Monday, November 16, 2009

Lunches w/Actresses: A Five-Character Ensemble Piece

The "New York Times," Modern Love column editor, Daniel Jones, just sent highwayscribery a form letter rejecting a submission of "Lunches w/Actresses: A Five-Piece Ensemble." We are now free to run it here complete with homefield advantage. It is loosely based upon the highway scribe's free-and-easy days as a bachelor/screenwriter in Los Angeles and served as the basis for a chatty and charming script collecting dust on a shelf somewhere. Enjoy and long live electronic media.

Lack of steady work can push a comely actress to the margins of society and into the company of homeless and mad persons.

Actresses might as well throw away their clocks, burn their calendars. Structured time does not matter when your life moves through celluloid. When celluloid moves through your life.

Saturn makes a date with me for Saturday at Cafe LaBrea. She likes to get the asparagus omelet and drown it in soy sauce. We've been meeting there for years now. I’ve never liked the place and wish they’d close it, but then where would she go?

It’s February and gray and I’m waiting and waiting.

Suddenly, there she is. A winter angel come to grant a glance. She has curls that drop to her shoulders like one hundred three rusty red ribbons. I want to mention my wait, but her appearance makes the complaint seem small.

Saturn's coming from a “meeting” with a “friend.” I’ve known for a while that some friends are more so than others. I can't work myself into jealousy, because I’m not sure any of us gets more than the other.

In her time, Saturn gets to each, waters us like the flowers with her liquid laugh.

“It’s so good to work again,” she informs. Of course, it is always good that actresses should work. "Act" is a verb so that your career tends to evaporate when you're an actress who doesn’t. She’s very animated, discussing her minor role in a new television series on a major network. Frisky, she appears to have been working out... or shopping.

Saturn understands the part is small, “but who knows who I’ll meet working there?” And then, counter-intuitively, “I’m such a bitch on the set. I don’t let anybody inside."

I used to believe these stories, but the world of actresses is like other microcosms. You learn its contours by touching it; its language by hearing and speaking it.

I captured Terese's phone number at a nightclub, but have spent six weeks in subsequent pursuit, which culminates with a confrontational voice message along the lines of, “How long do you expect the young prince to persist?”

She likes this. It has character, a quality of paramount importance to the actress.

We set a lunch date for Michaels. Time has passed since the drunken night I made her acquaintance. I can’t remember her face, that is, until she enters. Her eyes are frosted windows on a fathomless soul and that failed marriage to a son of Hollywood royalty hasn't melted them in the least.

Naturally, the conversation covers the fascinating topic of her own career. She’s played Dee, Laurel, La Dama, Samantha, May, Lucinda, Helena, and done a turn as a girl Shakespeare in Snoo Wilson's play. Her role as Sherry in a recent A-list production ended up on the cutting room floor, but she's taking it in her leggy stride.

“That’s all I have for you,” Terese blurts out suddenly. “Audition at three.” And she is off, irrepressible, indomitable, a heroine to me.

Hours later, still floating in her ether, I call my mother to share, because there’s nobody else around.

“Women like that aren’t worth a damn,” she counsels.

Blue is a dark-haired girl too good-looking to be a waitress, working as a waitress at the Spanish Kitchen. “Definitely an actress,” I tell myself and, seven days after first contact, am back for more of her good service.

I order crab cakes, grilled vegetables, turkey meatloaf with chili alioli, but can’t get Blue to look up. Macaroni and cheese, pesto-crusted salmon...

She surrenders, miserable with her station. “You catering your own wedding or what?”

“Just wanted you to look at me.”

Blue turns away. This is going to be easy. "You don’t like your job do you?”

“Let’s just say I’m naturally rebellious.”

“I'm anarchic myself,” I seek to strike her chord, but she turns away, soured.

Blue and I cultivate different kinds of rebellion.

Brittany has dropped me an e-mail: “I’ve moved again, but you may be surprised to hear I finally decided to live alone. Guess I’m sick of making the same mistake. (her recurring love interest, Jesse). It’s a one bedroom place; hardwood floors and kitchen with gingerbread cupboards. From the ’20s with a garage and dirt for planting. $1050. Lunch me! (818) 762-4882.

I lunch her downtown at Louie Bottega; guide Brittany into a seat against the wall so that her fabrics will play off the red brick masonry. She is sprung from hippies and dresses like a Gypsy with peasant skirts and silver rings on every slim finger.

We discuss her.

“The court ordered Jesse to pay me each month for the next year for beating me up. I don’t have to work for a while so I’m back to give acting another try. I haven’t got an agent yet, but I’m taking night classes. Method. I love my coach, J.W. He’s so vulnerable and completely connected.”

Brittany has been in San Diego for six months, sleeping on her mother's couch, trying to remember who she is before losing herself in the dream machine again. This town gave her its snake bite, although I’ve never seen the scar, what with those scarves and ankle-length skirts.

One time, she put me on the guest list at a small theater she was playing. But Saturn got wind of it and turned up at my place first, pulling a vial of cocaine from her embroidered purse and saying, “Look at what my mother gave us.”

