“You look so familiar” : what it’s like to get recognized

I recently got an email asking me about the “recognizing thing.”

I get this question a lot, so I thought I would answer it here. People want to know if it still happens (yes, but not as much as it used to) and if I hate it (hate is a terribly strong word. I hate bigotry and raisins. I don’t hate getting recognized).

But mostly people say something like “I don’t get it – is it invasive if someone just comes up to say hello?”

The answer is no, it doesn’t make me angry or upset or annoyed – it’s nothing that simple or dramatic.

It makes me kind of embarrassed. It makes me shy. It makes me awkward. (Okay, more awkward.) Continue reading

Through the looking glass of fame

Photo courtesy of USC Photo/Gus Ruelas

Photo courtesy of USC Photo/Gus Ruelas

The University of Southern California recently bought a letter at a London auction, penned in 1891 by C.L. Dodgson. The only reason that anyone cares about a really old letter from C.L Dodgson is because he wrote books under a pen name –  Lewis Carroll. It’s a three page letter, on sepia-toned paper with perfectly old-timey slanted script. The letter seems to have the sole purpose of explaining to his friend, Mrs. Symonds, why Carroll hates being famous. He says:

“All of that sort of publicity leads to strangers hearing of my real name in connection with the books, and to my being pointed out to, and stared at by, strangers, and being treated as a ‘lion.’ And I hate all of that so intensely that sometimes I almost wish I had never written any books at all.”

It’s fairly shocking to learn that Lewis Carroll was so appalled by fame that he had some regrets about writing Alice in Wonderland. (It’s also surprising to learn that he was such a fan of underlining.) But clearly, he really didn’t like that whole celebrity thing.

What did it even mean to be famous in 1891? What was it like to be a celebrity in the days before TMZ and paparazzi and Twitter fights? Were people hiding in the bushes at Thomas Edison’s house? Did W.E.B. Du Bois get hounded for autographs while getting his mustache groomed at the barber shop? Could it really have been all that bad?

Yes, clearly for Carroll it could, because some people are just not cut out to be famous.

I am also one of those people. Now, let me state this clearly, before anonymous internet commenters beat me to it: I am not claiming any major type of fame here. I had a taste of that celebrity lifestyle when I acted in movies that did well at the box office. I had that mobbed-in-malls, autograph requesting, red-carpet walking lifestyle for a few years — until I was 22 and realized, like Carroll: I hated it. I found the rejection, the lack of privacy and acting as a puppet for someone else’s writing to be increasingly harsh and unsatisfying. It threatened to completely overwhelm me. Panic attacks struck and I found myself gasping for breath in dark corners, clutching my chest in an attempt to keep my heart from ricocheting off my ribs and busting through the skin.

So, I quit.

But sometimes when people find out that I used to be an actor, they often ask, with this wide-eyed expression, why I would ever leave Hollywood. I try to explain that it’s just a job, with all its pros and cons, and sometimes you get tired of a job and want to try something new. Some people give me this look that apparently people have been giving for 124 years, because Carroll references it in his letter:

“Of course there are plenty of people who like being looked at as a notoriety and there are plenty who can’t understand why I don’t share that feeling. And they probably would not understand how it can be that human beings should have different tastes. But it is true, nevertheless.”

Not everyone is cut out to be a doctor, likewise, not everyone is cut out to be famous. Yet, unlike being a doctor, most people think they would be pretty good at being famous.

But we see people who are bad at being famous all the time. Some celebrities crash their cars, go on bigoted rants and get dragged out of theaters in handcuffs. The problem comes when we fail to remember that these are people simply doing a job. If someone is a bad bartender, they get fired, but unfortunately, it appears to be quite difficult to fire a celebrity. Poor job performance just seems to get them promoted up the celebrity hierarchy.

This disastrous behavior could be blamed on money or power or access to every indulgence imaginable, but I believe it’s the result of being treated – as Carroll said – as a “lion.” It sounds enviable, after all, who wouldn’t want special treatment? But in reality, “special” inherently means “different.” And it’s hard to be different.

