I couldn’t help but ask myself: what could make me feel nostalgic? When you have to juggle a full-time job with acting, writing, photography, blogging, inventing new wine spritzers, and have a bunch of projects in the future (among other things, in the web series The Cipher Effect I will play a well-meaning but absent-minded mad scientist who accidentally puts the entire universe at risk of annihilation–this is where you say, “Typecast again”), well, nostalgia doesn’t have much of a place in your life. But when I wandered down Folsom Street last Saturday whilst running errands, I happened to espy this building:
This is a typical hideous condominium of a style that became tragically fashionable in San Francisco for a few years–that metal grille over the windows is ridiculous–and the building is too modern to have developed any nostalgia. But I remember what used to be there, an abandoned three-story auto and truck maintenance and repair shop with an enormous garage where the main work room had 50 foot high ceilings.
Why on earth would I remember something like that?
Because my acting career began in that repair shop.
One fine day in 1995 I found myself in the Lower Haight’s Horseshoe Cafe, a now-defunct coffeehouse that’s been replaced by a couple of small businesses. I happened to glance at the bulletin board and espied a flyer calling for production assistants to work on a feature film called Zoli’s Brain, offering “long hours, no pay, free food. “I thought, free food?! What a deal!”
So I called the phone number and soon found myself working long hours for no pay and free food (and I already had a full-time job at the time) in an abandoned vehicle repair shop that the production company had occupied for almost no rent and I loved every second of it except the morning after one of the production’s frequent all-night parties when I was the only adult awake and functional and had to babysit a nine-year-old boy actor (and opera singer!) who repaid my efforts to feed him breakfast with some of the worst verbal abuse I have ever received and never deserved. Everything else was great, especially working as a grip, which I personally rank as the absolutely best job in the film industry. I had no problem taking orders from people most of whom were technically young enough to be my children; actually, they felt uncomfortable giving orders to the old guy.
But one day, the second assistant director asked me to help him look at actors’ head shots to select extras for a scene that required lots of bad guys, I think we needed six. We found five pretty easily, but none of the rest looked evil enough. The 2nd AD leaned back in his chair, mumbled to himself, “just one more bad guy, and I can’t find him,” looked at me, and then stared at me. Real hard.
“What? You want me?!”
“Vonn! You’re perfect! You’re so naturally mean looking!”
I had learned to understand that in the film industry, this was a compliment.
“But I’ve never acted before!”
Our director-screenwriter-2nd female lead Tiffany Schlain didn’t mind at all (“Yeah, he’s definitely evil looking!”), but knowing that I had never ever never ever never ever acted in my entire life, kept my bit as simple as possible: walk ten feet into a room to my spot; stop and hold still; count to five (“Don’t move your lips, Vonn.”), pivot 180 degrees and walk out of the room. I performed my instructions to the best of my ability, Tiffany yelled “Cut!” and the people behind the camera started whispering among themselves. Just when I was thinking, “How could I have screwed that up?!” Tiffany said, “Vonn, we’re going to give you a line.”
For the sake of my future biographers, the first line of my acting career was “Him.”
After a few takes of that, she gave me another line. A few more takes, and she gave me some actual dialogue with a real actor. By the end of the day, Tiffany was rewriting her own script to give the biggest role possible (a supporting role with less than five minutes of screen time).
That was roughly 225 acting jobs ago, including lead roles in four indie features that never went anywhere, two television pilots that never went anywhere, and a British production about a real-life serial murderer known as The Trailside Killer (told you I’m naturally mean looking) that did get released but I’ve never seen it. Nothing ever became of Zoli’s Brain (some bank has the 35 mm negatives), but Tiffany Schlain did all right: she now runs the Webby Awards. All that ran through my mind as I photographed the ghastly condos on Sixth Street near Folsom last Saturday. And it hit me.
This must be nostalgia.
Vonn Scott Bair