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.
Cole picked me up in his vintage Jaguar XK-E. We drove to the Hollywood Hills near the Chateau Marmont and arrived at his producer friend’s Spanish Mediterranean McMansion. Outside a valet dressed in a black uniform quickly whisked our car away from the narrow street. Inside a DJ mixed music that thumped loudly. Rumor had it that a famous hip-hop artist was going to arrive later and play. People were huddled in groups, talking and laughing as if they had known each other for years. Two bartenders kept the alcohol flowing while marijuana joints and bongs were in use out in the open everywhere.
Cole ran into some friends and caught up with them while I quietly slipped away to check out the rest of the house. Each room had a large signature painting of a vagina, which made me wonder if the place belonged to a porn producer. I made my way to the back where there were sweeping panoramic views of the glistening city and a large pool. Cole came behind me and slipped his hands around my waist and turned me around. “There you are,” he said and kissed me.
He took my hand and led me back inside the house to a room that I hadn’t seen. The door was closed and he opened it. Inside were a few people seated on a couch and chairs. A syringe was being passed around with an iPod cable to tie off. I suddenly panicked, worried that I’d be pressured to take the needle, too. But then each person nodded off, including Cole, who didn’t notice when I left.
I told Liz when I got back about the party and the drugs.
“You know what they say about heroin? That it’s the ‘Dragon’ which, once it takes hold of you, never lets you out,’“ she warned. Then Liz reminded me that Cole was bad news.
I promised her and myself that I would stay away from him.
But Cole called the next day and claimed heroin was something he did maybe once a year. I went against my gut and gave him a second chance. We started going out regularly — to concerts at the Bowl, movies, dinner at his house. There were no drugs at first. But he was possessive of me. If I was talking to a guy, he’d put his arm around my shoulder and say, “She’s mine.” I took it as a sign of love.
But then it got out of control. He’d accuse me of looking at other guys and dressing provocatively, when I wasn’t. One day he thought I was flirting with a gay barista and accused me very publicly and loudly. I looked around humiliated that I was letting someone treat me like this. But I couldn’t pull myself away.
Then Cole started disappearing for days at a time. It was obvious to me he’d started using regularly. Liz kept telling me to break up with him, but I was completely caught up in the ups and downs.
I stopped paying attention to auditions. I didn’t book anything for several months and was living off residuals. The agency took notice.
That’s when Eli called me in to talk. We hadn’t seen each other since the night he’d dropped me off after my emancipation hearing. When I walked into his office, my heart skipped. I had missed him.
“Liz told me you’re dating Cole Ryan. He’s a drug addict, Natalia.”
“I thought I was coming in to talk about my career,” I said defensively. “I don’t want to be lectured.”
“I’m not lecturing you. But being with him is affecting your career, and not in a good way. I’m saying this because I care about you ”
“That’s why you blew me off?”
“I didn’t blow you off. You’re 17 years old. Statutory rape isn’t a good way to start a relationship between an agent and a client.”
He paused. “Look, if you were older, maybe we could be together. But you’re not and we can’t. And it really pisses me off to think of you with that douchebag.” Eli shook his head, frustrated. “Don’t let him drag you down the gutter. You’ve come too far for that.”
I took it in quietly.
That night Cole texted me to come over. I told him I couldn’t because I had an audition the next day. But when I turned him down the next day, too, he showed up at my apartment. Liz was there to back me up.
“What the fuck is going on?” he demanded.
“Keep it down,” Liz told him.
“I just need to focus on my career right now,” I said.
“You haven’t booked a single job since we met. I’m your only chance to be anyone in this town, you dumb bitch!” he said, yelling now.
Liz told him that she called the police. That spooked him enough to leave. The next couple of weeks, Cole kept texting me. I finally blocked his number on my cell. I was too scared to be alone at night so Liz and Jackie stayed with me until Cole was gone for good. I heard he started seeing someone else. It didn’t take him long.
I went to a local free clinic to get tested for every STD. I had been careful with him but needed to make sure. Thankfully, I was okay. I also got serious about my auditions. I had a few callbacks and was up for a lead role in a Netflix show that had a direct-to-series order. It was about a luxury rehab center in Malibu and I was reading for the role of the ingenue drug addict who keeps relapsing. I made it to the final round of callbacks, but the producers went another way.
One of them called me after. “Sorry it didn’t work out this time, but we really want to work with you again. You’re like a volcano, Natalia. It’s only a matter of time before you explode.”
Hollywood is the one place on earth where you can literally die of encouragement.
Eli asked me to lunch and said a role had just opened up in a new Weinstein film that was set to shoot in a couple of weeks. “I think you’d be perfect for it. This young daughter goes to Barcelona after her father dies in a plane crash. It’s a thriller. There’s a great director attached and everyone thinks it’s going to sweep the festivals next year. The lead actress had to drop out at the last minute.”
Eli lowered his voice, “Lipo gone bad. Her agent told her not to get it three weeks before filming started, but she didn’t listen.”
