The Face

A film actor struggles to control his behaviour as he heads towards an on-set meltdown

Image Credit: 
Public Domain

Nigel Void hated his face from the day it betrayed him. Every morning he cast a mistrustful glance at the mirror then dragged a safety razor across cheeks that bore the faint shadow of teenage blemishes that countless facials and laser treatments hadn’t entirely eradicated. Back then his face had been puckish, full of damaged adolescent beauty. The acne had only underscored the conviction of leading theatre critics that his raw, youthful performances had an intensity that stood comparison with the company of angry young icons of the Sixties that included Albert Finney, Richard Harris and Stanley Baker.

As he matured into a powerhouse of the stage his face healed but its lunar surface added an extra dimension to his performance. He simply had more physical texture to play with than his contemporaries and something primal about his facial expression and body language was picked up in the stage lighting and communicated all the way to the back row of the house. Here was a Hamlet or a Richard III whose emotions genuinely ripped across his face. When he made the inevitable transition to cinema he had to dial down his playing a few notches and his complexion became a long-term work in progress for Hollywood’s most trusted dermatologists.

Now though that celebrated theatrical countenance, whose individual pores he’d learned to expand and contract at will, grew rebellious, insolent even. He’d first noticed the change in transit — stepping in and out of limousines, moving through airport lounges, negotiating restaurant receptions and checking in at hotel lobbies. The people who took care of the small but essential day-to-day chores and had once made the practicalities of life glide effortlessly before him: chauffeurs, porters, receptionists, dental hygienists, barmen and waiters, now appeared to be somehow more hesitant, less confident in their response to him.

At first it seemed perfectly rational to him that his ever increasing legend went before him and the sheer force of his charisma overwhelmed them, then, less confidently, he decided it was simply the result of falling standards in the service industry. When that explanation no longer satisfied him he decided to study these people he’d previously taken for granted more closely and found that they were looking at him differently because they were uncertain how to react. They couldn’t read his face. A discovery that would horrify any actor.

Void started glancing at reflective surfaces whenever this happened and discovered that faint, elusive expressions were now wont to flicker across his face. After the uncertainty and ambiguity came caprice. Now he started making inappropriate facial expressions, not lewd or provocative, not at first anyway, his face simply no longer matched his feelings, thoughts or intentions. He knew straightaway that he had to work harder at controlling his communications before he started to gain a reputation for being eccentric and unpredictable.

Somehow he kept this all tightly contained when he was working but his agent, Vivian Slice, was the first to notice something was up and asked him straight what was going on. Void let it all out but had to repeat himself several times to Vivian because of his unreliable facial mannerisms.

“Not to worry love,” Vivian soothed. “We can get you that therapist who worked wonders on Harold after his stroke. We can minimize this. But I’m going to get you a new assistant who’ll keep you safe from harm’s way. And we’re going to have to choreograph personal appearances very carefully from now on.”

Void was somewhat comforted now that he’d taken Vivian into his confidence but he found the rigors of his new daily routine daunting and tedious. They had a couple of wobbles on his next two films but nothing too disastrous and they wisely kept well away from the stage. It was far too risky trying to control himself night after night before a live audience. The stress was undoubtedly taking its toll on him and he seemed to age noticeably overnight. Despite the best efforts of his dresser and make-up artist comments were made by showbiz columnists, especially in the run up to his latest movie.

And here he was sitting in his trailer fretting about his next session in front of the camera. He’d been on set early this morning and nailed his first three takes with ease. Hart X, the young director everyone wanted to work since his Càmera D’Or at Cannes last summer, had been thrilled with his performance and despite their many differences in temperament, taste and technique they seemed to be forming an agreeable working relationship quite quickly.

Wim, Void’s new general factotum, glided silently into the trailer and placed a nutritionally balanced salad and a carafe of mineral water on the table, then melted into the shadows. Void thanked him and picked at his plate. Wim had been a good choice, discreet, unflappable, androgynous, slight yet as had been shown a number of times now extraordinarily strong and able to anticipate his employer’s next move before his face had time to misbehave. Wim had already saved Void from considerable embarrassment during several high-profile engagements. You hardly knew he was there until a persuasive command or a firm hand on a sleeve moved a troublesome reporter or a pushy producer away from Void’s presence or swiftly conveyed him from a film festival stage or TV studio to his hotel suite. A cashmere security blanket, that’s what Wim provided and it was allowing Nigel Void to come and go on set as he pleased, safe in his head and safe from unwanted complications.

