An ingénue learns a lot more than she expects from her Hollywood agent. 2,890 words. Story and illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Four weeks after I stepped off the bus from Atlanta and saw the street signs for Hollywood and Vine for the first time, I was standing on a small stage giving a monologue before several bored agents and managers.
My roommate had persuaded me to take part with her in a showcase that bit into my meager savings for $300. I couldn’t even afford ramen noodles with what remained, but I did what she wanted because I was that kind of go-along, get-along girl. Plus, I figured I was moving closer to my dream. Baby steps are still steps forward.
The smell of mold, pee, and something not dissimilar to despair permeated the lobby where I waited to pay my ‘appearance’ fee. Sharon had bailed at the last minute because she wasn’t feeling well, or so she said. That girl didn’t have what it took to make it here, and I expected to be searching for a new roommate once she ran home to mama. I looked over the list of agents and managers attending the event but the other actors said there was no one they recognized. I guess it was ridiculous to expect CAA to be at a cattle call like this.
I chose Jessica Lange’s monologue as Constance Langdon in American Horror Story. Season One. Episode Four. It was a minute long and I hoped to make a better impression hitting the crowd hard and fast. The room felt claustrophobic in its smallness as I walked out on the creaky stage. The lights were in my eyes. The assembly seemed short on audience.
Regardless, I carried on. I thought my performance had been fierce, but the claps were faint when I finished with, “As though I’ve had some choice!” I was quickly hustled off by the stage manager and felt empty and self-conscious and let down. I hadn’t expected thunderous applause. But I started feeling like I missed my mama, too.
Afterwards, there was a meet-and-greet in the dingy lobby. A pathetic spread of hors d’oeuvres and sour box wine was devoured within minutes. Stupid to hope I would get more for my $300 this night.
Many of the so-called representatives, if that’s what they were, looked sleazy and almost as desperate as the actors. Yet there was one man who stood apart from the rest. He leaned confidently against a back corner and everyone respectfully gave him his space in the cramped quarters. A streak of his long black hair hung lazily over one eye as he scanned everyone in the room. He wore a charcoal pin-striped suit that looked custom made with a brilliant white shirt. His pale skin seemed to glow as his brilliant green eyes flashed intently from face to face.
Green eyes? Contacts, of course. Everyone in Hollywood wore different colored contacts. Maybe I should get tinted contacts? I was thinking about that when a deep voice began addressing me.
“Miss,” he said, and I nearly wet myself. “I apologize for startling you” – he added with a smile that showed he meant no apology. “I just wished to tell you I enjoyed your performance.”
“Thank you!” I blushed very hard as I always do. My pale skin betrays everything I’m feeling. My mama says rosacea on a redhead is like God’s own practical joke.
“My name is Stephen Tiller and I am the sole member of the Tiller Agency. I would like to represent you, if you’re interested.”
Twenty-three-years old, and in Hollywood for only a month, and I already had an agent. I was going to blow up this town.
Okay, maybe blowing up this town was a little over-ambitious. The first audition Stephen sent me on was a bust. It didn’t help that I was a virgin and had never done a casting call. Stephen coached me on how to handle myself and told me to be aggressive.
I knew there was a problem when I entered the production office and found myself surrounded by brunette actresses. Nothing Stephen had described about the young mother role concerned a brunette.
“Wrong audition, Red. I suggest you leave,” the assistant said as I signed the log.
“I understand but my agent sent me and he might be unhappy if I don’t at least try to audition.”
“If Bernice, the casting agent, finds you here, she’ll pop a blood vessel.”
Too late. “Who’s your agent?” asked a five foot tall woman scowling up at me.
“The Tiller Agency,” I said with every ounce of confidence I could muster, but that wasn’t much. This woman reeked of intimidation and it was all aimed at me.
"Stephen isn’t usually sloppy like this," the diminutive woman said as her scowl eased, but not by much. I could hear the amused whispering behind me.
"Can I still audition?” I thought, Stephen would be so proud of my aggressiveness. But then I noticed how quiet the room had become.
"I like Stephen, so here’s the deal,” the casting agent schooled me. “Walk out and learn to read. You won’t get far if you don’t follow instructions. Also, don’t be pushy; it isn’t cute. Do this and I won’t send your name out to my mailing list as past-her-sell-date."
I was mortified but Bernice had dismissed me and asked for the next girl to come in. I briefly considered standing my ground, but I slunk out of the office with my face nearly as red as my hair.
