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The Boston Phoenix Hollywood Square

A report from the trenches of entry-level Hollywood, where making supermodels giggle and fending off advances from Patrick Swayze are par for the course. Sort of.

By Dan Tobin

DECEMBER 7, 1999:  I want to be a star. It's why I moved to Los Angeles, and it's really the only acceptable reason to move here. You can find the city's other virtues -- great weather and pretty girls -- in other places less smoggy and soulless. Almost any city would make a better home. Unless, that is, you desperately want to be interviewed on Entertainment Tonight. In that case, LA's a handy place to start.

Everyone here is chasing some dream, hoping that big break is right around the corner, or down an obscure alley, or anywhere. Meanwhile, everyone is doing something else to pay the rent. The cliché that all aspiring actors are waiters isn't entirely true -- some are bartenders. But they're all doing something -- even the most unrealistic wanna-bes acknowledge the need for interim jobs before their star turns.

In LA you have to ask people two questions: what they do and what they want to do. It's not just to be nice. It's that you never know what they're doing on the side, or who they might be friends with. On any film crew, the guy connecting electricity to the cappuccino machine may be spending his nights working on a screenplay that he's negotiating to sell for megabucks.

About a year ago, I dropped an easy journalism job in Boston to chase Hollywood dreams. Now I work on my screenplay at night, or at least talk about it a lot. I know what I want to do (write, direct, maybe act, definitely have a casting couch), and, like everyone else, I started at the bottom.

I'm still there. And it's not as bad as you'd think.

Simply quilts

Out here, people call it "Hollywood" only sarcastically. Or they'll say "this town" (as in, "Yahoo Serious will never work in this town again"). Hollywood is a neighborhood, a touristy, slightly seedy region of Los Angeles; the show-biz world is known as the Industry.

In the Industry, the bottom-of-the-barrel job supposedly is production assistant. The PAs are the first on a film crew to show up, the last to leave, the most expendable, and the worst paid. They're lightning rods for abuse, they do hundreds of mindless, demeaning tasks, and they get a Rodney Dangerfield level of respect. It's a textbook crappy job.

It's also hard to get.

I figured that aiming to be a PA was reasonable, never expecting I'd have to work up to it. I didn't know there was anything lower until I got a job as a runner, which I thought would involve "running" around the set, delivering things as quickly as possible. In real life, I "ran" errands in my car, mostly to unglamorous places like Box Brothers. But there were perks, like getting to pee in Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry's widow's house (I've boldly gone where none of my friends have gone before). Better yet, the job got me onto my first real set: that of the cable TV show Simply Quilts.

Yes, quilts. Most Industry people aren't working on Schwarzenegger blockbusters or even hip indie features. With costs rising domestically, an increasing number of movies are filmed in Canada, where the dollar goes further. So lots of people work on lousy television shows they'd never watch on lousy cable stations you've never heard of.

I was only helping the Quilts ladies by carrying heavy boxes and occasionally dropping off emergency yarn shipments, but it was still hard leaving them behind -- they were so nice and matronly, and at the wrap luncheon I felt like an outsider scamming a free meal (because that's exactly what I was). I learned that the crew's catch phrase had been "word," as in "word to ya muthah," and they kept shouting "Word!" and pumping their fists, which I found strange since most of the people there were muthahs themselves. When the Quilts hostess began her thank-you speech with "You guys are really word!" I knew it was time to move on.

A crappy job on a crappy movie is not easy to stumble into, but I eventually managed to stumble well enough to land one. A friend of a friend got me a PA job on a movie called Loving Lulu, and I began working 16-hour days, with some lasting 18 hours and a few as short as 14. The PAs weren't allowed to sit, except during our 20-minute lunch, which we ate only after everyone else had eaten. I ran around, carried things, cleaned up messes, and fetched food for people more important than me. My rewards were getting yelled at constantly and being made to feel like a moron.

Everyone said I was getting spoiled with such an easy, laid-back shoot.

The scary part is that it was easy for a PA job -- I've heard horror stories about PAs who were asked to hose down an alley of waste matter, of PAs who've had equipment thrown at them. Still, my first day as a PA made me so miserable that I wondered whether moving to Los Angeles had been a horrible mistake.

