Culture

The Casting Mind, by Meredith Baxter

The cast of
The cast of "Family Ties"

Meredith Baxter is best known for her seven-year, 176-episode-long life as Elyse Keaton on the '80s family sitcom "Family Ties." Here, Baxter, author of the memoir Untied: A Memoir of Family, Fame, and Floundering, shares with Signature her recent experiences as a working actor, as she realizes she doesn't need the casting couch; she can screw herself just by thinking.

I got an excited call from my manager to read for a recurring part on a very popular comedy series. She was thrilled, stressing how perfect I was for the part, how right up my alley this was.

I've thought that about many of the parts I've been up for -- that I could knock 'em out of the park, if cast -- but, as I've gotten older, the casting part has happened less frequently. In her excitement, she said, "Everyone's so behind you for this!" And I could swear I heard her say, "This part is yours to lose." No one had ever said that before but I didn't question her. As I got familiar with the scenes I'd be reading two days hence, I was picturing myself as a semi-regular on the series, making friends with the cast and crew. I hoped I wouldn't have to shoot every day because I had my regular art classes and writing workshop. I really liked my routine.

Not a regular television viewer, I boned up on the show via the internet, watching a few of the more popular episodes. I would fit in there so well! I had the blue eyes and blond hair of the woman playing my daughter. I looked just like her. I could envision myself starting out as the mousy widow, but ultimately blossoming, in a hilarious scene, into a fully realized lesbian! It was a delicious part. Very close to my own personal story! Brilliant stunt casting! Brilliant political stunt casting! They could get a lot of press out of choosing me and it would correlate nicely with the launch of my memoir in paperback this March. Good timing!

Mine to lose. It was mine to lose. These fortifying words fueled my drive out to Warner Bros from Santa Monica. I was thinking it was probably just a formality that I had to read for the casting folks. I actually knew the Executive Producer in passing but I wanted to be careful not to presume on our relationship or even imply there was one, lest my being cast not look legitimate. I'd dressed with confidence and drove with confidence, magnanimously letting impatient drivers pull in front of me. After all ... it was mine to lose.

I was about a half hour early to my 3:30 appointment. I wanted to be available to discuss the scenes, if they wanted to. A very attentive young man ushered me into a room in their production offices. I appreciated the quiet as I ran over my lines. I wondered if they'd send me straight to wardrobe; there were three costume changes, I am hard to fit, and filming started the following Tuesday. I might have to call home to say I'll be late.

I was a bit surprised when another woman was seated in my room. I wondered what show she was reading for. Slowly, four more women trickled in, sat down, and started chatting, going over their lines -- the same lines I had learned. Funny, somehow I thought it would be just me. Oh, well, they must have to consider other options just in case. Right.

I was called in to meet the producers, writers, and casting folks. I nodded to my friend among them, assiduously keeping it a formal nod to not overplay our connection. We would probably talk more in depth the following week. I read for them, playing out the scenes, getting the perquisite laughs, some authentic, some sounding more forced and cordial than I'd have liked but that's okay. I felt that I'd really given it my all. As I left I was thinking that even if it wasn't the best reading of the day, I was pretty sure I'd get the benefit of the doubt since they were so leaning my way, anyhow.

Driving home into the late afternoon sun, I wondered if I should upgrade from my Lexus and get a heavier, more comfortable car to make the long commute. No hurry. I could do that after my second season.

I was at home, sautéing mushrooms and asparagus for dinner when my manager called. I tried to answer as nonchalantly as possible, wanting to prolong the anticipated moment. "They passed," she said immediately. WHAT?? "They passed; they thought you were very good but they went with someone a bit older." WHAT?? I didn't understand at all. I was perfect for it. It was mine to lose and -- I just did?

Okay, so I have lost jobs and I have been disappointed before but it was the emotional hangover I gave myself on this one that dogged me for days.

It wasn't the fact so much as my thinking that took me down: my arrogance, my lack of humility, my totally projecting into the future. I'd watched those women sitting in the room and thought, "This is so mine. I'm the youngest one here." Now at another time in my life, that might have been an advantage but not that day. They were looking for someone with more physical maturity. Could I at least try to find some pleasure in that?

I was so special, I acted like I barely knew the Executive Producer I actually barely knew. I had some interior drama over what our connection was. I thought I was a shoo-in because I really was a lesbian and wouldn't just be playing one. I know we're actors. And acting is what they hire us to do but I thought this could make me special. Not just a lesbian, but a lesbian cast as a lesbian. Shouldn't that separate me from the pack?

I think deep down I always want something -- anything -- to separate me from the pack. To make me special. Here I am, mid-60s and here to tell you: It hasn't changed. My mind will betray me; I will hear what I want to hear. And I will let a thousand forms of insecurity propel me into behavior and fantastical thinking that takes me down ... almost every time.

It helps to know that I'm not alone out there, that in this way I'm not special, but just one of many hopeful, enduring, long-term actors, or anyone in any profession, willing to expose their hearts and vulnerabilities to try to earn a living and perhaps play delicious parts.

Meredith Baxter has been an actor for forty years and has five children. She achieved early success in the comedy "Bridget Loves Bernie"; the acclaimed ABC drama "Family" and the popular NBC sitcom "Family Ties." Baxter makes appearances speaking on breast cancer, domestic violence, alcoholism, and general life experiences. She lives in Santa Monica, California, with her partner, Nancy Locke. Baxter is the author of the book Untied: A Memoir of Family, Fame, and Floundering.