“There’s nobody here. Are you sure this is the right place?” Paris asks, as I pull our luggage into the lobby and the heavy glass door closes behind us. The waiting area has plastic flowers and antimacassars and smells of curry.
#ad#”Sure,” I reply with more confidence than I feel. “I mean, how many Advanced Motels can there be in New England?”
A woman shuffles in from the back room and regards us with bleary, skeptical eyes. “Yes?”
“Good afternoon. We’re here with the Lone Wolf film people? Apparently they’ve reserved a dozen rooms, and my son and I are supposed to have one of them.”
“No one has arrived yet.”
“I see. Well, we have. Perhaps we could have our key?”
Outside, under lowering skies, a cold wind is whipping the asphalt and we can hear the traffic roaring along I-95. There’s not a Bush or Kerry sign to be seen; no bumper stickers in the parking lot. It is a timeless scene of grim strip-mallery; the election could be happening on another planet.
The woman flips through a book, finds that we are, indeed, entitled to take up space in her lobby, and grudgingly hands me a form to fill out.
“Non-smoking please,” I say, writing down our names.
“You don’t smoke?”
“No.” I fill in our address.
“We don’t want smoking in the rooms.”
“Don’t worry. Oh, also, my husband will be joining us–”
“What about your husband? He is not permitted to smoke in the rooms, you know-”
“That’s fine, since neither of us–”
“–it makes the carpets smell when people smoke–”
For Pete’s sake, I think, and say testily, “We. Don’t. Smoke.” Apparently a show of anti-tobacco pugnacity is all that was required. “Here is your key,” she says with an abrupt smile, and hands it to me.
A few minutes later, the door opens on to an ur-typical motel room: Shiny floral bedcovers, turquoise wallpaper, plastic-covered lampshades, and a view of junked cars in the yard behind.
“This is the greatest!” Paris yells, dropping his skateboard, his teddy bear, and his backpack. “Look! A TV! A refrigerator! And loo-ook,” he crows, “there’s even a coffeemaker for yooo-oou!”
So begins our first brief foray into the intensely glamorous world of film acting. Motels! Fast food! Getting up before dawn to stand around in the cold and wait! And wait! And wait even more!
Over the next four days, Paris and I will stand around waiting more than we have waited in all the rest of our lives combined. We will wait in the cold, we will wait in warmth; we will wait in street clothes, we will wait tightly laced in Tudor finery. We will wait before breakfast, we will wait after dinner, and the strangest thing of all is how much fun waiting turns out to be when the place you are waiting is a film set, and the thing you are waiting for is to appear on camera. Man, is it ever fun.
“I was born for this,” says the lead actor, Tom Beard, early one chilly morning, as he and Paris and I wait in a car outside the oldest house in Connecticut. In the near-dark outside, people are unloading boxes of props and wigs and caterer’s tables and the heavy equipment needed to make cameras glide smoothly across floors. “I was born,” he continues wryly, “to wait.”
“This is nice,” Paris agrees. “Want to see my face turn bright red or bright purple?”
“You can’t do that,” Tom scoffs. The two of them are to be on-screen father and son, and they are getting along famously.
“Oh yes, I can. Watch!” Paris grabs his nose and mouth, blows out his cheeks, widens his eyes, and thrashes like a hooked bass.
“Remarkable,” Tom says, “Ah yes. You’ve gone red.”
The sky is streaked with pink when a vivacious English production assistant opens the door. “They’re ready for you in the party bus, Mrs. Hudson,” she tells me. I laugh and climb out, leaving Henry Hudson and his youngest son still making faces at each other in the car.
Alas, in the Winnebago that serves as a mobile costume department, there is precious little festivity. There is only the suppressed panic of three exhausted people who have been racing against time to alter costumes from the BBC drama department that were delayed in customs.
The costume designer presses his palms to handsome eyes turned hollow. “I’m 49 and I’ve been up all night and there is no money in the world that can make it all better.” He checks himself. “Well, maybe some money…” All the while he is pulling out tiny-waisted petticoats and a glorious damask dress with those tufted and bejeweled sleeves you see in portraits from the 1600s.
