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.”
He paused and stared at me. I wasn’t sure if being this upfront was the right move, but he stood up and shook my hand again.
“You’ve got yourself an agent.”
“Thanks. I’ll work my butt off.”
“Liz said you two were going to lunch. Do you mind if I join?”
We walked to a nearby sandwich shop and sat at a circular table with me between the two of them. I learned more about Eli. He’d been born and raised in Los Angeles. His Dad was a doctor, his Mom a nurse and his younger brother was in medical school. Eli’s parents were really disappointed when he didn’t choose a medical career.
“I can’t stand the sight of blood, and hospitals creep me out,” he explained.
“Why did you decide to become an agent?” I asked him.
“I always wanted to be in show business. When I was home from college one summer, I was an intern at the agency. I guess they thought I did a good job, because they promised me a position in the mailroom after I graduated.”
“They thought you were really hot,” Liz joked.
“That’s a given,” he joked back.
“Eli just got promoted to agent. That’s the track I’m on,” Liz explained.
“Have your parents changed their minds about the whole doctor thing since you got the promotion?” I asked.
“No. They realized medical school wasn’t going to happen for me, in this lifetime anyway. And they were sad. But they’ve made peace with it now. How about you?” Eli said, turning to me.
I was dreading this question. What could I tell him? That I was basically an orphan with a dead Mom and a father who’d washed his hands of me?
“Aren’t actresses supposed to be mysterious?” I answered back.
“Most actresses love to talk about themselves.” he said.
“I’m not one of them.”
We wrapped up lunch and he thanked Liz for the introduction. He told me his assistant would contact me about upcoming auditions. I explained to him I didn’t have any pictures yet. He suggested a photographer friend who would do them inexpensively.
Later that night, back in the apartment, Liz told me she thought Eli liked me. “Because when I asked him to go out to lunch with us earlier in the day, he said he was too busy. But after meeting you, he changed his mind.”
“That doesn’t mean anything. He was probably just being polite.”
“I also saw the way he was looking at you,” Liz noted.
The truth was I kind of liked him, too. He seemed honest and decent. But he also didn’t seem like a pushover. The problem was I was scared that if he knew me, the real high school dropout me, he wouldn’t like me at all. This was a good guy. I was the broken toy.
He was also my agent.
It turned out that Eli was wrong. It didn’t take a hundred more auditions before I landed another TV commercial. I booked a few in a row and one was a national. The agency took notice and set up a meeting for me with their theatrical department for movie and television roles. They told me to go to on-camera acting classes and gave me a few referrals. I ended up at Luna’s Lab.
Luna, the teacher, asked us to walk around the room and act like the animal she called out. The students began crawling on the ground, hopping on one foot, howling and purring. After what felt like forever, she finally asked us to stop and “shake it all out.”
“Vibrant actors are connected to their inner wound. I want you all to think about what yours might be,” she instructed us. Everyone nodded like they were in some kind of cult. I hadn’t drunk the Kool-Aid and didn’t need any help connecting to my pain. I was a gaping wound.
Good things were happening in my career, but I was still a seventeen-year-old navigating adulthood who was alone in the world and wished she had a family. As the jobs rolled in, I joined SAG-AFTRA. To get my guild card, I dug out my birth certificate. Sometimes I even slept with it and thought about Mom. She had told both José and me that, after we were born, she didn’t let either of us go until the nurses forced her to rest. I missed them both so much.
I had been counting the days until I could visit my brother. As soon as I saved several paychecks, I packed my bags to travel back to Selma.
But then the police stopped me right as I was out the door.
“You need to come with us,” they told me. “You ran away.”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Then why are your parents looking for you?”
“They know where I am. They’re happy I’m gone. Just ask them.”
And that was the truth. Dad had dropped me from his cell phone plan as soon as I booked my first commercial. Now the only time we spoke was when I called to talk to José. But the cops didn’t believe me. They took me in their patrol car back to Selma.
After they dropped me off at the family house, Dad and his second wife Dee sat me down. “You’re only seventeen. We don’t think you’re fit to manage your own finances,” Dad began explaining.
