Pssst: this all took place before I became a mother…past and present obviously imperfect.
“Thought transcends matter.”
- George Bernard Shaw
My Tinseltown dreams started young and delusionally.
I grew up in a small town called Hays, Kansas, which is located about smack dab in the middle of the United States, near the “N” in Kansas on a map.
It’s a quiet, blue-skied college town, surrounded by waving wheat fields, flanked by a water tower that used to have the town’s name printed across it in giant, block letters. The population of Hays was 15,400 in 1970, and now is only around 20,000. It seems like not a whole lot of new people move there, and not a lot of people leave.
I was a very self possessed six year old, before my self-esteem was brutally bludgeoned by adolescence. I was one of those kids who kind of came out of the womb with jazz hands, going “TA DA!” -Although, since I was a breach birth, perhaps I was meant to enter into a more seemly area of showbiz.
My dad, Dr. Lloyd Frerer, was a college professor and the head of the Drama Department in our small town for many years, directing plays and infusing students with his genuine passion for theater. He was kind of a big fish in the small pond of our town, and at Fort Hays State University, the local college.
He instilled in me his love of movies and Broadway shows, ours was the kind of small town Midwestern household where the soundtrack to the Broadway version of ‘Sweeney Todd’ might be playing on the living room stereo on any given day (long before Johnny Depp starred in the movie), and my sisters and I sometimes got to be in his local productions in the children’s roles.
We played the children in ‘The Sound of Music’ in one show, and I got to be in an all-female cast of an old fashioned melodrama called “Dirty Work at the Crossroads,” where the mustache-twirling, cross-dressing villain lashed her victims to the train tracks every night.
At five or six, I remember writing autographs for my parent’s friends at family pot lucks in the park, telling them in confidence over the spiked melon boat to hang on to it, wink, wink, because “It was gonna be worth a lot of money someday.” The grownups in their leather vests and bellbottoms would smile patiently at this dimwitted child, taking an extra helping of three bean salad or carrot cake.
After my mom and dad’s divorce and the usual ripping apart of the family in tears, we moved to Louisiana, where eight years later I packed up my rusted baby blue Chevy Blazer less than a month after graduating high school, and drove out to California alone. I stayed in cheap, seedy motels along the way, locking the door and wedging a chair up against the knob so some pack of fiends or lunatics wouldn’t murder me before I could reach my destiny.
Filled with blind hope, I actually half expected that when I first stepped foot in Los Angeles, there would be a parade announcing my arrival. Or at least some brilliant talent agent or Oscar caliber director spotting me and crying out “SHE’S HERE!! AT LAST!!”
I was genuinely perplexed when this did not, in fact, happen. This was not, believe me, because I had in any way led a charmed life. I had just believed so strongly in my dreams for as long as I could remember, and I knew I was going to be in the movie business like I knew I was going to breathe. The rest of the world, those living in reality, did not appear to share my vision.
Instead of a parade, I got more of any eye roll from people. I had a very heavy drawl, a southern accent when I arrived, and when you talk like that and say you moved to L.A. to be an actress, you may as well have a giant bullseye on your chest and an “L” for loser on your forehead. Everyone says the exact same thing to you: (bored expression) “Oh, you must be an actress. That’s a tough business.” Translation: “You don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell and I deeply pity you. Good luck with your career in waitressing and porn.”
What did happen was four years of acting classes, nine years struggling to get by on, yes, waitressing and odd jobs, innumerable rejections and a number of “Forest Gump”-like encounters with celebrities.
Then, long after I realized that writing was much more suited to my hermit-like personality (and was the only place where doors were opening for me), after much blood, sweat and swimming with sharks, my husband, Nick, was set to direct his first film, “Mini’s First Time” (which kinda sounds like a porno, but it isn’t).
Lo and behold, after all these years, I would get to say two (later three) lines in an actual, honest-to-God movie! My long-ago promise to my parent’s hippie friends would sort of, but not really, come true! Sure it’s nepotism, casting your wife, but we would never have gotten to that point without working as a team for all those years of struggle.
