I can’t be too angry about the accident because it gave me a job. Well really, my brother gave me a job, something with a salary, anyway. The accident just made me perform that job exceptionally well.
I can’t tell you my brother’s name. Even those closest to him sign confidentiality agreements that bar us from talking about him on camera or mentioning his name in print. I can’t tell you the movies he’s directed either, because that would give him away. Let’s just say he’s a household name director, as commercially successful as Spielberg, as critically acclaimed as Scorsese, as Fan Boy worshipped as Tarantino.
I’m going to call him Bob.
Of course I can’t tell you my name, either. I come from a long line of lesser-known siblings, the Clint Howards, the Chad Lowes, the Kevin Dillans. It’d be too easy to plot a course to Bob through me.
You can call me Thewliss. It’s the surname of a British actor I’ve always admired. The surname, not the actor. Don’t get me wrong, he’s very talented, but it’s not the performances I love, it’s the delightful sound those two syllables make when laid side-by-side. Thew . . . Less. It’s fun to say, and it’s like a vital body part is missing. You can’t say what its job may be but you know it’s something important.
Think cinematically. The door to ICU swings open. Close-up on a family of tear-streaked faces. The doctor comes in looking grave. He tells the family their loved one will pull through, but he’ll never be the same. The accident completely severed his thew; he’ll be thewless the rest of his life.
My job is sitting. I sit immediately to the casting director’s left in early casting sessions, directly to my brother’s left at the final sessions. Westerners tend to “read” the world from left to right, the way words are laid out across a page. This goes for readers and non-readers alike; it’s just a side effect of living in the modern world. After meeting the casting director, or Bob, the actor’s attention naturally falls to me.
The accident happened ten years ago. Due to a shattered pelvis, I can’t cross my legs. To do so, either at the ankle or the knee, causes extreme discomfort which quickly becomes pain. My legs can no longer butterfly, what the Yoga instructor Bob hired to loosen my mending body calls the lotus pose, so resting a manly ankle over one knee is also out of the question. My thighs must remain straight, my knees shoulder-width apart, my feet flat on the floor.
Due to several broken ribs, I can no longer cross my arms. Doing so constricts the expansion of my ribcage, resulting in aches and pains where my ribs have knitted themselves back together. Also, my right forearm fractured so severely the limb no longer rotates, but moves like a simple hinge. This makes arm folding awkward. Although I can rest my hands on my knees, the ideal position is on the arms of my chair. This keeps my biceps away from my ribs and allows me to breathe comfortably.
Parts of my spine had to be recreated with metal, so leaning into a chair for any length of time is also painful. Not to mention the ribs broken in my back. The dance instructor Bob hired to help me regain somewhat normal movement told me to imagine a string. This string comes not from the top of my head, but from the top of my spine. It pulls me erect, into my most comfortable position.
Picture me sitting there, my legs and arms open and resting, my posture straight and attentive, back not even touching the chair. Not only am I on the edge of my seat, any body language expert will tell you my pose means I’m open to anything. Inside, I may be suicidal. I may be homicidal. I may be picturing perverse sexual positions to pass the time or remembering a breakfast bagel that really satisfied. No matter what’s going on inside, to the world I am attentive and willing.
But there’s more to me than body language. My face exists only by Bob’s vast wealth and many a doctor’s time and effort. While not unpleasant to look at given years of healing and the expertise involved, it’s not the most expressive face. The doctors did their best to make me look pleasant, even happy. The end result is something extraordinary. I have the world’s best poker face, disguised as the world’s worst. I look like I’m trying desperately to hide the fact that I’m pleased, and failing miserably.
Imagine tackling a page of monologue for a group of strangers. They seem nice enough. Maybe they even wince when you want them to wince, laugh when you want them to laugh, and nod when you want them to nod. Still, as you perform, the critic in your head keeps saying you’re worthless. Then you see the guy sitting right next to the casting director who shook your hand. He’s trying desperately to give you nothing, but you see it beneath the surface. The roiling of emotion, the secret surprise. You’re killing, and you know it. It’s not-written all over this mystery guy’s face.
