Into The Mouth of the Wolf

This is the fourth part of an almost true autobiography about labor — physical and mental, for joy and for money. This tale will be published in a series of installments over the coming months.

IV

I needed more money so when I found a flyer on the bathroom floor advertising casting calls for The Tudors I picked it up and put it in my pocket and went to the audition the next morning.

I stood in the rain for two hours and when I got to the front of the line a boy in a black turtleneck took my picture and wrote down my name and led me out of the room and I thought I’d never hear from him again but that night he called and told me that I was going to be a knight in King Henry’s army and by the end of the week I was standing in a soggy field in County Wicklow hanging peasants from an oak tree.

When I told the manager of The Judea that I’d been cast in a TV series and needed to take time off for filming I expected reluctant approval but instead Stefano was thrilled to learn there was an actor working beneath him.

Fantastique — you know, it is the opportunity of the lifetime,” he declared, “if I had the courage I would go with you.” He told me I was different from the others. There was, of course, no expression in English that could describe it adequately but every famous actor had a certain élan, a qualité sensuelle, and he saw that I had it too and he told me that men would want to know me and he predicted that if I used my talents correctly I would be admired by the people of my home country within five years. I did nothing to disabuse him of these fantastic ideas.

The next day I went to the place near the Ha’penny Bridge where the actors gathered before dawn. It was raining and we waited for the buses under Merchant’s Arch, fifty or sixty of us crowded into the dark alley with smoky breaths and sad watery eyes. It took an hour to reach the mountains and from there the road turned to gravel and twisted through spruce forests and heaths alive with gorse and heather and granite palisades heaped in piles like the pillars of fallen temples.

The first scene was a hanging scene and when the director yelled “action!” it was my job to kick the scaffolding out from under the feet of two heretical peasants. When the bodies dropped the wives and mothers and sisters rushed the barricade to get hold of the corpses and that was our signal to seize the women and toss them into the mud. It took a while to get used to my character but after standing in a field for hours, my face greased with dirt and the blood of peasants on my knuckles, I began to enjoy saving the country from godlessness.

We performed the hanging scene many times but the director was unhappy with every take.

“Guys,” he said, ripping off his headphones, “You’re here to work but you’re not working.” He paused and ran his fingers through his gray, rain damped hair. As he considered the best way to inspire us I saw a harassed expression cross his face, like a frustrated rodeo clown that cannot make the bulls or the horses dance the way he wants them to dance.

“When a builder lays down a road do you know how you know it’s a good road? It’s when you forget it’s under your feet that you know it’s good. I want you to be so good that I forget you’re here and you turn invisible, understood?”

The knights and the peasants nodded woodenly and though they understood the director his words failed to resonate. Most of them were serious actors and they had only taken work as extras in the hope of catching the eye of a producer. Invisibility was the exact opposite of the state they aspired to.

After two more takes we were dismissed for lunch.

We took off our breastplates and sat on our helmets and ate roast chicken and baked potatoes off cardboard plates and looked across the fields to where the peasants were lounging in the grass. Every morning the crew applied soot and grime to their faces and dressed them in rags and when their costumes were complete the peasants were treated as racial inferiors by everyone on set and the we did not want mingle with them. Strange thoughts about the peasants crossed my mind. It was only after I boarded the bus back to Dublin and remembered they were not true peasants and I was not in the King’s army and that their persecution was meted out by screenwriters and not the will of god that I could look at them again without prejudice.

There was one knight who did not join the rest of us for lunch. He sat alone under the shade of a smooth boulder at the wood’s edge and scrawled notes in a leather journal with a short flat bottom pencil like the kind you write your order on at a deli. He was always working and I never saw him eat or speak or socialize. During the long breaks he walked off set and disappeared into the hills for hours, returning only when the next round of filming was about to begin. Someone said that he was an up and coming screenwriter and that his short works had been published in German periodicals and he had collaborated with one of Britain’s most famous illustrators on a children’s book. The knights admired him, he was their champion, the hustle incarnate, and they wanted to know him and learn his ways.

After lunch we got the hanging scene right on the first take and the director marshaled the knights and marched us across a field of purple heather. We passed a hunting lodge with crenellated towers and smoking chimneys and from the stables we caught the sweet smell of horses and fine riding leather and these things smelled good and filled you with a longing for lost times and things that are gone forever. When at last the Wicklow Mountains came into view I was surprised at how very small and smooth and worn they were. The land was old and the country was old and wherever you looked there was a ruin or a grave and the wind on the heath chilled you to the bone and stirred the fog and it was easy to understand why people said this country was haunted.

“Only two hours until overtime,” one of the knights observed as the regiment spread across the ridge of a hill in the silence of late afternoon. The thought of earning double pay for several hours made me so happy that I barely felt the cold or noticed the first drops of rain.

The director halted the knights on a path that led across a stone bridge. On the other side there was a green screen forty feet square and trebuchets with cameras hooked to their slings and stadium lights on scaffolds and humming generators and men yelling at other men from megaphones. The director told us that this was the most expensive scene in the episode and probably the whole season and the future of the series depended on its success and we were very lucky to be the invisible element of such a scene.