I’ve recently realized that in my desperate attempt to not be a lion, I became an ostrich. By pretending that 18 years of my life never happened, I was simply sticking my head in the sand. We all have a past that stomps its feet and demands to be dealt with. My past pops up during 90’s movie marathons, regardless of whether I acknowledge it or not. While the past is not deserving of a staring role in the present moment, it can be worthy of a little thank you in the credits somewhere. Because where would any of us be without it?

I hope that Lewis Carroll got to a point where he could see that the work he did meant something to people and realized that he was not required to be a lion or an ostrich or even Lewis Carroll.

All he ever needed to be was C.L Dodgson.

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Farewell to Robin Williams: a thank you note

 

robin

me and him

 

Robin Williams died today.

It seems surreal to write that.

But since writing is the way I process the incomprehensible — I find myself writing.

Everyone is tweeting and facebooking and calling into radio shows about what a great talent Robin was.

Yeah. He was. But that wasn’t what I adored about him. It was the fact that he was an incredibly kind human being.

When I was 14 years old, I went on location to film Mrs. Doubtfire for five months, and my high school was not happy. My job meant an increased workload for teachers, and they were not equipped to handle a “non-traditional” student. So, during filming, they kicked me out.

It’s devastating, at 14, to have your formal education terminated. I felt like a freak and a reject. When I arrived at work the next day, Robin noticed that I was upset and asked me what was wrong. I explained what had happened, and shortly after that, he handed me a letter that he had written to my school. He explained that I was just trying to continue my education while pursuing my career. He wrote embarrassingly kind things about my character and my work, and requested that they reconsider and allow me to return to my classes.

When I told him I still didn’t think they would take me back, he said, “It’s kinda like Amnesty International. That school just needs to know that people know the truth.”

The school framed the letter. They hung it in the principal’s office. But they didn’t invite me to return to school.

But here’s what matters from that story. Robin stood up for me. He was in my corner. I was only 14, but I had already seen that I was in an industry that was full of back-stabbing. And it was entirely clear that Robin had my back.

I know I said thank you at the time and I’m sure I wrote one of those stiff thank you notes that 14-year-olds write with slanting lines and spelling mistakes. But that all seems so insufficient now.

Even though I had not spoken with Robin in a very long time, I always assumed there would be some future opportunity to tell him that his letter changed my life. It taught me that you stand up for the things that matter. And even if your attempts fail, you tried. You told the truth. You took care of your friends. You fought back.

None of us really know what fights Robin was battling* but I know his struggles were not uncommon. It’s estimated that 16 million people in the US have struggled with depression – and I include myself in that statistic. It’s real and it’s not shameful and there is help available.

You can bring it to the light, you can tell the truth, you can go to a meeting, you can reach out to a friend.

None of us are alone.

And if you have someone in your life who you are grateful for — someone to whom you want to write another heartfelt, slanted, misspelled thank you note – do it. Tell them they made you feel loved and supported. That they made you feel like you belonged somewhere and that you were not a freak.

Tell them all of that.

Tell them today.

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The number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

*ETA – Since I wrote this article, Robin’s wife publicly discussed his other health issues. Obviously, I don’t know the reasons for his decision but I do know that he had struggled with depression, regardless of whether it was a factor here. Depression was something that he and I talked about. I’m not intending to diagnose anyone – just sharing a story about someone I loved.


Here is the letter:

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Clubbing baby actors

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I just wanted to fit in.

Desperately.

All 15-year-olds just want to fit in. They skulk around like those fish on the ocean floor who can alter their skin color to match the rocks. That was me – trying to blend like my survival depended on it.

But Mrs. Doubtfire was still in theaters, breaking all kinds of box-office records and 20th Century Fox was putting two-page ads in The Hollywood Reporter thanking everyone for buying a movie ticket. Blending was getting harder to do. But L.A. was my life now and I needed to figure out how to be part of that Hollywood crowd. A club on the Sunset Strip seemed like a good place to learn.

We didn’t even want to drink. My friend Christine had a crush on the singer of the opening band. Her sister had been in a movie with him, and our entire intention for the evening was to jump up and down in front of the stage and scream.

