City of Industry

The second out-of-town audition I had was in Manchester. Marcus said not to bother going, but I had recently been (gently) encouraging my agent to send me on more auditions, so I had to go. Besides, what was so bad about Manchester? Everyone seemed to love their soccer – err football – team, so it couldn’t be that bad.

Despite my best efforts to look imposing and in need of space, the mid-afternoon train was packed before we left and a rotund old man with no sense of smell squeezed into the seat beside me. Okay, I don’t know for sure about his sense of smell, but I do know mine detected that he hadn’t washed his sweater since 1954. On top of that, he was chewing incessantly on the end of a mushy, smelly cheap cigar. I wasn’t nervous about the audition but I was nervous about his stink rubbing off on me.

I noticed that after each stop, the boarding passengers started to get rougher and rougher. On the last stop before Manchester, the conductor got into a scuffle with three teenagers who apparently hadn’t bought the right ticket. He wouldn’t move the train until they got off. They had some argument about how they had bought the wrong tickets by accident and should be allowed to travel all the way to Manchester. Voices were raised – tensions rose. Another conductor came by as back up. I started worrying that this would turn into one of those horrible stories you read about in The Metro, where some innocent bystander gets a knife in the throat for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I was suddenly thankful for Mr. Smelly Cigar who was my de facto security blanket (or, if nothing else, a human shield). The conductors ultimately won the battle and the kids flipped up their standard-issue sweatshirt hoods and gave us all a one-finger salute as the train pulled away.

By the time the train pulled into Manchester, I had only enough time to grab a taxi and get to the audition. I had planned to walk, but as the cabbie curved around one dodgy back street after another, I was glad I didn’t. At least my agent had told me the pay was good (she never defined “good,” but I took her word for it).

The gig was a promotional video for the city of Manchester. I had to do a fake video conference call where I told my “boss” how great Manchester is and why multi-national corporations in all major industries should put an office there instead of London. I thought I should work in a wink, or at least cross my fingers behind my back, but I refrained. I grabbed another taxi back to the train station and hoped I didn’t get the part.

Two train tickets and two taxis in the last two auditions wiped out any income from the vox pops job. If only my agent paid 15% of my expenses, too.

A Dirty Shame

When your agent calls and says “you have an audition tomorrow,” you say “great – what time?” You don’t say “What’s the part? Where’s the audition? What kind of character will I be playing?” or heaven forbid ask “What’s my character’s motivation?” If the audition is for a commercial, you don’t get to evaluate the product to determine whether it’s really something you want to promote. You simply confirm that you’re available – which you always are unless you’ve told your agent otherwise in advance – and you hope she’ll provide the relevant details.

Usually, you find out what the audition is for and what time and where it will be held. I should have been suspicious when my agent said she’d just e-mail me the information later. I had not one, but two auditions outside of London.

The first was in Harrogate, three hours away by train. It was for a company that produces video games and they wanted a voice for an iconic 80’s arcade game character that they were bringing to life. It sounded pretty cool – kind of like having your own action figure, which you usually don’t get until you’ve played some butt-kicking action hero. Plus, video game me would probably have an impossibly amazing figure.

I decided to look on the bright side about the train trip and use it to catch up on reading. The trains weren’t very frequent and the only one that would get me to the audition in time got me there 90 minutes early. So I killed time by having a chai latte at my remote office, a.k.a. Starbucks, then got to the audition 15 minutes early only to find half a dozen girls already in the waiting room perusing the script. I guessed they all caught the train from London too.

I got a copy of the script from the receptionist and muscled my way onto the only couch that appeared to have a bit of empty space. I flipped through the pages at paper-cut pace to find out what busty babe I might get to portray. But the character wasn’t busty at all. In fact, the only thing that was female about her was the pink bow on her sideways, flat yellow face. (I signed a non-disclosure, so I can’t reveal the character’s name.) At least it was one of the video games I’d actually played back in the era of the Atari 2600.

I read through the short script a few times and tried to figure out how to bring life to a character with a pie slice for a mouth. I must admit, I felt like a pro in the sound booth with a mic and those big cushy headphones. I read the script proficiently, I thought. The producers asked me to read it again, but this time a bit “dirtier.”

“Dirtier?” I said reflexively in disbelief (though it would have been far better to keep that as an inner monologue).

“Yes, like she has a dirty secret.”

I felt as though they were robbing the innocence from a part of my childhood. Surely this was the most chaste and least dirty video game characters of all time. I mean, besides gobbling up a few ghosts – in self defense I hasten to add – what did she ever do to deserve this debasement?

I gave her as dirty a voice as I could muster, said thank you to the producers, then charged out of there with the speed of someone who’s just eaten a power pellet.

