Her co-star had been in the middle of his line, but she couldn’t help it. The instructions were to sip from her glass, right at that moment. Yet as soon as the liquid passed her lips, it burned, and by reflex she sprayed it all over the table – and the actor across from her.
“Cut! Cut!” shouted the director, in that inimitable accent of his.
“I’m really sorry,” she said, as a costumer dressed her co-star in a new shirt.
“Quite all right,” the co-star said. “Far from the worst response I’ve received.”
The director harangued the prop crew into reassembling the set to look as if she’d never stepped out of line. She understood little of his native language, but there was no need to speak it. The crew’s harried expressions conveyed the message clearly enough.
She had feared the director from the start. Stories gathered in the rumor mills of his notoriously demanding shoots. Nobody claimed to enjoy working under him. But he was famous, and an artist of his stature commanded huge budgets and prestigious scripts. A stint in one of his pictures all but guaranteed one’s renown, and was a sure passport to better things.
She figured these sorts of ordeals were a necessary career step. Besides, the director had been the only one brave enough to cast her against type.
Someone came by with an unmarked bottle and refilled her glass.
“Is this water?” she asked, to no reply.
“As you were,” said the director. “And… Action!”
When her cue to drink arrived, she touched the glass to her mouth. The alcohol’s fumes made her eyes leak. She set it back on the table.
“Cut! Cut! Cut!” cried the director. “You did not swallow. Again! From the top.”
She tried again. This time she moved her throat.
“Cut!” the director screamed. “What was that?”
“I swallowed like you told me to,” she said.
“Wrong. Your orders are to swallow the drink in front of you. Is not difficult. My infant nephew, even he can do it.”
“Why can’t I mime it?”
“If you wish to mime, we can find you a part that does not speak.”
“Miming is out of the question. Liquid, it is elemental. All recognize what it looks like to drink. Is obvious when faked.”
“Then can we at least use water?”
“Out of the question. The body responds differently to water. The fakery, it will be too obvious. I will not sacrifice our realism. Enough discussion! Places! And…”
“But I can’t drink alcohol,” she said. “Because of my condition.” Beneath all the stares that turned upon her, she added, “My agent should have told you about my condition.”
“Action,” said the director.
The scene progressed. She left her glass untouched.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t want to do it.”
“Yes, is the root of the problem. You don’t want to do it.”
“I say, old chap,” said her co-star, “oughtn’t we–”
“Silence,” said the director, and her co-star went quiet. “Yes, the issue, it is clear. You don’t want to do it. But your character? She wants to do it. Is why the scene is written this way.”
“But my condition…”
“Your character has no such condition. Lose yourself in her. Else we shall find another way of losing you.”
She reasoned her way into thinking one mouthful wouldn’t hurt. Down it went, bitter and burning.
The director called for another take.
“Didn’t that go well?” she asked.
“You do not see through my eyes. Again! Places!”
The scene replayed. She downed her replenished glass. She felt sick.
The director had them do it twice, thrice… She lost count. Nothing felt right. She put one hand over her stomach, where the worst of it was.
“Once more,” said the director. “Places!”
“No,” she said. The consonant slurred, like her last few lines.
“This is not your choice to make. Reset the scene.”
“You have enough to work with. Let’s not do this again.”
“We do it as many times as I say. Ignore her. Roll the cameras.”
“No! I won’t do it again. You can’t treat me this way.”
She had been ready to walk away, but was now unsteady on her feet, and couldn’t keep anything down.
“I’m a person! You don’t do this to a person.”
The cast and crew held their silence. They endeavored not to take sides. But they had made their choice all the same.
“You’re supposed to show some decency,” she said. “Not even respect. Only decency! Is that really so hard?”
Her glass ended up on the floor. Then her plates and dinnerware. She added her chair for good measure. Rejection after rejection poured from her.
In time, she came to herself, surveying the cathartic mess.
“Begone,” said the director.
So ended her final shoot.
A sudden reputation for difficulty attached to her afterwards. It said enough about her. She never worked again.
Her performance, however, did end up in the director’s finished film. It netted her no accolades.
He has just been awarded the Golden Lion in Venice.
Alexander B. Joy lives and works in his native New Hampshire, where he spends the long winters reading the world’s classics and composing haiku. In the nonfiction realm, he typically writes about literature, film and philosophy. Follow him on Twitter (aeneas_nin) for semi-regular photos of his dog.