I am so convincing I scare myself. I'm standing in a small dingy room, staring into the lens of a video camera and demonstrating why I should be hawking Snickers on national television. A casting director is working the camera and lobbing pro forma questions about my vital statistics. Each answer, I'm certain, seals and reseals the audition for me. How could the candy bar executives who'll be screening my tape think otherwise? They want a young journalist who loves Snickers to play the role of a young journalist who loves Snickers. Their search is over.
It's as if I'm on a sugar high. With a final glance at the cue card bearing the two-line testimony each wanna-be Snickers spokesman must read, I summon my best Voice of Confidence, the one that will evoke an eventful career of uncovering corruption in high places and pounding out late-breaking exclusive stories, all fueled by that life-affirming mixture of peanuts, caramel, and chocolate. "When you're the eyes and ears of a million people," I intone responsibly, "you can't let your stomach get in the way. That's why I carry Snickers. Snickers stops the hunger."
I'm so profoundly self-deluded I don't even laugh. Despite the fact that I never carry Snickers. I never eat candy bars, for that matter, and if I were to eat candy bars, Snickers would certainly not be my first choice.
There's another trifling incongruity: The newspaper I work for has a circulation of about 100,000.
But right now, standing in front of the camera in the studio of this North Miami casting service, these details matter little. The audition is only the newest link in a chain of improbabilities, a chain that began a day earlier with an unsolicited phone call to New Times. In the newspaper business, unsolicited phone calls are a risky proposition: Occasionally they result in stories, but by and large they amount to zilch. This is because newspapers are magnets for slightly unhinged people -- often lonely, always imaginative -- who swear they have The Next Big Story That Will Blow The Top Off a Giant Conspiracy and Bring Government to Its Knees. Good reporters are trained to listen patiently to these people, then tactfully refer them to an unwitting colleague.
Being the only idle staffer in an otherwise exceptionally quiet editorial department that particular Tuesday afternoon, I took the call. As I was rehearsing the part where I sympathetically interrupt my tipster to say we're already working on that particular Big Story, I suddenly realized my interlocutor wasn't a nutty theorist. Excitable, yes, but lucid.
She introduced herself as Kim Nammoto, a representative from The Casting Directors Inc. in North Miami. A national candy bar company (Kim refused to say which) wanted an Anglo or Latin male reporter in his twenties for the role of a reporter in a commercial that was to be shot over two days the following week. In New York City. All expenses paid. Plus, Kim assured me, a salary of "at least $10,000."
Two people in our editorial department fit the specifications. I was one; the other I'll refer to as "Steve," to spare him from embarrassment.
Faster than you can say "conflict of interest," Steve and I were heading north on I-95 toward our audition, and abundant riches and stardom in TV land.
The film playing in our heads, the one documenting our rise to celluloid fame, clatters off the reel at the first glimpse of The Casting Directors Inc. Wedged between a used-car dealer and a photographic studio in a shabby strip mall, the agency doesn't exactly suggest glamour. A stained carpet leads through a maze of small, cluttered rooms. The walls are plastered with a collage of images clipped from glossy magazines: hundreds of beautiful people. It looks like it was transplanted from an adolescent girl's bedroom.
Kim hasn't arrived yet, so we sit in the waiting room and contend with the owner's bulldog, who shows his affection for Steve by slobbering all over his black pants. The drool smear nicely complements the ink stain on his button-down shirt, a touch Steve is certain adds more realism to his hard-working-journalist persona. I, dressed in old chinos and a white oxford shirt, steer clear of the mutt and obsess about the length of my hair. How journalistically mainstream are ponytails? My audition will reach beyond issues of cosmetics, I resolve, and into the metaphysical realm where newsprint and sugar collide. I am going to locate that node of joy and become its human embodiment.
Kim, a giggly Rubenesque woman with a head of unruly black hair, arrives and ushers us both into the small studio, which is furnished with a tangle of video equipment and an old sofa -- "the proverbial casting couch," Kim comments suggestively.
