It’s crazy to light a cathedral’s lot of candles in a small makeup trailer. But that’s not stopping Olga from igniting a thicket of scented pillars amidst the tubes and bottles and other cosmetic clutter she has strewn across her narrow table.
“Olga, you may wanna trim the wicks before you liiight those things.”
My drawl is slipping again. Sometimes this early in the morning I have a hard time controlling my natural tendency to stretch every single syllable of speech into two or three. Even though I’ve worked like the dickens to suppress it since I left Texas some twenty-odd years ago. Usually my lapses into Texan prompt a tease from Olga, but today she’s ignoring me. She’s absorbed in attacking the mishmash of tall cylindrical candles she has assembled with a cherry-hued, plastic lighter that matches her shock of red lipstick.
“What are you, a witch?” I ask, not entirely kidding.
Olga’s tall, lean figure is draped in black, sorcerer-like garments that resemble singed stalks of willow. Sheer, dangling shreds of dark fabric from her tunic-draped arms float perilously close to her assortment of rising flames. If this film were a Grimm’s fairy tale flick, her getup would be perfect. Maybe her mastery of makeup artistry extends to the dark arts. But I know better. Olga has Soviet roots, but she is actually the embodiment of Zen. She’s keen on environment and can’t work without creating the right atmosphere for inspiration. I like this about her. And I certainly benefit from a bit of aromatherapy at this godforsaken hour of the morning.
I stifle a yawn, but I can’t complain. I love my job. It smells good.
“Ylang Ylang,” she says as if reading my mind. “And lavender. A leetle sage. Good for you and me. We carry too much fire.”
I don’t know what that means, but I accept it. “Fire” has been used to describe me my whole life: “spitfire,” “firebrand,” “hothead.” And Olga and I have worked together often enough that I trust her. On one film she had to cover my entire, naked body in sparkly gold grease paint every day for a month, when I played an alien assassin having an affair with my human target, Colin Farrell. So Olga and I have few secrets.
Suddenly Olga leans toward me. Her fierce, Kohl-rimmed eyes narrow, and her tight-lipped expression is a mystery. Her blue eyes are cold and penetrating, dramatized by the sweep of her eyeliner, which resembles an image in an Egyptian artifact.
“Your skeeen,” she says, her lips inches from my own. “Too dry. No wrinkles, but you need moisture, Jo. Over 40 we need more.”
“Olga! I am NOT over 40!” I shout. “Why do you think I’m over 40?”
“Actresses lie,” Olga shrugs.
It’s not a good sign when the woman who applies my makeup every day thinks I’m over 40. Even if it’s true. And she said it so casually, like, “oh, you know how it is when we’re over 40.” Whatever happened to ‘Black don’t crack’? I don’t look old, do I?
It’s all starting to make sense. I bet that’s why Michael Mann gave that astrophysicist part to Meagan Good instead of me. She’s a sweet girl, but it’s ridiculous that a child barely out of diapers is better suited to play the head of NASA. Shouldn’t the head of NASA be old? Oh, shit.
“What?” I snap.
You want coffee?” Olga asks, raising a silver Starbucks thermos in my direction. She seems completely unaware of the damage she has done to my ego by correctly guessing my age. And saying it out loud. I shake my head, unable to speak. Olga shrugs again and takes a sip from a small, silver-toned cup. She hums softly to herself while sorting through the contents of the rolling bag she uses to carry her kit to and from the set every day.
Olga has unleashed my demons, and I doubt the hint of sage burning in her candles is sufficient to keep them at bay. This is a disaster. Even when I had trouble getting parts because I wasn’t a “Julia” or a “Sandra,” at least I had my looks. My Yale drama degree is irrelevant in L.A., but my resemblance to what my agent, Jen, calls “a poor man’s Halle Berry” (with no sense of irony) has always helped me keep a roof over my head. Maybe I should move back to New York.
