|Photo by James White|
GROWING UP IN THE SUBURBAN hellhole of California's San Gabriel Valley, I was always painfully aware of the fabulousness of Hollywood that glittered just over the hills. For those of us living behind the Hollywood sign, we knew the illusory qualities that symbol possessed — from the rear, the Hollywood sign is just a bunch of wood.
Still, as a child so fascinated by television I watched test patterns, I longed to go over those hills. I wanted to climb into the TV and play all the parts myself — and every color of the test pattern too.
“THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT HAIRcut of my life,” I carefully told the hairstylist. I wasn't sure if she really believed me. I mean, if this was the most important haircut of a person's life, would he choose a Vietnamese pink-and-black lacquered beauty shop in Silver Lake with faded 1980s posters of geometric works of hair art adorning the walls?
(Photo by James Dwyer)
“Ten dollars. You like shampoo, 15 dollars.”
I quickly tabulated what the $5 difference would do to my budget that week. I had recently moved back to California to pursue my budding acting career and was making $7 an hour stuffing envelopes for the Jurassic Park marketing campaign. I had made $1,000 on my first film, Swoon — with no residuals because I was not in the Screen Actors Guild at the time. The year between that paycheck and today had been long, and, even though I cut corners, I went wild with the money and blew it on nonessentials — like food. On the other hand, my work in Swoon got me a Best Actor nomination at the Spirit Awards, independent film's Oscar alternative, and the ceremony was in two days.
“I'll take the 15-dollar one.”
My future in show business was in the scissors-wielding hands of a boxy Vietnamese woman named Paulie.
After a quick washing worth every 500 cents, I sat in a black lacquered swivel seat. Paulie stomped a cockroach and swung me around.
“You actor. I can tell. Very vain. Insecure. Your hair is your 'instrument.' I know.”
I nodded yes. Anyone who knows anything about acting knows that performing is 90 percent hair, 5 percent makeup and 5 percent nepotism. With no relatives in the business, this increases my hair percentile to a full 95.
Snip snip. Oh my god, she's cutting off a lot, I thought. But I refused to buy into the stereotypical actorish behavior Paulie obviously expected of me, and assumed a cool, devil-may-care façade.
Snip snip snip. My back turned to the mirror; I could only imagine what was going on up there. When she turned me back around, I was not so much shocked by my botched, geometric haircut, as much as my sheepish, haunted, glassy-eyed expression — like a Robert Downey Jr. mug shot.
I quickly paid Paulie, holding back the tears. My hair looked like an anvil. But, like most impoverished gay indie stars, I bucked up. I was already an hour late back from my lunch break.
I walked into my temp job at DDB Needham, a large ad agency, and sat down in front of my envelopes. Temping was my real career until I started making good money as an actor in my seventh movie, The Misadventures of Margaret, which was only released in Europe. Before that, I had made a combined total of $8,500 on six movies, spaced out over seven years. In other words, $1,410 a year.
“What happened to your hair?” My boss stood before me, his glasses pulled down to study the sculpted black foam that Paulie had crafted.
He moved in closer as if observing a gruesome car crash. My hair was beauty-salon road kill and he wanted to rubberneck.
“Oh, I got it cut.” I tried in vain to deflate the anvil.
“Well, I don't have to tell you that it's not exactly a professional 'look.' I mean, I know you're a musician . . .”
“I'm an actor,” I whispered.
“. . . but this punky funky thing isn't really appropriate for the office.”
“I'll take care of it.” Stupid asshole. Don't you know who I think I am?
“So, can you work over the weekend? The envelopes you stuffed are ready to be stamped and they need to go out first thing Monday morning.”
“I can't. I have something I have to go to. An awards ceremony.”
“Oh really? What, the Oscars?” He laughed uproariously at the idea that an anvil-headed homosexual might acquire an invite to the Academy Awards.
“No, the Spirit Awards on Sunday. I'm nominated for Best Actor.” There. I did it. I owned my shit and the cat was out of the bag.
“The Spirit Awards? What is that, some New Age thing?”
“It's for independent films.”
Nothing. He blinked.
“Like Sex, Lies and Videotape?” I tried.
My boss put his glasses back on his nose and headed toward his office.
“Okay, well, suit yourself. But it's time and a half — $10.50 an hour.”
MY MOM HAD FLOWN IN FROM TEXAS, where we'd moved when I was 12, and was waiting for me at home. She had come to accompany me to the awards ceremony, but mostly she came out to California to clean. When I got home, she was bleaching out my kitchen garbage pail in the sink.
