Naked on the set! Part 2

I meet the director and struggle with my biggest question: Will he make me a star? Or will my audition expose me as a fraud?

Published March 14, 2003 10:01PM (EST)

[To read Part 1, click here.]

Sex Therapy Camp
My second day in New York I got my hair cut a few blocks from where I'm staying in TriBeCa. A middle-aged queen with a wicked look had leered cheerfully at me as I made the appointment the previous day. This turned out to be Fenton, who as he cut my hair the next day regaled me with stories about being a sort of proto-radical faerie in Cleveland in the early '70s at a house frequented by Jimi Hendrix -- among other celebrities who are miraculously still alive, so I probably shouldn't name them. What, I asked, was Jimi Hendrix like? The answer came in the form of Fenton's forefingers held about 14 inches apart. "I've been looking for Jimi Hendrix ever since," he said wistfully.

Another habitué of this circle was an extant pop diva, excruciatingly famous in the 1970s, whom Fenton remembered as "that fat hairy cow screaming while she shoved a cucumber up her twat." Fenton -- who in his prior location in Times Square would periodically take 20-minute breaks to entertain the out-of-towners, swishing down the block sporting dark sunglasses, a smoking jacket and a feather boa -- also lustily described the spectacle, witnessed the previous week, of Nicole Kidman carrying her own boxes as she moved into the apartment above the salon. I left my haircut a few hundred dollars poorer but with the sensation of having soaked for three hours in well-aged filth and glamour -- more than my money's worth -- and that with the sounds of 30-year-old starfucking tales reverberating in the room and beating against the impalpable tremors of the new upstairs neighbor unpacking boxes full of marked-up scripts and little golden statuettes, and the simple fact that I was getting the first tax-deductible haircut of my life, I had entered a special psychic and circumstantial realm: pseudo-celebrity's waiting room.

This room is a very strange place -- exciting, scary as hell, possibly related to hell, as limbo is -- right next to it. It's awfully warm in here, though not altogether unpleasant -- the excitement is radiant like a photograph by David LaChapelle, who knows the light and color of pseudo-celebrity's waiting room (the nameless naked model bathed in a golden haze of opium smoke), knows the hues and tones that evoke ineffable bliss, that both blind and elevate those of us crowding the room, sick with hope that we will be chosen.

"Many are called and few are chosen, said the rabbi from Nazareth," Albert Fuller has reminded me so regularly over the past 10 years. As a performing artist and Juilliard teacher for 40 years, he knows what hes talking about. As someone forced from the stage, from music, I unfortunately also know what he's talking about. The homily haunts me; I live in exile from New York, from relevance to the art pulse that animates this city. John Cameron Mitchell has called me here. Will he choose me to stay, or will I fly west a week from now, unchosen one more time? Which is scarier?

Ten minutes past midnight I arrived at the director's second-floor walk-up in the West Village. All the strategic and moral calculations inspired by his invitation were briskly erased as the director extended his hand, gave me a businesslike handshake, and after showing me into the cluttered living room of his one-bedroom apartment, offered me an array of nonalcoholic beverages. I opted for water in a coffee mug, which I managed to spill on the carpet and couch only three times in the next 90 minutes.

Seated beside John Cameron Mitchell on his sofa I had some of the typical responses to meeting a screen actor for the first time -- that is, in addition to repeatedly flinging tap water all over his apartment. He's shorter than I would have imagined. How strange, I thought, that he doesn't walk around his apartment in a blood-stained fur coat and feathered blond wig, making lewd wisecracks and periodically breaking into heavily German-accented heavy metal. But there was also the thrill of recognition, that this was the same voice, the same eyes and sensual lips, the same prominent, virtually equilateral nose. Once or twice Hedwig peered out at me, and winked.

We talked about my fears , particularly the one about the boyfriend and his sudden metamorphosis from audition video assistant director No. 3 to victim of somatic jealousy symptoms. The boyfriend was under the impression, I explained to the director, that as part of the filmmaking process cast members were supposed to become involved with each other, in an extra-professional capacity, to establish a sexual and romantic relationship with them from which to build the movie.

