The world of movie-making magic continues to fascinate us. So, imagine the pull it has on an actor. How does one behave in the face of tragedy? Are judgments what they should be? Does it make us throw off our fears? Drop warning signs? Who can resist when the director yells “action”? What do you do when he says “cut”?
"[A] chilling debut novel." -- The New York Times Book Review
A young woman agrees to star in a filmmaker's latest project, but soon realizes the movie is not what she expected in this chilling debut novel.
In the wake of her father's death, Betty Roux doesn't allow herself to mourn. Instead, she pushes away her mother, breaks up with her boyfriend, and leaves everything behind to move to New York City. She doesn't know what she wants, except to run.
When she's offered the chance to play the leading role in mysterious indie filmmaker Anthony Marino's new project, she jumps at the opportunity. For a month Betty will live in a cabin on a private island off the coast of Maine, with a five-person cast and crew. Her mother warns against it, but Betty is too drawn to the charismatic Anthony to say no.
Anthony gives her a new identity--Lola--and Betty tells herself that this is exactly what she's been looking for. The chance to reinvent herself. That is, until they begin filming and she meets Sammy, the island's caretaker, and Betty realizes just how little she knows about the movie and its director.
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Since landing in New York and crashing on the small, lumpy sofa in Ben and Sof“a's apartment, I've heard Anthony Marino's name a thousand times. Apparently, there isn't much this guy can't do. Or at least that's how Ben sees it. If Anthony was here. That's a refrain I've heard so often I've begun to wonder how a person can even exist without him. But that's all he's been to me, a name. Anthony Marino. The star of a million unlikely stories. A mythical hero. Sof“a has promised me that Ben can secure me an audition with him. But after a month, I still haven't met him. And I'm starting to lose faith. I'm starting to think it's a mistake to count on this meeting, to believe that somehow the great Anthony Marino can help me.
Ever since my father died, I've been drowning. Or close to it. Like that moment when you're in the pool, underwater, holding your breath, and you cross that invisible threshold and suddenly your heart is racing and you realize your chest is about to explode. You don't stop to reflect, you don't have time. You simply break for the surface. Except I haven't been able to reach it, no matter how hard I kick. Nothing has helped. Not breaking up with Tucker, not escaping to New York. Nothing. And it's hard to feel like yourself when you can't breathe. It's hard to think when you're desperate.
Then, without warning, at a dive bar in Greenpoint, where Ben has dragged Sof“a and me to watch his musician friends perform for what feels like no one but us three, there he is. Anthony Marino. He appears over Ben's shoulder, looks at me, and asks, "What are you doing with these two clowns?" And like that, the name becomes a man.
Whether he knew to expect him or not, Ben seems just as unprepared as I am. I get the feeling he never imagined Anthony would accept his invitation. Ben claps him on the back and says something I can't quite hear over the music, while fighting to catch my eye at the same time, unable to suppress a burst of pride. Sof“a gives the tall man an awkward shove that somehow feels rehearsed. "Don't be such an asshole," she tells him, barking out a forced laugh. Turning to me, she explains, "We told him all about you. So now he's too shy to introduce himself. Anthony Marino," she says, "meet Elizabeth Roux."
That's how it starts.
And then we're outside, alone together, and I lose track of time.
Not just because of this man's presence. Because I can't focus on anything except the air. It stinks like rotten milk and warm metal. Sof“a tells me this is the real smell of New York, only unveiled at the height of summer, like the fumes everyone's been choking on the rest of the year have been as fragrant as perfume. But I'm taking deep, dizzying lungfuls of it anyway. Anthony Marino hasn't done anything except ask me two inconsequential questions since introducing himself-"So, you're Elizabeth, then?" and "Join me outside?"-but already it's starting to feel like somehow this will work. Like somehow I might be able to breathe again.
I told Ben and Sof“a the reason I left home was to become an actress, and they accepted this explanation without question. Sof“a knows the real reason why I'm here, though. She's just too polite to mention it. She and I were best friends in high school. She knows my family. She knows what happened. Instead of saying the obvious-Your father killed himself and you ran. You ran as far away as possible, without looking back. You found me in a brief moment of clarity, and now you're clinging to me like a lifeline-she let me lie.