Nick and I had been together, in a you-and-me-against-the-world pact for twelve years, since we were twenty-two. I sold a script to one of the studios before he did, supported him as he wrote this one, and edited all his work. So, nepotism schmepotism! If anybody deserved to portray a nearly mute hooker, it was me.
Then the panic began to set in. I had actually been a pretty good actress doing scenes on the stage in my acting classes, when I was barely out of my teens, but the closest I’d come to being in a movie was playing a lesbian in a short film Nick and I shot entirely in our apartment with our friends (again, not a porno- wow, I keep having to qualify that, don’t I?). Now, here you might be thinking that a reasonable person would get an acting coach to brush up on her skills for this big opportunity. I think that by now, we’re all aware we’re not dealing with a person with any sense of reason.
What did happen is that I thought, “Well, my acting may be rusty, but dang it, I can get the look right.” I was gonna be in a bikini on a forty foot screen, and I had chosen this. Well, it was crunch time- I was gonna have to lose about three hundred pounds, for starters. It didn’t occur to me that my lifelong body image issues and deep-seeded fear that I’m not attractive might be fueling my psychosis, but I wondered if I had time for a complete face and body transplant, and if they’d throw in teeth bleaching.
The thing is, if you’ve ever been an unattractive pre-teen, the kind of girl the boys mocked and not because they were flirting, it’s emotionally scarring. It’s a lot like a fat person who gets thin but still feels fat inside. It stays with you. Even if you eventually become halfway okay looking, beneath that frosty Mac lipgloss, you know you’re living a lie.
In elementary school I ran like a spaz, my legs flying wildly outwards like two cheap paper windmills, and I was so embarrassed by this, but I couldn’t run any other way. I had no coordination whatsoever, I was the kid who was picked second-to-last in any sport in P.E. The “team captains” would pick all the other kids first for dodgeball or kickball, one by one, until only me and the fat kid were left standing.
Then one of them would sigh deeply and say “Heidi” with deep resignation, as if my mere presence on their team was their own personal cross to bear. Filled with the relief particular to those who take the crumbs offered them, I would smile and sulk over to join my team, secretly so grateful to the fat kid that I wasn’t last.
When I played T-Ball, a kid’s softball type game where instead of being pitched to, you hit the ball off a standing “T” (meaning any idiot can do it), my hand-eye coordination was so poor that the other kids actually insisted I have a “designated hitter” step in for me. They did let me run after the other kid hit it, which was kind, because I felt like I was participating, and everyone could get a good laugh at my kooky legs.
Because I was always congested as a child, I was a “mouth breather”. I couldn’t breathe through my nose for years, I had no idea what the sensation even felt like. Once I sneezed in class and to my horror, a huge ball of snot shot out like a projectile into my hand, connected by a string from my nose. I froze, stretching the snot string back and forth and trying to break it, as all the kids stared at me. I suddenly bolted from the class and down the hallway, string and snot ball still in hand. I also snored in my sleep, loudly, for a skinny kid, I sounded disturbingly similar to a lumberjack.
This was usually only a problem if I slept in the same room as my sister, but it was deeply humiliating at slumber parties. After we’d while away the evenings playing borderline satanic games like Mary, Bloody Mary, and Light as a Feather and sticking each other’s bras in the freezer, the morning would begin with disgusted girls asking “WHO- SNORES- LIKE- A- DOG?!” I would shrink down into my rainbow sleeping bag, praying to be swallowed by the earth.
I shot up taller then the boys, which at the time was not a good thing. I had a large bump in my nose and my pre-braces and jaw expander teeth were jumbled, with the incisors positioned vampire-like, high up in my gums, and one of the front teeth literally sideways, jutting out from my face.
A jaw expander was a medieval torture device that involved an evil, cranking metal piece across the roof of your mouth. My mom would periodically turn a “key”, cranking it wider, literally expanding my jaw, the bones in my head, one cruel crank at a time. Now, what kind of sicko invented this? What did he think to himself?
