The Fine Art of Pretending to Be What You
Don't Want Other People to Think You Are
By Paul Briggs
When I first met Justin, I already had a little acting experience under my belt.
Just a little, mind you. There aren't a lot of dramatic roles written with giantesses in mind. This doesn't necessarily mean I couldn't play them, but, well… to pick an example at random, if I were to play Juliet, that balcony had better be up to code. Or if I were Nora in A Doll's House, Torvald would look even dumber than usual with all that "my lark, my sparrow, my little turtledove" crap. I wouldn't say I'd always wanted to be an actress, but acting was one of those things I'd always wanted to try and never gotten a chance at.
Then, one spring when I was thirteen, I got a letter saying there was a production of Of Mice and Men in Minneapolis, and I was invited to audition. I had no idea why, but I wasn't complaining. I had never seen Of Mice and Men, and I didn't actually know anything about it other than the name and that it was some kind of great work of literature, so as far as I was concerned, this was an honor.
Now in principle, anybody who goes to an audition can get cast for anything. In practice, the director will often already have one or two ideas of who to cast, out of the actors he or she knows. In the case of Mrs. Kuzmick, she knew actors who would be good for most of the roles, but there was one role that she just didn't know anybody with the right… physical presence for. Then she picked up the paper and read a story about me. (Every once in a while, a reporter would come around and interview me for a story, to run as a feature on a slow news day. I think this was the one about me learning to make my own shoes.) Anyway, at this point I was 7'5" and had more physical presence than I knew what to do with.
So there I was, in a theater lobby surrounded by strange grownups who were all staring at me in disbelief, looking over a copy of the script, noticing that there seemed to be only one named female character who didn't even really have her own name and wondering why anyone would invite me to audition for the part of Curley's wife… and then Mrs. Kuzmick turned to me and said, "Miss Harris, would you like to read for the role of Lennie?"
* * *
I could see why Mrs. Kuzmick had just been waiting for the perfect Lennie to come along so she could put on this play — the rest of the cast was just about perfect. Our "George" was played by Howard Schloss, a tall, dark man with just a touch of gray in his hair. He had big hands, kind of a long, leathery outdoorsy face, and a deep voice that was a little bit hoarse. He usually played villains (he'd just got done being Jonathan Brewster in Arsenic and Old Lace), so this was a big change of pace for him.
Ted Clive, our "Slim," looked a bit like Boss Hogg from The Dukes of Hazzard, but with more gravitas. Speaking of bosses, Wayne Junger, "The Boss," was almost a dead ringer for R. Lee Ermey, except for being bald as a bowling ball. (I'm telling you their real names now, but even though they all had the courtesy to remember my name, at the time I kept lapsing into thinking of them as "George," "Slim," "Boss" and so on.)
The role of "Candy's dog" was performed by the stage manager's dog, Bobo, an aging Lhasa apso that looked like a big dust bunny and farted more than any other man or beast I have ever encountered in my life. We're talking loud, wet, splatty-sounding farts here. This lent an unexpected bit of low comedy to the first act.
Being in a play was fun, but it was also just about the hardest thing I'd ever done in my life up until then. For one thing, it was about an hour's drive to the theater and back again. Dad had plenty of time to drive me, but this was in April and I was still in school. I studied on the ride up there and back again, and in the moments when I wasn't on stage… and even in the afternoons when I really wanted to be outside in the sun, getting some exercise.
For those of you who've thought that being an actor would be too hard because you'd have to memorize all those lines… let me reassure you, memorizing the lines is the easy part. Once you've gotten them down, they stay down. And if it's something written in modern American English (rather than, say, Shakespeare), then if you can't remember the exact words, you can usually get away with paraphrasing the line a little and the play will survive. Steinbeck's dialogue, in particular, can take a lot of punishment and keep its effect.
The hard part is the blocking — where the actors are, and what they're doing, at any given moment. Unlike the dialogue, this changes with every rehearsal as the set takes shape and the director thinks of ways to improve it. (All this experimenting can lead to the feeling that the production is treading water and not making any progress as opening night gets closer and closer. The people around me had been in plays before and were used to this, but I wasn't.) And you're more likely to throw off the other actors by messing up your blocking than flubbing your lines.
Then there was the fact that everyone else there was a real actor or actress, and this was the first play I'd ever been in. They were all very supportive, but I knew perfectly well that if it wasn't for my size I'd never have been cast for anything, let alone one of the great tragic roles in American drama. I felt like I had an unfair advantage. (Then again, it was only an advantage for this play. It wasn't like I was going to be invited back later to audition for a role in The Importance of Being Earnest.)