I go first. My audition passes quickly, and very convincingly, I think, despite the earlier fretting about unconventional hair. Steve follows. Except for an involuntary shiftiness in his eyes, he is, to my mind, the journalistic poster boy for a new Snickers-happy generation. We're both positive one of us got the part. After all, we ask, who is our competition? Only the Miami Herald among local papers won't be sending any reporters, Kim replies. "They told me their employees don't endorse any products." At this I feel an ethical quandary begin to scramble my optimism. (Am I prostituting my integrity to a chocolate-covered multinational? My future flashes before me, a fleeting micro-nightmare: I am a public relations flack.) But I quickly eradicate it with a simple calculation: No Herald reporters equals less competition equals an even better chance I'll become a rich man!
As we head for the door beaming with this added sense of statistical gratification, a one-way window rattles open to reveal the chain-smoking, world-weary face of Dee Miller, the agency's owner and South Florida's most veteran casting director. "You guys should try out for the NTW commercial," she rasps, a hoarse oracle. The window slides shut.
National Tire Warehouse, Kim tells us, has contracted with The Casting Directors Inc. to find real actors to fill several roles in a commercial that will play in the Atlanta and Houston regional markets (but not in Miami). I want to laugh out loud at Dee's suggestion -- she is joking, isn't she? Kim shakes her head somberly, as if to say, "The Wizard has spoken." Like seasoned veterans, Steve and I demand to know the schedule for the commercial (one day the following week) and its remunerative incentives ("at least $2000," Kim says.)
We return to the studio. In fact, it would not be inaccurate to say we sprint back into the studio. What ensues in that little shoebox of a room is destined to stand as frank testimony to the terrifyingly manipulative influence of...money.
We try out for the "Dan Cortese-type guy," as the advertising agency has described the part to Kim, in reference to the lanky, hyperbolic MTV-Burger King pitchman. "All you have to do is lip-synch this song," she explains, pulling out a poster-size cue card on which she has written the lyrics to the commercial's jingle. When she turns on a tape deck, it becomes immediately obvious to both Steve and me that the song is a blatant ripoff of R.E.M.'s "It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)": "Flat tires, bald tires, bad brakes, got the shakes?/Got a car that's hard to steer?/Then you should be coming here!/NTW's got the tire that's right for you/Low price, treat you nice, we won't have to fix it twice/Veering, steering, spinning, skidding?/You got problems, who ya kidding?"
We lip-synch while Kim videos. Technically, Steve lip-synchs and I laugh. We do a second take, during which Steve again lip-synchs and I again laugh. I also begin to sweat profusely. Under the studio's bright lights, I'm developing a greasy sheen.
But we aren't done yet. Kim points to a pair of hula hoops and tells us to go at it. She swears this is part of the deal; the producer has asked for it. Steve and I briefly consider that this might all be a setup, a competitor's prank intended to illustrate how foolish New Times reporters can be made to look. We remind ourselves that cleverness isn't a known trait among New Times's competitors, and anyway, $2000 is worth the risk. Kim rolls the tape and we swivel away like wobbly tops.
Later, as we exit the agency, our lives overlap with that of Jerry Pacific (he swears it's his real name), a slim young man of nondescript good looks, a colorful cap propped atop his dirty-blond locks. He's here for the NTW tryout. Well versed in the whole routine, he's already rehearsing the lyrics, with an earnestness and confidence that remind Steve and me of our status as utter dilettantes. Jerry Pacific and a zillion other professional actors and models -- all of whom are members of the Screen Actors Guild and carry around stacks of flattering headshots and have been doing this sort of thing their entire beautiful lives -- are trying out for the Dan Cortese-type part.
Mindful of these facts, we pin our hopes on the candy-bar gig. That very afternoon we call Kim for a status report, an exercise we repeat at least once every few hours, virtually around the clock, during the next two days.
Until we finally get the bad news: Snickers has found its reporter A at a daily paper in Boston. Kim never said anything about reporters from other cities. We feel betrayed. We have bitten into the cosmetically luscious fruit of showbiz and tasted its bitter insides.
