The thing about Hollywood is it makes you doubt yourself—your identity, your judgment, your motivation, your parenting—because you are trafficking in children. Harsh but true: if you want to cast a Geisha-child in kimono, wig, whiteface and tabi, fifty mothers will rush forward and offer you their daughters; if your taste is for a red-headed tomboy who looks like she could build an atom bomb with a pen, two rubber bands and some baling wire, you can find her on any street corner. Baby dimples, Eurasian glamour, Chinese dolls with moving parts, black girls and Barbie dolls and boys as beautiful as angels—they can all be delivered right to your door, where you can make them up and feed them lines and they will do whatever you ask them to do, because their mommies and daddies and agents and managers and producers and directors have told them it’s perfectly all right because they are going to be famous one day. Try your luck! Pull the lever, swing the hammer, throw the dart, shoot the gun, play any game you like, because you never know who’s going to be a winner. And you’ll not only allow your children to play, you’ll hold the door open for them on their way through. You’ll feed them and water them and dress them and coach them, and the fact is, you’d slap their latest headshots onto the backs of the benches where derelicts sleep, if you actually thought it might help.
* * *
Ruth Rabinowitz had a waking nightmare that she had hit a transvestite crossing Highland at Hollywood Boulevard. In her mind the transvestite would be lying in the crosswalk surrounded by Shreks and Dorothies and Princess Fionas; Batman would call 911 while Japanese tourists took pictures of the fallen one with their cell phones. The transvestite would be fine, of course—it was a waking nightmare—and when s/he was set upright on his/her extremely tall platform shoes, s/he would look down on Ruth from six feet up and say kindly, Go ahead, honey—you cry if you want to. Ruth would break down right there, and the transvestite would take her gently in his/her arms—and his/her skin would be wonderfully silky and toned from hours at the gym—and smooth her hair from her face while she wept.
That’s how much pressure she was under.
Driving into Hollywood was always harrowing, and though she and her thirteen-year-old daughter Bethany had only been in Los Angeles for three weeks, she had already learned that the smoothness of the trip to a casting studio was inversely proportionate to the importance of the audition. Right now it was four o’clock, Bethany’s callback time had been three forty-five, and they were stuck in choking traffic on Highland near Santa Monica.
Admittedly, some of their tardiness—all right, most of it—was Ruth’s fault. She had a tendency, even under routine circumstances, to dither. She’d changed clothes twice before they’d left, even though no one would care or even notice what she was wearing. She’d checked and re-checked an email in which Mimi Roberts, Bethany’s manager, had forwarded the callback’s time and location. She’d printed out, misplaced, re-printed and then found the original copy of the MapQuest directions she’d pulled up—even though they’d driven to the same casting studio just yesterday. Now she heard the same maddening refrain looping endlessly inside her head: You should have left sooner, you should have left sooner, you should have left sooner. Her blood pressure was so high she could feel her pulse in her feet. "I just can’t believe there’s this much traffic,” she said.
“Mom,” Bethany said with newfound world-weariness. “This is LA.”
“Well, you can certainly see why it’s the birthplace of road rage.” They moved up a couple of car lengths and then stopped, still at least eight cars short of the intersection. Beside them a young man in a BMW cursed energetically into his Blue Tooth. Ruth couldn’t tell what he was saying, but she thought he looked very attractive in his nice suit and tie and tiny gold hoop earrings. She couldn’t imagine her husband Hugh in earrings. He was only forty-six, but he could have belonged to their parents’ generation. He was, conceivably, the last man in America to own Hush Puppies. “What,” he’d said when she’d pointed this out once. “They’re very well-made and they’re comfortable.”
“You should try clogs,” she’d offered. “Dansko ones, like your hygienists wear.”
But he’d just made a dismissive sound and applied himself to tying his shoelaces so that the loops of the bows were the same size and the leftover lace lengths matched. Sometimes it took him three or four times to get it just right. Ruth would have just pulled the hem of her pants down lower so no one would see. Not that she wore oxfords. She’d been wearing the same style of Bass Weejuns loafers since 1973.