This was a turning point in the history of England. The Duke of Suffolk was to parley with the rebel leader halfway across the stone bridge but the negotiations would fail and the men would ride away in anger and a major battle would be fought and a slaughter would ensue and the Anglican creed would prevail and the King’s ministers would fan out across the land collecting lucrative tithes and the rise of Empire was just a century away.

Neither the Duke nor his peasant counterpart wanted to wait on the bridge in the rain while the crew set up around them. The director announced that two knights would stand in their places instead.

A hush came over the regiment when they realized what this meant. Here was a golden opportunity to get in front of the cameras and shake hands with the lead actors and hear their own names uttered from the lips of the director himself. The knights straightened up and beamed with earnestness and their faces were marked with a desperate kind of hope, like prisoners vying for a stay of execution.

Their excitement turned to incredulity when the bungling production crew chose the only two knights from several dozen who had no interest in acting careers: the screenwriter and I.

“Do you think they’ll get lines?” I heard someone whisper as I approached the bridge.

“Does it matter? That guy isn’t even an actor.”

The person who’d identified me as “not even an actor” was an Italian named Federico who once spent five years in Los Angeles trying to sell a script he’d co-written about the Cosa Nostra. He’d told us that once he saw George Clooney eating a ham sandwich at a car wash and he approached him with a copy of the script he kept in his trunk. “He took the script,” Federico had told us with pride, “he shook my hand and when he reads my script he will call tomorrow,” he said, making his hand into the shape of the phone that Clooney would call him on one day.

The knights watched as we stood before the wheeling cameras, the boom mics shook above our heads like spears and the director carefully adjusted our positions and addressed us with gravity as if we were truly the leading actors and not mere stand-ins. After twenty minutes Henry Cavil, who played the Duke, appeared in chain mail with a sword swinging from his side and a heavy shield in his arm and he sauntered to the gravel bridge where I was standing and put his arm on my shoulder and graciously thanked me for my service.

For just a moment, we had stepped into the dream. But a moment only was all it took to provoke the lasting resentment of the actor-knights. Federico couldn’t bear to look at either of us when we returned. We’d stolen something from him and his brothers and the vision of the Duke’s bejeweled hand resting familiarly on my shoulders made a part of him die. His outrage did not surprise me. I already knew that men feel diminished by the good fortune of others and that human nature is the enemy of anything that stands in the way of getting what it wants.

“He met the director and now he is a big shot,” Federico said, pointing to the screenwriter. “But still, he is no one.”

“Do you know what the difference is between you and him?” I asked Federico.

Federico said he would like to know and the other knights turned and crowded in to hear what I had to say. It was raining hard now and we were crowded under an oak tree for cover. “He doesn’t talk about his dreams all day long like the rest of you. Do you know why?” Federico did not answer but I continued. “Because talking about failure does not elevate you above mediocrity and hitching your dreams to the common dream will not save you from obscurity. I know it and he knows it too and that is why we do not waste our time talking to people like you.”

There were murmurs of disapprobation and Federico was on the verge of making a rebuttal when the director announced that filming was over for the day on account of the heavy rain. After this disappointing news nobody had time for their dreams anymore because we all shared a very specific financial reality and it had just been altered materially.

“We missed it,” Federico said, “by just fifteen minutes”

The knights were quiet. All I could think about was the missed overtime and the double-pay and how it would have brought my wages up to thirty an hour and I could see they were thinking the same thing but nobody wanted to voice the gloom because we were artists and weren’t we supposed to be above money?

The next day I was out of the house before dawn, waiting at the Ha’Penny Bridge for the bus. I watched the extras turn up, one by one, first the knights and then the peasants and nobody talked and nobody smiled they stood together quietly and very serious and competitive and still angry at the rain and every one of them harboring some scheme to get in front of the cameras and shake off invisibility forever.

I was bored by it and the thought of spending another day carrying a pike through a field and burning churches and listening to nuanced theories about securing dialogue drained me. I could hear the horns and whistles of steamboats on the Liffey. It had been a long time since I had a whole day or even a whole hour to myself and those horns sounded like calls of freedom. When the bus pulled up I did not get on it.

I knew they would give me a free coffee at The Judea so I walked under Merchants Arch and on to Dame Street and headed east towards College Green.

“Hey, look Clark Gable!” Alle said when I came in. I did not want to stay so I pretended that I was on my way to the film set and had only come to pick up my coffee. “Ah, too famous to talk, eh?”

I told him I did not have the right qualifications for fame but he just shook his head and insisted that I had a certain qualità straniera which was neither good nor bad, it only marked one out for a strange life. He gave me an Americano and when I walked out of the café he shouted after me: “Into the mouth of the wolf, eh, right?”

In Georges Arcade Market the merchants were unlocking their stalls and unpacking boxes of second hand books and palettes of vinyl records and vintage clothes and the air was heavy with the smell of ground coffee and fresh baked bread. I went into a café with a red door and sat at a large window and watched people hurrying to work on Great Georges Street.

Fog rushed the streets in swells of purple and green and the slick cobblestones gleamed like amethyst and when the sun came up the windows of the storefronts turned orange and the granite sparkled. On days like that it felt like the city was yours and the world was yours and you could live forever in the memory of just one morning if only you could capture it the way it was, the smell and the half-light and the taste of your coffee.