Rebecca Moscowitz, a struggling young actor, stands onstage, reciting a carefully memorized monologue. As she goes through her audition, voices talk over her, evaluating her suitability for the part. After a few lines, she is interrupted: "Excuse me, Miss, how tall are you?" About 5-foot-8, she responds, puzzled. "Really? Hmmm. Okay, all right, thank you." As Rebecca slinks offstage, one of the unseen auditioners mutters, "She just looks too damn tall."
This is a scene from writer-director Dan Kay's movie Way Off Broadway, a festival favorite focusing on five fresh-out-of-college artists and their struggles in New York City. It's also a scenario that's painfully familiar to aspiring actors everywhere. Morena Bac-carin, the twentysomething actor who portrays Rebecca, can sympathize as well as anyone else. "[I've experienced] the usual stuff that I'm sure happens to a lot of people, which is, you prepare, like, 15 pages overnight, and then they say, 'We're only reading the first two pages,'" she says, laughing. "[I have] the usual horror stories of how difficult it is to audition in this town. I had to do a fake striptease once. That was pretty awful."
Though she knows firsthand about the struggles of the working actor, Brazilian-born Baccarin has also had a few enviable experiences in her career thus far. She landed an agent while she was still at Juilliard, and she booked the part in Way Off Broadway shortly before graduation. "Morena walked into the room pretty early on in the audition process, and she blew us away," says Kay. "When she left, one of the producers turned to me and said, 'That girl's going to be a star.' I said, 'Without question.'"
Baccarin eventually decided to take the plunge and move to L.A. "I was understudying a lot of theatre—I understudied Natalie Portman in The Seagull in [Central Park]…and I did regional theatre in Minneapolis, but I couldn't get any work in theatre in New York City," she says. "So I thought, 'Well, I need to be on a TV show. I need to first make a living doing what I love to do, and maybe I can get in that way.' I thought, 'Well, I hate L.A., I'm a total New Yorker, [but] it's time for me to face my fears and try something new.'"
It looks like that was the right move. A few days after landing in Los Angeles, Baccarin was cast as serene space courtesan Inara in Joss Whedon's innovative sci-fi western series, Firefly. "My agent said, 'There's something coming in for you this afternoon. It has to be really quick because they've already started shooting. You have to go in for it this afternoon. Here's the sides,'" she remembers. "I contemplated saying no, because I hate doing that. I want to always show my best work, but when I went in there, it just all worked out great. I literally got the job the next day, went down to the set, and started working, like, two days later. It was pretty crazy."
The craziness didn't end there. Despite strong fan support and positive critical buzz, the Fox show was cancelled before it finished its first season. For TV newbie Baccarin, this was a tough experience. "It was my first TV show, so I got extremely attached to it and to the people who were working on it," she says. "I was really hurt and really sad [when it was cancelled]. We all bonded so quickly. I kind of didn't know what to make of it. At a certain point, I think, you harden yourself to the realities of the business. I thought, 'Okay, it's cancelled, I'm going to move on now. I've been hurt by this, I'm not going to let it happen again.'"
Whedon, however, refused to let the project die. In September, Universal will release Serenity, a Firefly feature film that reunites the entire cast. "Joss kept saying, 'This is not over. We're gonna do something,'" remembers Baccarin. "When they called me up and said, 'Do you want to do a movie of Firefly?' I was, like, 'Excuse me?' I couldn't believe it, and I could not have been happier. Shooting the movie was just as much fun as shooting the TV show, if not more, because we had a bigger budget."
These days Baccarin doesn't have a problem getting auditions, but landing the job is still a challenge. And, like "too tall" Rebecca, she gets her share of dubious-sounding excuses. "The lamest excuse that I get incessantly is, 'Oh, we're not going ethnic with that role,' so I can't go in for it or I can't get the part, which is really stupid, because, in today's world, people look different," she says. "And, as you can tell, I'm pretty American. I don't have an accent or anything."
Still, Baccarin is pleased, for the most part, by the way L.A. is treating her so far. "I feel like I go in on a lot of things that I want to be going in for," she says. "I can't complain. I'm making a living out of what I do, which is really rare for a lot of actors. The hard part is staying confident and staying with it."
"Way Off Broadway" is currently playing at the Laemmle Fairfax, 7907 Beverly Blvd. L.A.