Whenever the struggling actor was in a quandary, he asked himself this question. The answer came quickly. 2,614 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
“I’m going to kill you. Gonna watch you die and enjoy it. When you leaked that evidence about me, you made a big mistake. And now you’re gonna pay.” Jonathon Levy moved the gun closer to the bald man.
The bald man’s face remained blank. “Thanks. You can go now.”
“But I got more lines.”
“I’ve heard enough.” The bald man, whose name was William Henry, wrote something down on a pad then pushed his chair toward the desk.
Levy didn’t move.
“Sir, I have other people to see.”
Levy looked around the large empty audition hall, then leaned toward Henry, his small frame tiny next to the other man’s meatier physique. “What did you think?”
“I can do it another way if you like. More innocence, add in some humor, tougher. Any way you want.”
Henry blew out air. “You should go home, wait for your agent’s call.”
Levy nodded, sure the casting director gave him a signal — a signal that meant he got the part. That was good news, as he needed the money. Levy had been working in “the biz,” as he called it, for several years. He got the odd role, but not enough to keep him from being a waiter in a family restaurant. He hated the rude customers and screaming kids who often spilled ketchup and other crap on his white uniform. He hoped this would be the part that would take him to the top — perhaps getting him work with Pacino, his idol. He grinned at Henry and left.
Was the casting director promoting a sexist and racist business model? Or just finding roles for underserved actresses? 2,149 words. Part One. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Look, I’m not blind. Or stupid. Even back then, I knew there were a few black women who slipped past the gates to become legitimate stars, including Academy Award winner Halle Berry. (I admire her so much that I’ve granted my husband blanket permission to sleep with her if she ever happens to ask him. I can bed Mahershala Ali.) Now it’s even better, with blazing talents like Viola Davis, Jennifer Hudson and Lupita N’yongo walking away with Oscar statuettes.
No, my role in the industry was not to build the careers of those special few but to champion the right for my SBGs to make a decent living off supporting parts in substandard material, just like any white actor of middling talent in Hollywood. Time’s up on waiting for our right to cash in on being mediocre, just like everybody else.
Time to get sassy! My assistant Cherie and I began watching the video.
The actress’s smile disappeared instantly. The earrings stopped moving and hung immobile for one long alarming moment. Then she spoke in a voice devoid of any dialect. I would never have represented this blandness.
“Hello, Sassy Black Girlfriend Agency Inc. I submitted this video not in hopes of signing with your agency, but to tell you in a very digital way that I am one of a new coalition of Hollywood actors of color who object to your very existence in 2018. Time’s up on limiting your clientele to women — even worse, specifically black women — and reinforcing negative stereotypes by sending them out for this very limited segment of available roles.
“We’re calling you out on your sexist and racist business model and demanding that you cease and desist immediately.“
Short or tall. Blond or brunette. Whoever women are, Hollywood wants someone else. 552 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
SEEKING ACTRESSES AND ACTORS WITH TOTALLY ATTAINABLE QUALITIES FOR HIGH PROFILE TOP SECRET FEATURE FILM
OFFICIAL CASTING CALL: UNTITLED FEATURE FILM (MAJOR STUDIO)
*No phone calls. Email pitches ONLY*
FEMALE LEAD: Allison is effortlessly sexy but not intimidating: a true leading lady in every sense. She’s the girl next door to the girl next door; a classic beauty with an edgy quality that we cannot describe in words… but we’ll know it when we see it. Her imperfections make her who she is. Maybe she’s got a quirky birthmark on her thigh, or two different color eyes, or a penchant for wild lipstick. Surprise us!
The life of an actress isn’t all glamour and money. Often it’s about humiliation. 2,029 words. Part Two. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
So one morning later in the month, I was again facing the relentless onslaught of overdue bills. And once again, I faced an unpayable mortgage. I managed to stretch a few paltry residuals and my unemployment benefits to cover my cell bill, utilities and the minimum payments on my credit card balances. It struck me that “balance” was an interesting word to call mounting debt. What would they call it once it came tumbling down all around me? Bankruptcy, I guessed. Foreclosure.
My chest began its now-too-familiar objection to thoughts of financial matters and squeezed in on itself while my heart sped to a dangerous pace. I tried some exercises to prevent the stroke that I was certain was coming, but I couldn’t even get air to fill my lungs let alone the deep breaths I’d been taught in yoga classes. I was becoming light-headed.
