Fear and Loathing in Los Angeles: Six days in spin city

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For any actor Hollywood’s sheer existence is a dare, exerting a near fatal attraction. I’d steadfastly resisted it’s heady allure until, at 40, ancient by Californian standards, curiosity got the better of me. To insulate myself from hard knocks on my first visit and possible ridicule on my return (should that be empty handed) I decided that my visit would be brief (one week), that I’d stay in the best hotels, that I’d have a darn good holiday and that as a goal I’d just keep one question in mind: not, did LA like me, but what did I think of LA?

On the flight from New York I made a mistake only an actor would – of saying ‘thanks darling’ to a flight steward as he showed me my seat. He hit on me, with an admirable but doomed mutton-headedness, for most of the eight hour flight. I donned sunglasses and pretended to be asleep, taking in the superb view of the Grand Canyon and gleaning the smallest inkling of just how gigantic this continent called America really is. Longing looks from my unrequited paramour chased me off the plane, his phone number pressed clammily against my palm as he gripped my hand.

Kate, my photographer for the trip, picked me up from LAX, whisking me off to my salubrious accommodation, the Fairmont Miramar Hotel Santa Monica. After taking some arty shots in my room (involving me making imaginary phone calls to important producers) we headed down to the Santa Monica pier. Kate, Australian by birth but thoroughly international by inclination, snapped me gingerly jogging along the beach. I was mindful of used syringes but she assured me they might pop up at Bondi beach but never here.

We got a better view of the picturesque beach and some of the hardy souls braving it’s polluted waters from the Ferris wheel on the pier. We then drove to AXE´ (pronounced Ah-shay) for dinner, a low-key Venice celeb hang-out and first class eating establishment that – incredibly – didn’t break the bank. I discovered the interesting anomaly that in LA restaurants they call mains ‘entrees,’ and entrees ‘appetizer’s.’ If you draw attention to this the waiter think you are insane. Keeping sane turned out to be a theme of the trip.

I sat back and sipped a tasty local Pinot while Kate gave me the low-down on the LA film scene. She warned me that this was a ‘yes’ town: no-one would ever say ‘no’ to my face. Instead they would lavish you with praise even if they loathed you, disappearing effortlessly like a World War Two German surface raider behind a smoke-screen of PA’s who would forever take messages which would never be returned. Why? They don’t know what they are doing, so every meeting in LA becomes a successful meeting: no one wants to be the manager who blew off the next Heath Ledger. The number of people actually doing or making anything was tiny. Most were putting their energy into chasing the next big actor, script or film. Madder than calling a main meal an entrée.

Undaunted, the next day I toddled off to meet the first of several prospective managers I’d strong-armed into meeting me. He’d just signed young Kiwi talent Anna Hutchinson, so HE wasn’t stupid. He even knew where New Zealand was, perhaps because he also represented Ozzie John Polson, the founder of the legendary Sydney Tropfest.

Steve’s address on Colorado Boulevard looked a hop skip and a jump away from my hotel on my tourist map, so I decided to walk. DISASTER. My map didn’t include the eight side streets running between each boulevard, and the ‘stroll’ took 90 minutes. The baking streets were packed with cars, but I encountered only three pedestrians. Desperate for directions I ignored the first, who was talking loudly to himself (definitely nuts I figured, but no, actually he was taking a phone call on his hands free…) The second I approached directly and was utterly ignored – he was tuned in to his IPOD. The third lay right outside Steve’s office suite: a barefoot and filthy homeless man who looked so near death I had to stop and volunteer him a ten dollar bill. His reply was quintessentially American in its stubborn self-reliance: through broken teeth he politely refused my money. Collateral human damage in the pursuit of happiness, he was not the first kink in the American dream I witnessed in LA.

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It was a Jewish holiday, and Steve Caserta cut a lonely figure, seemingly the sole gentile in the employ of this talent management company. Our conversation was upbeat. He’d not only received but even watched my show-reel. I left elated. His signing me clearly remained but a formality.

I called him about ten times before I left town, but each time, by some amazing bad luck, he was unable to take my call. I cleared a courteous message from him on my last day: he regretted that he could not take me on at this time… ah Kate, I should have taken heed.

