Brushes With Greatness
A good portion of my adolescence was devoted to channeling my insecurities into a persona. Maybe I wasn’t thrilled with the way I looked or dressed or behaved, but at least I could play up my own awkwardness for laughs. Self-effacement was self-preservation. It seemed to work most of the time, so I was shocked when a good friend admitted “You know, when I first met you, I thought you might be a snob.” I was incredulous. How could I, a proud member of the Idyllwild Arts Academy Geek Club, be a snob?
“I felt like you would name-drop,” she said. “You would say ‘Yeah, I was at Danny DeVito’s New Year’s Eve party’ so casually.”
“Oh,” I said. “But… I was trying to downplay it so I wouldn’t sound like a snob.” I hadn’t been trying to impress anyone, I had just shared what I thought was an interesting story. Besides, as a child, those moments had felt casual. Acting had just seemed like a hobby, and going to parties and premieres hadn’t felt much different than going to my brother Danny’s Cross Country banquet. Celebrities were just people, most of them very nice people, who everyone happened to know. My siblings and I had also been instructed not to act starstruck in public: The correct response to bumping into George Lucas on a dance floor was “sorry,” not “oh my god, we watch your movie every weekend.” Only once we left the party or premiere and climbed into the minivan to head home could we gush: “Eric Idle was there!” “I think that was Courtney Love!” “They were introduced, but I don’t think Mara really understood who she was meeting.” 1
And usually, I didn’t understand who I was meeting. It was only a big deal when the kids at school would know who they were. When I was seated next to Jonathan Taylor Thomas at the 1995 Golden Globes, my mother actually nudged me and whispered, “Well, well, looks like you got lucky!” He was very sweet, and my friends at school were very jealous. 2 He meant something. The wiry, jittery man who had been next to me on the red carpet, though, couldn’t be placed. Everyone was making a big fuss over him, and I had wondered if maybe he was Tom Hanks. When he went up to accept his award for Best Screenplay for Pulp Fiction, I was busy talking to Jonathan about how I couldn’t eat the shrimp cocktail because I was Jewish.
I was constantly working with people whose accomplishments were beyond my comprehension. Not necessarily because they were visionary artists, but because there was no way my parents would let me see their work. It was all too adult for me, and lead to a lot of rude awakenings later on in my life. 3 When I was asked to perform in the Opening Number of the Oscars with Tim Curry, my mom wasn’t sure how to explain to me who he was.
“Mara’s working with Tim Curry from Rocky Horror?” Friends of hers would say, incredulous.
“Yeah,” she would say, looking worried. “I don’t know how he’ll be with children.” Tim and I sang and danced to “Make ‘Em Laugh” from Singin’ In The Rain, 4 and from what I remember, working with him was great. I often wondered why my mom had been so worried, until I saw Rocky Horror at a friend’s house when I was twelve, and had an epiphany.
This happened again and again as I grew up: a friend would want to watch a movie, and there would be someone who had once played my parent or mentor playing a mobster or a lothario. I knew they were just playing characters, but it still felt uncomfortable — somewhere between seeing a teacher outside of school and accidentally stumbling onto some detail of your parents’ sex life.
This was never more the case than when Rhea Perlman wrote me into her sitcom, Pearl. It was about a woman in her forties going back to college, and it was one of the best acting experiences of my childhood. Everyone on that set was wonderful: Carol Kane and John Ratzenberger were hilarious, Dash Mihok was a lot of fun, and Lucy Liu, whose character had a rivalry with mine, went out of her way to make sure I knew that she liked me. But it was Malcolm McDowell, who played Rhea’s prickly Philosophy professor, who got the most attention.
“Whoa! You’re working with Malcolm McDowell?” My brother Jon said, in the same tone that people had used to talk about Tim Curry. I didn’t understand his reaction: like everyone else on the set, Malcolm was friendly and funny. He was also very encouraging when I mentioned that I wanted to grow up to be a writer. “A lot of people are actors and writers both,” he had said, and I took it to heart. My role on Pearl lasted only one episode, but I had such a good time on the set that when it was over, I cried for days.
The show was sadly put on hiatus not long after, and while I was sad, I was happy to see the cast again at the wrap party. Like all of the best parties of my childhood, it was in the DeVitos’ backyard, and after hugging Rhea and dancing with Lucy, I found two girls my own age. They either had parents who had worked on Pearl or, more likely, went to school with one of Danny and Rhea’s kids. Whoever they were, we became instant friends. After puberty, a girl had to prove herself worthwhile and trustworthy before she could be considered a friend, but in those last days of childhood, a friend was any girl who tagged along and didn’t do anything painful or dangerous.
The three of us danced and ate ice cream and played games, but soon decided to investigate some of the stranger ongoings, like the Mystery of the Scary Guy Sitting Outside By Himself Drinking a Coke (he was a security guard). After that, one of us noticed something even more bizarre: outside of the party tent, there was a boy jumping on the DeVitos’ trampoline by himself. He was doing some rather impressive flips, but it was the middle of the night and there was something a little unsettling about it.
“Who is that guy?” One of the girls asked. I didn’t know, but I was feeling bold, so I led them outside to do some detecting. When we were about ten feet away, the boy stopped tumbling and turned toward us. He was a handsome boy of about fourteen, and his face was familiar, but I still didn’t know who he was.
“Hi,” I said.
“Hi,” he said, and put his hands in his pockets.
“Um…” I decided to go for it. “Who are you?”
“Charlie,” he said, softly.
“OK,” I said. That explained nothing. He must have sensed that, because a few seconds later he added, “I’m… Malcolm McDowell’s son.”
“Oh. I’m Mara,” I said, and we stood staring at each other for a minute. Eventually, Charlie went back to his backflips, and we went back to the party. I forgot about our strange meeting until three years later, when my brother Joel was studying dystopian fiction in his senior English class and had a few friends over to watch A Clockwork Orange. I wandered into the family room on a Sunday afternoon to see a younger version of the nice man from Pearl torturing people and then being tortured himself.
“Mara, is it true you worked with that guy?” One of Joel’s friends asked, wide-eyed.
“…Yeah,” I said, as my relationship to Singin’ In The Rain was once again redefined. “He was… really nice.”
To this day, I have never seen all of A Clockwork Orange, though what I saw that day did more than explain my brother Jon’s reaction. It also explained my experience meeting Charlie on a trampoline by himself in the middle of the night. After all, when I was at a party with a man who so perfectly embodied the innocent and the sinister in one performance, who else’s child could it have been?
- It was Robert Redford. ↩
- A year later, I would accidentally elbow him in the groin at a Disney Adventures photo shoot. ↩
- And often a great deal of regret: when I was sixteen and saw The Breakfast Club for the first time, I cursed myself for having lost touch with John Hughes. He understood me! Youth is wasted on the young, and so are Hollywood connections. ↩
- I must have watched that movie fifty times. The first ten times were to learn the song, but then my little sister decided, as toddlers often do, that she loved it and had to watch it every day. Eighteen years later, it’s still her favorite movie. ↩