Then the phone rang. It was my agent, Kim.
“Hi, Ruby, good news! I have an audition for you. It’s a new show. Something about cops with ESP versus vampire teens. It’s actually called Sexy Dicks With ESP Vs. Gangster Vampire Teens.”
“You have to be kidding me.”
“It’s a Mentalist/Sopranos/Twilight hybrid with amazing buzz. You’re lucky I was able to get you in.”
Three world famous actors started out long ago as NYC roommates struggling to make it. 3,222 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
New York City — 1950s
Sheldon Dumar, Bo Daggett and Bill Travers live together in the same New York City apartment building as close to roommates as three straight guys can get, all in their twenties and all focused on finding acting jobs.
Tonight, Sheldon is awakened by a pluk, pluk, pluk noise. What is that, the faucet? Geez, can’t a guy get any sleep around here?
“Shut up.” He covers his ears. “I said, shut up, dammit!” Groggily, he rubs the sleep from his eyes and stares unfocused into the grayish darkness. He has to laugh. How does that TV show go? There are eight million stories in the naked city… and now this is one of them: Bo’s shitty leaky kitchen faucet. Then Sheldon remembers all those lessons drummed into him using the Meisner Technique. Learn to improvise, Sheldon, like Meisner says. A phrase. Respond with intensity. Let your emotions flow. Sheldon glares at the faucet. “Are you pluking with me, faucet? Stop pluking with me!”
Sheldon dips his head and laughs. Always on. Always the actor. But he’s thankful Bo doesn’t kick him out of the apartment. Bo wouldn’t, would he? They’ve been pals since meeting at the Pasadena Playhouse, as unlikely a pair as Wally Cox and Marlon Brando.
Sheldon asked to crash at Bo’s pad while looking for a job in New York. Found one, too. Waiting tables. Don’t we all in this profession until the auditions pay off? Now Sheldon is looking for something off-Broadway or maybe a TV commercial. That would suffice until he gets on his feet financially and can afford his own pad. Until then, Bo says Sheldon can sleep on the kitchen floor. What a pal. Pluk, pluk pluk.
LAPD detective turned screenwriter Nick Chapel is consulted on a serial murder case. 2,272 words. Part One. Part Three tomorrow. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
The elevator doors open at the lobby revealing Russell, the day man on the front desk.
“Mr. Chapel, are you okay?” he asks. “I caught the whole thing on the security cameras. Should I call the cops?”
“I’m fine, Russell. No need for the police, but don’t open the garage for them. Maybe they’ll miss their deadline.”
Finally, I let out a long sigh. I am home and safe behind metal gates, doors with biometric key card locks, and Russell with his security monitors and taser. With each passing floor, I feel cleaner and safer, high above the dirt, poverty, illegal-immigrant desperation, multi-cultural conflict, gangbanging violence, and star-struck disillusionment of the city below.
The doors slide open, and we are greeted by a reproduction Louis XIV side table topped with a vibrant bouquet of bird-of-paradise. There are only two condos on this level and Lee Chang stands outside the open door to my unit, no doubt having watched the entire affair on the security system inside. He’s not much older than my college roommate’s daughter, Megan Davies, but already a veteran of the industry. Three months as my assistant will do that to a person. Gone is the boy band haircut and saggy skateboard jeans he wore to his interview, replaced by dressy-casual attire from the vintage stores on Melrose. Right now he is bringing me up to speed with his usual efficiency.
“Housekeeping has the guest room all set up for Megan. Mel called about a deal at Paramount. Mrs. Henderson from next door is threatening to take you before the tenants’ board because of all the paparazzi outside. And you’re all over the news. The landline’s been ringing off the hook. Channel 4, Channel 7, the L.A. Times, Entertainment Tonight. I’m letting the machine pick up. What the hell happened?”
The wannabe comedian thinks he’s a hit. His has-been talent agent isn’t so sure. 2,779 words. Part One. Part Two. Part Three. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
When comics say, “I started at the bottom,” they are talking about a place called The Wellington, a three-star steakhouse piano bar on a lonely stretch of used car dealerships deep in the San Fernando Valley.
“One time only,” Roy had said, “and don’t get any funny ideas about me managing you.”
As we entered, Roy eyed the schlocky place like a battlefield. I signed my name on the clipboard list (Number 8) and sat next to him at the bar with the Thursday night lushes. I said, “Looks like comics aren’t exempt from the two drink minimum.”