I lean forward in my canvas seat toward the shrill lights of the makeup mirror. I don’t see any lines. OK, a few hairline streaks in the forehead, but otherwise good. I still look good. I think. I don’t look 20, but I don’t look 40, do I? I wonder if that’s why Jen keeps pressing me to read for that judge role. It’s a good script, but that’s usually the beginning of the end, when you start taking those judge roles. But Jen’s a good agent and an even better friend, so she would tell me if I NEEDED to read for judge roles, wouldn’t she? And I got this Obsessions part, didn’t I? It’s a lead! With a love scene! I press my index fingers against the edges of my eyelids and give them a little tug.
“Don’t get eyes done,” Olga says as she jabs the igniter of her Bic lighter with her thumb and lights the last few torches. “These women, they ruin themselves with too much work too soon.”
The tiny flames glimmer; a golden glow that fizzles in the glare of the brassy bulbs of the makeup mirror. Olga pulls a CD out of her bag and slips it into the carriage of her Sony boombox. Deepak Chopra’s baritone wafts through the small space like a trail of incense. “With your toxic emotions, toxic environment, toxic habits, toxic substances, the key is to experience inner silence …”
What I’m experiencing is anything but inner silence, and the white-hot glare of the fluorescent globes is bothering me. It’s too severe; more suited to an interrogation than a beautification. So I close my eyes.
My senses are on edge, and my scalp itches. I inch my fingers underneath my wig and scratch the skin beneath my short, squiggly strands of real hair. I dared to shave my head for that Colin Farrell movie, and it’s taking forever to grow back. I lopped off my locks, despite my agent, Jen’s warnings that short hair is the death knell of the career of any Black actress other than Halle Berry, even the poor man’s version. You not only need youth, but you need “good” hair and an even better bod to get work these days, no matter how prestigious a drama school you attended. But I beat out a boatload of younger actresses for that part, so I was feeling brazen. Maybe it wasn’t the best idea, since I could have worn a bald cap. But I’ve spent my entire life obsessing over my hair, and I need a break. Though now I’m anxious I might not get another one.
Eyes still shut, I feel something soft and cool stroking my face and neck as Olga gently sweeps them in a circular motion with a toner-soaked sponge. I suddenly feel an equally soft bit of pressure on my forehead as Ravi kisses me hello.
“Just had to see you before the madness starts,” he whispers. “Director’s prerogative.”
My eyes flutter open to the sight of his coppery reflection gleaming in the lighted mirror. Dull dots of black and silver stubble speckle his chin. Ravi experiments with various stages of shadow, beard and bare face, as he can never quite decide who he wants to be. Today he’s got a Don Johnson shadow that most likely resulted from his late night in the editing room, not some attempt at a fashion statement. His long, black hair is pulled back in a haphazard ponytail that he has tucked underneath a faded baseball cap featuring the logo of a surf shop near his house. We admire each other in the mirror without looking at each other directly.
“We missed you last night,” I say to his image. “I wanted you to meet my best friends, Jen and Rudy. You haven’t passed inspection yet, and Rudy goes back to New York in a couple of days.”
Ravi’s eyes turn dark and uncertain. Olga is here, the soiled sponge still pinched between her fingers and poised to cleanse me. I knew this would happen at some point. One of us was bound to slip up, even though we said we would keep “us” under wraps until the film was a wrap. Which is usually a taller order for me than Ravi. Unlike all the prim and proper women in my family, I’ve never been good at hiding things or holding in my emotions. But film romances can be distracting to everyone on the set, even though they crop up so often that they’re almost expected. And Ravi’s divorce isn’t final yet, which is an even bigger problem than the distraction. Though I don’t know of any L.A. relationship that isn’t messy, so I should stop stressing. But when your parents have been married for 45 years and complete each other’s sentences, it’s hard not to have high expectations.
The trailer door creaks and shudders. It’s stuck, as usual. Yanked hard, it abruptly swings open, and our producer, Regan Coleman, steps up into the trailer. Dark slashes of her red bob are plastered against her head from a recent shower, like dripping strips of tinted papier mache. Her unlined, makeup-free face squints in Ravi’s direction.
