It’s three months out from the shoot and I’m dropping weight fast. I’m what the people around me are calling ‘bone-thin’. They’re watching me in awe as I walk around stilted and frail. They liken me to a ghost, a corpse already in the dirt. All I can see is the number on the scale and the number in my mind.
I prepare for a role like a tornado takes a town, destructive and total. I do the research, sure, but the real work comes after. Once I’ve Googled and read the Wiki pages, once I’ve shadowed the tradesmen for six weeks, once I’ve chewed the fat with insiders and watched all the historical footage; that’s when my research comes to life.
Six years ago, when my contract with MGM was still in good standing, I played a concert pianist with borderline personality disorder. I spent weeks with this virtuosic player in Paris, some real king of the craft. I worked day and night with my fingers pressed against ivory, cleaning up my runs and learning to imitate Debussy and Satie. It’s when I refused to leave the bench that the master lost his taste for me. It’s when I chased him around the concert grand, threatening to kill us both with a severed piano wire, that he lost his patience. It’s when I did a total one-eighty the following morning, when I brought him fresh croissants with a smile, that he refused to teach me.
That part scored me three noms and a win, my fourth in as many years. The cease and desist letters and promises to sue our dicks into the dirt might have irked the execs, but they couldn’t ignore the stream of revenue my little stunts produced. No one has a sour word to say come Oscar season. The Hollywood Foreign Press only cares about the output. No one wants to acknowledge the sausage as it’s made, with so many lips and assholes.
My first award came early in my career, a minor part in the film version of some novel about three Nazi soldiers waiting lookout on a bridge, unknowingly abandoned by their squad and with the Allies en route. I was given less than half a page of dialogue and a brief on-screen death, but I wasn’t going to rest on my laurels. I showed up day one with a high proficiency of German, an impressive command of the set weapons, and a small swastika tattooed on the inside of one wrist. The head of the costume department thanked me for the effort but noted that the script hadn’t mentioned anything about the Nazis having tattoos. When she offered to remove it with rubbing alcohol, I pulled my arm away and she just stared as the stuff dripped to the floor with no effect. That tattoo only shone back under the hot tungsten stage lights. Sarah didn’t speak to me for the rest of the production.
Today, as I prepare for my private shoot, I duck under the craft services table and watch as a janitor alternates between sweeping the floor and swiping his thumb across his cell phone screen. He dawdles like this for ten, maybe fifteen minutes, then exits and locks the large double doors behind him. I’m on the lot where they shoot that popular crime scene procedural. You know the one. I’ve gained something of a bad reputation in the biz, and my antics aren’t viewed as favorably as they used to be. Now I’m reduced to picking up cameos on bad television shows and bit parts in indie films. They say the method isn’t respected anymore. They say where it used to make you an auteur, now it just makes you an asshole.
I got pushback like this once from some up-and-coming, hot shit director who’d scored a string of Hollywood hits. I was playing a diner patron in a stickup scene, some in-the-background part with no lines. He kept coming up and scolding me for making sounds as I chewed my chicken salad sandwich. He kept telling me to keep my mouth shut and just eat the damn thing, to stop making faces like the food is giving me sexual pleasure, to please stop dabbing my fries in the ketchup like that. I asked him if he’d ever had a chicken salad sandwich this good. I asked him if all the people in all the diners he’d ever been in had ever eaten stone-still, and had they not ever smacked their lips and gone ‘mmm-mm’.
He still glares at me when we pass on red carpets, but its me they always point to when commending his realism. It’s me they ask questions about in bars on trivia nights, when they query who the big-timer is in that shit-show of a sophomoric effort. I’m laughing last, but I must admit, it would have been nice to be invited to record commentary for the anniversary edition DVD. I’m glad that vindictive prick has committed to a set number of films. People like me, we never quit. Not unless it’s for the art.
Maybe I’m just tired but this feels like the time. I don’t believe in swan songs but if the wings fit, I say take flight.
I push around the crumbled up newspaper and trash on the floor until it looks fresh and real. I spread the light across the scene in a way that really puts off ‘dark alley’. Before this gig, I never knew of the sheer complexity involved in placing props, laying marks, getting the perfect three camera split. That’s what research is for. That’s what they’ll never understand.
The legal bit, I’ve already cleared that with the lawyers. It’s all been discussed in staunch hypotheticals. No names or locations, all what-ifs and in-the-event-ofs. They’ve assured me that in theory it’s all square, so long as we’re talking hypotheticals.
When I booked the trip to the body farm at Western Carolina University, one of only seven in the country and the only to agree to take the call, I lied again and spoke of what-ifs and in-the-event-ofs. Part of the job is lying. In truth, the entire job is lying. In any case, I got a real education that weekend. Dead people warm up like a hot-blooded person never will. They’ll tell you everything you want to know if you just know how to ask.
I operate the clapperboard and shout ACTION and walk to my mark. I lie down and wriggle myself under the garbage and smear dirt on my face. I position my legs unnaturally. Before I pose my arms, I glance at my wristwatch and guess at how much time I have left. Ambien acts fast, especially when it’s crushed up and swallowed at many times the normal dose. I figure I’ve got minutes, maybe seconds.
After finalizing my posture, I close my eyes and open my mouth slightly so the foam that’s coming can seep out and onto the floor. I take slow breaths and trace my career like a child’s finger counts the stars on a dark, summer night. I plot point to point where I’ve taken the biggest risks and recall fondly the sweetest rewards. The camera rolls and the work begins, for the last time, until the Ambien calls CUT and the film runs out.
So when you take that recurring role on that medical drama as the awkward but intellectually gifted receptionist, consider getting a call center job. When the casting director for that upcoming thriller calls your agent asking if you’d be willing to play the deranged killer, maybe visit a death row inmate or two. Because when it all dries up and you’re reduced to making throwaway appearances as dead junkies behind strip joints, the only way left will be the way you’ve always done it. The only thing to do will be to take your medicine, in fatal quantities if necessary, and ham it up one last time. Give the performance you were born, and will ultimately die, to give.
Put on the Ritz. Dazzle ‘em, kid. And make sure to tip your hat when you come and see me for research on that long weekend in Carolina. I’ll be waiting, black tooth grin and all. I’ll tell you everything you want to know if you just know how to ask.
William M. McIntosh is a writer of drivel and collector of rejection letters. He loves literature, film and any other kind of art he can get his grubby little fingers on. His work has been published by Maudlin House, The /tƐmz/ Review, The Yard: Crime Blog and Night Picnic Press. He doesn’t tweet, but if he did it would be @moonliteciabata. You can find links to his work at www.wmmcintosh.com. He is based in Cincinnati.