Wim rematerialized at the sound of intercoms outside the trailer and before one of the runners could knock on the door it was open and he was summoning Void on set for the next sequence. Hart X was keen on shadows and ambiguity and was making the most of the budget to incorporate some expensive night shooting into the picture. All to the good as far as Void and Slice were concerned — a low profile on and off set was just the thing these days. There was a flurry of activity around Void as he took his place on the sound stage, Wim ensured all went smoothly; Vivian had insisted that none of the production staff were to meet Void’s gaze throughout shooting. Fortunately, this was deemed an entirely reasonable request by the standards of today’s over-pampered male leads and flouncing divas. Hair and make-up withdrew silently as lighting and cameras took over.

“Ok but quicker,” barked the 1st assistant director.

“Carpe noctem,” murmured Hart X.

Void did some neat little bits of business with a coffee cup and aced his first line. He didn’t need his co-star for this, in fact he’d made sure he matched eye-lines with her but kept two-shots down to a minimum.

The old Void liked to know his leading ladies. He’d ask them impertinent questions, encourage them, use them to enhance his screen performance and give the film some zest, he’d even married two of them but now he couldn’t trust himself. And his co-star was potentially the one fly in the ointment. Mistral Thane was ushered in by her entourage and beckoned Hart from his chair.

“I’ve had some new thoughts on this scene,” she said, “and I’m sure the character’s intuitions are guiding me.”

Void’s eyes glazed over like a dead mackerel’s on a fishmonger’s slab but somewhat worryingly, the corners of his mouth briefly turned in opposite directions. “Don’t be distracted,” said a voice in his head. He glanced back and saw Wim retreating silently.

“Good,” purred Hart, “just let the script speak to you.”

The first take went well. Void moved towards Mistral with beguiling intensity, their characters were just about to realize their physical attraction and act upon it.

“I’m not feeling these words Hart,” she said. “Would my character really be attracted to Nigel at this moment?”

“I believe she would, but you must convince me,” he replied.

Void knew all too well what this was about, he’d side-stepped attempts to upstage him by the very best talent in Hollywood. Mistral had ruled the catwalks at Paris and Milan from an extraordinarily young age and had made the transition to acting after brief flirtations with rock music and photography. She’d taken advice from some of the shrewdest names in fashion and the art world but still felt she lacked authority and tried to buy it through acting classes, humanitarian causes and psychoanalysis. And here she was doing a two shot with a grand thespian, the genuine article.

Void could have told her that all she had to do was let the camera rest on her cheekbones and trust in her strong physical presence. She had a clear, memorable voice so the words could be left to take care of themselves. After ten takes it was clear that this was not going to happen anytime soon. Apparently it was not enough for her to succeed, Nigel Void would have to wilt a little on screen also.

To his credit, Hart X saw what was happening and like any director worth his salt knew that his mind games were the only ones that could be indulged on set. He ordered a couple of slight changes to camera position and lighting, took Void on one side and told him they’d get the take they needed in the next half hour or work around Mistral’s performance in the editing suite.

On take 23 Mistral leaned forward, lifted her chin then tilted away from Void at the last second. “Nigel you’re not at ease with this either, I can tell, your face isn’t quite on the page.”

Void measured his breath and drew from a deep well of professional composure. “Oh dearest girl, I just try to find my key light and say my lines without tripping over my teeth. You’re playing this perfectly, you look divine and you are smart enough to figure out motivations for both of us and make this scene work.”

Take 24 went without a hitch and Hart called for a 45 minute break. Void wondered on the way to his trailer if perhaps he’d been a little too generous or in some obscure sense capitulated to her. When they returned an emboldened Mistral was keen to speed things up and Hart made up for lost time in the schedule. At 2am they were close to wrapping for the night and shot the parting glances as Void and Thane’s characters nuzzled fleetingly and went their separate ways.