"Stephen, why did you do that to me?" I asked as I sobbed between each word. I rarely play the crying card, but my deck was empty. I was humiliated on a level I had never thought possible and I couldn’t have stopped the tears if I tried… And I wasn’t trying.
"Sorry, sweetie, these things happen," Stephen said as he stepped from behind his desk. He had a huge smile on his face and a twinkle in those gorgeous green eyes. He pulled a handkerchief from his coat pocket and dabbed at my tears. "Bernice’s bark is much worse than her bite. You always have my shoulder to cry on, dear.” "
How could I stay mad at him? So I didn’t.
Things went smoother after that. It felt like Stephen and I formed a bond after my emotional breakdown in his office. He had no secretary or support staff in his agency, and I thought that odd after talking to friends about their agents. But no one had anything bad to say about Stephen and that was more than enough. It seemed he possessed a great deal of money. His well-appointed office was nothing like the seedier places I’d seen. His was a one-person agency, but I did wonder why I never saw other actors when I visited for our weekly strategy meetings.
I won parts in different projects, though none that gave me more than a line or two. We were six months into our professional relationship, but I was eager for more.
"Sweetie, you have to be patient."
"Stephen, I feel I have more to offer than ‘Would you like lemon in your tea?’ lines."
"Everyone pays their dues and you’re just starting. Believe me, you’re making tremendous progress."
"Is that what you say to your other clients?" I knew I was being pouty, but I was irritable and I didn’t care who knew it.
"I don’t have any other clients." Stephen said.
"What?" I sputtered.
"I said that I have no other clients. I’m particularly selective whom I represent and I have the means to allow for my pickiness."
"I don’t know what to say, Stephen. You see that much potential in me?"
"You more than meet my requirements."
"Thank you," I gushed as the waterworks started up again. Thank God Stephen was there with that handkerchief again.
Mama always called me high-strung, but I dismissed it every time. I was emotional, but it was because I felt things so deeply. I considered that to be the driving force behind my acting. I could channel that into the characters, I could breathe life into the words, when the world felt like a razor slicing my soul.
Sure, I couldn’t escape my thoughts and especially not my fears on the darkest of nights where crying was the only respite from the pain. There were only two other places where I felt relief. One was standing before a camera and becoming someone else for a time. The other was in Stephen’s office.
Yet something felt wrong.
How could I be Stephen’s only client? How could any agency, no matter how wealthy the owner, afford to run one client? I expect, pray for, great things for myself, but Stephen couldn’t be banking on me to bring in the money we both need.
I knew I was running a huge risk, but I had to know. I had to chance I wouldn’t piss Stephen off if I did some snooping.
Curiosity killed the cat, but I had to hope I could expect better results.
Hollywood runs on two things, money and secrets. Either one can lead to the other, but I was short on both.
Google was my private detective, but it was not helping much. Stephen’s digital footprint was pretty small and the few names I could dig up as past clients were small time. None had hit it big with much measurable success. Sure, there was the occasional national commercial or the short series, but no one really caught fire.
Well, not true. There was Megan Flores. She had nailed a national series of commercials for a bookstore chain. She was funny and sexy, traits which really sold her character as the hot saleswoman with the sarcastic sense of humor that the chain was using as a spokesperson. The few other names I found had disappeared completely from Los Angeles. It wasn’t unusual for people to flee LA and wind up back into their plain old lives – my roommate was a good example. Megan Flores had dropped out of the industry, however, she still lived in Los Angeles. A quick call to the SAG offices, a few misrepresentations and outright lies, and I had the address where her residual checks were sent.
I hoped she might be able to provide a few answers for me.
Standing in front of a seedy nursing home was not where I expected to find myself. I triple-checked the address with my mapping app and I was in the right location. Was it possible that the SAG rep I spoke to had confused two actresses named Megan Flores? I’d been pretty clear in what I was asking and the address was correct. Knowing I wouldn’t find any answers on the sidewalk, I walked into the home and looked for the receptionist. I arrived around lunchtime and the dining area near the empty reception desk was filled with the residents. I’ve never liked nursing homes or hospitals; it was the smell that got to me. All of the residents sat in chairs or wheelchairs around bleak tables with bibs hanging around their necks. The majority were elderly, but some were just severely disabled. They smelled like old food, cheap laundry detergent, and dollar-store soaps and shampoos.
I watched as the nurses began serving the muddy colored foods and purees to the residents when a drab brunette woman caught my eye. Something was familiar about her. She appeared to be in her forties and not aging well. Her head lolled back against her chair’s headrest and she seemed detached from everything happening around her.
