The elderly man looked at me curiously, as if I had just yelled "Jesus will save us!" and handed him a Bible verse flyer. Instead of moving on, he looked directly at my face and studied me for a moment.
"Your eyes are beautiful," he said finally.
"Excuse me?" I replied, pushing my white baseball cap down on my head, crushing a bouncy blonde ponytail.
"They're kind and compassionate and smart and... well, sad, all at once."
Normally, my guard would be up. But the old man looked at me not with a lustful gaze, which I'm used to, but with the eyes of a sage—someone who has more knowledge than he will ever be able to share with any one person in his lifetime..
"Well, thank you," I responded, shifting my weight awkwardly in my white jumpsuit. Compliments fluster me.
"If I only told you who I have discovered," he paused to smile. "Everyone from James Dean to Tommy Tune." He looked less like a producer or casting director than an elderly man up to visit his kids from a retirement home in Florida.
As if reading my mind, he sprightly offered, "That's right, I am ninety-two," adding firmly, "and I am still working. On my way right now, actually." He gestured down Broadway.
"Wait," he suddenly added. He pulled a business card out of an eroded black wallet. "Take my card." It was almost as large as an index card; a coarse piece of gray paper inscribed with the name "Archer King" and an address in curly black letters. No occupation.
"Thank you," I said, smiling as Archer shuffled down toward 56th Street.
The rest of the day I kept thinking about what Archer had said about my eyes. He'd emphasized the word "sad."
My entire childhood was embodied in a vault of sadness. But I never saw myself as the 'sad' one. I was the single smile that kept the vault from sinking to the bottom of the sea.
When I was eight, my baby sister Lindsay was diagnosed with Canavan's disease. Canavan's is a genetic disorder in which the affected person lacks a particular enzyme that is necessary to break down NAA. Too much NAA interferes with the production of myelin—the building block of the brain. The disease causes the child's brain to deteriorate, until they eventually pass away.
Thus my childhood—which before that time had been full of trips to Disney World, laughter, and lightness—became something else.
Doctors told my parents that there was no hope, that we should accept a tragic fate and institutionalize Lindsay. They said she would die by age ten. But my family would never accept such a prognosis. My mother started a foundation to fund research while taking care of her severely handicapped child. My father was on the phone constantly, beating down doors to find researchers to take on this little-known disease. It wasn't easy.
Inspired by my parents' persistence, I was determined to play my own small role in helping Lindsay to get better.
Always a happy, sweet child, I found a new quality that worked wonders in my surroundings: empathy. I found that I had a special talent in perceiving other people's feelings and making them feel better. I refused to let myself, or anyone else, fall into sadness.
Luckily, with a heart the size of Texas, I enjoyed utilizing empathy; I genuinely cared about others. And what began as a necessary tool to keep up the spirits of those around me soon became crucial to my own existence: I had found a way to overlook the shame and sadness that cut so deeply into my soul.
I have never felt comfortable discussing those feelings, or even talking about Lindsay, because of the pain that springs up out of nowhere like a blow-up doll in a child's nightmare as soon as I mention her name. Instead, I have continued the mantra of my childhood—hiding the pain beneath a charming and sparkly personality, a cheerleader spirit that interacts with the outside world.
The following Monday, I arrived at a large grey building on 51st and Broadway and took the elevator to the fourth four. I knocked on Suite 407, tucking my hair behind my ears and hoisting my bag further up onto my shoulder. At last someone opened the door.
It was Archer. "Samantha!" he enthused, eyes lighting up. "Come in, please."
As I entered the long vertical office, I passed a plaque with a photo of James Dean and the insignia, "To the world's greatest agent." I gulped. The bookshelves were lined with plays, books, scripts, and other paraphernalia, including an overturned strawberry yogurt that looked like it had become part of the scene.
I sat down across from him in a gray scooped chair, trying to retain good posture.
For the first twenty minutes I was petrified. Rather than asking for the standard monologue and sixteen bars, Archer King scrutinized and interrogated me. Going down the credits and training on my resume, he asked me about almost every one. He wanted to know about my teachers, the roles I had played, the theaters I had worked in. This was no joke.
What I found interesting about Archer, and frankly, why I liked him, was that I couldn't bullshit the man. "I would like to meet someone who really knows you," he said to me conspiratorially. Then he leaned forward in his wooden office chair. "Let me look at your eyes again."
I tossed my hair up in a bun and opening my eyes wide, stared in his direction. I felt as if I was at the optometrist, and he was inspecting my dilated pupils. Archer looked into my eyes like an investigator on the search for a clue. I felt as if I was Harry Potter, and he Dumbledore, and it was the determining phase of whether I was destined for a life as an evil Slytherin or good-hearted Gryffindor. My eyes would tell all.
He finally sat back. I followed suit, breathing deeply, wondering what it was that he had seen.
"I say again, your eyes are sad," he said, then paused. "If you can bring that sadness to your work, and let yourself empathize with your characters, which I can tell you can do, you will be very successful."
On one hand, I was delighted. I had heard an agent speak the words "you" and "success" in the same sentence. But overriding my delight was a feeling of unnerve. Sadness? This was not what I had been expecting. Of all the sparkle and shine of my bubbly blondehood and my speckled hazel olive-y eyes, that was what he had come up with? Sadness?
Obviously, I knew where it came from. What was hard to understand was how Archer had seen it so clearly without even knowing me.
Luckily, thanks to the efforts of my parents and a team of wonderful researchers, Lindsay is doing better. Whereas they said she would be gone by age ten, Lindsay is now energetically rounding the corner of age fifteen.
But so many years later, the effect my childhood has had on me is slightly warped. My ability to understand other characters—even dark, conflicted ones facing the most dire circumstances—was born out of the most pain you can possibly imagine. Dark feelings don't scare me because I've already experienced them.
What a strange gift I was given out of such a horrible situation.
And according to Archer, this empathy I nurtured has helped me in my chosen profession as an actress.
Yet just because I am able to go deep into the darkness of my characters' lives, and can empathize to a frightening level with their plights, doesn't mean that I am able—or willing—to go there in my own life. This would require a new set of tools, one that I have never sought because never have I thought it was ok to be sad.
By perceiving my sadness so clearly, and suggesting I use it, Archer gave me permission to be sad—after all, it was the sadness that drew him in more than any degree of beauty or personality. And as an actress, I know in my heart that he is right: In order to truly magnify someone else's struggles, to fully express a character, I need to embrace every piece of me. Even the darker parts I would rather hide beneath the surface.
Archer saw the catch in the sparkly, bubbly blonde, and rather than telling me to hide it, as I had done for so many years, he told me to celebrate it. So I will.
Samantha Karlin has been on the professional theater circuit since age nine. Since then, she has appeared in everything from opera to film, making her way across several continents in the process. She is currently starring in the new hit television series, "From Date to Mate," available through Entertainment on Demand. Watch the first two episodes at shalomtv.org/DateToMate_1.htm. Read more of her work from "The Dating Diva's" perspective on www.meezoog.com/blog. She is an alum of Tufts University.
For more information on Canavan's Disease, or to donate to groundbreaking research on this disease, visit www.canavan.org.