On the second day of shooting I realize I have no business being here.
I am, once again, sealed in a binding fiberglass robot suit and The Director explains to me what I will be doing today.
“So after the break dancer finishes his routine, he’ll, sort of, call you out and you’ll step on the dance floor and do what he did.”
“Do what… he did?” My attention veers to the break dancer in the corner doing a no-handed back flip.
“Well, like a robot version of what he did.”
If a robot version of a back flip is simply not doing a back flip then I think I should be fine.
The Director falls into a hushed conversation with the AD. After a long moment he turns back to me and says “Don’t worry about it. All you have to do is some robot dancing.”
The two of them are walking away before I have the chance to explain that I can’t dance. I look back at the break dancer, who is balancing his entire body on just one arm, frozen in an exaggerated display of human strength and agility. I imagine his whole body as one giant middle finger aimed directly at me.
After a particularly disastrous first day of shooting it seems everyone has taken on the job of managing The Director. The crew usher him around the set, having him inspect their progress, waiting for him to nod, then moving him to the next item. He seems relaxed, in a Valium kind of way, as the AD hovers around him like a perpetually futzing mother. He reminds me of a caged lion, patiently gnawing on a bone, waiting for the moment he can break free and ruin everything. I think I’m not the only one who feels this way.
The props guy has become my de facto helmet wrangler. We've developed a nice rapport. He’s putting the helmet on when I notice the front door open and a sea of people in ridiculous outfits cautiously enter. These are the extras, a concept I still have a hard time with. They stand around waiting to be told what to do. They look at me like somehow I’m important. I don’t know what they want. It bothers me.
I do notice that one of the extras is extremely beautiful. Her skin looks like a light brown stone that has been sitting in a rushing river for decades. She wears a strapless yellow dress. The advantage of my robot cage is that I can stare without her noticing. Sometimes, she even looks at me. We stare deeply into each other's eyes for a moment before I realize that I’m looking at a lovely young woman and she’s looking at a fiberglass robot.
The AD shouts "action" (which is his job now, I guess) and my costar and I stand by the dance floor watching the impossibly agile break dancer display his superiority. When he’s finished, his whole body snaps up, like a striking snake, and he’s on his feet, facing me. He beckons for me to join him. I oblige. It is at this moment that everyone starts cheering. I'm not sure why. They really shouldn't get their hopes up.
I do a particularly bad wave, then a lousy shuffle; I can’t even do a convincing robot. But I do have one secret weapon: the moon walk. I lay down a truly excellent moon walk. Or at least excellent for someone wearing a form-fitting recycling bin. The crowd goes wild. By the time my props guy de-helmets me, I’m sweating pretty bad. The Producer, ever the sweetheart, says “You were really good,” which I interpret as “You managed to not fall over or break anything.”
While The Cinematographer sets up the next shot, I notice the extra in the yellow dress. She stands, alone in a crowd. She adjusts her strapless dress, wriggling it up then letting her hands slowly fall to her sides, like some strange dance or Japanese ritual. She looks my way, but I turn around quickly. I call the props guy over and ask him to helmet me up.
He says “We’re not going up for a take anytime soon.”
I tell him I don’t care.
He fastens it tight and I make my way over to the crowd of extras. I don’t walk like a robot, though I don’t really walk like a person either. On the way, a midget asks me if she can take a picture with me. I tell her “Just a sec.” There are a lot of midgets on set. Not necessarily dwarfs, but certainly abnormally short. I’m not really sure why.
Once I reach the extra in yellow, I don’t really know what to say or why I wanted to say anything in the first place, so I just lean (or prop myself up) against the wall. Then, abruptly, I ask for her name. Her name is Erica. I want to say “That’s my mother’s name,” but that’s a weird thing for a robot to say. So, instead I say “Does my helmet look straight to you?”
I think that’s probably the last thing I say to Erica.
While posing for a picture with the midget, a thought occurs to me; this must be what celebrities feel like. And I don’t mean the binding codpiece (though I’m sure they feel that sometimes). I mean, the fact that while I pose for pictures, no one wants to see me. They want to see my shell. When you’re a baby, people take pictures of you to cherish your soul, your truest self. Then you get famous and Maxim wants pictures of your body, US weekly wants pictures of your failures, fans want pictures of your fame. No one wants to see Julia Roberts’ soul.
During our lunch break I take off the upper part of my costume. I don’t want to go through the effort of removing the whole suit and putting my real clothes on, but I also don’t want to hang around in the form fitting silver jump suit I wear under the armor because it’s awkward in the way David Bowie’s pants were in Labyrinth. So, half robot, I make my way to the piano sitting in the corner of the dance floor. I open it up, take a seat, and noodle.
I don’t think much when I play piano. I like that about it. I turn off my brain and express myself, clearly, without the need for words or logic, or beginnings and endings. I think about space today. I think about the bathroom where I changed. A window in the back was lined with rusted bars. Beneath it, a painting of bars.
I’m interrupted by a woman with gravity defying platinum blonde hair and a giddy Australian accent. She wears bright blue spandex and sits comfortably in my cultural Rolodex between tank girl and superwoman. She’s shaking my hand saying “This is the robot!”
I say, “My name’s Tim.”
She laughs. What a laugh. Like a little bomb just went off inside her chest.
The Director calls her over to the craft room. I sit at the piano for a moment then play on.
It isn't until I’m back in the suit and ready for another take that someone explains to me who the incredibly excitable Aussie is. She’s one half of the musical group that this music video is for. She’s the financer, the talent, the artist, the boss, and she’s currently dancing around with a feathered headband. She’s handing out paper cut outs of her face to wear as masks. She’s laughing and screaming, and dancing. Apparently she’s some sort of techno-clubbing goddess. I don’t doubt it.
