The wind picked up on Tybee Island and the midday sun slipped into chilly afternoon. My fellow male hippies and I huddled in our characters’ van, shivering.
“Actors on the set!” someone yelled, and we stared at each other for a moment. Showtime, folks.
The set was a picnic table loaded with hippie chow: lots of fruits and vegetables, a pitcher of tea. We were arranged like mannequins in a store window:
You three ladies on this side of the table —
You guys hang back by the van like you’re talking –
You, what are you doing with that book?
“They said I’m a poet,” I said.
“Oh, okay. That’s good. Push that chair back from the table and face this way. Good. That will look good in the establishing shot.”
Once they had us all arranged the guy doing all the talking pointed to a group of people up on a dune. “That’s the camera crew up there. I want you all to act like you’re just hanging out, just another day in the camp, then when I say ‘look’ I want you to stop what you’re doing and look at the camera crew. What’s your question?”
“Look at them how?” I asked.
“Look at them like ‘what are you doing looking at us,'” he said.
Acting was easy. All I had to was sit in a chair with a book on my lap and stare at a camera. And what a break to be “the poet.” My male costars, who earlier that day convinced themselves that murderous erections were imminent now grappled with both the cold weather and the reality that the reductive effects of the cold on their genitals was about to be immortalized on film. But I had a book and a chair. I crossed my legs, set the journal on my lab and shivered uncontrollably.
It was November in Savannah, but it was summer in the movie. If I shivered while the cameras were rolling they might make us do it again. I didn’t want to be out there any longer than necessary. I turned to a blank page in the prop journal and wrote “Hot hot hot hot hot,” but the cold wasn’t fooled.
“Action!” the talky guy yelled, and something strange happened: summer came to Tybee Island. I felt warm in my chair writing in my journal while my friends chatted at the table and nibbled on our grapes.
“And look!” I stopped writing and stared at the camera crew. What were they doing up there looking at me? “Hold it, hold it. Cut. Okay, let’s do one more for safety. Everybody back to your first positions.” I began shivering again. It was fucking cold.
“That was fucking embarrassing.”
“No, I mean for me.”
“It was embarrassing for all of us, man.”
“Yeah, but I don’t normally look like that, man. It was cold. What are you laughing about, professor?”
“Sorry,” I said.
“Sitting over there with a book hiding your dick. Who’d you have to blow to get that?”
They called us back to the picnic area. We were seated at the picnic table now. Jody was across from me and on either side of her were two fully dressed guys. “Larry?” I said. “What are you doing here?”
“I’m Kiefer’s stand-in. Hundred bucks a day! Hey, you seen that girl from the audition?”
“She chickened out,” I said.
“Damn! I almost had her, too,” Larry said.
The lighting crew did their thing, and the crew stretched a measuring tape from the camera to Larry’s nose. The wardrobe lady straightened Jody’s flower crown. The talky guy walked past. “Hey, since the camera is on the other side of the table can I put my pants on?” I asked.
He huddled with the camera guy. “Go ahead,” he said. I walked over to the hippie van and slipped into my pants.
“What the hell?”
“How come he gets pants?”
“Hippies didn’t wear pants like that.”
“His legs are out of the shot,” the talky guy said. “Why don’t you guys just worry about what you’re doing.”
Larry and the dark haired guy were called away, and Kiefer Sutherland and Robert Downey, Jr. took their places. They both looked tired. “What are we doing first?” Kiefer asked.
“Let’s do a quick run through and then we’ll do your lines. How’s that sound?” the director said.
“Let’s do it,” Kiefer said.
“Let’s rock!” Robert said, and we all laughed.
“Okay,” the director said to Kyra. “You’ll pour them some tea and say your line, then we’ll move over to Kiefer and Robert.” He turned to me: “Remember your cue? When Robert says ‘I was tripping’ you’ll deliver your line. Sound good everybody?”
“Can I ask a question?” I said.
“What do I do after I say my line?”
“Well, it doesn’t really matter since you won’t be on camera, but I’ll give you a little piece of business. You reach over to this bowl and grab a few grapes. How’s that sound?”
We ran through the scene a few times and I figured out what the hell was going on. I knew who my little poet with the one line was and how he felt about the two strange teenagers eating his food and trying to fit in.
“Okay, let’s do one,” the director said. There were last minute makeup touches and the scene was slated. “Action.”
“Does my nudity make you uncomfortable?” Kyra said.
“No, no. Me, actually, I’m a little nervous about getting sunburned,” Kiefer said. “My friend Ralph here loves to take his clothes off in public, though.”
“I do?” asked Robert.
“That’s right, you weren’t there,” Kiefer said.
“Oh yeah! I was tripping!” Robert bragged.
I extended the leather pouch toward Robert. “Would you like to trip now?” I asked. Robert stared at me. I stared at Robert. Nothing happened. I offered the pouch to Kiefer.
“No, thanks. I’m trying to cut down,” he said.
I gave a little shrug and reached for the grapes.
“Cut,” the director said.
Robert’s face lit up. “That was hot!” he said, and he reached toward me for a high five. “That was hot!” he laughed. We did the scene a few more times, and then the crew set up for Kiefer’s closeups. The director let those of us who weren’t in the shot go get warm. The hippie guys and I ran back to the van.
I don’t know why people do that. No matter where we are and for how long, we mark our territory and we stick with it. Whether it’s a chair in a conference room, a table in a cafeteria, or a prop van on a movie set, once the decision has been made that’s it for the day. The van was the hippie boys’ secret clubhouse. We didn’t do anything in there but shiver, but it was our space.
Someone knocked and the side door slid open. “Hey, can I join you guys?” Robert said.
“Only if you say the password and spin around three times,” I said. Robert looked confused. “Sorry, dumb joke.”
Robert piled in and slid the door closed. “You were awesome,” he said. “How long you been acting?”
“I’m not an actor,” I said. “I’m just here for my girlfriend.”
“Which one is she?”
“Hot,” Robert said.
“You should consider acting. You’re really natural.”
“Nah, I don’t know anything about acting,” I said.
“You don’t need to. You know what people are looking for at an audition? They want to know if you’re somebody they want to hang out with for eight weeks.”
“Totally. When I tried out for SNL I didn’t even have any material prepared. I just went in and hung out.”
We sat in that van for the rest of the afternoon telling jokes, lies, and stories, until a busy little man dismissed us. As I was leaving Robert said, “Hey, what are you doing tonight?”
“I have to get to the airport,” I said.
“Can you go later? A few of us are going to the Night Flight. I thought you might want to come along.”
“I’m sorry, I have to go,” I said.
“Maybe next time,” Robert said.
That was the end of my afternoon friendship with Robert Downey, Jr. Two hours later I was headed west for my grandfather’s funeral.