Roy gave me an uncomfortable smile. He was too big for the room. He said, “I’ll drink yours.”
The restaurant hostess — a sandy-haired college girl in a tuxedo vest and a collarless shirt — was doubling as emcee for the night. She balanced a round plate of drinks with one hand and held the mic with the other, giving it all a little too much enthusiasm for the defenseless dinner crowd. “Ladies and gentlemen… Our first act… The hilarious Krembo!”
A WASP-y guy in his forties came up and relieved her of the mic, started right into bits about traveling in Amsterdam. He was dying, not a giggle or a guffaw in the place, and I was cringing — he was truly awful. I couldn’t stand to look directly at him but, just as I bowed my head, Roy somberly put down his vodka gimlet and leaned into me, whispering ardently, “Look at the talent up there. I don’t know what it is that makes someone a superstar, but he’s got it.” Now I had to shut my eyes to keep from laughing out loud. “No, no, Tommy, this guy has got the magic.”
A young actress works for a studio executive on matters more thrilling than movie roles. 2,521 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Hollywood – February 1938
Inside the gates of Hollywood’s grandest studio, which specifically wasn’t in Hollywood at all but in Culver City, a young woman sat waiting inside the executive suite of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer outside the office of Finbar Gregory, Vice President of Studio Relations. That part, Studio Relations, made her smile. Because he was much more than his benign title would suggest. A former sergeant in the Los Angeles Police Department, he was also the son of an LAPD police captain and had joined MGM in the late twenties as head of security for the studio. He had become the right arm or, more to the point, strong arm of MGM’s Vice President and General Manager Eddie Mannix. Mr. Gregory handled a number of delicate press and publicity issues for the studio. Rumor had it that he and Mannix never exchanged memos but met behind closed doors every morning at seven.
The young woman whose name was Rita Lake looked around the ante room and at Mr. Gregory’s secretary, Marge or Midge or something like that, and wondered if the older woman with light gray hair and a small and efficiently build, thought she was having an affair with the executive. After all, Rita had been to his office several times over the past months and since he had little to do with casting, her presence on so many occasions might be misconstrued as inappropriate.
Rita Lake wasn’t her real name; she was an actress beautiful in an unconventional way with exotic good looks that came from her father, a Russian Jew, and her mother, a Spanish beauty. She had large hazel eyes framed by neatly arched eyebrows, and thick auburn hair recently cut to the new fashion. She had a trim figure, more athletic than voluptuous, and good legs that helped her get more parts than her acting skills.
On this particular morning Rita was dressed in a brown wool suit with a matching handbag and low-heeled shoes, the hem length of her skirt set appropriately at the knee. Rita wondered if it was her wool suit in the mild dry weather or the glacial stares that Marge/Midge was shooting her that was making her perspire. She self-consciously touched the small bruise under her left eye. The swelling had gone down and she hoped that the small amount of make-up she was wearing had been sufficient to cover the black and blue mark.
A TV showrunner trying to learn more about women characters does research in a strip joint. 2,930 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Zack was glad in this moment to be in Brooklyn, at this bare bones den of bare flesh. Also, he needed material for Season Three.
He had been given carte blanche as showrunner for Season One and Two. Season Two was “not a dud, by any means,” wrote a critic for The Carrier trade, “yet it paled in comparison to Season One. It was young Faulkner, in over his head. It was strained with forced mystery. One had to wonder if Zack Randke was being pedantic on purpose, in the hopes of disguising an unfleshed-out narrative and betting on the possibility that his work would be seen as too genius to be understood.”
“Eh, take it as a compliment,” his agent had said after an hour-long verbal lashing over poolside mint juleps in Los Angeles. Zack kicked his boots off the end of the lounge chair, pulling his ball cap down lower on his forehead. He was still Zack Randke. That had to count for something. After a year of meetings with his agent Alan, the word poolside now felt like a threat.
“You told me the episodes were good,” Zack had whined.
“Listen, kid, you’re the writer. If you’re going to demand sole writing credit, and you know you need three-dimensional women, then you better know what a 3D woman is like. You researched it, right?”
“A woman was the goddamn lead character of the whole Season Two,” Zack said, throwing up his hands.
“Yeah, but they didn’t like it that she got knocked up at the end, and she didn’t die like the men.”
A mother leaves her young son to take a movie role and pays a huge price for her ambition. 3,044 words. Illustration by John Mann.