The following day we are called back for the tire commercial. Allow me to shed some light on this achievement. The population of South Florida "talent" (that's filmspeak for actors, models, and actor-models) is estimated to number in the thousands. They are desperately scrambling for roles in only a few hundred commercials cast locally every year. In other words, callbacks are mercilessly infrequent. Manny Arca, a TV and film agent for Irene Marie Model Management in Miami Beach, puts it this way: "I always tell a person who's starting that they're going to go to twenty jobs before they get one." And that's the gospel of Irene Marie, which only handles pros, who are genetically designed to stand in front of cameras and hawk products.
Steve and I are buffoons. But somehow we both have ended up on a short list of three Anglo males who tried out for the Dan Cortese-type character. (Sadly, Jerry Pacific did not make the cut.) "And there was a star next to your name on the callback list, Kirk," Kim laughs, as if we're all sharing an excellent joke. I cheerfully dismiss the notation as an errant doodle. "In this business," Kim intones knowingly, "little stars mean big things."
It's Friday afternoon and she has made Monday morning appointments for us to meet the producer, director, and representatives from the tire company and the ad agency. Meanwhile she faxes us the jingle lyrics, urging us to practice over the weekend. She addresses the fax to "The tire endorsers at New Times," and scrawls in the margins, "Practice, practice, practice. Ix-nay on the not being actors. Get with the actor lingo."
That evening Steve and I find ourselves driving down U.S. 1 past an NTW shop, its loud sign making yellow and black noises in the evening sky. Like fraternity brothers spotting a full and unattended keg, we exchange high fives and burst into a rousing chorus of the jingle. Steve warbles melody and I approximate the harmony while the Michelin Man jams on lead guitar.
Fear has a remarkable ability to focus a person's attention. The slightest sounds in a darkened house, on the occasion of a possible intrusion, can sound menacing and explosive. A mugging victim may never forget the precise designs her attacker's knife draws in the air in front of her face.
I arrive at this intimate understanding shortly after 9:00 in the morning on the following Monday. I'm standing alone and very still in the middle of a conference room in the upper reaches of the Doubletree Hotel in Coconut Grove. To my left is a floor-to-ceiling window overlooking Biscayne Bay, Key Biscayne, and the wide expanse of the Atlantic beyond. To my right, on the other side of the room, is the door through which I've come. It's closed now. In front of me, bunched at the end of a long conference table, are six or seven people. They are all staring at me.
Moments earlier I'd been cracking jokes and horsing around with Steve outside the room, where the other callback hopefuls awaited their turn to shine. The group was distinguishable by lots of exposed female midriff, the occasional bulging bicep, and mounds of well-coiffed hair. There was also a disconcerting amount of chatty camaraderie: All these people seemed to know each other. They all carried headshots. It was as if Steve and I had crashed a private dinner party with the help of a member of the kitchen staff.
A stocky, boyish fellow had stuck his head out of the conference room and called my name. As I followed him, he pressed up close and said, sotto voce, "I'm the director. You're my first choice. Don't screw it up."
My vision is blurry now. The room swims. The people at the table are mumbling in hushed tones, an aural mush. I am finding it hard to breathe.
Then, like blobs of mercury, the loose particles of my attention suddenly begin to coalesce. I am acutely aware of one thing: bodily pain. My bodily pain. Every movement hurts. My joints are balls of lead. My muscles seem to tear with each movement. When I try to smile, I can feel my lips go taut; when I don't, I feel my facial muscles sag. As both feelings are equally unpleasant, my mouth twitches back and forth, somewhere between a grin and a grimace.
I don't know what to do with my suddenly clumsy hands. (Bury them in my pockets? Let them hang at my sides?) I prop them on my hips. Actually, I winch them to my hips. Once there, cantilevered against my body, they don't move. I am a stone-face mannequin.
"We just wanted to get a look at you," the director says finally. With that, someone calls in another of the hopefuls, a woman named Marie Debrey, who flounces in wearing a skirt and a cleavage-inducing halter top, her exposed bellybutton winking at the world. She slides her headshot onto the table. "She's got a resume that would choke a horse," the director coos, passing around the photo, on the back of which is printed a summary of Marie's television, modeling, film, theater, and commercial work. The type is extremely small, I notice, and it fills the page.
