It was around 70 degrees outside, and I was cold. The sky was forever blue except for a veil of smoke to the west. I couldn’t remember the last time it rained. Autumn looks different here. The leaves don’t catch orange and fall in droves. The air doesn’t snap at the back of your throat and sleeves remain optional. Instead, the foliage crisps on the branch and falls brown to the sidewalk, one leaf at a time. If I feel a chill, I put on some socks and long sleeves, and I’m comfortable again. This is “climate shock.” It’s wonderful, if not a little confusing; my body has no idea what time of year it is.
With the dawn of another October, I wondered if I would miss Washington: shuffling through the leaves, coffee in hand, steam rising from my cup. But all was well. I liked being warm and experiencing something so new. Then I saw pictures of Leavenworth, WA in her October splendor, and I missed her. Driving over Steven’s Pass was a self-care staple before I moved. My soul needed to find some mountains.
I picked a spot in the Angeles National Forest in the San Gabriel and Sierra Palone Mountains. The forest spans 1,024 square miles above me and mostly to the east. I love driving. There’s something about gently guiding a vehicle with a nudge of the hand, the press of a foot, speeding through the miles and the wind. Maybe it gives me a feeling of control when we control so little in this world. But I think it has more to do with the percussion of it, the choreography of stop and go and sustained velocity.
As I approached wilderness, I felt space start to move through me. I turned a corner and suddenly, I was right at the base of the brightest brown hills. I smiled and said, “well hello there,” window down, sunroof open, music up. My destination was loose. I drove higher. When a vista grabbed my attention, I pulled over to take pictures: mountains brown and green, silent and strong, carrying volumes of earth and life within.
My apartment is on a busy intersection. The constant horn honking and beat blaring has become my daily soundtrack. I have adjusted to it, learning to enjoy, and even dance to the music that bounces its way through my bedroom walls. But when I stepped out of my car in the middle of those mountains, the quiet took my heart and held it. I was only ten miles from home, but what another world. Just ten miles away were actors and lawyers and grocers and parents and friends all running from one thing to the next without time or breath to spare. Only ten miles, and I could exchange the clutter and buzz of city living for open and still.
We are a species of builders, filling as much space as we can within and without. And just like the densest of cities, we run out of room. The mountains take and let go. The snow falls, and they hold it. The rocks fall, and the mountains wave goodbye. They are built. They are unconcerned with the density of their lives. Maybe that’s why they open me up. Maybe that’s why I always return. There is so much room in the mountains.
“Mountains are giant, restful, absorbent. You can heave your spirit into a mountain and the mountain will keep it, folded, and not throw it back as some creeks will. The creeks are the world with all its stimulus and beauty; I live there. But the mountains are home.” – Annie Dillard
“Weepy today,” I texted my best friend. I’ve shared in the past about the difficulty of transition, of finding community, security. And still the weepy days can catch me off guard. Where was the warmth of the mountains? Lost beneath my loneliness and my to-do lists, I questioned my choices, my drive, my ownership. The hours slipped through my fingers. Thwarted isn’t a desirable way to start a day. But my life is often in transition, and I’ve learned how to harness “weepy” and “thwarted.” Sometimes.
It was Wednesday, and I had a difficult acting class that night. I almost didn’t get into this class. Everyone had to interview and audition for the teacher to get approved. My interview was a disaster. So much so, that by the time we got to the audition portion, I had nothing to lose. I did my monologue, and felt “eh” about it. He asked me to do it again. I could see I was growing on him. He asked me to do it a third time. And a fourth. He liked my work, and I got into the class. It was a huge encouragement, momentary confirmation of something I believe to be true about myself: I am a good actor. But it doesn’t take much for doubt to poke holes in my confidence, and as night grew closer, my anxiety grew.
When it was time to go, I grabbed the CD copy of Hamilton I borrowed from the library and rushed to the car, all yoga pants and backpack. I’ve been listening to Hamilton a lot the last couple of weeks. I find the energy motivating and the underdog narrative particularly relatable these days. Traffic was worse than usual. I blasted the music, hoping the act of singing would open me up to vulnerability in class.
“You want a revolution? I want a revelation, so listen to my declaration: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal,’ and when I meet Thomas Jefferson, I’mma compel him to include women in the sequel! Work!”