Then I saw the director coaching an actor through his scene. The precious few at the top have the greatest jobs in the world. Getting paid for your art is rare (and can you really call the Pokémon movie art?), but Hollywood offers the opportunity to create fantasy worlds, play in them, and express yourself to a mass audience. Let's not even talk about how little they work and the insane amounts of money they get for doing something so much fun. As I watched the actor discussing how he should say his line, the director looked up, noticed me, and lit up. He waved me to him, and I rushed over, ecstatic.

"Would you go fetch my lip balm out of my car?"

Of course!

Bobby De Niro

The old saying that you walk among the stars out here just isn't true: nobody in LA walks anywhere. But you do buy coffee among the stars, and go dancing among the stars, and sometimes even see a movie among the stars. And if you're in the Industry, you work with the stars all the time. But do you really want to hear about all the celebrities I've had run-ins with? Do you really want to hear my sordid tales of life in the trenches, about Patrick Swayze asking me for a blowjob and Cheri Oteri kissing me? Do you really want me to prattle on about the time an Oscar-nominated actor knowingly farted in front of me and the times I made a supermodel laugh? Do you really want to know about the party I was at with Leonardo DiCaprio, or the time my roommate sang "Mustang Sally" at a bar with Wim Wenders? Do you really want to hear about all that?

I bet you do.

At the lowest level, all we have are stories about famous people we've "worked with" or "met." Sure, my PA jobs consist of demeaning chores like fetching breakfast and answering phones, but it's kind of cool when I'm fetching Melanie Griffith's breakfast (burrito with egg, cheese, spinach, avocado, and turkey bacon) and when Jenna Elfman calls me. Laboring away has earned me the right to talk about the way Antonio Banderas frequently pats his wife's bum, and to say with a straight face, "Yeah, Melanie can really be a handful."

That straight face is crucial -- glowing too much brands you as an amateur or a tourist. But how can I contain myself when I tell my Patrick Swayze blowjob story? The star of Loving Lulu was in an elevator, and I was lying on the floor holding the "door open" button until the appropriate time. While the crew lit the scene, Patrick looked at me, cocked his head to the side, and in his slight Southern drawl, croaked, "While you're down there . . . "

He was clearly joking, although he did kiss me on the cheek in a hotel bar.

And yes, I called him Patrick. I used to get irritated when directors talked about "Bobby De Niro," but now I realize they did that because he probably said, "Hi, I'm Bobby." After you spend so much time with stars, they start looking smaller -- and Patrick's only about 5'9" to begin with. But by the end of my second week on the film, it was less Ooooh, the guy from Dirty Dancing! and more Okay, when they scream "Where the fuck's Patrick?" I can relax. Almost.

So I'll be dispassionate when I tell you about Victoria Principal flirting with me and pondering her nude pictures on the Internet. I'll keep an even keel when I talk about the time an LA morning show aired a clip of me joking around with David Spade. I might even be able to contain myself when I talk about the time I had an argument with Hercules -- well, with Kevin Sorbo -- and won.

The funny thing about Hollywood is that the famous people really do brush against you, and they may even be nice to you for a while. Stars have the luxury of being selective in their ass-kissing, so if they're being nice, it might really mean that they're good people. When other people initially treat me well, we're back to the theory that you never know who the next guy knows. My car, clothes, and haircut scream "entry-level schmuck," but who knows whether my father owns CBS, or my uncle's a top casting agent, or my roommate's about to sign with DreamWorks? So everyone's nice to me, at least until they figure out I really am an entry-level schmuck. Sometimes they stay nice, but that's usually when my boss sends me on a Starbucks run in his Porsche and they mistake me for someone with power.

The face of erectile dysfunction

Lots of people out here get their start in odd ways. Harrison Ford was a set carpenter when George Lucas discovered him, and supposedly Scott Wolf from Party of Five and none other than Brad Pitt used to play waiters on Saved by the Bell. My roommate Jay also played a waiter on Saved by the Bell, but he has yet to sleep with Gwyneth Paltrow -- or even to land a paying role with lines.

