Ruthie Linder, the casting director, looked up from her stack of headshots and resumes. She peered over her glasses at the handsome young man standing on the other side of her desk. He was cute. (Weren’t they all?) And his skin: so pure. It was more than unblemished. His skin glowed, as though his face had never been exposed to sunlight, or polluted air. Or disappointment.
She smiled at him. “Ross Newman. Related to Paul?”
He laughed nervously. “Uh, no, unfortunately.”
“Except in the looks department, right?” she said.
He didn’t know what to say. “Right. Ha.” He nodded manically, willing it to be true.
She nodded, too. “Paul was a very good actor, aside from being, you know, quite beautiful. OK, he probably didn’t deserve an Oscar for ‘Color of Money,’ but you could say that about a lot of people. The Academy is very political. Very – you know. I could tell you stories…Anyway. So.” She glanced at his resume, stapled to the back of his headshot. “NYU, huh?”
Ross nodded more. “Oh, yes.”
“Mm, hmm,” she said. “And, let’s see…Oh, you know Max Malnick? A great friend. Dear friend. Very dear friend.”
“I did scene study with him, yes.”
“He was actually the one who suggested I see you when I got to Los Angeles. He said you were the top, the number-one casting director. Independent casting director. He was very – he spoke very highly of you.”
She smiled briefly. “He’s a sweetheart. Say hello to him for me, will you?”
Ross said, “Yeah. Sure. Of course,” although he wasn’t planning on returning to New York until he had established himself in Los Angeles, with a few movies and TV shows to his credit. Plus, he wasn’t exactly best buddies with Max Malnick. He had paid $295 for one of Malnick’s renowned “Booking the Part” audition seminars and, afterward, paid another $175 for a ten-minute private consultation with the legendary man, who concluded their meeting with a terse, “Good luck to you, young man.”
Then he handed Ross a postcard. On one side, there was a photo of Max, looking thoughtful, with quotes emblazoned on either side of his famously bushy hair: “New York’s leading acting coach, by a mile” – Leonardo Di Caprio; “No Max, no Tony!” – Bernadette Peters.
On the other side, Ross found what he had paid for: “Max’s Mavens: The Ten People You Need to Know to MAKE IT!!!” Three talent agents; three casting directors; four personal managers; a few in Manhattan, some in Hollywood. Ross knew their names – every actor in the business knew their names – but now he had the Rosetta Stone: a personal phone number for each luminary, along with an exhortation to “Tell ‘em Max sent you!!!”
“Thank you, Mr. Malnick,” Ross said, patting the card against his open palm.
“Of course,” Malnick said. “And don’t show that to anyone unless they’ve had a consultation, like you. It’s worth a lot of money.”
And now here he was in Ruthie Linder’s office, auditioning for the “second lead in a small, independent feature film,” a part that would garner him loads of much needed exposure, Ross Newman supposed. It was amazing, he thought, how everything worked out sometimes, just the way it was meant to.
His parents back in St. Louis hadn’t completely disapproved of his decision to forego a proper pre-law education in favor of “a career in the arts,” as his dad, Reynolds “Rusty” Newman, put it. But they weren’t thrilled, either. Rusty was a partner at Broadner & Wells, doing tax law, mostly. Mom, Alexandra “Allie” Newman, was the family’s wild card, a former sorority sister at Mizzou trained as a licensed audiologist who abjured her career in order to do volunteer work (unfortunate children, battered women, animals) and serve on the local PTA board, an elected position.
Unlike the “country club wives” Allie mocked during dinner table conversation, the ladies with nothing to worry about except where to shop and who to hire for surgery, she would decamp for Ethiopia or Guatemala for a few weeks each year, doing what she called “good works.” She also had a taste for dark-skinned men; but Ross didn’t discover that part until his dad did, much later, after Ross had already moved away to New York and a life of Bohemian moral turpitude.
Everyone who knew her assumed Allie was the reason Ross had “an artistic streak.” People said he certainly didn’t get it from Rusty.
