September 20, 2019 | Arts and Culture
twice upon a time in hollywood
with help from quentin and leo, a former child actor finds his star on the walk of fame
Leonardo DiCaprio is punching himself in the face, and I’ve never felt more understood. Before you reprimand me for failing to intervene (presumably by reminding him that in 2016 he, in fact, won his long-awaited Oscar), I should clarify that poor Leo isn’t really hitting himself. He’s acting in Quentin Tarantino’s latest release—a 1969 period piece called Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood. Leo’s character, Rick Dalton—the washed-up former star of the fictional 1950s Western television series Bounty Law, now reduced to playing bit parts—has just flubbed his lines in a major scene and retreated to his trailer with his tail between his legs for some good old-fashioned self-reflection. Brad Pitt, playing Dalton’s impossibly badass stuntman/best buddy Cliff Booth, is nowhere to be seen.
Like Leo (the real Leo), I’ve been an actor since I was a little kid. To say I’ve been there—locked in my head, convinced I’m a schmuck with no possible means of recourse—would be dead-on. So here I am, an actor, actually watching a scene of an actor portraying an actor’s breakdown on the set of a television show, which is actually the set of a movie. Did I mention I was watching this movie at a theater in Hollywood? I know life imitates art, but come on.
The oddly specific circumstances of my viewing experience rendered me particularly empathetic towards this pathetic fictional has-been’s temper tantrum. Unsurprisingly, the movie proceeded to give me all the feels, and not just because of its crazy finale. A disclaimer before discussing it further: There are too many close-ups of bare feet. But that’s a lazy joke; we’re talking Tarantino, after all, and what he managed to accomplish here beyond satiating his foot fetish is more difficult to describe. I speak not only of his technical craft, pacing, story structure, or any of his specific creative choices. The film is greater than the sum of these parts, evoking nostalgia (my greatest weakness) for my own experiences in the City of Angels. I see I’m falling into my own head again. Since we’re already on the Tarantino train, why don’t we structure this like Pulp Fiction? Fuck linear chronology!
I. ROBERT CAPRON AND ROWLEY JEFFERSON’S INHABITOR
His handshake was a lot firmer the second time. So, too, was my conviction that I did not belong within a 500-mile radius of Hollywood, let alone this party. Context does that to a person. I’ve always heard that you ought to judge someone for how they treat those they believe to be below them. Well, this studio executive had just left me by the figurative punch bowl with a dismissive shake of the hand, only to circle back around and give me a second chance at a first impression. Either there had been a remarkably fast, admittedly impressive Face/Off-style transplant, or he knew my secret identity as the cheese eater. I wish he’d told me the former. Gullibility has always been a fatal flaw of mine.
I’ll be honest: I always dread the interval between when I meet a person and when they discover my secret identity. The reveal that I’m a former child star, famous for the chubby best friend role in the immensely popular children’s series Diary of a Wimpy Kid, tends to elicit some sort of reaction from people even if they’re unfamiliar with the source material. That little rush of adrenaline when the truth is revealed never gets old. How are they gonna react? Awe? Indifference? Backhanded compliments on my current reduced-fat look? Whether rude or polite, there’s one unifying thread that connects every single reaction: There’s a before and after. For years I tried downplaying my career’s role in my identity, paranoid that people only liked me for what I’d done and for what knowing me could provide. And yet here I was today, at a BrownConnect alumni meeting, mawkishly deploying my past as the defining aspect of who I was—and getting much more vibrant reactions as a result.
But, of course, we can’t forget the follow-up questions. I curate my answers to make it appear as though I have remained a relevant presence within this industry. My lack of work in film and television? Focusing on my education! What are my future plans? Writing, which I’ve totally started! Do you keep in touch with the cast? Despite my incessant Wimpy-Kid-related social media posts, I haven’t seen them in years! That’s right, Instagram followers—I’ve created a false narrative! Okay, maybe I leave that last part out, but you get the idea. The executive and I exchange pleasantries; I pray they’ll actually remember this conversation and have the decency to read even 10 pages of a script that I have yet to write. I return to my humble UCLA housing and, amidst a lovely soundscape of agitated toddlers, congratulate myself on a proper and productive night that will absolutely, positively, one hundred and ten percent prove beneficial to my future.
This isn’t the Hollywood I remember.
