After securing what I thought was a second internship, I had been trying, unsuccessfully, to work in the casting agency for about 8 weeks. They hadn't needed me. Finally, on my last Thursday, I got the e-mail, the call to casting arms, and I was really jazzed up about it.
Wearing my bright blue Banana Republic dress and toting my Mom-I-NEED-this-because-it's-a-professional-bag bag, I drove into the real heart of Hollywood: Burbank.
It was housed in a drab building with equally gloomy hallways: a place painted black and white to accommodate the mosaic of people renting space. I passed the bathroom with number locks and knocked on the door of the office. "Come in!" A man's voice shot back. Framed movie posters ranging from blockbuster successes to flops covered almost all of the wall space of the small, bright waiting room. Unlike the poster hanging in a dorm room as a public declaration of taste, the posters here gave an awe-inspiring sense of legitimacy to the place I was about to work. The lead staring us straight through the middle of the poster, his quirky side-kick tipping his hat on the side, the hot girl he wanted but was never going to get, standing with her back toward our lead guy her hair blowing around her shoulders....all of these people owed their iconic poses, these immortalized glossy photos, to the agents in the office I was about to work at.
A skinny brown-haired guy a few years older than myself had been working the phones. "Are you Laura?"
"Yes! That's me! Hi." We shook hands. I sat and waited on one of a dozen chairs, periodically glancing at the other occupants: a dad on his iPhone and his little girl, calmly holding a copy of her headshot. Her style of dress I can only describe as being very "Disney channel star:" funky leggings, boots, a bright shirt, little vest, feather hair piece. A door from the taping room opened and another similarly dressed girl exited, meaning it was time for the girl in the waiting room to audition, and time for me to learn everything in twenty minutes.
"Okay. Have you ever worked phones at a casting agency before?"
"Great. Here's what you do. The call will come through on a line. Hit the line number. All you say when you answer the phone is 'casting'. That's it. They'll say their name and who they're representing. Write it down. If they're talking to fast, ask for them to slow it down. They might get annoyed. Explain to them that you're new. They'll ask to talk to one of the agents. Never ever say they're available. Say either 'Can you hold on a minute?' or 'Let me check and see if they're available'. Put them on hold, go ask the agent if they're available. If they are, they'll pick up the line themselves. If they're not, say the agent is in a session. They might ask to 'leave word'. Write that down. If it's a scheduling question, all of it is handled through e-mail. If for some reason you miss someone's name or you miss their company, put them into imdbPro, and you can find one using the other. Got it?"
I hadn't spent years in acting training to fail at this pivotal moment.
"Got it!" I repeated the instructions back to him. He talked me through a practice call. Somewhere during my crash course, we heard the auditioning girl's singing voice float through the wall, and she sounded great. The guy teaching me turned to her father, "She's got an amazing voice!"
The man, wearing an AmericanIdol t-shirt shrugged. "Ehh...We're working on it." I contained my shock. After a few more minutes of chatting, my guide was off on an audition for a movie about street fighters. "Oh! Cool! Do you street fight?"
"Oh...Well...good luck, then."
And then it was just Laura and the waiting room. The agent who I had been in contact with trying to secure a day of work came out to speak with me. She was truly an awesome woman with an impressively consistent kind and empathetic attitude. She repeated most of the things I had already heard from my first instructor, but I listened anyway. She said it would only really be busy in the afternoon when a bunch of other young girls arrived to audition for the project. "Here's my key to the office, lock up when you leave, lunch is from 1-2 and we don't answer phones then."
And just like that, I was on my own for lunch without having done anything in the morning. Wandering around Burbank with heels and sunglasses on, you're kind of asking to get stared at, people just giving you a quick suspicious glance: Should I know you? Obviously, in my case, the answer is:
Nope. No need to squint. You have absolutely never seen me before unless you were at the Illinois High School State Speech Awards? Oh, you weren't? How surprising. Did you perhaps see Waa-Mu last year? Not that either, huh....that's okay, you probably wouldn't have remembered me from that anyway....Well then, no I think it's safe to say you have no reason to be looking at me.
I had an underwhelming chicken plate at an Italian place a few blocks away from the office and then walked back past the same squinting eyes.
The afternoon was packed. At exactly 2:00, a mother toting four children tried to enter, and at that point the senior agent had returned to her office. "No! No. We're actually not going to be back until 2:30. Lauren, will you please change the clock on the door to 2:30?"