I imagine it was something like, “If the deformed child’s skull doesn’t form properly in the womb, I’ll attach something to the roof of their mouth that will cause severe pain, give them a lisp and make them pay for their slack-ass lazy fetal development! BWAA-HA-HA!!”
My hair was frizzy and I was way too skinny, I ate sticks of butter and prayed I would gain a pound. Someone told me that bananas were fattening, and I gorged on them. My nickname was “bones” which is a moniker that gave me a recoiling twitch when yelled at me on the playground. I know most people think they would want this too-thin problem, which as an adult believe me I no longer have, but at that age, you just look ill, sickly, undernourished.
I also had an “inner chest,” as in the old joke “You must be a pirate, because you have a sunken chest” (har). Or another one of the kid’s classics: “You must be a carpenter, because you’re flat as a board.”
I was not only flat chested, the bones of my chest pressed inward, creating a kind of human cave that presented a conundrum as to how I could have a beating heart actually fit in there. This sunken chest situation was difficult to hide, because my shirts would cling to it in the wind, sinking in and revealing my deformity.
I only craved the slightest bump, to look like my breasts were sprouting normally, promising bigger, better things to come. Back in the 70′s there was this popular joke t-shirt that had a picture of two fried eggs where a person’s boobs would be, the idea being that the woman wearing it was poking fun at her small size. I would have gladly taken that size and worn the t-shirt.
A deep well of gratitude still wells up in me when I think of the male pediatrician who my mom took me to for an ear infection. He glanced down my shirt as he was using his stethoscope and I held my breath, but he didn’t “out” me for having three cotton balls strategically placed in either side of my training bra. I also had such thin skin, I had a translucent map of blue veins visible across my chest and shoulders, which the other kids pointed out and declared “gross”.
I once was sitting on the swings on the playground next to one of the special education boys, and he stared at the winding blue veins on my chest, innocently fascinated. He reached out his finger to touch them and for some reason I can’t explain, I let him. I got goose bumps, the good kind, as the breeze blew on us and we swayed in the swings, his finger lightly tracing the strange map between my shoulder blades.
My feet were also the size of boats, flippers which were out of proportion to my frail body, with weirdly long toes, the second toe much longer than the big toe. It sounds ridiculous, but now when I see actresses and models with long toes, I wish I had known back then I wasn’t the only one, that it could be considered normal.
Torturing each other as siblings do, my sister Laura used to say I looked like Rex Smith, who at the time was a minor celebrity who guest starred on awesome shows like “The Love Boat” and starred in a TV movie called “The Pirates of Penzance.” He was a masculine looking man with a large nose, and I, as a ten year old girl, knew she was right. I looked exactly like Rex Smith. I remember daydreaming about the cute boys in class as they gazed right through me to Kiffany, the pretty girl with no deformities at all, real or imagined. I would’ve given my right eye and probably a few toes to be Kiffany.
And now I was to impersonate a Kiffany type on film, opposite Jeff Goldblum and Alec Baldwin. Yikes. With all of this in my cellular memory, and feeling somewhat like an imposter or an alien impersonating a human, I go to visit with the head hair stylist on the movie, a very pretty, tall blonde lady named V. V takes one look at me and says that my hair currently looks “Too Town and Country” for the vital role of Jennifer the prostitute.
I panic. At this moment, my hair is blonde and blunt cut at my shoulders, with bangs. I vaguely remember the magazine Town and Country having something to do with rich people posing in front of their palatial estates with horses. This is a compliment, considering my wildly humble roots (no pun intended), but it simply will not do for hooker hair. I immediately decide that V is the authority on hooker hair, worldwide. My acting may be rusty, but dang it, my follicles will be authentic.
V thinks my hair should be longer and less blunt cut, and suggests that the movie budget may pay for part, if not all, of the cost of hair extensions. Deep down, I know there is no way in hell that a low-budget independent movie is going to pay for (real) fake hair for a bit player actress with two lines, but I irrationally cling to the thought that they might.