Out of the corner of his eye Void saw Dominic, the young 3rd assistant director, perched half way up a zip-up tower. He’d been sent on a pointless chore after he’d finally blown up and thrown down his clapperboard in response to repeated sniping from one of the supporting actors about him end-boarding takes too slowly. The boy’s face was contorted with rage. He’ll be bounced off the film if he doesn’t calm down soon thought Void. Continuing his gaze around the set he noticed all the tics, tremors and gestural anomalies of the rest of the crew and the cast. Only Wim retained a mask of impassive calm. Void brightened. He realized that barely one of them could control themselves, not to the same degree that he had mastered, he felt reassured and nodded to Hart that the next take should proceed. Soon he’d be back in his hotel suite sleeping soundly between freshly laundered Swiss cotton bedsheets.

Mistral gazed deeply at Nigel as their shoulders grazed and he hesitated imperceptibly. Wim advanced a full pace behind him as Nigel’s attention was caught by a stray eyelash on Mistral’s cheek. His tongue shot out, trapped the eyelash then he bit her forcefully on the cheek. Wim had Void’s head in his hands before anyone drew breath. He quietly commanded Nigel to relax his jaws and retract his teeth while Mistral screamed and howled and shook in terror. After a few interminable seconds, Void ran his cuff over his bloodied mouth, collapsed into Wim’s arms and was carried from the set.

Two ambulance helicopters blinked and clattered across a glittering Californian night sky as Mistral and Void were whisked away to separate exclusive medical centres. Wim had taken the precaution of snatching a long webbing strap from a flight case, wrapping it around Void’s face and clipping it securely with a lock.

Void mumbled through uncontrollable sobs. “So near, so near. What’s happening to me? The critics’ choice, look at me now with my face muzzled like a fifth-rate forgery of Tony Hopkins playing Hannibal Lecter.”

Three weeks later Vivian Slice paid a visit to a discreet, stratospherically expensive sanatorium in Malibu. Swaddled in a dark, opulent dressing gown, Nigel Void sat semi-reclined on a bright yellow upholstered lounger facing out across meticulously tended gardens in a secluded canyon that ran down to the sea.

“I can see you’ve regained your equilibrium,” Vivian said. “I have excellent news for you Milor, your loyal servant has been very busy on your behalf and all is well. Frankly your stock is simply soaring. We put your awkward turn down to an allergic reaction to botox serum in Madam’s make-up and the merest hint of a lawsuit brought everyone round to our side.”

Void nodded, lost in his own thoughts.

“Hart has a shot list that’ll keep him busy with the second unit for another two weeks, by which time your consultant has told me you’ll be fit to return to set for six more days of shooting and all will be done.” Wim shot a quizical look at Void as he took a deep breath.

“I’m taking a long sabbatical after we’re finished but with a little help from the hypnosis sessions and the vitamin shots I do seem to be holding up, how’s Mistral been?”

Vivian chuckled. “You’ve done her an immense favour, she finally feels she’s a full-blooded actress and one of extraordinary power, she’s already planning her wardrobe for the awards season and can’t wait to get back on set.”

“So be it,” Void replied.

Spontaneous applause broke out as Void and Thane appeared on set and took their positions. A full medical crew was on standby, Hart X was smiling benignly and Void could sense that Wim was close by. As the first take was marked he was pleased to see Dominic had held on to his job. That boy was going to be his lucky talisman for the rest of the film, all the omens were good. The scene played without a hitch, there was now a genuine spark between the leads, Hart nodded gently, satisfied that he’d got what he wanted. Void had moved perfectly, in complete control, he’d never been better.

A justified pride coursed through him as he took two paces away from Mistral then turned back to say his final line, his face a picture of poised, sophisticated nonchalance. His nostrils flared slightly as he took a breath before his line: “Let’s take my car and shake off LA.” Instead his eyes met Mistral’s as he murmered tenderly in his cut glass mid-Atlantic baritone: “Schwuiiip, ruargfahrt, blurta, funnuck cark!”

John has worked in cinema, journalism and advertising and writes fiction when he can.

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