“This garbage can is so dirty!” she chuckled. My mother chuckles about almost everything she says.
“That's because it's a garbage can.”
“Whooee, I'm dizzy from the fumes!” She chuckled herself into a chair to rest. Sweat poured off her brow, which she wiped off with the back of her rubber-gloved hand.
“Mom, why don't you rest? You just flew in,” I moaned.
“I like cleaning your place. It makes me feel useful! Oooh, I love your haircut! It's neat!”
I went in to the bathroom to wash Paulie and DDB Needham right out of my hair. My mom knocked on the door.
“Oh, someone called for you! The head of NBC — or is that an A?”
I opened the door to the bathroom. “Pardon?”
“NBC or ABC casting. Oh, darn it! I can't read my own writing! He said he wants you to call him about coming in for an audition and that he's a friend.”
“A 'friend' at N or ABC?!”
“Well, I can't read my writing — I had these silly rubber gloves on when he called!” she chuckled, and off she went to re-shingle the roof.
This had become a familiar situation for me lately. Because of my Spirit Award nomination and the success of my first movie, everyone was suddenly calling me in for meetings. Normally, an agent would field these offers and appointments, but my agents had dropped me only months before, and Fine Line, Swoon's distributor, was forwarding any calls they received about me to my home number. Normally, the Screen Actors Guild could intervene in a situation like this. The only problem was that Swoon didn't qualify me to join SAG, so I wasn't a member.
Right after Swoon's premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, I was snapped up by a now-defunct agency. This agency was a big deal in its day, but was bought out by a larger, more legendary, old-school talent agency. I went over to this agency with my agent, Paul, who was amazing but, regretfully, in New York. I was told to go into the L.A. office to meet the new team of agents who would represent me. I drove down to Beverly Hills and entered the plush, vast offices.
While all the agents in an agency look to get you work, the point person is your main man. I was assigned to a man we'll call Joe.
“Craig! Hey, I've heard great stuff about you, mister!” He motioned for me to sit across from his desk. He picked up a pencil and fidgeted with it while we talked.
“So, how's L.A.? Think you're gonna stay?”
“Yeah, I want to see how things go.” I could tell he was nervous. He seemed slightly flirtatious too, which is par for the course in Hollywood whether you're gay or straight, cute or ugly.
“So, you meeting people out here? Making friends?”
Joe was full of interest in me, but I almost felt like he was grilling me for some weird reason, digging for something. Still, we were bonding nicely. Then he gave me a conspiratorial look, got up and closed the door to his office. He returned, and suddenly dropped his professional demeanor, and a huge flaming queen emerged in its place. He started talking to me like a “girlfriend” and wanted to “dish.”
“So, are you seeing anybody?” At this point, some kind of alarm went off in me. This seemed a little inappropriate.
“Uh-huh,” I said.
“I'm seeing this guy from San Francisco. Have you been up there? The guys are really hot. My boyfriend looks like Dean Cain.”
I congratulated him on landing a beau and suddenly realized I had been in his office for an hour and a half and was feeling exhausted. He went on in detail about his love life, being gay and how gay people should stick together in Hollywood. He was so pro-gay I almost expected him to don pride rings, start twirling a baton in the air and break into a gleeful, leg-kicking rendition of “It's Raining Men.” Caught up in this moment of sisterhood, I softened.
“I'm seeing this guy in Santa Fe. It's a long-distance thing, which is hard.” I went on to elaborate how I seemed to function better in my life when I was in love and was more likely to do well in auditions because my entire source of approval wasn't coming from landing a job, trying to make this whole conversation relevant to why I was there.
“Well, if he comes out, you can take him to some fancy Hollywood-type functions.”
“Oh, totally!” I smiled.
“'Cause you're out of the closet in your career. Aren't you?”
“Well, yeah. I mean it would be a little disingenuous if I wasn't, considering the movies I'm working in.”
He suddenly got up and opened the door.
“Okay, well, great, Craig! I'm so excited to finally meet you! We'll get to work on getting you out there pronto. You might wanna drop off more head shots and demo reels soon. Also, get me Swoon on tape — I know it's in the theaters, but I never have time to actually go to the movies.”
A few days later, my agent in N.Y. called me.
“They don't want to represent you in L.A.”
“Why? I don't understand.”