I decide I either have to contract gonorrhea for authenticity, or do the hair. It’s one or the other. Hair extensions/gonorrhea, gonorrhea/hair.
Let’s face it, as women, our hair and other female accoutrements give us a kind of faux-armor. How many women do you know who would be willing to shave their heads? There are times in life where you feel that if your toenails are polished, perhaps you’re holding it together on some crucial level, and are not poised to tip over the edge of insanity.
This was my form of reasoning: I was terrified by the prospect of standing in a scene with real actors, I mean, Academy Award nominated actors, almost literally bare naked. I needed some armor. Even if it was faux.
I am dispatched to the house of the Hollywood Hair Lady, where I am offered a selection of magazines, including Playboy, to read while her young stylists “hooker me up.”
I’m curious that other women would want to peruse Playboy layouts while being styled, and I’m told that a lot of the Playmates therein are their clients.
But this is no low-class operation, a lot of those girls, I figure, have generous, Hef-like benefactors, and the Hollywood Hair Lady also does the extensions of Oscar winning actresses and internationally famous singers (Celine, Halle), so I am in extremely classy company.
The extensions are summarily glued to my head for the discounted price of approximately two thousand two hundred dollars, and I am told that the Hollywood studios pay north of five to six thousand for the famous actresses to have it done. Five to six thousand dollars, for a hairstyle that only lasts about three months!
The hair looks beautiful, long and flowing to my waist like a mermaid, and the stylists “razor” the ends of my natural hair unevenly, so it all blends together. It’s fool’s gold, but I’m pretty much willing to sell my firstborn child if there’s a snowball’s chance that I can look remotely believable as someone wealthy men would pay to have sex with. I’m gonna need the hair, extremely fuzzy lighting and a magician in order to convince the audience to suspend their disbelief.
I go with my new hair to the set of the movie, which is in the process of filming, where everyone is having a lunch break. Carrie-Anne Moss, who is starring in the movie, asks if she can feel my extensions, she says she’s never had them herself. They connect to your own hair near your scalp, in very small bundles, sealed on with a kind of glue-gun thingy. She sticks her hand up under my hair, feeling the doll-like plugs.
Cautiously approaching my precious husband, Nick, a first time director who is under an immense amount of stress, I introduce the notion that the movie budget might pay for part of the hair cost. He is patient with my insanity, and asks Dennis, the Line Producer of the movie, who is the guy who oversees the budget of the film (essentially, he’s in charge of where all the money goes).
Dennis is a kind man who gives me a very patient, but perhaps slightly pained look- who am I kidding? I have gone, as they say, “off the reservation.”
The true confession is that I’m a naturally curly haired girl with hair who’s bordered on frizzy my entire life, and my frizz-related phobia has now blossomed into full-blown panic/paranoia. And I know I’m not the only one. Sex and the City had a whole episode that centered on curly haired girls versus straight, smooth haired girls. Carrie was the rejected curly haired girl and Mr. Big was marrying the straight haired girl, the cool, confident type who didn’t always get frazzled or break a heel.
It’s no accident that people spend about a billion dollars a year on products with names like “Frizz-Be-Gone” and on professional blowouts that cost a day’s salary, because God forbid someone find out we have naturally wild hair. There’s a big difference between “pretty” curls, those perfect locks you see on angelic children or runway models, and frizz.
My frizz is so sensitive, that if I pass in front of a steamy sink while someone’s doing dishes, the humidity comes at me like some sort of monster Godzilla would’ve had to beat back in Japan, wiping out any smoothness I might’ve spent hours trying to achieve in an instant.
It’s a little like the Emperor having no clothes, I’m outed as a frizzy haired person, someone who should be cowering under a bridge with a snaggle tooth, overlarge pores and a twitchy eye, who the angry villagers chase out of town with pitchforks and torches.