“Oh my God,” I blurted out. One of the nurses noticed me after my stupid outburst and walked over.
“Miss, you can’t be here.” he said.
“Is that Megan Flores?” I asked as I pointed at her.
“Yes, that’s Megan. Are you a relative?”
“We have a mutual friend and I needed to speak with her,” I said. “How can that be Megan?”
“What do you mean?”
“She looks to be pushing fifty, but she is only in her early thirties.”
“I can’t speak to that. You would need to speak to her doctor.” he said as he started directing me toward the door. “It’s time for you to go.”
“No, I need to ask her about Stephen!” I shouted as I saw my chance for more information slip away.
“Stephen?” Megan said as some alertness returned to her eyes. I pushed past the nurse and rushed over. Kneeling to meet Megan’s glaze, I smiled to reassure the frazzled woman. “Stephen,” she said again to no one in particular. Seeing her close-up, Megan did look older, but something else. She looked drained. She looked as if life and vitality had left her and this husk was what remained.
“Ms. Flores, I need to ask you about Stephen’s clients.”
“Clients?” she whispered.
“He represented you when you were still acting,” I asked. She moved so quick that I had no chance to react in time. The crazed woman grabbed my face in both hands and pulled me in close. Two nurses rushed over to restrain her, but she was full of adrenaline and fear.
“His teeth, watch out for his teeth!” she screeched as the nurses broke her grip on me. I fell to the floor amidst the yelling of the other residents.
“Get out!” the nurses ordered me in turn as they managed to wrestle Megan back into her seat and restrain her.
I could still hear her screaming about Stephen’s teeth when I rushed out to the parking lot.
I sat in my car outside Ralph’s for almost an hour as I tried to calm myself down. My hands shook as I gripped the steering wheel and my eyes were puffy from crying. Perfect, the audition I was attending in thirty minutes would go well with my face all blown out.
What the hell was Meagan going on about Stephen’s teeth anyway? The man had the whitest and straightest teeth I’d ever seen. His smile put Anne Hathaway to shame. What was I thinking? I’m no private eye and I really didn’t know what I expected to find. I needed to get my head in the game for this audition.
I was sent home by the SyFy channel casting a B-movie bikini girl because I looked too old for the part. The casting agent laughed and told me that I needed to update my headshots. Glancing in my rear-view mirror, I imagined everyone could see the crow’s feet at the corners of my eyes. Deep, like cracks in my face. I cried the entire drive to Stephen’s office.
"Maybe you shouldn’t party so much, sweetie." Stephen said behind steepled fingers. He leaned forward on his desk with an almost leering look on his face. His green eyes sparkled with a light that appeared to be self-illuminating. Then again, I was looking through tear-colored lenses so everything appeared out of focus.
"Don’t be cruel, Stephen." My voice broke as I spoke. I tried to rein in my emotions, but my control was deteriorating. I felt like I was sliding downhill toward the cliff’s edge without a handhold in sight. Maybe mama was right about me after all.
"Just joking, my dear. You are wearing out much faster than my last client," Stephen said as he circled the desk with his ever-present handkerchief in hand. He leaned in and tenderly wiped my pain away again. His skin was alabaster in the office light and the emerald fire in his eyes pulled out even more of my delicate emotions.
I leaned in to kiss him, but Stephen pushed me back. Laughing.
"Oh no, my dear, you have misunderstood our relationship." I dropped my chin to my chest and cried even harder. There had to be a way for the earth to open and swallow me up before I died of embarrassment.
"I’m so sorry," I sobbed.
“You are my type, but not the way you think," Stephen said as he smiled again. I lifted my eyes to his, and I felt the scream tearing itself from my chest before the first sound escaped my lips. His teeth were no longer the dazzling shade of white. They were solid black and covered in a wetness that appeared slimy.
"You’re wasting such good pain when you hide your face like this," he said. “You are such a fragile soul, my dear. Every time you fail, you bring such succulent suffering back." Stephen lifted the handkerchief to his lips and sucked at the wetness from my tears. "You are a workhorse of pain, just as I knew you would be."
"I’m paying my dues?"‘ I said as I felt something snap inside my head. It wasn’t painful, just numbing. Megan had been right about something, but I couldn’t remember anymore. She screamed a lot. Maybe I should start screaming as well? My smile was almost as big as Stephen’s as more tears flowed down my face and into his handkerchief.
"It’s a shame you burn so bright because you won’t last as long as the others," Stephen said as his green eyes glowed brighter. "Now get out there and earn my percentage. I’m still hungry."