Sometimes I’d sit there, surrounded by kids loudly going over their one line of dialogue with parents chatting about which voice coach they were going to use now that Mrs. Ulanova had taken on too many students and wasn’t giving little Teresa the kind of personalized attention she really needed to flourish, and I’d feel myself start to spiral. I wouldn’t just wonder if I belonged there, I’d descend into big-question territory. Is this what everyone outside of Maine is like? Is this what the future will be like? Is this what actors are like? Is this what I’m like?
I would turn my head maybe fifteen degrees and my dad would be staring straight ahead, and then, as if he’d been waiting for me, he’d throw me a look. These people are freaks; let’s get this over with, get the hell out of here, and get a Hostess Cupcake from the rest stop on the way home. It felt like coming up for air.
It only took a few months before my agent mercifully realized that I sucked at commercial auditions. They decided I should start coming in only for theater, which made me very happy. Not because as a ten-year-old from Maine with no experience I thought I was too good for anything, but because professional auditions were in New York, which meant that one of my parents had to take time off work, drive me six hours to the city for an audition that usually lasted ten minutes, and then drive me six hours back. Yes, you are correct, what my parents did for me was crazy and I’ll never be able to repay them as long as I live.
I had my first successful audition at age twelve for a musical called High Society, although when I arrived I assumed it wasn’t going to go well. In the waiting room, I was struck by the uniformity of dress. The character was from a rich family, and my competitors looked the part. How did a girl age ten to fourteen even come by a sweater set? Weren’t those available exclusively to toddlers and women over sixty?
The audition room was long and mirrored and had creaky wooden floors. I gave my sheet music to the pianist in the corner and turned to face a small row of people sitting behind a folding table at the far end of the room.
“Whoa, whoa. Let me look at your nails, young lady.” Legendary casting director Jay Binder, who would become my greatest champion, was motioning me forward.
My nails were forest green with gold stars, which was pretty unusual, especially on a child in the days before Pinterest-chic nail art. I walked up to show him, unsure if I was in trouble or about to be told how wonderful I was.
“I got them done in Florida. I was visiting my grandparents for Thanksgiving and my mom took me to a nail place.”
“Your mother let you get green nails?”
“Pretty cool mom. All right, what are you gonna sing for us, honey?”
I walked back to the center of the room with a great gift. Jay Binder had said, Come up here, we’re not scary; we want you to do well, cute nails, now please go do something impressive. Almost every audition that has gone well in my life started with something like this. A week later, I was told to come back and audition for the director and producers.
Mike and Anna Take New York
As supportive as they were, my parents were looking for a way to get me to New York without relying on them for transportation since they enjoyed having jobs and paying bills and other accoutrements of middle-class survival. By this time, my brother was fourteen and they deemed him perfectly capable of accompanying his twelve-year-old sister on a bus to New York. So that’s what we started doing.
People who grew up in major cities may wonder why the hell I would act like it’s a big deal to be unaccompanied in New York City at that age: it’s populated with both adults and children, it’s a functioning metropolis, Kevin McCallister was only ten in Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, and that kid saved Christmas. Conversely, people from suburban areas act like my parents sent me wandering around the site of the Baby Jessica well, blindfolded and holding a flaming baton. So pick a side and prepare to judge me either way!