The Best Time I Was Almost an Actress
by Anne T. Donahue
I was obsessed with movies and television as a child. So obsessed that I’d spend hours quoting dialogue, singing Wizard of Oz songs, trying to force a British accent (alone), all while telling myself — in the A&E; Biography narrator’s voice — that I was the next Judy Garland.
Actually, I liked to tell myself that Harrison Ford or Tommy Lee Jones — who would obviously eventually come to see me as a daughter — would stumble upon me during one of my Broadway renditions and pluck me from my boring suburban life, casting me in every movie they signed on for.
The A&E; Biography episode went a little something like this:
“And when Harrison Ford found himself on the mean streets of Cambridge, Ontario,” the narrator would say, “and he heard the sweet notes of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow,’ he knew he had found the next Judy Garland.”
I have no idea why either actor would be in Ontario, or why out of every child actor they’d compare me to Judy Garland, but this meet cute was merely an indicator of my delusions of grandeur — delusions necessary in sustaining any career in the arts, but especially in fueling a burgeoning acting career. Which is why, ten years later, when I asked for an agent, my parents said told me I could spread my wings and fly.
My journey — she said, smiling to herself like an old-timey movie star — began when I was 19. I was working as a hostess at The Keg, and a fellow hostess told me about some auditions she’d gone on. I congratulated her accordingly — outside.
“But I want to be an actress,” I thought to myself. “It’s how I’m going to meet Jimmy Fallon and make him fall in love with me and she doesn’t even want those things.”
(Please note that in 2004, Harrison and Tommy Lee had been replaced by an unwavering appreciation for Jimmy Fallon, whom I was sure would one day walk into The Keg and fall in love with the combination of my blazer, gel-scrunched hair, and knowledge of table numbers. Or, my sense of humor, which would inevitably land me on SNL at his specific request — whichever came first.)
Of course, I couldn’t tell just anybody this information, so I certainly kept it from the young woman willing to lend me her agent’s name under the pretense of artistry. After she gave me a name, phone number, and an appointment, I brought her and my mother to Toronto, and we soon found ourselves at an acting agency after lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe.
I walked up two flights of stairs to the acting-slash-modeling agency, and sat across from a woman named Lindsay, whose last name I forgot almost immediately because I was nervous and because I just wanted to know when I’d get famous.
“Now,” she began. “There’s already an Ann Donahue in the business. Did you know that?”
I knew I had the most Irish-Catholic name in the world. I also knew a lot of people liked to ask me if I was the genius behind CSI, as if I’d get mad about being associated with a primetime smash hit. But those people were illiterate idiots, clearly — I had a goddamn “e” in my “Anne.”
“I did!” I answered, very excitedly.
“Okay, good. So I suggest you do something to make yours different. Maybe… do you have a middle name?”
I had images of my grade 12 classmates laughing at the pretentiousness of having three full names. Three! As if our family had so much money we could make names fall from the sky. Everybody knows and knew that only rich and famous people had and used three names. No I, a 19-year-old grade 12 student, would take the middle initial route. Like Michael C. Hall or William H. Macy.
“All right: Anne T. Donahue!” she declared. “That might work. In the meantime, why don’t we get you signed up for classes?”
I looked to my Mom for approval. Our family has never had money, and I knew this was going to cost cash we didn’t have.
“Well…” she began.
“I’ll pay you back!” I half-screamed across the six-by-six room.
Of course I would pay her back. I had a part-time job as a hostess, and an even more part-time job as a hardware store cashier, and I was only 46 years away from affording three names for my public persona. Of course I would return the thousand-something dollars. Of course I didn’t even question why any acting classes I took had to be through the agency.
I probably should’ve questioned a lot of things. I probably should’ve questioned why two levels of paid acting lessons were mandatory. But shut up, everyone: I was Anne T. Donahue, future Academy Award winner. I was the next Judy Garland, ten years ago.
It was almost one year into my time at the agency when I landed my first part. My acting teacher requested me for an action-adventure blockbuster he was casting. In this case, “action-adventure blockbuster” is also “dramatic re-telling of a bombing in Bali, in which I would play an extra in a glorified documentary.”
It was my big break. After all, there are no small parts, just small people. Also: I was going to make $100 for 12 hours of work. Also: suck it, haters, I was a real fucking actress.
I woke up at 5 30 a.m. for my two-hour commute manically psyched. The whole way, my Dad — who my Mom insisted take me since I had just got my license — told me to be careful and that he was excited for me.
“You should be,” I thought to myself. “Soon we’ll all be in Los Angeles.”