The truth, Ross realized in therapy, which he began (and rapidly finished) after his Freshman year girlfriend dumped him for an older man, was that he had “gotten” his crazy desire to be an actor — to perform!, to act! – indirectly from his dad.
His dad was successful, very successful. The Newman family lived near Belle Rive and owned three cars and a baronial house on two wooded-acres, which was cleaned daily by a Salvadoran woman named Blanca and gardened weekly by a crew of what Ross always assumed were Mexicans. His dad, though, exuded the faint stench of discontentment, of unspoken sadness and vague disappointment with himself and the world and how life turns out sometimes.
Rusty had everything a man could want, except for a blazing desire to arise from his king size bed each morning and get to work on a most amazing and inspiring project. When the alarm went off each morning at precisely 6AM, Rusty would feel the burning sting of stomach acid churning up in his throat. He would feel his breath quicken and assume that, finally, he was having the heart attack he so dreaded. He would roll himself out of bed, kiss Allie on her forehead, sit on the toilet with his Economist, and wrack his mind for something on his schedule that he could look forward to, even something insignificant, like lunch with one of the junior associates, or the Rams on Monday Night Football, or the new Grisham in paperback. Once he found that thing, he could trudge on; he had something interesting in his future.
When he was old enough to understand such matters, in his teens, Ross came to realize that his dad, Big Rusty Newman, was probably suffering from depression, like that writer guy who did the holocaust movie with Meryl Streep. Occasionally, rarely, Ross saw his dad enjoying a garrulous, manic moment, such as when they played pick-up basketball together at the Y, or rode the sputtering Go-Karts at Johnson’s Family Fun Park. Most of the time, for as long as Ross could remember, his dad was morose. Not mean. Not abusive. Not even unpleasant, at least not towards his friends and family. But Rusty’s taciturnity, his dark introversion, broadcast to the universe that all was not well with the normal-seeming lawyer living on Birchwood Lane.
Every time Ross thought he might want to become a lawyer – and he did consider it seriously, especially during sophomore year at Friends Central Academy, when Mr. Henson, the debate coach, praised his “convincing case-making” – he looked at his father lost in private regrets. And he changed his mind.
For brief stretches of a week, a month, a few months, he thought he might like to be a chef, or a motivational speaker, or an author, like William S. Burroughs, but not gay or drugged out. He could never settle on one thing, which, according to his older sister Elizabeth (“Becks” to her friends and family), was his problem. “It’s tough out there, kiddo,” she had told him, as though the world of higher education and business and real estate were a tropical jungle infested with biting insects and choleric water. “You’ve got to specialize. Something. Anything. You’ve got to choose, kiddo, and then, you know, set your mind to it.”
Everything seemed attractive to Ross Newman, at least for a little while. But nothing captivated him.
Then he got what some call the acting bug. For Ross it was more like an itch that spreads into a rash.
It didn’t infect him until his senior year, after he had already been early-accepted to Mom and Dad’s alma mater, and he could afford to take a few “light” electives, including Introductory Ornithology, American Sign Language, and Musical Theater. It was this class, beloved of his school’s queers and social misfits, that steered Ross toward what he realized in retrospect was his true path.
Musical Theater was taught by Mr. Jipper, an obviously gay older man whose enthusiasm for Tennessee Williams, Stephen Sondheim, and Les Miserables amused and fascinated Ross, whose theatrical experiences previous to Jipper’s class were comprised of compulsory trips to the ballet to see The Nutcracker and a few concerts at the arena, if you counted that. There was something intoxicating about how Jipper talked of an actor’s “fabulousness,” or a stage production’s ability to “make you laugh and cry, and sometimes at the same time!” Something otherworldly.
It was this sense of being transported to another place, a place that wasn’t suburban St. Louis, Missouri, where the problems and triumphs faced by people who weren’t one of the Newmans seemed somehow more genuine, even though Ross supposed they were probably made up by some writer off in New York, some guy sitting at a sidewalk café, smoking skinny cigarettes and sipping espresso.
Plus, Mr. Jipper thought he had talent.