And then she told me about Anthony Marino, as though I had never heard of him before. The director, writer, and star of Reverence, who happens to be Ben's personal savior. They knew each other at NYU. And Ben worked sound on Reverence, Anthony's first and so far only film, and this apparently changed Ben's whole life. He didn't earn much from it, except a reputation, but it's been three years and he still doesn't need a day job. Now Anthony's set to start filming something else, his second-the next big thing, I guess-and Ben can't contain his excitement. From what I gather, this one is going to be even better than the first. If that's even possible.
What Sof“a told me next still doesn't feel quite real. I know objectively that this all has happened, but it's too perfect for it to be happening to me. He's looking for an actress, she said.
He could have anyone, Ben told me with a groan. Anyone. But he's so picky, and we can't start filming until he chooses someone.
What's he looking for? I asked. I mean, who does he want?
Hopefully, Sof“a said, you.
So maybe I'm light-headed because this is a dream. Maybe the stink of the city doesn't have that much to do with it. Maybe it's because I'm standing out here with this man who can turn my lie into a truth. Like water into wine. And there is something compelling about him. Something mesmerizing. How relaxed he is. As I followed him through the dark bar, out onto the street, I couldn't help but watch how he moved. The slow, loose gait. Ben and Sof“a suddenly seem like mannequins compared to him. They act like they've figured out something no one else our age has yet-blissful, comfortable love-but they're uncertain. Their smiles are bolted on. They worry about everything, like it might all be taken away from them, everything they have, at any moment. And I'm no different. I've stopped glancing into shopwindows. I've caught my reflection too many times and had the disconcerting jolt of not instantly recognizing myself. Anthony, though, is languid. He seems entirely at ease, not just with the world around him, but with himself.
But he doesn't seem to know much about me, despite Sof“a's reassurances, or maybe he just doesn't care. When I say, "I hate Elizabeth. Call me Betty," all he says is "Oh." His eyes glitter blue and yellow in the glare of the streetlights, and I wait, unsure of what pose to strike.
"Let's get out of here," he says, stuffing his hands into his pockets. The gesture emphasizes his height, the square breadth of his shoulders. I'm tall, but he towers over me.
"What?" I raise my voice above the shrill siren of a passing ambulance, not because I didn't hear him but because I'm not sure what he wants from me. I imagined we were going outside to talk for a few minutes, or whatever, and now suddenly we're about to abandon Ben and Sof“a.
"Yeah," he says, as though that answers my question. "Are you hungry?"
I shrug helplessly. Sof“a swore she and Ben would secure me an audition, but it feels like I'm agreeing to go on a date with him instead.
Not that I mind, exactly. Maybe it's better this way, how informal this is. Let him get to know me. I've never been good at first impressions. And to be honest, I'm actually more relieved than upset with this turn of events, because now that this is happening, I realize how unprepared I am. I haven't practiced anything. Not enough anyway. I don't know a complete monologue yet. That's what I've heard you're supposed to do in an audition, deliver a monologue you've memorized, but not like something you're reading, something you're just saying. I had decided to use the final lines of the film Brooklyn, something about being lost in a foreign city full of strangers, wondering what brought you there, what you thought you were looking for, then one day waking up, opening your eyes, and realizing this strange place has become your home. That passage always makes me cry. But it wouldn't be anything impressive if I had to try to recite it now.
With a satisfied nod, Anthony steps around me. "I'll just dip inside to say our goodbyes," he tells me over his shoulder. He disappears before I can object, though I don't know what I would say. Maybe something like Don't speak for me. But he's gone.
Our goodbyes. I turn the words over in my mind, smoothing them like a stone in my palm. We don't know each other, and he's already co-opted the night from me. Well, Betty, what does it matter? I'd like to see where this goes.
And I would like to act in his film, even if it does feel like a fantasy when I say it. I haven't exactly tried acting before-I don't count the sixth-grade production of Macbeth because I only had one scene and about three lines, which I screwed up completely when the time came-but I know I can do it, because I'm always doing it. Acting is pretending. I pretend.
Left alone, though, I don't know what to do with myself. I won't look at my phone to pass the time-any messages will only be from my mother. Where are you? What are you doing? Are you okay? So instead I lean against the window of the bar, casually glancing over my shoulder to peer inside. I realize, with a wave of embarrassment, that I've left without paying for my drinks. Yet another debt owed to Ben and Sof“a. Maybe Anthony will cover my tab this time. They've told me how rich his family is. But if he does pay, that's another, more nebulous debt to stress about. What will he expect from me in return?