In keeping with the classic movie trope of bright-eyed youngsters trying to catch the attention and memory of someone much older and more important than them in any given industry, I had politely tried to remind the agent of my real name, but it hadn't stuck. I actively had to stop myself from giggling at the cliche-ness of it all when she referred to me as "Lauren".
The girls entering with their parents existed on a wide spectrum from "green" to "professional". One little girl was whispering to her obese mother about her nervousness. "Good heavens! You don't need to be nervous! Honey, this doesn't matter at all. Not a dang bit." This was the same mother that kept offering her daughter up for height comparisons when other mothers entered with their children, tried to sign them in and couldn't remember their height. "Luna! Luna. Go stand up there. Now we just measured her and she's 4'8"...so yes, I'd say, your daughters about an inch taller. No problem! Of course, you're welcome."
The mother/daughter sitting on my left seemed to view the waiting room as a perfect showcase for their equally perfect lives and relationship.
"What time is it?" the little girl asked...she was actually probably 11 with the confidence of a 24 year old and the lip-gloss of a 15 year old.
"It's 3:30" replied the mom.
"Oh good. That means three hours before I have to be at Paramount."
"Perfect. You'll have just enough time to do your homework then."
"Which one of my classes am I going to have to miss next week?"
"Well, let's see....you can miss ballet, stretch or acro. I think you better miss stretch?"
"I'm not so sure. I think Id' rather miss acro."
"Well then, we better call Miss Jenna and see which one she would rather you miss."
The daughter got up to survey the check-in clipboard, something no one else had done. "Oh, mom look, Cassidy has already been here. Oh! I love her."
And on and on they went.
There was no waiting in the halls, and as the room got crowded, I had to instruct people to either pack in to the waiting room or stay outside the building all together. I made frequent checks to make sure no one was breaking the rule, and during one of my checks I saw that a mother had stationed her three youngsters in the lobby. Like ducks in a row they sat, from oldest to youngest, each clutching a device: iPad, iPhone, iPod. It was hilarious yet terrifying.
I went back into the casting agency and continued the process: 1.) great families 2.) direct them to sign in 3.) explain to them the hall rules 4.) bring one girl into the "on deck" slot 5.) cross her name off the sign-in sheet in highlighter Repeat as needed.
The names of these girls were outrageous. Reganne, Luna, Mackenna, Mahleah, Victorianna. Not that any one of them was so ridiculous by themselves, rather it was the consistency with which ever name seemed to be trying to break from the mold, establish it's own spelling, names gone wild!!! As someone who grew up in a world where most of my friends were named somewhere between Mary and Katie, I could not help but ponder if the difference were generational or regional. The stars are always know for picking strange name for their kids, but maybe it was more an L.A. thing than a famous thing.
Sometimes I talked with the girls and their parents, sometimes I didn't. Some of them looked so terrified that I couldn't help but whisper "don't be nervous!" before I closed the door, leaving them in "on deck". Every time the phone rang, I felt a sense of dread, but I think I managed everything fairly well.
I had a nice chat with two mothers. One of them thought I was 17! She was sure I was going to make it because I looked so young. As she left she whispered to her daughter, "That girl was an actress too!"
Another mother and I got to chatting when her gorgeous clearly Caucasian, but still somehow one pinch racially ambiguous daughter went in and spent a long time filming her screen tests. The mother had just sold her business in Ohio and decided to move out here to help her daughter follow her dreams, doing it the old Emma Stone way. The mother described her daughter's world of auditioning as very "up and down." We both agreed that more than anything, we hated the traffic here and we deeply missed our midwestern thunderstorms. I was sad to see them go, and couldn't help but hoping that her very sweet daughter who talked to me for a few minutes about American Girl dolls (!!!!), got the role.
I may have only gotten to spend a few hours at the agency. But honestly, it was some of the most rewarding and informative hours of my time in L.A. In one afternoon, the anxiety caused by the unknown, the void of darkness I associated with the "casting director", it all disappeared. All of the problems that keep me up at night seemed to be lessend as I could now organize my fears and therefore create a game plan. "All you have to do is get to the casting director. Then act. Then boom! That's it. Just get to the casting director." Over-simplification always helps me sleep.