“Doesn’t it bother your ego to see other people get more camera time? Don’t you want to be where they are right now?” a young, tall black chap with hipster flair inquired on a recent shoot.
“No. My ego is completely dormant,” I replied, politely meeting his disbelieving gaze.
“But seriously, you have to be bothered by this. Not even a little bit?” he pushes incredulously.
“Not in the slightest,” I reply apathetically. I’m not lying. Neither is my ego. Perhaps it’s an overall disenchantment with the process. Perhaps it’s the sage acceptance that comes with going with the flow, staying present, and being thankful for what I have. While the country struggles with unemployed and/or underpaid professionals, we were being paid hundreds, potentially over a thousand dollars, to look pretty, smile, and have fun on a set. I was not scandalously costumed, alternately, I was not scandalously costumed for a summer shoot being shot in the middle of an arctic freeze in January, my shoes were flat, and nobody was bumping or grinding against me. I considered it an award-worthy, save for the nasty garbage-recycling facility just below the artistic loft space production had reserve and the swarms of desperate flies that would occasionally swarm us as though we too had been discarded as refuse.
I’ve discovered, as my male counterpart for the day has yet to experience, that being booked as the hero character is not necessarily the most glamorous of days. As an actor-model-talented-to-talentless-artiste, the vast majority of control, creatively and technically, is left in the hands of others. All the possible power and fulfillment that one imagines at a certain professional point just do not exist. Like a solid piece of clay, gradually scraped, adorned, and fired in a kiln to last beyond the life expectancy in original form, “talent” is at the mercy of everyone. And this realization personally to me has become a source of trauma; an unsettling anxiety that begins a few blocks before whatever booking awaits me on any given day. I can never know what dark crevice will contain a folding chair, housing me for hours or just long enough to throw my belongings aside to be scurried through the assembly line of hair, makeup, wardrobe, blocking, and repetitive rehearsals and takes that may never be seen past the eyes of production. How many hours I must have spent on these cold, dusty studio stages haunted by years of busy bodies creating art or creatively slicing together commerce as art for no sake other than collecting a paycheck and hoping that something will come and arrest me from the mundane hours of waiting. To then hurry and wait some more.
A few weeks ago I went to Kaufman Astoria studios for an audition and was cast. The following week I arrived for the shoot, spending twenty minutes with the wardrobe department and another five with props, as they took my photo for an identification badge for my character. I spent another thirty in a swirling chair while my hair was straightened and critiqued.
“Girl, I see some damage here. What you do to get those frayed ends?” my hair stylist with the namesake of a bubbly cocktail inquired.
“It was bitch-teased for a week on some 80’s film,” I replied. I did not need to hear the assessment of every individual strand of hair on my head.
“Well, girl, this is hiiiiiigh definition and I need to hide them fly-aways. This is not good.” He spent the next five minutes spraying my perfectly straightened hair with more cheap hairspray than the Long Island Medium uses in a day.
From the dark caverns of the hair chair I was then ushered beneath the hot vanity light bulbs of the makeup room, struggling to see past the black patches interrupting my vision. I have never mastered the homeostasis to afford me the transition from shivering cold to roasting under the lights without feeling an anxious duress. I once was a stand-in on a high end beauty commercial that required only my right eye to be lit by a keno that was as bright as staring into the noon-day sun. After an hour of setting up the shot, as my right retina was being burnt like a vulnerable earthworm beneath a scorching magnifying glass on a summer day, I was relieved by the “real” talent for the shoot and she had to merely stare into the light a few minutes for the actual take. I, on the other hand, spent the remainder of the morning like Jekyll and Hyde as a I carefully walked through the shadows of the set, feeling as though the right side of my face had completely shutdown in response to the light trauma replaced by immediate darkness.
But back to the makeup chair at my ill-fated shoot at Kaufman Astoria. The past year or two has brought me this unexplained trepidation and anxiety that I never had when I first started in this industry. The triggers are many and diverse. Standing for long periods of time in one set place can cause my head to spin as I imagine myself fainting with all the crew watching me collapse on the sound stage. Other times the feeling of entrapment, of never knowing when I will be set free from a shoot that can last as short as twenty minutes or run as long as 23 hours (thank you, Scorsese). But lately, even in the makeup chair, I can feel the desire to bolt for the door, find the nearest subway station, and never return. This day was no exception and I had to force deep breathing with control so my anxiety-control didn’t interrupt the newly sharpened eye pencil that poked and lined my eyes, which began to tear as soon as the heavy concealer was brushed beneath my lower lids. It took all my might to sit still and not panic, as every flaw in my skin was detected and I began to stress the assessment of my pores, fine lines, and under-eye circles. Thankfully, the makeup artist granted me more mercy than bubbles.
The following six hours I spent in an air-conditioned theatre, blasting enough cold air to maintain a balmy 52 degrees, waiting for my call to set. When it came I was briefly shown the sides for my scene, told I would be instructed further on the set and that everything would be set on a green screen. A green screen? Actors who deal with green screens amaze me. The stilted feel, the intense lights, and the complete lack of spacial relations is as challenging to me as walking across a tight rope after a flask of bourbon (enter two more anxiety triggers: green screens and heights). I spent a sold five minutes being shuffled about while lights were adjusted and cameras were placed and the other actor was primped while studying lines and I was instructed that I should smile. And without pause the first assistant director stormed the set, put the other actor in her spot and instructed me to go to lunch. I wandered through the sterile halls to the basement where catering was set up, eating little of the over-seasoned and over-cooked food, an absolute must on a set which I learned the hard way after getting violently ill on a commercial shoot last year. It’s better to nosh on safe foods than risk the wrath of a tormented digestive track. Throw in the unusual hours and long days and it can be impossible to stay out of the water closet. And on some sets, you’re lucky to have more than two johns for the cast and crew in excess of fifty people.
I finished lunch and returned to the ice-chest of a holding area, where I would sit with perfect hair and in costume for another five hours, anxiously staying alert for the moment when I would be rushed to perform. Anticipation mounted with the frigid climate and I didn’t know if the inner unsettling and trembling came from the cold, nerves, or lunch. I began to pray; to imagine all the way I could handle being in front of the dreaded green screen, conjuring the spirit of Honey Boo Boo Child and her fieriness, hoping to be as “sassified” as the little pageant queen when my time came. But my time did not come and after nearly eleven hours of preparation and waiting, I was told there wasn’t enough time for my scene and I would have to come back another day. It’s hard to not be neurotic in these moments, wondering if the director or creator had second thoughts, that some how the split ends and superficial caused this change of heart from production, or if there was something I should have done differently. But this neurosis was quickly replaced with complete and total relief. I could go home, I could bundle up in a blanket with my furry chihuahua and snuggle after a long day of being paid to do absolutely nothing.
Perhaps my ego is not as silent as I thought. It surges in battle when I leave a set, wondering why I ever wanted to be in this industry to begin with, only to be followed with a willing commitment to improve and overcome the insane thoughts that plague an overactive mind left with to much idle time to activate. And without resolution, and without much direction, comes the waves of gratitude for time. Because in spite of the worries of aging and grappling with the burning ambition to be further ahead, I’m instead left with the gratitude to continue on this path as long as I desire, but the option to transition into something else is always there for the taking. And as much as I eschew these days, the familiar faces of crews, the constant spontaneity, and the excitement are what I know.