"Your voice is so high," said Joan, my director. "It just doesn't sound natural." We were shooting The Booby Trap, a pilot for a television show she and I had created. We were going to submit it to a network in the hopes that they'd pick it up as a series. I was playing myself (natch) and a fly-looking actor named Derek was playing a guy I date named Indie Rocker. In the scene he had to compliment me on my dress and I had to say, "Thanks. It's body-conscious. It makes me feel hot but not too slutty." We'd already done several takes and I could see Joan was getting frustrated with my acting. But every time she gave me direction I didn't seem to know how to take it. Plus I was starting to get dizzy. Not just 'cause of tension on the set but because of the green screen. We were shooting in front of a huge green screen because this would be a high-tech show and the computer graphics people were going to put in special backgrounds in postproduction. Derek and I were sitting at a green table on green boxes, and I could feel my brain beginning to go soft.
"What doesn't sound natural about my read?" I said.
"You're speaking in a babyish voice. Not your own. Try it the way you're talking to me right now. Try it like yourself."
"It's body-conscious," I squeaked. "It makes me feel hot but not too slutty." It was so bizarre. Carol Kane had taken over my body.
"That was like yourself?" said Joan.
"No! I know it wasn't! But it's the best I can do with such a lousy?" I started to say "script" but then I remembered I wrote the script. I couldn't criticize my own text. I had to find someone else to blame.
"You're really not communicating very well," I told Joan. "I mean, what exactly is it that you want?"
"Maybe you could play it more flirtatiously." The DP rolled the camera and we did it again and this time it did sound better, but not completely.
"Okay," said Joan. "Let's move on."
I could tell she wasn't satisfied. We took a five-minute break and I scurried into the holding area to put my head in my hands. When I'd convinced this production company I should play myself it wasn't out of hubris. Okay, maybe it was a little bit out of hubris. But I really believed I could do it. Now my delusions of grandeur were getting the better of me. Why was I so relaxed in life, but so stiff and stagy in front of a camera?
Derek came in the room and reached for his Winstons.
"Do you think I'm a bad actor?" I asked.
"You told me this morning you were a failed actor."
"That doesn't necessarily mean I'm bad, though. Do you think I suck?"
"I don't think we should have this conversation," he said, took his pack and went out to the stairwell to smoke. I followed him and sat next to him on the bottom step.
"What were you trying to tell me?" I asked.
"I just don't want you to be afraid to play with me."
"Are you coming on to me?" I asked excitedly.
"No. I mean, this morning when we were doing that improv, and I was giving you stuff to work with, you weren't really listening to me. That's the only thing that makes me mad, when you don't allow me to help you."
"I promise I'll let you help me!" I shouted. "What scene do we have next?"
"The one where we make out on my bed."
Suddenly all my fears flitted away. I'd never done a full-out, partially clothed, on-camera makeout scene before. I couldn't wait to expand my horizons. We went into the costume area and I changed into the Victoria's Secret Miracle Bra the costume girl had bought for me, and then I slithered into a tight, slinky dress. Barry, the makeup guy, primped my hair and I went to the set ready to bare. When I saw the bed, though, I got a little nervous. Not only was it neon green, but behind it was a green cube with red dots on each of the corners. "What's that for?" I asked Joan.
"The graphics. It lets them build a 3-D environment behind you."
Derek came in and we lay down on the bed facing each other. "I guess this is what cybersex is like," he said. Joan talked us through our motions, then called action and for the next 10 minutes, four takes in a row, we rolled around on the bed. It wasn't very hot. I wanted it to be but it's just hard to get it up when someone's yelling, "Roll left! Now roll right! Sit up! Lie down!" the whole time through. I love being dominated?but by my dude, not my director.
We finished the scene and Joan seemed happy, but when we wrapped for the day I saw this tightness around her eyes that made me wonder if she'd had doubts about my performance in the rest of the scenes. Maybe the only good acting I could do was porno.
I changed out of my costume and called Paul. "I want to do something relaxing tonight," I said. "Let's go see Arlington Road. I heard it's really good."
Unfortunately that wasn't the wisest choice. While the movie jolted me out of my performance paranoia, it jolted me into a far deeper paranoia about terrorist militias. "God, I'm depressed," I said to Paul as we walked out. "What should we do now?"