“I don't know how to say this, but — you're gay. I mean, you're openly gay,” Paul said.
“I guess I'm also openly out of representation with a starring role in a movie coming out.”
It was 1993, and the only other actor who was out in the movie business was Harvey Fierstein, a lovable, non-threatening teddy bear whose roots were in Broadway.
Joe, like some gay men in Hollywood, had used his own gayness as bait to see how comfortable I was with my sexuality. He knew I was gay before I walked in. But what he didn't know and wanted to find out was how comfortable I was with talking about it. Whether or not I would be “political” or not. It's okay to be gay in show business; everyone is. You just can't talk about it, and if you do, you better feel some trepidation, which I didn't. Not only that, but you better not do career-busting things like fall in love or take a boyfriend to a premiere.
Swoon was in the theaters, I was receiving rave reviews, and I had no agent to help me capitalize on it. I can't imagine that any agent in his right mind would drop an actor at the very moment the actor's career exploded. If I had been straight, in a straight movie, playing a straight character in a movie of Swoon's caliber, I would have certainly had an agent that day the casting director from A or NBC called.
I called NBC and talked to the casting director. He was not a friend as my mother had noted, but was casting a show called Friends and wanted me to come in.
“We called your agents, but they didn't call us back!” he said.
“Well, I'm not with them anymore,” I said, praying that he wouldn't see me as an agent-free loser, which in fact I was.
“Oh, well, we called them because of the Reporter.”
“Huh?” I wondered aloud.
“The ad in the Hollywood Reporter, on the back cover?” he said innocently.
I rushed over to Book Soup, picked up an issue and turned it over. There, in living color, was an expensive ad that read: WE CONGRATULATE OUR SPIRIT AWARD NOMINEE: CRAIG CHESTER, with the name of my former agency prominently displayed at the bottom . . .
My agents had dropped me and then patted themselves on the back for representing me the second I got an award nomination.
I found out later that NBC wasn't the only potential employer that had seen the ad and called my former agents to offer me work. They never forwarded the information to me, and all those jobs slipped through the cracks forever. Paul and I remained friends, and the hideous dinosaur of an agency that he worked for eventually dropped him too.
AFTER MY MOM REPAIRED MY HAIR with her trusted scissors, we set off to find me a nice something to wear to the awards. I was on a tight temp budget, so I had to be creative.
As we sat in my Ford Taurus, my mom asked if there were any Wal-Marts in Hollywood.
“No. God — I wish I could get something at Barneys.”
“Yeah. The store. In Beverly Hills.”
“They have a whole store for that purple dinosaur?”
THE DAY OF THE AWARDS CAME. I'D found an outfit at a thrift shop, and my ä38 mom had dressed it up with new buttons she sewed on the night before. My mom put on her best Kathie Lee Gifford three-piece and we hit the freeway. Worried that bringing my mother would be just too Liberace, I asked my good friend Lisa Lo Cicero to join us as well.
We picked Lisa up in Burbank. She was wearing a sexy, goth-meets-dominatrix dress that looked like something you'd wear to audition as a backup dancer for Stevie Nicks. A choker of black velvet surrounded her neck.
After getting lost, and several four-letter words later, we arrived at the Spirit Awards, which were held under a tent on the beach in Santa Monica.
Now, Lisa and I had thought that this awards ceremony would be a polite little afternoon tea. I mean, these were awards for independent films that most of America wouldn't see — this was before the Independent Film Channel or the Sundance Channel. When we showed up and saw that it was an absolute melee of stars and paparazzi, we panicked.
“Oh my god! This is huge!” Lisa said. My mom spotted Keanu Reeves in the parking lot.
“Ooooh! Look, there's Christopher Reeves!”
After walking down the red carpet, with not so much as one photographer or reporter stopping to ask me what kind of tree I'd be, we took our seats at the Fine Line Features table. Sitting next to me was the director of Swoon, the genius Tom Kalin, and the film's brilliant director of photography, Ellen Kuras. Both of them were up for awards too. Robert Altman sat next to my mom — who had already whipped out the video camera and was shooting footage of the many celebrities.
“Oh, what was he in?!” she wondered as she taped Billy Baldwin. “Red November! Hunting for the Red November, that's it!”
“There's — oh, what's her name? She was in Silence of the Hams?” Jodie Foster stared blankly at my mom's camcorder.
