At age 9, an ad on the back of a comic book promised me that the Secrets of the Universe could be had for only $1. I diligently sent my money, but when a blue envelope arrived in the mail, I agonizingly wondered: Would this knowledge change my life irrevocably? Would this be my pact with the devil? Unable to cope, I ripped up the envelope and flushed it down the toilet.
I'm 35 now, and I often find myself wondering how my life would have been different had I just opened that damn envelope. And I find myself increasingly convinced that when Renée Zellweger sent in her measly buck, she had the good sense not to flush that pocket-sized cabala.
Yes, she's lovely, she can sing and dance, and she's a virtual acting chameleon. And on top of that, she does seem really nice. Despite all of that, I'm still convinced that greater forces are at work here. And it all goes back to the day of my first commercial audition in Dallas. The product was Lactaid. And it was between me -- and Renée. We were supposed to dress like brides who were experiencing a little, um, problem on the Big Day. I rented a white dress and had my hair and makeup professionally done. Renée sauntered in wearing a white tank top, a pair of cut-offs, no makeup, and tousled bed-head.
We talked. When I found out she had no real acting experience, I relaxed. I mean, she didn't spend 50K on drama school to learn the Stanislavski emotional-recall technique that allowed one to cry on cue just by remembering how much she had spent on acting school. But Renée, of course, won the role. And every role after that. Over the next couple of years, she haunted me like a bad late-night infomercial. The next time I saw her, I had mistakenly worn a Pizza Hut shirt to a Pizza Inn commercial audition (I had my agent to thank for that one). Of course, had it been Renée, she could have worn a Chuck E. Cheese sandwich board and still gotten the part. Later I finally won a role in a country music video for which we had both auditioned. She, of course, was cast as well. Renée was the biker babe, the main love interest riding with her unshaven man, wind whipping through her golden hair. I was the hippie dancer who, through the miracle of AfterEffects, was pretty much just a blur undulating in the background.
Renée and I continued to live parallel lives. When she got her breakthrough role in "Jerry Maguire," I was acting in a theater that was a converted fallout shelter. She played the sexy young love interest who won Tom Cruise, while I played a lecherous 80-year-old woman charged with grabbing the lead actor's package while speaking with a bad French accent. When she was dancing her ass off in "Chicago," a frustrated choreographer was yelling at me in Dallas. This week, she won her third Golden Globe and third Oscar nomination, for "Cold Mountain." Since moving to San Francisco in 1997, I received a Best Performance award in the San Francisco Bay Guardian. She's making $15 million a picture. I'm fighting hundreds of out-of-work actors to play a supporting role in a show in a dank basement that will pay, oh, 25 bucks. Maybe. If I'm lucky.
But sometimes there are moments when I think about how great it is to be me. How thankful I am that I didn't open that blue Pandora's box: I mean, I've never had to see Jim Carrey naked. I've never had to kiss Tom Cruise and pretend to enjoy it. No one monitors my weight, and there was no painful breakup with White Stripes guitarist Jack White. Yes, I had my own painful set of relationship bust-ups, but they weren't with anyone famous. No reporters photographed me in my sad and weepy state, eating Chunky Monkey right out of the container while I lounged, unwashed in my bathrobe, inhaling a cigarette between bites.
So, Renée, when I watch you win the Academy Award this year, parading down the red carpet in your plum-colored Yves St. Laurent frock and Manolo Blahniks, with your golden hair in a perfect up-do, I'll be thinking that maybe knowing the Secrets of the Universe is actually more of a curse, and that I'm quite happy with complete anonymity. That I'm perfectly content acting in an abandoned subterranean pizza parlor where I have to buy my own costumes, do my own makeup, build my own sets. And after toiling away for three to four months on a show, I get a paycheck comparable to what you, Renée, spend on mineral water in a day. Thank God I flushed that envelope when I did.