“This will be fabulous on camera,” he says, tying a kind of stuffed cotton kielbasa around my hips to hold the dress out. I nod, speechless. Normally, I am a fairly chatty person, even, if sufficiently caffeinated, at this time in the morning, which I am, but as the corsetry is applied and the laces tighten, I find I am struck dumb. It is with the mute, joyous incoherence of one whose childhood ambition has suddenly and unexpectedly been met.
“When I was a girl,” I gasp, when at length I am able to speak, “I wanted nothing more than to dress like a Tudor princess.”
“Stop looking down,” says he in a friendly way, trussing me like a game hen. “It spoils the lines. Now. You go get your hair done. Where is young Master Hudson?”
The Winnebago door bangs open and Paris comes in to be fitted in a child-sized doublet, sash, and jerkin. His jaw drops. “Mummy, you look like a queen!”
“I know!” I burst out with a mad giggle, and reach down to hug him.
“Ow,” he says amiably a moment later, rubbing his cheek where it had pressed against my steel-clad bosom. I leave him to his fitting, and sweep off.
Soon I am sitting before the hairdresser, who is rummaging around in a box of hairpieces that look alarmingly like the scalps of sodbusters. Eventually he produces a tangle and pins it into my hair, does some curious tugging and rolling, fogs me with hairspray, and turns me over to the makeup artist. She, in turn, does a bit of gentle daubing and painting, and stands back satisfied.
“Amazing,” say all the bystanders, as I stand up. One fellow whips out his video camera.
“What?” I say, desperately excited. Cramming my voluminous skirts into a tiny bathroom, I look at the mirror…
I know, I know, sheesh, lady, pipe down, what’s the big deal? People put on plays and shoot movies and television shows every day, and of course it is the nature of showbiz artifice that you can take a garden-variety dame and transform her. Still: To look in the mirror and see Queen Elizabeth looking back? Amazing.
Paris comes bounding over in his period costume and leaps about, pretending to fire a cannon from the War of 1812 that happens to be outside the house. We wait. I run over my lines. Paris rolls a piece of paper into a funnel, fills it with gravel, and throws it into the air. “It’s a real rocket! Get it? Rock-et?”
The production assistant comes over with a cup of coffee for me. “It’ll be a while yet,” she apologizes.
Joined by Tom in velvet doublet, we wait. Joined by a fellow from New Jersey in ruff and glued-on van Dyke goatee, we wait. Joined by a youth in a green velvet feathered cap, we continue to wait. Paris disappears into the throng of active civilians, and few minutes later I see him helping to lug dark-stained table legs into the house. The rest of us in costume exchange witticisms and stand about picturesquely.
One of the props people comes over. “Is that your real son?” she asks. I admit that he is, and she grins. “He’s actually being helpful. Not many kids are like that on set.”
Now my son is unpacking light bulbs and handing them up to a young man who fits them one by one into a candelabra. Paris’s face is streaked with black from eating Oreos. “Excuse moi,” I hear him say, as he drops a bulb on the grass. The young man laughs.
We wait. There’s a flurry of activity, we shoot a scene, and then it all subsides and we wait again. So much waiting is there that I keep expecting Paris to grow impatient, to demand that something happen. Yet he never does.
“So, sweetheart, what do you think of all this?” I finally ask, gesturing in such a way as to encompass the cameras, woolen rugs, cabbages, apples, pottery jugs, rolls of tapestry, costumes, and, of course, the interminable standing around.
Paris strokes his chin pensively in unconscious imitation of his on-camera father, the doomed explorer. “I think it’s great,” he says finally. “It’s pretty amusing. And it really passes a lot of time away.” And there you have it.
P.S.: Conquest of the Northeast, will air on the History Channel at the end of March. Fingers crossed that we don’t wind up on the cutting-room floor.