Cut Off

Once I had some presenting experience, the doors were opened for more presenting auditions – corporate gigs, internet “TV shows”, etc. I tried imaging my career taking the trajectory of Greg Kinnear’s – working my way up to presenting on E! and then landing a career-defining role like his portrayal of a gay artist in As Good as it Gets.

I got a job doing some “man on the street” interviews, or vox pops as the marketing types call it. I had to ask people about their online behaviors, where they spent time online, whether they were concerned about security and most importantly – it was for American Express, after all – whether they used their credit cards online.

Doing the on-camera work and memorizing the questions were both easy enough. The hard part was nabbing passers-by for “a short interview” which I had to assure them was “for research, not for TV.” Plus, the interviewees had to fit the brief – successful local business people, age 30 - 50. So I could forget about the easy pickings, e.g. tourists or wannabe media types and other apparently jobless people who had nothing better to do than lounge around Golden Square at 3 o’clock on a cloudy Tuesday. But, I had a job to do and a minimum of 20 interviews to film.

The cameraman neglected to bring a body mic, so I took the giant fuzzy grey squirrel-tale-like mic he provided, summoned up my inner American and marched right up to my first victim and asked for an interview. Surprisingly, a lot of people were willing to give their opinions without much persuading. I think it’s the camera thing. It makes them feel important.

We finished after a few hours and went to a Starbucks to watch some raw footage. I’m no Larry King, but I thought I did a pretty good job of probing for details and getting info out of people. But after watching two or three interviews, I realized the camera had not been on me at all. Most of the time, the camera man had zoomed straight into the person’s face. I guess he wanted to dramatize their true feelings about online banking.

In the wider shots, I was on screen – well my nose was, along with the squirrel mic. It may not help me get a gig on E!, but at least I got paid.

Bee Season

There’s more to London’s nightlife than musicals and plays. After you see a show in the West End, why not step into Soho, where you’ll find some of the trendiest hotspots in London. Just around the corner from The Palace Theatre, you’ll find Kettners where you can enjoy some bubbly at the champagne bar or relax and listen to the pianist in this lavish lounge…”

I had a paid gig for the London Tourist Board to promote local businesses to theatre goers who would receive a short DVD when they booked tickets. Of course it wasn’t really a tour of hotspots, because the hotspots don’t need the extra P.R. But I didn’t mind, it was a good gig and it only took two days to shoot. By the end, I knew every street in Soho – no small feat. Besides, I got some good on-camera experience, even if it wasn’t really acting. It’s hard to give an emotional delivery of lines like “With its trendy clothes shops and hip record stores, Soho is the center of urban cool.” Plus it was weird looking straight into the camera when I’d always been taught not to. We shot during the day – I don’t think the tourist board really wanted to promote some of the more interesting late night sights, and they conveniently left Peter Street off their tour.

Later that week, Marcus called and asked if I wanted to get together, so feeling like an expert I suggested Nanobyte, one of the bars I’d passed by while doing the gig. I’d only seen it in daytime when it was empty, so I was taking a chance on what the crowd would be like, but it looked cool enough. “Wardour Street has long been associated with the film industry – it was the home for early innovations in color films,” I resisted saying. I didn’t want to turn into Cliff Clavin, spewing useless knowledge of Soho to anyone who would listen.

Marcus said he wanted to grab a bite and suggested Hummus Brothers instead. Now I like hummus just as much as the next gal, but probably not enough to make a night of it. Luckily, their menu was more extensive than the name suggests. Marcus apologized for canceling on me the last time and I pretended it was no big deal. He gave me the lowdown on his projects in development, the problems he was having getting funding and a grant for which he’d applied. I was reminded just how long it takes to get things done in this business. It took Salma Hayek 10 years to get Frida made. But I didn’t have 10 years. There’s only so long a person can live in this limbo. I decided then I’d give it two more years.

“Lucy… Lucy?” Marcus had caught me not listening. “Let’s get out of here. You up for a bit of a walk? I don’t want to stick around Soho.”

I couldn’t have agreed more. There was something about all those self-important media people buzzing about – especially in summer. At times, it was energizing, but on the wrong day, it was just a reminder that you could get stung.

“How about Long Bar at The Sanderson,” he suggested.

There are eyes drawn on the backs of the chairs so that even if it’s empty, you still get the sense of being ogled.

“You know what, I changed my mind. Let’s stay in Soho. Follow me.” I took him to the least trendy place, the place least likely to be in a promotional DVD: Garlic and Shots. It was a dive bar with goths and bikers and I think I saw a fake (I hope) coffin in the corner. We had a blast and made some new friends who showed us their tattoos and piercings. We were still laughing when we stumbled out onto Frith Street at 2 a.m.

“Did you know that television was invented in the top floor rooms above what is now Bar Italia on Frith Street,” my inner Cliff Clavin couldn’t resist. I could sense Marcus wanted to shut me up, which he did by kissing me.