being pissed off in general — at myself, my parents, the government; not having confidence, not having a respectable job, my shitty mini-fridge that I just drove to California and back — I joined the Marine Corps and loved it. I loved being a Marine. It's one of the things I'm most proud of having done in my life. Firing weapons was cool, driving and detonating expensive things was great. But I found I loved the Marine Corps the most for the thing I was looking for the least when I joined, which was the people: these weird dudes — a motley crew of characters from a cross section of the United States — that on the surface I had nothing in common with. And over time, all the political and personal bravado that led me to the military dissolved, and for me, the Marine Corps became synonymous with my friends.
And then, a few years into my service and months away from deploying to Iraq, I dislocated my sternum in a mountain-biking accident, and had to be medically separated. Those never in the military may find this hard to understand, but being told I wasn't getting deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan was very devastating for me. I have a very clear image of leaving the base hospital on a stretcher and my entire platoon is waiting outside to see if I was OK.
And then, suddenly, I was a civilian again. I knew I wanted to give acting another shot, because — again, this is me — I thought all civilian problems are small compared to the military. I mean, what can you really bitch about now, you know? "It's hot. Someone should turn on the air conditioner." "This coffee line is too long." I was a Marine, I knew how to survive. I'd go to New York and become an actor. If things didn't work out, I'd live in Central Park and dumpster-dive behind Panera Bread.
I re-auditioned for Juilliard and this time I was lucky, I got in. But I was surprised by how complex the transition was from military to civilian. And I was relatively healthy; I can't imagine going through that process on top of a mental or physical injury. But regardless, it was difficult. In part, because I was in acting school — I couldn't justify going to voice and speech class, throwing imaginary balls of energy at the back of the room, doing acting exercises where I gave birth to myself —
while my friends were serving without me overseas. But also, because I didn't know how to apply the things I learned in the military to a civilian context. I mean that both practically and emotionally. Practically, I had to get a job. And I was an Infantry Marine, where you're shooting machine guns and firing mortars. There's not a lot of places you can put those skills in the civilian world.
Emotionally, I struggled to find meaning. In the military, everything has meaning. Everything you do is either steeped in tradition or has a practical purpose. You can't smoke in the field because you don't want to give away your position. You don't touch your face — you have to maintain a personal level of health and hygiene. You face this way when "Colors" plays, out of respect for people who went before you. Walk this way, talk this way because of this. Your uniform is maintained to the inch. How diligently you followed those rules spoke volumes about the kind of Marine you were. Your rank said something about your history and the respect you had earned.
In the civilian world there's no rank. Here you're just another body, and I felt like I constantly had to prove my worth all over again. And the respect civilians were giving me while I was in uniform didn't exist when I was out of it. There didn't seem to be a ... a sense of community, whereas in the military, I felt this sense of community. How often in the civilian world are you put in a life-or-death situation with your closest friends and they constantly demonstrate that they're not going to abandon you? And meanwhile, at acting school ...
I was really, for the first time, discovering playwrights and characters and plays that had nothing to do with the military, but were somehow describing my military experience in a way that before to me was indescribable. And I felt myself becoming less aggressive as I was able to put words to feelings for the first time and realizing what a valuable tool that was.
And when I was reflecting on my time in the military, I wasn't first thinking on the stereotypical drills and discipline and pain of it; but rather, the small, intimate human moments, moments of great feeling: friends going AWOL because they missed their families, friends getting divorced, grieving together, celebrating together, all within the backdrop of the military. I saw my friends battling these circumstances, and I watched the anxiety it produced in them and me, not being able to express our feelings about it.
The military and theater communities are actually very similar. You have a group of people trying to accomplish a mission greater than themselves; it's not about you. You have a role, you have to know your role within that team. Every team has a leader or director; sometimes they're smart, sometimes they're not. You're forced to be intimate with complete strangers in a short amount of time; the self-discipline, the self-maintenance. I thought, how great would it be to create a space that combined these two seemingly dissimilar communities, that brought entertainment to a group of people that, considering their occupation, could handle something a bit more thought-provoking than the typical mandatory-fun events that I remember being "volun-told" to go to in the military —
all well-intended but slightly offensive events, like "Win a Date with a San Diego Chargers Cheerleader," where you answer a question about pop culture, and if you get it right you win a date, which was a chaperoned walk around the parade deck with this already married, pregnant cheerleader —
Nothing against cheerleaders, I love cheerleaders. The point is more, how great would it be to have theater presented through characters that were accessible without being condescending. So we started this nonprofit called Arts in the Armed Forces, where we tried to do that, tried to join these two seemingly dissimilar communities. We pick a play or select monologues from contemporary American plays that are diverse in age and race like a military audience is, grab a group of incredible theater-trained actors, arm them with incredible material, keep production value as minimal as possible — no sets, no costumes, no lights, just reading it — to throw all the emphasis on the language and to show that theater can be created at any setting.