The place was dark and throbbing with coolness. People oozed cool and rubbed it all over their already cool friends. People moved around the place so comfortably that it seemed like it was their living room. I used all the acting skills at my disposal in an attempt to copy those people — and knew I was failing miserably.

Just before the band was due to go on stage, Christine and I headed to the bathroom to preen. She dug through an extensive bag of tools, expertly applying and lining and touching up. I didn’t wear makeup and having no preening abilities of my own, I glanced around the dim, grungy bathroom. I noticed a condom machine hanging on the wall. It was apparently  “for our convenience.” I nudged Christine and snickered.

Both of us had sadly undeveloped chests and few social skills beyond giggling – the machine hardly intended us as its target audience in need of such a convenience.

Nevertheless, flavored condoms were intriguing. The machine’s label reported that they came in three thrilling flavors: piña colada, chocolate and strawberry shortcake. I didn’t drink and was allergic to chocolate, so the strawberry shortcake was the clear winner. Christine and I had a lengthy debate about whether the chocolate condoms were made with real chocolate and if they would induce an allergic reaction.

I thought it would be a horrible time to find out.

She thought I was an idiot.

She started rifling through her purse and pulled out some linty quarters.

“Here. Get two.”

“Wait, why are we buying these?” I asked.

She snorted at me and handed me the change.

“Research.”

As I loaded the machine with Christine’s quarters, she leaned on the bathroom door. This was a scene best kept between the two of us. As our 50 cents went into the machine, slick pink and green packages slid out. They looked cheery. Fun. Yet, I was still scared to touch them. My heart beat quickly.

Christine appeared savvier, though I don’t think she really was. She was just one of those people who always appeared to know what she was doing. Whether on a film set or in a club bathroom holding a piña colada flavored condom, she always seemed as if she has been through it a million times. She was a stark contrast to me – it didn’t matter what I was doing, I always looked like I was about to get yelled at.

She ripped open the packaging with her teeth, a move she must have seen in a movie. I approached the wrapper more tentatively, pulling on either side like it was a bag of Doritos. We removed the smooth creatures from their packaging. We unrolled them. We concluded that they probably looked kind of like penises…if penises were florescent, semi-translucent, covered in a strange powder and stinking of sweet chemicals.

“Ready?” Christine asked. I certainly was not but I was standing in a bathroom holding a condom, what could I say?

“Okay. Lick it!” Christine demanded and we each raised the limp rubber to our tongues.

At that moment, the door swung open, catapulting Christine from her guard post and a Goth girl, bedazzled with safety pins, blasted into the bathroom. Christine and I panicked, threw our condoms into the trash and ran the hell out of there.

Taking refuge in a dark corner with humiliated tears flooding my eyes, I cursed Christine for not guarding the door properly and letting us be the freaks who got caught licking flaccid condoms in a bathroom. She also had tears in her eyes, but hers were caused by stomach-cramping laughter. She smoothed out my hair and attempted to comfort me.

“Don’t worry about it, Lis. Besides, you are not going to need one of those for a long, LONG time.”

Before I could respond with something like “Shut up” –  she grabbed my hand, ran to the stage and screamed for the cute lead singer like nothing had happened.

There were many enviable people in that club, owners of designer handbags, prestigious addresses and powerful careers, but I only wanted what Christine had. Her lightness was admirable and something I could never quite locate within myself. My friend’s skin fit her just fine and she never seemed to care too much about outside opinions. Her ease in this world was like a foreign language that seemed impossible to master. I borrowed some of her sparkly MAC lip gloss and hoped something deeper would rub off on me.

That night, I thought the worst thing that could ever happen was getting caught by a Goth. But four years later, Christine got sick. The lupus moved quickly, and she passed away when we were 19.

I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to capture her lightness. Admittedly, whenever I think of that Sunset club, I can still taste strawberry condom dust and palpable shame in the back of my throat. But whenever I feel myself trying desperately to blend with the cool people, I always feel Christine smoothing out my hair as she laughs at me.

“Don’t worry about it, Lis.”

 

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Le acne: when movies and real life collide

Before it all went wrong. That’s me in the bottom center of the frame, wearing burgundy.

