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The Second Assistant: A Tale from the Bottom of the Hollywood Ladderby Clare Naylor
"All you need to start an asylum is an empty room and the right kind of people."
—Eugene Pallette as Alexander Bullock, My Man Godfrey
“Your job will be to separate the white thumbtacks from the colored ones. Be sure to throw the colored ones away. They must leave the building. If they don’t, then you will. The president, Daniel Rosen, likes only white thumbtacks at The Agency. Also, should you ever serve him a drink, he has just four ice cubes in his Diet Coke. If you put in more, he will throw the surplus ice cubes at you. If you put in three, he’ll throw the entire drink at you.”
This was honestly my first task in Hollywood. And I know it’s not normal. I knew then that it wasn’t normal. But as anyone who’s ever been involved in an abusive relationship will tell you, it’s a process of erosion. It’s not as though the guy just thumps you in the face on your first date. Oh, no, it’s a more subtle, undermining, mind-fuck of a process than that. It starts with the little things that you let slide because they hardly seem worth making a fuss over. But somehow it culminates with you believing that black is white, right is wrong, and eventually your entire universe is topsy-turvy, ass over tits, and the lunatics have taken over the asylum.
My abusive relationship with Hollywood started not with a kiss but a thumbtack. There are other things that I know are not normal but, since I became involved with Hollywood, I now cease to bat an eyelid at. They are:
I was born and, bar the occasional summer vacation in Europe and Florida, had spent my entire life in Rockville, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C. As far as I remember, I’d always planned on doing something vaguely worthwhile with my life. At four I was going to be an astronaut. Then the Challenger shuttle blew up, and I began to dream of a more earthbound career in medicine. I became an expert with a plastic stethoscope, and every member of my family received the lifesaving Kool-Aid vaccination. But the genes will out, and as my parents had always been involved in government and served in soup kitchens every Thanksgiving, I eventually followed the yellow-brick path of least resistance into politics.
I graduated summa cum laude from Georgetown. Double major: economics and political science. And then, after a seemingly endless round of interviews, was offered a job with Congressman Edmunds. I loved politics. I loved being part of a team. I would happily stay in the office past midnight photocopying flyers, I pumped helium into balloons, I fetched coffee, I avidly read everything from the Washington Post to the Nation, and I looked forward to the day I would be able to go to work on a public-waste bill or launch a petition on behalf of refugees. I didn’t have time for a meaningful relationship, and I’d never had my hair highlighted.
But when Congressman Edmunds’s campaign collapsed because of dubious fund-raising practices, I found myself out on a limb. I didn’t want to take an internship and would rather have eaten my mother in a pie than accept the vacancy I’d been promised working for a Republican senator with a pending murder charge. Though with crippling student loans, my options seemed bleak. That was until I discovered the dog-eared business card of Daniel Rosen in my jacket pocket. He had pressed it on me at a fund-raiser a few weeks before. Had I known then that this onetime member of the Young Turks, the Hollywood band of hell-raising superagents, now president of The Agency, was the nearest thing to the Second Coming in Los Angeles, I might have behaved differently. But as with all things Hollywood, at that time I had no clue. All I knew was that this man had offered me a job, and I was desperate enough to follow up on the offer.
Daniel Rosen had stood by a tray of chicken satay and pensively stroked his Hermès tie as he tried to convince me that my political aptitude would be an asset in the entertainment industry. He said that Hollywood was always in need of bright young minds, and while he didn’t exactly promise that I’d be running a studio within a year, he did hint that I might soon be influencing the morals and minds of the entire planet. Political power was nothing compared to Hollywood power, he informed me. After all, how many Democrats can get as many butts in seats as the new Vin Diesel movie can, huh? How many world leaders can make $104 million in a weekend? I smiled politely and was about to shake his hand and tell him thanks but no thanks when he spied Kevin Spacey by the poached salmon, so I never actually got the chance.
Which was about the only stroke of luck I’d had that month. When I eventually called, his assistant had set me up with an interview with the head of Human Resources at The Agency. In preparation I had gone to Blockbuster and rented every movie that I’ve ever been castigated for not having seen, from Taxi Driver to The Godfather, and Antz for good measure. Then I’d maxed out my credit card and flown to Los Angeles. Even though my interviewer never asked me about movies—only my typing speed and whether I had a history of mental illness—I was hired.
Back in Rockville I packed my suitcase for the migration and read an unauthorized biography of Steven Spielberg. I ignored my dad’s chuckle as he handed me a giant canister of bear mace and told me that when God made America, all the loose marbles had rolled down to Los Angeles. Now, on my first day at work, as I sucked my bleeding fingers, I received news of my next task.
“When you’re done with the thumbtacks I’ll run through a call sheet with you.”
“Great.” I smiled my newly minted new-girl smile. My insouciance was touching. Little did I know that for the next six months of my life, this seemingly innocuous list of names and telephone numbers would prove more puzzling to me than Antonio Gramsci’s theories on hegemony and cause me more sleepless nights than the threat of nuclear war ever had.
