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Photographs (c) Alex Tehrani
Lea trudges in, wearing army pants and a baseball cap, more than six feet in his combat boots, and sprawls out upon the red Afghan rug in the living room, a beautiful, open space dominated by a fifty-three-inch television and dark, expensive furniture. When Lea and his Hollywood friends, all Canadian expats, get together, it is most often here. This is only natural. Over the years, Barry's upscale, whitewashed apartment has provided a temporary home to a rotating group of Canadians hoping to make it in Los Angeles.
The only non-actor in the group is Barry, a screenwriter, script doctor, and director who has worked on The Art of War and The 51st State, among other films. Beside him on the couch is Molly Parker, who has carved out a reputation for herself as an indie-film queen with movies such as Sunshine, The Five Senses, Kissed, and Wonderland, and who will appear in five films this year. Cassini, a character actor who has appeared in a number of TV shows and films including Alive, Seven, and Get Carter, is hovering. The members of this group of thirtysomethings have all known one another for more than a decade, since attending the Gastown Actors Studio in Vancouver together. "It was just this one really great class," remembers Cassini. "We were performing twice a week. We were young and hungry."
Cassini was the first to make the move to Los Angeles eight years ago. He drove down for what he imagined would be a couple of weeks and still hasn't left. Barry, Lea, and Parker followed. In this most superficial of cities, where roots are something only plants have, and a deal, any deal, is often worth more than a relationship, their friendship survives because of a shared history and a shared homesickness. It also perhaps survives because their careers are so different; they would never go for the same movies, let alone roles.
Simon Barry is unabashedly commercial. "I'm a Hollywood kid," he says. "I want to make films with big stars and big budgets. I'm not that edgy, fringe person trying to reinvent the wheel. My tastes run more to the mass marketplace." John Cassini and Molly Parker, at the other end of the spectrum, are reluctant to embrace "the centre of evil," as Parker calls L.A. Instead, they champion independent film and theatre, though they still take wallet-fattening roles in mainstream productions. Nicholas Lea is in a category of his own. He doesn't seem to know what he wants and so floats forward on the success of his past roles.
At eight o'clock, Barry's wide-screen TV is turned on so the group can watch Cassini in his guest appearance on a new sitcom, Some of My Best Friends. They try not to laugh at the corny clichés and bad jokes, but during the first commercial break, all, including an embarrassed Cassini, agree it's a horrible show. "I just wanted people to see what I was wearing," says Cassini, who is cast as a stereotypical, macho Italian immigrant in a tight black Adidas track suit.
Cassini is a Hollywood anomaly; he spends much of his time doing theatre. As a result, he earns what in the industry is considered peanuts, between $40,000 and $60,000 (U.S.) per year on average, unless he's in a big movie, in which case he can make upwards of $100,000 (U.S.). Money, he says, doesn't concern him. He has recently written, directed, and produced his first short film, an artsy drama called Freedom Park, starring his brother Frank, who is also an actor. Now he's in rehearsals for the play They Shoot Horses, Don't They? at a local theatre, and waiting to hear if he got a supporting role in a Robert Redford movie. "It's crazy," he says. "I'm doing a play during pilot season, which is like the lottery here. And I only get five bucks a show. But this is what I do. I make my living doing films and TV so I can do this."
Cassini walks with a swagger and, at times, talks like a cast member of The Sopranos. But he can also be soulful and gentle. He freely admits to attending meditation retreats with Gurumayi Chidvilasananda as an antidote to L.A.'s spiritual shallowness. "We're not living in Oregon amongst the redwoods," he says. "It helps to take away some of the concreteness." Cassini embodies an interesting contradiction. A part of him wants success and glamour Hollywood-style -- that is after all why he is here. "Deep down inside, every time the phone rings, I think maybe this is it." But like Parker, he also eschews the trappings of that life -- the vapid materialism, the unfulfilling roles.
Parker, the self-described "baby of the class" at twenty-eight, doesn't worry much about that phone call. She has two films in production this spring, a comedy about curling, with Paul Gross, called Men with Brooms, and Hoffman, a World War 1 drama in which she plays John Cusack's wife. The first will take her to Toronto, the second will be shot in Europe. As well, she appears in a handful of films being released in theatres across North America this year: there's Center of the World, a digital feature by Wayne Wang, and a Canada/U.K. co-production called The War Bride. Then there are the independent Canadian films: Suspicious River, The Last Wedding, and Looking for Leonard, the first feature her boyfriend, Montrealer Matt Bissonnette, has directed.
Parker moved to L.A. last year to make more money and find more roles, but with so many trips to Canada and Europe, it has only been in the last two months that she has spent any real time here. She rents a house in the Bohemian district of Echo Park, a community that is, depending on traffic, either a twenty-minute or a one-hour drive outside the city. She has a garden and a dog and a boyfriend who, she says, keeps her grounded. "I can be in my house far away from Hollywood and have wonderful days," she says, her straight reddish hair draping her face. "But you can't escape the anxiety. It can get you while you're asleep. It's insidious. It's a company town and it's all about the business and everyone we know is in the business."
It's been an adjustment from living in Toronto, she says, where she had a wide variety of friends. "Here, I spend all my time in my house or in my car. And when I drive to the grocery store and I'm in the parking lot, I notice the women especially. There's a desperation on their faces. They're all walking to their cars with huge smiles, waiting to be discovered."
