On a good day, I leave an audition and run errands, wearing a lot of makeup and clothes without stains, in a decent mood. The mood of someone who has done her job. On a bad day, I can’t get back to my house quickly enough: to change clothes, rinse my face and my brain, and set about forgetting the thirty shifty seconds I spent in front of a camera. It’s hard to tell what factors contribute to the audition being good or bad: was I just not right? Did I drink too much coffee? Too little? Did I misunderstand something pivotal, like the location of the audition or where the product to be sold falls on the aspiration meter? Or perhaps I was late; perhaps I got the audition notice at ten and had to be there at eleven and I just couldn’t wash the conditioner out of my hair quickly enough, perhaps I couldn’t find a meter and the empty lot was plastered with signs saying NO ACTOR PARKING.
Most of my work day, as an auditioning Angeleno, consists of getting to and from casting locations and, once there, waiting on benches. Commercial auditions rarely span more than five minutes. It’s the preparation (the side streets, the car sing-alongs, the tongue swipes over the teeth to remove any lipstick traces, the studying of copy that is often short or even non-verbal) and the after-effects (trying to convince yourself the job, an often life-changing job that could be like a row of three cherries on the slot machine, meant nothing to you, to tell yourself that you can’t even make note of what you wore because that would mean assuming you would have to remember it for a callback, which would mean imagining you would even be invited to the callback, which would mean jinxing yourself) that consume time and energy.
The space surrounding auditions is dangerous: it seems ideal to house despair and self-doubt. On a big white wall in the corner of your mind you can screen a mental tape of you in a bright room wearing a bikini, you stuttering and asking in a high-pitched voice to start again, and then being denied and slinking off, out the door, putting on your smudged glasses. In one scene you are drinking whiskey on a Tuesday afternoon and wiping mascara off your cheek; in another you are coming home to see the piece of spinach that was lodged in your teeth all along. Included in the footage is the time you sang a song in your off-key alto about shaving your bikini line while wielding a hedge trimmer. And were denied, denied, denied.
Illegitimi non carborundum, but like most experiences that require you to submit yourself for evaluation regularly, auditioning can leave you feeling rather raw. The events surrounding your brief period of performance congeal into a vast and disjointed perception of your own work day: three hours to get ready and get there; three hours after to cleanse my brain of any psychic wounds. In between, the audition itself: “Carol, I didn’t know you were a coffee drinker!” (To which the client casting this coffee ad replies “I wasn’t but then I discovered the delicious new taste!”) Carol, I didn’t know you were a coffee drinker! Carol, I did not know you were a coffee drinker! Carol, oh Carol, I didn’t even know!
I was late for an audition and looking for somewhere to park when a sweatsuit-clad woman indicated that she was leaving her spot on Beverly. She got into her car and turned it on, backed it up 4 inches and angled it into traffic. Then she changed her mind. I couldn’t believe it. I’d been trying to park for ten minutes already and felt that she had wronged me in the extreme. I pulled up next to her, rolled down my window, and told her to go fuck herself.
An important detail that I am loath to mention: I was wearing, at the time, a length of Kleenex under my glasses because they smear the half-inch of makeup I routinely wear to make my Irish skin appear unlike a dinosaur egg plumcot. I was trying out the Kleenex method and if you’re curious, it works, but the problem is that you may forget that you’re accessorizing in a strange manner and then you may scream at a stranger and only after you have finished your tirade remember how you look. My victim didn’t seem to care what I looked like; in fact, she got out of her car and started heading my way. I was not going to get into a fistfight with a woman wearing sweatpants while a single tissue of Kleenex hung precariously on my cheek! Also, I was scared. I pressed on the gas pedal and fled.
As the woman receded in the rearview mirror I turned down Sierra Bonita and almost rear-ended a garbage truck in the process of picking up every bin on the street at a snail’s pace. The alley, my only exit, was behind me and two rows of parked cars trapped me for twenty minutes, which my clock told me was half an hour after my appointment.
It was a long and purgatorial process, finding a parking spot, even after I escaped from behind the garbage truck. Circling, I passed the woman’s car, now planted firmly back where it had been. I assumed she was inside somewhere, texting angrily and possibly rounding up a posse, so I ducked my sweaty head each time I passed her SUV until, at last, I found a spot. I ejected myself out of my car into the building that was hosting the audition.
