I Was in a Beer Commercial ... With Gus Van Sant
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because being ready for your close-up is really half the battle.
By Eugene S. Robinson
The irresistible lure of Hollywood, magnificently muscled up with its endless promise of la dolce vita, gets even the best of us.
Or, at the very least, it got me. The year was 1994, and I was coming off a yeoman-like run of appearances on TV detective shows, made-for-TV movies, a heavy dose of industrial commercials and even a bit part in the execrable Bill Cosby vehicle Leonard Part 6. And I did it all via the magic of virtuality from my home in Palo Alto, California. With an 800-number pager (if you remember those), a headshot, an agent and a Los Angeles address, I could create a working presence in LA. If you were willing to gamble a sick day at work and the price of a plane ticket, it could be done. So I did it.
“You’re tattooed right?” The speaker was Myra Berger, my agent, asking the question I was made for.
“Ooohhhhh … yes.”
I received an audition call sheet for a Miller Genuine Draft commercial called “Tattoo.” That’s all I knew. It was probably all I needed to know.
It was like showing up in Vatican City and finding out that your shuttle driver was the pope.
Usually the best part of an audition — other than getting it — is seeing exactly how your agent imagines you. Standing there in a roomful of muscled and tattooed hard guys, I didn’t for a second bemoan my clearly non-leading-man status. I drank deeply and fully of it. There wasn’t a tattooed hipster in sight, nor any tatts that were in the slightest bit ironic — only construction worker tatts, prison tatts, heavy metal tatts, biker tatts, Navy tatts. Like the best bar in town.
We filled out our paperwork and I shouldered through the door with five other guys. All 245 pounds of me. We lined up, affecting some vague air of menace and flexing under rolled T-shirt sleeves. Then I looked up and spotted the kind of intel that kills: behind the camera was film director Gus Van Sant, eyeing us all through the viewfinder. It was like showing up in Vatican City and finding out that your shuttle driver was the pope.
But I quickly calculated that I may have been the only one in the room, other than the assistants and Gus himself, who knew who he was. Which is what we call “an edge.”
“Pretty simple guys,” one of the assistants shouted. “Take your shirts off, state your name and give a little back story on your tattoos.”
Van Sant returned to commercials this year with “breathtaking” spots for BMW.
I couldn’t have been more pleased. Not just because of how much Van Sant’s films Mala Noche and Drugstore Cowboy meant to me (especially the latter, featuring the filmic fantasticness of noted crank, curmudgeon and narcotics fiend William S. Burroughs as the cherry on top), but because of his steadfast focus on fringe characters: hustlers, junkies and thieves. That, combined with his totally non-hysterical take on gay characters, seemed to signify shoe-in for me, whose literary and artistic interests marked me as nothing if not a fellow traveler. If I could just manage to … connect.
But I was No. 4 in line, and being numerologically superstitious of a number that signifies death in Asian cultures, I knew I needed to get on top of it and start fabricating my take. A take that would stand out from the thus far wooden deliveries of names and descriptions of the dragons that were part of dragon tattoos.
“My name is Eugene … Robinson. And the tattoos came to me in substance-fueled dreams and fugue states of fever and active imagination in an eternal battle of good and evil and struggle for a higher order and the advance of my soul.”
Yeah, that might have been kind of thick. Kind of purple. Kind of heavy. The room just paused until the guy next to me, a big boy about 6’1” and close to 300 pounds with a tattoo of a snake on the top of his head, started in and broke the stunned aftermath.
“My name is Nick,” he tilted forward at his very round middle so the camera, Gus and assistants could catch the top of his head and its tattoo. “… Danger.”
Which was my unofficial cue to just lose it. Hollywood is just hysterical. Proof positive is that it’s filled with guys named NICK DANGER with tattoos of snakes on their heads. As I tried to compose myself, I could see Van Sant gesticulating behind the camera. They had swung it back and were filming. Me.
I had a hustle, and now I stood next to an unreadable Van Sant by the food truck, draping a possibly unwelcome arm over his shoulder.
I got the gig. Filming was a two-day party at LA’s great Cafe Fais Do-Do, complete with fights by the honeywagon between some of the bikers (Harleys, not Schwinns) on set, a magical dog trained to grab beers from coolers and Gus Van Sant. Who reminded me, strangely enough, of Montgomery Clift with his weirdly affecting and quizzical pause in conversation, where it felt like he was translating whatever you had told him into whatever language he really spoke.
Two days of the amusing spectacle of some of the bikers trying to work him during break times, unsuccessfully, for future film work. Two days of me trying, unsuccessfully, to think of some way to work him for future film work. And then, a last-minute salvo.
“Hey Gus. I want to give you some music you might like.” I had a band, I had a hustle, and now I stood next to an unreadable Van Sant by the food truck, draping a possibly unwelcome arm over his shoulder. The director had a steady sideline in music videos: for David Bowie, Stone Temple Pilots and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. And I was in a band in bad need of a music video.
I sprinted to the car and grabbed my band Oxbow’s first CD, the sensitively titled Fuckfest. Pressed it into his hand and smiled and smiled. Van Sant, looking neither pleased nor displeased, wandered off away from the still smiling me.
I saw him only once after that, at the premiere of his 1995 Nicole Kidman vehicle, To Die For. We spoke briefly. He remembered me but had forgotten my name, so I was kind enough to remind him.
“Nick … Danger.”