But the real hard part was… the character. See, Lennie is everything I've always tried not to act like, and tried to let other people know I wasn't. He's simple-minded, clumsy, and in spite of all his good intentions, he tends to destroy things by accident. People feel sorry for him right up until they're in the same room with him, and then all they can think is "please God don't let him break my neck." And more than once, I've met people who expected me to be some kind of moron just because I'm a giant. I guess the thinking is you can have either brains or brawn, but both in the same person would be just too much. So playing Lennie… think about how a Jewish actor would feel about playing Shylock. I wouldn't say it was that bad exactly, but I was having a hard time getting comfortable with it.
And on top of all that, I had to dress like a man, get my hair cut like a man's, get made up to look like a man, and generally do everything I could to look and act like a man — everything except change my voice, which was already a dramatic contralto. (Or, according to my music teacher, a "traumatic contralto." I was not a good singer, but I made up for it in volume.) And I had to do all this having been mistaken for a man more than once while trying to look like a woman.
* * *
People don't usually make that mistake anymore. This is partly because I have a decent set of curves, and partly because a 7'9" woman is only a little more unusual than a 7'9" man.
There was a time when this was more of a problem. It started, I'd say, the year I turned ten, and ended when I was about thirteen. Usually, it would happen when I was using the restroom in a strange place. Some girl or woman would come in, see me out of the corner of their eye or catch a glimpse of the top of my head over the side of the restroom stall, and panic. After the first couple of times this happened, I made a point of saying something like "it's okay, I'm a girl," but sometimes they didn't even stick around long enough to hear me. (I have to admit — when you're a normal-sized woman and you walk into a restroom and see something six foot eight or so and dressed in Big & Tall Men's clothing, it's perfectly understandable if you don't want to try for a closer look.)
But people who did get a good look at me generally noticed that I wasn't proportioned like a grown man, and my skin was too smooth and hairless. There were only two times I can remember when I was actually mistaken for a man.
The first time, I had just turned ten and I was about six-one, maybe a hair over. Grandma and Grandpa Harris were moving into a gated community in Florida — not a real retirement community, but with so many old people it might as well have been. Mom and Dad had come to help them move. After a week of packing up a whole household, hauling it halfway across the country and setting it up again in a much hotter and muggier place (I moved a lot of furniture and didn't break a single piece) Grandma and Grandpa were all settled in, and decided the family should put in an appearance that Sunday at the local Baptist church. (Mom wasn't technically a Baptist, but they were willing to overlook this.)
As it happened, my parents and Jody had packed a set of good clothes, but I had none to pack. Even at this age, Mom was having trouble getting decent women's clothing in my size. But, as it happened, Grandma had a late birthday present for me — a dress that fit. (Of course, it was a little behind the fashion curve and it made me look like a supporting character in "Little House On the Prairie," but it was a dress and it fit. This was becoming something to celebrate.) So now we were all ready to go to church.
I didn't understand at the time about gated communities. You'd think they'd be like small towns, but they're not. The people who live there — to start with, they're already self-selected for fear of the outside world. That's why they moved there in the first place. And when you put a bunch of like-minded people together in one place, they push each other towards further and further towards the extreme — this is very basic psychology.
Then the siege mentality starts to kick in. One of the things I learned from Justin (and he knows as much about horror movies as any man alive) is that when you hide something scary, or hide from something scary, that makes it even scarier. In a gated community, what you're hiding from is basically the whole world.
The point I'm trying to make here is that people may start out close to normal when they move into one of those places, but over the course of years they slip, little by little, into deep paranoia. This represents my one attempt to come up with a charitable explanation for the behavior of all those people in what was advertised as a Christian church.
Even before the trouble started, I felt a little weird. I'd never been in a church that looked this new — Dad was an extremely lapsed Southern Baptist, and Mom was a sometime Catholic, so when I went to church at all it was the Catholic church in Rieseland, which was built about a hundred years ago. The church in Florida wasn't one of the big Six-Flags-Over-Jesus megachurches you see nowadays, but to me it still looked modern and cheesy and… just not what I thought of as religious. I know I wasn't judging it fairly.
Not only that, everybody was giving me these sidelong looks. Of course, I was already used to people looking at me funny, but this was different. Usually they were curious, nervous or pitying. This bunch looked more… suspicious. Hostile, even.