It didn’t. At the start of class, our teacher introduced a new exercise. It had a lot of rules. “This will be difficult, but I can do it,” I thought. I took the floor and, figuratively, fell flat on my face. “Were you on focus?” our teacher asked. “No.” Absolutely not. I watched as others did the exercise with ease and confidence. “Okay, I know how to do this now. I’ve got a great idea,” I thought. Then my team started before I was ready. The exercise took a turn that made it impossible for me to use my idea. I didn’t go with it. I didn’t adjust. I floundered, littering the stage with mistakes.
Impostor syndrome is a thief. It will tell you that you’re not worthy of the opportunities given to you. Heck, it will rob you of the opportunities you’ve earned. It will tell you that everyone else finds “this” easy. That you’re the only one struggling, so you must not deserve to even have a chance at overcoming. As I watched my classmates work with dexterity (read: ability), that thief nabbed every bit of my confidence and told me that I didn’t belong in the room. Of course, I wasn’t the only student to fumble their way through the exercise, but I placed myself among the worst. I could see the distance between where I was and where I wanted to be. “Will I ever be able to take what’s inside of myself, what I know I’m capable of, and show it to the world, or will it forever be trapped inside?”
Class got out at 11:30pm. I hauled myself to my car, trying not to slam the door as a fell into the driver’s seat. Frustration bubbled into tears. I put on Hamilton and drove home.
“Life doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints. It takes and it takes and it takes. And we keep living anyway. We rise and we fall and we break. We fall, and we make our mistakes. And if there’s a reason I’m still alive when so many have died, then I’m willin’ to, I’m willin’ to wait for it…”
My phone buzzed: it was a dear friend asking for a movie recommendation. Timing is everything. As a fellow artist, I knew he would understand what I had experienced in class and the emotional aftermath. He reminded me that success doesn’t indicate ability and that learning something new is never easy. He had generous empathy for me when I had none for myself. My heart burst through my chest. When someone in my field tells me that I’m capable, believes in me when I don’t believe in myself, it lifts me, and for a moment, I can see through the mire within. I’m learning how to bring myself out of those headspaces, but I can’t always do it alone. I need to lean on the people in my life who have been there, who are there. Progress, not perfection.
Sleep came easily, my eyes weighted and weary. But I rested with the knowledge that I am not alone on this long road. I’m driving, and the miles are passing, even when I don’t feel them beneath my feet.
“I am inimitable. I am an original. Wait for it, wait for it, wait for it, wait for it. I’m not falling behind or running late. Wait for it, wait for it, wait for it, wait for it. I’m not standing still; I am lying in wait.”
5:30am, Halloween. Not one, but three alarms went off: “Good mornin’! Good mornin’! It’s great to stay up late!” I rolled out of bed at 5:50am and checked traffic. Today, I would work on a network show on a studio lot for the very first time.
My film and television education began early with the first Golden Ages of Hollywood and Television, when studios were at their first – and undeniably brutal – peak. Despite what I know now about the darkness of those days, the magic of studio lots, sound stages, wardrobe trailers, big hot lights, and detailed backdrops cemented itself in my imagination. When I booked a background role on Brooklyn Nine-Nine shooting on the CBS lot, there was no repressing the giddy smile that crept at the corners of my mouth.
The studio lot is quite a maze of narrow streets weaving between mountainous sound stages, golf carts zipping to and fro, trailers parked parallel to imposing walls. I parked my car, took a last swig of my coffee, and asked a security guard how to find Stage 12. I wandered through the maze, gazing up at the warehouses full of imagination. “Home of Seinfeld,” “Home of 3rd Rock from the Sun,” “Home of Rhoda”: each stage had an engraved sign outside the main doors, memorializing the historic shows that were filmed inside. It was still early, and I was already over the moon.
Outside of Stage 12 was a beat up folding table with a sign that said “Background Check-In.” A group of us gathered and waited for direction, coffee from craft services in hand. Eventually, a stressed directing intern gave us the lowdown and sent us to “holding,” usually a fluorescent room with folding chairs. Working as a background actor is a rite of passage for actors in L.A. It won’t get me closer to “my break,” and the networking opportunities are limited, but it’s a paycheck. The days are long and relatively thankless, and at the end of it all, I may only work for a few minutes.