When I was working as an actor, I had a precise system to decide whether to accept or decline a role. I asked myself the following questions:

• Is it a good script?
• Will it provide an interesting acting challenge?
• Will I get to go to a cool location?

The answer to only one of those questions needed to be affirmative, and I would commit the next three months of my life to a project.

Thusly, when I was 16, I worked on a TV movie in the south of France. I played a girl who was kidnapped and stolen away to be violated as a sex slave or alternatively, harvested for internal organs, whichever option proved to be more profitable for my bad guy captors.

I don’t need to tell you which one of my three prerequisites this project fulfilled.

And yes, it fulfilled only one.

The shoot was extra challenging because we filmed an English version as well as a French version. We would do one take in English, one French, back to English. It was brutal. I had studied French but it was high school French, words pertaining to libraries and chalkboards. I never learned the phrases required for this project, things like, “Please monsieur, don’t take my kidneys.”

At age 16, I could have passed for 12. I’d stare at my very un-Hollywood chest with loathing and confusion. Didn’t my breasts realize that we were in films?  The movie industry had pigeon-holed me where it shoves all of their flat-chested brunettes — roles like best friend, tomboy or Joan of Arc. My agents kindly labeled me as an “athletic” type.

Well, on this particular movie, my 16-year-old hormones finally kicked in. And there were zits. Horrible zits that danced across my nose and gathered conspiratorially on my chin.

This was a deep betrayal. Generally, my physical development had cooperated with my career. For example, my teeth seem to have been scared straight into freakishly perfect alignment from the moment they poked through my gums. They understood that they were required to stand at attention like good little Hollywood soldiers, since braces would undermine my budding career.

When the copasetic relationship that my body and I once enjoyed came to an abrupt end in the French Riviera, my mother did the proper mother thing and proclaimed my festering acne “Not That Bad.”

Not everyone agreed with this charitable assessment.

One day, the producers awkwardly took me aside.

Producer: “So, Lisa, we’re going to give you a little time off, so you can….clear up a bit. We’ll just shuffle the shooting schedule around and work on some of the scenes that you’re not in.”

Translation: you are being suspended from your job on account of your face.

A normal kid with acne would just hang her head low on the school bus and miserably carry on, but I was an actor kid and this “zituation” as we came to call it, was completely unacceptable. It required medical attention.

The producers sent me to the local hospital, in hopes that modern medicine could return me to the glowing, fresh-faced kidnaped girl they needed me to be. The doctor gave me some green stuff that I applied as directed and in a few days my skin was deemed smooth enough to appear in front of a camera as a believable slave for sexual purposes. I was allowed to go back to work.

That was when I realized what kind of job I had. I was in an industry where the entire shooting schedule would be moved around because I wasn’t looking as pretty as I was expected to. We were deep in the world of make-believe. I had dirt smeared on my face and twigs in my hair from wallowing in a sex slave dungeon, but they were perfectly placed dirt and twigs. The realities of life had no place here.

But in the end,  you learn how to take the bad along with the good. After all, I got to hang out in the south of France for a while, and I learned how to say “oozing” in French.

It’s “suintement.”

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The last audition

When I left L.A. and moved to Virginia, I used breakup terms to explain my exit from the film industry.

Figure out what I really want.

Find myself.

Get my head together.

It’s a break, not a breakup. (Just FYI: it’s always a breakup.)

My agent seemed to take it just about as poorly as my ex-boyfriends did.

I wasn’t brave enough to make a totally clean break and leap head-first into the unknown Real World. If a script looked really fantastic… if the producers were really interested in me…you know…maybe….

I shoved a tiny wedge in the door and left it open, just a crack. It felt safer that way. Slamming that door shut tight would have left me all alone in the dark.

My agent slithered through that crack. A film was casting and the producers had requested to see me for a role. The project sounded interesting but if I agreed to this, was it just a matter of time before it seemed like a good idea to fly back to L.A. to audition for a guest spot on Everybody Loves Raymond? I really felt like I needed to get out of the film world, but I waffled, scared to leave behind the only moneymaking ability I had. My agent felt her 10% commission slipping away again.

“But, it’s Martin Scorsese!” She squealed.