Grandma and Grandpa were doing their best, introducing themselves and the rest of us along with them, mentioning to anyone who happened to listen that I was only ten and, yes, I was kind of a giant, but there was nothing wrong with that. But a lot more people saw me than heard them, especially since so many of them were old and hard of hearing. So I was already feeling pretty uncomfortable when I sat down, like I wasn't actually supposed to be there.
And then this happened. First, the preacher came up to the end of my pew and said, "Excuse me, sir."
Naturally, I looked around to see who he might be talking to.
"Sir?" Now he was poking me in the shoulder. I looked up.
I don't remember his name. He was a small, balding guy with thick glasses. (Looking back, it must have taken a certain amount of nerve for him to confront me like this. A real six-foot-plus trans woman could have socked him into the middle of next week's sermon before anybody made a move to defend him. At the time, though, I wasn't inclined to think so much of him.)
"I'm sorry, sir, but the Bible clearly says the man shall not dress in the clothing of the woman—"
"What's that got to do with me?"
"Who's dressing how?" said Dad.
"And why do you keep calling me 'sir'?"
Mom was a little quicker on the uptake. "Excuse me — are you calling my daughter a transvestite?"
Now I was getting it. "THESE PEOPLE THINK I'M A MAN?" I stood up.
That got Dad off his feet. "I'm her father, you little shit!" he said in front of God and everybody.
"I think you should all leave," said the preacher, backing away nervously.
Meanwhile, everybody in the room — and this was a pretty big room — was staring at me angrily. You can imagine how humiliated I was. Then I happened to notice a door in the front, not too far away, that said "EXIT." Just what I needed.
I ran straight for the door. Somebody tried to get in my way, but then thought better of it and stepped aside. It didn't even register on me that this was an emergency exit until I crashed through it and the fire alarm went off. My whole family followed me out of there. Uncle Hank turned back just long enough to shout "THIS IS WHY I LEFT THE SOUTHERN BAPTISTS!" (Off topic, but I've always wondered why the Southern Baptists never got back together with the original-flavor Baptists like the Methodists did, now that we've all agreed slavery was a bad idea.)
The alarm was still going when we left. Most of the congregation had gathered outside to get away from it while the pastor tried to figure out how to turn it off. I have to say I took a little satisfaction in knowing that their Sunday morning had been ruined almost as thoroughly as mine. We flew back to Wisconsin that evening.
* * *
The second time was at Aunt Josephine's wedding, a few months before I auditioned for Of Mice and Men. She was my mother's youngest sister. She babysat me and Jody for a couple of years when she was at Chippewa Valley Tech. I had a lot of fond memories of her, so I was really looking forward to this.
At this point, I was thirteen and around seven-two or seven-three. Jody was ten and a little too old to be a flower girl, so she and I were what they call "honorary bridesmaids." That's actually just like being a regular bridesmaid, only hopefully nobody tries to hit on you. Also you get to hang out with the other bridesmaids after the ceremony, even if you don't really have anything in common with them.
Before the wedding, we went to a dressmaker in Columbus who outfitted me, Mom and Jody in matching dresses. In exchange for a discount, I appeared in some ads that he ran in the paper. One of them showed me, Mom and Jody all wearing our dresses, with the caption "We can fit everybody in." In the other, I was admiring myself in a full-length (for some people) mirror, smiling at the camera and giving it a thumbs-up with one hand while my other hand was holding up the mirror at an angle where I could see myself in it. (And that thing was heavy.) The caption read "All shapes and sizes welcome."
It wasn't until later that I found out one of his competitors in the city had gotten into an embarrassing public dispute by refusing to outfit an obese woman. When I walked through the door, the first thing he thought was "Here's an awesome chance to make myself look good at the expense of the competition." My kind of businessman. And it was a nice dress, too. I didn't know at the time about things like gathers and style line, but it did a great job of showing my figure without constricting movement. It also accentuated my bust, which at this point still needed a little help.
Back to the wedding. I was in this dress, Mom had done my makeup, and I was wearing some nice simple pearl earrings. The point is, I was looking as female as I could at this point.
Everything went great. After the ceremony, Jody and I were hanging out with the "real" bridesmaids, not making a lot of conversation with them but feeling very grownup because they'd given Jody a little sip of champagne and let me drink the rest of the glass. (At that, we might have been the two soberest people in the room.)
Then along came Craig. He was a friend of the groom's, apparently he hadn't heard about me, and he was about two drinks away from the floor. Now to help you place this in time, it was right after the movie "Crocodile" Dundee came out. Have you seen the movie? Do you remember the scene where he's in the bar with the cab driver and he cops a feel of the cross-dresser's crotch? You already know what's coming, don't you?
