The day I met Leonardo DiCaprio, I was on a shoot for a Rice Krispies commercial. The director faced me as I sat on some steps in front of some LA high rise.
It was the tenth or eleventh take, and I already knew, with a pit in my stomach, that I was not pleasing him.
The set for a commercial is elaborate for such a tiny final product. Besides the director there were lighting, camera, and sound guys; ten adults all watching me choke.
Behind them, the catering table was particularly good that day; cold cuts, rolls, fruit and vegetables, juices and other snacks all laid out on a six-foot table back behind the lights and the crew.
And behind that table were the others on set: the makeup trailer and the wardrobe trailer, the RV with my homework and a tutor for all of the school-age talent, the other kids and their parents.
I was thirteen, but my resume said twelve; with my baby face, I could pass. The younger you were, the easier it was to get jobs. There’s a black hole in commercials—those awkward years from thirteen to eighteen, it’s hard to get work.
For me, that time was now.
I had one line, answering the talking cereal.
“Bobby Michaels is going to call me?” I was supposed to say, delighted.
Only the delight wasn’t good enough. The more takes we did, the more patient and stoic the director got, and the more I panicked. I was supposed to produce the proper emotion, the inflection in words, for one stupid sentence.
Really? I couldn’t say one sentence?
I’d nailed it in the audition, which is why I was there. For every twenty auditions I went to, I maybe got one job; and a national commercial was a big deal. When we’d found out I’d landed the Kellogg’s commercial, my mom hugged me and told me lots of stars of TV shows had started with Kellogg’s ads, which gave me the same swooping feeling in my stomach that I got when I went on a roller coaster.
Now, facing the camera, twenty adults looking at me, the passersby glancing curiously at my barely-there makeup and too-new clothes, I felt like I was drowning.
Finally, the director smiled at me. It was a smile of pity. “That’s a wrap,” he said. He came over and patted me kindly on the shoulder. “I think you’re done for the day, but go hang out for a while so we can make sure.”
I nodded, my head down. He and I both knew they wouldn’t use any of the takes. When the commercial aired, a girl with curly brown hair would say the line I’d thought I’d won the rights to.
I trudged to the line of RVs parked along the street. My schoolwork was stashed in one of them, and I could snack and do my homework while I waited to go home.
The tutor greeted me, gestured at my stuff by the table. I headed through the narrow aisle and was surprised to see a boy already sitting there.
He looked older than me by a few years. He had blond hair and oddly cat-like eyes. He was cute, intimidatingly so.
He glanced up from his schoolwork.
“Hey,” I said. “I’m Heather.” My heart thudded. A boy.
“Leonardo,” he said, and looked back down, clearly uninterested in talking.
I claimed the tiniest slice of the table I could, wondering if he’d get friendlier, but a few minutes later, someone called him out to shoot something, and I sighed. There was no way he’d be into me, anyway.
Not long afterwards, the director sent word that I was done for the day, and my dad and I drove back to San Diego, stuck on the 405 in rush hour traffic for hours.
I watched the cars going nowhere and thought about how I’d lost my big break. How I couldn’t hack it, how I had botched something so incredibly simple.
I simply wasn’t up for the challenge.
Not too many years later, I saw Leonardo again, this time on Growing Pains. He’d gotten a sitcom like I might have. A few years after that, I sat and watched him in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, my heart in my mouth.
He knew just exactly what he was doing. He faced those cameras like they were flies on the wall and became whoever the director asked him to be.
I felt proud, somehow, as if his tremendous skill and luck could rub off on me, but I also felt shame. By then, my talent agent had dropped me, and I no longer went out on auditions.
I was done. I hadn’t been able to cut it. That knowledge hurt like a serrated knife.
As a kid, I thought success moved upward in a straight line. Like going up a step-ladder, you did progressively bigger and better things, and impressed people more and more, until finally you had your own TV show or movie. I thought each step in the ladder would make me feel more powerful, more secure. I assumed I could handle it.
Instead, the higher I climbed, the shakier I felt, and the less people seemed to want me.
That is a very convoluted way to tell you I have a weird relationship with success.
Last year, I had two big coups, writing-wise. Each made me feel the same loop-de-loop exhilaration as after getting that Rice Krispies commercial: this sense that Big Things were just over the horizon if I played my cards right.
Don’t get me wrong–each was an honor, and tremendously wonderful.
And both also made me very, very nervous.
Success has not been that successful for me. I do better when I am grounded in smallness. I tend to hyperventilate when Important People expect something.
As a child, I thought success was an end in and of itself. I didn’t know I needed to question why I wanted it, or what, exactly, it would do for me. I didn’t know it could kick you in the stomach just as easily as it could lift you up on people’s shoulders. I did not know that it is not necessarily a friend.
Honestly, sometimes I wonder why I would do that to myself again.
As best as I can tell, I want to write and publish books because it is a calling. I write to pray and think and live, and not sharing that prayer and thinking and living feels like hiding my lamp under a basket. It feels wrong.
Writing feels like a command.
But I am afraid of losing myself again. I don’t know if I’m strong enough to say simple sentences correctly without humiliating myself. I am terrified of getting a contract, or a book deal, or an agent, and suddenly finding that I cannot deliver on what I promised.
I am trying to grow a thicker skin, and to remember how much joy and peace writing gives me in and of itself. I am remembering that I would happily keep writing every day even if the amount of “success” I have now is all I get. I am trying to remember that God can grow me and mature me to handle new–and old–situations.
I am trying to remember I am beloved, no matter how well I perform. I am trying to remember that absolutely everything can lead to Jesus. That everything is prayer if done with open hands.
Writing. Publishing. Marketing. Failure.
And even, incredibly, success.
(And if you’re curious, here’s the commercial I wasn’t in. Ask me sometime about the really bad Kenny Rogers music video).
Image credit: RK Production