What the teacher had actually said was, “You’re certainly leading man material by the look of it.” That much was obvious to everyone except Ross. Girls got nervous around him; women, even ones the age of his mom, whispered lasciviously among themselves when they saw him; friends of Mr. Jipper came to the school production of Gyspy just to see Ross’s cameo as Tulsa. He didn’t feel tall; he felt normal, regular. But most people described him as “tall, lean, and blessed with a smile that could melt permafrost in Siberia.” Ross had hair the color of straw; it got lighter in the summer, bleached by the sun, and darker in the winter, which was when folks tended to compare him to “a young Brad Pitt.”
He heard that a lot. “Did anyone ever tell you..?”
One day after class, with a courtier’s formality and flourish, Mr. Jipper handed Ross an envelope. “This is for you,” the teacher said. “Read it. Study it. Memorize it. Be it. You’ve got a future.”
Ross wasn’t sure if he was supposed to open it. “Oh. Wow. OK. Thanks. Thank you, Mr. Jipper.”
“Ross, I believe in you. Now, go on. Don’t be late for your next class.”
On his way to Advanced Placement English, which was just around the corner and halfway down the hall, Ross ripped open the envelope and extracted a single sheet of paper, folded twice. It said:
ACTORS TO STUDY
Watch what they do, not what they say. They’ll teach you more than any book.
— Wayne Jipper
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Jennifer Jason Leigh
Mandy Patinkin (in musicals)
That night, after supper, Ross went to his computer and printed out a list of every movie in which the actors on Jipper’s list had appeared. Then he added every one of those movies (that were available on DVD) to his queue. (Much of the Brando was unavailable, but he got A Streetcar Named Desire, The Wild Ones, and On the Waterfront.) Within a couple of days, the red envelopes started showing up in the mail, and Ross began his home study course, watching two movies a night, and sometimes more. On weekends he hosted all-day festivals in his bedroom, featuring as many five movies in a row, most of which his friends pronounced “boring” and “whatever.” This earned them immediate expulsion from the screenings and excommunication from Ross’s inner circle.
He was serious.
Per his teacher’s instructions, Ross didn’t simply watch the films as a casual moviegoer would, hoping to be entertained and distracted from quotidian cares. He watched. He studied. He rewound and watched again. And in this way Ross Newman learned (or at least felt like he was learning) the “tricks” to being a good actor.
As far as he could tell, it didn’t matter what means you used to appear natural and real, just so long as you were able to fool viewers into believing that you weren’t really acting at all, that you were, in fact, the character they were watching onscreen. From what he read in his textbooks and in the biographies he checked out of the Academy’s library, Brando was a “method” guy. Hopkins wasn’t. So, Ross inferred, they were probably doing different things, telling themselves different stories, remembering different feelings. But the result was similar: a sense of relaxation, of languor, of exerting only as much energy as the circumstances required. Of not trying.
Ross was especially fond of Hopkins in an old movie about a guy who works as a butler at some English estate in the 1930s. Sir Anthony had very few lines that went beyond “Yes, sir,” “No, sir,” or “Very well, sir.” But even with so few words to work with, and without much action or histrionics, Ross felt he understood the butler’s internal torment, his quiet sadness.
Hopkins in that movie reminded Ross of his father.
One time, during Ross’s second or third viewing of the film, he began to cry. It was just so sad. The butler was sad. Hopkins was sad. Rusty Newman was sad.
At first, Ross was frightened of the sadness, and slightly embarrassed that he, a strapping two-sport varsity letterman (basketball and tennis), could be moved to tears by something as mundane as an English butler’s private discontentment. It’s not like someone got killed, or anything, he told himself. But then he had a revelation: If a great actor like Anthony Hopkins could inspire boys in suburban St. Louis to feel things they hadn’t felt before, then he, a boy from suburban St. Louis could inspire people in England and Canada, and California, and New York, and everywhere in between, to feel things they hadn’t felt before. He could.
Instead of being scared away by uncomfortable emotions, Ross embraced them. He began to enjoy films in which terrible things happened to decent people, because something was stirring inside him, somewhere in the center, and the more he watched, the more he felt. And the more he felt, the more he knew. And one day, Ross Newman decided, everyone everywhere would understand the truth.
