The Stereotype of Cool My friend Jen moved to LA recently and she emailed me this story to let me know what's going on with her. It's a bit long but funny.
In February, I had gotten a few nights work as a site rep/elevator operator on a film shoot in a building in downtown LA. For all the weirdness of LA, downtown LA is weirder. You don't hang out in downtown LA after dark because it becomes The Twilight Zone. Sanity clears out at 6pm, and what you're left with is everything your momma warned ya about and a film crew (which momma shoulda warned ya about).
As site rep/elevator operator, I worked for the owner of the building and had to make sure the film crew didn't destroy property. Also, because of liability, someone working for the building and not the film had to operate the elevator. It was one of those old elevators with a lever---pull it one way for up and the other way for down. It got tricky when you'd have to stop at a floor and sometimes you would have to adjust to hit the floor just right. Sometimes, riders would make a vomit joke (I guess that's wit out here in LA), but for the most part, people went up and people went down.
Then one night, the director decided that the main character had to come up and off the elevator in the beginning of the scene. Well, that's nice, but someone working for the building and not the film had to operate the elevator. Liability. And that someone turned out to be Jen. Mind you, I was not the first choice to play the Elevator Operator. My co-worker was asked, and she turned them down---something about not wanting extra stress. I could have turned them down as well. ARE YOU KIDDING? At the very least, I'd get a story out of the experience. But it also could mark the beginning of my very distinguished career as a face in cinema. Five years from now, I could be sitting beside my pool in a turban and sunglasses as Annie Liebowitz photographs me for Vanity Fair and I would tell the interviewer (in my husky voice) ‘Ohhh yes, it alllll began with an elevator'. But for now, these guys didn't pay me (I was paid to be an elevator operator, not an elevator operator in front of the camera), so I'm just gonna tell the story.
And I am whisked back to basecamp (aka where the trucks are) in a big white van with tinted windows.
‘Wardrobe! This is Jen! She will be our elevator operator.'
I stumble up the steps of the wardrobe trailer and almost smash into the back of the lead actor whose head comes up to my neck. Damn, he's short. Kind of reminds of a hobbit even though he never played one on film.
The inside of the wardrobe trailer looks like a dry cleaners with clothes everywhere all wrapped in plastic. I am introduced to the costume designer (really smartly dressed) and the Wardrobe staff whose names I immediately blank out.
‘We'll be with you in a second' they all say.
‘No rush' I say. I don't mind being next in line behind the lead actor. After all, he was in THAT movie.
The lead actor stands in front of the mirror and adjusts his posture in a brown suit jacket. The costume designer plays with the jacket shoulders. In the mirror, I can see the lead actor, the costume designer, and me with a blank look on my face. We don't look real in the mirror. We all look flat, like a photograph. There's a definite composition to how the three of us fall on the mirror. The lead actor takes up most of the mirror, the costume designer has her back to the mirror, I only have my head and half my body.
On the only wall without clothes are black and white photographs of classic film actors---Bogart, Bergman, Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart, Vivian Leigh, Clark Gable, etc. Later, I would point them out to one of the Wardrobe staff and she was shocked that I knew all their names. Not many people know who they are. So much for cinematic immortality.
Then it's Jen's turn to try on clothes. Maybe something funky or at the very least, just a dark top and dark pants? First the pants—--black stretch pants with some weird black piping down the side. Thank god they stretch. I haven't been to the gym in awhile. Next, yellow shirt with some really cool embroidery on the sleeves. Nice, but I have to tuck it in---damn. Then a suit jacket. I try on five jackets---the men's jackets are too big, the women's jackets are too small. Finally I'm given a maroon blazer that makes me feel like a member of the rat pack. Vegas Baby! And a tie. Choke!
Make Up! I didn't wash my hair today, sorry. The hair/makeup lady holds up my single braid like it's a snake. Okay, but I'm not Medusa either, lady. Without unbraiding it, she pins my hair back with bobby pins. Scored some bobby pins. She then powder puffs my sunburn face.
‘That's it?' I ask.
‘That's it.' She says.
Next stop! Associate producer to get signature. I, Jen, promise not to sue you or your children or your children's children.
Seeing my last name, the Associate Producer asks what nationality it is. Polish, I tell him.
‘Oh like Polanski. Have you seen The Pianist?'
‘No.' I answer.
‘Yeah, he's Polish.'
Yeah. . .and what? Does he think that everyone with a Polish last name knows each other? Oh yeah, Polanski. I had lunch with him the other day. Czeslaw Milosz and the Pope joined us. It's like a regular thing, you know.
I'm done with the Associate Producer. He takes my Polish signature off into the trailer. He seems like a nice enough guy, but I'm starting to feel self-conscious. I blame the pants.
‘So now what do I do?' I ask the air.
‘Anything you want' replies the lead actress sitting on the steps to the hair and makeup trailer and smoking a cigarette. Damn, she's got cheek bones. I later learn that she was in a really cool movie a few years ago.