“How was dinner with Danielle last night, Ravi? You work things out yet?” Her narrow mouth can barely contain the smirk that is threatening to escape.
“I was editing …”
“Relax!” Regan says, the smirk now released. “As long as it doesn’t affect my movie or my inheritance, I could care less about what you and my mother do or don’t do. I’m sure Danielle has a good prenup. I mean, she has always been good at taking care of HERSELF.”
What is she talking about? I gaze at Ravi. He looks as anxious as I feel.
“I just came to talk about the rushes from yesterday,” Regan continues. “I like the melodrama and think we should amp that up. The dark, indie film vibe looks good but is kind of a snooze, don’t you think? I think we should go more soap than filmie, you know? I know some folks at Lifetime. With a few script tweaks, I think we can interest them in turning this movie into a nighttime soap. I mean syndication, residuals, hello? Danielle’s romance novels are a better fit for TV than the festival circuit anyway.” Her hazel eyes shift from Ravi to me. “And you’re good. I know you do a lot of indie films, but TV is a good place for older actresses.”
From the corner of my eye I notice Ravi’s narrowing stare. Olga raises an eyebrow, sponge still squeezed between her fingers. But Regan’s expression seems affable, not critical.
“TV’s good for all of us except for that hussy, Meryl Streep,” I deadpan. “Who did that woman blow to get all of those great films? And you’d think she could share a little bit with the rest of us seniors. Tsk. Selfish!”
Regan smiles without smirking this time. Her eyes soften and she grins like a toddler with a fresh balloon. It’s disarming, because she usually seems hard-edged and hard to reach.
“I LOVE you, Jo!” she giggles. “You’re crazy!”
“I’m from Texas,” I say with a wink. “Crazy is in my DNA.”
“Ha!” she laughs. “OK, so I’ll let you get back to it. Ravi, we’ll talk later. This is going to be awesome!”
Regan bounds out of the door. Ravi slumps and leans against the wall of the trailer.
“What a fuuucking nightmare,” he mumbles in the direction of a spot above my head in the mirror. Living in L.A. for so long has screwed up Ravi’s speech. His Anglo-Indian, London-bred accent is moshed with stretches of slow Southern California intonation and invectives, so talking to him is a bit schizophrenic.
“This thing is becoming a maaajor drag, Jo,” he drones. “Regan and those other producers are reeal morons. This thing is supposed to be satire, Jo. It’s supposed to be clever. A send-up of all the reality TV bullshit and drama. You understand that. EVERYBODY understands that except the stupid investors. I just … I can’t take it anymore. I mean, why do they think some network will buy FAKE fake-reality TV with union actors when you can make REAL fake-reality TV for waaay less with some bloody chavs that would pay yooou to be on television?”
I notice red streaks in Ravi’s eyes and faint lines in the corners of his lids. His slender face is drawn, his expression tired. His shoulders slump as he slides into the empty chair next to mine. Olga drops the sponge and rummages through her makeup case, as if she is searching for the most important thing in the world instead of listening to our conversation. She removes some round pots of color and begins to spread and mix little bits on a board resembling an artist’s palette. Ravi ignores her. He places an elbow on his armrest and drops his forehead into his palm.
“And they say reality stars don’t work for a living,” I joke.
Ravi doesn’t move or speak. He hates to be reminded of the fact that he was on Real World.
“Ravi, I was just kidding, you know.” I tuck stray strands of his hair into his baseball cap.
He finally raises his head, this time staring directly into my eyes instead of my negative image in the makeup mirror. “It’s not that. It’s just . . .” He glances in Olga’s direction. “I’m reeeally stretched to the limit, Jo. I’ve put everythin’ into this project. I’m forty, and I can’t be known as just another reality TV loser for the rest of my life. Forty is pretty old not to have made it in this town, you know. And I’ve got to . . .” Ravi leans toward my chair and lowers his voice to a whisper. “I muuust get Danielle off my back and out of my life. I can’t take her anymore.”
