The sight of it pulls me up short.
For actors, there’s something about being in costume that transports us into the heart of the character we’re playing. I certainly felt that shift earlier when I saw myself in Ellen’s clothing, in full makeup, with my wig on. But here, on the back porch of the farmhouse, with the wind moving my dress and my mouth set in the hard, determined line I imagined Ellen’s would make a hundred times a day, I feel possessed by someone else.
Look at her, I tell myself. That isn’t you. That’s Ellen. Be her.
Fuck Dad and his twentysomething girlfriend. Fuck Sam and his opinion on my acting skills. And fuck anyone who thinks there’s a chance I won’t end up being perfect for this role.
A delirious silvery, clean energy slides into my limbs as soon as Feng yells that we’re rolling. I look at Nick and can tell he’s getting in the zone, too. His eyes light up when we banter; we hit every beat we need to hit, and the chemistry crackles between us. We sail through the scene and do it once more for the master shot before Gwen lets us go for a fifteen-minute break and the crew breaks down the cameras for the tighter shots.
Nick high-fives me before trekking up the small hill to the restrooms, and I move to a quiet place in the shade of a wide apple tree, escaping the late-summer Northern California sun.
Charlie approaches, telling me to sit on a bench nearby, before carefully tidying the makeup around my eyes. “You good?”
“I’m better now. That last take was good, right?”
“That last take was fucking killer,” she agrees. She glances over her shoulder, to where Sam is bent with Gwen over her copy of the script; the two are deep in conversation.
I tap her arm to turn her attention back to me. Charlie’s always protective of me, but her inner mama bear has been on high alert since learning about Sam. “Your fierce face is pretty epic.”
She growls. “That kid has no idea what he’s up against if he tries to wiggle back into your good graces. Not only can I shave a full six years off your age with the power of my makeup brushes, but I also know some pretty epic fight moves.”
“As far as Sam Brandis knows, I do.”
I laugh. “It’s going to be hard to keep my distance from him,” I admit. “I mean, especially with him having such a clear, creative relationship with Gwen. I won’t be able to avoid him entirely.”
She pulls a brush and some powder out of her makeup belt/apron and brushes my cheeks. “I mean, even if you could, that would look weird, right?”
I chew my lip, considering this. It’s not that gossip scares me. But gossip that spins out of my control does. From my upbringing to my relationship with Chris, to my string of “boyfriends” chosen primarily by publicists, my life to date has been a work of carefully cultivated rumors. I know Dad and Nick—maybe others, too—saw my meltdown when I ran into Sam yesterday. So I have to be strategic and figure out what narrative I’m spinning.
When I look back up, Sam and Gwen have finished talking, and he hovers only about ten yards from our shady retreat. He glances at me and then quickly away.
“He’s waiting,” I realize.
“To talk to you?”
“I think so.”
“Do you want me to stay here and touch up your makeup for the next fifteen minutes?”
I laugh, but my stomach shrivels up in anxiety. “No, it’s okay. We’re going to need to interact at some point. We’re here for like six weeks.”
With a small air-kiss near my cheek, Charlie heads back toward the set, shooting daggers at Sam as she passes. Almost immediately, he heads directly toward me. His eyes fix on my face as he approaches, expression hard to read. By the time he lowers his redwood body down beside me on the bench, cupping his knees in his hands, my heart has volleyed into my throat.
I smile at him as he sits, but I’m sure he doesn’t miss the flat disdain I can’t seem to clear from my eyes. He swallows, looking away from my face and back out to the set. “It’s amazing to watch you work.”
When I don’t say anything to this, he adds, “It’s eerie to me how good that was. You were just like her.”
Against my better judgment, I look back over at him. He’s wearing a linen blue button-down, worn-soft jeans, and the same well-loved brown boots. When I glance at his hands, I surmise that he doesn’t spend all his time writing screenplays: he still has the calloused, rough-handed look of a farmer. “I was just like you imagined Ellen?”
He stares at me for a few seconds, frowning, and then nods. “Yeah.”
I don’t want him to see how relieved this makes me, so I turn my attention away, back down the small hill to where Nick and Devon are twerking like idiots, and Liz is laughing hysterically.
“Look,” Sam says, bringing my attention back to him. “I know things are complicated between us—”
“There’s no complication, Sam. There’s no us.”
“Okay,” he concedes. “What I’m trying to explain is that I didn’t want you to do the role without knowing I was involved, but the more I thought of you as her—as Ellen—the more I really wanted it. I’m sorry that you felt blindsided yesterday, but I wanted you to know that I’m also really glad that you’re her. It’s . . . sort of perfect.”