It's a powerful thing, getting in a room with complete strangers and reminding ourselves of our humanity, and that self-expression is just as valuable a tool as a rifle on your shoulder. And for an organization like the military, that prides itself on having acronyms for acronyms, you can get lost in the sauce when it comes to explaining a collective experience. And I can think of no better community to arm with a new means of self-expression than those protecting our country.
We've gone all over the United States and the world, from Walter Reed in Bethesda, Maryland, to Camp Pendleton, to Camp Arifjan in Kuwait, to USAG Bavaria, on- and off-Broadway theaters in New York. And for the performing artists we bring, it's a window into a culture they otherwise would not have had exposure to. And for the military, it's the exact same.
And in doing this for the past six years, I'm always reminded that acting is many things. It's a craft, it's a political act, it's a business, it's — whatever adjective is most applicable to you. But it's also a service. I didn't get to finish mine, so whenever I get to be of service to this ultimate service industry, the military, for me, again — there's not many things better than that.
We're going to be doing a piece from Marco Ramirez, called "I am not Batman." An incredible actor and good friend of mine, Jesse Perez, is going to be reading, and Matt Johnson, who I just met a couple hours ago. They're doing it together for the first time, so we'll see how it goes.
Jesse Perez and Matt Johnson.
Jesse Perez: It's the middle of the night and the sky is glowing like mad, radioactive red. And if you squint, you can maybe see the moon through a thick layer of cigarette smoke and airplane exhaust that covers the whole city, like a mosquito net that won't let the angels in.
And if you look up high enough, you can see me standing on the edge of an 87-story building. And up there, a place for gargoyles and broken clock towers that have stayed still and dead for maybe like 100 years, up there is me.
And I'm frickin' Batman.
And I gots Batmobiles and batarangs and frickin' bat caves, like, for real. And all it takes is a broom closet or a back room or a fire escape, and Danny's hand-me-down jeans are gone. And my navy blue polo shirt, the one that looks kinda good on me but has that hole on it near the butt from when it got snagged on the chain-link fence behind Arturo's but it isn't even a big deal because I tuck that part in and it's, like, all good. That blue polo shirt — it's gone, too! And I get like, like ... transformational.
And nobody pulls out a belt and whips Batman for talkin' back.
Or for not talkin' back.
And nobody calls Batman simple or stupid or skinny. And nobody fires Batman's brother from the Eastern Taxi Company 'cause they was making cutbacks, neither. 'Cause they got nothing but respect. And not like afraid-respect, just, like, respect-respect.
'Cause nobody's afraid of you. 'Cause Batman doesn't mean nobody no harm.
Ever. (Double beat)
'Cause all Batman really wants to do is save people and maybe pay abuela's bills one day and die happy. And maybe get, like, mad-famous for real.
Oh — and kill the Joker.
Tonight, like most nights, I'm all alone. And I'm watchin' and I'm waitin' like a eagle or like a — no, yeah, like a eagle.
And my cape is flapping in the wind cause it's frickin' long and my pointy ears are on, and that mask that covers like half my face is on, too, and I got, like, bulletproof stuff all in my chest so no one can hurt me. And nobody — nobody! — is gonna come between Batman ... and justice.
From where I am, I can hear everything.
Somewhere in the city, there's a old lady picking Styrofoam leftovers up out of a trash can and she's putting a piece of sesame chicken someone spit out into her own mouth. And somewhere there's a doctor with a wack haircut in a black lab coat trying to find a cure for the diseases that are gonna make us all extinct for real one day. And somewhere there's a man, a man in a janitor's uniform, stumbling home drunk and dizzy after spending half his paycheck on 40-ounce bottles of twist-off beer, and the other half on a four-hour visit to some lady's house on a street where the lights have all been shot out by people who'd rather do what they do in this city in the dark. And half a block away from janitor man, there's a group of good-for-nothings who don't know no better, waiting for janitor man with rusted bicycle chains and imitation Louisville Sluggers, and if they don't find a cent on him, which they won't, they'll just pound at him till the muscles in their arms start burning, till there's no more teeth to crack out.