You’ve never heard of the actresses I lunch with. Their works are of little magnitude, but important to the movie that is my life. They like what I’m offering: A role as big as they want to make it. Where are they going to get that around here?

Friends shrug. "What have they done?"

But grand actresses and diminutive actresses are one and the same. It’s not the films they're in. It’s the feelings they feel, the ups and downs. To understand you must ride the rollercoaster yourself.

I have.

Saturn calls. The hour is inappropriate and intended to flatter. She’s sure she wants to die. I drop by her apartment to scoop out soupspoons of tears from those muddy pools she strains to understand the world through. I tell her to stop, not to cry, until she is dry with the question of, “Why? Why did I want to become an actress?”

By morning she’s much better. Her horoscope says there will be work, sooner than later, and she can’t have lunch with me because a friend is coming by to talk business. I send her a bouquet of dried flowers hours later.

“What are these for?” she calls and asks me, the screenwriter nobody in town seems to “get.”

Blue and I meet Monday at Mandarette. It is a lunch composed of many tiny dramas, one of which goes like this:

(Blue) “Are you uncomfortable?”

“Maybe. It’s our first lunch that you’re not serving and I'd like it to go well.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t take it so seriously,” she suggests, but I respond, “I'm taking it seriously. I usually don’t shave until Friday.”

She’s gotten a grain of attention and opens her heart directly. It is big and bleeding slightly. A last love went poorly and ended worse, but somehow helped put Blue in touch with her sensuality. “I’m still bitter about it and not looking for anything but my own precious center.”

Blue is one of those “spiritual” actresses, seduced by the promise of peace lurking in Eastern religions, but is, at best, an unreliable Buddha babe.

We're set for Joan’s on Third, on the third, but I have to cancel when Saturn calls from the hospital, not very sure of how she got there.

Her problems vary, but are always related to the question of having work or not, of life and death for the actress.

The actress is beautiful, eternal, when the hot white light of a projector burns. She ceases to exist when it goes out. Years later, with the flip of a switch, she can inspire lust and love from the most impossible place: Death. In the prime of her life, putting on makeup before a mirror, she waits for work, name unknown, dead...until the phone rings again.

Brittany drops by on Monday, unannounced, to show me her new business card. It reads:


which is somehow accurate. “I paid for them with a residual check from a CSI episode I did two years ago. It ran in Australia!”

She’s in an excellent humor and humming with so much harmony that her eyes curve upwards and match the same turn to her smile.

I need to work, but Brittany pulls a bar of curry-scented soap from her burlap bag and announces a plan to bathe: “My hot water heater is broken.”

Saturn leaves me hanging at Cafe Stella on Thursday. Her voice mail says she’s gone to Arizona with a friend.

No doubt dropping dollops of dew on cactus blossoms thriving in the desert there.

Terese calls me the following Wednesday and proposes lunch for Wednesday after. Her preference is Mexican so I propose Loteria Grill and she trills, approving.

She never does the unannounced thing. Terese, after all, is a working actress with money. She enjoys sowing expectation before the grand entrance her conversation never seems to match in scale.

I’m broke, been driving a classic car, an antique even, and those olden models, not unlike actresses, are so undependable they can make you cry.

Mindful, she offers to buy and, when I finish my burrito, gives me half her own. Actresses know. They are the only ones save for a modern dancer or two.

Blue has been fired. That's five dismissals in three months. “The people there were so fake,” she complains. “Each one with their little facade. I can’t live that way. I refuse to play a role.”

It is not surprising that, of the actresses in my appointment book, Blue appears on screen least.

I’m leaving messages for Saturn, running rings around her like the planet from which she filched her stage name. A friend says she’s gotten a job on some TV show and that things are good.

Sure. I’m the one Saturn calls when she has no money. I can make her feel better for free. She comes to me after hitting bottom; the place I'm most easily found.

I drive by Cafe LaBrea to catch her unawares, but the restaurant has been shut down.

Closed for good.

Blue is hanging tough, having exchanged her pay as a production assistant, on a low budget film, for a role hardly requiring a visit to the costume trailer.

“I’m only happy when I’m on set,” she explains on a cell phone call from the set.

Terese cancels our date at Cynthias. She’s on a shoot in India. I tell her she owes me lunch and blow her a kiss long-distance.

Brittany is still having agent problems. She’s ready to abandon town and her dream, again. I tell her to get out of bed, find an audition, and move forward instead of backward. If she can.

I hang up and rub my eyes. These actresses have wearied me, but the phone beckons anew and, finally, it’s Saturn.

I attack. “New role? New stud? Kicking the rest of us mules out of your stable?'

"No role," she answers softly, sadly, "no stud. Just a baby in my belly."

I shall never possess her. Calm her. Please her. In the end, it's for the best, but doesn't feel that way.

I ask Saturn how she's surviving. The film business isn’t so keen on pregnant actresses.

“I’m working in a hotel. It’s good for me. I walk a lot.”

“Doing what?” I want to know. “What else are you good for besides acting?”

“Watering the flowers, dummy."

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