The day finally arrives that I am to shoot my two line scene, as well as a shorter scene in which I’m what they call a “featured extra.” I have dieted for weeks if not months, been spray-tanned head to toe, been given body make-up, regular make-up and false eyelashes (One that detached and fell on my cheek and Jeff Goldblum handed back to me.) Between all this and the fake hair, there’s basically nothing on me that’s real, except for the light sheen of terror.
For weeks, if not months, I have anticipated impending disaster: The largest zit in the known Universe breaking out on my nose, upper lip or chin, a violent industrial accident, or perhaps something more biblical, like leprosy. None of this has happened, yet, but the fat lady with overlarge pores hasn’t sung.
The first scene I’m in is shot M.O.S. (without sound), where Jennifer the prostitute and Jeff Goldblum’s character, Mike Rudell, walk together up to the pool area at a Mexican resort and wave across the pool to “30 Rock’s” Alec Baldwin’s character, Martin, and Nikki Reed- Rosalie in “Twilight”, who’s playing the title character of Mini. Nikki is an extremely talented young actress who was then all of sixteen years old, and had already co-written and starred in the acclaimed movie Thirteen, with Holly Hunter (“The Piano”)–
–Which shouldn’t make a thirty three year old woman feel badly about her accomplishments, the greatest of which, right now, seems to be having glue plugs in her hair.
I am wearing high heels, my own bikini top and a gold and brown silk sarong, and holding a glass of real champagne, which I’m sure I drank all of. Tequila, anyone? Jeff Goldblum is so talented and the nicest man in the world (and in fantastic shape, his chest was like a rock). Everything in this part goes smoothly, except, yeah, that that he locates one of my false eyelashes stuck to my cheek and hands it to me. Oy.
I mostly hide behind the devout Catholic girl’s hair and wish like that I looked like Nikki or one of the gorgeous extras lounging by the pool, one of whom is named “Freedom” and whose body makes mine look like a man’s.
My big scene comes late in the evening, after the cast and crew has had the dinner break. I have now had the same makeup on for at least six or eight hours, and my over-thirty year old skin is starting to crease around my eyes.
This wouldn’t be a problem if my wrinkles weren’t someday gonna be projected on a forty foot screen, but they might. I ask one of the make-up artists if she could just re-do the concealer under my eyes. She says we don’t have to, she’ll just take a sponge before the scene and “feather it out”, meaning rub over the existing makeup with a damp sponge.
Now, I don’t want to be difficult, but I know it only takes about five minutes to re-do under eye concealer, and film is forever, people. She sighs deeply and agrees to do it, but I know I’ve annoyed her. She has really done a beautiful job with my make-up, and I feel like crying, both because I’ve placed so much importance on this day, and because I’ve got that stupid female curse of wanting people to like me.
All actors with lines (who are not the leads) get a very small segment of a trailer, a little room in a mobile-home type vehicle where you can change clothes and read over your scene. I go into mine and lie down, flat on my back on the floor of it, taking deep breaths and trying to compose myself. I’m as terrified as if I am about to be taken to my execution.
The time comes for me to go to the set and I put on a different hot pink bikini and three inch heels then the ones I wore earlier that day, with a smaller, more revealing rainbow sarong around my hips- one I bought on my honeymoon in Bora Bora with Niclk.
I wear a white terry cloth robe over it as a member of the crew drives me in a small golf cart down a dark gravel hill to the set, which today is a rented house in Malibu that’s doubling for a Mexican resort. We are shooting near the ocean after dark, and it is ice cold, freezing, forty degree weather outside.
Seriously, the entire crew is bundled up in heavy parkas, scarves and mittens, appearing as if we are shooting on a polar ice cap. I consider the fact that actors do this type of thing all the time, and am newly impressed by their ability to handle extreme temperatures while needing to create art under pressure.
The scene we’re shooting takes place with Jeff’s character and my character “happening” upon Alec and Nikki’s characters at this resort, surprising them. Rudell, Jeff’s character, is their neighbor in the movie, and they are none too happy to be seen by him, because their characters are a father and stepdaughter who are having an illicit affair.
