Denzel Washington in 2000
Del Toro at Cannes in 2008
I’ve never been comfortable with being a celebrity. And I’ve never really gone gaga either over celebrities. During my years living in New York City, I became accustomed to seeing celebrities on the streets. Most of the time, I’d just walk right by them as if nothing. If it was someone whose work I at least appreciated, I’d tell them so and keep moving. I rarely reached for a camera, and never for a pen for an autograph. Truth is, I’m no fan of most of them. Many of them don’t want anyone to bother them, and so in public they are not very nice people. I totally understand that their fans can be pushy and make unreasonable demands, but they seem to treat even nice fans with nastiness. Of course, there are exceptions.
I’ve met a shipload of celebrities in my lifetime, either through my career as a journalist, or simply strolling along someplace, somewhere, or in some start-studded universe. I was even in a couple of movies – no big roles – just as an extra. The first one was “Glory” with Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman and Matthew Broderick. Denzel won his first Oscar for his role in Glory. The next one was “The Hunted,” with Benicio del Toro.
I had a day job, working as an education reporter with The Oregonian in Portland, Oregon. One afternoon, as I was having lunch in Downtown Portland‘s Pioneer Courthouse Square, I was approached by a man and woman who were scouts for a local talent agency. They asked me a bunch of questions about me and then asked if I’d be interested in being added to a portfolio of people they keep on file to appear in print and television ads, movies, whatever. I asked them a lot of questions and then said thanks, but no. The woman persisted, stating that “frankly, we don’t have many African-Americans and we’re looking to change that.” She said that I’d probably never hear from them at all. Geez, thanks for the ringing endorsement! Still somewhat reluctant, I agreed Right there in the square, they took my photo – I was wearing a suit and tie – and gave them my body measurements, age, and contact information.
Approximately two months passed and I heard nothing. Could this have been some sort of scam? But no, they gave me business cards and I checked. It was a legitimate agency. I put it out of my mind and sunk into my very demanding day job. Then one morning my cell phone rang. I was asked if I’d have time to show up to audition for a television commercial. Sorry, I said, I have to go to work. I have a couple of stories and a column to write. That phone call was the first of many for commercials, modeling jobs, and even movies.
Ohhhhhhh, nooooooo, you're like a shark, you crazy fan!!!
Do you want to be a movie extra? Each time I turned them down, because I wasn’t about to quit my day job. My job was extremely stressful and demanding, but at the end of the day I loved it. This call to acting was not my thing. I had had a taste of it with Glory and I didn’t like it one bit. The hours were incredibly long and doing a scene over and over again drove me nuts. I did gain some renewed respect for actors, but it just wasn’t my thing. I was convinced of that after filming Glory in harsh conditions on Jekyll Island, Georgia, getting a 5 a.m. wake up call and not shooting a scene well past noon. Then shooting that same scene again and again. Ugh! I get bored with repetition. That’s perhaps why I loved being a journalist. No two days are the same.
So the phone calls kept coming and finally one call for”The Hunted” starring Benicio Del Toro. I knew they were filming that movie in Portland. Everybody in Portland knew it. They had taken over several parts of the city, including the downtown area, causing some mild inconveniences getting around town. When I was asked to be an extra, I immediately said no. I simply couldn’t. I had a very important school board meeting. If I wanted drama, there was certainly plenty of drama at the school board. Nope, no can do. Click.
After I turned down an offer to be an extra, a few days later another call came. This time, the movie producers wanted me for a bigger role – a tad more than background fill, she said. She said they would pay me handsomely. And what would I be required to do? Just walk, bump into Benicio, he says something like “hey, watch where you’re going!,” I flip him the bird. No speaking, but some acting. Simple. Sorry, I told her, I would be delighted to flip the middle finger to some actors, but bad timing. I have a school board meeting to report on. Big issue on the agenda. She hung up obviously very disappointed. I thought, wouldn’t be surprised they threw my photo into the shredder.
Later I told my editor about it and he said I should have said something to him, that he would have found someone else to cover my school board meeting. Really? Hmmm. I called the agency and asked if they could do it some other day. She said probably not, but if I were interested in being an extra I could go on a day I was not busy. Feeling bad about never accepting a job, I said sure, and headed for the set. After waiting and waiting for hours, (ugh!) I join a bunch of other extras walking about. But because of some mix up, I also get to bump into Benicio and flip him the finger. Action! The spotlight. I hate the spotlight. Action! We do it in way too many takes. My shoulder was sore. Take 943. Action! Ouch!
The movie comes out, and that scene ends up on the cutting room floor. Great. “But did you have fun?” the agency mucks ask. My response: I love movies. I love watching them. I don’t like making them. And though I have a new-found respect for actors, given the rigors of the job, I now think movie producers are a bunch of pretentious boobs!
Still, I was paid, handsomely 🙂
So my brushes with celebrity have never impressed me. And I never had any interest in being one. Not that I ever was one. As a journalist, I was recognized here and there around town in cities I worked in. Strangers on the street would ask, “are you Michael Ottey?” and my initial reaction would be to reply “yes” all while wondering do I know this person? After all, if someone knows who I am I fully expect to know who they were. It never initially occurs to me they saw my mug in the newspaper under something I had written. Or that they may have been part of an audience that had invited me to speak. At first, my friends got a kick out of it. Then after more than a few interrupted restaurant dinners and conversations, they were slightly annoyed.
Once I was on a high-speed train somewhere in Germany and a woman and her daughter came over to my seat and the young girl sheepishly asked if I was, well, me. When I said yes, the two glowed with delight because first, they could not believe they were face to face with me in Europe, and second, that I was, well, really me. They were on vacation and there I was, on the same train as them, thousands of miles away from the United States, from their hometown. I’ve never seen two people so happy to see a stranger. That, in my mind, is what I was to them, a complete stranger. And yet, they felt as if they knew me. And inside, I was feeling anything but glee. A bit of discomfort is what I felt. It was that unease I got and still get every time I am approached by a stranger jumping for joy over me. How weird. When mom and daughter asked to take a picture with me, I agreed, returned to my seat and buried my head in a book. I pretended to read as I thought, man, it’s not like I’m Denzel. (Who, by the way, has it in for me – long story 🙂
I know hundreds of journalists and many of them, especially the ones on television, are always approached and even treated like some sort of celebrity. It has its pluses and minuses.
All this wind up about fans and celebrities to tell you about my new venture: my Facebook “fan” page. Just saying “fan page” brings unease. And yet, that’s what Facebook calls them. That’s what they’re known as. That’s what some of my far more famous journalist friends, who are indeed celebrities, have. No, not trying to keep up with them. Hardly. But since starting this journey I have acquired quite a bit of following around the world. And most of those individuals are on Facebook and are not my Facebook friends, given my new criteria to be added as my friend on Facebook. Recall My So-Called Facebook Friends?
For those who don’t know. I have a private Mike Tends To Travel Group on Facebook. The members – 192 of them at last count – are Facebook friends who are genuinely interested in my travels. I post a lot of stuff there that’s hidden from my larger group of Facebook friends. You join that group by invitation only. But this new fan page – coupled with this blog – allows all the millions of people on Facebook to join this journey, even if we’re not friends on Facebook. It gives me greater exposure, which again is a bit unsettling. But here we are in the age of social media.
So, go to my fan page and LIKE it! Click MIKE TENDS TO TRAVEL to do that. I promise, I will not behave like a celebrity, and will never treat you like a fan 🙂