I went in to read for it the following day and by evening my deal memo had closed. Liz was really excited for me but I told her I was worried because I’d never traveled abroad. She told me to embrace the adventure.
Filming was hard, the days were long and at first I was lonely. I didn’t know any of the crew and most of them were much older. I eventually made friends with one of the wardrobe assistants who was closest to my age. On our few days off, we did a lot of sightseeing and explored different Gaudi landmarks and museums.
My eighteenth birthday was coming up and I was sad I wouldn’t be with José for it. Instead I was filming and the crew surprised me with a cake. I had an early call time the following morning so I had no plans to go out that night. After we wrapped, I headed straight to the hotel and was shocked to see Eli standing in my doorway.
“Someone has a birthday,” he said smiling. "Can I come in? It took a while to get here.”
“Of course… Come in,” I stammered. I was bowled over.
We went inside, sat on the couch and talked for hours. He wanted to know how filming had been going and told me about some upcoming scripts he wanted to show me when I returned.
“Why are you here?” I asked him, finally.
“To check up on you.”
“You could have just picked up the phone.”
“I care about you, Natalia. I always have.”
He took my hand and looked into my eyes.
“Don’t worry. I won’t try kissing you again,” I said.
“You don’t have to,” he said and leaned in for a long kiss, “I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. This isn’t why I came here.”
“That’s too bad,” I said pulling him back in close. I sat in his lap. Shirts went flying. It was on. And there was no going back.
When filming wrapped, I was excited to return to Koreatown. I missed Liz, our tiny apartment and sleeping in my own bed. I also couldn’t wait to see José. But I was nervous about seeing Eli. Ever since his visit, we had been facetiming regularly. I didn’t know how things would play out once we were in the same city again.
I got off the plane, made my way through immigration and customs, walked down a long ramp and spotted Eli holding a bouquet of roses. “Welcome back. I missed you,” he said, giving me a big hug.
We saw each other discreetly at first because we weren’t sure how the agency would react to our relationship. After about a month of hiding it, Eli decided to tell his bosses. They were thrilled because they thought this meant he’d have more power to steer my career.
I was pissed. After fighting for my emancipation and freedom from Cole, I had made a vow to myself to never again be in a position where someone else called the shots in my life.
“I think we should break up,” I said to Eli one night. “Because I don’t want the agency to think you control me.”
“Just because they’re assholes, doesn’t mean I am,” he said. “Move agencies if you want, but don’t break up with me.”
“Do you think they’d fire you if I did?”
“They might. But I’d rather have to deal with finding a new job and being with you than the other way around.” I looked into his eyes and knew he meant it. I also knew he cared for me more than anyone else ever would.
Liz’s lease was almost up and she was moving into her girlfriend’s place. Eli told me I could move in with him, but I knew I needed to stand on my own two feet before taking that leap. Besides, I could afford now to live on my own. I found a one bedroom within walking distance of the Grove that had a small outdoor patio. On moving day, I taped my final box and went downstairs. Eli was there to help me. Liz and Jackie were loading up her car. I walked up to Liz and wrapped my arms around her.
“Thanks. For everything,” I said, choking up.
“I promise you’ll see me again, so you can thank me multiple times,” she joked.
“Lunch. Next week.”
I looked back at the building that had been my home for the last year. I remembered when I first arrived there, alone and desperate. All I had ever wanted was to have people that cared about me. I learned that I didn’t need many friends in this life, but I was lucky enough to have a few to stand by me when the daggers were flying. I was way ahead of most people. Especially in Hollywood.
Liz was my maid of honor when Eli and I eventually married. We’ve gone through all the ups and downs of a long marriage. José lived with us while he was attending USC medical school. He turned into a great doctor and has a family of his own now. They live near us.
I ended up reconciling with Dad before his death. He had moved on from Dee and recognized the colossal mistake he’d made.
The film I shot in Spain launched my career into the big-time. It premiered at the Venice Film Festival and I swear Mom’s silhouette was in the back of the theatre during its screening. It won several nominations and wins during the awards circuit, including a Golden Globe nod in the Lead Actress in a Motion Drama category for me. This led to a long run of A-list ingenue roles before I aged out.
Truth is, I was relieved. I was tired of the acting game and giving voice to other people’s stories. Plus, I like to eat. It’s amazing how much more seriously people take you when you gain twenty pounds.
So I started my own production company. I did something everyone tells you not to do. I used my own money to make the films I wanted to see. They all featured strong female heroines. It turned out the public wanted to see those women, too.
I also gained a reputation. If you’re a woman who doesn’t suffer fools, you’re feared. And sharks are always rewarded in Hollywood. I was eventually rewarded with a President of Production studio job.
Apparently you need to come from shit in order to know how to clean it up. It gave me immeasurable pleasure when the commercial director who’d assaulted me when I was seventeen years old was under consideration to direct our biggest billion dollar franchise.
“Natalia,” he came up to me smiling warmly, forgetting our previous encounter.
“I think you missed something,” I told him. “The door.”