Always Know Who Will Play You in a Movie
One of my primary takeaways from the six weeks I worked at a café was “always have a favorite menu item.” It didn’t matter whether it was your desert-island meal or even something you liked that much, because customers would ask you and you needed to have a response ready.
I’ve since learned that this applies to many other subjects. Have a favorite color so you can set up security questions at your bank. Have a favorite TV show so you can talk to strangers about it at parties. Have an actress who would play you in the movie of your life.
In 2013, I was twenty-four and started working as a temporary staff member on a couple of projects within in a university office. My coworkers were welcoming and friendly. For the most part I was about ten to fifteen years younger than the staff and fifteen to thirty years younger than the various deans. I wanted to be part of the social ecosystem of the office, where a group walked downtown for lunch on Fridays and the IT guys took occasional afternoon breaks for frozen custard.
Though I had worked full-time in an office before, my previous workplace hadn’t been an especially social environment. One afternoon, there had been a screaming match over who kept sending large documents to the shared printer. I kept my head down and tried not to get noticed.
In this office, though, I desperately wanted to fit in. My coworkers were all people I wanted to know better. They were smart, accomplished, and extremely funny. They had interesting jobs and thoughtful opinions on challenges facing higher education. Frankly, I wanted to be most of them.
I had also moved to Chicago a few months earlier and only had a handful of local friends. I felt like if my new coworkers liked me, then it would prove that I could find my own social circle in my new city. In addition, the temp position could grow into something bigger. It could be the basis of a career and I wanted to make a good impression on my new colleagues. What if I needed to network with them one day (whatever the hell that meant)?
However, between being a temporary addition to the office and being pretty shy, I wasn’t sure how to become everyone’s new best friend. How did adults make friends after college? It was definitely inappropriate to suggest they come over to watch Alias all night, right? That had worked so well for me freshman year.
After three months on the job, I moved onto a full-time project and got a desk behind the main reception area. From where I sat, I could hear all the conversations that faculty and staff had with the program assistant, Courtney, at the main desk. She was a couple years older than me and brilliantly funny. We’d chat occasionally when we had a break.
Unless someone spoke to me directly, though, I stared at my computer screen and tried to look like I wasn’t inadvertently eavesdropping. I didn’t want to be known as the temp who slacked off to chat with the full-time, salaried staff. After the office with printer-related screaming, I also wasn’t sure what level of casual conversation was work-appropriate and what was considered an excessive distraction. Since I was younger and intimidated by the office hierarchy (there were deans all over the place!), I was overly nervous about overstepping my place. Still, I was an adjacent party to most conversations at the front desk.
One afternoon, an associate dean started telling Courtney about a new game he’d come up with at a faculty meeting the night before.
“If we were casting This College: The Movie, who would play everyone?” he asked. He ran down the casting he and a few other staff had already done: Tina Fey would play an associate dean who had the same hair and look; Jeremy Piven would play the chief of staff — her own suggestion — because no one else could match her badassery; Christopher Plummer would play another associate dean known for his gravitas. I can no longer remember who the associate dean chose to play himself, but I’d suggest Stanley Tucci with hair.
“Who would play you?” he asked Courtney.
“Laura Dern,” she said. “Everyone tells me I look like Laura Dern.”
“Wow, that’s totally right,” said the associate dean. “It’s uncanny.”
The associate dean started to turn towards his office, and then Courtney looked to me. “Who would play you, Laura?”
Time slowed down. This associate dean was my manager’s boss. Our previous interactions had all been within my first week and included him asking that someone make sure “the temp” received the email forward about Amazon’s banana slicer reviews.
I wanted to make a good impression. He was such a key player within the office that if he liked me, then I was sure everyone would like me. I wanted to be cool enough to get invited to lunch with him. I wanted him to stop by my desk to chat about the Cubs and dispense career advice. I wanted him to someday think of me and say, “Oh, Laura Chanoux? She’s one of the best people I’ve ever worked with or known in my lifetime.”
