“Life’s like a movie, write your own ending.”
- The Muppets
“Oh, I’ve heard of you,” said the smart looking brunette, while she tucked her chin under and widened her eyes. Her slight shift in tone and body language let a little meaning slip free, like air escaping out of a balloon. Whatever she heard wasn’t good. She was the slim and lovely wife of a professional acquaintance. I barely knew her, and yet I immediately wanted to hide behind the shelves of the massive chain bookstore.
Jake and I stood there awkwardly and waited for the explanation, but I didn’t even need one. I already knew what this was about. I wanted the books to swallow me whole. I forgot how much I had embarrassed myself. I felt like a kid again, reminded of that need to blend. That distinctly Mid-Western need not to be noticed, not to show off, and certainly not to be caught failing at anything.
“Oh yeah,” the acquaintance shifted nervously from foot to foot, “I think I mentioned that you interviewed Doug when I was directing the special features.” We made awkward small talk for the next few minutes and said our goodbyes. I shrugged my shoulders at Jake, who laughed kind of small and quiet.
In 2008, an independent film came to Muncie where Jake was attending grad school. With a few years of freelance writing under my belt, I decided that it would be a good idea to insinuate myself into the process as quickly as possible, for the experience. So I volunteered to work for the marketing department as a blogger and general buzz-maker on nerdy message boards for the duration of the film’s shooting.
It wasn’t exactly selfless of me. I had something of a fascination for the film’s male lead. An actor named Doug Jones was cast as the star and even though he didn’t know it, Doug and I had a long and beautiful history together...
But Doug, as Billy the Zombie in “Hocus Pocus” was a kinder, gentler version of the undead. He was on the kids’ side in the movie, united against an evil witch played by Bette Midler. And he was funny. I can remember Mom gently poking me in the side and leaning over to whisper in my ear, “See? He’s a monster, but he’s nice!” The swell of the popcorn aroma of the place and the way it mixed with Mom’s perfume only furthered my happy associations with this new zombie man.
From then on, I followed his career closely. He played a dancer-like Silver Surfer in “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer”, a convincing version of the gill-man Abe Sapien in the “Hellboy” movies, and a host of other costumed characters. He was even the singing half moon, Mac Tonight, from a late eighties McDonald’s campaign, who crooned classic love songs about the Big Mac . I didn’t know when the commercials aired that it was him, but I remember having a good feeling about Mac. He was certainly more trustworthy than the Hamburglar and he was far less intimidating than the blue Noble Roman’s pizza monster.
Until Doug, the only costumed performers that I knew well enough to admire were my mother, owner and operator of our tiny town's only singing telegram business, and all of our beloved movie monsters. Actors like Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Lon Chaney Jr. were regular topics of discussion in my home. So Doug was kind of a revelation…he was kind of like us. Kind of like Mom.
Except, he wasn’t like us at all. He was famous and successful.. Someone who worked in the trenches of entertainment, and if he was anything like my mother, someone who suffered for it. For Mom to bring whimsy to a local party she had to apply layers of itchy makeup, or make adjustments to walk in giant chicken feet, or struggle to see correctly through a gorilla mask or a blinding dancing Christmas tree costume. What she did may have seemed like a dream job, and to her it was, but it was some of the hardest work I’ve ever watched anyone do. And she didn’t play to millions of theater-goers for hefty paychecks. She did it for fifty bucks a pop and for sometimes snotty elementary school kids or drunken rotary club members. To me, she was the hardest working woman in show business. So Doug became one of the few actors that we felt we could really relate to somehow, in the same way that Leonard Nimoy was cool or Boris Karloff was admirable. Doug was also from Indiana, just like us. He remained a far away figurehead who drifted in and out of my consciousness depending on what films he was in.
Until he was going to come to the town where we lived to make a movie.
I’ve never been one to pass up an opportunity for a brush with fame. I’m tacky like that, easily star-struck. I once got ecstatic over seeing Montel Williams at a theme park, who seems like a fabulous guy, but let’s face it…he’s not exactly Johnny Depp. Standing in line for a ride and holding a disposable camera, I yelled out his name in the hopes that he would look my way so I could get a picture. He didn’t.