II. THE GOLDEN ROAD
Resting in a booth of a California Pizza Kitchen, I felt that I’d finally made it in life. I mean, this was something else: Before I’d been lucky if my parents took me to our local pizza parlor, which even then they considered too expensive half the time. But now? At the California Pizza Kitchen? Feasting on however many slices—entire friggin’ pizzas—I wanted, all paid for by the studio? I am a preteen god, I thought. Bow before me, Disney Channel groupies.
And it was only gonna get better from there. They’d decided to put us up in a hotel on Hollywood and Highland; the world-renowned boulevard was my backyard for the week. And, besides the oddly dirty Barney the Dinosaur roaming up and down the street, everything I could see was the stuff of dreams. Ripley’s Believe it Or Not! That weird cult building Mom says never to go into! Spider-Man costumes of staggeringly different quality! And most of all, the Pearly Gates for any aspiring actor: the TCL Chinese Theater, where the handprints and footprints of Hollywood legends—my patron saints of old—faithfully guard a palace of dreams. I begged my mother to head there immediately. Only the promise of pizza was capable of slowing me down.
As we surged through gaggles of clamorous characters, my eyes were consumed by the cemented markings of mythological figures. Once intangible gods, they were now tethered to reality in the form of personalized concrete slabs, the portals to a newly guaranteed future where I would rest among them. I shimmied through the nooks and crannies of the haphazard crowd of pedestrians, their sweaty, intrusive bodies small obstacles to my personal manna. And then I saw it: a humble pair of hands and feet, embalmed forever. I stood frozen by the hands of fate. A signature—JAMES STEWART—awakened in my eyes the morning dew of promise: a sense of connection he will never know of but one I have been blessed to wield ever since.
It was true. I’d made it. And why should I have thought otherwise? The stars lay beneath my feet.
III. THE LIVING SITUATION
It is 11 years later. The stars now encircle me. And yet, I do not belong amongst them. I’m not sure I ever did. This whole thing was a mistake. This summer is one long told you so from the film gods. Humphrey Bogart could be blowing figurative cigar smoke in my face, and that’d be the closest I’d ever get to having influence in this town.
A tap on the shoulder startles me out of my trance. It’s AJ. The one who got me into this event in the first place—a charity function someone he knew got him access to. At this point, I’ve become the guy who knows a guy who knows a guy. Sigh. He asks if I want to leave, and as I’ve gained virtually no career capital whatsoever at this event, I nod and follow. I’m convinced nodding and following is the only thing I’m good for when he tells me he’s been thinking, and he’s realized I’m his Cliff Booth.
We’d flown into LA together—he twelve rows in front of me, naturally befriending the successful author randomly assigned to sit at his left while I leaned as far away from the ungodly stench to my right as humanly possible. For dinner, he made the “Chef Alexandre Special,” a mixture of pasta, olive oil, and obscene amounts of butter that exchanged bland nutrients for delectable heartburn; I made undercooked noodles, which he made sure to remind me of on a daily basis. He networked with directors and writers and all but guaranteed himself a future working for high-ranking professionals; I cowered by the figurative punch bowl. And yet, here was AJ Davis, my best friend, confidante, and, frankly, my all-around-cooler double, telling me that after seeing the film the week prior, I was the Brad Pitt/Cliff Booth of our little duo.
In what universe? AJ had it all: the drive, the talent, the dedication, the charisma. While I went out with friends for catch-up coffee dates, he was developing three different projects at the same time. I’d barely written 10 pages of our joint pilot project before he had outlined, researched, and drafted what is soon to be a brilliant thesis film. And while I was hammering away at a keyboard, screaming, “DOY DOY IDIOT!” at my incessant revisions, he was there for me every step of the way, feverishly reminding me that I had the ability to do this; I just needed to learn that for myself.
And amidst the screaming toddlers, hopelessly inefficient networking events, frantic self-deprecation, and bland-ass pasta, I began to realize that maybe, just maybe, he was right. My 10 pages became 12, then 20, then 36. That sense of hope, that sense of promise this near-purgatory once seemed to offer me, began to return, first in embers and then in a raging fire that’s remained with me even after returning to good old Providence.
It wasn’t until he told me that I helped do the same for him that I began to see what he truly meant. Maybe everybody’s got a little Brad Pitt in them. Everyone’s definitely got a little self-flagellating Leo; the trick is to have that buddy at your side. And when you’re staring out at the night sky from the Griffith Observatory with a buddy who’s more than a brother and just a little less than a spouse, something deep inside you says maybe, just maybe, things will be alright. My Hollywood dream, it turns out, was having someone to share the ride with.