It turned out that I was to get very sick in LA (from a Strep infection I caught in Ireland) so by the time I heard the news from Steve I couldn’t have cared less. I was barfing into a bowl at the Wiltshire Grand surrounded by solicitous hotel officials. They were concerned I’m sure about the legal ramifications of me dying on the premises, but there was more to their civility than just this. By then I’d learnt that Americans, and perhaps especially Californians, really are nice people. They have a genuine old world kind of courtesy in their manners.

For myself, a child of the Kiwi welfare state, this makes the American tolerance of poverty in their society the more incomprehensible. Because alongside the ethos of old world charm easily sits another ethic: the self-made man. You can make it on your own merits and if you fail, well, that’s just your fault.

What did I care? I was holed up entertaining in the nicest hotel suite in LA. It was all affordable so long as I stuck to my hand made peanut butter sandwiches and avoided pillaging the mini-bar. Hayley was in town for a week promoting a low budget film she had starred in, ‘Hidden’. Thanks to a combination of astute use of public transport, back-packer accommodation and shameless bludging she was living off just US$50 PER DAY in LA – about the price of the diet coke I’d recklessly bought her poolside. Then Actor – now up and coming Film director – James Napier turned up lugging a two gallon water cooler to combat dehydration. He’d been resident in Santa Monica for six months, and put down his continued sanity to surrounding himself with a few good people and sticking with them.

Next day Kate and I teamed up again to do the tourist thing. We visited The Getty Museum, Schindler house and the Disney Centre. Schindler’s abode in West Hollywood hosted a stunning Isaac Julien photo exhibition but the house itself failed to amaze. It was charming but looked like it had been thrown together from a pile of old wooden packing crates; no good for a clumsy Kiwi: I was scared of putting an elbow through a wall. The Getty, perched in the hills above the city, was part art store house, secular monastery and Zen garden. It was Kate’s favourite spot in LA, and she contended that its real glory was the building itself, not the exhibits. She was right. The architecture of the building regularly framed each slice of urban landscape perfectly.

LA had started to feel a bit like Auckland: sprawling and car-obsessed but, surprisingly, more laid back. The super-sizing of body mass is supposedly endemic, but I didn’t notice more obesity than you would in, say, any Auckland street. Maybe all the weight challenged were propping up their sofas dialling up infomercial weight loss programs. The average Los Angelean appeared tanned, slim and – frankly – rather gorgeous.

They should be fatter. Everyone drives everywhere. I’d recommend a talking GPS unit for anyone planning to hire a car here, given that the place is flat and featureless. Unlike Manhattan, where the prevailing breeze keeps the air clear, LA car fumes tend to collect in the basin locked in by the Hollywood hills. You can forget the place is built on a desert: the air is dry, rehydration essential. The streets are grid-locked by day and almost deserted by night. LA is so big and it’s so time-consuming to get anywhere that much of the social life occurs in peoples’ houses. The city is less a group of communities than a collection of self-sustaining cliques.

For this reason it’s a town that can feel hard to break into – yet one that exerts a certain allure. As Orson Welles famously said: ‘I sat down in an armchair in Los Angeles when I was 23, and when I got up I was 61.’ Tinsel town promotes itself as the land of dreams and so attracts more than its fair share of the naïve and the potty – as well as the truly talented. The tricky part is telling the difference. As Lucy Lawless (of Xena fame) puts it, if your bullshit detector is set to 10 you’ll be alright.

LA’s contradictions were highlighted for me by a trip Kate and myself made to the Music Centre in downtown LA to see a revival of the Broadway 1930’s hit – Dead End Kids. The Music centre takes in venues for dance, theatre and opera and the extraordinary Disney Concert Hall – its conception and construction in itself a study in the insidious relationship of artist and patron. Across the road is the newish Cathedral of Our Lady of The Angels, testament to the virility of religious belief in America. We dined at the Pinot Grill in the MusicCenterPlaza, a fabulous choice. The perpetual summer here can drive some East coasters potty, but it does allow el fresco open air eating all year round.

‘Dead End Kids’ was a play that in it’s day – the 1930’s – shocked the White House into slum housing reforms. But as a period piece about the bad old days, of wrongs since put right, this revival served not to challenge it’s well heeled audience, but to reassure it. Many a tear was shed, reminding me of Cicely Berry’s comment (voice coach of the RSC) that ‘sentimentality is the prerogative of the rich.’ The power of the original piece was diluted by time and a slick production into a dangerous complacency: I doubt that anyone left that theatre angry – or even thoughtful.