There were two parts being cast: a regular stiff working a food truck and a hipster. In the waiting room were two of my kind and one of the other. No matter what the circumstances, there’s always a wait at auditions, sometimes brief but more often not, so that enough actors can show up and get the “explanation” of the scene and the camera can be set, and inevitably re-set, and sometimes even master re-set by a technician who has to be specially called in and who usually takes forever to arrive. In this case, we were expecting another working stiff, and while we waited a big dog ambled into the lobby and threw itself on my feet. The dog’s owner was the casting assistant running the audition, and he came out to shoot the shit. Is it a good dog? Oh, yes, he’s a very good dog. How old is this dog? Four or five, who knows. What a good dog. Yes, he’s a very good dog, and so on.
An extremely tall woman wearing stilettos and a skirt that barely covered her very respectable rear end appeared through the wall of glass that led to the walkway. She was wheeling a stroller with an infant; four more tiny children followed behind. “Surely she can’t be auditioning,” I thought, because she was neither regular stiff nor hipster: without the children she would have looked at home in a bar on Cahuenga at closing time. Actors learn to recognize other actors—the purposeful dress and hair styling gives us away—and an actor this woman was not. In any case, she walked into the room, saw the dog, and flew backwards, protective arms shielding her children. The dog was still a lump of bones at my feet, occasionally thumping his heavy tail on the floor in absolute passivity.
“Can you get that away, please?” she asked. “My kids hate dogs.”
The dog’s owner issued her a death stare, dragged his reluctant dog into a room, and shut the door. The woman went about setting herself and her children up in the waiting room, parking her stroller and arranging her purse. The one thing she didn’t do was the first thing actors do when they arrive at auditions: sign in. Finally, a confused-looking actor showed up, one of the regular stiffs. He checked in, sat down. Nobody spoke. Our discomfort made the air as thick as a sweater. Then the woman pointed at me. “You got a phone?”
“No,” I said, although I had one in my hand. This situation set me ill at ease. She wasn’t the woman at whom I’d screamed. But maybe she was a friend of that woman.
The woman asked one of the other actors if she had a phone. The other actor replied that she didn’t, which was almost certainly also a lie. We glanced around the room for something to look at besides each other. All at once, our gazes fell on the landline phone sitting on a desk in the corner. The woman picked up the receiver and proceeded to have a decently loud and lengthy conversation with someone about where she was.
“Here I am, on the second floor,” she said. “I don’t think it’s the right place. Where am I supposed to go? Sure, okay. Yeah, okay. Oh, I’m pretty good. Yeah, got the kids with me. That’s true. That’s true.” The door to the dog’s prison swung open and the dog and his owner stuck their heads out. The dog’s owner was tremendously upset to see that his phone was in use.
“That’s not a phone for you,” he said. “Are you here to audition?”
“What’s with the attitude?” the woman replied. “Hold on one second,” she said into the phone, “This man has an attitude and I have to go.” She hung up and spun around. “There’s no need for you to be rude,” she said. Her children stared at her. I stared at them, and the dog, and the other actor who had her hands stitched together on her lap. I stared at the woman, too, unable to help myself, wondering where she was going and how she was able to have a hundred children who all appeared to be under 3 years old.
“Leave,” said the man, his knees holding the dog’s head so that it wouldn’t escape. “That isn’t a public phone. You can’t just walk in and use the phone.”
The woman glared at him as she gathered her children. “Well. Have a nice day,” she said to him coldly. “You,” she pointed at me, “have a real nice day.”
She stormed out and her children followed her. The dog was released back into the waiting room, which he examined briefly and then departed in favor of the room he’d been so desperate to leave seconds before. I auditioned and exited the building and promptly realized that I had no idea where my car was. The only thing I remembered was that it was parked somewhere near the white SUV that still sat in the best parking spot on Beverly, and so for forty-five minutes I served my karmic sentence, alternately slouching in the shadows and searching for my lost vehicle. I imagined that when I found my car it would be covered in toilet paper and eggs, defiled by my new enemy, or that she’d totally cracked and decided to just steal the thing. Part of me felt that I would have done the same to her, and when I located my car it felt like I had been given a present from the Universe.
When I moved here after college, I wanted to be a copywriter. Actually, what I really wanted to do was write novels, and copywriting seemed like the fun, responsible way to fund that pursuit. Not only would I get paid, I told myself, but I’d get paid to write. This sounds as undercooked now to me as it must to you, but I was diligent, I looked into agencies and set up meetings and found a night school course where I could get a portfolio together. During one interview, the copywriter I was speaking with told me the biggest drawback of his job was that, when he got home, he couldn’t write. “I’m a poet?” he said with a question mark. (To me, this was an understandable affectation. I’m an actor? A writer? Who knows? Who can prove it?) “But after I get out of work I have no reserves.” What I think he was saying was that there was nothing to siphon, dump and process: no time where he was expected to just show up and exist, nothing to notice during that fallow mental period.