Now I understood what was going on. This was about money. My money. They wanted control over it, so they could keep it for themselves. I grew ten layers of skin in that moment.
“You’re a minor. We have legal authority to oversee you,” Dee jumped in. “And if we have to keep calling the cops, we will.”
I stood up and, without saying a word, grabbed my bags, walked outside and slammed the door and went back to L.A. I never got to see José that day, but he called me later in the middle of the night. He didn’t want Dad or Dee to hear him. He whispered into the phone that Dad had been laid off and was behind on the mortgage payments and facing eviction.
“Why didn’t they just ask me for money?” I asked.
He explained that it was Dee’s idea to call the police and Dad just went along. I made a decision that night. I didn’t want them on the streets, especially José, so I’d give them money. But there was no way I was going to let them control my earnings. I went online and researched emancipation. That night, I told Liz what I planned to do and for the first time she learned I was only seventeen years old. Everyone assumed I was at least eighteen. She told me I needed to speak to Eli.
“I don’t understand how this fell through the cracks,” Eli told me. “Child actors have different SAG-AFTRA regulations which must be followed. Less hours on set, earlier release times, school accommodations. The agency could get in big trouble and I’d be blamed.”.
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you before. It’s just that this was my only way out,” my voice cracked.
“What do you mean?”
I told him about dropping out of high school, my family situation and my emancipation plans. He took it all in. “I’m really sorry to hear what you’ve been through, Natalia. I’ll do what I can. But you need to be honest with me if we’re going to work together.”
“I promise I will.”
In order to get emancipated, I needed to pass my GED. The next couple of months, I juggled auditions during the day with studying at night. I barely slept so I wasn’t exactly killing it at the auditions.
Even though I had an agent and was a working actress, it was hard not to feel demoralized at times. L.A. was bursting at the seams with other girls like me who were trying to make it. Just to get an audition meant I was way ahead of most. But the odds that I’d actually book anything beyond a commercial were slim at best. I did get put on hold for a guest star role on CSI: Las Vegas. Turns out every actor at some point gets put on hold for one of the CSIs. I didn’t end up booking it, but I did pass my GED.
The day of my emancipation hearing, I was nervous. I made my way alone through the labyrinth of one-way streets that is Downtown Los Angeles to a grey dreary courthouse that had seen better days. I spotted Dad and Dee who were there to contest my emancipation plea. Suddenly, Eli appeared. He never told me he was coming.
“What are you doing here?” I asked him as he gave me a hug.
“I thought I might be able to help,” he smiled.
When the judge called for me, I explained that I had passed my GED, had been self-supporting for several months and was even sending money home to my family. Eli vouched as my agent that I had enough money to support myself until my eighteenth birthday, which was only six months away. Then Dee and Dad made their case that I was too young to manage my own money. They claimed to just have my “best interests” in mind. I told the judge that, when I’d left Selma, they didn’t stop me and hadn’t paid attention to my career until I started earning. I also explained that they were facing eviction, which they couldn’t deny because it was public record, and I had been sending them money to make sure that didn’t happen.
“Maybe you need to take some acting lessons from your daughter,” the judge addressed Dad and Dee, “because I’m not buying that you have her best interests in mind. It looks like you’re after her money now that you’re not financially solvent. My judgment is that she’d be better off managing her own assets.”
And, with that, he declared me emancipated.
I left the courtroom without saying a word to Dad or Dee.
Eli and I went out for an early dinner to celebrate. After he drove me home, we sat parked outside my apartment building.
“Thank you for today,” I said.
“I’m sorry for everything you’ve been through with your family. I know you’ll make it, Natalia.”
It had been so long since anyone had expressed belief in me. The only thing that had kept me going all the months before was my Mom’s voice which seemed to grow harder to hear with each day since her death. When Eli smiled at me, butterflies swirled in my stomach. I couldn’t deny it. I liked him.
I leaned in for a kiss. Eli pulled back.
“I’m sorry, I can’t.”
“I don’t know why I did that,” I said and quickly got out of the car, embarrassed.