During Grace’s divorce hearing five years ago, her husband Ted described her as follows: "If Grace was late for an interview at the studios and our son George, who she loves more than anything in the world, had a heart attack, she’d wait till she got back from the interview to call 911."
As fate would have it, the judge had also been married to an actress when he was young. Ted got full custody. Things changed. A truck lost control and hit Ted’s car, broadside, at a stop sign. It took five hours for the jaws of life to pry him loose and he was confined to an assisted living facility ever since.
As a result, George moved in with Grace full time.
Since his upcoming birthday, his sixth, was their first together, Grace was determined to make it the best ever, assuring Ted he had nothing to worry about and she cared more about their son than any interview. She bought George a shiny red-and-white Schwinn, the same one Pee-wee Herman had in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, on sale in the Bloomingdale’s Christmas catalogue. Since George had never ridden a two wheeler before, Grace led him outside to a secure area, stood behind the bike and held onto the seat while he tried to pedal. White-faced with fear, the boy wobbled and fell but, after countless failed attempts, broke free. Picking up speed till he was little more than a blur, his smile increased proportionately to the realization of his achievement.
Eventually, he doubled back to where his mother was standing. Only Grace wasn’t smiling. She was inspecting her right hand, the one that held the bike, punctured by the metal spring that attached the seat to its frame. Having severed a small artery below the skin, she saw her blood spurt everywhere.
A 17-year-old Latina actress after a wrong turn finds the right man and right career. 2,509 words. Part One. Part Two. Part Three. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
The next day after the brush-off from my agent Eli, I went on an audition for a new unnamed TV network pilot. I sat outside the casting office and heard an actress inside running the lines just like I had planned. Now I had to figure out a different way to say them so I would stand out. As I was memorizing the sides, a hot scruffy-looking actor sat down next to me.
“Are we gonna do this together?” he asked me.
“Get the job?”
I laughed. His name was Cole Ryan. He was in his late twenties and had been around the Hollywood block for a good decade racking up a couple pages worth of IMDB credits along the way. He asked me for my cell number and texted me later that same day to meet for coffee. “Urth at 3?” I was captivated by his bravado.
We flirted over iced lattes and he didn’t miss a beat when he walked me to my car and pulled me into him with a long slow intense kiss. Our chemistry was electric, so when he asked me to go to a party with him later that night, I agreed.
While I was getting ready at the apartment, I told Liz about him. She knew who he was and warned me that he had a reputation for lots of girls and lots of partying. I didn’t care. The Eli brush-off still stung.
The acting career of a 17-year-old Latina takes off. Then her parents interfere. 2,035 words. Part One. Part Two. Part Four. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
The next day, an assistant called me to set up an appointment at the end of the week. On Friday I went to the talent agency in Beverly Hills. When I was shown to Eli’s office, he was on the phone.
“One minute,” he mouthed. He was in his twenties and had a hot nerd vibe going on with hipster eyeglasses. After he hung up, he looked me in the eyes and shook my hand.
“Liz told me great things about you. She said you’ve been in L.A. less than a month and already booked a TV commercial. That’s impressive. Want to know what the batting average for commercial auditions is? One in a hundred. Meaning you’ll land one for every hundred auditions you go on.”
“I guess I didn’t get the memo,” I joked.
“Maybe you should come back after you go on ninety-nine more auditions,” he joked back. “It’ll probably take you longer to land the next one.” He grew serious. “Because I don’t want my team to put time and energy into getting you auditions only to have you bail because it’s not clicking fast enough.”
“I don’t know what Liz told you, but I don’t have a Plan B. This is it.”
A 17-year-old Latina aspiring actress starts a journey through personal and professional pitfalls. 2,373 words. Part Two. Part Three. Part Four. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
May 11th was my last day of high school. It ended in the girls’ locker room where Ava, Tess and Viv finally got the last word after months of threats. Actually few words were exchanged. They beat me up and left me a bloody unconscious mess. When I came to, I was lying face down on the ground alone. I can still smell the ammonia the janitor used to clean the floor earlier that morning.