As you might expect given that buildup, I began to panic.
There had to be good and bad answers, right? Tina Fey was already taken, so my go-to comedian was off the table. My options seemed to be either a funny choice or an accurate choice. I ran through a montage of brunette actresses in my head. If I went with Catherine Zeta-Jones, who I wish I looked like, I’d seem full of myself. If I went with Alison Brie from Community, the reference might be too obscure to be fun. Would Aubrey Plaza, who played a unmotivated temp on Parks and Recreation, make me seem like I hated being a temp?
Instead of being a calm and collected person who recognized a low-stakes question, I launched into a monologue that sounded equal parts pretentious and misguided once it left my mouth.
“So my friend Hope got asked this question in a job interview, and I loved her answer. She said that she wants to live a life so interesting that Meryl Streep would want to play her in her biopic, and I thought that was super cool, and I also want to live a life that interesting, so I’m going to say Meryl Streep.”
There was a pause, in which I finally took a breath.
“Cool,” said Courtney.
“Huh,” said the associate dean. He tapped Courtney’s desk, smiled at her, and walked back to his office. I slunk down behind my computer monitor and prayed no one in any nearby offices had heard.
I had missed the point. The game had been to figure out which famous actor looked like you, not discuss how the movie star aligned with your personal philosophy of life. I still love Hope’s answer, but it wasn’t the right one in the moment. It didn’t matter whether my answer was too sexy or too obscure, it just mattered that the actress looked like me. In my head, I felt like I had ruined the fun. Movies are such a low-stakes way of getting to know someone and their sense of humor, and I felt like I’d missed an opportunity to show off who I was beyond “the temp.” Instead, I felt like I came off as overly serious and kind of strange.
Behind my spreadsheets, I googled photos of brunette actresses so I could be prepared in the future. Over the next few days, I overheard the associate dean chatting with other staff about who would play them in the movie and I hoped someone would ask me again.
“Emily Blunt in The Five Year Engagement because it’s set in Ann Arbor where I went to school!” I was ready to yell. “Marion Cotillard because my last name is French! Alison Brie, you might know her from Mad Men!”
To my dismay, I never got another chance to respond.
At the end of the summer, I got a full-time job in the office and found my place within the workplace social scene. I eventually made work friends and new Chicago friends. Though I gained confidence in my work and myself, I remained slightly awkward around the associate dean for the next two years. He did become an important career resource for me, and I am almost positive he has no memory of my contribution to This College: The Movie.
With a few years of distance, I feel like a different person. Instead of getting nervous about what my coworkers think of me, I’m relaxed enough to be myself around the office. When I left my most recent job, a personal highlight of my going-away party was starting my toast with an *NSYNC joke that I loved so much I repeated it to my husband when I got home.
Now, I have my answer ready. If we’re talking biopics, I want Judi Dench to play me with the same ferocity she brought to M in the James Bond movies. (Meryl Streep can play Hope.) If we’re going for look-alikes, a friend once said I reminded her of Alicia Vikander, known most recently for Tomb Raider. She got to kick ass and share smouldering glances with Armie Hammer in The Man from U.N.C.L.E., so I’ll take it. If I seem arrogant for choosing a gorgeous action star, too bad. It took me six years to get here and I’m not going back now.
I’ve been in meetings with associate deans and faculty directors and made small talk like a professional. After all, they’re just people higher up than me in the university hierarchy who’ve spent their lives becoming experts in their fields and winning international acclaim. Whenever I feel myself getting anxious about a big meeting or professional event, I think back to my Meryl Streep moment to remind myself how far I’ve come (and to remind myself to chill the fuck out). I trust that I know myself well enough to handle whatever comes at me, whether it’s a critique of my presentation, a casual conversation about Bradley Cooper on Alias, or a question about which Marvel superhero I’d be. I’m not trying to find an answer that will prove why I should fit in. I’m comfortable being who I am and finding my own place.