It wasn’t long before the stressed intern brought us to the “briefing room” on set. This was another place to hold us until they needed us, but, this wasn’t a fluorescent room with bad crafty. This was the NYPD 99th Precinct briefing room. There’s an entire police department inside of Stage 12: holding cells, offices, briefing rooms, a rooftop balcony, bullpen, etc. It immediately took me back to being a child at the Everett Children’s Museum. There, I could enter the pretend grocery store and play checker, or the pretend bus and play bus driver. This was a life size pretend police department, a playground, low key Disneyland for this actor.
We waited. Among the other background actors was a man, probably around my age, who had moved from Texas to be an animator. He had a sketch book and Rubik’s Cube. We talked about our favorite animated movies and the unusual nature of background work. Then there was the funny-man, who made it clear that he would rather wrap early to go to a Halloween party: “I’ve got my costume in my car.” Personally, I couldn’t imagine a better way to spend Halloween than playing pretend on a TV set. He disagreed.
The 1st Assistant Director (AD) popped in and out of the briefing room, staring at us, analyzing our individual looks before picking a couple of people to place in a scene.
“And, ummm, you.” she looked at me. “What was your name?”
“Okay great, Sarah, we’ll use you. Follow me.”
She placed me at the desk of an elderly man who works as consistent police background on the show. He told me about his decades as a stuntman in the business, about meeting John Wayne, working on Rifleman, and about the other people working on Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
“Y’know the show Bonanza?” he asked.
“Of course I do! I watched it every day when I was a kid.”
“You see that man over there? The one playing Hitchcock? That’s Dirk Blocker, Dan Blocker’s son. You remember Hoss?”
“Oh wow, really!?” I said, starstruck. Of course I remembered.
I was on set with Dan Blocker’s son. Sure, Andy Samberg and Terry Crews were also on set. Sure, I was also starstruck by them. But Dirk Blocker?! When I was a kid, I was obsessed with Bonanza. It ran in reruns at 2pm and 5pm every day on PAX TV. I kept a log of every episode I watched and categorized them based on their themes and genres. All of the original core cast members have passed. This was the closest I would probably ever get to a Cartwright. I started quietly singing the theme song right then and there. No one could hear but the two people standing nearby, but I didn’t care. I was in the same room as someone who had been on the set of Bonanza. This was awesome.
We broke for lunch a little after 2pm. Unlike most background jobs, they didn’t provide lunch, so I found my way through the maze to the commissary. I ordered maybe the best BLT I’ve ever had. Of course, it was a studio commissary sandwich that I ate sitting in the sunshine on a bench outside of a sound stage; even boiled potatoes would have tasted great. I reflected on the first half of the day. I had watched stunts, handled detailed police file props, tried not to stare at Terry Crews and Andy Samberg, and even gotten to act a little: giddy smile.
The second half of the day was more of the same, and they eventually dismissed all of the background actors except me and three others. There was a chance they would need us for some shots on New York Street: a spot on the backlot that looks like, you guessed it, a street in New York. More waiting, but since there were so few of us, we had some freedom to wander and watch the filming. I went outside and waited just down the street from where they were shooting some more stunts. There was hot soup for dinner. I stood there, looking towards New York Street, a cup of hot chowder in my hands, watching the monitors and the lights. Nothing really happened. It was quiet, relatively uneventful, but it’s not a moment I will soon forget.
We wrapped sometime after 8pm – a 13 hour workday. The crew had been there earlier and would stay much later. I was beat. As I walked back to my car, a sliver of a moon looking on, I laughed in disbelief at how I had gotten to spend those 13 hours. My car was parked near the open top floor of the parking garage. My feet hurt, but I wanted to check out the view, drink in just a little more of the magic. It wasn’t the best in the city or anything, but it was the view from the parking garage on the CBS Studio lot. That was something. I had dreamed of being in a place like this for so many years. No, I wasn’t at the center of any of it, but that didn’t matter in the least. I was there. I got to witness it. I had the sheer pleasure of just being present. And though there are so many miles still to drive, I hope I never take that for granted.