Yep. He grabbed me right there. The look on his drunk-ass face when he realized this wasn't a man's junk he had hold of would've been funny if I hadn't been so ticked off.
He was very apologetic. He said he was very, very sorry, and he didn't mean anything by it, he thought I was a man dressed as a woman, not that I didn't look feminine, he just didn't think anyone my size could possibly be female, and he hoped I wasn't mad at him, he was just doing something he'd seen in the movies, he wasn't trying to offend, and did he mention how sorry he was, and arrrrrgh would I please put him down and let go of his arms before I broke something?
So I did… but by that time, Daddy had already come staggering to my rescue.
"DID YOU DAUTCH MY TUTTER?" he bellowed, and started laying into Craig with both fists without waiting for an answer. Even as drunk as he was, he still had decent form, and Craig was too embarrassed to fight back, especially with a dislocated right elbow (oops). A couple of Craig's buddies looked like they wanted to come to his rescue, but I stood in their path and they decided not to.
When it looked like Craig had learned his lesson, I broke up the fight. Luckily for him, we decided not to call the police. Even back then, sexual assault on a minor wasn't something you wanted on your permanent record, no matter how major the minor. Everyone agreed that it wasn't my fault, but the whole thing was still pretty humiliating.
* * *
Getting back to Of Mice and Men, playing a character with a mental disability is harder than you think. You remember the running gag from Tropic Thunder about how "you never go full retard" if you want to win an Oscar? The joke, of course, is that actors almost always get it wrong, and they way they get it wrong is by overdoing it, hamming up all the little mannerisms.
When I first started rehearsing (at least as soon as I had the lines memorized well enough to do more than just read them off the page) I did even worse, playing the role as sort of cartoonishly dopey. Howard said, "Reenie, stop mugging."
At least this was an instruction I could understand. Mrs. Kuzmick liked to say things like "Don't act. Don't perform. Just be." Which was less than helpful. After a while I started to feel a little like Lennie, too dumb to know what was really going on. Maybe this was what she had in mind, but I doubt it.
The third or fourth time she said this, I shouted "Goddammit, speak English!" And of course, this brought everything to a screeching halt. (If you've ever wondered where the idea of the "gentle giant" came from… if you couldn't show the slightest bit of temper without everybody in the room freaking out and somebody calling 911, you'd learn to be gentle too.)
"Please," I said. "I want to get this right. I don't want to be the worst actor on stage. Just… help me figure out what I'm doing here."
Mrs. Kuzmick took a moment to think about it. "What I mean is," she finally said, "at this point, try not to think so much about Lennie and how… simple he is. Just be yourself."
I didn't have time to say What's that supposed to mean? Even as I was drawing myself up to my full height and the expression on my face was changing, she said, "Oh god, wait, stop, I'm sorry, I didn't mean that like it sounded… How about this? Try saying the lines as if they were perfectly normal, sensible things to say. Once you've gotten the hang of that, we can sort of build the character up from there." This, at least, was something I could understand.
Howie said it better — "Don't think of him as stupid or damaged. Think of him as a child. And listen… I've played enough bad guys to know you can trust the audience to understand the character you're playing isn't you." God bless him. He was really my first big crush.
Speaking of crushing, there are three scenes where the "gentle giant" roughs up another character. The first was the scene where Curley starts pounding on Lennie and Lennie grabs his hand and squeezes it into handburger. To get this right, first we had to get Kevin (our Curley) to hit me and make it look real. That involved slipping a sheet of hard rubber under my costume so he could punch me in the stomach without hurting me. Then we had to work out exactly how much I could squeeze his hand without hurting it for real. "A little more, a little more — WHOASTOPENOUGH… that's perfect."
The next scene was the "WHO HURT GEORGE???" scene between Lennie and Crooks. All I had to do there was sort of lift him by his shoulders and shout in his face. Just as well — our Crooks was kind of an old man. He turned off his hearing aid before the start of the scene so my shouting wouldn't hurt his ears. (Crooks and Lennie kind of talk past each other for half the scene, so he didn't really need it.)
Then, of course, came the tricky one — the one where Lennie accidentally kills Curley's wife. Fiona was kind of a petite, waifish-looking little woman — I got nervous handling her. Obviously, I couldn't experiment with her neck like I did with Kevin's hand. So I just clamped my hand over her mouth and flexed my arm muscles to make it look like I was applying a lot more pressure than I was. Fiona really sold the scene — she could do this limp, boneless collapse that not a lot of people can do. When she "died," I stuck her behind a hay bale and piled another couple of bales on top of her, like a little boy trying to hide a mess he just made.