The director gave me a look indicating that was crazy talk and offered to call the boyfriend and assuage his fears. I dialed the boyfriend's number and handed my cellphone to the director, who spent the next several minutes talking casually about the project, saying nice things about the audition video and the boyfriend's cameo, and inviting the boyfriend to call him anytime if he had any concerns.

When he hung up the phone, I realized I loved the director even more than if he'd thrown my legs up in the air and fucked me the minute I walked in the door.

Once everyone's fears were assuaged, I asked if I might ask JCM some questions on the record. The first thing I wanted to know was why he wasn't planning to act in the new movie.

"I hated directing myself." He paused and grinned, as if to say that was all there was to it. "It wasn't fun. I couldn't concentrate on one job or the other. The only fun I had was actually directing other people, and then I loved it. I'm burned out on acting -- I don't want to act for a while." He paused, then added: "I might put a cameo penis shot in there ..."

I wanted to know what had surprised him most in the audition videos people had submitted.

"The most common things we would hear in our audition tapes were, if they were gay guys, 'You know, I'd feel comfortable exploring sex with a woman for the first time in this safe environment,' or a woman saying 'I'd explore having something I haven't had in this environment.' Like it's a sex therapy camp. And I think people who are most attracted to this have some issue with sex that they want to work out -- oddly in this public way -- whether repression or abuse or just sharing the joy of sex."

And what about doing it in public made it therapeutic?

"Well, I certainly have worked out a lot of things through public -- through 'Hedwig,'" he replied. "Acting saved me from a slightly unexamined life; theater and being gay saved me from oblivion, or being a dangerous shut-in or something, you know, or a tenured academic -- I don't know what's worse.

"You work out things onstage. It's a safe place. It's like a church, a sacred space. You just do it there and then it can integrate into your life. So doing 'Hedwig,' for example, made me more comfortable about my feminine side, which was a huge thing, because it was a very natural part of me that was crushed by my Catholic military upbringing. Sex is multifarious, it has so many connections, like nerve endings, and that makes a lot more things you can work out in such a place. And since the plot will actually come from a workshop of things that interest them -- I want to encourage them to come up with story ideas from what are their imperatives, you know, so it's going to be very natural."

Suddenly I felt new fears surfacing in the place of those he'd just put to rest. First there was his jarring use of the third-person pronoun in discussing the workshop participants -- fair enough, since I'm only here on a callback audition -- but inevitably it brought me back to the point with which I started this diary. I am not an actor! Biting my nails bloody in pseudo-celebrity's waiting room, I mull two contradictory thoughts. One says that this audition will expose me, that they will realize that the videotape consisted of a chain of well-edited lies and lip-synching, that I am a fraud, a phony, someone incapable of "acting truly under the imaginary circumstances of the play" (as I was instructed at my evening division acting classes), because I am incapable of acting truly under the real circumstances of my own life. And the other voice is too high on Zoloft to even acknowledge this scold; it says, it sings: I have been discovered. They will see me for who I really am, and they will make me a star.

At the risk of stating the obvious, this second voice does not express the purest of artistic motives. It's a pleasant distraction, though, from that fear of fraudulence, because really, what is more terrifying about auditioning for John Cameron Mitchell's Sex Film Project? Exposing my genitals? Or exposing myself? They prefer people with acting experience but don't require it because -- how did they put it? -- they want the story to come largely from our own improvisations, from "people who feel comfortable playing a version of themselves onstage." How can I act in any style, much less this one, without what Virginia Woolf called, in spelling out to Vita what her writing lacked, that "central transparency" that breathes life into the work of a true artist? After a million words I'm still struggling to achieve even a moment of that clarity as a writer. Will I be able to summon it for John Cameron Mitchell's camera in one audition? For 90 minutes on film?

Episode 3: Chamber music: Like onstage fucking?

By Paul Festa

Paul Festa is the author of and a frequent Salon contributor.

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