"Let's get some sushi," he said.
So we went to a restaurant on 9th St. and sat at a window table and while Paul ate his spicy tuna I bitched about the day. "Maybe it's okay that I'm a bad actor," I said. "Jerry Seinfeld's a bad actor. He says his lines in a false and singsongy voice, but people love him anyway. Maybe people will watch me, knowing I'm bad, but like the character and the writing enough not to care."
"I'm sure you're not that talentless, pumpkin," he said.
"I don't know," I said. "I really think I've lost my knack. What if the network likes everything about the show except my performance? Then they'll hold onto me as a writer but replace me as an actor?with Parker Posey or something. I'll never be able to live it down."
"Why don't you wait till you see the footage?" he said. "Sometimes it comes out better than you think."
That night I slept over his place and in the morning I went back for the second and final day of shooting. My first scene was with a guy named Mark who was playing my best friend Sam. I was supposed to tell him about my plan to paste Indie's photo to my breasts on our next date and Sam was supposed to mock me in a dry and Jewish way. We did a few takes of the scene and then Joan pulled me aside and whispered, "You're doing that thing with your voice again."
"What thing?" I whined.
"Let's go out into the hallway."
We sat down on two chairs and as she started to explain what she didn't like I started to bawl. I rubbed my head mournfully and my wig got crooked. I was wearing a wig since my real hair is frizzy and wild and that looks bad against a green screen. "I don't know what you want," I wailed, straightening the wig. I was embarrassed to be crying but I was glad I was dealing with a female director. If she had been a male, then it would have been like that scene in A League of Their Own, where Tom Hanks coaches one of the girls on the team and she begins to cry and he looks at her incredulously and says, "There's no crying in baseball." "Let's do the scene together," said Joan, "just you and me. Talk to me the way you were talking to your friend when this happened and you were telling him your plan." And so I did the line, but improvised, pretending I was talking to my real friend Sherm, and changing some of the words so they felt more natural.
"That was a thousand percent better," said Joan. "That's how I want you to do it. If you need to change the words a little then you should."
"But Lisa Kudrow on Friends always adds these little 'y'know's to her lines and it annoys the fuck out of me."
"It annoys me sometimes too," said Joan, "but she's funny."
We went back into the soundstage and after Barry blotted away my tear stains, we taped the scene again. When I finished Joan was smiling. She liked me, she really liked me.
The rest of the day was a breeze?all the scenes went a million times easier than the day before because I paraphrased all my lines. I'd been trained for years not to mess with the writer's work, but now that I was the writer I could do whatever I wanted.
When we finally wrapped, at 10:30 at night, I changed into my regular clothes and set the wig down on its dummy head in the holding area. I went back in the studio and saw a cooler of beers on the food table, plus a delivery of chicken, ribs and fries. I loaded a plate and Joan beckoned me into one of the offices. "Today went so much better than yesterday," she said, inhaling on a smoke. "To tell you the truth, I was kind of freaked out when I left last night."
"You don't have to rub it in," I said. "I know I sucked yesterday."
"I wasn't freaked about you. I was freaked about me. When I got home I called my brother and three other friends to moan. I was afraid the network would love everything except my directing."
"That's exactly how I felt about my acting!"
"I was so distraught," she said. "It was like that thirty something episode where Elliot directs his first video. It's a total fiasco and everyone on the set knows he doesn't know what he's doing. He goes home that night and gets really drunk and depressed. At the end of the episode he's in the car with Nancy and as he's complaining to her, the camera zooms out and reveals Melanie Mayron on a crane directing the actual episode of the show."
"How totally meta?and gorgeous!" I shouted.
She smiled. Derek came in with some brews. We kvelled over his brilliant performance and he said he loved working on the show. A few more crew members wandered into the office with brews and smokes, and the nicotined air made me high instead of nauseated. Finally it got late and everyone left for home. I went upstairs to the holding area. My wig was still sitting where I'd left it. I knew I should take it with me but I didn't want to admit that the shoot was over. So I took it into Joan's office and set it on her desk as a totally meta and gorgeous souvenir.