The Hebe Bebe Wannabe Gets the Heebie-Jeebies

When my agent called me last week, I was psyched. It was the first time she’d called me since I’d booked the “Law and Order” in March. “I have an audition for you,” she said. “It’s for a new CBS sitcom, the role is a series regular. She’s a rich, smart, wisecracking college girl. Sarcastic, funny, and jaded. They want a Dorothy Parker, a Fran Lebowitz, a young Bebe Neuwirth.”

“Bebe Neuwirth?” I thought. “Wow! Lilith Sternin is the only sitcom personality I’ve ever actually identified with! Her crass sense of humor. Her savvy intelligence. Her pent-up libido just raging to get out.”

“Oh – one more thing,” said my agent. “Try to wear a little makeup when you go. It’ll make you look prettier.”

The morning of the audition, I went to my parents’ house to practice the scene. My little brother was practicing guitar in the living room. I asked him to read it over with me.

“No,” he said.

“Please?”

“No.”

“I’ll give you five bucks.”

“OK.”

We sat down on the couch. I read the first line. “Do you speak English?”

“Alittle.”

“Sorry, you look just like this Guatamalan maid we used to have.”

See, my character was the upper-class sidekick to the working-class widow who gets into an Ivy League college. The cynical contrast to her homegrown wisdom. I meet her in a classroom and ask her for a light, she tells me not to smoke and then makes broad yet moving generalizations about the sanctity of human life as I tell her I wish I was dead.

I could relate. But I wanted to fine-tune it so I had my brother coach me. He said to try the opening line louder, more patronizing, more racist. We practiced it five times and I felt ready and rarin’ to go. It was time for the makeover.

I pinned my hair back slick to my head and into a bun, bleached my mustache, put on a full face of makeup, and got dressed. I opted for a zip-up ribbed black top with fake fur collars, and a brown miniskirt with Fluevog platform heels. Then I leaned over the toilet and vomited up my last three meals.

Kidding.

I felt like a smart slut. A cynical bitch. A rich prima donna. A Mia Sara Jessica. Even my brother couldn’t suppress a low wolf whistle as I moseyed out the door.

I waited outside the audition room watching all the other, notably more Aryan, young Bebes come in. I kept practicing the lines. I touched up my makeup. The casting director called my name.

The room was long and bright. Sitting all the way at the end of it was a fifteen-year-old boy. “This is John, he’ll be reading with you.”

“You mean – he’s the working-class widow?”

“Yes. Did you learn the lines?”

“Um, no, actually. I didn’t know you’d be taping. My agent usually tells me when they’re taping.”

“You should have learned the lines. You should always learn the lines.”

“I’m sorry, my agent didn’t say anything so I . . . uh . . .”

“Well, if you must, try it with the script. We’ll do a rehearsal and then we’ll do a take.”

Since it was only a rehearsal, I thought I’d play around a bit with motion, see if it got me more in the mood. I leaned forward. “Do you speak English?”

“Let me stop you right there,” she said. “You have to stay in the frame, OK? The camera only gets your head, so I need very little motion from you.”

I took a deep breath and did the whole scene.

“I’m really losing your face in the script. Why don’t you try it, just once, without the script, and see if you know the lines? It’s only a couple pages. Put the script down on the table, slate your name, and just go for it.” She took the script out of my hand, put it on the table, and smiled encouragingly.

I stared blankly into the camera. “Amy Sohn,” I said, like it was the beginning of my eulogy. I tried to channel my misery into snobbery. I made a patronizing face at the reader. He smiled back at me. He seemed to be saying, “Loser. You suck.”

I smiled more snidely. I opened my mouth. But I couldn’t remember the first line. I broke out into a helpless grin and leaned over to look at the script. “Do you speak English?”

I got through the first page of lines no problem, but because all my energy was focused on visualizing what they looked like on the page, I kind of forgot to be funny. In fact, I said each line with an almost desperate seriousness because I was trying so hard to get the words out right. Joke after joke came out whiny and flat. Then somewhere in the middle of page two I forgot another line and had to pause to lean over to the table, turn the page, find the line, turn back to Eddie Haskell, and say it.

Suddenly the ground was slipping out from under my feet. All I wanted to do was get the hell out of there. I finished the scene and smiled wanly at the casting director.

“See, you do know the lines,” she said. “You just have to trust yourself. A couple of pages is not a lot to memorize. Try it again and this time you can keep the script on your lap.”

I found her so patronizing that I began to feel a very rigid rage towards her. I hated her for talking down to me. I hated her for forcing me to do the scene without the script when I wasn’t prepared. I hated her for being over thirty and wearing a jumper.

“Do you speak English?” I began. I was sweaty. The mascara was starting to drip. Eddie Haskell kept smiling coolly at me as I fumbled again for even more lines than I’d missed the first round. Each time I had to look down for a line, I got more and more discouraged. Discouragement combined with rage made me deliver each line with a resentful unfunniness. I was daring the casting director to like me, hating her so much that I refused to do well for her.

She walked me out. “Have a good weekend,” she said, and closed the door behind me.

I didn’t cry when I got out on the street. I almost laughed. I figured you win some, you lose some and at least I’d learned never go to an audition unmemorized again. But then, as I walked toward Columbus Circle, I did the thing they say never to do. I started rehashing every single botched moment, trying to recall one potential positive interaction which might have occurred in the audition, an interaction which could give me faith that maybe, just maybe, I’d get called back in spite of it all. The only one I could think of was when I smiled after I forgot the first line.

You always hear these industry legends, about now-famous people who had lousy auditions but possessed something real and pure which shone through anyway. People who weren’t trying to be funny but were hilarious, who were discovered because some casting director saw the charisma within which would be certain to make them stars.

I thought, “Maybe James Burrows will see my little self-deprecating smile and recognize me as the Gen X Bebe. Move over, Sternin. Stepin, Sohn. I’d be crasser, hotter, meaner. He’d see that I fit into the role naturally. That I didn’t have to act. Lines, shmines. Jim would coach me into TV fame. Kaufman got coached. Coach got coached. All the greats had to be molded a little.”

As I sat in Summerstage listening to Joan Armatrading’s voice crack, I was suddenly struck by my own pathetic naivete. Soul doesn’t matter to tv, you dummy. Cox don’t got soul. Aniston’s got two great qualities but they’re not spark and vigor. But I’d bet my ass they each stayed inside the frame at their screen tests. Even Bill Butell must have stayed inside the frame when it really mattered.

I had been trying to convince myself that it was precisely my unpreparedness, my inability to follow the rules, which would mark me as someone who wasn’t afraid to make bold choices. But not learning your lines is not a bold choice. It’s a suicidal one.

Perhaps there are a few people out there who can take a sadly unfunny, horrible audition and come out on the other side shining. I am not one of them.