(I swear, it’s not a porno.) It was originally written in the script that both “couples” would be beside the pool, but Alec has a very good idea that he and Nikki’s character’s could be in the hot tub together when Jeff and I walk up.
This is a genius idea on many levels; it makes their situation look even more sexually suggestive and incriminating, it’s visually more interesting, and Alec and Nikki will be warm in the hot tub instead of freezing outside of it in bathing suits. Most movie scenes shoot many “takes” from different angles, so they are gonna be warm for a long time.
Both Nick and Dan the gifted cinematographer like the idea, and it’s decided that that’s they way we’ll shoot it. The only flies in the ointment for me are, that both I and the two thousand dollar, devout Catholic girl’s blown straight hair will be hovering over a vat of steam for multiple takes, and that frankly, I have a “prominent” chin.
I learned a long time ago that I look much better in photographs where they shoot me from a “down” instead of an “up” angle, because it helps to minimize the strong, virile effect. With Alec and Nikki in the hot tub, my side of the scene will be shot from their point of view, looking up at my manly-man chin. It’s not too late to re-cast this role, maybe Rex Smith is still available?
In order to create movement, the cinematographer plans to start the shot on Jeff’s and my feet and legs as we walk over a rocky path between two koi ponds with colorful giant fish on our way up to the hot tub. And these fish are giant, we’re talking four pounders, they frighten me. Jeff is wearing not much more than I am, just a white t-shirt and a towel wrapped around his waist (over shorts) in the scene, and he must be freezing, too.
It is decided that they have to put my long hair behind my back, because otherwise, it’ll cover my face in the scene. Now my hair appears shoulder length, despite the extensions, which I’m now realizing may have been a pricey mistake that will come out of my future children’s college funds. “But kids, mommy looked pretty. Standing over a hot fryer all day’s not so bad, is it?”
A crew member takes our robes, I take a deep breath, and we begin to walk over the rocks between the koi ponds. Jeff kindly takes my hand (he is always lovely), but I’m wobbling and I have visions of myself falling off my three-inch stilettos and into the pond, which may be funny in theory, but in reality would be humiliating and cost the production time and money while they dried out my hair and re-did my make-up. I’m guessing at that point they would’ve just had me do it wet, weeping.
We make it to the hot tub, and a curious thing happens with my head and neck: both of them seize, freezing in place, and my mind goes completely blank. Even more blank than usual. I can’t for the life of me remember the two lines that I have said over and over in my head for months, so much so that my cat was just sick of them. Nikki’s character (Mini) recognizes me as a hooker, and toys with me by asking if we’ve met before.
My line is “I don’t think so.” Then when Mini won’t let it go, saying that I look really familiar to her, am I sure we haven’t met before?…I say, “That’s impossible, because I just moved here from Canada…the Yukon territories?” Wink wink.
I somehow manage to say these lines softly, like I’m nervous about being revealed to be pretending to be something I’m not, which is lucky, because of course, that’s exactly what I’m doing. We do several takes, and each time I stand over the hot tub, I see the halo of frizz starting to rise around my face.
The hair stylists valiantly comb it and try to smooth it between takes, but there’s not much they can do. It has a life and a vengeance all its own. IT WILL NOT BE IGNORED, DAN!
After I do several takes where I deliver my lines nearly identically (breathy and nervous), my husband comes up to me and suggests an adjustment to my performance. I can’t remember exactly what he said, but I remember being terrified and eeking out the question, “More bitchy?”, and although I think the direction he gave had a far more subtle touch, it seems to do the trick. I was in fight or flight mode the whole time, sadly.
I deliver the Yukon territories line with a tilt of my head and an annoyed tone, and everybody seems to like it. I hear someone yell “That’s the one!” and maybe it’s my imagination, but I sense that the entire crew seems relieved.
Later, limping painfully alone up the dark gravel hill in my three inch heels, I overhear two crew members in the distance working on some equipment, one of the guys saying “There goes the whore.”
I consider being hurt, but perhaps this is my greatest achievement as an actress: I have, if only for a moment, suspended their disbelief.
(To be continued…)