I know I've gotten a little off topic, but I just have to mention the last scene. You know — the big tear-jerker. There I am, center stage forward, sort of hunkered down on an imaginary riverbank, leaning over the edge. George is standing behind me, left hand on my shoulder, right hand on Carlson's luger, pointing it at my brainstem. He's choking back tears as he tells me one last time how lucky the two of us are to have each other in a world so full of loneliness, and about the wonderful place we're going to have someday where I get to tend the rabbits… the lights go down until all that's left is one spotlight on him and me… "I can see it, George! I can see it! Right over there — I can see it!" Lights out. Bang. We both go backstage in the dark to wait for the curtain call.
The first time we rehearsed this scene, Howie's hand wasn't on his shoulder, it was on my arm. That nice, long-fingered, callused hand was on my upper left arm — not gripping it, but holding it gently. My sleeves were rolled up far enough that he was in contact with my skin. He was speaking to me in that low, soft, smoky voice of his…
You guessed it. I was really liking this. I was getting seriously aroused. My face was all hot, my heart was pounding, my insides felt like they were made out of warm butter, I had a big lump in my throat, goosebumps were spreading out in ripples from where his hand was touching my skin…
Oh right. Lines. I had some. Um… what were they again?
About this time he noticed that I was flushed and trembling.
"Are you all right? You look like you're coming down with something." He put a hand on my forehead. "Feels like you got a fever…" At this point my brain was reasserting control, saying Act normal, act normal.
But of course it was too late. By this time Mrs. Kuzmick, who unlike Howie had been looking at my face all this time, was trying very hard not to laugh.
"Let's take a five-minute break," she said. "Reenie, go… lie down." If I'd realized at the time that she knew exactly what was going on, I would have run away and never come back.
No, I didn't go off and masturbate. I got a two-liter bottle of Coke out of the greenroom fridge and drank half of it, wrapped some ice cubes in a paper towel and pressed them against my face, then lay down on the couch like a good girl. It wasn't exactly comfortable, since I could only lie on it sideways and my legs hung over the armrest, but it gave me a chance to cool off and lose the feeling that I was either going to melt or explode in the next minute or so. Then Bobo came into the room to serenade me with his flatulence. That did the trick.
Afterwards things went on more or less as before, but Howie looked at me a little differently and was more careful with his hands. Like a lot of creatures, we giants stop being cute when we get old enough to breed. (And yes, I'm sure he didn't do it on purpose. In fact, I found out later that while I was out of the room, Mrs. Kuzmick told him he'd just turned me on. He was horrified and said, "Well, how do I turn her off again?" After all, I was underage.)
* * *
So, after all that, how did the play go?
Well, we got big audiences, and they all seemed to love it. People actually cried at the ending — it was a little awe-inspiring to think I could help provoke a reaction like this. I got interview in the paper yet again. This time I may have sounded like more of a know-it-all than I usually did.
And most of the reviews were… mostly positive. Well, it was a very good production, if I do say so myself. And none of the critics mentioned Candy's dog, which was tactful of them. On the subject of me, they said things like "once you get over the initial shock of seeing Harris, you can appreciate the understated and touching performance she delivers." Or "Irene Harris, though undisguisably female, is young enough to give the role of Lennie an authentic touch of childlike innocence."
Not everybody liked it, of course. This guy in particular:
"One of the unspoken rules of theater is never to put anything real onstage. Ten years ago I saw a performance of A Christmas Carol in which Tiny Tim was portrayed by a child with cerebral palsy. I'm sure everyone had good intentions, and he did the best he could, but the reality of his disability made everyone and everything around him look false by comparison.
"Miss Harris is obviously no simpleton, but she is definitely a giant. Whenever she was onstage, all I could see was a pitiably oversized girl surrounded by actors and a set. I honestly have no idea if she's a good actress or not." I, I, I… anyone would think he was reviewing himself.
The one thing everybody agreed on — the critics and the audience members I talked to — is that I didn't come across as the slightest bit male. My hair was cut short, I was wearing overalls and a man's shirt, no makeup, no earrings, even some fake beard stubble on my cheeks and jaws… the harder I tried to look like a man, the more obvious it was that I wasn't one.
The fake stubble was probably over the top.