Down the Call-Sheet: Fred Ochs in 'The Stanford Prison Experiment'
One of the pleasures of working in an industry of illusion is the feeling of surprise you get when a particular known actor sneaks by you on-screen in plain view and you didn't even realize it. The camera was on them, they spoke and you simply accepted that person in the circumstances without some inner alert as to who they really are. Sometimes that realization comes in the credits when you read their name in the scroll and go "who were they?" and scramble to open your imdb app on your phone and have your oh-duh moment. It is doubly enjoyable when you realize you actually know the person.
This was the case when I recently viewed 'The Stanford Prison Experiment' at the Arc Light cinemas in Hollywood and found myself asking, "Who was Fred in this?" Fred being the actor Fred Ochs who, in fact, I had spent years watching on-stage and camera when studying together at the same acting studio. Easing back in my seat in the still-dark cinema I knew I had my next call-sheet subject with the added zeal it was "one of our own".
'The Stanford Prison Experiment' is based on a study of the same name that took place in 1971 by the Stanford University professor of psychology, Philip Zimbardo, here portrayed by actor Billy Crudup. Funded by the Navy, the goal of the experiment was to examine the causes of conflict between military guards and prisoners. A group of 75 students were screened in interviews down to the eventual 24 that were used in the experiment. Those students were then 'cast' in the roles of guards and prisoners.
All the participants agreed to a 7-14 day immersion for $15 a day. The basement of the psychology department building was designed to simulate a prison. The objective was to discern if the behavior of the inmates and guards was inherent to the individual or the circumstances of the environment.
The 'prisoners', with help from Palo Alto police, were arrested in their homes and booked with fingerprinting and mug shots. They were then strip-searched at the mock-prison upon arrival and given new identities. Cells held three captives each along with a prison yard (a hallway) and solitary confinement. The guards were instructed they were not to hurt the inmates but create in them a feeling of powerlessness.
The film adheres closely to the documentation of the actual study as we watch the experiment quickly take hold of each of its participants behaviors. The guards relish their authority and begin elaborate punishments for the volunteer prisoners. The detainees begin to question the boundaries of the experiment when their various insurrections and break-downs are ignored by the psychology staff in their observation offices. Giddy with the dynamic results, Crudup as Zimbardo, finds himself drawn deeper and deeper with fascination and pride into the escalations unknowingly losing himself into his own role as the warden.
Reaching a fever pitch of paranoid delusion after releasing a prisoner who vowed to return in order to emancipate the others, Zimbardo positions himself as a sentry in the hallway that leads to the mocked up prison.
There the fatigued professor suddenly spies a trespasser who was not his intended invader. Ambling down the hall, briefcase in hand, we find that it's simply a fellow colleague, Professor Cook, who is guilelessly coming for some papers. Cook, as you may have guessed, is portrayed by Fred Ochs.
Bespectacled and suited in tweed, the sheer sight of his academic normalcy is jarring at this point in the movie. Like the students themselves, we have been so immersed in the confines and lunacy of the experiment that seeing an adult stranger ambling in unaware has its own comic value. The tightly coiled Crudup covers his anxiety as he attempts to re-find his previous role as a trusted academic. Fred, as Cook, is completely understated in his performance as his eyes just barely dart about with a sly sense of suspicion.
As the scene continues, Fred's seemingly benign professor continues to ask specific questions about the experiment to Zimbardo's consternation. Perhaps content on the answers he turns to leave but one nagging question stops him in his tracks as he asks what the "independent variable" is in his study. Meaning: What point are you exactly trying to prove by all this? Without an independent variable, or theory, then really it's all just a pointless simulation. Confused and angry, Zimbardo unleashes some of his bottled up rage on Cook knowing he doesn't have an answer. Claiming he needn't justify himself to a colleague, Fred takes the exhortation in stride. There is no more than a sense of 'hmph' and a shrug as his professor easily departs knowing he has in just a few words unraveled his opponent.