Yet they had plenty to be thoughtful about. Hopeful buskers and well-mannered beggars had collected on Grand Avenue to meet the departing theatre crowd. A throng 100 strong of uniformed theatre workers crossed First Street from the Disney Concert Hall on their way home. As they picked their way between the stretch Humvee limo’s, Kate observed that there was not white face in their group. There was barely one non-white face in ours. 20 minutes walk from this intersection is a suburb called Biltmore. I drove through it the next day and found an inner city slum where the homeless pitch tents, rows and rows of them, on the sidewalk. It was a scene out of ‘The Constant Gardener.’ But this wasn’t Africa, but a suburb in one of the richest cities on earth. It was an American philosopher, Joseph Campbell, who said: ‘participate joyfully amidst the sorrows of the world,’ a saying raised to an art form (forget cinema!) in this town.

My sojourn to LA had been for most part at the Pacific Ocean end of it – Santa Monica and VeniceBeach. Hard, when you’ve been brought up by the ocean, to avoid it. So it was appropriate that my stay ended at the pleasant Farmer’s market in Santa Monica, and that I should run into an old actor buddy from Sydney there: Tank. Virtually ignored in his home country he’d upped stakes and headed for Tinsel town. With no film credits and no show-reel he had, at customs, nothing but a three month tourist visa and his talent to declare. And now, 12 months later, he was acting in a regular role in a TV series.

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We lunched at the Urth Café – healthy food, a 3rd world friendly ethos and a non-smoking policy, even on the balcony, where I had wanted to light up a cigar in Tank’s honour. Instead we toasted our Ice decaff Americano’s. It had started to rain, an event which the locals, sprinting for their cars, were unprepared for: not an umbrella in sight. Tank contrasted his innate self-confidence with tales of knock-backs and self-doubt. He had become a little Hollywood himself, spinning and exaggerating what was already, unadorned, an impressive story of success. He flirted with Kate unashamedly, even though he knew she had a partner. He admitted how tired he was. With much back-slapping and swapping of emails we parted. I admit I haven’t been in touch.

I had one week in LA, and in no sense was this enough. We all know the tired clichés of Californian superficiality, of beaches, banality and botox – they are exported to us daily on our TV screens. But the town is vastly more complex and interesting than this. I flew back because I’d been cast in Jonathan King’s Black Sheep, playing a sheep shagging farmer turned dodgy geneticist. OK, so it’s not ‘Gone with the Wind.’ But hey, it’s a living!

I’ll end with yet another cliché, one from the mouth of one time US State Governor – I’ll be back…

Fact-file

Big fat tip: Visit www.seemyla.com and down-load or receive free their excellent visitor guide – it’ll help you plan your trip. Wish I’d done it.

Places to see

  • For a city with a reputation as a concrete jungle there’s some incredible architecture, from the GettyCenter and Villa (admission free), to the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels and the CapitolRecordsTower. They are very proud of the Disney Concert Hall, although it looks to me like the Aotea Centre wrapped in tin-foil. Judge for yourself.

Where to stay

  • The FairmontMiramar Hotel Santa Monica, 101 Wiltshire Blvd. Hmmm… we liked this very much. Has the luxury thing going (marble baths, pool, all rooms techno wired) but a casual beachy feel as well, with lotsa surprises – like the turtle pond! Average room price a snip at US$330 per night.

Things to do

  • Farmers Market, Santa Monica. Nothing spectacular, just a reasonably priced slice of normality. Cheap fruit and veges, pony rides, nice jewellery, and close to the beach and several nice eateries (like the Urth Café).
  • The Theatre: all the Broadway offers are on at the Music Centre in downtown LA, but for theatre that entertains AND makes you think, you can’t go past the Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice. It’s won more awards than any other company in LA. Time travel masquerading as theatre.

Where to eat:

  • AXE, 1009 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice. Rustic, loft-like, with often just six menu items on offer. Unpretentious but classy, you can celeb spot if you’re feeling desperate. Just a short stumble to a very nice local bar. I forget the address, but if you drink a bottle of wine with dinner your legs will know the way.

First published in abridged form in the NZ Herald, 2008