The two of us stand together, she bubbly and radiant, I numb. Several sets of eyes roam our bodily terrain; I can feel the grooves they leave in my skin. "I think they will work," the director says to his companions, aiming a nod at Marie and me. "Don't you?" Someone suggests we go through the audition paces anyway. Marie and I rattle through the jingle (I've entirely forgotten the words, of course) and mug it up with the hula hoops. We whoop with false joy. The group continues to sit in silence. I feel strangely like a jester singing for his life in a very unhappy court.
A human being is born with two sets of genitalia, male and female. A sincere politician is elected. The Marlins win the World Series. These phenomena are, in scientific parlance, known as "mind-boggling flukes."
This concept now applies to my life. I get the NTW part.
As for Steve? Well, he apparently wowed them at his callback. The woman he was paired with telephoned Kim afterward to file her own report. "She was practically in tears," Kim recalls. "She said, 'You know that guy you sent me in with? I just want you to know he was a total asshole. He ruined the audition for me! He was threatening to sue the producers!"
It seems Steve raised the matter of the NTW jingle and its similarity to the R.E.M. hit, and asked the scriptwriter, who was in attendance, if he feared litigation. "Even the director came out afterwards and asked me if 'that guy was a lawyer or something,'" says Kim. One other thing: On the way out of his audition, Steve helped himself to one of the breakfast muffins arrayed on a silver platter for the production executives.
He insists he got permission first.
On Tuesday, a day before the shoot, an exceptionally effervescent Kim calls to tell me she's been doing some number crunching. She tells me that besides Atlanta and Houston, our commercial is scheduled to air in the regional markets of Washington, D.C., and Austin, Texas. By her calculations, I should make at least $5700 for the one guaranteed cycle, with the possibility of more money in residuals if the spot is renewed for successive thirteen-week cycles. As long as I don't hit the floor, that is.
Not a whole lot of this is really clear, but I'm aware that we're talking about big bucks and that I have to appear in the finished version of the commercial in order to collect. I have no idea, however, what I'll be expected to do to earn it. When the wardrobe stylist calls late that night, the plan becomes a little clearer. "Okay, you're the white couple, with Marie, and you're going to be doing a hippie kind of thing, painting a pink VW Beetle," says the stylist, Susie Minor. "Then you're going to be dressed sort of Princeton-Kennedy preppie -- untucked, sloppy preppie -- pushing a car with a wobbly wheel."
She pauses for emphasis, then adds, "You are the star tomorrow! You are it!"
I am safe now in the folds of a breakfast burrito, comfy among the vegetables, the egg, the hot sauce. After a fitful night's sleep, I've arrived uncustomarily early for my 8:00 a.m. call time on location -- a lot on the corner of Seventh Street and Collins Avenue on South Beach crowded with cars, equipment trucks, and trailers -- only to be told I won't be shooting for another hour or so. With crew members lugging equipment back and forth and production assistants earnestly zipping around on their appointed errands the food truck is a welcome refuge.
Suddenly a crewman's walkie-talkie crackles my name. A change of schedule; the director wants me on the set. I'm hustled into the wardrobe-and-makeup trailer, my burrito performing an about-face and sidling back up my esophagus.
Susie the wardrobe coordinator and her assistant help me into my first outfit: khaki pants, a white oxford shirt, brown bucks, and a striped navy blue and khaki tie. (It seems preppie will precede hippie.) I ask if there's a script or an outline of the scene
I should read. Everyone ignores me. A hair-and-makeup woman brushes her eyes over me, briefly fluffs my hair, and chirps ambiguously, "There's nothing I can fix here." As an afterthought, she dusts my forehead and cheeks with skin-color foundation.