The person navigating me through this foreign, and dangerous, terrain was Lara Brooks. She had cropped red hair, a black pantsuit, and an expression on her face that perpetually resembled that of a nun forced to give a blow job. As Scott’s assistant, she was my immediate boss. But just as she was about to regale me with the intricacies of the call sheet, we were interrupted by a gothically thin, poker-haired woman who emerged from behind a glass door,
“Where’s Scott?” she snapped.
“He’s in Switzerland getting his blood swapped with Keith Richards’s ’cause his is cleaner.” Lara replied, deadpan.
“No, seriously.” The woman didn’t appear to be in the mood for frivolity. Ever.
“Marketing meeting at Dreamworks.”
“Asshole.” The woman vanished back behind a closed door and silence settled over the room. “So what’s Scott actually like?” I asked. Because I’d been interviewed by someone in Human Resources, I had never actually met my new boss. I imagined him as quite suave, quietly intelligent, and softly spoken. But with edge. I wasn’t naïve enough to imagine that any agent in the entertainment industry would be a complete pussycat. But neither was I prepared for Lara’s eviscerating character analysis.
“Scott is an undereducated, in-over-his-head, coke-snorting, X-taking, Vicodin-popping junkie. He has platinum memberships to every strip club in L.A. and dresses like a gas-station attendant. My job is to keep him solvent and out of rehab.”
“Your job is to support me in that role. That is why you went to college, isn’t it?”
“Er...” I stammered, unsure of exactly what I was supposed to say here.
“Well, I’m assuming it’s always been your ambition to nursemaid a guy who in any other town but here would be asking, ‘Would you like me to supersize that shake for you?’ Am I right?” I caught a sarcastic glint in her green eyes and laughed. Lara wasn’t a bitch, she just hated everyone and everything in Hollywood without discrimination. But at least she had a sense of humor. Black, naturally.
“Don’t worry.” She looked me bang in the eye. “Therapy’s included in the health-care package.”
As it turned out, I didn’t have to wait as long as I’d anticipated to meet my new boss. Seconds later the office door crashed open, and a man of medium height, wearing combat pants and a khaki sweater that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a teenage skateboarder, marched toward the desk where Lara and I were working.
“Lara?” His voice reverberated off the office walls. His black, spiky hair looked young, but the lines around his slightly bloodshot eyes hinted that Lara’s brutal assessment hadn’t been too far wide of the mark. He was probably a well-partied thirty-four years old.
“Scott?” she replied, without a hint of submissiveness or even trepidation. If someone had yelled my name out like that, I’d have buckled at the knees. Lara merely looked bored.
“Wassup.” This was spoken as an order, not a question.
“Messages.” Lara held out a limp arm, and Scott took his call sheet.
“Yup.” He strode by, heading for the heavy maple door of what I assumed was his office, though it had no name on it, only a Lakers sticker.
“And this is Elizabeth, your new second assistant.”
“Sure.” Scott seemed not to notice me and scanned the sheets of paper in his hand before pausing dramatically. “Ashton called?”
“He’s on location in Hawaii.”
“Get him on for me.” Scott ignored the fact that I was now standing up, awaiting my formal introduction to him. Ready to curtsy if necessary. Hell, ready to let blood if necessary.
“I’ll try.” Lara shrugged without much optimism. “Oh, and hey, Scott?” He looked up at her quizzically as she motioned to me. “This is Elizabeth.”
“Oh, sure, sure.” Suddenly a light switched on in his brain, and the full wattage of his gaze fell upon me. I smiled politely and held out my hand to meet his enthusiastic shake. “Elizabeth. It is. Great. To meet you.”
“Oh, you, too, Mr. Wagner. You, too. Well, I’ll just be here if you need me....”
“So where are you from, Elizabeth?” Scott asked as I anticipated golden days ahead, basking in the warmth of my new boss’s appreciation and admiration, not to mention the tutelage of one of the most famous agents in town. He was a good-looking, young, cool guy. This was going to be a fun job. Cocktails, premieres, movie stars...well, didn’t Ashton have to be that Ashton?
“Rockville, Maryland. It’s a suburb of D.C., actually. I worked for Senator Edmunds for a year until his campaign—”
“Wow, you worked in politics?”
“Yes, I did.”
“Incredible. You must be one smart chiquita.”
“Well, I’m not sure about that, but I’ll certainly try my best and—”
But suddenly the light went out. Scott had looked down. Only for about .003 of a second but nonetheless it was enough. He was gone.
“Reese called?” He was scowling at his call sheet. I was as distant a memory as his first day at kindergarten. “Why in hell’s name didn’t you tell me before now? Jesus Christ, Lara. Reese called and you didn’t tell me?”
“You told me not to put any calls through.”
“It was Reese, for fuck’s sake.”
“You said tell everyone you were in the elevator.”
“Christ, Lara.” Scott stomped into his office and collapsed behind his desk. “Get her for me now. Now.”
And that was that. In actual fact that was probably the longest conversation I ever had with Scott. Another distinguishing feature of the inhabitants of Hollywood is that their attention spans are no longer than a very fast, witty pitch for a movie. Which is about two and a half minutes. And that is only if the pitch has million-plus legs. Anything under that price tag and you lose them at hello.
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