“Why is she still torturing you?” I lower my voice and lean my face closer to his. “She can’t file for divorce and then blame you for moving on with your life!”
“I’m working for her, Jo. Regan gets the producer credit, but we allll know Danielle is bankrolling this thing. I’m still her freeeakin’ lapdog. But I don’t have a choice do I, love? I know this thing will do well for all of us, but until then I can’t afford for her to pull her money out of it. Maybe I aamm just another reality TV loser.”
“Look, Ravi, if she’s funding this, then it’s in her interest for it not to fail, right? And I wouldn’t get so upset about Regan’s TV idea. There’s some great satire on TV. And TV may be more cutting edge than film these days. Since you started in reality TV, you’re the perfect person to poke fun at it.”
Ravi’s head drops back into his hand.
“Ravi, I’m sorry.” Why do I always say the wrong thing? How many times has Mommy told me that the truth is best served up in small bites, not gobbles? “Hey, Ravi, I didn’t mean …”
Ravi raises his hand, cutting me off. “It’s OK, Jo. I’m just tired. Since I can’t buy Danielle out yet, I still have to listen to her. And I also have to listen her crazy daughter that doesn’t even get along with her and keep the peace with everybody. Regan’s annoying, but Danielle’s a huuge pain in the arse. My lawyer’s trying to get this divorce done, but she’s using this movie to get to me.”
“I’ll bet she’s more interested in your arse, sugar plum, than the movie.”
“Well, perhaps,” he says. “But sheee’s the one who broke it off.”
“That doesn’t matter, Ravi. People want what they no longer have, even if they threw it away in the first place. It’s like my Great-uncle Buddy back in Midland says. ‘A dry well teaches ‘ya the worth ‘a water,’” I drawl. On purpose this time.
Usually my Uncle Buddy’s Texanisms make Ravi laugh, or at least smile. Today he remains grim. “I need to get rid of her, but I caaan’t, at least not right now. I’ve tried to find other investors to buy out her share, but she woon’t do it, even if there’s a profit in it. And the film’s based on her book anyway, so I’m stuck with her.”
Ravi searches my face as intensely as my earlier search for wrinkles. “W-well … ,” I sputter under the heat of his gaze, “you know I’ve never read any of her stuff. I mean, other than this script. I guess I prefer chick-lit to romance.”
“But of course you do,” he says. His voice gains a bit of levity, despite his weary expression. “You’re quite the modern girl, aren’t you Ms. Randolph?”
“Don’t tell my mother.” I force a smile and wink at Ravi. “You haven’t met her yet, but she’s pretty old school.”
“I guess I better go now.” Ravi stands and pats the top of my wig like a puppy. “Maaaybe we’ll see each other tonight,” he murmurs, this time back to the mirror as he turns and leaves the trailer.
Olga silently approaches me with a foundation-doused sponge, and I close my eyes again and try to focus on Deepak.
“To help you quiet your emotional turbulence when your needs are not met … accept your feelings without judgment …”
Ravi has really been wigging out. And I never see him anymore, even though we work together every day. We used to find a way to see each other all the time, no matter how busy we were, no matter how stressed. He used to just appear out of nowhere when I was shopping, lunching, buying coffee. Now he’s a phantom, obsessed with his editing and re-editing and rewrites until all hours of the night for a project that’s just not that deep. It’s not Scorsese. And it’s definitely not Shakespeare. It’s a fun, over-the-top riff on soap opera-type dramas and reality TV characters that he has glossed with a music video finish. It’s like spinning cotton candy – we’re making a fun bit of fluff on this set. Obsessions is not art. It’s not life.
That being said, we both have a lot riding on this. Unlike Ravi, I’ve been pretty lucky in this business and haven’t had to wait tables since my early twenties. Though he’s right – forty is too old not to have made it in this town. The big opportunities, the big roles, are fewer and farther between for me.