People talk about life-changing moments. This was mine. As I licked the blood off my lips, a light switch went off inside my brain. I was done. Done with Selma, California. Done with my family. And done with the bitches from school. I went home, packed my bags and tried not to cry as I left a note for José, my 10-year-old brother:
Dear José, This note is to let you know I’m going away. I promise to visit soon. I love you, little man. Natalia
I grabbed my stuff and headed for my car. There was only one place for me to go: Hollywood. Because of a boy, but that wasn’t the entire story. A year earlier, a model scout had approached my Dad at a local mall. She thought I had “potential” and handed him her business card. He never followed up, because he wanted me at home. Ever since Mom died, I had been left with all of her tasks: laundry, shopping, cooking and cleaning. One night when I was looking for a pen in his roll-top desk, I found the scout’s business card with a Los Angeles number. I knew it would be my golden ticket, if I ever needed one. My face would be the parachute out of the hellscape of my life, when it was also the reason for so many of my problems.
They never dated or acted together. What if these two icons were alive and living together? 929 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
“I don’t know – check the machine…”
“He said he was going to get me in to read.”
“You pick up my prescription at Rite Aid?”
“It’s two days’ work. I could play that role – a guy from Montana runs a gas station. I told them to send over Giant so they can see me do the western thing.”
“Jimmy, I told you — you need to take everything off your résumé with a ‘5’ in front of it. They don’t want anybody who worked before 1960. I took Some Like It Hot off mine last year.”
“You ever go in on NCIS: Temecula?”
“I go in on them all. Strasberg always said that you should use an audition as the first rehearsal for the part.”
“The thing about those NCIS series is you get residuals forever.”
“Your pension check come?”
She has barely worked in years, and a self-respecting actress needs to pay her bar tab. 2,383 words. Part One. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
A few hours later, I stood inside the door of a dark bar and grill and waited for my eyes to adjust to the light. I assessed the impact the Xanax was having. I was disappointed to note that I didn’t feel any different but also relieved that I didn’t have the sudden urge to turn five-dollar tricks in alleyways or rob a pharmacy. Then I realized that the weight on my chest had lifted and I could actually get a deep breath of air into my lungs. Hmmm, maybe my fear of immediate drug dependency and subsequent prison time for forging benzodiazepine prescriptions was premature — melodramatic, even.
“Ruby!” my agent Kim called, but the room was still too dark for me to make out anything clearly. “Over here at the bar,” I heard her say, so I headed toward the backlit wall of alcohol. By the time I got there, I could clearly see Kim at the other end and an oversized martini glass in front of her. I walked over and sat next to her.
“So? How was the audition? Did you nail it?”
“Did you read the material, Kim?”
“No. But this series is very hot and getting a lot of buzz. They are going for an edgy no-boundaries True Blood meets an updated Police Woman but with a Sixth Sense vibe set in a post-apocalyptic Jersey Shore. They are shooting it in L.A. but it takes place in Detroit. Don’t tell anyone I told you, but they’re in negotiations to get Sean Young and Gary Busey to do a three webisode arc,” Kim said and sipped her drink as though she hadn’t said a single unbelievably insane thing. “So,” she repeated, setting her drink down, “how’d it go?”
“Pushing boundaries just means more nudity. And, again, you didn’t actually read the material, did you?”
TV FICTION PACKAGE: A veteran producer learns from one of his teen contestants. 2,442 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
People have a lot of questions for me lately. How did I come to fire the most powerful law firm in Hollywood? Tear up the contract that governs how most reality competition shows do business? Lose the potential breakout star of my TV singer-songwriter contest Troubador?
The last one is the easiest to explain: Why didn’t I sue Brady James when he gave me and my series the finger and walked away?
He didn’t have a contract.
It started with me watching Crystal Bowersox on season nine of American Idol and thinking — that girl writes her own songs so let’s hear some of them. The idea took shape with Phil Phillips and this latest kid Mackenzie Bourg. I quickly realized a new show could put everything I loved together in one package. I love music. I love songwriters. And as I’ve proved during a thirty-year career working with all four networks and a couple of cable newbies, I love TV. So why not air a performance contest for singer-songwriters? Forget LaPortia Renae standing up there in the laser show belting out some old Mary J. Blige number. My vision was 1974’s Joni Mitchell standing up with a guitar, no light show or pyrotechnics, and simply singing Big Yellow Taxi. Or Bob Marley performing No Woman No Cry for the first time on my stage. Or – why not, shoot for the stars, Danny! – Bob Dylan, scruffy and unknown, knocking the world on its ass with Mr. Tambourine Man. You’re telling me the world ran out of Joni Mitchells and Bob Marleys and Bob Dylans? Seriously?
Then check out Brady James. I knew he was the genuine article at the first Troubadour audition. And it was a big relief, let me tell you.