That, he told himself, was what great actors did: they told the truth.
They pretended, but they did it truthfully.
He started watching people carefully, onscreen and off-: the jock sitting at Darby’s, the local burger joint, across the table from a pretty girl, staring at her face too intently, willing himself to keep his eyes from slipping downward toward the curves beneath her sweater, pretending to be interested in her incessant monologue about her inability to be understood by her parents, who apparently found no poetry in the girl’s impassioned assertion of “like, I’m like, that is so not what I meant!” Cary Grant in North By Northwest, feigning surprise, feigning horror, feigning despair. Basically feigning everything. Carrie Underwood shouting with her eyes closed about some no-good man who didn’t deserve her innocent charms – they were all faking it. They were scared to tell the truth.
Ross Newman was going to be different. He started writing notes to himself, posting them on his bathroom mirror, on the back of his iPod, on the bookmark inserted inside his increasingly worn copy of Stanislavsky’s An Actor Prepares: “Be fearless!”
“You have nothing to hide!”
“Let them see the truth!”
He alienated his sometime girlfriend Miranda (“Stop judging me and my friends!”), and his sister Becks told him he was “insufferable.” But Ross didn’t care about irrelevant stuff, like what people thought of him. He was seeking a grander reward.
Mom was the one who encouraged him to apply to Juilliard, and NYU, and a handful of other elite East Coast training centers. “We’re not going to discuss this with Daddy until it becomes necessary,” she said, conspiratorially. And she was the one who brought him along to a conference in Chicago she was attending, “Women and Work: Equality in the New Millennium,” which happened to occur on the same weekend that Boston University was having their auditions at the Palmer House.
On the drive up – Ross at the wheel, Allie in the back, her legs stretched out as though on a divan – she made cryptic pronouncements that Ross found strangely thrilling.
“The artistic path isn’t the straightest, but it may be the most direct.”
“It’s never too early to let go and begin again.”
“No one ever achieved greatness by denying his dreams.”
He performed two pieces for the Boston people: Edgar from King Lear, gone nuts; and Tom from The Glass Menagerie, which Mr. Jipper had picked out just for him. He played “theater games”: catching and throwing an imaginary ball; doing a scene in nonsense language; switching from dog to cat to monkey. He gave them his best smile.
They loved him. So did everyone else. He was accepted everywhere.
Ross picked NYU because Felicity Huffman had gone there – and because they had a connection with the Actors Studio, and probably with people in the business, he assumed.
At first, Rusty Newman was apoplectic. He refused to pay his son’s tuition. “I’ll give you what it would cost to attend Mizzou. Anything else, you’re on your own.” Privately, Rusty Newman figured this artsy thing was just a phase his boy would outgrow. But he was worried. In bed, unable to sleep, he asked Allie, “Honey, do you think Ross is gay?”
Allie Newman consoled her husband as best she could, careful to hide her ecstatic delight at Ross’s burgeoning talent. “It’ll be all right, Daddy,” she assured Rusty. “Who can say where life will lead?”
“That’s true,” Rusty said, and silently contemplated all the times in his life when he might have gone one way but chose the other.
Eventually, after a few days of expressively silent moping and influenced by Allie’s careful yet firm coaxing, Mr. Newman agreed to bankroll Ross’s educational ambitions, “Or however you’d like to describe what you’re doing,” he grumbled.
“Well, I hope what I’m doing is making you proud,” Ross said, his lower lip trembling slightly, and his eyes becoming moist. He’d been working on this.
The whole family hugged. Not long thereafter, with Allie standing behind him choking back tears, Rusty confessed that he was awfully proud of his son, of his “courage and moxie.” He said, “Ross, I suspect somehow that greatness is in your future.”
Ross suspected this, too.