Outside, the director, who I vaguely remember from my audition, breaks away from a knot of crew members, NTW officials, and ad agency reps. "Hi, I'm Paul," he says, escorting me across the street. "I'm your god." He may have said, "I'm your guy," but it's too late. Like a duckling who has developed an attachment to a human surrogate mother, I am impressionable. Paul is officially my god.
He leads me to a pay phone outside a Laundromat. An old tire is leaning against the phone stand. "You're the Paper Chase guy," he says, lifting the receiver. "You're going to be on the phone. Your tire is flat, you're pissed off, you just found out your triple-A membership has expired. You want to know how long it's going to be before they can send a truck." There's no audio, Paul adds, so it doesn't matter what I say. "It's going be the usual camera-action shit," he concludes, and jogs off across the street, leaving me standing all alone with my phone.
Though I have no clue what "camera-action shit" entails, the take seems to go fine. "Less hands, but good," is Paul's actual assessment. He has me do it again, this time with "less hands." And again. Then Paul throws in a twist: He wants me to talk on the phone for a few seconds, slam down the receiver in disgust, pick up the tire, and roll it down the street away from the camera. We film that routine a couple of times. I'm getting into this now, thinking Buster Keaton, Steve Martin, geeky white guys. I ask Paul if I should play it a little clutzy, stumble, maybe bounce off a lamppost. "This isn't a comedy piece," he says, vaguely apologetic. "The comedy is in the action. It's funny as it is. Don't mug it too much." I'm beginning to get the picture. Commercials are no place for acting.
Paul adds more variations: I kick the tire across the sidewalk, pick it back up, and roll it down the block. I realize the phone is broken, bash it down, push the tire, drop the tire, dash back to replace the dangling receiver ("I guess he's gentlemanly, or something," Paul conjectures), and resume rolling the tire. Then I do almost the same thing again, except I dash back to see if the phone returned my quarter.
When I get back to the trailer, sweat drips in sheets down my body. Elapsed time: about 25 minutes. From this effort the producers may glean a second or two of footage of me. If it doesn't all hit the floor.
After my phone scene, I bond with the other talent, which consists of a lot of sitting around in the trailer and trying to stay cool. Marie, my partner from the callbacks, is here, and so are quite a few others of various colors, including a well-dressed Latin trio, two men and a woman, who are working on a parallel Spanish-language version of the commercial.
The issue of payment comes up and I, with some authority, mention that we're probably looking at some healthy residuals. Paul Froehler, a fiftyish Anglo actor clad in a conservative suit, says that's not what he's heard. "Call your agent," he advises. "Who's your agent?"
"Independent," I say with alarming confidence.
Noticeably impressed that I got the part as a walk-on, Froehler suggests I take my contract to a few agents. "You'll do well," he predicts. "You got a good look. Done any stage work? It looks good on the resume, but it doesn't really matter for the commercial. They only care about the look."
Later in the morning I'm back on the street, pushing my tire again. First I'm chasing it down the middle of Collins Avenue, then we shift to an alleyway off Ninth Street. The plan is to shoot me pursuing my tire away from the camera down the alley, but the ad agency reps decide it's too grimy. So the camera is positioned in the alley to shoot me and my tire sprinting across the mouth: first the tire, then me.
Several takes later we break for lunch, which is abundant, tasty, and free. It occurs to me that there may be easier and more lucrative ways to make a living than toiling for a weekly newspaper. I file away that thought and go back for seconds.
By afternoon our convoy has rumbled over to an old fishing village on Virginia Key, a collection of brightly colored abandoned shacks that occasionally serves as background for modeling and commercial shoots. The project takes on the air of a bunch of enterprising and well-funded students making up stuff as they go along. Plans call for a number of different shoots on the key, including a scene with a guy (not me) driving a Jeep along a dirt road and getting a flat, and a woman being pulled on a tire behind a jet ski. The threat of rain looms, and because the production company wants to finish everything today and doesn't like the thought of paying overtime, we're racing the sun.