The videotape of my mother's day at the Spirit Awards is something to behold. There are images of Miranda Richardson, Jeff Goldblum, Laura Dern and Keanu Reeves staring into the lens with an expression that can only be interpreted as “Who is this lady in the peach, turquoise and purple outfit blatantly filming me from 10 feet away?”
My mother settled the camera on a blond Kelly Lynch.
“OOOh, I know her! Daryl Hannah!”
The whole day passed rather slowly and surreally during the luncheon and dinner. I noticed that my mom seemed preoccupied with Robert Altman, and every time I checked up on her she was asking him very specific questions about the meal we had been served.
“How would you cook this chicken? Sauté it? Grill it?” He would then respond by going into minute detail about how he would have prepared the catered chicken breast with asparagus. I was relieved. Good, thank God — he can keep her busy while I get properly drunk.
Being that the bar was open and everyone in show biz, myself included, is um, very thirsty, the lines to the bathrooms were where the action was happening. While standing in line, Steve Buscemi exited a stall and ran right into me.
Steve and I had worked together a few years before on a short film with Amanda Plummer. In it, I played, believe it or not, the ghost of his high school football coach. I was obviously cast before people only saw me as “that gay guy.”
“So, I was at an audition a while back for the Coen brothers and they told me they were looking for a Steve Buscemi type,” I said. “You're a type, Steve!”
Harvey Keitel came up and interrupted us, hugging Steve and completely shutting me out in the process.
Harvey was nominated for Bad Lieutenant, which he was brilliant in, playing a junkie cop who trades his immortal soul to feed his addictions. As I watched him talk to Steve, I couldn't help but think about his performance and how, if I ever played roles like that, but gay, I would be criticized for portraying a “negative role model.” If a straight man plays a fucked-up, drug-addled sex addict, he's “brave” and his work takes center stage and he doesn't have people tell him he can't do complex roles for fear of making straight men look bad.
I am one of a handful of openly gay actors in American cinema, yet I have never, not once, been invited to a function for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. The reason is that I have not made any films in my 10-year career that fit the positive-role-model requirement to merit a GLAAD stamp of approval (Swoon, gay killers; Frisk, gay druggies and killers; I Shot Andy Warhol, lesbians with guns; Kiss Me, Guido, promiscuous gay men). It doesn't matter to them that I am an outspoken actor who has made tremendous personal sacrifices to be out. That doesn't make me a positive role model.
But the very phrase “role model” implies that there is a role to play. Playing a role implies that it's a performance, acting. And that implies that it's fiction, not real. We were offered thought-provoking queer cinema in the mid-'90s that represented complex gay characters in movies like Poison, Grief, David Searching, Prick Up Your Ears and Edward II, but due to organizations like GLAAD and Queer Nation, most of those complex gay characters were written off as negative role models. We have now become as bland as The Brady Bunch.
“Harvey, this is Craig.” Steve motioned. Harvey drew a blank. “He's competing with you today,” Steve reminded him.
Harvey Keitel looked at the ground, shook my hand.
“Oh! Good to meet you, Frank! I wish you the worst of luck!” he joked.
“It's Craig,” I corrected him, smiling.
“Oh, right, sorry, Fred. May the best man win!” He grinned and walked away.
MIRANDA RICHARDSON ANNOUNCED the nominees in my category. I was terrified, not because of the awards but because I think Miranda Richardson is a genius and I was overwhelmed at potentially having to go up onstage and meet her. She said my name and everyone in the tent put down their forks, turning to the big-screen TVs. There, a clip of my work in Swoon began flickering as people applauded. I noticed Jodie Foster, Neil Jordan and Andie MacDowell turn to watch me on the big screens. This is so not happening. There's been some kind of mistake! I fantasized about running up and unplugging the TVs — “Just kidding!!”
I didn't win the award — Harvey Keitel did. But I was secretly relieved. Really.
After the awards, my mom immediately went to the phone to call my dad and check in.
She began to relate to my dad the many star sightings she had witnessed.
“Well, guess who I sat next to today?” she told him. “The Frugal Gourmet!”
I looked at her as I took off my shoes.
“Mom, that was Robert Altman!”
She cupped her hand over the phone.
I don't know if Robert Altman knew this Texas housewife was mistaking him for the TV chef, but apparently, from what I overheard at least, he makes a mean chicken cacciatore.
This story is an excerpt from Why the Long Face?: The Adventures of a Truly Independent Actor, to be published in January by LA Weekly Books/St. Martin's Press. Copyright 2002 by Craig Chester. All rights reserved.