Well, okay. This was a big deal. He was a big deal. (And still is a big deal.)

I agreed to audition and promptly started freaking out about the idea of going back to work. There was no offer yet, but it suddenly seemed that life needed to change. I needed to lose 4 pounds, get some color on my legs and not dye my hair “Mahogany 51” from a six-dollar bottle from the Rite-Aid. There were so many things to be done and they all sounded horrible.

But sometimes it’s hard to tell if a pounding heart indicates excitement or terror.

When an actor cannot get to the city where the audition sessions are being held, they can do an audition tape where they record themselves reading the lines at home and send it to the producers. They inevitably look like the most horrid home movies.

My boyfriend, Jeremy, was cautiously supportive of this audition. If he had been too supportive he would have been accused of thinking that me leaving L.A. was a mistake. Not supportive enough, and I would have said that he never truly loved or respected me. The poor guy was pretty much relegated to smiling and nodding.

My audition tape set up involved a bed-sheet duct taped to hang over a closet door, providing a neutral background. It always looked exactly like a duct-taped sheet. A complicated system of IKEA floor lamps and vertical blind manipulation created a lighting situation that made me look about 57 years old.

My dogs, having just moved across the country and into my boyfriend’s flimsy, bare, grad-student apartment, were feeling a little needy and would bark and whine whenever they felt excluded. So, for the sake of the sound, one dog remained seated on my lap with the other curled up at my feet. We framed the shot close enough that the animals were cut out.

Finally we began. I had a lengthy speech before Jeremy had his first line. He said it and it was loud.

And it was British.

For some reason, he was using his from-the-diaphragm theater-training voice, although the microphone was mere inches from his face. He also had some sort of odd, Cockney accent. This character is not British. Jeremy is not British. There is absolutely no reason for this behavior. Ah! He is trying to make me laugh so I am more comfortable. He is probably not even filming.

“Stop, stop, stop.” I laughed and waved my hands in front of my face. Jeremy turned the camera off. Damn, he was filming.

“You were doing great. What’s wrong?” He asked.

“Yeah, I was fine, but what were you doing?”

“What do you mean?”

“Were you trying to be funny?”

“Did I say it funny?”

I explained to Jeremy that the mic is right near him and maybe he should be quieter, so that our sound levels match. I assumed he knew the accent needed to go.

We started again, and again he was loud and even more heavily accented. I tried to get through the scene with the ridiculousness of the emotionally unsettled dog on my lap and the loud British man reading with me. It wasn’t good. I wasn’t good.

It was all just uncomfortable. I felt like a grown up woman trying fit into the jeans she wore in middle-school. I was half-heartedly trying to recreate a moment whose time had past. 

When we finished, we watched the video back to see exactly how much of a train wreck the thing was.

“Wow,” Jeremy says  “I was really loud. And do I have some sort of accent? Oh, you did great, though.”

I did not get the job. I tried to imagine Mr. Scorsese watching this thing, squinting in confusion at the drooping sheet background, the dog ears that occasionally popped in to view and my loud friend from the British Isles. I could blame it on any of those things, but whatever the reason, there was no offer.

And that’s how it goes. You usually don’t know the reason you don’t get a job. When it was released, we went to see The Aviator in theaters. Gwen Stefani played the role I read for.

It was at that moment, in the darkened theater, that I realized I didn’t want to be Gwen Stefani. I wasn’t longing to be up there, taking direction from even the great Martin Scorsese. I wanted to be right where I was. Living in a flimsy grad-student apartment, with a couple of neurotic dogs and a boyfriend who inexplicably broke into foreign accents. That was where I was truly happy. I didn’t want the complication of trying to impress Hollywood with duct taped sheets and IKEA floor lamps. I wanted to have pasty legs and hair the color of Mahogany 51.

I had no clue what was next in my life, what might happen after those credits rolled, but I knew I was done with acting. I had done it already. It was that simple.

So, that was the last project I auditioned for.

That audition had been the breakup sex. It was the one more time that you go back and give the relationship that last chance…only to find it was as awkward and unfulfilling as you remembered. But we all need that one last fling, that experience that lets you finally walk away with a few good stories, but absolutely no remorse.

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