When we go up again, I’m back to faux-dancing in my clunky robot armor. Usually I try not to exert too much effort, half out of embarrassment, half out of fear of crippling dehydration, but the presence of the Aussie somehow jacks up the energy of the whole room, and suddenly I’m jumping around like a fool. When the AD shouts cut and my helmet comes off, I’m freely sweating rivers down my face.
The Aussie darts over to my side and aims her crystal blue eyes right into mine. She says “You are terrific,” with unwavering sincerity. She seems genuinely impressed. And more than that, she seems like somehow this all matters. As if me dressing up as a robot and doing the moonwalk is important to her. For the first time it occurs to me that this whole process isn’t some bizarre form of torture. There is purpose to all this, other than my forced self-reflection.
After we wrap, I go home and wash my hands for about an hour to clean off the weird rubber/sweat that builds up under the gloves. My hands are red and throbbing as I go to sleep.
The next day I wake up at 5:30 am, and once strapped into the robot, I am then strapped into the seat of a roller coaster. The helmet is duck taped to my head. I imagine it flying off anyway on this rickety wooden ride. Cracking on the Santa Monica pier like an egg.
The platinum Aussie has duplicated. Now there are two, identical, with unnerving blue eyes and blond hair. They stand taller than me with blue leggings, black combat boots, smiles far too wide for seven in the morning. Apparently they’re twins. The twin Australian techno-goddesses. I wonder if tomorrow there will be three of them, maybe more. I think about the paper masks the Platinum Aussie #1 had handed out at the shoot yesterday, skirting about the room with a pile of her own face, like two of them wasn't enough. Like maybe her sinister goal was to propagate her own visage until the whole world shone with earnest wonder, cherubic smiles, and platinum locks. I wonder which sister’s face was on the mask.
The roller coaster starts rolling and I’m sucked deeply into the present, in a robot costume, on a roller coaster made in the 1950's from the look of it. The coaster crests and suddenly I’m speeding along the rails. As I whip around a turn I get the strong feeling that my suit is being yanked forward, as if tethered to a dragon having a tantrum, spiraling and twisting in the sky, with my little gray shell, whipping around in helpless pursuit.
After the roller coaster, The Director decides he’d like me to play an arcade game and, for a moment, I wonder if this is still part of his ongoing plan to make me incredibly uncomfortable. But the Australian twins beam from behind him, watching me with childlike focus, and I agree. Of course, we don’t have permission to shoot in the arcade because that would be too easy.
“We’ll just try to do it as quick as we can and hope no one notices.”
“I’m sure I’ll blend right in,” I say.
The Director stares me down for a moment, and I see in his face a slight hint of pain. As if after everything I've said, this was the first thing he’d ever actually heard. I realize at this point that my helmet isn't on. The Cinematographer approaches with his camera and, in a flash, The Director’s face switches back to his default mixture of confusion and stress, like he’s trying to solve a complicated math equation in his head.
My co-star hands me a water gun and I spray away at some strange targets on a stand. I have no idea what I’m doing. It doesn't take long before some sullen manager approaches us and tells us to get out. I hide in my shell, like a turtle. It’s times like these I realize how useful the suit would have been in middle school. Anytime something embarrassing happened, every time I was rejected or made fun of for wearing a robot costume, I could just lean my head back and it would be like turning the TV off.
Outside the arcade, a child bum rushes me. I freeze, unsure of what to do, as the toddler clings to a panel on my leg. His dad approaches, confident, leather-tan. He asks if he can get a picture of me with his kid. I agree. I don’t even know when we’re going up for the next shot. I don’t even know if there is a next shot.
The dad looks down at the picture on his phone and smiles. The two of them move along the pier and as I turn I start to notice just how many children there are on this pier, all of them staring at me with curiosity and fear, their parents taking out their cameras and phones. Taking that picture with the toddler opened a floodgate. I am now a tourist attraction.
After a few more photos with children, spring breakers, elderly couples, I start to feel less and less like a celebrity and more and more like a magnet, just sucking everything in towards me. Ever since I first put the suit on I felt the tug. This cloud of the bizarre and mildly irritating, anchored to me by some invisible force of nature. Even I am being led around by the suit, trapped by its will. It's at this moment, posing between a street performer and a Japanese tourist, that I realize I am no longer the main character in the story of my own life. I have become a passenger. How long have I been like this? It's easy to blame the suit, but looking back, I can't help but wonder, "What kind of person signs up for this?" It's not like I'm a stunt man, or a dancer, or in any any way talented. My only qualification is my lack of will power. My ability to say "yes," no matter what the consequences may be.
I manage to pull myself from the cloud of tourists and find the AD who says they're basically done and I can go home. Just like that, I'm free. I take off my suit, with the Producer watching me. We stuff all the fiberglass plates into a gray crate and together we stand over the remains of the day. Two silver eyes like shower drains staring up at us in silent judgment.
"Who are you without me?" it asks. And I have no answer, so I shut the crate.
A few days later I open up my email to see a message from The Director, written in all lower case with sporadic punctuation, thanking me for being so helpful and telling me that the reshoots are in three weeks and he won't be able to pay me until then. I lean back in my chair for a moment. There doesn't appear to be a question in the email. He isn't asking me to come in. He is declaring the future, as if from some prophetic vision. There is no doubt in his mind that I will be there, for who else could possibly don the heavy armor of absolute submission? I look down at my keyboard and stare deeply at the "n" and "o" keys. They seem so crisp, like they've never been pressed before.
I wonder what they feel like.