I first met Max in October, two months after I moved to Chile. I was sitting alone at Wonderful Café when he approached me.
“Have you ever been in TV commercials?” he asked.
I shook my head repeatedly as he spoke.
“All you have to do is go to the castings I send you. You can make $2,000 per month.” What about the acting? “There’s minimal acting required.” I don’t speak Spanish. “You don’t need to.” He sized me up as we spoke. “You should wear your glasses. They want a hipster look.”
He gave me the card for his agency. “Call me on Monday.”
I knew about gringos working as TV models, or at least trying to. There were my roommates, who went to castings for Diet Coke and Gillette. Some people even suggested I should try out. “You could totally play the dad in the bank commercial,” the woman who cut my hair had said. I never thought much of it, until I met Max.
Monday afternoon, I picked up my phone and dialed.
“There’s a casting this afternoon in two hours. Can you make it?” Max said, sounding hurried.
I hesitated and looked at my watch.
“I could do that.”
“Have a drink before you go. Good luck.”
I sipped on a glass of wine and stared at myself in the mirror. I could only think of one thing: This is how people get into porn.
They called my name. I followed a man into a large empty room with music playing on low volume. I stared at the backdrop and the lights and the camera. My heart raced. Porn shoot. I looked for the exits. Run.
The photographer told me to stand in front of the camera. He toggled with the lens. He asked me to turn to the side, turn around, walk toward the camera, smile, and look “serious.” Say your name, age and hobbies. For some reason, I said I liked to cook. He said thank you, and I was finished. Painless.
I spoke to Max afterward. He assured me that I was good-looking enough to get hired for lots of jobs.
This is how I started going to modeling castings.
Why not? I thought. I had time. I was wasting away in Santiago. Sitting on park benches, mid-afternoon naps, and long walks. I thought, maybe I’ll get hired, but probably not; I went anyway. I had nothing else to do. Chile was about reinventing myself, trying new things. Why not go to castings?
The castings ranged from just a few photos, to saying a few lines, to bizarre scenes I’d have to act out.
The photographer placed a toy car on the table. “I want you to push the car, gently, like this,” he said, guiding the car with two fingers. “And while you’re doing it, I want you to have a sinister look on your face, like you’re enjoying this, like you’re evil.” He looked up at me and demonstrated. “Then I want you to push the car off the table and onto the floor and laugh. You love that you just destroyed the car. It’s supposed to be ironic.” He walked over to the camera and prepared it to roll.
I stood there frozen, confused. How do I relate to a toy car’s destruction? I suspected that the guy translating was fucking with me. I glanced at him as we started. Are you fucking with me?
Afterwards, I sat deflated at an empty restaurant. I decided I wouldn’t go back.
But then, a week later, because I was bored, and because Max kept calling, I went to another casting. Why not go? You have nothing else to do.
I’d have to wait an hour. I’d bring a book and read while I sat on a floor in a cramped waiting room. I’d stand outside and look at my iPad. I’d read on my phone. The big castings would have real models–girls who towered over me. Blonde. Blue eyes. Wearing next to nothing. They came in groups, four at a time from Russia or Brazil, their perfume wafting over me, “Fuck you,” written on their foreheads.
The photographer told me to sit on a plastic chair and handed me a box and pointed to a spot on the wall where I was supposed to look.
“You’re at the movies and you’re eating popcorn and enjoying the movie. I want you to do three levels of laughter. One where it’s amusing,” he demonstrated with a chuckle. “One where it’s funny, like this.” He laughed. “And another where it’s hilarious, the funniest scene in the film.”
The guy waiting to go next smirked. I gulped. “And action!”
Once in a while I’d actually get called back. “The director liked something you did,” Max would say. “The movie thing you did was good.”
I didn’t tell anyone what I was doing, except for a handful of friends and my sister. This was a mistake. My sister told my family, “Branden’s an actor now.”
When I called home at Thanksgiving, it was all anyone wanted to hear about.
My mother passed the phone to my aunt.
“So you’re a model now?” they asked.
One day Max called me and said he’d been fired–he was starting his own agency. He asked if I’d go with him. I said, absolutely, you’re my guy. In the pretend world where I’m a model who needs an agent, yes, Max, you’re my guy.
Three months went by. I became busier with teaching. Every so often I’d get an email about a job that paid $10,000 and was shooting in Miami. Why not go?
They’d put me in front of the camera and come up with a ridiculous scenario. “OK, it’s Christmas. Open the box and look inside. Your father got you this tie. Take the tie in your hands and you’re very excited. You’re overjoyed about it. Show everyone and smile and say thank you.”
What the fuck am I doing? I’m not going back.
Max got paranoid when I stopped responding. “Are you going with my old agency?” he asked me at one point.
Max called me twice; I hit “ignore” both times.
He called me again when I was in Uruguay; again, I hit “ignore.” Rolling farmland sprawled outside my window as I checked my email from a coach bus in Colonia. An email from Max:
I NEED YOUR ANSWER IMMEDIATELY FOR LAN. IF THEY CHOOSE YOU, YOU GO TO MIAMI ON THURSDAY NIGHT AND COME BACK ON SUNDAY FOR $450.000 LIQUID FOR YOU.
I said, sure, he could use my reel; I never heard about it again.
A month later, my Friday class afternoon got canceled. I scrolled through my emails and saw a casting for a cell-phone company that paid quite a lot. I decided to go.
They gave me a dress shirt and a tie and had me sit at a table with three others. I was going to play a Mafia boss.
I stared at the table. Cards and poker chips and fake guns. Three other guys in fedoras. One of them spoke only in Russian.
One of my associates stood behind me and whispered in my ear. I scrunched my face. The director said to look angry. I said, “Fuck.” I threw my cards. I said, “Fuck” again. Everyone looked at me. It wasn’t enough. I need more. Fists. Smash your fists.
The table laid on the ground, contorted and broken, one leg bent from where I’d hit it. A woman walked over to clean up the mess. She picked up handful of poker chips and a plastic gun. Someone else grabbed a broom. They tried to bend the table leg back; it was useless. They tossed it to the side.
“That was great,” the photographer said. “Really good.” He clapped.
“I’m so sorry.” I handed them a fake gun and a stack of chips. I took off the tie.
“It’s OK, don’t worry about it. Thanks for coming. Let’s take five.”
Over drinks that night, I told my friends about my day as a Mafia boss. I’m not going back, I said; I’m done with all that. “I’m retiring.” This time I was serious. I never went to another casting. Max stopped calling. I went back to afternoons in the park to doing nothing. I was relieved.