But they don't count on me. They don't count on no Dark Knight, with a stomach full of grocery-store brand macaroni and cheese and cut-up Vienna sausages.
'Cause they'd rather believe I don't exist.
And from 87 stories up, I can hear one of the good-for-nothings say, "Gimme the cash!" — real fast like that, just, "Gimme me the fuckin' cash!" And I see janitor man mumble something in drunk language and turn pale, and from 87 stories up, I can hear his stomach trying to hurl its way out his Dickies.
So I swoop down, like, mad-fast and I'm like darkness, I'm like, "Swoosh!" And I throw a batarang at the one naked lightbulb.
And they're all like, "Whoa, muthafucker! Who just turned out the lights?"
"What's that over there?" "What?"
"Gimme me what you got, old man!"
"Did anybody hear that?" "Hear what? There ain't nothing. No, really — there ain't no bat!"
But then ... one out of the three good-for-nothings gets it to the head — pow!
And number two swings blindly into the dark cape before him, but before his fist hits anything, I grab a trash can lid and — right in the gut! And number one comes back with the jump kick, but I know judo karate, too, so I'm like —
But before I can do any more damage, suddenly we all hear a "click-click." And suddenly everything gets quiet. And the one good-for-nothing left standing grips a handgun and aims it straight up, like he's holding Jesus hostage, like he's threatening maybe to blow a hole in the moon. And the good-for-nothing who got it to the head, who tried to jump-kick me, and the other good-for-nothing who got it in the gut, is both scrambling back away from the dark figure before 'em. And the drunk man, the janitor man, is huddled in a corner, praying to Saint Anthony 'cause that's the only one he could remember.
(Double beat) And there's me: eyes glowing white, cape blowing softly in the wind.
(Beat) Bulletproof chest heaving, my heart beating right through it in a Morse code for: "Fuck with me just once come on just try."
And the one good-for-nothing left standing, the one with the handgun — yeah, he laughs. And he lowers his arm. And he points it at me and gives the moon a break. And he aims it right between my pointy ears, like goal posts and he's special teams. And janitor man is still calling Saint Anthony, but he ain't pickin' up. And for a second, it seems like ... maybe I'm gonna lose.
Shoot! Shoot! Fwa-ka-ka!
"Don't kill me, man!"
Snap! Wrist crack! Neck! Slash!
Skin meets acid: "Ahhhhhhh!"
And he's on the floor and I'm standing over him and I got the gun in my hands now and I hate guns, I hate holding 'em 'cause I'm Batman. And, asterisk: Batman don't like guns 'cause his parents got iced by guns a long time ago. But for just a second, my eyes glow white, and I hold this thing for I could speak to the good-for-nothing in a language he maybe understands. Click-click!
And the good-for-nothings become good-for-disappearing into whatever toxic waste, chemical sludge shithole they crawled out of. And it's just me and janitor man. And I pick him up, and I wipe sweat and cheap perfume off his forehead. And he begs me not to hurt him and I grab him tight by his janitor-man shirt collar, and I pull him to my face and he's taller than me but the cape helps, so he listens when I look him straight in the eyes. And I say two words to him: "Go home."
And he does, checking behind his shoulder every 10 feet. And I swoosh from building to building on his way there 'cause I know where he lives. And I watch his hands tremble as he pulls out his key chain and opens the door to his building. And I'm back in bed before he even walks in through the front door.
And I hear him turn on the faucet and pour himself a glass of warm tap water. And he puts the glass back in the sink. And I hear his footsteps. And they get slower as they get to my room. And he creaks my door open, like, mad-slow. And he takes a step in, which he never does.
(Beat) And he's staring off into nowhere, his face, the color of sidewalks in summer. And I act like I'm just waking up and I say, "Ah, what's up, Pop?" And janitor man says nothing to me. But I see in the dark, I see his arms go limp and his head turns back, like, towards me. And he lifts it for I can see his face, for I could see his eyes. And his cheeks is drippin', but not with sweat. And he just stands there breathing, like he remembers my eyes glowing white, like he remembers my bulletproof chest, like he remembers he's my pop. And for a long time I don't say nothin'. And he turns around, hand on the doorknob. And he ain't looking my way, but I hear him mumble two words to me: "I'm sorry."
And I lean over, and I open my window just a crack. If you look up high enough, you could see me. And from where I am —
I could hear everything.