"You need to do something that scares you."
Not the kind of artistic advice I expected to get at an acting class in Hollywood. But, on that night back in 2000, after finishing a scene, I found myself sitting on stage in front of about 50 actors and my teacher, Jeffrey Tambor.
Jeffrey intently stared at me, "You play it too safe as an actor. So what scares you?"
"Don't think about it. Just say the first thing that comes to mind."
"Flying. I'm terrified of flying. I've been terrified of it my whole life."
"Good. Then you're going flying."
A few days later, I nervously drove to the Burbank airport and met the flight instructor who was going to take me up for my intro flight. As we headed out to the plane, we made small talk and he told me that he was an aspiring screenwriter.
Great. The person into whom I was entrusting my life was just another guy in L.A. with a script and a dream.
With the preflight done, we taxied out to runway eight. The instructor allowed me to take the controls, and, with shaking hands and a rapidly beating heart, I followed his guidance as the plane gently lifted off the ground and into the air.
Just about 10 minutes into what was supposed to be a one-hour flight, the instructor noticed some bad weather up ahead. He pointed out the weather and asked if I wanted to do some flying above the clouds, or if I just wanted to head back. Seeing the ominous clouds ahead, I sad without a moment's hesitation, "Let's go back."
Safely on the ground, I said goodbye to the aspiring screenwriter/flight instructor and headed home, quite proud that I had faced my fear and overcome it. I looked forward to reporting to Jeffrey that I had followed his teaching and done something that scared me.
But, something didn't feel right. I started thinking about my daughter, Savannah, and all the times I had told her to not let the the "fear monster" tell her what to do in life. How I had encouraged her to follow her passion without worrying about the results. Wasn't that exactly what Jeffrey was trying to teach me?
I felt like a fraud. Going up for 10 minutes in a plane and then quickly turning around as soon as there was bad weather ahead wasn't facing my fear. In my gut, I knew what I had to do... and before I could think too much about it, I signed up for a course to get my private pilot's license.
I was so scared during my first few flight lessons that I literally threw up into a sick sack. But, I was determined that I was not going to let my fear control me. And the more I flew, the more relaxed I became in the air... and the more I realized that I had a natural feel for piloting. Slowly, I found myself spending my time as an actor on the ground wishing I was a pilot up in the air.
In March of 2001, a film that I had acted in was being released. As my fiancée, Kristine, and I got ready to head to the premiere, I saw a heartbreaking news story about millions of people that would die of starvation that summer in Africa. The story stuck with me as we drove to the premiere and as we walked the red carpet.
As the final credits of the film ran, Kristine and I headed to the premiere party. At the garish event, surrounded by crowing studio executives, self-important actors, mounds of food and free-flowing drinks, all I could think about were those millions of people in Africa dying of starvation... and that the budget of that terrible film could literally have saved them all.
I turned to Kristine and said, "I have to get out of here."
We walked to our car and sat there for a long time. Neither one said a word.
Finally, I spoke.
"If this is what being an actor is, I can't do this anymore. I don't like the people I'm working with. I don't like the projects I'm working on. I don't feel like I have any control of my own destiny."
"So what else would you do?" she asked.
"I don't know."
But, the door had been opened. The door that leads out of the entertainment business. The door that I was always scared to open for fear that I would be giving up on my dream. Or was it fear that I might like what I saw on the other side?
A few days later, I was in the air with my flight instructor when she asked if I planned to do it as a profession. Fly? As a profession? My mind quickly raced back to the time I was flying home from shooting Girl, Interrupted. Sitting in the first row of a turbo-prop with the curtain to the flight deck open, I was able to watch the pilots land the plane at Dulles Airport and then followed them into the airport taking note of how spit-shined and sharp they looked in their uniforms. I couldn't be one of those guys, I was just some actor.
Her question lead me to the Internet. I did searches on how to become a pilot and quickly found out that you didn't have to be some Air Force jet jockey or Naval Aviator. There was a career path that required a college degree, getting all of your ratings and then building flight time as an instructor. It seemed so simple.
But in September of 2001, everything in the world became less simple.
The events of 9/11 drove many people away from pursuing flying as a career. But, that day had a very different effect on me. After coping with the profound sense of sadness and loss, I became more determined than before that I was going to become an airline pilot. Suddenly, the thought of saying lines on some mediocre TV show seemed so pointless and empty compared to the responsibility of getting people safely to their destination in the wake of the terrorist attacks.
After doing a lot of research, I enrolled at ATP flight academy. When I called my agent and told him I was taking a few months off to go fly full-time, he chalked up to an early mid-life crisis and told me to give him a call when I got back.
The program was scheduled to be for 90 days. I finished it in 56... faster than anyone had ever done the program. In those 56 days, I flew a four-seat plane all the way across the country from Sacramento to Jacksonville... up to Washington DC and back down to Fort Lauderdale. I flew through good weather and bad. I got the crap beat out of me in severe turbulence. I dealt with mechanical failures and emergency situations that would have frozen me with terror before I started flying.
I had completely followed though on Jeffrey's note. I had done something that truly scared me and I had conquered my fear. For the first time in my adult life, I felt in control of my own destiny.
A few days after I completed the program and returned to Los Angeles, I got a call from Jim Koziarski, the president of the flight academy, with a job offer. They wanted to hire me to be a full-time flight instructor. This was the highly coveted job that would get me the hours required to be hired at an airline. But, there was a catch... it was Wednesday and they needed me to start in Jacksonville, Florida on the following Monday.