In the months following that meeting, I listened when actor friends told stories: one person arrived in character to a horror film casting call and frightened the children who had shown up for a cereal ad next door. Other people shopped for tiaras to wear to Disney auditions. A casting director told someone I knew that nobody would ever kiss her spontaneously and that therefore she had no career ahead of her. It all sounded so much more interesting than office khakis, filtered air, inter-cubicle instant messages! Plus, the money you made from one commercial was enough to live off for a year. My wheels began to turn.
All of that feels like a long time ago, and I guess it was.
The other day I waited for an hour in a room for my turn to deliver one line about the temperature of water. “I’ve been here since 10:30,” grumbled a guy next to me. “It’s taking for-fucking-ever.” I felt him: my meter was going to run out and I had to pee, and the audition kept getting shuffled around so that people who’d waited for two hours continued to wait as someone who had just walked in the door was ushered into the back room and then dismissed. Not such a big deal, of course, but we all had to pee at this point and perhaps had some other plan for the rest of our day. “I don’t know,” mused one girl, “I think if you wait, it just means that they’re giving everyone a lot of consideration and respect once they’re in the room.” “Yes!” another girl piped up, so loudly that the casting director in her office looked over our way, “I love when it takes a long time because I know that they’re being very careful about who they choose for each role!”
I stared at these two, who were both beaming in the direction of the casting director, and wondered if they would book this job because of their willingness to withstand gracefully the small annoyance of waiting, to not only gleefully hum and comment on the African masks hanging on the walls but to be glad, so glad that the process was slow.
Auditions condition you to go on auditions. Each one trains you to accept the paper cut-like indignities of the next.
Sometimes a straight job—assistant manager, independently-contracted office worker, ice-cream slinger—is necessary if you’re trying to support yourself by playing a slightly-higher-odds lottery. When you’re working a straight job, you can imagine another future for yourself, one that better resembles what your friends from college are doing: using their (dependable) income to put a down payment on a house (this makes me particularly wistful: some of them have plans to renovate their kitchens; indicative of such security!) or to take us all to dinner to celebrate a promotion. At the restaurant they will look at me with their adult eyes and say, “So how are things? What is your day like, anyway?” Their tone will make me shrink and shrivel and forget whatever it is I’ve done that day. Let the record show: yesterday I auditioned to play a mermaid. My scene partner was the only man called in for the role of “pirate” who showed up with his own sword, furry hat, and half of his trousers bunched up to imply a peg leg.
Many commercial actors have full-time straight jobs, calling in sick when they have an audition, but in Los Angeles it’s difficult to keep a job once your boss figures out you’re an actor. (They assume you’re an actor in LA, but when they have proof, they get nervous.) Substitute teaching, private tutoring, and tending bar are popular ways to earn income in between voiceovers. A lot of us have other artistic careers: I’ve met more than a handful of people who, like me, want to write books, and auditioning not only complements that lifestyle financially, but gives you a Harry and David gift basket of inspiration. Writing can be extremely solitary. A person can turn inward too much and after a long day of typing, other people’s voices sound just like an echo of your own. I find that I mentally repeat myself, editing editing editing, over the television or the sauté pan, or the other, more interesting story someone is trying to tell me. Auditioning requires you to drop your own narrative and show up in someone else’s: this is a beneficial loss of control. Writing requires you to siphon bits of your observations and experiences when you’re out in the world of not-your-brain and dump the runoff into your processing facility. Now I wonder what kind of poems that copywriter could have written after attending an audition, especially one for a product with a really romantic and suggestive name, like Chicken of the Sea.
