My brief stint as an actress
I can’t act.
Of this I am sure. Google me and you’ll be sure, too.
Years ago, I got a phone call from an agent. An actress – a real actress – was out sick and they desperately needed someone to fill her part.
The role was that of a reporter on some now forgotten American TV series … or was it a Movie of the Week? Whatever? They needed someone and, being as I was on local news, my face came to the agent’s mind. Would I take the part?
Would I? Would I!
I had been harbouring this fantasy ever since I got hold of the TV remote. This was the Broadway dream of the understudy called up to replace the lead coming true! I was being plucked from obscurity! Was I ready? I was ready!
This was the Broadway dream of the understudy called up to replace the lead coming true!
How hard could it be?
They sent over my lines and I reported to the set at dawn the next day. I might as well have hung up the phone and gone directly to the set as I didn’t sleep that night. There may have been only six lines – not one of them more than a dozen words long – but I was up all night memorizing them and trying out different inflections. I was pretty sure Entertainment Tonight would be chronicling this, the launch of my stellar career. Every daft Hollywood myth played out on the silver screen of my fetid imagination.
I showed up early on the set. The acting began immediately as I tried to act unfazed and relaxed. I didn’t have butterflies in my stomach; I had pterodactyls, albatrosses and condors. Anxious didn’t begin to describe it.
We did a run-through, something called ‘blocking’, in which you figure out where everybody, including the camera, will be before you shoot a scene. While I was waiting for my scenes to come up, they housed me in a trailer. The trailer had my name on the door. Well, it had my character’s name on it.
My costume was arrayed in my trailer when I arrived. Everything was bagged and labeled, including jewelry, pantyhose and a down coat to keep me warm on the set.
This, I figured, is what it’s like to be queen.
Much of the morning was spent in Makeup. Famous-ish people sat alongside me. Someone actually asked me if they could bring Ms. Macdougall a coffee! They could and they did!
Hours went by and I wished I had brought a book.
Breakfast, lunch and eventually dinner; there were big meals and endless snacks at something called Craft Services. Every once in a while, someone would come around and powder my nose or ask if I was comfortable. Eventually, I fell asleep in my trailer.
Three sharp raps on my door made me sit bolt upright.
“Jane? We’re ready for you on the set.”
That’s what the A.D. – Assistant Director – said. What I heard was:
“Dead man walking.”
In that moment, I wanted nothing more than to run away.
When it came time to do my lines, which involved walking and talking at the same time, I felt like I had been called before the firing squad. I knew that screwing up would cost the production thousands of dollars a minute and the pressure of that made me, of course, screw up.
What I was being asked to do was dead simple, but being the focus of dozens of people while doing something dead simple was daunting. The director came alongside me and whispered a suggestion. It was something like, “Say it like you’re ordering a drink in a bar.” Problem solved. Somehow, I got it right – or right enough – that after a couple of takes, they were happy.
I was in another two scenes, one where I had lines, another where I was just present. We plowed through them. By the time it was over, I had the bug.
The happy development from this inaugural day was that, not only did I get paid handsomely, somehow I got my union papers and was now eligible to do this all again. The agent that had called me, signed me up and – wonder of wonders – I began to get bookings. For your entertainment, I shall now revisit some of my more memorable scenes:
“The doctor will see you now.”
“The defense rests, your Honour.”
“Did anyone think to check the boathouse?”
And let’s not forget:
This last one from a medical drama, of course.
I did all the schlock that was being produced in British Columbia at the time and was even flown to various productions filming in other Canadian locations. I called what I did ‘talk modelling’: I set the scene for the real actors. I was one notch up from a prop. My ‘career’ never progressed beyond this.
I was one notch up from a prop.
And you know why?
Because I was really, really bad at it.
I was a bad actor. Nervous, self-conscious; I could never get out of my own way. I was wooden. Actually, I aspired to wooden-ness. It would have been an improvement. The audition process was something I never got a handle on. I could walk out of an audition feeling entirely confident – ‘nailed it!’ – but not have made the callback cut; or I could botch the audition but still be up for consideration for the part. Sometimes I choked, plain and simple. Sometimes I couldn’t muster any enthusiasm for the bland role I was up for. There were occasions when I didn’t get the part because I was a brunette and so was the lead and they wanted to differentiate between the look of the roles. I remember thinking, ‘So, the headshots? This wasn’t something you could discern from my headshots before you dragged me across town for this two hour process?”
Eventually, the equation fell apart. The industry grew up and parts went to serious actors who pursued acting careers. You know, people with talent.
I stopped auditioning. I didn’t miss it and the industry didn’t miss me. Still, whenever I see a terrific performance in a play or a movie, I do all the parts on the drive home.
And then I thank the Academy.
Dreams die hard, don’t they?