At the crowded screening in the Arc Light, you could hear the titters from the audience at the two opposites. Cook the non-flamboyant and rational professor is our peek back to reality. That university psychology departments are quiet places of study and not battlegrounds for young men to violently oppress each other. His simplicity and quiet reserve are in such contrast to Zimbardo's zeal (who reportedly in real life wore a cape to classes) that it invites amusement. Fred, opposite Crudup, never takes on any aspect of the heated debate but rather goes continually under in his delivery and behavior.
Perhaps an element of this studious restraint comes from the fact that Fred has a Phd in Chemistry from the University of Michigan. I know this not from our time shared doing scene study but rather from reaching out after the movie for some insights into his experience. Humble to the notion of being written about but open to my offer we began an e-mail back-and-forth. As it happens, Fred was not to-the-theater born but rather stumbled upon it by accident while at Dartmouth. Plied into service by his fraternity brothers he performed in a play contest with George Kaufman's 'If Men Played Cards As Women Do'.
"It was so un-PC and I would never do it now," he conceded. "But in 1968 it was just funny". He went on to win an award for acting which "surprised the heck out of me" and after that he began auditing acting classes at the school. After that, he says, it was over twenty years before he would attend another acting program in his mid-forties.
Like many actors that seek training over the long course of a career he has had many influences and teachers. "My training has consisted of whatever catches my imagination as what might launch me into stardom. The first class I took was at Alameda High School's night classes. They were taught by a woman named Jo Mohrbach. She was great! But then if they're not great...I leave." By his own admission, he has probably been to at least 20 different studios or institutions for acting over the years. These range from A.C.T. and private study with Richard Seyd in San Francisco to the Carter-Thor studio in Los Angeles.
"Quick, professional, fun, intense," were the words he used to describe Billy Crudup when I queried him on the experience of working with the storied actor. "I tend to have this feeling that people are generally people when it comes to other actors. So far it hasn't gotten me into a pickle and makes me more relaxed. I have no idea how I got this attitude actually, but I'm glad I have it." Owing to the fact that the script was 130 pages and the schedule was only 22 days, Crudup was working long hours and it was no different for his corridor scene with Fred.
"It was toward the end of a fairly long day for Billy when I was called to the set. Also, a very hot day. So he was a bit tired, but certainly carried on like he was not. The scene takes place kind of late at night so that fit his tiredness, too." In other words, no time to waste, hit your mark and do the work. "Billy and I connected right away. He's really, really good and definitely fun to work with. They set the shot up pretty quickly. We tried a couple of variations on blocking and away we went."
As the scene went on the two men found a rhythm and "I think we both let go a bit take after take and that really helped us settle into portraying what was a long term relationship for the characters. In one take that was on Billy, he felt he had just let it rip more and loved it. So did I and so did Kyle (director Kyle Patrick Alvarez) apparently, because I am pretty sure that is the one they used." The only cautionary word from Alvarez was when Fred explored the notion of paternalizing the relationship. "I got a little fatherly in one take and Kyle asked me to back off that. I'm glad he did because he was right on and the finished product is something I am very proud of."
As well he should be. The scene breaks the fevered hysterics of the experiment in order for the audience to breathe and gain context. It is the flicker of light before the pieces all start to fall away and we, ourselves, are allowed to realize how far we've been drawn into this artificial context. With his academic remove and minute pokes at Crudup's Zimbardo, Fred subtly unmasks the real zealot that is buried beneath the professors scientific guise.
It isn't an easy thing to walk onto a working set and film in motion and change its entire temperature with one scene. It is altogether even more admirable when you trust your simplicity and don't get caught up in the pressure to do so. The desire to make an impact can force one's intentions to go beyond the caliber of the moment. Fred waltzes in from another life without ever looking like he was aware of the collateral context of this simple but compelling scene. He was so sly all it took was a pair of glasses and moustache and I was never the wiser.
All that said, "It was a happy set," Fred noted in contrast to the filmed environment. "I would love to work with Billy any time as well as Kyle... we did have a good time together."
Congratulations and appreciation to Fred Ochs for his time and patience with this article. This is truly what 'Down the Call-Sheet' was intended for.
'The Stanford Prison Experiment' was released July 17th, 2015 by IFC Films.