Paul calls for "the car-painting scene" and Marie and I are instructed to dress in quasi-Sixties garb. She looks fairly authentic in rose-tinted sunglasses, bell bottoms, and daisies tucked in a braid looped around her head. I'm not so sure about myself. The black T-shirt, blue jeans, and Converse hightops seem to make sense, but the love beads and the multicolored braided belt I'm wearing as a headband are another matter altogether. As we seek out Paul to get his approval, I hear the scriptwriter mutter, "Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time." One of his colleagues says something about their lack of job security at the ad firm. Paul tells me to lose the belt and beads.
We are given jars of blue and yellow paint and told to begin painting designs on a pink VW Bug parked on the site. It's unclear how this is going to fit into the narrative of the commercial A is it meant to evoke a time when it just didn't matter whether your tires worked or not? I ask one of the ad agency reps, who says he isn't really sure yet.
Paul starts filming, using a handheld camera that he dips and swings back and forth as he moves slowly around us, crouching on the ground, crawling slowly onto the car fender and back down. Per his instructions, Marie and I are being playful, two young lovers doing kooky things with paint.
At some point I notice Paul is not filming me. He's begun to focus on Marie, who kicks into modeling high gear, flipping her head back sensuously, running her tongue over her lips. I'm not even making it into the frame. Paul encourages Marie: Yeah, more of that, he purrs. Soon I'm just standing there, paintbrush dangling in my hand. I can see myself spread-eagle on the cutting-room floor.
I comfort myself with thoughts of the rest of the day's itinerary: I'm still supposed to push Marie on a tire swing (get it?), and they want us to paint a bus tire. But the clouds open up and the rain washes out all those plans. The producer, counting beans, dismisses me and most of the remaining talent at five o'clock.
On my way off the set, I buttonhole Rose Pennington, the executive producer. I'm really a journalist and I've never done this before, I confess to her. Rose's face contorts slightly at the news, then regains its poise. "Paul knew he wanted you when he saw you," she says. "You were the first on the tape but he knew you were the one." The callbacks were just a formality, she confides. But, I protest, all I did was laugh during the casting. "Sometimes you just know someone's right for the part," says Rose. "You feel it."
For another person, these words might have been the perfect parting shot, but I'm still troubled by one loose end: What were those hula hoops for? I search out the scriptwriter; he's bound to know. "Well, uh," he ventures, smiling foolishly. "We thought that maybe you guys would try to hula hoop with tires and collapse under their weight. I guess it's what you'd call 'tire-related fun.' Like the girl waterskiing on the tire. It's really a low priority. But anyway, we had to get you to do something. If you could handle that, we figured you could handle anything we threw at you."
I still haven't seen the $5000-plus Kim assured me I'd get; she now admits with some embarrassment that she miscalculated. I did get the normal day rate of $443.25. Not quite enough to pay off a car loan, but definitely an absurd amount of money for eight hours of sweating and sitting around.
As for residuals, I'll have to wait for that windfall. The money depends on a few factors that are beyond my control, such as how long my peculiar retro look remains a viable selling tool, and whether automobiles remain the primary mode of transport in the U.S. According to Barb Craig, supervisor of the NTW account for the Detroit-based advertising firm W.B. Doner & Company, an NTW commercial using some footage from our shoot has been airing this summer in several cities including Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Houston, Austin, Atlanta, and Charleston, South Carolina. (A Spanish-language version has appeared locally, as well.)
The bad news: I'm not in either spot.
But there is good news: Barb Craig foresees a lucrative future for my NTW efforts. Doner has created another 30-second commercial for the tire sellers, in which I do appear. Craig expects the ad to run later in the year. Maybe even in Miami. If number of appearances determines one's position on the marquee, then I'm indeed the star of this one. I show up no fewer than three times among the rapid-fire images: screaming into the pay phone with the tire at my feet; tripping along behind the tire on Collins Avenue; and (my hand only) painting the VW. In total, the cameos burn up about three-quarters of a second.
Of course that's just the beginning. "We were able to shoot so much footage in Miami that we could extend this campaign for a number of years on the basis of this one shoot," Craig says perkily. "We're going to keep you in money for a while." And there's no doubt where I'm going the next time I need treads.
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