I walked in with the brand new robe they requested I bring and I sat down with the other extras that had absolutely no interest in talking to me.
“That’s fine,” I told myself. “They’ll sure feel foolish when they look back and realize they were acting with the future Anne Thespian Donahue.”
Suddenly, an un-tucked, tired-looking man walked in.
“Hello, hi, hi,” he started. “Right off the top: ladies — who here has a flat stomach?”
A few of us raised our hands. He looked around, “Okay, great, come with me.”
I knew it. I mean, I’d rather have been noticed for my humor or late night talk show-appropriate personality, but I could handle being a “babe.” We all have to start somewhere. My destiny just lay in baring not-even-close-to-“all.”
“Okay,” he explained, almost exasperatingly. “We’ve got a few costumes that bare midriff. Is that fine with you guys?”
I nodded and beamed. I mean, of course it was fine. I was a professional. I could see it all now, interviews and A&E; Biography episodes covering this moment, Jimmy Fallon — my boyfriend — asking me how I put up with such nonsense. “It’s who I am, babe,” I’d say —
“You!” The man was talking to me. “Put this on.”
He handed me a ripped cropped cop and frayed shorts. They were wet.
“They’re going to be wet,” he said, reading my expression. “Because they’ve been sprayed with flame-proof liquid, like I told you. It’ll protect you from the explosions.”
I put on the wet, frayed clothing, and was ushered into makeup with everybody else. There, I was made to look like a bomb victim (because real actors had gotten the actual parts). After 20 minutes in makeup and ten more spent being covered in dirt and soot, I was officially wet, cold, and unsanitary-looking.
I didn’t like this. I don’t know what I signed on for, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t this. I signed on to be a movie star, and movie stars didn’t suffer through wet shorts and cold midriffs and an excess of face-dirt. Not for $8/hour, anyway.
“You having fun?”
One of the other actors/extras approached me outside. I was jealous of everyone having fun or who had known each other before or who hadn’t raised their hand when asked about having a flat stomach, so I sitting at the picnic table observing enviously. Even though everybody was being perfectly nice to me — inclusive, even, and very kind — I wasn’t happy. Couldn’t we agree that this whole thing sucked? It was already noon and all we’d done was put on clothes. When does the acting start?
It started shortly after, when the hired actors delivered the lines they were paid to say on the set we were paid to lie down across. Then, after those people did their jobs, controlled explosions were tested while we faked shock, awe, and death.
“This is a really long day,” I tried to complain.
“It is,” said an actor. “But it’s work!”
“Is this what you do? Like, for work?” I was eating my third complimentary cookie of the hour. (Fuck you, flat stomach.)
“Oh no, no!” he laughed. “Most of us are full-time actors, but days like these? It’s just easy money.”
That’s when I learned about ACTRA — the Canadian actors’ union — and why this man had better snacks than I did.
“How do I get into ACTRA?” I inquired.
“Well,” he started. “Just jobs like these until you have enough or somebody signs for you.”
That sounded terrible. I mean, jobs like this? Jobs like this? It was late afternoon, and I’d only shot three scenes — all of which contained smoke, fake glass, and touch ups on the blood and tears the makeup artist had carefully added to my face. This wasn’t SNL. This wasn’t the Oscars. I wasn’t a starlet. I was a 19-year-old cashier who owed my parents hard, cold, intimidating dollars for indulging this thespian dream. And I was ruining the pages of my magazine with my smoke and dirt makeup to boot.
I think I hated acting. Or I hated whatever it was I was doing and I didn’t want to do it again. At least not for $8/hour — even shifts at the hardware store paid $2 more than that. And I could wear dry clothes and didn’t have to bring a robe.
And so, at 7 p.m., the day ended just as unceremoniously as my revelation dawned on. At twilight I walked to my Dad’s car, in my robe and real, ankle-length pants, covered in dirt and fake blood, and dejectedly announced I was tired.
Unless, of course, we were pulled over by Harrison Ford, Tommy Lee Jones, and/or Jimmy Fallon.“Her commitment to the craft!” they would announce. “Cast her in anything she wants!”
“Okay, gentlemen,” I’d begin. “Picture this: a movie about a woman who didn’t need an acting and/or modeling agent…for anything other than telling her to let that middle initial fly.”
Though this story would be even better if I told you that’s how I came to create CSI.
Anne T. Donahue is a writer and comedian from Cambridge, Ontario. She contributes to places like The Guardian, Rookie, FASHION, Noisey, and whoever will have her, and does punch-up and TV writing whenever she can. You can find her on Tumblr and on Twitter at @annetdonahue, or simply leave a bag of chips out and she will come to you.