Parker is a "special person" according to her 0-1 visa -- a three-year permit for those with awards and box-office receipts to prove their status -- but she doesn't always feel very special in Los Angeles. In a place that values being "beautiful in that American way" over the work, it's hard for Parker -- hardly the Playboy-model look-alike -- not to get discouraged. Today, she says, she tried out for a movie with Val Kilmer and all the women there had "fake smiles and fake tits."
"I knew what the producers were looking for right away," she says. "I could be wrong and maybe I was just having a negative day. But half the time I come out of an audition feeling like a hooker."
"You have to embrace the hooker within you," says Barry, grabbing a plateful of Chinese takeout from a buffet he's laid out on the dining-room table.
"I know you do," Parker responds earnestly.
As the rest of the group gathers around the table to grab dinner, Barry launches into a story about being called in to a meeting to discuss working on the script of a major action film. The film treatment, he says, was awful, and he didn't really want to go. His agent, however, told him he didn't have a choice. The meeting was with one of Hollywood's most powerful producers and the biggest money in town. It was not an opportunity he could turn down. So he booked an appointment just before Christmas, on the morning of the day he was to leave for Vancouver to visit his family. The meeting was postponed until 1 p.m. His flight left at 3 p.m. He didn't go in until 1:20 p.m. "And there's five execs there to hear me pitch," recalls Barry, "and I'm so angry. I just tear it apart and I don't care. And I'm looking at my watch and insulting everyone. And then I leave and I'm thinking, 'What have I done?' But later they called my agent and said they loved it, but the only reason was because I tore it apart."
The next morning, Barry and the gang come together again at the Sunset 5, a movie theatre in the heart of Los Angeles. It's a weekday morning, but there are almost 200 people here to see Freedom Park, Cassini's short film. About a third of the crowd is Canadian. There's Sandra Oh (Double Happiness, Last Night) and Fabrizio Filippo (waydowntown) and a handful of other wannabe stars. There's also Stephen Kay, the director of the Sylvester Stallone film Get Carter, wearing jeans, chains, and a ripped T-shirt. There's Jennifer Beals (remember her from Flashdance?) and her Canadian husband, Ken Dixon, both of whom worked on Freedom Park. There's Claire Forlani, the young hottie from Meet Joe Black and AntiTrust.
Normally, the guys would be playing hockey today at this time. Instead, they're inside a darkened theatre, waving, shouting, and flashing each other the peace sign before the movie begins. When it ends, everyone retreats to a nearby restaurant. At one table, Parker's boyfriend, Matt Bissonnette, starts playing a favourite Hollywood game: faking a pitch. This one is about "Megladon," a giant prehistoric shark that comes alive to terrorize the planet after the melting of the polar ice caps. "It'll be like Jaws starring Richard Dreyfuss," says Bissonnette. "It'll be his big comeback."
They riff on the idea for at least ten minutes. "We'll need two billboards," says Barry.
"Jaws was the appetizer," says Sandra Oh. "I like that as a tag. But how would we kill the thing?"
"We would feed the megladon a bunch of mad cows," deadpans Barry.
Before anyone has a chance to order food, Parker heads off to a photo shoot for The New Yorker. Lea also leaves, for an audition at nbc for a new Steven Spielberg miniseries called Taken. Later, he learns that he got not only a part, but a bigger role than he had expected. "Strangely," he says when asked about it, "I feel nothing."
Lea is described on one of the many Web sites devoted to him as having "the face of an angel, the body and muscles to tempt a saint, a gravelly smoky voice, and eyes more beautiful than the brightest emeralds." His friends, however, consider him just a big playful puppy who would just as soon retreat to one of B.C.'s Gulf Islands to string beads and hang out than live the actor's life in L.A.
Lea says he has few American friends and finds his professional life here -- reading the scripts sent to him each week and going to the auditions -- "harrowing." But it's paid off. "The money," he says, "is absurd. It's completely out of whack. My sister is a nurse and saves people's lives. I just don't get it."
After dinner at Barry's apartment, Lea and Cassini disappear into their host's office, a back room dominated by a state-of-the-art digital-editing system and the four big computer monitors it needs. But Lea is only interested in using the computers to play video games. Cassini shouts for Barry to stop Lea before he damages the system. But when Barry walks in, he just smiles as Lea manoeuvres an animated man through a tunnel.
"I provide a lot of services," he jokes. "Plus I'm counting on Nick to become the next Harrison Ford in case I need a favour and he'll defer his twenty-million-dollar payment for me." He stands behind Lea, watches him play for a while, then bends over and gives him a big hug and a kiss on the head.
Barry is making his first feature this year, a $4 million to $8 million adaptation of Jay McInerney's book Story of My Life, and isn't likely to need any favours from anyone, at least in the short term. He started making big money last year, his fifth in Los Angeles, and it shows. He has two cars -- a Volvo and a brand-new sports car -- a great apartment, and lots of invitations to fancy parties.
On his patio, with its canvas awning, little white lights, and mosaic tiles, his friends, who are sipping wine and talking the night right into tomorrow, look as if they could be the cast of a sitcom about happy, successful young people. But Cassini, at the moment, is hardly flush with cash. When he recently tried to put a $250 fee for a festival application for his short film on his Visa, the payment didn't go through. Parker is financially comfortable; but all those independent films are the Hollywood equivalent of charity work. Still, Barry and his Canadian buddies know they've had it easy. "We've had a lot of good fortune," he says. "Everyone here is doing what they want. No one is waiting tables, and that is bizarrely unusual."