It took Ross Newman less time than the average 18 year-old to discern the crucial difference between learning a craft and learning a business. His time spent in scene study being mocked and browbeaten by angry acting teachers, themselves failed actors reduced to babysitting rich kids at New York City sleep-over camp, taught Ross a few useful lessons. Living in Manhattan, the nexus of the theatrical universe, where productions of every imaginable size and ambition lived and died, taught Ross the one lesson that, he realized, separated the winners from the losers: talent is over-rated.
No question, being an accomplished artist was cool. Mastering your craft was necessary (and also cool). Being able to do what many others couldn’t (getting up in front of an audience and making them believe the words coming out of your mouth just occurred to you at that moment, unrehearsed) yeah, that was pretty awesome. But a million people could do that. OK, maybe not that many. But just look around New York. Look around New York below 14th Street. Hell, look at his talented and beautiful classmates, all of them nursing the same fantasy of being the next great one. There was a gigantic surplus of capable, charismatic people all trying to do the same thing. Trying to make it.
The ones that did were the most persistent.
They had talent, for sure. Like everyone else. But the winners simply tried harder. And they never gave up.
His dad probably wouldn’t be too happy to discover that $40,000 a year bought this one revelation. But after five semesters of studying and observing and re-evaluating, Ross was certain he’d learned the big secret.
You just had to be more persistent, more willing to die trying, than everyone else.
In his third year at NYU, Ross, formerly a solid B-student, stopped paying attention to class-work and devoted the bulk of his time to sending out headshots and resumes, waiting in line at open casting calls, and attending expensive (but valuable) “workshops,” where an opportunity to network with powerful career-makers lurked behind every educational mission. That’s how he met Malnick.
That’s how he ended up in Los Angeles, in Ruthie Linder’s office.
That was how he was going to be something more than another ridiculously handsome waiter.
“I’m going to be honest with you,” she was saying to him. “I don’t think you’re quite right for this, for Hank. He’s, he’s –” she looked at the ceiling, searching for the right word – “he’s more troubled than you.”
“I can do troubled,” Ross said, trying to keep smiling.
“No, I know you can.”
“I can give you that kind of reading.”
Ruthie kept her exasperation veiled. “I have no doubt. It’s just an energy thing. You know? You know what I mean? Some people give off…Jason Patric projects troubled. Justin Timberlake does not. You know?”
“Yes. But I haven’t – could I at least read for you? I’d love to give you a read. I’ve got the sides memorized.”
“Honey. Ross. I’m not going to cast you in this.” Linder saw his face fall. Another fantasy dashed on Wilshire Boulevard. She hated this part of her job.
“What I was going to say, if you’ll let me finish.”
“What I was going to say,” Linder sang, elongating the long vowel sound, hitting three different notes, “is that I would like to see what else you’ve got for me. A monologue, maybe.”
“Yeah. Sure. Of course,” Ross said, his eyes brightening. “I’ve got a Shakespeare. Edgar. King Lear. The forest scene. It’s sort of troubled, actually.”
She shook her head. “Honey, you’re in Hollywood now, not New York. No Shakespeare.”
It was his best piece. But, whatever. He’d do something else. “OK. Tom? Glass Menagerie?”
Ruthie Linder wrinkled her nose. “Um. Anything more – something contemporary. Film, maybe?”
Without replying, without asking permission, Ross looked down at the floor for a second, and when he looked up he was Jules the Hitman, from Pulp Fiction, as played by Samuel L. Jackson.
He didn’t have jheri-curls or a prop gun, and his accent probably wasn’t as “black” as in the movie, but as the words “bad motherfucker” and “cap in your ass” came pouring out of him, Ross Newman felt the pleasant sensation of drifting out of himself and into someone else. When he finished – “Yolanda, are we cool?” – his brow was moist, and his heart seemed to be beating loudly. He was intoxicated, drunk on make-believe.
He looked at the floor again, exhaled forcefully, and smiled at the casting director. “Scene.”
For what seemed like a terribly long time, Ruthie Linder said nothing. Then she nodded. “Very good.”
“Thank you, Ms. Linder,” Ross replied, holding her gaze.
She nodded some more. “I’d like to see you do the exact same piece again. But this time,” Ruthie Linder said, “I’d like to see you do it without your shirt.”