I arrived in Los Angeles with everything I owned crammed into a tiny Toyota MR2. My hero at the time was Kenneth Branagh, and I had spent a summer studying Shakespeare with Des MacAnuff at the LaJolla Playhouse Conservatory. So, obviously, the next logical step was getting a job like Sir Branagh’s and put one of Willie’s plays on film. No prob. They hand those out at the California state line.
At the Playhouse Conservatory, my teachers had told me that I should be doing more Comedy Del Arte and Noel Coward. Ophelia and Lady Anne? Not so much. I stubbornly insisted that my talent was standing over a coffin or a riverbed weeping, but they disagreed and gave me scenes to perform where I fell down a lot. When I got my first audience laugh, it clicked. I still knew I was destined to make movies in iambic pentameter, but just really, really funny ones. I knew I had to move to LA.
A lot of people show up to LA thinking fame will make them a whole person. The bright lights and sunshine will fill up every crack, nook, and cranny. Sure it’s a desert paved with tinsel and promise, but it’s still built over unstable fault lines. I’m not going to pretend that before I came to LA, I was perfectly well adjusted. Since I was thirteen, I thought the perfect example of being in love was Romeo and Juliet. They cared about each other. So you could say that I was a bit dramatic when it came to break-ups. No daggers or anything, but if you crossed me, I wouldn’t put it past me to place a pox on your house. But it’s only because I cared.
I had my requisite hours of self-loathing like any other average American girl. It just manifested itself in whatever eating disorder Cosmopolitan magazine was pushing that month, plus a fondness for very high heels that belied my very short stature. I fell down and scraped my knees a lot. Not even for the laughs.
I had a few things going for me in the beginning. I was self-confident, tenacious and had an unwavering faith in my “art”. You have to be those things to set out for the West and think anyone would have interest in seeing Troilus and Cressida on the big screen. You need confidence. You need to pursue your passion just as much as everyone else: with the delusion of a sociopath loosed from a corn fed production of Pippin. There is a reason why people come here and believe that they can do anything. There is something about this place that makes you keep pulling the lever, like the cruelest game of slots ever invented.
I hit the ground running in LA with the gung ho attitude of a high ponytail. I was determined to make the most of every opportunity, every little morsel that came my way. Just like riding a tidal wave of sheer panic upon realizing you have decided to bet your entire life on black, you zestfully press forward with fists pumped into the air ready to take on anything: life, debt, water…
During the day, I interned for a small production company, which searched for heartwarming properties that could be made into Hallmark type films. If anyone sitting in that place was being honest, or willing to break the confidentiality clause to be so, the place was really a vanity production shingle. It was a lark for a very rich housewife, Pamela, of a very rich head of another studio. There were a lot of meetings and lunches and scripts optioned but not a lot of production going on.
I wanted to learn as much as I could about the business, so I was happy to be in the middle of everything. I figured it was better than waiting tables or stocking shelves somewhere, even though I was only making two hundred bucks a week. It made auditions impossible, but I hadn’t yet landed an agent and I could still make my Groundlings classes at night if traffic wasn’t too gnarly. I showed up to work plucky and happy and smiley and generally creeped everyone out. They most likely figured I was on a new strong strain of anti-depressant their shrinks hadn’t yet told them about, or that one day I’d snap and murder them.
I started out answering phones on a desk until eventually they let me double task as a script reader. I thought this meant they trusted me. In reality they realized they could get me to read for free instead of paying script analysts to do it. I quickly learned to do coverage, which was really a glorified book report on the scripts that came in piles waist deep. The most interesting was a film version of Jane Austen’s Emma, being pitched to the owner of the company by some outside producers. I was excited to eavesdrop on meetings and figure out how they were actually going to make it happen in a town that usually demanded movies with explosions and high body counts. I didn’t get to hear the answer because mostly, I filed papers, typed up notes and ran errands.
I soon learned that the indie film “Swimming With Sharks” with Kevin Spacey was not an exaggeration. The federal crime of, for instance, mistaking Sweet and Low for Equal was grounds for dismissal, if not a humiliating dressing down in front of the entire office. I did my perfectionist best to get every detail perfect. I took copious notes, put post-its everywhere, and arrived to work early to double check that everything was in place. If I forgot to send a memo, it would wake me up in the middle of the night in a blind panic. If a vase of freesia was put on the wrong coffee table, it was on par with a hate crime. It occurred to me that if these idiosyncrasies didn’t get in the way of daily meetings, a movie might have gotten off the ground, but I kept that efficient idea to myself.
It was common knowledge that Pamela had many dietary restrictions. Some were preference, but others were for health reasons. We were never sure which were which, because they tended to shift with the tides, but we knew that under no circumstances, were we to bring any lunch, food, or snacks, that violated her food policies. Now, there were others in the office that had conflicting food allergy issues, so planning an in-office lunch took the delicate diplomacy of NATO and the calculus skills of someone who, unlike me, actually showed up to math classes in college. I tried keeping charts with different foods hi-lighted in different colors. Finally, I realized that my only real job was to keep Pamela alive. Beyond that, if someone else turned purple I’d have to rely on the efficiency of Beverly Hills 911 emergency services.