“Hold up the MapQuest directions again,” she said. Bethany held the sheet of paper far enough away for Ruth to read without her glasses. She scanned the page and sighed deeply. “At least we’re within five blocks. Do you have your script? Maybe you should run your lines.”
“Sides. They’re called sides. If you call it a script, people will think we’re right off the boat.”
“We are right off the boat.”
Bethany crossed her arms tightly over her chest.
The girl gave her a look.
“Don’t sulk. I know we should have—”
“What? Oh!” Ruth finally got it. “Right. You’re in character.”
Ruth sighed. She wished Bethy wasn’t in character, because right now her daughter was the rapidly fraying line that connected Ruth with everything she loved and gained strength from. Still, everyone talked about how important it was for even the youngest actor to walk into every audition in character, even if she had just one line. Casting, as Mimi had told her and Bethy in their first week in LA and repeatedly ever since, began in the waiting room. Actors were sometimes cast on the spot, before they’d even read a line, they were that right. “Do you have the glasses?”
Bethany held up eyeglass frames without lenses. Bethany was auditioning for a co-star role—a part with fewer than five spoken lines—to play a nerdy sidekick on the Disney Channel’s sitcom That’s So Raven. Ruth felt a little shiver of possibility. The casting director at yesterday’s audition had called Bethy, “adorable, just adorable,” and specifically instructed her to bring a pair of glasses to the callback. According to Mimi, they weren’t even supposed to tell you they were giving you a callback; they were supposed to call your agent, who called your manager, who called you. The point was that protocol had been violated, the casting director had been that enthusiastic. They’d gone to Target and found a pair of weird sunglasses and popped out the lenses. They’d also done her hair in a side ponytail and bought her a pair of strange knit pants.
This was her first callback. Mimi had told them that you had to get callbacks regularly because if you didn’t, your agent (in Bethy’s case, Holly Jensen at Big Talent) would lose interest in you, in which case you might as well pack up and go home. Mimi had amplified on this by telling a chilling story about one of her clients who hadn’t been out on a single audition in six months, whereas when he was still in his agent’s good graces he’d gone out two or three times a week. She’d then stated bluntly that the family was to blame. Not only had the boy not been enrolled in the acting classes Mimi had recommended, but his mother had insisted on using a terrible headshot that had been taken by a relative, for God’s sake, and if you weren’t willing to pay for professional materials, well then Mimi couldn’t be responsible for the consequences. She had told the boy’s parents to take him to Honey Schweitzer, a photographer who was red hot right now. Four of the clients who’d had her take their headshots were series regulars now, three on sitcoms and one on a primetime, hour-long drama. Honey charged five hundred dollars for a one-hour photo shoot and still clung to film instead of a digital format, but the point—at least as far as Ruth could follow it—was that people still used her, she was that good. If you did things on the cheap—and how many times now had Mimi already emphasized this—you might just as well take that money and shove it up a rat’s ass. Some of her clients’ mothers—the good mothers, Mimi implied; the ones who knew how to take direction—had commissioned as many as fourdifferent sets of headshots before they’d gotten the one where the eyes reached out and spoke to you. If your headshot didn’t do that, you could just forget about everything else.
Mimi made a lot of pronouncements.
Don’t mumble. Own the room. Don’t let your mother speak to anyone.
Never be late for an audition.
It was four-fifteen. They were two cars from the intersection of Santa Monica and Highland. Ruth rested her forehead momentarily on the steering wheel and then took a strengthening breath. “You know you’re going to have to walk into this callback like you own it. Do you need to use the bathroom?” Ruth asked because she did, and she and Bethy had always been in synch that way.
“I didn’t, until you said that,” Bethany said.
Ruth sighed and watched a transvestite—not a nice one like in her nightmare, but a haughty, faux-breasted person with an alarming blond wig—cross the street. S/he had a better figure than Ruth had ever had, never mind now. She’d never minded before; in Seattle, middle-aged women just spread and thickened and got on with it, but here you were supposed to look like you had when you were twenty, except for your hair, she gathered; you were supposed to be more sophisticated with your hair. But of course it was Bethy’s appearance that mattered.