That negative voice inside your head falls silent. You’re just there, throwing it across the audition table for all it’s worth. Whole scenes have been played for my benefit alone, entire monologues delivered right to me, no matter how many people shared my side of the table.
I’m a gift for Bob’s production company. Right away, we know who has it and who doesn’t.
As long as we’re talking, here’s a secret about my side of the table – we silently cheer for everyone. Our portrayal in films and stage has been uniformly negative, but those scripts are written by actors who are bitter they wilted in front of us. I won’t deny there’s an element of tedium, like any job involving a lot of repetition, but our hearts leap whenever the door opens. We hope every actor walking in will be the one to wow us. So relax, and do your best.
That said – please, guys, no more Mamet. If I hear “A-I-D-A. Attention, Interest, Decision, Action” one more time, I may need to hurt someone.
But I digress.
Because I draw it out during auditions, my brother’s production company only hires the best. From the nameless guy selling Russell Crowe a hotdog, to the fifties TV star making a comeback as Crowe’s curmudgeonly boss, everyone you see in a Bob film is believable, genuine, and in-the-moment.
I can’t mention the stars we’ve discovered. Being plucked from obscurity by Bob is a great thing; being inspired by Thewliss is not.
Thewliss and Bob come from a small town. In our little part of the world, I was a mechanical genius, a football legend, a baseball God. When we drag raced up and down the boulevard at four am, nobody beat my Camaro. Sport trophies covered an entire wall in my bedroom. My penis cut a mighty swath through the girls in my class, and a few years in either direction. When they looked at Bob, every coach, boss, and teacher saw me. Bob couldn’t go anywhere I hadn’t been first. He couldn’t get a job where I hadn’t quit, couldn’t suck at a sport I hadn’t captained, couldn’t kiss a girl whose older sister I hadn’t banged.
When Bob moved away, he did it quickly, and he did it cleanly. And by clean, I mean with permanence.
Sometime after his second hundred-million-dollar movie but before his first Oscar, after the affair with the six-foot South African model, but before he founded his own studio, I started to become… Bob’s older brother. Me. Thewliss.
Bob wrote a check to save – well, let’s not get too specific. He kept some local businesses in business. When possible, he farmed work out to us. Bob gave back to our little part of the world. It’s never bothered me. Sincerely. For a while, I drank better on Bob’s Big Brother Stories than I did on High School Game Stories, or I Did That Girl Stories.
Well, truth be told, I used up all my Bob stories with the people in town pretty quickly. It got harder to drink for free off my neighbors, but tourists looking for a glimpse into Bob’s past were always good for a beer or two. Unfortunately, I usually ended up getting hostile with them. Think about it. What kind of messed up self-esteem do you have to have, to fly or drive hundreds of miles to look at the house where some total stranger grew up? To take pictures of where he went to elementary school?
Anyway, the accident changed all that. No more interviews with unauthorized biographers. No more being “a source close to so-and-so” for gossip mags. I sit for Bob, and I keep my mouth shut.
They haven’t all been success stories. A few sad acts couldn’t do it again once they got on set. Sooner or later, I’d get a call. These wannabe actors needed me parked beside the camera to let loose. None of them last long. What can they do, hire me to follow them wherever they get a job? They couldn’t afford me, not with what Bob pays. After they work for Bob, the roles dry up. Fame becomes a bitter sugar momma who has moved on to a different boy toy. Whether these losers fell in love with fame isn’t my problem, but it determines how they end up.
Like I said, this has only happened a few times, but they all have something in common. Bob never hires them again. Even the guy Bob directed into a Golden Globe win and an Oscar nomination for his first movie role ever, Bob won’t touch him.
Bob says he doesn’t think about the old days. He says no matter what happens I’ll always be his big brother, and he’ll always look up to me. He seems sincere when he says it. But these actors who need Thewliss more than they need Bob, my brother won’t even see them for auditions.
I think that says something.