I told Jim that I needed to speak with my fiancée before committing.
I called Kristine. Right as she picked up, the other line rang. Telling her to hold on, I clicked over.
I recognized the voice of my agent. "Travis. Great news. JAG wants you to come do another episode. It might even become a recurring character. You start work on Monday."
So this was it. The fork-in-the-road moment that Frost so eloquently wrote about.
Kristine and I took a long walk that afternoon. We talked about what we wanted our lives to be. Not just that week, or that month... but what we dreamed of for an entire lifetime shared together.
I called my agent the next day and told him to let JAG know that I was going to pass. I hopped into my car and, with a kiss and a smile from the woman who made it all possible, and headed east on the 10 freeway to start my career as a professional pilot.
I spent the next year and a half working as a flight instructor in Jacksonville and Riverside... spending most of my time trying to keep student pilots from killing me and themselves. And then, after a very brief stint flying cargo out of Burbank, I interviewed at Chautauqua airlines and was offered a job as a First Officer flying the Embraer regional jet based in St. Louis. I had officially made the transition from the entertainment business to become a commercial airline pilot.
I quickly became comfortable in the jet and adapted to my new life. But, every so often, I would look out the window and then around the flight deck... and be absolutely overwhelmed with a sense of, "What the hell am I doing flying a plane at 36,000 feet?! Don't these people know that I'm just some actor?!!"
I continued to write the entire time I flew. On my commute to and from work in St. Louis, I would write scenes and outline scripts. On the overnights, I watched films at the local multiplex or spent the time in the hotel hammering out some story point that wasn't quite working.
And then, one night on a flight from St. Louis to Newark, I was talking to my captain about 9/11. He was describing the day from his perspective as a pilot in the air. The entire account was riveting.
I asked him about the UM's (unaccompanied minors) who were flying that day. He told me a story he had heard about a young kid being stuck with a gate agent for a few days until they were able to get him back to his parents in New York.
After that, with the plane safely on auto-pilot, I would write scenes and lines of dialogue for a script about a UM traveling on morning of 9/11. And every so often, a pitch meeting with me and the captain I was flying with would break out in the flight deck. It was refreshing to share a story with people who were not trained in three-act structure. There were no esoteric notes or references to other films. For them, the story was either bullshit or it was good.
I continued to fly and write until I got an email from the airline. I was slated to upgrade to captain. The upgrade was the only way I was going to advance my career and make it to a major airline. It would mean moving up to a larger aircraft and being based at O'Hare. It would also mean that I had to pick up my family and move to Chicago.
Another fork-in-the-road moment.
Once again, I took a long walk with Kristine and talked about what we wanted out of our lives together. Being away from home for half of my life wasn't something I had factored in when I made the career change to flying... and, now married with three small children, it wasn't something I was willing to do. I let the airline know that I was not going to take the upgrade.
I loved my time at Chautauqua. I loved the flying. I loved the challenge of working in the most congested airspace in the world. I saw images out the front window of that airliner that were so beautiful they literally took my breath away. I faced -- and survived -- life and death situations. And I made life-long friends. But, I knew when I passed on that upgrade that my flying career was over.
In the spring of 2008, Kristine, my mother and I spent an afternoon in Park City, Utah. Pulling on to Main Street, I flashed back to the last time I had been there... in January 2001 for the Sundance premiere of the film I had starred in. As we walked the streets that day, I found myself missing the entertainment business. Not the glitz and the schmooze... but the art and the talented people and the passion. We walked into a small store and I saw a sticker that read, "It's never too late to be what you might have been." And in that moment, I knew that it was time for me to come back to filmmaking.
That fall, I enrolled in UCLA's professional screenwriter's program. While I had sold scripts and had an episode of television I wrote produced, I never felt like I truly understood structure and character development. I hoped that the program at UCLA would help me to finally master the elusive art of great screenwriting.
On the first day of class, we had to pitch a script that we were going to write in the first semester. I don't remember what I pitched that night in class. But, I do remember it hitting me like a flash a few days later that the script I really wanted to write was the one about the UM flying on 9/11 that I had started during my time at the airline.
Over the next 20 weeks, with the guidance of my instructors Hal Ackerman and Wendell Thomas, I managed to turn a bunch of loose scenes and dialogue into a script titled The Space Between. When it was finally done, I shared it with Kristine and a few other friends. The feedback was positive.
Thankfully, not long after finishing the script, I saw my old friend Melissa Leo's stunning performance in Frozen River. Melissa and I had worked together 20 years earlier on the ABC television series The Young Riders. After watching Frozen River, I was convinced that Melissa was the one to play the lead character in The Space Between.
I sent Melissa the script. It was delivered to her on Father's Day 2009. Just over an hour after the script arrived at her house, I received an email from Melissa letting me know that she loved the script. And over dinner a few nights later, she committed to starring in the film.
I was officially back in the entertainment business.
But, then I was given a dose of reality by Melissa's manager. She had a very small window of time between starring in The Fighter and starting Treme. If I wanted her to star in the film, I had just over two months to raise all of the financing and pull together a challenging production which included recreating September 11th, a minor as the second lead and filming on location in Los Angeles, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvannia and Ohio.
It was a seemingly impossible task. But, I knew I could pull it off. I wasn't scared. Because, almost a decade before, Jeffrey Tambor had changed my life when he challenged me to do something that scared me. Because I had accepted that challenge. And because, in facing my greatest fear, I had learned the most valuable lesson that anything is possible when you follow your passion.