Through the window, it's easy to find him. He's a head taller than everyone else. His hands bracket Ben's shoulders. In this light, he's Nosferatu perched behind his next victim. The three of them-Anthony, Ben, and Sof“a-seem to be embroiled in conversation, something deep, leaning in close to one another, though maybe this is just because it's so loud in there. When someone I don't recognize-teetering off-balance like he's been given a gentle shove, flashing a glance backward at his pack of friends-approaches Anthony with a tentative touch to his elbow, Anthony takes a few beats, then finally acknowledges him with a nod of his head. After a brief exchange, he poses for a selfie with the stranger, who returns to his friends with a goofy grin while Anthony turns back to Ben and Sof“a. He must say something funny to them, because in unison their heads snap back like they're laughing. For a second, I'm breathless, and I don't know why.
And then it hits me, with a bit of a shock. This is anger. I'm feeling angry, though I'm not immediately certain why. It's burning in the back of my throat, my anger. I'm gagging on it, swallowing it down like a sudden scalding rush of vomit I can't spit out.
I'm a stranger. Maybe that's what it is. They're probably laughing at me, too. At the pathetic girl who sleeps on their couch and eats their food and offers them nothing in return. But I have nowhere else to go. Nothing else to do. I haven't even thought of auditioning anywhere else, and clearly I'm not prepared for an audition now. I've been telling myself I'm still getting my bearings here-I'm sleeping on a sofa, after all-but that's another lie, isn't it? I didn't look for anything because none of this has felt real. The truth is, at the bottom of it all, I haven't tried to find anything permanent because I'm not permanent.
I take a deep breath and let it out slowly. I can't afford to feel this way. The last time I allowed myself to be angry-to be truly, unabashedly angry-I broke up with Tuck and woke up here. I turn away from the bar, in case one of the three looks out the window and sees my face pressed against it like I've been locked outside, forgotten. I have to recover my balance.
For a moment, I struggle to assimilate where I am. Then I tell myself to slow down. Appreciate this. I've come pretty far. I'm in New York City. The streets in Greenpoint are somehow wide and narrow at the same time, and the effect is surprisingly cozy, despite the rat infestation, not to mention the constant screech of sirens. I need to hold on to this moment. I'm actually here, with Anthony Marino. This man has a cult following, that's what they've said. He's only released the one film, Reverence, but he's already a celebrity. I've never been with anyone a stranger would want to take a selfie with before.
When Anthony possessively slips an arm around my waist, I flinch. He asks if I'm ready and, without waiting for an answer, starts down the street, his fingers sliding off my hip. When I catch up to him, he doesn't touch me again. It feels like he's making a point of keeping some space between us. It's better this way, I tell myself. Keep it professional. This isn't a date. But still, I find I miss the warmth of his hand, the span of his fingers unconsciously-or consciously-measuring my waist. They had fit.
With a couple of quick turns, I lose my bearings. I've never been down these streets before. "Where are we going?" I ask, aware of the knee-jerk alarm in my voice, but it's too late to do anything about it now.
Anthony gestures to a restaurant at the end of the block. "Food," he says, drawing the word out, like I'm a hayseed. What did I think? That he was kidnapping me? Then, stopping to look at me under a streetlight, he asks, his voice surprisingly sympathetic, "Is this your first audition?"
So it is an audition. "No," I lie, my cheeks burning. "They've just never been this"-I search for the word, turning away from him-"informal."
"Well, then," he says, like he knows I'm lying but is too kind to call me out, "so you know there's nothing to be afraid of." He curls a hand around my elbow and guides me across the street, barely looking both ways before stepping off the curb onto the asphalt. At the sound of a car accelerating toward us, I pivot, but Anthony only laughs. He doesn't so much as glance at it. "You are new," he says, giving my elbow a reassuring squeeze. We pause outside the doors to the restaurant, and he holds up a small camera. It looks like every other digital camera I've seen, but he's obviously proud of it, so I pretend to admire it. "Like I said, there's nothing to be nervous about. We talk. I push your buttons a bit. And then I take your picture. Okay?"