Here's what I've learned about perseverance, dignity, and being true to myself.
Just one verse each day.
“Never look to the left or the right; just keep your eye on the ball.”
I can’t count how many times my mother dispensed this wisdom, frequently to the soundtrack of her daughter’s tears.
I was a child actor. My mother would drive me to auditions, racing over Highland Boulevard, passing the majestic Hollywood Bowl and turning onto the Warner Brothers lot, or cruising down Sunset Boulevard to Paramount Studios. Natalie Cole’s Orange-Colored Sky blasted out of our tape deck — to keep up my energy. We ran lines in traffic and discussed the scene — and also whether I should put on some more eyeliner. Through this chaos my mother maintained stewardship of my fragile teenage ego.
This was no small task. I was not a typical Los Angeles actress type. I was neither tan nor blond; I was neither tall nor curvy. I did not have blue eyes. I was pale and small, a ballet dancer. I had curly brown hair and brown eyes. I was earnest. I was not good at small talk or charming a crowd. I liked to walk into a casting office and read the scene immediately; I was terrible at convivial chit-chat. I wanted simply to tell them my name and get on with my work.
When I was about 14, I sat opposite an impossibly golden-haired Alicia Silverstone in a marble-floored lobby at Castle Rock. We were both reading for the lead in the movie The Crush. I gazed at her pillowy lips and admired the way the sunlight played with her flaxen locks and sparkling blue eyes. I also nearly cried. There was no point in my walking into that casting office.
I don’t have to tell you who starred in The Crush. And I’m not deriding Silverstone’s talent; I like her work. But I know her Hollywood picture-perfect looks didn’t hurt her chances of scoring the role.
I never gave up, though — on more advice from my mother, who had given up after she had her children, despite a career that spanned live radio, television, guest starring roles on I Spy, Bewitched, Days of Our Lives, and more, and despite having danced on Broadway in a Pulitzer-Prize winning show.
Don’t make the mistake I made, she would warn, with sometimes tiresome frequency. Never give up, she would say.
“Everyone knows all the great beauties have brown eyes.” My mother would tell me this when I was especially down. We’d be sitting in a sea of blue eyes and blonde locks and she would assert this with a knowing smile. She’d hold my hand and whisper it: “All the great beauties have brown eyes.”
I sat in those casting offices and tried not to pay attention to the noise — the kids who laughed and hugged each other, the ones who had worked together on other projects, the ones who had starred on television shows. I did my homework, I silently ran my lines, I gazed out the window.
I’m still an actor. [I’ve had a baby, and haven’t given up, Mom.] I’ve worked a fair amount and I’m just getting started. Ironically, I guest-starred on the television series Clueless, playing a plain Jane character opposite Rachel Blanchard, an actress who was hired partly because she looked just like Alicia Silverstone.
That job was rough. Blanchard and Stacey Dash are both conventionally beautiful; they wore platform shoes and heavy makeup. When we stood in a two-shot, I looked impossibly pale and strange. But I got to act. I played a religious fanatic, and that was a lot of fun.
Hollywood standards are evolving. Brie Larson won the Oscar for Room. I watch her in interviews, discussing how difficult it was to be an earnest kid, an aggressively intellectual, thoughtful kid, a kid, who — believe it or not — was not up to Hollywood standards of beauty. Brie Larson, as lovely as she is, does not fit the mold. In one interview she even talked about her brown eyes — she cried about hers, too — until one day, she said, she realized that it was all right. “I don’t have blue eyes,” she told herself. “I have brown eyes, and they can like me or not the way I am.” This moment was — for her — a revelation. She was free to act on her own terms, and with her own face.
Hollywood is catching up when an actor like Brie Larson can make it. Despite years of heartache and not getting work, she didn’t give up. And one fine day she found herself preparing for the most challenging and rewarding role of her career. Most casting directors thought she was too strange, too intense — but finally, someone got her. Had she quit, that day would never have come.
By now, I’ve gotten to play femme fatales, an alien on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (clocking five hours of makeup for seven mornings straight) pregnant housewives in the 1930s, the angry girlfriend in Neil LaBute’s Fat Pig, and the fragile Blanche in Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar. I’ve done all sorts of roles that I thought were beyond my grasp back when I was a lonely, strange kid in Southern California.
Still, I slink miserably out of failed auditions. I shake off the blues after losing parts I’ve nearly won, and I’ve spent a day in bed mourning a role I can’t get a reading for. But I climb out of bed soon enough, and wiggle my fingers in the dark until I find that rope. Then I hang on for dear life.
I also remember my mother’s admonitions.
My mother wanted me to fulfill my dream, but there was something else. She believed that refusing to give up was an act of nobility; it shaped your character against the granite of adversity. She herself had toiled for years in sweaty rehearsal halls to perfect the minutest of techniques. She had paid homage to the worth of the work for its own sake. I now also believe that the relentlessness with which we pursue our goals defines our character.
That’s what my mother taught me.
Never give up on your dreams. Not ever.