I was 23-years old when I drove across the country to start a new life in Los Angeles, a city I had never been to. Somewhere around Texas, I started thinking about what career I would have once I got there.
I “trained” as an actress when I was a child. I use the word trained lightly because although my teachers took themselves very seriously, they were failed actors living in North Carolina, teaching kids how to hit their marks and deliver their lines.
In my sophomore year of college, when I was cast in the chorus and not as the star of our school’s fall musical, I knew that my acting career was over. It’s cute to be a pale, freckle-faced kid, but it’s not exactly the secret ingredient for leading lady stardom. Once you outgrow that red Annie dress, it’s a wrap. I realized that I was meant to work behind the camera instead of in front of it, and switched my major to photography.
As I was driving, by the time I hit New Mexico, I decided that I would combine my love for acting and photography to become a Hollywood agent. This made perfect sense to me.
An ocean is not large enough to hold everything that I didn’t know. Would we ever make giant leaps in life if they weren’t completely uninformed? My only tool for battle in this journey was my ignorance.
The first thing I learned after signing a lease on a studio apartment at the base of Runyon Canyon was that if you want to be an agent, you must first be an assistant. I scanned the classifieds in the Hollywood Reporter and found an open call listed for assistants at a Sunset Boulevard address.
I marched towards the office in my black Calvin Klein suit that I had bought at Marshall’s with my resume in hand and my heart full of hope.
Then I saw the line of 80 people winding down the sidewalk.
As I stood under the hot sun, across the street from The Body Shop (not the bath and soap shop, a strip club), I learned from people in line who knew more than I did that this interview was with a legendary talent agent.
They rattled off the names of actors he’d discovered and made famous.
I was very impressed.
Of course, I didn’t ask myself why the “legend” was working out of a tiny rental space across from a strip club.
Finally, it was my turn for an interview, and my first encounter with a real live Hollywood character.
He was 63 years old. He looked closer to 80. He was mostly bald, and his white beard was littered with cracker crumbs. He wore giant sunglasses inside his dark office. He had a Chanel scarf tied around his neck. His cashmere sweater had a moth hole near his belly button. He looked like a stylishly gay and possibly homeless Santa Claus. He told me that he was a recovering alcoholic, and that the wine glass he waved around while he talked was full of Pepsi.
The glass, he said, convinced him that he was still having fun.
He looked at my resume with two NYC photography jobs and one North Carolina waitressing job, and laughed like a villain.
What do you think you’re doing here, girl?
Um. Well. Interviewing?
You haven’t even been through a pilot season in this town. Do you even know what a pilot season IS?
Um. Well. No, not really. But here’s the thing: I’m smart. I catch on to everything quickly. I’m willing to learn and put in extra hours off the clock to teach myself what I don’t know. I’m humble and I’ll willingly accept criticism. I know a lot about acting and actors and I have a great respect for the theatre. This is what I want to do and I feel sure that if you hire me, you will not regret it.
He paused. Lowered his sunglasses to look at me with bare, beady eyes. I stuck my chin up and held his gaze evenly although every one of my organs was trembling.
You’re hired. You’re going to be an agent one day. Tell the people in line out there to go home and stop wasting my time.
I don’t know exactly what it was that made him hire me that day. His acceptance was my foot in the door. Every step along the way was a new challenge, but I wouldn’t have made any of those next steps were it not for that crazy old man giving me my big break.
From what I gathered, his life had been a lot like Boogie Nights: sex, drugs, rock and roll in the 70s, dramatic scandal and despair in the 80s, and in the past decade, he’d been just barely hanging on to the last two joys in his life: an aging mansion in the hills, and an annual vacation to St. Barth’s.
When the business didn’t bring in enough for him to make payroll, two large men in shiny suits would pay us a visit. He would lay out a few Rolexes and some jewelry on his desk, they’d give him a pile of cash, and he’d give me the cash to deposit in the bank.
I set a computer up in his office because it seemed like the thing to do. I walked in one day to find him holding the mouse in his hand, pointing it at the screen like a remote control, shaking his head. This damn thing is already broken, he said.
After I served him his daily lunch of two shrimp cocktails ordered from The Hamburger Hamlet and ten packets of saltines (the source of the ever-present crumbs in the beard), he would call me into his office to compose letters.
But with his lunch, he also took two Xanax and a few other pills that I was never able to identify. From 3-6pm, I would sit across from him and watch him drift in and out of sleep. He would start a sentence like, tell him that I very much want to come to the play in New York on September…then his eyes would close, his head would fall back onto his chair, and he’d be out.
This happened every day. About thirty minutes later, he would sit right back up and finish his sentence, …the 12th, but that I will only fly first class, so he should cover my fare if he wants me to attend.
Every day. Like nothing had ever happened.
I don’t know if he was aware that he nodded out or not. We never discussed it. I just obediently waited for him to wake up, and we would continue our work like there had been no break.
On New Year’s Eve, I traveled back to LA after visiting my parents in North Carolina for Christmas with my then-boyfriend. The plan was to land just in time to go to a New Year’s Eve party. During our layover, however, I was informed by our waiter at Chili’s Express that my bank card had been rejected.
Which means that my paycheck had bounced. For the third time. While my boss was living it up in St. Barth’s with a 20-year-old boy named Magnus with no tan lines who he’d promised to cast in a soap opera in exchange for, well, you know.
I was pissed.
We paid for the cab home from the airport with our last thirty dollars. We had no money to go to a party. I wasn’t going to let that stop me from having a good time.
I knew that my boss had started renting out one of the guest rooms in his mansion to help cover his mortgage. My boyfriend and I got in my car and drove from our depressing studio apartment to his home in the glorious Hollywood Hills.
I knocked on my boss’s door. His tenant opened it.
Hi, I said. You don’t know me, but I work for the man who owns this house, and he bounced my paycheck, so I can’t have the New Year’s Eve that I planned because I’m broke, so I’m just going to chill here instead. Is that cool?
Welcome, Happy New Year, and come on in. I’m havin’ a hell of a party in here.
That night remains the best New Year’s Eve of my life. I’ll spare you the details and just say that the man owned an indoor, twelve-person hot tub. I mentioned Boogie Nights already, right?
We partied all night, helped ourselves to the food in the fridge, slept soundly in his giant bed, and I left my letter of resignation on his coffee table.
He died, three years ago, in a studio apartment he moved into after losing his house. One block away from my first apartment.