Still, he's pretty much banking that you can get your start in odd ways. Jay's an aspiring actor, and his agent keeps sending him to commercial auditions where he has to get naked. So far he's auditioned to be an unlikely stripper, an unlikely bodybuilder, an overzealous sports fan, and a mermaid's lover; he's been semi-naked for each one. Jay acknowledges that if he got one of these parts, he'd owe it to a few too many bags of Doritos. My far portlier friend Sam was runner-up for a commercial in which he would have worn nothing but a Speedo and swim goggles. The producer later consoled him over his loss: "The other guy was much fatter."

Sam was crushed. It would have been horribly embarrassing, but there was way too much money involved to worry about that. Landing a part in a national commercial involves a day or two of filming, and pays a bare minimum of around $20,000. Every time it runs, you get paid, and most national commercials pull in six figures for the people in them. So I don't laugh at the good-looking guy who's supposed to be "the face of erectile dysfunction." Sacrificing his pride probably paid for a Porsche Boxster, some hand-tailored suits, and other cool items to attract women unconcerned with his spokesmanship. Jay would die to be the face of erectile dysfunction.

Yes, the money would be nice -- Jay's car, clothes, and haircut scream out "hip welfare candidate" -- but he's also just looking for a role, since tiny successes can balloon into something larger. My friend Mikey landed a fast-food commercial that paid him a mint, then led to a sit-com pilot when a casting director saw the ad on TV. His roommate Brian got a part in a British ad campaign for Diesel jeans. Six months later, a Swedish teen magazine named Brian one of the 10 sexiest men in Sweden -- apparently girls all over the country loved him and were hanging his magazine ad in dorm rooms. I'd bowled with him more than once before I found this out, further proving that you never know what people are really up to.

So my roommate takes what he can get, hoping something will make him into a Scandinavian sex symbol. Besides appearing in the background of Saved by the Bell and Starship Troopers, his largest part to date is a meaty role in a horror-schlock movie that will go direct to video if he's lucky. The folks working on this picture have last-minute guerrilla shoots whenever the director scrounges up money; they've been stopped by the police more than once, and the only recognizable actor is Warwick Davis, who played the title characters in Willow and Leprechaun. Topping it off, Jay's character is named Brian, an anagram for "brain," and he wears a giant pink exposed brain on his head.

One day soon, Jay's flying to New York for his biggest scene, a dream sequence of him running through Times Square, completely naked, with the giant pink exposed brain on his head. For most people, this would be a new low. Jay is predicting it will be a "life-changing experience." Well, I suppose jail time would be life-changing.

Never work in this town again

As for me -- well, of course I can't be a PA forever. Sometimes I wonder whether I'll last the week. But it's a fine way to cut my teeth so long as I'm relatively unconcerned with money and respect. It's all about experience, and entry-level Hollywood is chock full of opportunity. PAs interact with every member of the crew, so they learn a bit of everything. Plus, they're privy to lots of information and gossip, which means people know they should be nice to PAs if they want to stay up to speed. And what if my cousin's dating Rob Reiner's son?

Paying dues is standard in every industry, but Hollywood has longer memories about roots. A lot of the people at the top used to schlep boxes and answer phones, and even the guy who screams at you for forgetting the syrup on his pancakes will probably sit you down to tell you about the crap he went through starting out. Filmmaking is a collaborative process, and those endless lists of credits prove it. Even grunts really affect the finished product.

The first time I saw my name in credits, I was overwhelmed -- I had entered pop-culture history. My name would be recorded forever, even if only at Blockbuster, on USA, or in the Simply Quilts boxed set.

On a secret egotistical level, of course, I'm keeping a mental record of my journey so that A&E will have an easier time with my biography. I told Jay that running naked through New York will make a great clip for Before They Were Stars, and this is the thinking that keeps you going in the dark hours. One day, I'll be on Access Hollywood telling my Patrick Swayze blowjob story, and Jay will reminisce about his cellmates in New York. We'll look back on these days and laugh.

And some entry-level schmuck will be telling his friends over dinner that he saw me at the supermarket, and that I look much shorter in person.

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