‘Good plan' I say and find my own trailer steps. Damn, I wish I still smoked. I could sit there in my rat pack jacket, smoking and waiting to be called. That would be the stereotype of cool.
‘Do you have any water?' she asks.
‘No. Sorry.' I say. I start to read my copy of Beowulf (Seamus Heaney translation) while the Associate Producer tries to impress the lead actress. When I reach in my bag again, I find that I have a tiny bottle of water. Hah! It's all mine. Hahahahahahahah! I will survive this downtown desert.
Back in the van. Back to the loft. Go! Go! Go! Go! In the van, the lead actor notices my book, and I let him look at a few pages. Wow, an actor who reads. Wowwwww. I say nothing. Why does this little squirt make me speechless? He's just a god damn actor.
We walk though the lobby---me in my rat pack blazer, the lead actor, the lead actress, the wardrobe people. Cue the swinging soundtrack. Step back all you cats and hipsters. I am no longer just the elevator operator girl. I am now the elevator operator girl in front of the camera.
Ladies and Gentlemen, tonight, in the part of the elevator operator, Miss Jen will make her LA Indie film debut.
‘Do I sound Irish?' the lead actor asks.
‘Aye sir. You sound like my grandmother' I say. I don't mention that I'm thinking of my German grandmother, God bless her flying with the angels. I also have an Irish grandmother (whose smiling up there too), but the lead actor doesn't sound like her.
The Lead actor, the production assistant, and myself are in the elevator, one floor below the set. We're rehearsing, and the Lead Actor seems pretty calm except for the high pitch squeal he calls an Irish accent. I don't even understand why he needs an Irish accent because his character is not Irish. I know he's suppose to be drunk in the scene, but oh whatever. But please, actors, an Irish accent does not sound like the Lucky Charms leprechaun. Pink hearts, yellow moons, orange stars, green clovers, blue diamonds, and purple horseshoes.
We rehearse. We shoot. I find myself feeling calm, like I'm in the eye of a tornado. When I have a few minutes, I read Beowulf or joke a bit. Then I focus and do what I have to do. I understand how baseball pitchers can pitch with thousands of people screaming. They probably don't hear them.
I stand with my heals together facing the front of the elevator. I have never stood like this before. This is not how I stand, but this is how the elevator operator stands. It's a really dorkey way to stand, but it's not about meeeeee. What do I think of this guy? Or what does my character think of the lead actor's character? What do I know about the lead actor's character? He's a famous movie star, and in this scene he's coming home late drunk. I've probably seen him drunk before. I should be grateful he's not ready to vomit. Sure he's a famous movie star, but my tastes run to the older guys. Clint Eastwood. Clint could take this kid under his wing---teach him how to shoot straight. Clint's the best. Just watch the end of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. That's all you need in a movie---something good, something bad, something ugly. I've never seen any of this guy's movies though.
So I'm in New York. It's midnight. Probably get off at 2am, go up to Third Avenue, go to my favorite bar where an Amstel Light and a shot of Maker's Mark will be waiting on the bar. Then home to the wife. Wait! I'm a man! How did that happen? Duh Jen. How many women elevator operators would there be in Manhattan at midnight?
So this movie star in the elevator with me. He's a nice enough guy---gave me a nice check at Christmas, asks about my wife (when he's sober). Would I trade places with him? Not a chance. But I like the guy well enough. People ask me about him, but I don't ever talk about him. What he does is his business. He's a good enough fella---sometimes just a bit out of sorts.
WAIT! STOP JEN STOP! OHHHHH NOOOOOOO! NO! NO! NO! NO!
I'm thinking like an actor. I'm exploring my character's history. I'm the freakin' elevator operator. I make it go up. I make it go down. Open door. Close door. That's all. Take a drink of water. These people ain't paying me to be an actor. I'm not an actor. I'm a god damn writer. I write stuff and I read. That's what I should do. Read Beowulf. Focus my brain away from this nonsense. Battle the dragon. Calm. Focus on words on the page. Stay yourself within yourself.
This is not my movie. THIS is my movie. Focus on my movie. Let it unfold slowly. Patience. Drink water. Do only what is asked. Volunteer nothing, and for christsake, don't break the elevator.
I accidentally spill some water and look around for a napkin.
‘What do you need, Jen?' A production assistant asks.
‘A napkin or paper towel' I respond.
‘Could someone get Jen a napkin?' the PA says into his walkie talkie.
Thirty seconds later, another PA is giving me a stack of napkins. I should have asked for a cocktail. Now I see why child stars get messed up. They live in this wacky environment where everything is given to them.
I run the elevator a dozen times. I always hit the floor. Oh yeah, I rock. I nod and smile to the lead actor as he steps out of the elevator and into his scene. And then I am done. And I am whisked away in the big white van with tinted windows. And I can finally put my jeans back on. And they feel really nice.