“Right,” I say, smiling with easy calm. Just two actors, talking out how I can use my feelings of anger and vulnerability to better channel my character. It’s all craft, in the end. “Maybe it isn’t a bad thing that he’s here.”
“None of it is bad. Use that resentment, resist me.” He picks up his beer again and winks. “I’ll win you over.”
CHARLIE HOVERS TO THE side, ready for a quick touch-up between takes. Fanned between her knuckles, her makeup brushes look like throwing stars . . . or maybe it’s the effect of her tight jaw, the eyes that scream, Stay fifty feet back at all times whenever Sam is within star-throwing distance.
The first day on set is going . . . eh, fine. I’m not great, I’m not terrible, but I’m nowhere near where I wanted to be. I’m trying to capture Ellen’s wariness, her strength, and also the way she can’t resist Richard, no matter how hard she tries. It’s a lot to balance with only pregnant pauses, long looks, the shift of an expression. This is acting, Tate. You’re getting paid a lot to do it, I remind myself.
We set up for a take, and silence falls across the set. In the expectant hush, Nick blinks, narrowing his eyes at me. Under his breath, he growls, “You ready for me to seduce the shit out of you?”
I bite back a laugh and focus on the intensity of his eyes. He’s got just as much on the line as I do. Nick could break out of the action-role loop. The scripts we would both start getting if Milkweed is as good as it can be are miles beyond the types of projects that come across my email every day. Not that I don’t love fluffier movies too—but I know I can do paranormal tropes and comedies. I know who I am in those roles. I’ve never had to stretch as much as I do now. I remind myself it’s supposed to be hard. It’s okay for it to be hard.
A guy approaches with the clapboard, and Feng, our director of photography, calls out a “Gentle clap.” When it clicks near my face, and then Nick’s, we’re rolling on scene fourteen . . . take seven.
EXT. MEYER FAMILY FARM, BACKYARD—DAY
Ellen ducks out of the chicken coop, cradling half a dozen eggs in her apron. Rounding the corner to the porch, she comes up short at the sight of Richard there, his hat in his hands.
You nearly made me drop my eggs.
Now that would have been a shame.
The two stand there, silence swallowing them. Ellen waits for him to get to the point. He clearly put himself together for this. Finally:
You here to sell me some feed, Richard Donnelly?
I’m here to ask you to dinner, Ellen Meyer.
With a short laugh Ellen walks past him, up the porch steps. He watches her go, and smiles when she turns to face him.
It takes a lot to come up here and ask that, and I appreciate your courage, and your energy, because Lord knows it’s a long walk from town. This isn’t because of the color of your skin or mine. But the last thing my life needs is another man in it.
“Cut.” Gwen pulls her headphones off, walking toward us. She jogs up the steps to me, as Trey approaches Nick, powdering the tip of his nose, his forehead. Gwen turns her back to the crew and focuses entirely on me. Her eyes are this watery ice-blue; her hair has gone from platinum blond to white with barely any transition. Although I’m taller than she is, she’s so intimidating; I can feel my palms sweat.
In the distance, I see the looming shadow of Sam. Near the panel of video screens, I see Dad pacing, his arms crossed tightly across his chest. I’m not sure why he’s here since he isn’t on the call sheet today, but I can only assume that he’s either worried about my performance, or trying to play the role of the Involved Superdad. Blinking back to Gwen, I put on a smile.
“It’s a lot,” she says. “I know it is.”
“It’s okay. I’m just finding Ellen’s voice.” And trying to ignore two very distracting men in the audience.
She nods, squinting out into the distance. “It’s only day one. You have time to get there.” A pause. “For what it’s worth,” she says quietly, “he needs this more than you do. You’re not the one I’m worried about.”
She’s talking about Dad, but it’s still heartening. “I needed to hear that.” On its own volition, my head turns, my eyes find Sam in the crowd. He’s watching us, eyes narrowed, like he’s trying to read our lips.
Never one for much sentimentality, Gwen claps me on the shoulder. “You good?”
“I’m good.” I close my eyes as her footsteps hammer back down the steps and take a deep breath. I know I can do this, and there are so many people out there waiting for me to step up and just own it.
But only one of those people haunted my sleep last night. I look back to where Sam stands at the edge of the tree line, the boundary of Ellen’s “backyard.” Our eyes meet and a piece of me falls backward in time, locking onto the solid reassurance of him the way I used to, feeling that strange awareness that he’s my beacon, a safe harbor.
But then he gives me a single, sharp nod. It’s definitely a Don’t fuck this up—which dissolves any of my nostalgic tenderness and sends me directly to pissed off. My adrenaline spikes, and I turn, catching my reflection in the farmhouse window with the movement.