I also wonder if the fact I am storing up material makes it easier for me to avoid taking a casting director’s judgment too personally, if it’s why I’m not one of those actors under thirty who surgically fiddle with their naso-labial folds, or their noses, or their breasts. Still, there are times when it feels as if my processing facility has reached capacity. If you hear something enough (boyish figure, her face is so angular it casts shadows, she has the skin tone of a blonde so why is she fighting it by stubbornly remaining brunette?), you start asking questions. Am I wasting my time? How could it have taken me so long to realize I was wasting my time, when these people figured it out in thirty seconds? These are like the aftershocks that follow an earthquake, which can be felt far away from the original fault line. You ask yourself, What else don’t I know about myself? If you didn’t realize you were unfit for one thing, you worry, it follows that you might be misguided in other pursuits, too. You begin to fear that you will never catch up with your friends, who are putting garbage disposals in their Highland Park casitas. You begin to fear that you will never write what you came here to write, and so you force yourself to sit down at your computer. You work. The earth settles back into place, as if it had never moved at all.
A series of unfortunate events:
1. Try to find bikini for a Tropicana audition requiring a bikini. Can only find bikinis from eight years ago. I am not a beachgoer, in general. Where is my best bikini? Lost.
2. Find sub-par bikini that smells like a gym bag. Wash it and hang to dry in front of a space heater.
3. Find ancient but unused bottle of “leg makeup.” Spray it all over self in the bathtub. Inch-thick layer of goop adheres to enamel of bathtub and won’t come off. Unwittingly track goop all over the house.
4. While putting on still-damp bikini, smear it with leg makeup. Curse leg makeup, bikinis, and own stupidity. Attempt to remove stains; fail. The bikini is ruined. Luckily, it was horribly ugly to begin with. Only swimsuit left is a white get-up from Forever 21, the bottom half of which resembles a diaper. Also, it has been stored in a bag with a green highlighter and is now neon green at the leg openings.
5. Dry legs with a blow dryer and begin to sweat. Makeup comes off in streaks. Decide to wash it all off and discover it is a special kind of makeup that can only be removed with sweat.
6. Take photos of legs to see if their striped pattern shows up on camera. It does. Additionally, butt of bathing suit is covered with leg makeup. Sit down to breathe. Get up. Leg makeup on leather sofa.
7. Color of legs has deepened to Freak Tan while rest of body remains pale. Consider using leg makeup on whole body. Apply coat to one arm and then find can to be empty.
8. Time to go! Actually past time to go. Time to rush. Time to run!
9. Do not book job. See a commercial with the same copy two months later. They went with Jane Krakowski. Nobody is wearing a bikini in the spot.
I am watching Saturday Night Live and I am stoned. I am feeling completely neutral – I remember the neutrality very well, neither happy nor sad, just stoned and beige-mooded – and after the close of the first musical number, I try to find the TiVo remote from inside the sofa’s guts. While I’m rummaging, I hear my own voice on television, and I look up to see that I am in a bathroom with a man talking about how his breath smells. Why does this shock me so much? I shot the commercial. It took twelve hours. Could it be because I thought that the rejectable part of me was so offensive that I would never be in a commercial? Could it be because I thought they had somehow pitied me — me and my dinosaur-egg-plumcot face, with the crooked nose and lips that don’t read on camera — when they offered me the job? Could my self-worth have been that low? I am so surprised that I sit there talking to myself, though I am with my fiancé, who has rocketed up from the armchair to pound his fist in the air, saying, “Really? Oh my God, really? It’s really on?”
I have no memory of performing the tasks I see my screen-self doing: picking up a fake tube of toothpaste, putting it down, trying to look at the other actor as though I loved him while we sat on a sofa in a staged living room. I do remember the drive at dawn to the shoot location, the conversations had over the craft service table, and the cold hands that put a microphone down the back of my pants. I remember the wait outside of the audition room, when it came down to me and one other girl, and how I left feeling sure that she would book the job because her nose was prettier and she was not sweating through her thin cotton shirt. I remember even more clearly the certainty that I would not work, ever–the realization I had driving on Cahuenga Boulevard after the callback that I was too fragile for all of this, not durable emotionally, weak and vain, that I was persevering mainly because I would like to be a stronger person, less afraid, more sure of herself–than I do the proof that, at least once, that was not the case.
But there it was, and it showed up over the next year, like episodes of a nature series about some wild animal. In each installment I could see the person I’d forged out of myself between the drives, the fuck-yous, the face scrubbing and bikini-washing and waiting-room waiting. She looks like me but not quite; some trick of lights and angles made her seem more confident and less apologetic. She’s the one who got the paycheck, the health insurance. If I met her in a bar, she’d be sitting at a table with bottle service and wearing a furry hat, a conversation piece maybe, and she would dismiss me if I tried to talk to her. She’s nothing special, not even really an actor, but she took over for me when I could no longer operate my bodily vehicle; I, however, drove us home that night.