One day Pamela had an extended lunch meeting with some producers. They decided to order lunch in, which she made clear to me created the possibility that she could die on my watch. They selected their entrees from the menus and I called the order in to The Palm and then went to pick it up. Often if an order wasn’t correct – or it lacked pepper, or the dressing wasn’t on the side, or it was on the side and there wasn’t enough of it, or there weren’t enough napkins and she didn’t like the texture of the napkins that were in the office kitchen, back out I went to the Palm, or Spago, or The Grill, or Mr. Chow, or The Ivy, to start over. On this particular day, all salads with dressing on the side were consumed without incident and I sat back down at my desk and high-fived myself with the pride of someone who just made peace in the Middle East.
But then…Pamela called out to me. Actually, she didn’t so much call out to me as throw a pen at me out into the hall, which indicated that I was being summoned into her office. I ran back into the office where she informed me that they were going to screen a movie for research and that I was to bring in a round of Perrier and popcorn. I was to make fresh popcorn and not any that was made with palm oil. Pamela was allergic to palm oil.
I ran into the office kitchen and rifled through the cabinets. There were several boxes of microwave popcorn, but all had palm oil as ingredients. Fuck. I grabbed my keys and ran out the door and tore out of the garage to the closest supermarket. In the snack aisle I scoured the backs of all the microwave popcorn packages, looking for any brand that didn’t have palm oil. I found only one, a brand that was a Healthy Choice styled version. My reading the back of the package wasn’t good enough proof. I needed a second opinion, lest the words I was looking at with my eyeballs weren’t the same words that were being translated by my brain juices. I called for a manager.
“Hi. Does this have palm oil in it?” I shoved the package at the beleaguered manager.
He looked it over, reading the contents.
“No, it doesn’t look like it. No. No palm oil.” I didn’t budge.
“How can you be sure?” I asked. The manager looked at me like a guy who was not in the mood for my bullshit, but who was used to this type of crap, hourly.
“There is no palm oil listed in the ingredients on the package.”
“I know that. I read it. But how can we be sure that some didn’t get in there anyway? Some rogue palm oil…” The manager sighed.
“I guess we can’t be one hundred percent sure. Other than sending it to a lab and testing it.”
“Do you do that?” I asked, hopefully.
“Oh,” I said disappointed.
“But the chances of rogue palm oil forcing it’s way into a box of microwave popcorn from other boxes of microwave popcorn is pretty slim. I have yet to see it happen in my seven years here.”
“But you’re not ruling it out,” I say, warily.
“Nope. Anything is possible. I still audition for acting gigs and I have been out here for twenty years. So I can’t say I rule anything out. But again. Probably not gonna happen.”
I looked at him in his scratchy supermarket vest and suddenly I was comfortable in the knowledge that this box was a palm oil free zone. I raced off and back to the office, zapped the corn and put the fluffy contents into a porcelain bowl. Balancing the bowl on a tray with a group of Perriers, I entered the office. Pamela gave me an exasperated sigh for interrupting and a hand motion to usher me out.
I sat back down at my desk, sweating and breathing heavily. I was relieved Operation Popcorn had come to a close.
Another pen came flying out of the office into the hall. Then I heard a curdled scream. I stood straight up in a panic. Pamela came out of the office clutching her throat.
“Are you trying to kill me?” She half yelled, half stage whispered through a strained throat. The other women executives in an array of pastel suits gathered around her in concern. “This popcorn has palm oil in it! You’ve poisoned me!” Pamela grabbed the porcelain bowl and threw it at my head. It whooshed right past my face, smashing into pieces behind me.
“Oh God, my throat is closing up. Someone call 911! Quickly!” One of her pastel cohorts went to grab the phone. I ran for the kitchen and turned over the trashcan, wading through spoiled half-eaten lunches, coffee grinds, and soiled wrappers. I found the bag from the microwave popcorn. I looked again on the back. No palm oil. I ran back to the office.
“Pamela! It says no palm oil. I even asked at the store. They said it had no palm oil! I swear. Look!” I frantically pushed the wrapper at her, trying to save myself from a lengthy murder trial. She glanced over at the wrapper. Then her entire body relaxed.
“Oh. I thought I tasted palm oil.” She looked over at the broken shards of porcelain china and popcorn strewn across the Berber carpet. “Clean that mess up.” And she walked back into the office and shut the door.
I sat back down, shaking. Let’s be real. I was learning about catering, not camera angles or acting marks, or editing. I could sit and answer phones anywhere, and learn about the business, probably somewhere with less of a chance of contracting a concussion.
I went back to the grocery store to replenish the popcorn. If you think I didn’t buy the kind with palm oil, then you really haven’t been paying attention. A pox on her house. I immediately started going through the rolodex and put out feelers for other jobs where I would have more time to pursue my own projects without getting shit thrown at me. And then I found my people. A receptionist job opened up at MTV.