But this was different. It wasn’t just any famous person. It was Doug Jones, the character actor, the monster, the Indiana native. I didn’t know why, but I wanted to connect with him somehow. After I flexed my freelance writer muscle, I secured myself an interview with him. Our acquaintance was in charge of filming special features for the indie, and one day toward the end of filming, he had to interview Doug for the DVD. After he was done, I would get my chance. An entire hour with Doug Jones, to ask him whatever I wanted.
By the way, this was my first celebrity interview ever…and I hadn’t sold the piece to anyone yet. So I had no guidance with which to shape my questions, no real idea how to proceed, and I was a jangle of nerves.
On the day of the interview, I arrived embarrassingly early. I wanted to be able to sit in for Doug’s first interview so that I wouldn’t repeat any questions. When I got to the lounge on the Ball State campus where Doug would be interviewed, they were still setting up the lighting and camera. I had my questions in hand on a lined piece of notebook paper, and they were already wrinkled into oblivion from the way I clenched them too tight in my fist. I made small talk with the crew and sat on the couch waiting.
When Doug arrived, I watched him stroll smoothly into the room and marveled at how tall and thin he was, his head just brushing under the doorway. He appeared otherworldly and statuesque, with long thin fingers that moved elegantly by accident, like antennae. He was physically imposing, the kind of guy who would make perfect sense in a monster suit. Only he was goofy. He was silly and kind of loud and his face could change so dramatically with just a little lift of the eyebrow or tilt of the chin. He was every inch the performer.
I put my cold and nervous hand in his when they introduced us. I played it cool, looking up so high into his face. When he was being interviewed, that’s when I started to slowly unravel. He talked about his career, his life as an actor, his history of roles. He drank from a bottle of grape juice. He spoke about being raised in Indiana. This is where the thin line of thread began to connect, bringing some part of me to an over-eager boil. The way he talked about his life was so similar to the way Mom talked about hers, all her wild anecdotes about entertaining at parties were just like his film set anecdotes. Her stories about the pitfalls of masks and feet and hands and makeup were remarkably similar to his. Her actress’s ability to change and transform from character to character at a moment’s notice was just like his. When he spoke about Abe Sapien, his hands moves like they were in water. When Mom talks about playing a character called Mother Spring, he posture straightens, her head tilts and her eyebrows raise like Glenda the Good Witch.
Without realizing it, as Doug talked, I had gone from sitting on the couch to sitting on the floor. Indian style. With my hands propped under my chin. Like it was story time.
Then it was my turn.
I do this thing when I’m nervous. I slip into a sort of Pollyanna mode. I smile a lot, probably too much. It must look like I have a slick of Vaseline over my teeth and I can’t close my lips. And I get…peppy might be the word. And chipper. And I say things like, “How do you do?” and I accidentally mirror people’s way of speaking.
I go into a similar mode when I embarrass myself, and this usually goes hand in hand with my moments of nervousness. For example, when I was a freshman in college and walking to my very first class, I took a tumble over the top of my brand new wooden clogs. (Intended to make me look stylish and sophisticated.) In an effort to make a quick recovery, I popped back up, held my scraped palms up in the touchdown symbol and yelled, “And she’s good!” at the top of my lungs while making eye-contact with passing students. My effort at a comeback.
So you see, I am no good when I am nervous. And I was very nervous to talk to Doug.
Doug was a consummate professional, kind and unswerving in the face of an interview that I proceeded to steer so far off course, we could’ve discovered a new country. I asked him what his favorite ride was at Disneyland, I did my impression of Parker Posey, I suggested he play Danny Kaye in a biopic, and at one point I literally asked him how he managed to be such a good actor and stay so humble. To which he said, “Well, I can hardly answer that now can I?” though he did so with a genuine smile on his face. In my memory, he has a small touch of fear in his eyes. But I think that’s my self-conscious imagination at work.
What I was really doing during this personal disaster was asking Doug Jones one thing, even though he didn’t know it, and it was this. Can I make it in this world? Can a monster-obsessed daughter of an actress raised exactly where you were go on to live her dreams and stay her same weird self, make a living, and be valued by society?
He didn’t know he was some kind of a symbol to me, that I had a mother who spent the majority of her life behind costumes entertaining the ungrateful Mid-Western masses, or that he had almost single-handedly cured me of my walking zombie-related night terrors. He only knew that he was being interviewed by a strangely over-enthusiastic and very green journalist who was obviously a big fan.
I think I was performing. Trying to show off and be funny. Trying to bond, which is probably what most stalkers think. I behaved something like a lunatic Mary Catherine Gallagher. Like Lucille Ball trying to get into the show.
At the end of the interview, he gave me a giant hug, something he’s known to do for lots of his fans. He calls it, “giving love” and his arms are so long that they can almost wrap around you twice, and it was all the more sweet because I had completely reverted to my ten year old self during the interview. Doug Jones may be an actor, but if he has another calling in life, it would be to reach out to geeks and nerds everywhere and just calm them down. Because in that hug, I felt totally fine about spazzing out, because the odds are very great that he runs into people like me all the time. People who don’t see him as just a normal guy, which is what he is after all, just a human being who ended up on a cool career path. But people who see him as something they could someday become, maybe, if all their pent-up hopes and dreams come true.
And then Doug and I literally went our separate directions. I called Jake to come and pick me up from the interview location and when he arrived, I was weeping uncontrollably. With relief.
“Oh my God, are you okay?” he asked, after he leaned over in the seat to open my car door.
Through sniffles, probably looking like a girl from the sixties who had just touched Elvis’ cape, I tried to explain that I wasn’t crying because of Doug. I was crying because I realized that it could be done. “We can make it.” I said to him as he put his hand on my knee and smiled a little bit, knowing that I was having some kind of celebrity-initiated personal epiphany. When I said that, I meant he and I in our chosen careers of writing and filmmaking, could find a way not to become pent-up and angry. We could keep going and aspiring to do what we wanted to do and not feel guilty about it.
But I also meant me and my mom, in our quirky and weird personalities, were okay just being who we were. Our ways of always being different and goofy and awkward were fine. After years and years of being told we should just be normal, years of teasing for me in grade school and Mom being called a “stripper” for belly dancing didn’t really matter. Because it’s the weirdos who make good things happen. Who write great books and live adventures and play monsters in movies. It’s the people who embrace their weirdness that get to go on to wonderful things, and this was the first moment that I was truly intellectualizing what most people learn through public service announcements and anti-bullying campaigns.
Mom was just as gifted as Doug, but she had chosen to mother her children and live a normal life in Indiana. But what she did was just as valid as what Doug was doing. And sitting and crying in the car like I was vying for a best actress Oscar, I was really just weeping with pride for my mother, who I just know could’ve been a star. But she chose us instead. Creative work is just like any other work. It’s work. Something to be demystified and planned just like any other career. But this was all news to me, that I could be myself and continue to strive for creative and financial success was a revelation.
So when the girl in the bookstore had heard of me I could certainly understand why. The ironic thing is, I still love Doug Jones, but I don’t think I’d have another personal meltdown if I saw him again. After I published the interview, which was very very bad, on a movie-related website, it was Doug who comforted me via email about what kind of a job I did. I was embarrassed because people were making fun of both of us in the comments section of the interview. Because at that point in time, I didn’t know how to write an interview. So without providing context I simply turned in the questions and answers. So any time Doug would slip into some kind of an accent to make a joke, I let it go unrecorded, so people leaving comments were saying things about how I sounded like a moron (correct) and how he sounded “gay” (incorrect).
Doug wrote me an email the next day. He said, “Now don’t feel bad. What would those angry little high school boys do if they couldn’t say nasty things from the safety of their parents’ basement?” I remembered something he said to me the day of the interview before he hugged me after I read his generous response. “You, young lady, are going to be just fine.”
I’ve interviewed plenty of celebrities since then, and none of them have made me cry. So I guess he was right...for now.